Sunday, February 8, 2015

Henri Bergson on Nouns and Verbs

It seems to have been about a year since my last riff on the need to distinguish between noun-based and verb-based thinking when distinguishing between music as an artifact, usually in the form of some system of marks on paper, and music as the result of some act of performance. I remember that at one point, during that interval, I found myself in casual conversation with two members of a string quartet, telling them that people who worked in professions such as science, engineering, finance, and business management all tended to constrain their thinking to nouns and adjectives, partly because so much of their work had become driven by databases that could only allow for structures based on noun phrases, while those who performed music distinguished themselves by living in a world of verbs. Because such thoughts never leave me, I often seek out other writers who have based their work on a similar perspective.

That is probably one reason why I finally decided to spend some time reading Henri Bergson. I have now progressed to the final chapter of Creative Evolution, Arthur Mitchell's English translation, the book that led to Bergson receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. As the title suggests, Bergson approaches evolution more as an ongoing creative act, rather in terms of those artifacts that emerge that process. The book does not make for easy reading. His paragraphs often stretch out across several pages, and it is not always easy to parse them down into individual elements of the argument he is trying to make. However, every now and then, the verbiage distills down to a more manageable brevity, as with the following passage:
But things and states are only views, taken by our mind, of becoming. There are no things, there are only actions. More particularly, if I consider the world in which we live, I find that the automatic and strictly determined evolution of this well-knit whole is action which is unmaking itself, and that the unforeseen forms which life cuts out in it, forms capable of being themselves prolonged into unforeseen movements, represent the action that is making itself.
This is still a bit unwieldy; but there is something rather exciting about the possibility that Ludwig Wittgenstein's "world as I found it" can be reduced to the "unmaking" of an ongoing evolutionary process. Bergson may not have registered very strongly in Wittgenstein's Vienna; but his influence seems to have reached into the work of Martin Heidegger and then moved on to Jean-Paul Sartre. Unless I am mistaken, Albert Einstein also found him fascinating reading.

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