Philosophy as the method that seeks difference

«The first characteristic of intuition is that in it and through it something is presented, is given in person, instead of being inferred from something else and concluded.

Here, already, the general orientation of philosophy comes into question, for it is not enough to say that philosophy is at the origin of the sciences and that it was their mother; rather, now that they are grown up and well established, we must ask why there is still philosophy, in what respect science is not sufficient.

Philosophy has only ever responded to such a question in two ways, doubtless because there are only two possible responses.

One says that science gives us a knowledge of things, that it is therefore in a certain relation with them, and philosophy can renounce its rivalry with science, can leave things to science and present itself solely in a critical manner, as a reflection on this knowledge of things.

On the contrary view, philosophy seeks to establish, or rather restore, an other relationship to things, and therefore an other knowledge, a knowledge and a relationship that precisely science hides from us, of which it deprives us, because it allows us only to conclude and to infer without ever presenting, giving to us the thing in itself.

It is this second path that Bergson takes by repudiating critical philosophies when he shows us in science, in technical activity, intelligence, everyday language, social life, practical need and, most importantly, in space—the many forms and relations that separate us from things and from their interiority.

But intuition has a second characteristic: understood in this way, it presents itself as a return, because the philosophical relationship, which puts us in things instead of leaving us outside, is restored rather than established by philosophy, rediscovered rather than invented.

We are separated from things; the immediate given is therefore not immediately given. But we cannot be separated by a simple accident, by a mediation that would come from us, that would concern only us.

The movement that changes the nature of things must be founded in things themselves; things must begin by losing themselves in order for us to end up losing them; being must have a fundamental lapse of memory.

Matter is precisely that in being which prepares and accompanies space, intelligence and science.

Hence Bergson does something entirely different from psychology, because matter is more an ontological principle of intelligence than some mere intelligence is a psychological principle of matter itself or of space.4

For the same reason, he refuses scientific knowledge nothing, not only telling us that it separates us from things and from their true nature, but also that it grasps at least one of the two halves of being, one of the two sides of the absolute, one of the two movements of nature, the one in which nature relaxes and places itself outside of itself.5

Bergson will go even further, because under certain conditions science can be united with philosophy, that is to say, reach, together with it, a total comprehension.6

Be that as it may, we can already say that there will not be in Bergson’s work anything like a distinction between two worlds, one sensible, the other intelligible, but only two movements, or even just two directions of one and the same movement: the one is such that the movement tends to congeal in its product, in its result, that which interrupts it; and the other turns back and retraces its steps, rediscovers in the product the movement from which it resulted.

The two directions are natural as well, each in its own way: the former occurs according to nature, though nature risks losing itself in it at each pause, at each breath; the latter occurs contrary to nature, but nature rediscovers itself in it, starts over again in the tension. The latter can only be found beneath the former, and it is always thus that it is rediscovered. We rediscover the immediate because we must return to find it. (…)

In distinguishing the two worlds, Bergson replaced them by the distinction of two movements, two directions of one and the same movement, spirit and matter, two times in the same duration, the past and the present, which he knew how to conceive as coexistent precisely because they were in the same duration, the one beneath the other, and not the one after the other.

We must simultaneously understand the necessary distinction as a difference of time, but also understand the different times, the present and the past, as contemporary with one another, and forming the same world. We will now see in what way.

Why is what we rediscover called the immediate? What is immediate?

If science is a real knowledge of the thing, a knowledge of reality, what it loses or simply risks losing is not exactly the thing.

What science risks losing, unless it is infiltrated by philosophy, is less the thing itself than the difference of the thing, that which makes its being, that which makes it this rather than that, this rather than something else.

Bergson energetically denounces what seem to him false problems: why is there something rather than nothing, why order rather than disorder?8 If such problems are false, badly set up, it is for two reasons.

First because they make of being a generality, something immovable or undifferentiated that, in the immobile ensemble in which it is set, can only be distinguished from nothingness, from non-being.

Subsequently, even if one tries to give a movement to the immovable being thus posited, this movement would only be contradiction: order and disorder, being and nothingness, the singular and the multiple. But in fact, being cannot be composed with two contradictory points of view any more than movement is composed of points of space or of instants: the stitching would be too loose.9 Being is a bad concept to the extent that it serves to oppose everything there is to nothingness, or the thing itself to everything that it is not. In both cases being has left, it has deserted things, and it is no more than an abstraction.

The Bergsonian question is therefore not: why something rather than nothing, but: why this rather than something else? why this tension of duration? why this speed rather than another?” why this proportion?12 and why will a perception evoke a given memory, or pick up certain frequencies rather than others?13

In other words, being is difference and not the immovable or the undifferentiated, nor is it contradiction, which is merely false movement. Being is the difference itself of the thing, what Bergson often calls the nuance.

