Matter and Memory

by Henri Bergson
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1234

First published: 1896

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Type of work: Philosophy

Critical Evaluation:

MATTER AND MEMORY is Bergson's second major work, falling between TIME AND FREE WILL, his doctoral thesis, and CREATIVE EVOLUTION, perhaps his best-known work. MATTER AND MEMORY has, however, been called Bergson's most unjustly neglected volume by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, renowned contemporary existentialist. Like all of his work, it is a philosophical effort to transcend Cartesian dualism, and, without postulating a divinely created spirit in man, to bring back, nevertheless, a more complex and supple sense of the profundity of human nature than that afforded by mechanistic science and philosophy of the nineteenth century.

Bergson begins with a discussion of the brain, of how the science of his day says it works and how he thinks it works. Everywhere Bergson is concerned with the Cartesian problem: the world of spirit and the world of matter, and the Cartesian inability to resolve the distinction in any philosophically satisfactory manner. Bergson shows that, by postulating that all reality is outside the mind, in objects, we reduce the mind to a passive receiver shaped and determined by outer flow. Clearly, our rich inner life and its amazing variety of self-created choices negate these premises of realist philosophy. The opposing point of view—the idealist one as espoused by Bishop Berkeley, that the only reality is within the mind, and the world outside cannot exist, for only our senses can be said to exist—is just as reductive and therefore distorting. Bergson's effort is to see how mind transcends matter, how it is something more than its capacity to think, because of its power to use images new and old in shaping a present act that did not exist before except in potential.

Arguing that the mind is much more than a complex camera, Bergson analyzes at length the problem of memory. Drawing upon neurologists and psychologists, he observes that memory as we experience it is not localized anywhere in the brain; it is some power beyond impressions contained in cell structures. Through discussing clinical reports of visual and auditory aphasia, Bergson shows us that we cannot say where in the brain memory is. Brain lesions do not destroy memory itself; they merely debilitate the power to use memory.

There are, Bergson theorizes, two kinds of memory, and his new understanding of the mind results from this proposal. Ordinary memory is the string of impressions that have been filed away as they were received by pure—that is, instantaneous—perception. Ordinary memory in the mind operates in much the same way as it does in an electronic computer: the perception programs the mind with a store of impressions. But pure memory is a power, or a spirit, by which we control and organize these impressions. Pure memory is the survival of the perceptions of images, when the perception is no longer there. This is an active, not a passive, function, for we use memory to inform and direct our lives. Such a hypothesis transcends both realism and idealism by postulating this power that is of matter yet beyond, that takes its material from space (the world of objects) yet has its reality in time. (This is a form of duree, or duration, Bergson's famed description of the inner life of man that has had such a marked influence upon introspective and stream-of-consciousness novelists like Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, who used Bergsonian concepts to guide them in their fictional explorations of the interior consciousnesses of their protagonists.) This pure memory and the consciousness it creates are of the mind yet not "in" it in the way the realist or the idealist maintains. Consider the coat that hangs upon the nail, Bergson comments. They are closely connected, for without the nail the coat falls. Yet does the shape of the nail determine the shape of the coat? So consciousness and pure memory are dependent upon the brain, yet are quite different in their qualities from that physical organ.

Memory is not a regression into the past but a movement up through planes of consciousness to the present perception. The relationship between spirit and matter is misunderstood in our inability to comprehend the complexities of time and space. We too often set up at one extreme an infinitely divisible extension, and at the other sensations that are absolutely inextensive. This of course is Zeno's classic problem about the unreality of the arrow in motion. Motion for Bergson is not a multitude of discrete positions; it is the making of a separate category of existence in time, in its duration. There are many different kinds of duration. To perceive can mean to condense, to immobilize long moments of time into brief synoptic moments. In perception we seize something that outruns perception itself. That which is real process to us is something between divided extension and pure inextension, something Bergson would call tension. It encompasses both heterogeneity of qualities and the apparent homogeneity of movements. It is capable of belonging to one individual moment or image, yet be part of the rhythm of the whole.

All of this consciousness is directed toward bringing potential humanity into action. Throughout, Bergson calls upon his readers to stop studying man like a vegetable. Both body and body's spirit are designed for action, and are to be defined, if at all, by the capacity to act. Pure memory serves to contract the growing number of ordinary memory impressions into present consciousness, thus giving us the ability and wherewithal to decide what to do. Thus, the end of this study leads both author and reader directly into CREATIVE EVOLUTION, published in 1907, in which informed consciousness, or elan vital is postulated as the causative factor for a consciously willed and directed evolution of higher organisms, instead of the arbitrary necessitous survival of the fittest inherent in the Darwinian scheme.

Most of today's critics agree that, though it is unlikely that Bergson's work will survive in its original form, his influence still moves and shapes much contemporary thought. Ironically, as Thomas Hanna, a recent commentator, observes, Bergson, the philosophical antagonist of the materialistic science of his day, depended too heavily upon the science he was opposing for his evidence. For example, his material cited in MATTER AND MEMORY concerning the storage of memory images in the brain is erroneous, for science has shown since that the brain does store such impressions and that they can be evoked through stimuli. More importantly, Hanna suggests that Bergson was awed by physical science but unfortunately lacking in a thorough schooling in it. Hanna contrasts Bergson with Albert North Whitehead, the mathematician who became a philosopher and carried out a line of thought not unlike Bergson's, but in a much more comprehensive way. Non-scientist Bergson was a metaphysician too often ignorant of science to develop his metaphysics comprehensively.

But Bergson lives on in his influence upon today's existentialists. His analysis here, for example, of consciousness informed by pure memory, which is a creative process and not a passive reaction, leads directly to existential freedom. His concept of the individual consciousness in the moment but not contained by it is inherent in the existentialist's concept of the importance of existence, in contrast to the traditional essence, which is an absolute that is contrary to the moment of present life that both Bergson and the existentialists insist is the only reality that man can ever know.

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