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Living Consciousness

The Metaphysical Vision of Henri Bergson

G. William Barnard

Publication Year: 2011

Explores the thought of Henri Bergson, highlighting his compelling theories on the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical world. Living Consciousness examines the brilliant, but now largely ignored, insights of French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941). Offering a detailed and accessible analysis of Bergson’s thought, G. William Barnard highlights how Bergson’s understanding of the nature of consciousness and, in particular, its relationship to the physical world remain strikingly relevant to numerous contemporary fields. These range from quantum physics and process thought to philosophy of mind, depth psychology, transpersonal theory, and religious studies. Bergson’s notion of consciousness as a ceaselessly dynamic, inherently temporal substance of reality itself provides a vision that can function as a persuasive alternative to mechanistic and reductionistic understandings of consciousness and reality. Barnard closes the work with several “ruminations” or neo-Bergsonian responses to a series of vitally important questions such as: What does it mean to live consciously, authentically, and attuned to our inner depths? Is there a philosophically sophisticated way to claim that the survival of consciousness after physical death is not only possible but likely?

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology

Title Page

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pp. x-xii

During the many years that it took to nudge this book into its present form, I was assisted, in ways that I cannot begin to adequately acknowledge, by numerous colleagues, friends, family members, loved ones, and fellow travelers on the journey to better understand the nature of consciousness. I am pleased to be given the opportunity to express my gratitude in this context, even...


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pp. xiii-xiv

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A Brief Bio-Historical Preamble

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pp. xv-xxii

Although scholars today are almost completely indifferent to the work of Henri Bergson, at one point he was the philosopher par excellence in Europe and America. Bergson achieved the peak of his popularity in the decade after the publication of Creative Evolution in 1907. He continued to be very influential in the twenties and thirties, but his impact was negligible after World...

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pp. xxiii-xxxvii

For well over a decade, I have been deeply engaged with the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Many of my colleagues have been rather puzzled by my decision to commit so much time to Bergson’s thought. While there has been a mini-resurgence of interest in his work in the last decade (primarily among scholars who are familiar with the poststructuralist French...

Section One: Explorations of Consciousness, Authenticity, Time, and Freedom

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pp. 1

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1. The Nature of Consciousness

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pp. 3-17

What can we really say about our consciousness? At first glance, it would seem that we could say a lot. Consciousness is, after all, almost by definition, that which we feel most immediately; it is, to paraphrase one recent scholar of consciousness, “what it’s like from the inside.” However, the moment when we turn our gaze inward, we are bound to notice that there is something...

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2. Authenticity

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pp. 18-27

Bergson argues that our tendency to fragment our inner experience, to isolate and stabilize that which before was fluid, alive, and interwoven, applies not only to our feelings and sensations, but also to our ideas and beliefs. At first glance, it would seem that our conceptual life, because of its inevitable linguistic and social underpinning, would be exempt from a Bergsonian...

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3. Time

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pp. 28-32

In the preceding discussion of durée, a crucial quality of our consciousness has perhaps not been sufficiently emphasized: durée is (and subsequently, we are) inherently, inescapably, temporal. Durée is time itself, not, as A. R. Lacey points out, the illusory “second-best form of time” that is created when we superimpose our perception of space over the lived experience of consciousness. Durée is not...

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4. Quantity and Quality

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pp. 33-37

In the first section of Time and Free Will, Bergson spends considerable time and effort attempting to convince his readers that we are wrong to think that the intensity of a feeling or a sensation can be quantitatively assessed or measured. For instance, we might tell ourselves that we are happier today than yesterday, or that we hurt less when we are pricked by a thorn than when we are...

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5. Determinism

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pp. 38-45

The scientific goal of understanding our consciousness as nothing more than a series of complex neurochemical interactions (a goal that remains prominent, even taken for granted, today) was (and is) rooted in a prior metaphysical assumption: physical determinism. Physical determinism is the view that everything that happens in the universe is predictable if we only have enough...

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6. Alternative Understandings of the Self

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pp. 46-50

During Bergson’s time, a particular type of psychological determinism frequently dominated the psychological/philosophical discussions of the nature of consciousness. (At the juncture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the boundaries between psychology and philosophy were extremely porous.) This loose-knit philosophical/psychological consensus, dating back to at...

