Sunday, February 28, 2016


249. Duration: the whole and the parts

A key feature of Bergson’s notion of ‘duration’ is that it constitutes a flow of connected, heterogeneous parts, where a moment now arises from moments past and anticipates moments to come. The paradigm case is that of a piece of music, where moments make sense only as connected parts in the whole of the piece, as part of a melody, say.

The meaning or quality of the whole changes, or falls apart, when it is disassembled into its parts. The meaning of a part depends on the composition of the whole.

In this kind of talk, the fundamental problem of language appears, again, in the way it is formulated, can only be formulated, suggesting that the ‘parts’ exist by themselves, apart from the whole, and are somehow fixed, while in being parts of the whole they themselves become a form of flux. How can we sensibly talk of elements that are not fixed?

In this blog, in the discussion of meaning (in item 32), I proposed that not only the meaning of a sentence is a function of the meanings of the words in it, as was recognized by Gottlob Frege, and became a standard part of analytic philosophy, but also that the meaning of a word is a function of the sentence it is in, and of the broader action context of the sentence.

The wider significance of this is that judgements of what is appropriate or adequate, in language, science, and morality, depends on the context.

In that view one casts a critical eye on absolutes, i.e. claims, in knowledge, ethics and interpretation of texts, that something applies everywhere and always, regardless of conditions. Bergson was not just critical of universals, giving precedence to individuals, to concrete, specific conditions, but, if I understand him correctly, went so far as to reject universals altogether.

I did not do that. Without universals there is no generalization and no abstraction from specific experience, no inference of general concepts, and hence no science. I claimed that we need universals, but only temporarily, as makeshift, and in their application they need to be enriched with contextual specifics, and in that process general meanings may shift or break. That is part of my thesis of ‘imperfection on the move’. I will come back to this in the following item in this blog.

Bergson associated perception and sense making with memory. Clearly, when we speak and act, perception is affected by memory, by previous experience. But sense making also guides and limits memory. Otherwise we would be swamped by waves of memory, unable to focus and act. Focus entails limitation. Bergson suggested that sensori-motor activity operates to limit and focus memory.

I discussed these issues in a series on ‘The whole and the parts’ (items 184-186). Specifically, I employed the notion of a script, as a structure of connected elements. This includes words in sentences, connected by grammar and syntax; elements of a theory, connected by logic or mathematics; elements of a practice, connected by causality; notes in a piece of music, connected by principles of composition; and games, with actions connected by rules of the game. Along these lines, indeed Bergsonian duration is pervasive. Life itself is to be appreciated as a connected whole.

The action context triggers one or several scripts, and we try to make sense of what we see and hear by trying to fit it into the script. This is called ‘framing’. We cannot make sense, we disregard, or fail to notice, what cannot be fitted into some script. That yields a form of prejudice but also enables fast response. That was needed to survive, in evolution.

All of this, I hope, contributes to a further elucidation and understanding of Bergson’s notion of duration. Or am I distorting it? In following items I continue this quest, from different perspectives.