“An empiricism worthy of the name . . . would measure out for the object a concept appropriate to only that object, a concept of which one could barely say that it was still a concept because it would apply only to that thing.”1′

And there is an odd text in which Bergson attributes to Ravaisson the goal of opposing intellectual intuition to the general idea, like white light to the simple idea of color: “Instead of diluting his thought in the general, the philosopher should concentrate it on the individual . . .

The object of metaphysics is to recapture in individual existences, and to follow to the source from which it emanates, the particular ray that, conferring upon each of them its own nuance, reattaches it thereby to the universal light.”15

The immediate is precisely the identity of the thing and its difference as philosophy rediscovers or “recaptures” it.

Bergson denounces a common danger in science and in metaphysics: allowing difference to escapebecause science conceives the thing as a product and a result, while metaphysics conceives being as something unmovable that serves as a principle. Both seek to attain being or to recompose it starting from resemblances and ever greater oppositions, but resemblance and opposition are almost always practical, not ontological, categories.

Whence Bergson’s insistence on showing us that for the sake of resemblance we risk putting extremely different things, things that differ in nature, under the same word.

Being in fact is on the side of difference, neither singular nor multiple. But what is nuance, the difference of the thing, what is the difference of a sugar cube?

It is not simply its difference from another thing: there we would have only a purely exterior relation, leading us, in the final instance, back to space.

Nor is it its difference with everything that it is not: we would be led back to a dialectic of contradiction.

Plato already didn’t want alterity and contradiction to be confounded.

But for Bergson, alterity is still not enough to make it so that being rejoins things and really is the being of things. He replaces the Platonic concept of alterity with an Aristotelian concept of alteration, in order to make of it substance itself. Being is alteration, alteration is substance.17

And that is what Bergson calls duration, because all the characteristics by which he defines it, after Time and Free Will, come back to this: duration is that which differs or that which changes nature, quality, heterogeneity, what differs from itself.

The being of the sugar cube will be defined by a duration, by a certain manner of persisting, by a certain relaxation or tension of duration.

How does duration have this power? Or put the question another way: if being is the difference of the thing, what results from this for the thing itself?

We encounter a third characteristic of intuition, more profound than the preceding ones.

Intuition as a method is a method that seeks difference. It presents itself as seeking and finding differences in nature, the “articulations of the real.”

Being is articulated; a false problem is one that does not respect these differences.

Bergson loves to cite Plato’s text comparing the philosopher to the good cook who cuts things up according to their natural articulations; he constantly reproaches science as well as metaphysics for having retained only differences of degree where there used to be something entirely different, of thus being part of a badly analyzed “composite.”

One of Bergson’s most famous passages shows us that intensity in fact covers up differences of nature that intuition can rediscover.18

But we know that science and even metaphysics do not invent their own errors or their illusions: something founds them in being.

Indeed, to the extent that we find ourselves before products, to the extent that the things with which we are concerned are still results, we cannot grasp differences of nature for the simple reason that there aren’t any there: between two things, between two products, there are only and there only could be differences of degree, of proportion.

What differs in nature is never a thing, but a tendency.

A difference of nature is never between two products or between two things, but in one and the same thing between the two tendencies that traverse it, in one and the same product between two tendencies that encounter one another in it.19

Indeed, what is pure is never the thing; the thing is always a composite that must be dissociated; only the tendency is pure, which is to say that the true thing or the substance is the tendency itself.

Intuition appears very much like a true method of division: it divides the mixed into two tendencies that differ in nature.

Hence we see the meaning of the dualisms dear to Bergson: not only the titles of many of his works, but each of the chapters, and the heading that precedes each page, exhibit such a dualism. Quantity and quality, intelligence and instinct, geometric order and vital order, science and metaphysics, the closed and the open are its most known figures. We know that in the end they lead back to the always rediscovered distinction of matter and duration. Matter and duration are never distinguished as two things but as two movements, two tendencies, like relaxation and contraction.

But we must go further: if the theme and the idea of purity have a great importance in the philosophy of Bergson, it is because in every case the two tendencies are not pure, or are not equally pure. Only one of the two is pure, or simple, the other playing, on the contrary, the role of an impurity that comes to compromise or to disturb it.20

In the division of the composite there is always a right half; it is that which leads us back to duration. More than there ever really being a difference of nature between the two tendencies that divide the thing up, the difference itself of the thing was one of the two tendencies.

And if we rise to the duality of matter and duration, we see quite clearly that duration shows us the very nature of difference, difference of self from self, whereas matter is only the undifferentiated, that which is repeated, or the simple degree, that which can no longer change its nature.

Do we not at the same time see that dualism is a moment already surpassed in Bergson’s philosophy?

