The Movement of Memory at Work: Bergson

Henri Bergson, Cone of Memory, from “On the Survival of Images,” Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (1896; 1908; New York, NY: Zone Books, 1988) 162, ch. 3 (fig. 5).

Action and memory (for Bergson, habitual and spontaneous respectively) meet in the “general idea” (161-62):

The essence of the general idea . . . is to be unceasingly going backwards and forwards between the plane of action [P] and that of pure memory [AB]. Let us refer once more to the diagram . . . traced above. At S is the present perception which I have of my body, that is to say, of a certain sensori-motor equilibrium. Over the surface of the base AB are spread, we may say, my recollections in their totality. Within the cone so determined the general idea oscillates continually between the summit S [the now] and the base AB [the then]. In S, it would take the clearly defined form of a bodily attitude or of an uttered word; at AB, it would wear the aspect, no less defined, of the thousand individual images into which its fragile unity would break up.

This is to say, the present moment (the now) is a point; the past (the then) is a plane, a mosaic — and a muse.

(Interestingly, the etymology of “mosaic,” from the medieval Latin musaicum “work of the Muses,” circles back through the Greek Mousa, “music,” to the proto-IndoEuropean root mon-/men-/mn– “to think, remember” — from which stem our words memory, mind, anamnesis, mania, etc.).

[T]hat is why a psychology which abides by the already done, which considers only that which is made and ignores that which is in the making, will never perceive in this movement anything more than the two extremities between which it oscillates [S: the present action or word; and AB: the past ]; it makes the general idea coincide sometimes with the action which manifests it or the word which expresses it, and at other times with the multitudinous images, unlimited in number, which are its equivalent in memory. But the truth is that the general idea escapes us as soon as we try to fix it at either of the two extremities. It consists in the double current which goes from the one to the other,always ready either to crystallize into uttered words or to evaporate into memories.

This amounts to saying that between the sensori-motor mechanisms figured by the point S and the totality of the memories disposed in AB there is room, as we indicated in the preceding chapter, for a thousand repetitions of our psychical life, figured by as many sections A’B’, A”B”, etc., of the same cone. We tend to scatter ourselves over AB in the measure that we detach ourselves from our sensory and motor state to live in the life of dreams; we tend to concentrate ourselves in S in the measure that we attach ourselves more firmly to the present reality, responding by motor reactions to sensory stimulation. In point of fact, the normal self never stays in either of these extreme positions ; it moves between them, adopts in turn the positions corresponding to the intermediate sections, or, in other words, gives to its representations just enough image and just enough idea for them to be able to lend useful aid to the present action.

Phew. In short, memory for Bergson is vertiginous, as Levi R. Bryant puts it (Larval Subjects, 13 Mar. 2010 [link]):

The plane P in Bergson’s diagram stands for the “present”; “S” stands for the specious-present of the experience of the object. Each of the cords A-B refer to different planes of past experience going further and further back. [. . .] [E]ach specious present of the object contracts a plane of the past that trails behind it. For example, I hear R.E.M.’s End of the World as We Know It and I’m suddenly thrown back into the seventh grade, sitting in my bedroom, where I first heard the song on the radio [I’m not — it reminds me of a horrid Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which reminds me of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which reminds me of “My Favourite Things” . . . aaah. I always thought that song was the end of R.E.M. — albeit a couple of great ballads on side 2 of Green]. The specious present pulls, as it were, that plane of the past back into the present.

I do like his description of the mentalities that embody each of the extremes of the man (or woman) of memory and the man of matter (155):

A human being who should dream his life instead of living it would no doubt thus keep before his eyes at each moment the infinite multitude of the details of his past history. And, on the other hand, the man who should repudiate this memory with all that it begets would be continually acting his life instead of truly representing it to himself: a conscious automaton, he would follow the lead of useful habits which prolong into an appropriate reaction the stimulation received.

Paradoxically, then, for Bergson the man of matter is habitual — and an automaton, a kind of unconscious “universalist”; the man of memory, spontaneous and a dreamer, an unconscious “particularist.”


See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link). Matter and Memory is available as a pdf at Scribd and a plaintext pdf at (paginated as 1911 edition). The Zone edition is available for reading on

Note that there’s a discussion of this passage in Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, tr. Paul Patton (London and New York, NY: Continuum, 1994) 92-94 and notes 158-59 (see also 103-05, 264). (There’s an essay — not great — by Constantin V. Boundas, “Deleuze-Bergson: An Ontology of the Virtual,” on the connections between their work in Deleuze: A Critical Reader, ed. Paul Patton [Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996] 81-106.)

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