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Bergson and Our Quarterly Discussion

July 19, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson uses natural science as the basis for his arguments towards a new understanding of reality. This July, a group of us discussed two sections from Creative Evolution in order to better understand Bergson’s philosophical ideas. In this work, Bergson explains that two popular views of reality cannot fully account for the way that the world presents itself. He uses examples such as the formation of an eye to underscore the ways in which mechanism and finalism fall short. Bergson opposes the idea that the eye was constructed piece by piece like a machine (the mechanist theory). He also disagrees with the idea that the human eye evolved with an end goal in mind (like 20/20 vision, for example), which is the view of finalists. To illustrate these arguments, he writes:

“For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal has been made in another way” (93-94).

His next example introduces Bergson’s new theory (one which he would discuss for the rest of his life). He talks about the negative as defining reality, rather than the positive. Instead of positively adding elements in the way that we build a car, for example, Bergson advocates that duration and free will simultaneously influences evolution. Therefore, he offers an example of a hand moving through iron filings as a demonstration of duration and free will. The path of the hand through the filings is a matter of choice against or in its environment. He continues:

“With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coördinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions: they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion” (94-95).

Bergson explains the resulting path as a kind of “equilibrium,” a circumstance as a result of the environment, the need, the organ, etc. He claims that beings evolve, but not according to any design. While I believe that Bergson asks us to think of this third idea in tandem with mechanism and finalism, in that they are complementary ideas aimed at better understanding reality, he does seem to say that his theory is the more developed. During our discussion, someone noted that while his theory may be more holistic, it still does not clearly address the initial impetus. Using evolution as the starting point for his theory, Bergson defines the original impetus as the “passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations” (88). He does not directly address the idea of prime movers, or from where original impetus stems.

In this short section, Bergson devotes much time to the complexity of the eye, which he claims shows a specificity of purpose. It is this simple purpose which has created the path for the evolution of the eye. In other words, vision becomes a standalone purpose which drives the creation of the eye. The eye develops freely (without end goal) because the environment places demands upon it. That beings have sight seems to be a commonality among most species. Freedom of choice, then, allows the eye to develop to environmental demands in a way that allows hawks to see at a distance and humans to read texts. He also notes that these things are always in motion, always in duration, and that the current development is in no way the final development.

Published in 1911, Creative Evolution is an intriguing entrance into Bergson’s writings. His subsequent writings, such as The Creative Mind, develop many of the ideas introduced in this text and offer excellent discussions. Due to the fact that Bergson is also responding to philosophical questions which have existed for thousands of years, we must look more closely at the translators’ language. Many of his works were not translated until the 1980s and 1990s, which raises the question of translation accuracy in a field which requires such specificity.

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion. As always, I gain great benefit from hearing the ideas of others!

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Traces of Bergson

June 21, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Read Lalucq’s full poem from Fortino Sámano here: https://poets.org/poem/fortino-samano

Bergson’s Creative Evolution: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26163/26163-h/26163-h.htm

For our upcoming Quarterly Discussion, we will discuss a selection from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution. I had such a difficult time narrowing down this reading because there are so many wonderful avenues to take. I find his ideas of multiplicity to be very much in our rhetoric today. Since these concepts challenge the reader, today, I wanted to apply them to a contemporary poem which may (or may not) illustrate some of his ideas. Below, I focus on a single poem from Fortino Sámano by Virginie Lalucq which demonstrates, at least to me, the way that perspective alters a thing. This concept aligns with Bergson’s discussions of duration and reality.

I really enjoy how Virginie Lalucq plays with Bergson’s ideas of being and time. In Lalucq’s poetic series on Fortino Sámano, the narrator assumes the persona of Sámano on the day of his execution. Using nothing more than the last surviving photo, she begins a narration of his final thoughts. The poems, however, do not contain his voice any more than they contain the poet’s. Rather, they demonstrate an interplay between reality and perception, vital ideas in Bergson’s theories. In Chapter IV of Creative Evolution, Bergson addresses duration and perception. He suggests that the mind does not invent reality, but reconstructs a portion of it. In fact, reality happens simultaneous to a single perception of reality. This gives rise to the idea of multiplicity. Bergson writes,

“Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition that we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. Consciousness, being in its turn formed on the intellect, sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making. Thus, we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us, and that we have gathered along its course. These alone we retain. And we are right in so doing, while action only is in question. But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming. Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile.” (273)

In her poetry, Virginie Lalucq plays with this idea. The narrator wonders about Sámano and asks, “How can he be absolutely in motion and/ absolutely motionless at the same time?” In other words, why does the photograph appear to be a single, instantaneous image, but in reality is a container for many narratives. The viewer perpetually makes and unmakes the image, adding details, questioning details, and then changing the narrative again. This reflects Bergson’s idea that we perceive only states of becoming, but not becoming in its entirety. This is our attempt to make something concrete out of something much too fluid which in this case is, ironically, a photograph.