For if there is a privileged half in the division; it must be that this half contains in itself the secret of the other. If all the difference is on one side, it must be that this side comprehends its difference from the other and, in a certain way, the other itself or its possibility. Duration differs from matter, but it does so because it is first that which differs in itself and from itself, with the result that the matter from which it differs is still essentially of duration.

As long as we remain within dualism, the thing is where two movements meet: duration, which by itself has no degrees, encounters matter as a contrary movement, as a certain obstacle, a certain impurity that mixes it up, that interrupts its impulse [elan], that gives it such and such a degree here, another one over there.21 But more profoundly, duration is in itself susceptible to degrees because it is that which differs with itself, so that every thing is entirely defined in duration, including matter itself. From a still dualistic perspective, duration and matter were opposed as that which differs in nature and that which has only degrees; but more profoundly there are degrees of difference itself; matter is the lowest, the very point where precisely difference is no longer anything but a difference of degree.22

If it is true that intelligence is on the side of matter according to the object on which it bears, we still cannot define it in itself except by showing in what way it persists, that which dominates its object. And if it is a question of finally defining matter itself, it will not be enough to present it as an obstacle and as an impurity; it will always be necessary to show how it persists, its vibration still occupying multiple instances. Thus any thing is completely defined from the right side, by a certain duration, by a certain degree of duration itself.

A composite breaks down into two tendencies, one of which is duration, simple and indivisible; but at the same time duration is differentiated in two directions, the other of which is matter. Space breaks down into matter and duration, but duration is differentiated into contraction and expansion, expansion being the principle of matter.

Thus, if dualism is surpassed in favor of monism, monism gives us a new dualism, this time mastered, dominated.

Because the composite does not break down in the same way that the simple is differentiated.

Therefore the method of intuition has a fourth and final characteristic: it is not content to follow natural articulations when carving things up; it also follows up “lines of fact,” lines of differentiation, in order to rediscover the simple as a convergence of probabilities; it not only carves up [decoupe] but confirms [recoupe].”

Differentiation is the power of what is simple, indivisible, of what persists.

Here we see how duration itself is an elan vital.

Bergson finds in biology, particularly in the evolution of species, the mark of a certain process essential to life, precisely that of differentiation as the production of real differences, a process whose concept and philosophical consequences he will pursue. The admirable pages he wrote in Creative Evolution and in Two Sources show us such a life activity, leading to plants and animals, or to instinct and intelligence, or to diverse forms of the same instinct.

It seems to Bergson that differentiation is the mode of that which is realized, actualized, or made, in other words, that which gives rise to divergent series, lines of evolution, species.

“The essence of a tendency is to be developed in the form of a sheaf, creating through the sole fact of its growth divergent directions.”24

Elan vital would therefore be duration itself to the extent it is actualized, is differentiated. Elan vital is difference to the extent that it passes into act.

Hence differentiation does not come simply from matter’s resistance, but more profoundly from a force that duration carries in itself: dichotomy is the law of life.

And Bergson criticizes mechanism and finalism in biology, as he does the dialectic in philosophy, for always composing movement from points of view, as a relation between actual terms instead of seeing in it the actualization of something virtual.

But if differentiation is thus the original and irreducible mode through which a virtuality is actualized, and if elan vital is duration differentiated, then duration itself is virtuality.

Creative Evolution brings to Time and Free Will a necessary deepening as well as a necessary extension. Because, since Time and Free Will, duration was presented as the virtual or the subjective, because it was less that which cannot be divided than that which changes its nature by being divided.25 We must understand that the virtual is not something actual but is for that no less a mode of being, and is, moreover, in a way, being itself; neither duration, nor life, nor movement is actual, but that in which all actuality, all reality is distinguished and comprehended and takes root.

To be actualized is always the act of a whole that does not become entirely actual at the same time, in the same place, or in the same thing; consequently, it produces species that differ in nature, and it is itself this difference of nature among the species it has produced.

Bergson constantly said that duration is a change of nature, of quality.

“Between light and darkness, between colors, between nuances, difference is absolute. The passage from one to the other is itself also an absolutely real phenomenon.”26

We therefore grasp duration and elan vital, the virtual and its actualization, as two extremes.

Still, it must be said that duration is already elan vital because it is the essence of the virtual to be actualized; we therefore require a third aspect that shows it to us, one in some way intermediary to the two preceding.

It is precisely under this third aspect that duration is called memory.

Through all of its characteristics, duration is indeed a memory because it prolongs the past in the present, “whether the present distinctly encloses the ever-growing image of the past or whether it rather bears witness, through its continual changing of quality, of the ever-weightier burden one leads behind oneself as one grows older.”27

Let us recall that memory is always presented by Bergson in two ways: recollection-memory and contraction-memory, and that the second is the essential one.2

Why these two figures, which will give to memory an entirely new philosophical status? (…)

At each degree everything is there, but everything coexists with everything, that is to say with the other degrees.

