(Mystical) Bergson (Matter and Memory)

(Mystical) Bergson (Matter and Memory)

The standard line about Henri Bergson in Matter and Memory is about perception in relation to time and memory. Subjective perception, i.e. perception understood from the point of view of the subject, is the way my body (my image of my body) breaks up reality into static, spatialized bits according to practical interests and vital needs. On top of that, my ordinary, subjective perception “occupies a certain duration.” Perception involves “an effort of memory” that prolongs a plurality of moments “one into another.” Perception is “impregnated with our past” (p.33). For practical aims, our perception is a “kind of contraction of the real, effected by our memory” (p.34).

Less talked about in Matter and Memory are “pure perception” and “pure memory.” They are non-contracted, ideal or theoretical or methodological forms and the key terms to what for Bergson are the objective reality of matter and the subjective freedom of spirit. “[F]rankly dualistic,” Bergson affirms the reality of spirit and the reality of matter, pushing them both, he says, to their own extreme (pp.9, 181, cf. 220). Pure perception relates exclusively to matter. Pure memory relates entirely to spirit. Splitting them apart before bringing them back together raises the intensity of both to the nth degree.

Without relating directly to pure perception and pure memory while citing some key passages in Matter and Memory, John Dewey noted the tension in Bergson between pragmatism and mysticism. Dewey in this essay wrote in particular about perception in relation to action, which is what interested him as a pragmatist.

“On the one hand,” Dewey writes, “the defining traits of perception, of commonsense knowledge and science are explained on the ground of their intimate connection with action. On the other hand… Philosophy must, accordingly, turn its back, resolutely and finally, upon all methods and conceptions which are infected by implication in action in order to strike out upon a different path.” In other words, for Bergson, saw something still greater than our action to which he would like to attach it. Dewey notes that for Bergson, “[Philosophy] must have recourse to intuition which installs us within the very movement of reality itself, unrefracted by the considerations that adapt it to bodily needs, that is to useful action. As a result, Bergson has the unique distinction of being attacked as a pragmatist on one side, and as a mystic on the other. There are at least a few readers in sympathy with the first of these strains who find themselves perplexed by the second.” [John Dewey, “Perception and Organic Action (1912) (On Henri Bergson)” in Larry A. Hickman and Thomas Alexander (eds.) The Essential Dewey: Ethics, Logic, Psychology (Volume 2) Dewey, p.393)]. Dewey must have counted himself among the latter.


The project in Matter and Memory begins in chapter 1 with “the Selection of Images for Conscious Presentation.” In the beginning, I am “in the presence of images,” with matter itself, which Bergson defined as nothing more and nothing less than “an aggregate of images.” “Here I am in the presence of images,” in particular with the image of my own body, which is privileged for me because I know it from without in the form of a presentation and from within by sensation-affections (pp.9, 17).

Unlike “my perception” (i.e. ordinary perception mixed up with memory of the past), “pure perception” is perception that is “confined to the present and absorbed, to the exclusion of all else, in the task of molding itself upon the external object.” Pure perception has an objective character. Pure perception is an “impersonal perception at the root of our knowledge of things.” Philosophers (i.e. realists and idealists) have heretofore ignored the phenomenon of pure perception because, for them, perception is “a kind of interior and subjective vision. In their view, perception is not different from memory, just more intense, whereas Bergson insists that they are radical, different in kind (pp.33-4; emphasis in the original).

Analytically, Bergson in his study of pure perception brackets what is “my” complex perception, enlarged as it is by memory. Absorbed in the present, pure perception is “a vision of matter both immediate and instantaneous,” “an uninterrupted series of instantaneous visions, which would be a part of things rather than of ourselves” (pp.34, 65). Pure perception plunges consciousness into the objective reality of matter. As such, pure perception is a part of matter as Bergson understands it, i.e. as an aggregate of images (pp.69, 222). This “impersonal perception” is “at the very heart of our knowledge of things” (p.34). But pure perception is not actual; it is the virtual perception of all things (p.39).

In the imperative voice of the mystic, Bergson calls upon us to “restore…the true character of perception; recognize in pure perception a system of nascent [i.e. virtual?] acts which plunges roots deep into the real; and at once perception is seen to be radically distinct from recollection; the reality of things is no more constructed or reconstructed, but touched, penetrated, lived; and the problem at issue between realism and idealism, instead of giving rise to interminable metaphysical discussions, is solved, or rather dissolved by intuition” (p.69, emphasis added).

