Absolute Knowledge: Analysis vs Intuition

Absolute Knowledge: Analysis vs Intuition

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Absolute Knowledge: Analysis vs Intuition


Is absolute knowledge gained through the process of analysis or intuition? In “Introduction to Metaphysics” of The Creative Mind, Henri Bergson makes a thorough distinction between analysis and his idea of intuition. As the basis of immediate, metaphysical knowledge, intuition applies to the interior experience of an object. Such experience entails true empiricism. Bergson explains his method of intuition and absolute knowledge through various terms, including duration, traditional rationalism and empiricism, and time. These terms shall be evaluated as they reveal the pertinence between true empiricism and true metaphysics.

As a philosopher of immediacy, Bergson favors intuition over analysis as a mode to knowledge. Relative, mediate, and incomplete knowledge is the result of analysis. It involves viewpoints of an entire object which require a division of it into parts. These parts must then be labeled with symbols and then synthesized, mediated or recomposed into an inaccurate whole in an attempt to gain a complete, perfect understanding of the thing. The experience one has during analysis is thus, an exterior one which leads only to a partial grasp of the object. This grasp is relative as it depends upon the individual’s viewpoints.

On the other hand, Bergson’s idea of intuition is a means to immediate, absolute knowledge. This knowledge is perfect, without limits, and inexpressible through symbols, or even language. It is a result of an interior experience, which Bergson claims, involves “sympathy” towards the object. As intuition entails “sympathy,” analysis entails a “desire to embrace the object” (161 The Creative Mind). In an attempt to illustrate the distinction between intuition and analysis, let us propose that the object is a choreographed dance. If I analyze it, I may observe the dancers or make a chart of the dance steps, and memorize the rhythm. I may compare various dancers or relate some steps to other steps in a series. In general, I understand the structure of the dance, but nothing more; my analysis does not lead me to coincide with the act itself, and it results in an eventual limit to my knowledge of the dance, which cannot be expanded. However, when I become a dancer, I coincide with the act. I utilize introspection and experience its entirety.

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As I practice, my knowledge grows, and each movement or experience of the dance is singular, unique, and perfect. If I dance for each day of my life, my understanding of the act is never definite or complete. I cannot even express the idea of the dance and my movements in words. Furthermore, when I apply viewpoints and symbols to the dance, or critique and rearrange the elements of it, my understanding of it reaches high levels of complexity, which causes confusion. This confusion thus eliminates my understanding, placing me further away from the original idea of the act. But when I enter into the dance, my understanding is most simple, clear, and closely resembles the original idea.

The singularity and simplicity of Bergson’s intuition is synonymous with his explanation of duration. He defines duration as an interior experience which is infinitely continuous, and which is the basic substance of the whole universe, allowing the affirmation of the existence of both inferior and superior objects. As it is superfluous, and involves ever-changing experience, duration is characterized by heterogeneous continuity. Because of this trait, duration must be thought of in temporal terms, separate from immobility or the perception of any specific space. Continuous and containing an infinite variety of qualities, the essence of duration cannot be fully
comprehended by any arrangement of images. However, Bergson offers several images in an
attempt to partially illustrate duration, including the image of a stretched elastic. For this image, one must not focus on the linear strand of material, because the elastic itself is spatial, divisible, and thus, irrelevant to intuition. Instead, one must focus on the action of stretching. Intuition is always active while analysis is passive. The actual stretch is a never-ending motion, representing the progression of time entailed by duration (165). The only advantage of such an image is that like duration, it is concrete and precise. Such precision is the very characteristic which Bergson wishes to bring to philosophy, specifically through metaphysics and empiricism. The distinctions
made thus far between analysis and intuition or duration are relevant because they are,
respectively, the bases for positive science and true metaphysics.

Utilizing analysis, positive science expresses information through symbols and leads to a finite level of knowledge. It abstracts parts from the whole before making general statements about them, comparing them to other parts, and then positing them together as a new entirety. Bergson refers specifically to psychology, noting that it merely provides relative knowledge, as it involves the mediation of labeled fragments. It abstracts various qualities from a personality, compares them to other qualities, makes generalizations about them and finally, it recomposes the abstracted qualities into a whole, applying to it one fixed, inaccurate label. Thus, the original
personality or person is replaced by a group of “psychological facts” and broad conclusions that hardly resemble it (169). Such problematic inaccuracy occurs as a result of the inclusion of properties arbitrary to the original idea. The type of science which leads to faultless knowledge, according to Bergson, is true metaphysics.

