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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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The Day After Independence

July 5, 2019

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

What happened the day after independence? Or the next day, or the day after that? How does one go about constructing a cohesive, yet flexible, democratic society? What is it like to transition from a single goal – defeat the British – to a much more fluid goal of a free society? To better understand some of the history of this period, I have been reading Cokie Roberts’s books Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Roberts includes some amazing research which helps to paint the picture of the day. She worked tirelessly reading through notes, letters, receipts, transactions, logs – basically any existing writing which would offer clues about the time period. With this research, she writes eloquently about the struggles of founding a nation – and also the prominent female voices of this time period. Roberts cautions that these are not books about the common experience of the day, but rather ones focused on those with means and power. Today’s blog will glean a few details about the powers that be in the years that followed the fight for independence. I truly appreciate Roberts’s work and recommend these books to anyone interested in the history of America and/or women’s rights in general.

Ladies of Liberty begins with the death of George Washington, which had the potential to be a truly destabilizing event. Washington was revered by all. He and Martha had long served the country and in his wake, Martha received many visitors long after George was no longer in office. He died during John Adams’s presidency at a time of rising factions in the U.S. and problems with the French. In fact, Washington had warned against both of these things at the end of his presidency. His eloquence did not assist the second president, however. Instead, political rhetoric and vicious party fighting marked the campaign for the second presidency. Roberts writes:

“Political parties emerged in this country soon after the men who had fought together in the Revolution and struggled to ratify the Constitution formed the first federal government. With each side claiming to carry the banner of the Spirit of Seventy-Six, John Adams’s Federalist Party – which advocated a strong central government – was derided as pro-British and monarchical while Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party - more inclined to support states’ rights – was attacked as pro-French and anarchical. Since it was considered unseemly to seek the job of president openly, surrogates waged this first presidential campaign through the bitterly partisan newspapers, with intraparty shenanigans making the outcome unknown. When the ballots were counted the results proved interesting indeed. Under the system at the time, the man with the most Electoral College votes became president, the number two in the tally vice president. As president of the Senate, John Adams announced the totals on February 9, 1797: John Adams 71, Thomas Jefferson 68, Thomas Pinckney (running for vice president as a Federalist) 59, Aaron Burr (running for vice president as a Republican) 30. Not only was it a hair-thin victory for Adams, but the president and vice-president for the first – and last – time would hail from opposing parties.” (8)

In addition to the creation of political parties and state roles such as vice president, the newly born America witnessed the birth of the position of “First Lady.” Both Martha Washington and Abigail Adams worked tirelessly to support their husbands and their country. They viewed civic responsibility with utmost importance and both sacrificed much personal pleasure. Like John Adams, Abigail was in the unique and difficult position of following in Washington’s footsteps. Adams’s presidency also encompassed moves from New York to Philadelphia to D.C., into what would ultimately become the White House. In its initial days, the move was a struggle, making consistency difficult. It also created major problems with entertaining, an important role for any First Lady. Furthermore, the role of entertaining and receiving guests came entirely from the president’s own pockets. Roberts notes, “As the first person to play the role of Second Lady, Abigail enjoyed her time in the temporary capitals – New York, then Philadelphia – but found that the constant entertaining was taking its toll on the family finances, which she had so carefully husbanded for many years” (7).

During John’s reelection bid, Abigail returned to Philadelphia and then to D.C., to no avail. John Adams served only one term before losing to Thomas Jefferson in a bitterly fought battle. During the campaign, Abigail continuously noted the lack of factual information in the papers, which were strongly partisan (something else that Washington had warned about). During the heat of the campaign, John Adams wrote to Abigail from the White House: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof” (42). Roberts notes that today those words are “inscribed above the fireplace of the State Dining Room” (42).

John and Abigail Adams wrote many letters and their correspondence paints a portrait of their characters, strong will, determination and opinions. In fact, Abigail kept up such correspondences that we are blessed to see a rich picture of the day, both in and out of the White House. From these (and other resources), Roberts highlights important American firsts, such as the first American Sunday School set up by Catherine Ferguson in New York City. Her story, like many others in her day, was an unlikely one. Born into slavery, she received freedom only after raising $200 to purchase her independence. It is thought that some of this money came directly from Abigail Adams who opposed slavery. Catherine lamented the numbers of poor children on the streets of New York, and so she “took charge of forty-eight kids, both black and white, either placing them with other people or taking them in herself. In about 1793, when she realized how little the children knew about religion, she set up Katy Ferguson’s School for the Poor in New York City” (53). This school subsequently moved to the Murray Street church which, Roberts tells us, launched the Sunday School movement in New York (53).

Two other exciting finds from Roberts’ research include mentions of female authors at this time. Roberts notes that “Hannah Adams, a distant cousin of John Adams, published a couple of texts about religion in order to earn a living, making her the first woman in the country to live off her writing income” (53). Other writers included Susanna Rowson, who was a school teacher as well, but published one of America’s first popular novels, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. In fact, this time period at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s saw great changes in printed materials. As technology advanced, publications reached new and specialized markets, including women’s magazines. Roberts explains that “More publishing meant not only more bookstores but the birth of lending libraries – making books, newspapers, and, especially, magazines available to all comers” (59). Also during this time, Amelia Simmons published the first American Cookbook.

Looking at the political rhetoric of the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debates - driven largely by media and newspapers, factions and political parties - one realizes that the past is not so distant. On the other hand, education models and recipes evidence a bit more change. Does custom influence one arena more than another? How are customs intertwined with laws? Where do these customs come from and who sets the precedent? This book explores mostly those with money and power, but yet also notes women of small means who took great risks in order to influence higher powers, such as Catherine Ferguson. Certainly their legacy is worth more than a footnote.

America’s founding figures are rich with intrigue, flavor, romance, debate and, of course, politics. I find the reading entirely enlightening, educational, and entertaining.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

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

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many 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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