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7. Freedom

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pp. 51-67

Determinism is undercut once it is recognized that durée is, in its very nature, a dynamic, ever-new, ceaselessly changing, flowing, temporal reality whose very essence is freedom and unforeseeable creativity. Time/durée/consciousness is not, as many people imagine, something similar to the images that are captured on film, in which everything is present, everything is given, and...

Liminal Section. The Dynamism of Matter

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pp. 69

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8. The World “Out There”

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pp. 71-72

Section 1 focuses on Time and Free Will, Bergson’s first book, a text which offers a relatively straightforward, more-or-less accessible account of the contrast between durée and space, inner versus outer, freedom versus determinism, and so on. In section 2, however, we will quite quickly leave behind the basically dualistic mindset of Time and Free Will and enter, almost abruptly, into...

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9. Movement

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pp. 73-77

From a Bergsonian perspective, “reality is mobility itself ” (CM 177). Bergson is careful with his phrasing here. He does not say that reality is that which moves or that reality is in constant motion—a phrasing that would imply that reality is a “thing” that has motion added to it. Instead, for Bergson, reality is, in-and-of-itself, motion. He continually attempts to disabuse us of the idea that...

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10. An Atomistic Understanding of Reality

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pp. 78-81

Bergson’s claims that motion (or, more generally, change) is all that is real and that this motion is not divisible into parts flies in the face of millennia of philosophical, mathematical, and scientific theorizing in the West. Both the Pythagoreans and the Platonists, in different ways, argued that change was illusory. Similarly, the Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus, like the...

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11. Going Beyond Classical Physics

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pp. 82-87

In the late nineteenth century it was widely assumed that classical physics had a basically complete knowledge of the external universe. It was taken for granted that the universe was, in essence, a giant, utterly implacable, machine that runs on its own, fueled only by rigorous mathematical laws and (since the time of Darwin) sheer blind chance. This is the vision of the universe that was...

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12. Melodies of the Self and the World

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pp. 88-101

If it no longer makes sense to conceive of the universe as consisting of various tiny Lego-like building blocks arranged in different rigidly determined configurations, is there, nonetheless, some sort of workable metaphor that can help us to begin to make sense of the subatomic underpinnings of our sense experience? We have already seen how various contemporary physicists have drawn...

Section Two. The Matter of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Matter

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pp. 103

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13. Contemporary Understandings of Consciousness

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pp. 105-120

Although it was published in 1896, Matter and Memory remains a revolutionary work. In it, Bergson articulates a creative and persuasive solution to what has to be one of the most stubborn and tenacious problems in Western philosophy: the mind-body problem. Sadly, however, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, most Western philosophers and psychologists act as...

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14. Images of the Universe

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pp. 121-129

In Matter and Memory, Bergson builds on the insights that he established in Time and Free Will, while also (in ways that he rarely acknowledges) making some subtle (and not so subtle) changes in his understandings of the nature of human consciousness and physical reality. As we saw earlier, in Time and Free Will Bergson offered a forceful defense of the freedom and creativity of human...

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15. Nonlocality and Bergson’s Universe of Images

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pp. 130-136

Some might argue that Bergson’s hypothesis that the physical universe is not a collection of discrete, localized, individual parts mechanically interacting with each other, but instead is an interconnected, dynamic, unimaginably complex, protoconscious “symphony” in which every “note” of the universe is effected by, and effects, every other “note” is itself closer to a mystical vision than...

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16. Perceptions and the Brain

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pp. 137-144

It is important to recognize that, up until this point, in the discussion of the genesis of perception, the focus has not been on our everyday, concrete perceptions. (These concrete perceptions, according to Bergson, are a fusion of what he calls “pure perceptions” and memory.) Instead, we have been examining the “raw data” of perception—that is, “pure perception”: perception as it would...

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17. The Interaction of Perception and Memory

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pp. 145-150

In Matter and Memory, Bergson insists that “pure perception,” as an analytical construct, should be understood as perception in-and-of-itself, that is, as perception minus any and all memory. As was pointed out earlier, a pure perception occurs when, out of a universe of potentially conscious images, only a fraction— those that interest us—are selected. What never becomes clear, however, in...

