Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition that we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. Consciousness, being in its turn formed on the intellect, sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making. Thus, we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us, and that we have gathered along its course. These alone we retain. And we are right in so doing, while action only is in question. But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming. Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile.
The other illusion is near akin to the first. It has the same origin, being also due to the fact that we import into speculation a procedure made for practice. All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist. In this very special sense, it fills a void, and goes from the empty to the full, from an absence to a presence, from the unreal to the real. Now the unreality which is here in question is purely relative to the direction in which our attention is engaged, for we are immersed in realities and cannot pass out of them; only, if the present reality is not the one we are seeking, we speak of the absence of this sought-for reality wherever we find the presence of another. We thus express what we have as a function of what we want. This is quite legitimate in the sphere of action. But, whether we will or no, we keep to this way of speaking, and also of thinking, when we speculate on the nature of things independently of the interest they have for us. Thus arises the second of the two illusions. We propose to examine this first. It is due, like the other, to the static habits that our intellect contracts when it prepares our action on things. Just as we pass through the immobile to go to the moving, so we make use of the void in order to think the full.
Philosophers have paid little attention to the idea of the nought. And yet it is often the hidden spring, the invisible mover of philosophical thinking. From the first awakening of reflection, it is this that pushes to the fore, right under the eyes of consciousness, the torturing problems, the questions that we cannot gaze at without feeling giddy and bewildered. I have no sooner commenced to philosophize than I ask myself why I exist; and when I take account of the intimate connection in which I stand to the rest of the universe, the difficulty is only pushed back, for I want to know why the universe exists; and if I refer the universe to a Principle immanent or transcendent that supports it or creates it, my thought rests on this principle only a few moments, for the same problem recurs, this time in its full breadth and generality: Whence comes it, and how can it be understood, that anything exists? Even here, in the present work, when matter has been defined as a kind of descent, this descent as the interruption of a rise, this rise itself as a growth, when finally a Principle of creation has been put at the base of things, the same question springs up: How—why does this principle exist rather than nothing?
Now, if I push these questions aside and go straight to what hides behind them, this is what I find:—Existence appears to me like a conquest over nought. I say to myself that there might be, that indeed there ought to be, nothing, and I then wonder that there is something. Or I represent all reality extended on nothing as on a carpet: at first was nothing, and being has come by superaddition to it. Or, yet again, if something has always existed, nothing must always have served as its substratum or receptacle, and is therefore eternally prior. A glass may have always been full, but the liquid it contains nevertheless fills a void. In the same way, being may have always been there, but the nought which is filled, and, as it were, stopped up by it, pre-exists for it none the less, if not in fact at least in right. In short, I cannot get rid of the idea that the full is an embroidery on the canvas of the void, that being is superimposed on nothing, and that in the idea of “nothing” there is less than in that of “something.” Hence all the mystery.
It is necessary that this mystery should be cleared up. It is more especially necessary, if we put duration and free choice at the base of things. For the disdain of metaphysics for all reality that endures comes precisely from this, that it reaches being only by passing through “not-being,” and that an existence which endures seems to it not strong enough to conquer non-existence and itself posit itself. It is for this reason especially that it is inclined to endow true being with a logical, and not a psychological nor a physical existence. For the nature of a purely logical existence is such that it seems to be self-sufficient and to posit itself by the effect alone of the force immanent in truth. If I ask myself why bodies or minds exist rather than nothing, I find no answer; but that a logical principle, such as A=A, should have the power of creating itself, triumphing over the nought through out eternity, seems to me natural. A circle drawn with chalk on a blackboard is a thing which needs explanation: this entirely physical existence has not by itself wherewith to vanquish non-existence. But the “logical essence” of the circle, that is to say, the possibility of drawing it according to a certain law—in short, its definition—is a thing which appears to me eternal: it has neither place nor date; for nowhere, at no moment, has the drawing of a circle begun to be possible. Suppose, then, that the principle on which all things rest, and which all things manifest possesses an existence of the same nature as that of the definition of the circle, or as that of the axiom A=A: the mystery of existence vanishes, for the being that is at the base of everything posits itself then in eternity, as logic itself does. True, it will cost us rather a heavy sacrifice: if the principle of all things exists after the manner of a logical axiom or of a mathematical definition, the things themselves must go forth from this principle like the applications of an axiom or the consequences of a definition, and there will no longer be place, either in the things nor in their principle, for efficient causality understood in the sense of a free choice. Such are precisely the conclusions of a doctrine like that of Spinoza, or even that of Leibniz, and such indeed has been their genesis.
