Brief notes on: Bergson, H.  (1920).  Mind -Energy.  Lectures and Essays.  Trans.  H.  Willdon Carr.  Henry Holt and Company.  Retrieved from:

Dave Harris

[These are collected lectures and essays and they mostly go over the main themes in the books, so I am not going to summarize them.  They are quite effective summaries themselves, and I have picked out only the bits that strike me as additional useful emphases. However, they also get a bit wacky here and there]

Life and Consciousness (the Huxley Lecture, University of Birmingham, May 24, 1911)

Systematic philosophy has lost touch with the important problems that confront most of us.  It is better to plunge in rather than reflect on theories of knowledge, and to focus on a series of concrete problems rather than head straight for abstraction.  This only produces 'diagrammatic and rigid' (6) thougt which cannot follow the details of reality.  We'll never find solutions like those solved by mathematical deduction, and there are no decisive facts—but there are different sorts of facts which point us in the right direction, and we should precede by following particular lines of facts which can then be prolonged.  Finding solutions is also a collaborative activity just like positive science.

The first issue to investigate is what consciousness is.  The most obvious fact about it is that it consists of memory, preserving the past.  But it is also aimed at the future as an indication of the necessary 'attention to life'.  There is no actual present except in the abstract.  Instead we perceive 'our immediate past and our imminent future' (9).  Our investigations into consciousness itself can never be scientifically certain, and we must operate instead on probabilities, including the probability that if there are others who resemble us, we can conclude 'by analogy' that there is internal similarity too. 

It is a mistake to identify consciousness directly with brains, partly because the lower beings can also said to be conscious.  All life is conscious.  The human brain sets mechanisms to work after receiving external stimulus.  It offers an interval between stimulus and reaction, offering a choice between appropriate reactions.  This ability is much diminished with the lower forms.  Choices are obviously facilitated by memory and anticipation.  We even me consciousness in organisms which do not move spontaneously—the faculty rather is dormant.  It is like learning a task until it becomes automatic.  Consciousness varies in intensity according to whether it needs to make choices and in turn whether it is able to act creatively.  Risk is involved, and it is not surprising that other organisms have developed torpor instead.  In those circumstances, we are able to predict and isolate determinants. However, life is always creative, with a zone of indetermination.  It offers us 'duration', where past present and future form 'an indivisible continuity' (17).

We can see that consciousness and matter are different forms of existence, turning on the relations between necessity and freedom.  However the two are interpenetrated in life itself, and consciousness can flourish if matter is elastic.  Life proceeds by using elements of matter in the form of unstable substances, as in carbohydrates and fats which can be seen as stores of energy.  The vegetable kingdom creates the stores while the animal kingdom uses them in movement.  This is the mechanism also used by consciousness.  [All these are the 'lines of facts' mentioned earlier].  The effects of the past are released in action.  Consciousness in effect stores certain aspects of matter, like the 'thousands of millions of vibrations'which exist and which are contracted into one sensation of light.  The duration of things is thus condensed into our conscious duration, and this is so we can overcome matter and use it in action.  The two durations differ in terms of their tension and the greater the tension, the greater the power of acting creatively: this is shown when we summarize a whole series of events in order to act.

Based on these lines of facts and their convergence, we can distinguish different moments between consciousness as creation, where 'there is real growth' in duration (23), and matter, 'subject to necessity, devoid of memory'(22).  These are both realities, and we can argue that they have a common source, as in Creative Evolution, with consciousness as action continually creating things, and matter as action unmaking itself.  If we look that theories of evolution we can see that one species generates another, and that organization emerges from simplicity as a consequence of living things adapting to their environment.  However, adaptation alone is not sufficient to explain the movement thought of life.  There must be 'an impulse driving it to take ever greater and greater risks'(24).  This has produced diversity and resistance, and only two lines have been relatively successful, insects and humans, representing instinct and intelligence respectively.  Consciousness has been lucky to escape torpor and automatism.  Freedom to act has usually been limited by the necessity of existence, until human beings, which escape by providing alternative habits and automatic actions.

This is not just a matter of physics and chemistry, because we see something else, some 'inward impulse', 'a force working, seeking to free itself from trammells and also to surpass itself' (27).  This can be called mind, a current of consciousness attempting to free itself from matter, flowing around obstacles.  This has also provided the characteristics of psychic life.  If matter is divisible and precise, thoughts are continuites, containing elements from the past and offering a 'confusion'.  We only clarify it by using words and this can help resolve theconfusion into individuals with personalities.  The thoughts that stimulate art or poetry need to be realized materially, and matter offers both resistance and an instrument. Nature itself provides an indication of success—'joy, not pleasure' (29), an indication of final triumph not just positive feedback.  Wherever we find joy there is creation.  This is the stimulus for enterprise [sic] and artistic effort.  This effects can help us suppose that human life itself aims at creation open to everyone—'creation of self by self' (31) the growth of personality.

Life produces endless novelty, although they can fall back into automatism and repetition [very deleuzian].  We should not mistake these 'halts'for the forward movement of life.  This is why art is important.  The same goes for human morality, where action can be generous and produce further generosity.  Such action, revealed in great lives, reveal the deepest impulsions of life.  There's also a tendency to social life from both instinct and intelligence.  Social life involves a harmony of efforts.  However, it is paradoxical, necessarily subordinating the individual but offering progress only 'by leaving the individual free'(33), and these have to be reconciled.  This can be seen in various struggles and wars.  There are numerous obstacles as well.

Overall, it is possible to reconcile moral activity with positive science.  We can see intuition as produced by something like instinct, although 'conscious, refined, spiritualized' (34), not exactly opposing intellect, as long as they see themselves as parallel.  Without acknowledging intuition, science is prey to 'an unconscious and inconsistent metaphysic' (34-5).  It would be wrong to reduce mental activity to cerebral activity.  Instead, consciousness should be seen as working through matter in order to temper itself and become more efficient and intense.  Human life can still be seen as creative evolution.  Consciousness may exist even after the body has disintegrated, although this can be 'no more than a hypothesis'(35).  We may be able to confirm this with further information, just as scientific conclusions have been overturned.