Wednesday, April 6, 2016

255. Continuity and discontinuity: Bergson, Derrida and Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard criticized Bergson on two connected points[i]. First, in his ‘philosophie de repos’ (philosophy of rest) Bachelard claimed that Bergson assumes continuous change too much, in his concepts of duration and ‘creative evolution’, neglecting the discontinuities where development temporarily halts. That criticism would apply also to Derrida. Second, connected to that, in his ‘philosophie du non’[ii] (philosophy of no) he claimed that Bergson neglects the role of destruction, creative destruction, in development, assuming too much cumulative confirmation. That criticism does not apply to Derrida, with his notion of deconstruction in processes of transformation.

I am not sure Bachelard’s criticism of Bergson is entirely justified. Bergson did recognize an alternation of maintenance and renewal of forms. But as in Derrida, there is limited recognition, or at least limited discussion, of the role of pause in flux, of discontinuity in continuity.

It seems plausible that in his endeavour to escape from the metaphor of objects in space that distorts our cognition, in what I call an ‘object bias’, and the crux of ‘duration’ that it connects past, present and future, Bergson neglected the role of stability in processes of change. He even doubted the stability of objects. In the preceding item in this blog, I indicated the possibility of ‘relative stability’. Some things are more stable than others.

After all, my argument for the object bias was my claim that it helped humanity to survive in a world of stable objects moving in space. This still allows for instability in the longer run. In the end even stones will decay. And when one looks at the atomic level of stones one encounter the buzz of elementary particles, or forces, or ‘strings’.

Or think of the pressure of a gas. The pressure is stable, but is caused by a ‘Brownian’ movement of gas molecules hitting the walls of a container.      

So, the question now is how much discontinuity there may be in processes of change.

Bachelard offered the apt notion of rhythm, and different rhythms interacting, in nature and thought. Think of the diurnal and seasonal rhythm of life and nature. The circulation of blood has a pulse. Light is a wave (of particles; this is one of the mysteries of modern physics), and as such has a pulse. 

I refer again to my ‘cycle of invention’, where pauses of consolidation are needed, some stability to reflect, to explore the limits and possible alternatives for established practice. Ongoing change without pause would throw us into neurosis, into a blind groping about.

But how are we to understand this: what is it that pauses, remains relatively stable, and how can something be stable while still moving? Here, as I did before, I seek recourse in the notion of a script.

To recall: a script is a structure of nodes, which may represent component activities, elements in a theory, or words in a sentence. The classic example is that of a restaurant, with nodes of entry, seating, ordering, eating, paying and leaving. In a self-service restaurant the nodes are similar (though not identical), but occur in a different order.

Now the point here is this. Nodes in their turn also have scripts, called subscripts, or repertoires of subscripts, such as ways of paying in the node for payment. While the restaurant may be stable, maintaining its overall script, there may be drastic changes in a subscript, such as, say, in the payment node the replacement of a check subscript by bank cards and credit cards, with their very different scripts.

One can change the composition of fixed parts or maintain the composition of changing parts. But in change of composition parts will not remain identical, though they may be stable relative to the composition, and changing parts will change the composition at least in its potential action, in what it can do.

In sum, there is discontinuity in continuity, and continuity in discontinuity. Perhaps Bergson neglected the first, while focusing on the second.


[i] In La dialectique de la durée, PUF, 1950.
[ii] La philosophy du non, PUF, 1940.