Now, if we could prove that the idea of the nought, in the sense in which we take it when we oppose it to that of existence, is a pseudo-idea, the problems that are raised around it would become pseudo-problems. The hypothesis of an absolute that acts freely, that in an eminent sense endures, would no longer raise up intellectual prejudices. The road would be cleared for a philosophy more nearly approaching intuition, and which would no longer ask the same sacrifices of common sense.
Let us then see what we are thinking about when we speak of “Nothing.” To represent “Nothing,” we must either imagine it or conceive it. Let us examine what this image or this idea may be.
However strange our assertion may seem, there is more, and not less, in the idea of an object conceived as “not existing” than in the idea of this same object conceived as “existing”; for the idea of the object “not existing” is necessarily the idea of the object “existing” with, in addition, the representation of an exclusion of this object by the actual reality taken in block.
An affirmative proposition expresses a judgment on an object; a negative proposition expresses a judgment on a judgment. Negation, therefore, differs from affirmation properly so called in that it is an affirmation of the second degree: it affirms something of an affirmation which itself affirms something of an object.
How comes it, then, that affirmation and negation are so persistently put on the same level and endowed with an equal objectivity? How comes it that we have so much difficulty in recognizing that negation is subjective, artificially cut short, relative to the human mind and still more to the social life? The reason is, no doubt, that both negation and affirmation are expressed in propositions, and that any proposition, being formed of words, which symbolize concepts, is something relative to social life and to the human intellect. Whether I say “The ground is damp” or “The ground is not damp,” in both cases the terms “ground” and “damp” are concepts more or less artificially created by the mind of man—extracted, by his free initiative, from the continuity of experience. In both cases the concepts are represented by the same conventional words. In both cases we can say indeed that the proposition aims at a social and pedagogical end, since the first would propagate a truth as the second would prevent an error. From this point of view, which is that of formal logic, to affirm and to deny are indeed two mutually symmetrical acts, of which the first establishes a relation of agreement and the second a relation of disagreement between a subject and an attribute. But how do we fail to see that the symmetry is altogether external and the likeness superficial? Suppose language fallen into disuse, society dissolved, every intellectual initiative, every faculty of self-reflection and of self-judgment atrophied in man: the dampness of the ground will subsist none the less, capable of inscribing itself automatically in sensation and of sending a vague idea to the deadened intellect. The intellect will still affirm, in implicit terms. And consequently, neither distinct concepts, nor words, nor the desire of spreading the truth, nor that of bettering oneself, are of the very essence of the affirmation. But this passive intelligence, mechanically keeping step with experience, neither anticipating nor following the course of the real, would have no wish to deny. It could not receive an imprint of negation; for, once again, that which exists may come to be recorded, but the non-existence of the non-existing cannot. For such an intellect to reach the point of denying, it must awake from its torpor, formulate the disappointment of a real or possible expectation, correct an actual or possible error—in short, propose to teach others or to teach itself.
To sum up, for a mind which should follow purely and simply the thread of experience, there would be no void, no nought, even relative or partial, no possible negation. Such a mind would see facts succeed facts, states succeed states, things succeed things. What it would note at each moment would be things existing, states appearing, events happening. It would live in the actual, and, if it were capable of judging, it would never affirm anything except the existence of the present.
