Revisiting the Concept of Time: Archaic Perplexity in Bergson and Heidegger


Though the claims they make about temporality are markedly different, Henri Bergson and Martin Heidegger agree that time is a philosophically foundational phenomenon; indeed, they agree that time is, in certain respects, the basis for all discursively representable beings. This paper focuses not so much on their theories of temporality (i.e., their respective answers to the question “what is time?” and their justifications for these answers) but rather on the challenges involved in talking about this phenomenon at all. Both thinkers are highly sensitive to these challenges and to the problems involved in any attempt to represent time in a discursively straightforward manner. I will show that: (1) Bergson’s and Heidegger’s respective claims about time can be fully understood only if we keep this sensitivity in view and carefully note what they are—and aren’t—doing in “talking about time”; and (2) what is ultimately at stake in their analyses is not just the phenomenon of time but what it means to engage in rigorous philosophical praxis.

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  1. 1.

    See, for instance, Aristotle (1962), 1141b(2–15), 1142a(11–25).

  2. 2.

    What I present in this paper is intended as an accessible introduction to a quite intricate set of problems. For a more sustained and explicitly philosophical treatment of this issue, see Gilbert-Walsh (2006).

  3. 3.

    While Heidegger uses the term “discourse”[die Rede] in a technical sense to refer to one aspect of Dasein’s existential structure (see Being and Time, §34), I will be using this term in a more conventional way to refer to what is expressed whenever we “talk about” something, i.e., what has “propositional content” (cf. Heidegger’s discussion of “assertion”[die Aussage] in §33 of Being and Time). Thus, the expression “pre-discursive time” refers to a temporal phenomenon we have already encountered “prior to” anything explicit we might say about it. Precisely what kind of “priority” this is—and isn’t—is discussed in detail in Heidegger (1992b).

  4. 4.

    Cf. the colour wheel example in Bergson (1946: 164).

  5. 5.

    “Dasein’s essence already contains a primordial bestrewal [Streuung], which is in a quite definite respect a dissemination [Zerstreuung]….The transcendental dissemination proper to the metaphysical essence of neutral Dasein, as the binding possibility of each factical existential dispersion and division, is based on a primordial feature of Dasein, that of thrownness“(1992b: 138).

  6. 6.

    It is important to keep in mind that Heidegger is not pushing for a nostalgic return to “what the Greeks thought”, but a return—via a sometimes violent turning of language against itself—to what we ourselves already think, when we are thinking clearly.

  7. 7.

    “The classical texts on the problem of time are the following: Aristotle’s Physics, △ 1014; Plotinus Enneades III, 7; Augustine’s Confessiones, Book XI; Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the Transcendental Aesthetic, Transcendental Deduction, and the chapter on Schematism, the Analytic of Principles, the Doctrine of Antinomies; Hegel’s Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenshcaften (a prior stage in the “Jena Logic”) and Phänomenologie des Geistes; Bergson, all his writings; Husserl, in Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, Book One, only brief fragments…; and now Husserl’s own Vorlesungen zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewusstseins…”(Heidegger 1992b: 198–199).

  8. 8.

    The most rigorous thinkers have always acknowledged the paradox involved in trying to distinguish the discursive from the non-discursive. See, for instance, Augustine (1997: 10), Berkeley (2008: 645–646), and Hegel (1977: 58ff.).

  9. 9.

    To be sure, an “escape” of sorts is always possible: one can avoid the question, feigning indifference to it by: (1) insisting that its unresolveability must mean it has been “poorly formulated”, or by (2) pretending, with neo-pragmatism, that philosophy can simply envision itself otherwise, pursuing other tasks instead of struggling with metaphysical questions, or by (3) pretending, with Karl Popper, that the only legitimate questions seek answers that are “falsifiable”. But such an “escape” is really an escape from philosophical inquiry altogether, an avoidance of hard questions. Assuming that we’re still doing philosophy, we must respond in some fashion to the questions we encounter rather than side-step them.

  10. 10.

    Heidegger discusses, at great length, our tendency to focus immediately on the “products” of linguistic gestures (i.e., on present-at-hand statements) rather than on the underlying performative character of the gestures themselves (1962: 266–269).

  11. 11.

    The definitive example of this, for Heidegger, would be what he calls the “ontological difference” (1992b: 152). Specifically, when we ask the question “what is Being?”, we are asking about the underlying condition for all entities, a condition which thus cannot itself be an entity. But, as soon as we attempt to formulate an answer to this question in the shape of a statement “Being is X”, we reduce Being to an entity, to something that “is”. Heidegger’s point is that only the question” what is Being?” (rather than a statement of the form “Being is X”) adequately acknowledges the difference between Being and entities.

  12. 12.

    Indeed, this interruption is very different from the purely negative interruption which, according to Hegel, characterizes scepticism (1977: 123–124).

  13. 13.

    Compare Euthyphro’s remarks about the distressing aporetic “slippage” which befalls his seemingly secure assertions once Socrates gets hold of them (Plato 1997: 11c–11e).

  14. 14.

    To echo Hegel’s famous phrase, it is not the “night in which all cows are black” (1977: 9).

  15. 15.

    Including those supposedly “anti-foundationalist” stances which, under the banner of the contingent, the historical, the finite, etc., simply assert a negative metaphysical ground (i.e., an “anti-ground”, contingency-as-ground).

  16. 16.

    I have argued elsewhere Gilbert-Walsh (2006) that Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology is but a systematic engagement in this determinate self-interruptive praxis.

  17. 17.

    Indeed, it seems as though Heidegger could have been talking about Bergson specifically in this passage: “The philosophy of life, Lebensphilosophie, has a prejudice against this analysis [the existential analytic] as a ‘system of Dasein’. This arises from an uneasiness with concepts, and shows a misunderstanding of concepts and of ‘systematicity’ as an architectonic that is thoughtful while nevertheless historical [geschichtlich]” (1992b: 137).

  18. 18.

    C.S. Peirce, for instance, claims that Bergson’s lack of precision and clarity disqualify his work from the kind of “exact science” which philosophy should always strive to be (Perry 1935: 438); and Carnap (1959: 69ff.) rejects Heidegger’s thinking in similar fashion, zeroing in on certain seemingly ridiculous assertions in Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?”. I suspect that both Bergson and Heidegger would reply that, while philosophy should certainly strive for as much clarity and precision as possible, rigorous philosophical discourse is, as Aristotle says, “…adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter. For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike…” (Aristotle 1962: 1094b). In short: an excessive zeal for precision and clarity above all else can, in certain cases, prevent us from grasping a phenomenon (cf. Heidegger’s defense of Bergson’s “fuzziness” [in Heidegger 1992b: 203]).


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Gilbert-Walsh, J. Revisiting the Concept of Time: Archaic Perplexity in Bergson and Heidegger. Hum Stud 33, 173–190 (2010).

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  • Temporality
  • Heidegger
  • Bergson
  • Extemporaneity
  • History
  • Interruption