In fact, the object suppressed is either external or internal: it is a thing or it is a state of consciousness. Let us consider the first case... now, what is, and what is perceived, is the presence of one thing or of another, never the absence of anything... Such is the mechanism of the operation by which our mind annihilates an object and succeeds in representing in the external world a partial nought. Let us now see how it represents it within itself... at the very instant when I make this supposition, I conceive myself, I imagine myself watching over my slumber or surviving my annihilation, and I give up perceiving myself from within only by taking refuge in the perception of myself from without. That is to say that here again the full always succeeds the full... It follows from this double analysis that the idea of the absolute nought, in the sense of the annihilation of everything, is a self-destructive idea, a pseudo-idea

In Bergson's Creative Evolution, the chapter titled "The idea of nothing". I've seen this presented and dismissed as evidence we can't imagine our own death. And I've seen it vigorously claimed to be nothing to do with death, at all.

Which is it?

Or to be specific, what would we need to add to this description of the impossibility of "the absolute nought", to make our own death inconceivable?


3 Answers 3


Bergson had many unusual views, but what he wrote on individual death seems plain and commonsensical. Since in death one ceases to experience, one cannot imagine one's own death from within. On the other hand, one can imagine one's own death from without, by looking, as it were, at one's own dead body from outside, from the standpoint of another.

So Bergson didn't seem to have special views on the death of an individual. His more nuanced views concern life as a whole, not individual life.

On the other hand, in the organized world, the death of individuals does not seem at all like a diminution of "life in general," or like a necessity which life submits to reluctantly. As has been more than once remarked, life has never made an effort to prolong indefinitely the existence of the individual, although on so many other points it has made so many successful efforts. Everything is as if this death had been willed, or at least accepted, for the greater progress of life in general ...

All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.  

(Creative Evolution ch.III)

  • what does "from within" mean? does it tells us anything about death, or just restate that death is an internal annihilation?
    – user25714
    Jun 6, 2017 at 11:25
  • @user3293056 By "from within" I meant from the point of view of the relevant subject (in this case, the dead subject). As I stated, I don't think that Bergson tells us anything new about individual deaths. His theme in the passage is not death but nought, nothingness. One cannot imagine one's own death, this is simple. It is also an instance of a law which does interest Bergson, that nothingness is inconceivable. Jun 6, 2017 at 14:23

My death is not 'my annihilation'. The previously existing 'me', and its effects are not gone when I die. So the passage clearly applies to death as a specific 'partial nought', but it is not primarily about death. That means the answer to the first question is 'neither': the passage entails your interpretation as an implication, but it is not the point.

It makes an indirect reference to a fact already commonly noted -- that the end of my existence is an event in history only for those who survive me. So I cannot accurately imagine being gone, as imagining it requires my presence as the observer of the image, aware of that event that only others can observe. But that is better considered elsewhere, and it is not what is being said here.

There is no way to make something of which we are all aware 'inconceivable', especially not by adding concepts to something that already indirectly references the concept you wish to make vanish. Nothing goes away by being embellished. This is part of Bergson's point, and one of the basic problems with rational models of negation.

You cannot make something into nothing by adding the idea of lacking. The thing you wish to lack has to remain as a referent of the negation you wish to impose. Pretty much by definition no two things are nearly as closely related as a concept and its negation. And 'lacking' is an experience all its own.

So the passage itself answers that question. Nothing can bring a true negative into reality, including making an existing concept inconceivable.

  • not sure i quite follow. are you saying that 'inconceivability' itself would be an absolute nothing? i wouldn't agree -- is the quote not saying that specific ideas are psuedo- ideas?
    – user25714
    Jun 6, 2017 at 11:23
  • No, inconceivability is simply 'there is a concept of' + 'lack', it is not an absolute nothing, it is a partial nothing. You cannot really get an absolute nothing, once you have anything at all -- you can only trick yourself into thinking you have done so. The specific idea of 'absolutely nothing' is being declared a pseudo-idea: an idea you can only talk about and never actually have.
    – user9166
    Jun 6, 2017 at 17:29

Seems straight forward to me, so I welcome any correction, that given

the annihilation of everything, is a self-destructive idea, a pseudo-idea

my death is a pseudo-idea then if it is the annihilation of everything. Is there any sense in which a life is "everything"? Perhaps not in an interesting way.

  • Right, from an incorrect definition you can deduce anything. Your death is not the annihilation even of yourself, much less of everything.
    – user9166
    Jun 6, 2017 at 17:38

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