Furthermore, the narrator addresses the dilemma of an absolute. The image has become shaded, “snowy,” distorted or unclear. The opacity heightens the enigmatic ending which reads: “From which the snowy/ image: each thing in its place is absolutely in/ motion is absolutely at rest.” The line break indicates a potential definition for image: “each thing in its place is absolutely in.” Generally speaking, the voice indicates that an image contains everything, perhaps even the motion. However, they also note that the motion is at rest, which reiterates the question from the beginning: how can he be simultaneously in motion and motionless? The poem’s structure literally reflects this question by placing four lines above and four lines below the central word: “absolutely?” This word becomes its own line because it is the key to the poem. That it is in the form of a question demonstrates its inability to be pinned down or defined.

This poem is about both becoming and duration. This poem demonstrates multiplicity because without multiplicity the reader (and narrator) would not be able to embody Sámano, to recreate his life from images, to wonder about the details in the photo’s background. In short, the reader moves Sámano because of the mind’s ability to think in terms of multiple realities. Only through the dense stream of reality can one body understand the “traces” left by motionless bodies. I think this poem directly expresses the confusion that one feels in trying to assemble reality, or, in Bergson’s terms, in trying to come to terms with the way that consciousness constructs our duration. It indicates that consciousness “sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making.”

I wonder about the idea of duration and how it plays into our knowledge base, or our constructed world. I want to see more examples of the “radical becoming.” For this reason, and many others, I am excited to discuss Bergson’s ideas in our upcoming Quarterly Discussion. If you would like to join, email asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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I Don't Know

June 7, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I taught high school fresh out of college. I was so young that people often thought I was a student (which is perhaps also why I was so nervous about being the one in front). Suddenly, after years of watching someone else do all the lecturing, I was in charge of a classroom. To say I was intimidated is putting it lightly. In fact, I felt many emotions – excitement, anxiety, challenge, fear, etc. Up to that point, my educational model consisted of listening to lectures and doing group projects. I understand the reasons for (and benefits of) a lecture-style classroom, however, having been with Harrison Middleton University for awhile now, I also recognize its limitations.

My wonderful job enables me to discuss a wide variety of literature in small groups. Furthermore, technology allows us to do this with people around the world. No longer am I a lecturer at the front of a classroom. This experience has opened my eyes to some of my own flaws during my high school teaching experience. While I incorporated drama as often as possible into the high school curriculum, I did not utilize discussion nearly enough.

Leading discussions can be extremely intimidating for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, though the leader directs the flow, there is no ability to control all of the comments. Sometimes conversations enter a place that is off-topic or offensive, and the leader must reign those in. Sometimes conversations seem flat, boring, uninspired, or lacking in participation. Sometimes the students have not adequately read the material, and the leader must carry the conversation or the group must read passages out loud together and discuss it that way.

Also, the leader must do a lot of prep work ahead of time. First, the leader must prepare questions ahead of time and know the reading quite thoroughly. Second, the leader must lay down ground rules from the beginning, such as focusing all comments on the relevant text. Third, the leader must feel empowered to cut someone short, ask that the conversation return to the focus work. Typically the leader does not participate in the discussion, but often people will ask questions that have no answer. The leader, therefore, must feel comfortable with the limits of their knowledge.

As a high school teacher, I did not have any of these resources yet. I always felt ashamed when I did not know the answer immediately. Now, however, I find that saying “I don’t know” is exciting. Now I see it as an opportunity to discover something, even if it is just a factual review of the text. Personally, I get excited when we reach a spot where I do not know something because it is an opportunity to learn.

During a conversation in which I am the leader, I like to prepare clusters of questions. I often find themes, and try to group questions around that theme. Then, if a participant wanders from one theme into another, I can ask a followup question about it. Also, I like to leave a section to the side of my notes for what I call “I don’t know” questions, or, in other words, things I want to look up later on my own. Since I lead a lot of works about topics that are unfamiliar to me, sometimes I have a lot of “I don’t know” questions. And even when I lead discussions about something very familiar – say Shakespeare – I still come up with a ton of questions, which is so exciting!

Because I love to learn, I now realize that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response in any discussion. Not only have I fulfilled the old adage that “the more you learn, the less you know,” but I also get energized from the list of “I don’t know” questions down the side of my discussion notes.

To see this method in action, join us for the July Quarterly Discussion on either July 11 or 13. We will read a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information or to register.