We see therefore finally what is virtual: the coexistent degrees themselves and as such.’4

It is right to define duration as a succession, but wrong to insist on it; it is, in effect, a real succession only because it is virtual coexistence.

As for intuition, Bergson writes: “Only the method of which we speak allows us to go beyond idealism as well as realism, to affirm the existence of objects inferior and superior to us, while at the same time in a certain sense interior to us, to make them coexist together without difficulty.”35

And in fact if we pursue the connections between Matter and Memory and Creative Evolution, we see that coexistent degrees are simultaneously what makes duration something virtual and what makes it so that duration nonetheless is actualized at every instant, because they delineate so many planes and levels that determine all the possible lines of differentiation.

In short, actually divergent series give birth to, in duration, coexistent virtual degrees.

Between intelligence and instinct there is a difference of nature because they arise from two divergent series; but what does this difference of nature finally express if not two degrees that coexist in duration, two different degrees of relaxation or of contraction?

It is thus that each thing, each being is the whole, but the whole realized to a certain degree or another.

In Bergson’s first works, duration could appear an eminently psychological reality; but what is psychological is only our duration, that is to say, a certain well-determined degree.

“If, instead of seeking to analyze duration (that is, at bottom, to synthesize it with concepts), one inhabits it initially through an effort of intuition, one has the feeling of a certain well-determined tension, whose determination itself appears as a choice among an infinity of possible durations. Thereafter, one perceives as many durations as one likes, all very different from one another . . .”

‘This is why the secret of Bergsonism is no doubt in Matter and Memory; Bergson tells us, moreover, that his work consisted of reflecting on the fact that not everything is given. But what does such a reality signify?

Simultaneously that the given presupposes a movement that invents it or creates it, and that this movement must not be conceived in the image of the given.37

What Bergson critiques in the idea of the possible is that it presents us a simple copy of the product, projected or rather retrojected onto the movement of production, onto invention.3″

But the virtual is not the same thing as the possible: the reality of time is finally the affirmation of a virtuality that is actualized, for which to be actualized is to invent.

Because if everything [tout] is not given, it remains that the virtual is the whole [le tout].

Let us recall that the elan vital is finite: the whole is what is realized in species, which are not in its image any more than they are the image of one another. Each simultaneously corresponds to a certain degree of the whole and differs in nature from the others, such that the whole itself is presented at the same time as the difference of nature in reality, and as the coexistence of degrees in the mind.

If the past coexists with itself as present, if the present is the most contracted degree of the coexistent past, then this same present, because it is the precise point at which the past is cast toward the future, is defined as that which changes nature, the always new, the eternity of life.39

It is understandable that a lyric theme runs through Bergson’s work: a veritable hymn in praise of the new, the unforeseeable, of invention, of liberty.

Therein lies not a renunciation of philosophy, but a profound and original attempt to discover the proper domain of philosophy, to attain the thing itself beyond the order of the possible, of causes and ends.

Finality, causality, possibility are always in relation to the thing once it is complete, and always presuppose that “everything” is given.

When Bergson critiques these notions, when he speaks to us of indeterminacy, he does not invite us to abandon reason but to reconnect with the true reason of the thing in the process of being made, the philosophical reason that is not determination but difference.

We find the whole movement of Bergsonian thought concentrated in Matter and Memory in the triple form of difference of nature, coexistent degrees of difference, and differentiation.

Bergson first shows us that there is a difference of nature between the past and the present, between recollection and perception, between duration and matter: psychologists and philosophers have been wrong by being in every case coming from a badly analyzed composite.

He then shows us that it is still not enough to speak of a difference of nature between matter and duration, between the present and the past, because the whole question is precisely to know what is a difference of nature: he shows that duration itself is this difference, such that it comprehends matter as its lowest, most relaxed degree, as an infinitely dilated past, and comprehends itself in contracting itself as an extremely narrow, tensed present.

Finally, he shows us that if degrees coexist in duration, duration is at each instant that which is differentiated, that it is differentiated into past and present, or, if you prefer, that the present is doubled in two directions, one toward the past, the other toward the future.

These three times correspond, in the whole of the work, to the notions of duration, memory, and elan vital.

The project we find in Bergson’s work, that of reconnecting things by breaking with critical philosophies, was not absolutely new, even in France, because it defined a general conception of philosophy, and in many of its aspects participated in English empiricism.

But the method was profoundly new, as well as the three essential concepts that gave it its meaning.»

– Deleuze, chapter “Bergson 1859-1941” in “Desert Islands…”

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