Intuitive and unstable, true metaphysics does without symbols and already-fixed concepts. Rather, it creates evolving, flexible concepts. In metaphysics, a concept is abstracted from the whole, and then re-applied appropriately to it. It is thus, one which is concrete and unable to be perfected or cloned. Unlike positive science, metaphysics does not create a new, improved or fixed concept to replace the original; it involves an infinite number of unified, perfect concepts with an infinite amount of qualities that are forever evolving. The traditional notion of a concept
in the positive sciences includes immobility, duplication and improvement; concepts are
questioned, analyzed and replaced because they are imperfect and general. While true
metaphysics is mobile, positive science is immobile and stagnant. As modern science prioritizes immobile disciplines over ones which are mobile, Bergson advocates a reversal of the two, favoring mobility. In addition to having infinite qualities and continuity of progress, the duration or interior life of metaphysics implies a unified direction of progress. This unity is apparent as multiple parts are extracted and narrowed down into where they belong as a part of the whole. Thus, duration is taken as a unified multiplicity. The fault of traditional rationalism and empiricism, states Bergson, is their lack of such duration.

Both rationalism and empiricism mistakenly seek intuitions from objects by following the process of analysis. In other words, various parts or “partial notions” are abstracted and binded into a whole that claims to be the original object (172). The result in the analyses of both empiricism and rationalism is a structure of symbols that has no content and that is incorrectly said to be true, unified knowledge of the original object. Thus, traditional empiricism and rationalism are not synonymous with true metaphysics.

What is synonymous with true metaphysics, according to Bergson, is true empiricism. Unlike traditional empiricism, true empiricism utilizes intuition. Synonymous with intuition appears to be hearing, as it can be partially likened to the listening of someone’s rhythm of breathing. In true empiricism, the original object is not dissected or strayed from; the pure idea of the original is preserved and understood by a “spiritual auscultation” (175). The pre-determined concepts and habits of the traditional sciences are of no use. Rather, a unique introspection must be applied to each object, resulting in an infinite amount of unique, deep understandings. To meagerly illustrate this, focus on a pond of water. At the surface, it is smooth and unchanging,
resembling any other pond. If its essence is to be understood, one must go beyond the surface, becoming fully aware of the unique possibilities, vibrations, and ever-changing qualities which lie beneath. Another difference between traditional sciences and Bergson’s true metaphysics lies in the conception of time. Traditional metaphysics views time as having a beginning and an end.

Thus, each event has a beginning and an end, and time is determined by the present. The duration of true metaphysics however, implies an infinite, anti-instant view of time. While traditional science discounts the past, placing value in the future, duration is defined by a persistence of the past; the past is always present and valued, without a beginning or an end. Because the past always contains the present, the present cannot be without the past. Thus, according to true metaphysics, time requires a passage, but it does not require a present. However, the present, through duration, is complete and perfect. Through the present, there is given an image of what is real, which is reflected upon, and referred back to the past (105 “The Possible and the Real”). While traditional metaphysics holds that the future can be abstracted from time, the only claim true metaphysics makes about the future is that it holds possibilities. In traditional empiricism or metaphysics, possibilities are synonymous with nothingness. However, Bergson asserts that nothingness merely means that which is not interesting. The notions of elimination and suppression that are implied by nothingness are actually defined by substitution. When one attempts absolute elimination, what occurs is a re-arrangement of the parts; one thing is replaced by another. So, what is thought to be absolute nothingness is quite the opposite; the result of the substitutions is absolute fullness (98). Only our habits lead us to believe in nothingness, which in turn, lead us to believe that what is possible is empty and should be discounted, and what is
actual or real, is full and thus, valued. Bergson is contrare to this notion.

He explains the fullness of the possible by claiming that in order for it to exist, the real must exist. The real implies order, and is created by duration. It sets limits and gives rise to the possible. In contrast to the real, the possible implies disorder and a striation from the limits of the real. Thus, the possible is more rich in substance, because it includes what existed before disorder occurred, and the existences which came about after the disorder. So, the possible is a “mirage of the present and the past” (101). Because the real is created by duration, and duration is the only mode to metaphysical, true knowledge, the real is temporally bound, and all that there
is. Just as intuitive experience is unique to each object, so is the real.

Both true metaphysics and true empiricism utilize consciousness, which is memory, which implies duration. This is apparent because duration is the survival of the past, and through recollection and application of the past to the present, memory is the tool for such survival. Both sciences conflict with the traditional empiricism because they operate without the use of symbols, habits, and pre-arranged concepts; they require the application of intuition rather than analysis, and they result in unique, concrete, infinite, perfect knowledge. Because time only passes, and thus occurs in the present-containing past, duration is implied. Both true empiricism and true metaphysics, as implications of duration, hold the same view of time. From all of these connections, it cannot be reasonably doubted that true metaphysics is not true empiricism.
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