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Discussing Tartuffe

May 3, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week, I had the opportunity to discuss Molière’s play Tartuffe in a couple of Quarterly Discussions. First of all, I have to admit that I love this play, so my notes may not be altogether unbiased. Having said that, I think that an interesting place to begin is with ideas of power as represented in the play. It also makes sense to begin with the title character for an investigation into his power.

The audience’s first knowledge of Tartuffe comes right at the beginning of the play in the family dialogue. Madame Pernelle condemns most of the family’s behavior but believes that Tartuffe is a model figure. The rest of the family, however, makes it clear that they distrust Tartuffe’s piety. This brilliant introductory scene gives a lot of background information in a relatively short space. Through conversation, the scene also introduces the character of the master, Orgon, who is also blind to Tartuffe’s tricks. So much so, that when Orgon enters he dismisses the report of his wife’s ill-health. While disregarding this news, he immediately asks about Tartuffe’s health. In other words, he feels the need to address Tartuffe’s needs over that of his own family. It is difficult to state exactly what mysticism tempts Madame Pernelle and Orgon to adore Tartuffe. They unquestioningly believe his piety, his repeated self-flagellation, his self-condemnation, his poor appearance, etc. Ironically, when Damis (Orgon’s son) confronts Tartuffe, Tartuffe replies, “Do you think me the better for what you see of me? No, no, you suffer yourself to be deceived by appearances, and I am neither better nor worse, alas! than these people think me!” (Act III, Scene 6). The hilarious irony is that, for once, Tartuffe has spoken the truth: Tartuffe is not a good man, and Orgon is deceived by appearances. However, Orgon immediately rejects the idea that Tartuffe is less than perfect, just as Tartuffe expected him to do. Tartuffe responds to heated arguments by portraying humility and piety. In the end of the scene, Orgon rejects the advice of his own son, whom he finally disinherits.

As we learn throughout the play, Tartuffe is a masterful con artist. Orgon first encountered him while Tartuffe appeared as a beggar outside of church. He would only take a portion of money given him which impressed Orgon immediately. Tartuffe used Orgon’s charity against him. Furthermore, he plays every scene to his advantage, even using the family’s disapproval to his advantage. He targeted Orgon specifically as is apparent at the play’s conclusion. In a swift turn of events, the king’s messenger dissolves any contracts between Tartuffe and Orgon noting Tartuffe’s extensive criminal record. The king’s messenger says that the list of Tartuffe’s “horrid crimes is long enough to fill volumes of histories” (Act V, Scene 7). Tartuffe’s power, then, is a kind of evil (or at the very least, callousness) which preys upon innocence and charity. He understands motivations and uses them all to his advantage. The title reflects an ever-present tension linked to his predatory behavior.

Acting against Tartuffe’s devious power, we also discussed the power demonstrated by women in the play. The women differ greatly in wisdom and action. Mariane, Orgon’s daughter, remains mostly silenced by her circumstances. She seldom directly opposes her father. However, her maid, Dorine, directly confronts Orgon. When neither female is successful at getting what they want, Dorine orchestrates a ploy to at least delay undesirable events. Dorine exhibits a sharp tongue, a quick mind, and an understanding of Tartuffe’s motivations.

That Orgon doesn’t listen to her is not her own fault since he also fails to believe his own wife, Elmire. Orgon’s disbelief forces Elmire into an awkward play-within-a-play in which she tempts Tartuffe into displaying his love for her. During this scene, Orgon, who is hidden, can hear Tartuffe express his true feelings. In fact, this may be the only time that Tartuffe expresses any true feelings. He tells her: “[T]he harm never consists in anything but the noise one makes; the scandal of the world is what makes the offence, and sinning in private is no sinning at all” (Act IV, Scene 5). A number of people in our discussion noted that Elmire’s power is not a direct power. Unable to convince her husband of Tartuffe’s devious plots with words alone, she resorts to this ridiculous display. In a way, Orgon forces her into this charade. If she had any direct power, she would have been taken at her word.

Both Dorine and Elmire use a kind of indirect power to their benefit. Dorine, who has no real stake in the family and therefore little to lose, creates games which delay unwanted behaviors. Elmire has to put on a play in order to demonstrate the meaning of her point. These women are similar in finding creative solutions to their problems. Furthermore, they both have to cede to the men’s authority.

The idea of power structure in this play led to such interesting comments and this is but a short summary of them. We also discussed topics such as the play’s religious elements, ideas of sin and virtue, and how one might identify a hypocrite (like Tartuffe). After reviewing a few versions of this play, I would have loved to compare a variety of translations as well as add in some of the historical context. Molière is such an interesting character and his plays give us much to wonder about.

I really appreciate the time and energy that everyone spent in reading and discussing this play. I greatly enjoy organizing the Quarterly Discussion series. Next up, we will discuss a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind in July. If you are interested in this or any upcoming event, email me at asimon@hmu.edu .

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