The Limitations of Intellect

Things in our external and internal environment are constantly in a state of change, although the intellect conceives of them, for practical purposes, as if they were unchanging.

Henri Bergson stressed the pragmatic function of intellect and declared that the conceptualizations of science and common sense are by their very nature unable to deal with the real qualities of things.

For example, a desk used for writing may undergo many changes of appearance; yet so long as it continues to serve the practical function designated by the concept "desk", it will be considered as the "same desk". Moreover, our inner experience (if we attend to it directly) is one of constant variation in quality and intensity; but rarely do we have any use for the perception of these subtle modifications. We conceive of ourselves as composed of distinct, spatialized states of consciousness, externally related one to the other, and we lose sight of the fact that each so-called "state" is really an intellectual abstraction from the vital flow of experience, each present moment of which is tinged with the past and is constantly qualifying the future.

The "concrete objects" dealt with by the scientist are thus in reality only abstract schematizations of real events; and whereas these concepts may be derived from intuitions, intuitions cannot be derived from them. Interested primarily in action and in prediction for the sake of control, the intellect interprets all things as signs of the uses to which they can be put. And more often than not it confuses the signs with that of which they are signs: hence the illusion of concreteness. As Bergson put it, the intellect is content with the convenient labels it puts on things and forgets that the label conceals rather than reveals the full nature of that to which it is attached.

Real events that can be experienced only by "that intellectual sympathy which is intuition" are moments of real time, or duration. To give us some sense of this dwee reelle, Bergson resorted to image after image, among them "a spectrum of a thousand shades, with imperceptible gradations leading from one shade to another." He described it as having the form our psychological experience takes when we experience each moment of that experience as endlessly in process and flowing from the past into the future.

The nature of duration is perhaps best understood, however, by contrasting it with physical time, which is a conception devised by the physicist as a means of measuring the passage of events. Since only homogeneous units can be measured, the physicist disregards the individual, unique qualities of moments, that is, the qualities they have as a result of occurring before or after other moments. He disregards the felt differences between time suffered and time enjoyed, as well as the cumulative nature of the temporal process. In real, or psychic, duration, moments interpenetrate and are internally related. In the physical formulation of time this fact of inner relation is concealed by the symbolic representation of each moment in a temporal series as distinct from, or as "taking place" before or after, other moments. Physical time, in a word, is a construction of the intellect, which confuses it with space. Intuition alone can make us aware of the nature of real duration.

This real duration, as intuitively known, or as "lived", is not only an unceasing, everchanging flow of events: it is also a creative force. Events in real time are not merely the products of past events; they contain an element of novelty as a result of being rich with their past. Just as the character of each note of a melody depends on the notes that precede it, and just as the melody itself is something more than the sum of its notes, so events in duration possess novel characteristics by virtue of their being the products of qualitative changes that occur in real time. This factor of novelty or creativity is ignored, Bergson believed, by both mechanistic and finalistic conceptions of reality. The former conceives of reality as a ready-made, "block universe" in which spontaneous, novel events cannot occur; the latter conceives of it on the model of a preformed pattern, in which novel occurrences cannot take place, because determination is derived from the end to be achieved.

This conception of a real duration, in which novel, creative events can occur, forms the metaphysical foundation of Bergson's theory of ethical freedom. Arguing against both the British associationists and French positivists, Bergson contended that their belief that free, spontaneous action is impossible stems from their intellectualized conception of human personality and their mechanistic view of the process of events.

The determinist holds that in any situation where a final decision between alternatives is made, the final choice is determined by psychological and social conditions. The determinist concludes that given sufficient information about these conditions, such choices are predictable. This mode of interpretation, Bergson held, is applicable to decisions only after they have been made and does not deal with the process of decision in the making. The determinist views the situation conceptually, in terms of states of consciousness determining one another, and is unaware of the internal experience of deciding, which can be grasped only by intellectual sympathy.