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18. Moving from Perception to Memory

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pp. 151-154

At first glance, it might appear that Bergson would claim that memories and perceptions are simply two different forms of the same “stuff” (since they blend together so seamlessly in each moment of concrete perception). In reality, however, until the very end of Matter and Memory, Bergson fights hard to separate (at least analytically) perception and memory...

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19. The Interweaving of Recollection Memory and Habit Memory

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pp. 155-161

As was pointed out previously, Bergson emphasizes that recollection memory and habit memory are always combined to one degree or another in our daily lives. Each time we have an instant of recognition, each time in which we attempt to recall an event from the past, each time in which we seek to learn a new skill, each time in which we try to understand a passage that we have...

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20. Ruminations on the Hidden Power of Memory

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pp. 162-172

By now it should be clear that, according to Bergson’s theory, our pure perceptions are created moment to moment by a process in which we unconsciously and yet almost instantaneously give our attention to only a tiny percentage of the pulsating, protoconscious material “images” of the universe, allowing the rest, in essence, to pass through completely unnoticed. Almost...

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21. The Presence of the Present

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pp. 173-179

Of these three, the present is probably the most difficult to fully comprehend. To a large degree, this difficulty is directly related to the fact that time is constantly moving. And from within this ever-changing flux, it can be exceedingly difficult to pin down exactly “where” (or more accurately, “when”) the present exists. Even our very attempts to pin down or to grasp the present seem...

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22. Memory and the Brain

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pp. 180-192

Bergson’s notion that memories do not need to be stored in the brain in order to survive unharmed appears at first glance to fly in the face of both common sense and decades (perhaps centuries) of scientific evidence. Nonetheless, while Bergson’s argument may seem quixotic, it is important to realize that he does not make such a claim lightly. To begin with, Bergson underscores

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23. Mind and Matter as Different Rhythms of Durée

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pp. 193-198

In Matter and Memory, Bergson repeatedly stresses the profound differences between matter and mind, a dualism that he had previously delineated and affirmed in Time and Free Will. Bergson takes on this task, at least in part, to convince us that the mind has an independence and efficacy of its own and can never be reduced to blind material forces. Time and time again in...

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24. Embodying Memory

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pp. 199-215

According to Bergson, if and when we realize that the brain’s primary task is not to record memories; if and when we recognize “the continuity of the inner life and consequently of its indivisibility”; if and when we acknowledge that all of our past is subconsciously present within us, at that point what needs to be explained is not “the preservation of the past, but rather its apparent...

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25. Becoming Conscious of the Subconscious

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pp. 216-223

As we saw in the last chapter in Yuasa’s discussion of “dark consciousness,” everyone has had numerous experiences of doing something almost utterly automatically, giving it little or no attention, even if at least in retrospect it is clear that a striking amount of awareness and intentionality was taking place. We all have memories, for example, of “waking up” after driving for miles “on...

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26. Recollection Memory, Dreams, and the Élan Vital

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pp. 224-236

Reading Bergson’s work, it is often easy to assume that he wholeheartedly supports the value of opening up to the hidden depths of the psyche—and this assumption is not entirely incorrect. However, Bergson at times also appears subtly to downplay the value of certain transrational dimensions of the human mind. Bergson’s less-than-ringing endorsement of the subconscious strata of the...

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27. Bergson and Non-Ordinary Experiences

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pp. 237-256

According to Bergson, our day-to-day experience of the world is continually shaped, under the surface of our conscious awareness, by our ongoing choice to focus on and respond to only a very limited “amount” of the universal flux that surrounds and interpenetrates us. We therefore perceive and interpret only those aspects of the universe that are necessary in order to act in any given...

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28. Bergson and the Afterlife

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pp. 257-271

It is clear that Bergson’s theories about psi phenomena were integrally linked in his mind with a wide range of related “spiritual” issues. One of the most important of these issues is the possible survival of our consciousness after the death of the physical body. Bergson did not give a lot of concerted theoretical attention to this issue, even though he was for a time the president of an...


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pp. 273-316


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pp. 317-325


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pp. 327-342

E-ISBN-13: 9781438439594
E-ISBN-10: 1438439598
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438439570
Print-ISBN-10: 1438439571

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: SUNY series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology

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Subject Headings

  • Bergson, Henri, 1859-1941.
  • Metaphysics.
  • Consciousness.
  • Philosophy, Modern.
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