Henri Bergson on the Possible and the Actual


The entries below from my philosophical journal, with the dates originally written, concern Henry Bergson’s way of conceptualizing the notion of “possibility”–a way of treating the idea of possibility which I find fitting and helpful for thinking trauma.  The traumatic is that which, by definition, cannot be foreseen and provided for.  It is that of which the very possibility is unthinkable, except after the fact, as it were.   By Bergson’s analysis, the emergence of the very notion of the “possible” is just such a retrospective matter, as he discusses in the passages cited below.  Although Bergson uses his rethinking of the category of possibility to serve him in explaining and defending the idea, central to his mature philosophy, of “creative evolution,” his analysis is by no means dependent upon that context.  Rather, it can fruitfully be extended much more broadly, especially in conjunction with discussion of how trauma structures temporality.

I earlier used Bergson ideas on possibility in my article “9/11 Never Happened, President Bush Wouldn’t Let It:  Bob Dylan Replies to Henri Bergson,” which can be found online in the Electronic Book Review.


Tuesday, September 26, 2008

Henri Bergson, “Le possible et le réel” [“The Possible and the Real/Actual”], in La pensee et le mouvant  [Thought and the Moving] (Paris:  P.U.F., 1938; Quadridge ed., 2006), pp. 99-116.

Pp. 104-105 (my trans.):  “I consider that the great metaphysical problems are generally poorly [mal] posed, that they often  resolve themselves by themselves when  one rectifies their articulation, or  rather that they are problems formulated in terms  of illusion, and which vanish when one looks  more closely at the formulation.”


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bergson, pp. 109-110: 

At the bottom of the doctrines that misrecognize the radical novelty of each moment of evolution there are various misunderstandings, various errors.  But there is especially the idea that the possible is less than the real, and that, for that reason, the possibility of things precedes their existence.  they would  thus be representable in advance; they could be thought before being realized.  But it is the inverse that is the truth. . .  For the possible is nothing else than the  real with, in addition,  an act of the mind which casts the image of  it back into the  past once it comes forth.

P. 111:

I have never pretended that one can insert the real  into the past and thus work to rewind time.  But that one can lodge the possible there, or rather that the possible  comes to lodge itself there at each moment, that is not to be doubted.  Just to the extent that reality creates itself,  unforeseeable and new, its image reflects itself behind itself into the indefinite past; thus it finds itself to have been possible at all times, and that is why I said that its possibility, which does not precede its reality, will have preceded it once the reality appears.  The possible is thus the mirage of the present in the past. . .

  Pp. 112-113:  We mix up–or fail first to disentangle–two different senses of “possible.”  First, it  means simply what is not impossible. In that sense, that something can come to be only if it is not impossible, and that such non-impossibility is a condition of  whatever comes to be and, in that sense,  “precedes” the real, is a truism.  But we slip from that purely negative, original sense into another, positive sense, in which “absence of hindrance/obstacle” comes to be taken instead as “pre-existence under the form of the idea.”  And in that second sense to say that the possibility of something “precedes” its reality is “an absurdity,” as if one were to maintain, for example, that Hamlet already rested fully formed in Shakespeare’s mind before he  wrote it.

Note to p. 113:  “Indeed in certain cases one must even ask oneself if obstacles have to become surmountable thanks to the creative action that surmounts them:  the action, unforseeable in itself, would then have created the ‘surmountability.’  Before it, the obstacles were insurmountable, and,  without it, would have remained so.”

P. 114: 

How not see that if the event always explains itself, after the fact, by such and such antecedent events, a totally different event would also be able to explain itself just as well by the same circumstance, by the same antecedents chosen differently–what am  I saying?  by the same circumstances otherwise divided, otherwise distributed, otherwise perceived at the end by retrospective attention.  Before and after a constant remodelling of the past by the present, of the cause by the effect, ensues.

Pp. 114-115:

The mistake of doctrines–rare in the history of philosophy–which knew how to make room  for indetermination  and freedom in  the world, is not to have seen what their affirmation entailed.  When they talked of indetermination, of freedom, they understood by indetermination a competition between possibilities, by freedom a choice among possibilities–as if possibilities were not created by freedom itself! . . . [I]t is the real that makes itself possible, and  not the possible that becomes real.

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