To be sure, my perception of the external world is small and memory supplants and enlarges upon intuition. But Bergson wants to isolate that “impersonal basis” in which perception coincides with the object perceived, which, for Bergson, is “externality itself” and not my own psychic projection(pp.65-6). The “proper office of psychology” is to separate perception and memory in their “natural purity” (p.67). Memory is the subjective part of perception. Pure perception eliminates memory, the subjective, and gives us if not the whole then the “essential part of matter.” Not occult, matter “coincides, in essentials, with pure perception” (p.73).

From this, Bergson draws two conclusions. The psycho-physiological conclusion is that the brain is an instrument of action, not an instrument of representation. The metaphysical conclusion is that pure perception places us outside ourselves. In pure perception, we “touch the reality of the object in an immediate intuition, this intuitive grasp being “entirely absent” from memory (74-5). In pure perception, “we place the perceived images of things outside the image of our body.” This means that pure perception is a “part of things” and no longer distinct from them. Material extensity resembles the undivided extension of our representations (p.181-2). Pure perception is nothing more and nothing less than the lowest degree of mind, i.e. mind without memory; it is “really a part of matter” as Bergson understands matter (p.222). Another possible conclusion: the physical world, which is the totality of images, is a “kind of consciousness” (p.235).

Most of my paraphrase here on pure perception is taken from chapter 1, “Of The Selection of Images for Conscious Presentation. What Our Body Means and Does.”  The chapter title does little to anticipate how, at the end of the chapter, Bergson reveals to the reader that the analysis is of a metaphysical order that goes “far beyond the borders of psychology” (p.76).

Chapter 2, Of the Recognition of Images. Memory and the Brain” is Bergson on his way passing through the borderlands of empirical psychology and psychology of memory. The pragmatic focus here is on where the body begins and where it ends. Again it is worth remembering that the body is, as conceived by Bergson, just one image among others (p.76, 77). The chapter is an exquisitely detailed analysis of perception, movement, and memory.

Bergson then proceeds to pure memory in chapter 3, “Of The Survival of Images. Memory and Mind.”

Bergson’s attention to mind and body is in Chapter 4, The Delimiting and Fixing of Images. Perception and Matter. Soul and Body” (the boldface is my addition)


Pure memory is “spiritual.” It is the subjective and “spiritual” aspect of perception. If pure perception “bears” upon present objects, then pure memory is the “representation of an absent object” (p.75). In that “spirit is a reality, it is here, in the phenomenon of memory.” In memory, we grasp spirit in its most tangible form” and “absolutely independent of matter” (p.73).

Pure memory is “virtual.” Little by little, a recollection comes into view; the virtual state passes into the actual as memory takes on color and mimics perception; at the same time, our actual memory “retains something of its original virtuality,” which is “attached to the past by its deepest roots” and which is distinct from the present qua memory (p.134). The actual memory-image partakes in and begins to materialize pure memory even as pure memory is manifested in colored and living images (p.133). Just as pure perception expels the memory-image, the memory-image expels pure memory. Bergson rejects associationist psychology because it substitutes the living reality of continuous becoming for a disassociated multiplicity of inert, juxtaposed elements. Which means that to reach the past, we would have to place ourselves within it. We should not look for the past in anything actual or already realized. The past is “[e]ssentially virtual.” (p.135).

Bergson contrasts pure memory with my present perception and with lived bodily sensation. While my subjective perception motivates my action, my past is powerless. My present is sensation and movement; my consciousness of my body in this material world (i.e. the materiality of my existence qua system of sensation-affect and movement (137-9). In contrast to my actual sensastns, which are located corporeally, pure memory interests no part of my body. Pure memory is “nascent sensation,” “virtual,” not corporeally localized (pp.139-40). What makes pure memory “pure” is its freedom from any admixture of actual sensation and utility. Pure memory is powerless, “preserved in a latent state” (pp.140-1).    

