James’s and Bergson’s Views of the Past Compared

  • Milič Čapek
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 7)


For James, as well as for Bergson, the present moment is not an infinitely thin instant, but a temporally thick pulsation tinged with ‘immediate recency’. According to James, “the distinctly intuited present merges into a penumbra of mere dim recencybefore it turns into the past … which is simply reproduced and conceived”.1In other words, there are two kinds of past for James: one directly intuitedinside of the ‘sensible present’; the second outside of the volume of the sensible present, which can be only indirectly reproduced, not immediately grasped. From this point of view recollection is not a past state at all, but merely a presentstate symbolizing or representing an event forever gone.2In this sense Taine called memory “l’illusion vraie”, because, though it deceives us in presenting a present mental state as an equivalent of the past one, it nevertheless gives us an indirect knowledge, often quite accurate, of the past.3This distinction between immediatememory (merging with the “specious” present) and indirectrecall was generally accepted by psychologists.


Modern Physic Present Moment Past State Full Stop Psychological Reality 
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  1. 3.
    H. Taine, De I’Intelligence, 16th Ed., Paris, 1927, II, p. 4Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Cf. M. Čapek, ‘The Elusive Nature of the Past’ (quoted in Chapter 12, Note 6), p. 136; ‘Memini ergo fui’, in Memorias del XIII Congreso Internacional de FilosofiaMexico 1964, Vol. V, pp. 415–426, esp. pp. 419–420.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    C. A. Strong, ‘Consciousness and Time’, The Psychological Review III(1896) 156. Cf. also A. Meinong, ‘Das zeitliche Extensionsprinzip und die sukcessive Analyse’, Z. f. Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane VI(1890). In the same journal (XIII(1897) 326–349) L. William Stern in the article ‘Die psychische Prasenzzeit’ effectively criticized Strong’s defense of the point-like present.Google Scholar
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    A. O. Lovejoy, The Revolt against Dualism, Open Court, Lasalle, III., 1967, p. 381.Google Scholar
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    Cf. my article ‘Stream of Consciousness and “durée réelle”’, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research X(1950) esp. 338–346. The main ideas of this article were incorporated into this chapter.Google Scholar
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    John Dewey, ‘The Vanishing Subject in the Psychology of James’, The Journal of Philosophy XXXVII(1940).Google Scholar
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    Perry,z op. cit., II, pp. 618–620.Idealt with the last phase of James’s thought which was so distinctly influenced by Bergson in the article ‘The Reappearance of the Self in the Last Philosophy of William James’, The Philosophical Review LXII(1953) 526–544.Google Scholar

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© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1971

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  • Milič Čapek

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