Saturday, 11 May 2019

On The Role of Senses and Freedom of the Mind

In his essay, “Good Sense and Classical Studies,” (Henri Bergson: Key Writings; page 422), Henri Bergson says:

"The role of our senses, in general, is not so much to give us knowledge of material objects as to signal their utility to us. We taste flavours, we breathe odours, we distinguish hot and cold, darkness and light. But science tells us that none of these qualities belong to objects in the form that we apprehend them; they only tell us in their picturesque language the inconvenience or advantage that things have for us, the services they could render us, the dangers they could lead us into. Our senses thus serve us, above all, to orient us in space; they are not turned towards science, but towards life. But we do not only live in a material milieu, but also in a social milieu. If all of our movements are transmitted in space and thus disturb part of the physical universe, by contrast most of our actions have their immediate or far-reaching consequences, good or bad, first of all for us, then for the society that surrounds us. Foreseeing [prevoir] these consequences, or rather having a presentiment of them [pressentir]; distinguishing the essential from the inessential or indifferent in matters of behaviour; choosing from the various possible courses of action the one which will produce the greatest amount of attainable rather than imaginable good: this is, it seems to me, the role of good sense. It is thus indeed a sense in its own way; but while the other senses place us in relation to things, good sense presides over our relations with persons." (This essay is an address delivered by Bergson at the Great Ampitheatre of the Sorbonne, July 30, 1895.)

The comments that Bergson makes on freedom of the mind are also quite perceptive. He says:

"One of the greatest obstacles, we were saying, to the freedom of the mind, are the ideas that language gives to us ready-made, and that we breathe, so to speak, in the environment which surrounds us. They are never assimilated with our substance: incapable of participating in the life of the mind, they persevere, as truly dead ideas, in their stiffness and immobility. Why then do we so often prefer them to those which are living and vibrant? Why does our thought, instead of working to become master of itself, prefer to exile itself from itself? It is firstly through distraction, and by dint of amusing ourselves along the road, we no longer know where we wanted to go."

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