Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Action and Forgetting: Bergson's Theory of Memory

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Action and Forgetting: Bergson's Theory of Memory

Article excerpt

Bergson's theory of memory has been and still is the object of diverse interpretations that are often contradictory and unjustly dismissive, when it is not simply ignored. This paper attempts to restore the coherence and soundness of the theory by tying memory to the theme of freedom. The connection is actually quite direct in that Bergson tackles the problem of memory immediately after publishing his first book, Time and Free Will, in which he shows how duration breeds free will. To be sure, he was then aware that freedom is given in a world governed by determinism and so could not but promptly face the question of knowing how the two equally undeniable facts could be reconciled or how freedom could "pass through the meshes of natural necessity."1 This paper shows that the theme of action surmounting necessity is the royal road to understanding both the nature and the mode of operation of memory. This approach finds its premises in Bergson's theory of perception, as elaborated in the first chapter of Matter and Memory.

To highlight the originality and strength of Bergson, the paper confronts his theory of memory with that of phenomenology with the view of showing that memory cannot be reduced to the psychological act of intentionality. However, without denying the importance of Gilles Deleuze's ontologization of memory and its effectiveness in countering Jean Hyppolite's blurring of the Bergsonian distinction between the past and the present, the paper questions the fidelity of the interpretation, especially the ontological cut that Deleuze inserts between the past and consciousness. The suggestion is that the exact nature of the past should be approached from the functionality of forgetting and the subsequent distinction between a perpetual, ontological present and a passing or psychological present. Lastly, the misunderstanding around the Bergsonian notion of memory-image is clarified through a confrontation with Sartre's interpretation and a reappraisal of Bergson's analysis of motor memory.

The Functionality of Forgetting

Bergson's commentators often underline the act by which memory, contracting the homogeneous vibrations of matter, gives perception its qualitative features. That the qualitative aspects of our perception derive from memory does not mean that matter itself is devoid of qualitative features, but that memory accentuates by contraction the heterogeneity of perceived qualities, which exist in a diluted form in matter. The retentional attribute of memory enables the holding of various and successive moments of matter in one single moment of consciousness, the result of which is that not only the qualitative heterogeneity of matter is intensified, but also the discontinuous and successive vibrations of matter are immobilized or solidified. This immobilization of movements is how they are made into objects of action. The contracting power of memory thus realizes the condition of free action, namely, the disengagement of living beings from the extremely rapid rhythm of matter. As Bergson writes, "the independence of their action upon surrounding matter becomes more and more assured in the degree that they free themselves from the particular rhythm which governs the flow of this matter."2

What is less emphasized by commentators is that the very nature of perception, as understood by Bergson, is the key to his theory of memory. Indeed, going against the prevailing belief equating perception to a preliminary form of knowledge, Bergson squarely defines perception as action, more exactly as possible action.3 Moreover, he shows that consciousness itself emerges from delayed actions induced by the ability of the brain to retard the responses of the living body to the actions of the environment. The brain generates indeterminacy within the interactions of material objects, thereby actualizing the conscious act of objects presented as possible actions.

Possible actions signify the insertion of choice in the determinism of matter, which choice presupposes the recollecting faculty of memory, for "the indetermination of acts to be accomplished requires . …

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