Viewed intuitively, the situation is felt as one of tension and release, of weighing alternatives against one another, of resisting the pressure to act in one way rather than another. And the unpredictable, free act is, precisely, one that is performed by the inner self's acting against the pressures of the past in the form of habit and convention. To the psychological and sociological determinist such acts are inconceivable since they seem to defy the laws of causality. Such laws, however, while applicable to physical events and to the behavior of human beings when they act (as they ordinarily do) mechanically, do not apply to the free acts of the inner psychic life. Since the source of such acts is the fundamental self, which changes constantly, no laws of uniform behavior can be applied.

Most acts are admittedly not free: men do live ordinarily as conventional, predictable beings. The issue of freedom arises, however, when there is a conflict between such habitual action and the impulse to express one's individual nature and convictions. When, for example, a man is faced with the problem of adhering to a principle to which he is inwardly dedicated, at the price of pain or even destruction, he has a choice between the paths of convenience and freedom. That he can or did act freely in such a situation he can never demonstrate to himself or to others; for demonstrations must be conducted in deterministic terms. He must, rather, from his inner resources create the free act, which, after it is performed, may be called a determined act by those who interpret it from without. Yet the free agent himself, or one able to intuit this act, will realize that its free quality lay in the fact that the impetus for the final decision came not from the superficial, but from the fundamental self.

This theme of contrast between the intuitive and the intellectual, the habitual and the spontaneous, appears in Bergson's late writings in the form of a duality between the static and dynamic forms of morality and religion. Whereas static morality has its roots in a "closed society" and is nothing but a mechanical response to the pressure of custom, dynamic morality is derived from an "open society" in which the insights of the saint, prophet, and hero replace the tenets of social obligation. And over against static religion with its devitalized rituals and institutions there is the dynamic experience of religion which penetrates to the center of reality and discovers there a divine source of vitality and freedom.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the conception of art as a product of creative action and as a source of intuitive knowledge figures prominently in Bergson's philosophy. On this subject he did not (except in the last pages of Laughter) write systematically; but illustrations drawn from the field of art abound in his writings.

It is evident that he conceived of the function of the artist and of the intuitive metaphysician as similar when he said, "The intention of life, the simple movement that runs through the lines, escapes our ordinary vision. This intention is just what the artist tries to regain, by placing himself within the object by a kind of sympathy, in breaking down, by an effort of intuition, the barrier that space erects between him and his model." The painter, for example, can pierce through the veil of conventional views and grasp the evanescent "inner qualities" of landscapes or of human beings. The comic playwright reveals the absurdities of living when it is made a matter of routine and convention, while the tragic dramatist discloses those facets of personality hidden beneath the cloak of habit. And finally, in his view, the musical composer can grasp intuitively the "laws of the life of feeling" and give us an intimation of the nature of the elan vital itself.

Comments 7 comments

DoorMattnomore 5 years ago

"physical time, which is a conception devised by the physicist as a means of measuring the passage of events"

I got into quite an arguement once, with my sister in law over this. If I had been able to so precisely say it like you did, instead of.."dude, time does NOT really exist!" maybe she woudln't have thought I was just high. I'll have to remember this for future arguments. Fantastic hub.


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Several Ninjas 5 years ago Author

i'm sure if you rattle off "physical time, which is a conception devised by the physicist as a means of measuring the passage of events" she'll probably still ask what your on :D


DoorMattnomore 5 years ago

nope. She will need to defend her status as a genuis by pretending to know what I just said. :)


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Several Ninjas 5 years ago Author

good move! you don't happen to billiards do you? because i think that call that play, snookering.


poetvix profile image

poetvix 5 years ago from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country.

This is a most impressive Hub. I find the concept of time very interesting and agree it is but a man made abstract concept. With that said, I never cease to wonder at all the power we have given said concept over our lives. Most of us are governed throughout the day by the concept of time, what we do when, for how long, always thinking about what the clock or calendar says is next. Thought provoking hub. Thanks for sharing.


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Several Ninjas 5 years ago Author

thank you for your insightful feedback poetvix. indeed we have made time a master over our lives. even those who care little for it be thru procrastination, laziness or aloofness tend to still honor and fear it with feelings of guilt.


Katzky profile image

Katzky 5 years ago

WOW!.. JUST GREAT ONE!..

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