The Concept of Time in Bergson and Deleuze versus the Tradition

Bergson, apparently enjoying a day in the park
Bergson, apparently enjoying a day in the park

Reading Bergson’s “La pensée et le mouvant” is a revelation. The title was questionably translated into English as “The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics”, which may have had a certain mainstream or New Age appeal in early 20th-century America. Today a literal translation, “Thought and Movement”, would do justice to the importance of this work for understanding the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze in particular and the tremendous influence of French poststructuralism in general.

Bergson is revealed here as another of Heidegger’s hidden (ungenerously concealed) influences. Bergson’s critique of the rationalistic, representational concept of time which undergirds Western philosophy from Zeno and Plato to today, is the same critique Heidegger makes of Hegel’s concept of time in his brilliant lectures on “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit”.

The gist of the argument is that there is a habit or practical prejudice of human thought to represent things in static images which can be found throughout the history of common sense as well as the philosophical tradition.

Hegel comes very close to recognizing this as the fundamental problem which gave rise to the questions of metaphysics from Zeno and Plato up to Kant. For Bergson, Heidegger, and Deleuze, Hegel marks an important turn in philosophy toward rethinking temporality, but his system (though perhaps less so his historical anthropology) seems to remain bound to the idea of a fundamentally grounding presence — an eternal present — graspable once reason dialectically ascends to the Platonic view of the world. Why? Because Hegel seems to conceive time as a calculable series of dialectical encounters between a presence or present and a negativity which transforms it. In this we may find the flaw cited by many readers that there is no future dimension in Hegel, no possibility of radical novelty, since in Hegel’s system everything must ultimately be accounted for in a final, absolute present or presence to reason. I am not sure this charge sticks though. There are remarks by Hegel that indicate he was not so presentist and acknowledged the need for an ongoing community of philosophical inquiry.

Yet Bergson’s rethinking of time as real duration, which can vary radically in itself, stands in contrast to the tradition, which thinks time in terms of an artificial series of mental representations. This is just one of the great secrets to Heidegger’s and Deleuze’s brilliant critiques of Western philosophy.

In the final analysis however, the radical rejection of representation by reason implicit in the Deleuzean critique seems to me self-destroying.

2 thoughts on “The Concept of Time in Bergson and Deleuze versus the Tradition

  1. Hi from Spain! your blog is really superb, I arrived here linking from the Deleuze youtube you made, wich I really enjoyed. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks so much. I just started this recently and haven’t even begun to link with other blogs in order to get more conversation going, so your comment is especially appreciated.

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