I stumbled across references to Bergson while reading Photography, Cinema, Memory: The Crystal Image of Time.

I started reading "Bergson's Conception of Duration" in The Philosophical Review to learn more. This is quote from that article:

One of the first characteristics that strikes us when we turn our attention to conscious existence is its mutability, its fluidity. It is constantly changing. State follows state with amazing rapidity; indeed, the various states themselves are nothing but processes which flow on with a never-ceasing rhythm. In consciousness, I find nothing static. I discover 'that I pass from state to state. I am warm or cold, I am merry or sad, I work or I do nothing, I look at what is around me or I think of something else. Sensations, feelings, volitions, ideas, - such are the changes into which my existence is divided and which color it in turns. I change, then, without ceasing.' Now change presupposes time. It is, in fact, nothing but a temporal process. However change may be defined, it certainly cannot be defined unless time is taken into account(...) So to be conscious, at least in the sense in which the finite individual is conscious, is just to be in time (...). Duration is the stuff out of which conscious existence is made; for a conscious being to exist is to change, and to change is to endure. (527)

My question then is: according to Bergson, what is duration? And how is it different from time?

Please keep in my mind that I am very new to philosophy, so I might not know or understand references to other philosophers....

Is duration just the content of time? Is duration just our plain existence - the states we pass through, the sensations? That seems too simple. And too linear. I really don't feel like I'm grasping how Bergson perceives time and how duration is distinct from it.

  • 1
    If you look carefully you may find that in consciousness you DO find something static. But you have to look very carefully. After all, there has to be something prior to time for time to seem to exist.
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 10:06

3 Answers 3


Time, for Bergson, is not different from duration. On the contrary, Bergson's view is that time is duration.

Explanation: Bergson uses the word "time" like all of us do. That is, he uses the word "time" to capture the common, pre- theoretical and uncontroversial aspects of time. On the other hand, Bergson uses the word "duration" in a special, theoretical, technical sense. Duration for Bergson is an inherently continuous and inter- connected process, a process that cannot be broken into separate moments. When Bergson identifies time with duration, he means that the parts of time, unlike the parts of space, do not exist separately, side by side. The parts of time inter- penetrate, they are inseparable parts of a single continuous, connected process.

Bergson complained that in science and philosophy (not his own) time was often thought about as space- like, as composed of separate moments. He advanced arguments against the space- like conception of time.

We set our states of consciousness side by side in such a way as to perceive them simultaneously, no longer in one another, but alongside one another ; in a word, we project time into space, we express duration in terms of extensity, and succession thus takes the form of a continuous line or a chain, the parts of which touch without penetrating one another. (Bergson, Time and Free Will, "The Idea of Duration")

Notice the parallels: time - space, duration - extensity.


The concept of duration is in its most simple presentation qualitative multiplicity or the fusion of this experience of nowness with the those that follow. What is commonly called "time" isn't duration but a quantified measure of duration that isn't itself derivative of duration but spatialization (which also gets referred to as "simultaneity"): i.e. what is counted with clock-time.

The importance of the concept for Bergson was to not just be able to reference discrete, quantified or quantifiable multiplicity, but continuity, subjective experience and that which escapes extensive forms of measure.

The two sides are never truly separate in actuality, but what we reference tends to either priviledge one or the other, which for him presents endless problems in how humans explain and reference reality. You don't have ever one without the other. Simultaneity presupposes (requires) duration, but a measure of simultaneity doesn't account for duration. Extensivity presupposes (requires) intensivity, but measures of extensive multiplicities don't account for qualitative dynamics. Hope this helps.


The concept of duration is most developed in Bergson's Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1899), freely available online. Duration is the qualitative continuum of "lasting through" as experienced by a conscious subject, or as present to consciousness (hence the subtitle). Time is the objectified (Bergson writes "spatialized", i.e. treated like space) quantitative multiplicity measured by mechanical clocks. But duration is not "subjective" to Bergson in the sense of subjective feelings or perceptions of individual psychology. His argument is that duration is the more faithful view of how the world is in this aspect, while mechanical time is an impoverished caricature fashioned for the narrow purposes of practical expediency. SEP has some commentary in the Temporal Consciousness article:

"For Bergson, duration is a continuous flow, immeasurable and unquantifiable – the ‘ceaselessly seething surd at the heart of things’, in Barrett's words (1968: 373). As such it is radically unlike the static conception of time as a manifold of mere locations to be found in the scientific conception of the world... Many of Bergson characterizations of duration are negative – he tells us a good deal about what it is not, but comparatively little about what it actually is. While this can sometimes be frustrating, there is a rationale for it: Bergson held that any attempt to conceptualize the flux of consciousness could succeed only at the cost of distorting the phenomena..."

Another useful source is Winkler's paper Husserl and Bergson on time and consciousness, which clarifies Bergson's conceptions by comparing them to Husserl's phenomenological ones (both considered the "immediate data of consciousness" to be the ultimate source of all our knowledge).

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