Endow this mind with memory, and especially with the desire to dwell on the past; give it the faculty of dissociating and of distinguishing: it will no longer only note the present state of the passing reality; it will represent the passing as a change, and therefore as a contrast between what has been and what is. And as there is no essential difference between a past that we remember and a past that we imagine, it will quickly rise to the idea of the “possible” in general.
How then can the idea of Nought be opposed to that of All? Is it not plain that this is to oppose the full to the full, and that the question, “Why does something exist?” is consequently without meaning, a pseudo-problem raised about a pseudo-idea? Yet we must say once more why this phantom of a problem haunts the mind with such obstinacy. In vain do we show that in the idea of an “annihilation of the real” there is only the image of all realities expelling one another endlessly, in a circle; in vain do we add that the idea of non-existence is only that of the expulsion of an imponderable existence, or a “merely possible” existence, by a more substantial existence which would then be the true reality; in vain do we find in the sui generis form of negation an element which is not intellectual—negation being the judgment of a judgment, an admonition given to some one else or to oneself, so that it is absurd to attribute to negation the power of creating ideas of a new kind, viz. ideas without content;—in spite of all, the conviction persists that before things, or at least under things, there is “Nothing.” If we seek the reason of this fact, we shall find it precisely in the feeling, in the social and, so to speak, practical element, that gives its specific form to negation. The greatest philosophic difficulties arise, as we have said, from the fact that the forms of human action venture outside of their proper sphere. We are made in order to act as much as, and more than, in order to think—or rather, when we follow the bent of our nature, it is in order to act that we think. It is therefore no wonder that the habits of action give their tone to those of thought, and that our mind always perceives things in the same order in which we are accustomed to picture them when we propose to act on them. Now, it is unquestionable, as we remarked above, that every human action has its starting-point in a dissatisfaction, and thereby in a feeling of absence. We should not act if we did not set before ourselves an end, and we seek a thing only because we feel the lack of it. Our action proceeds thus from “nothing” to “something,” and its very essence is to embroider “something” on the canvas of “nothing.” The truth is that the “nothing” concerned here is the absence not so much of a thing as of a utility. If I bring a visitor into a room that I have not yet furnished, I say to him that “there is nothing in it.” Yet I know the room is full of air; but, as we do not sit on air, the room truly contains nothing that at this moment, for the visitor and for myself, counts for anything. In a general way, human work consists in creating utility; and, as long as the work is not done, there is “nothing”—nothing that we want. Our life is thus spent in filling voids, which our intellect conceives under the influence, by no means intellectual, of desire and of regret, under the pressure of vital necessities; and if we mean by void an absence of utility and not of things, we may say, in this quite relative sense, that we are constantly going from the void to the full: such is the direction which our action takes. Our speculation cannot help doing the same; and, naturally, it passes from the relative sense to the absolute sense, since it is exercised on things themselves and not on the utility they have for us. Thus is implanted in us the idea that reality fills a void, and that Nothing, conceived as an absence of everything, pre-exists before all things in right, if not in fact. It is this illusion that we have tried to remove by showing that the idea of Nothing, if we try to see in it that of an annihilation of all things, is self-destructive and reduced to a mere word; and that if, on the contrary, it is truly an idea, then we find in it as much matter as in the idea of All.
This long analysis has been necessary to show that a self-sufficient reality is not necessarily a reality foreign to duration. If we pass (consciously or unconsciously) through the idea of the nought in order to reach that of being, the being to which we come is a logical or mathematical essence, therefore non-temporal. And, consequently, a static conception of the real is forced on us: everything appears given once for all, in eternity. But we must accustom ourselves to think being directly, without making a detour, without first appealing to the phantom of the nought which interposes itself between it and us. We must strive to see in order to see, and no longer to see in order to act. Then the Absolute is revealed very near us and, in a certain measure, in us. It is of psychological and not of mathematical nor logical essence. It lives with us. Like us, but in certain aspects infinitely more concentrated and more gathered up in itself, it endures.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution
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