One conclusion is that the body (i.e. bodily action, the image of bodily action, and interest limited to objects and useful memory) limits “the life of the spirit.” Strictly speaking, Bergson admits, this is where he should have stopped, without delving into metaphysical questions. Pure perception places us in the truth of matter. Pure memory allows us into spirit (pp.179-81). Pure memory is not an emanation of matter, not a brain function. Pure memory is that which allows us to give up habits of thinking relative to bodily necessity and mental constructs relative to brain function, habits that refract pure duration into space and separate psychical states. Pure memory would be duration, the continuous flow of things and our states. Installed in duration, we see ourselves freely acting free from the “fundamental conditions of external perceptions.” In pure memory, we “transcend space without stepping out from extensity” (pp.184-6).

The final word of Matter and Memory against empirical psychology is that memory is not a weak perception. The “truth is” memory is not a regression from present to past, but rather a progression from past to present. There is a suddenness to this. “It is in the past that we place ourselves at a stroke.” We start from the “virtual state” (scare quotes are Bergson’s) and lead onwards through different planes of consciousness  (italics are Bergson’s) to the end where the virtual is materialized in an actual perception (where it becomes pesent and active). Pure memory is clearly identified by Bergson as both the virtual state (pp.239-40) and as a “spiritual manifestation”(emphases are mine) (p.240). We are, “in truth, in the domain of spirit” at the confluence between mind and matter, with the one flowing into the latter (p.240). Pure memory is spirit. Pure perception is matter (243).


Maybe the most excited moments in Matter and Memory are when Bergson calls upon his readers. He tells us the reader in the imperative voice, “start with pure perception,” place and plunge yourself into and touch the real. Or when he describes the activity of his own mental life. Here I am; I look closer; I call up and compare; I will formulate; I pass now. Let us start; let us suppose (e.g. 17, 228). Bergson is a guru who leaves instructions that are meant to be followed. His use of the first and second person singulars is very helpful.

The assumption that pure memory is a spiritual manifestation (p.240), the plane “where our mind retains in all its details the picture of our past life” (p.241) informs Bergson’s dualism, a dualism that binds together psychology and metaphysics. Methodologically, Bergson starts with pure perception, where memory is stripped out from mind, where subject and object coincide. The analysis of matter gets pushed. We begin more and more to see in it “only a succession of infinitely rapid moments which may be deduced each from the other and thereby are equivalent to each other.” For its part, “spirit being in perception already memory, and declaring itself more and more as a prolonging of the past into the present” is “a progress, a true evolution” (p.221).

Spirit’s “humblest function” is to “bind together the successive moments of the duration of things,” and thus comes into contact with matter. “[A] growing intensity of life” “corresponds to a higher tension of duration, and is made manifest externally by a greater development of the sensori-motor system” (p.221). “[T]o touch the reality of spirit we must place ourselves at the point where an individual consciousness, continuing and retaining the past in a present enriched by it, thus escapes the law of necessity, the law which ordains that the past shall ever follow itself in a present which merely repeats it in another form, and that all things shall ever be flowing away. When we pass from pure perception to memory, we definitely abandon matter for spirit” (p.235).


Bergson is not a materialist. Bergson is a spiritualist, or perhaps a mentalist.

I can say this because, for Bergson, matter is not what we normally call material (physical-chemical). For Bergson, matter is an aggregate of images (p.9), my body being but, for me, an epistemoligcally privileged instance of one such image. The image is not insde or outside my thought (p.25). Which is to say that pure percetption is not of, but in the aggregate of images (p.61). This is is how subject and object coincide in pure perception. Nature is a “latent consciousness,” an expression of individual consciousness as it throws gleams, “extracting,” says Bergson, “from the whole that is real a part that is virtual” in order to disengage that which interests it.

We are “confronted” in the consciousness of this latent aggregate of images by “the apparition of living bodies.” Spooky stuff, these living bodies are “capable of spontaneous and unforeseen movements,” through which in the differentiation of function they become more complex, motor-neurally. Not seen is the “growing and accompanying tension of consciousness in time.” (p.248). Free from the mesh of necessity, the last word in the mystical-dualist project that is Matter and Memory is to see this. “Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom” (p.249).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to (Mystical) Bergson (Matter and Memory)

  1. dmf says:

    developing neuro-phenomenology would come down on the en-action/pragmatist end for sure (see the enso seminars), but I wonder if Dewey on the vital role of imagination leaves us with an un-grounded take on new possibilities in a more Deleuzian manner?

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