Heath Massey: The Origin of Time. Heidegger and Bergson



The Origin of Time. Heidegger and Bergson Book Cover The Origin of Time. Heidegger and Bergson
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Heath Massey
SUNY Press
Paperback $25.95

Reviewed by: Lars Aagaard-Mogensen (Wassard Elea)

This is a book about Heidegger, more particularly about the extent to which he appropriated Bergson. What reasons Heidegger had for the quite wayward comments, short statements without argument,[i] on Bergson in Sein und Zeit, (p. 18, 333, and 432), claiming that time in his philosophy is space? [ii] While Heath Massey, additionally tallying up a slate of other places Heidegger repeats them, does not find a decisive answer for that question, he sets his task to canvas the relevant texts of the two, limiting himself mainly to those of the period of Heidegger’s remarks (1915-1928). He walks the reader through Bergson’s duration and Heidegger’s temporality ‘closely read’, in quite impressive detail – some repetitiousness – and clearly, but sticks closer to Heidegger’s vocabulary than e.g. McInerney. Each receives their due – however, Massey still inclines to place Heidegger larger than Bergson, while all the same defending the latter and tracing bergsonisms in the former. It’s to Massey’s credit bringing Matter and Memory into the picture.

Massey’s plan is quite straightforward, starting with a chapter about Heidegger’s initial following in Bergson’s footsteps and in those early works finding ambivalence toward Bergson, followed by a chapter looking for justification of the remarks in Time and Free Will, demonstrating that Bergson actually anticipates Heidegger’s interpretation of temporality and the core idea of Being and Time, that being is time. He then turns to Being and Time and finds that both aim to disentangle time and space, reinterpret everyday time, as well as cast self-hood in temporal terms. The fourth chapter concerns Heidegger’s contention that Bergson depends on Aristotle, of which there’s no evidence, but Heidegger there finds a clue leading to his own temporality. In the final chapter Massey shows, rather interestingly, that Bergson in Matter and Memory in fact challenges, contrary to Heidegger’s charge, both ‘the present’ and its ontological conditions resulting in the duration of human experience being open to other rhythms of duration – which Heidegger ignores.

Massey concludes that “Bergson does exactly what Heidegger faults him for failing to do: he questions the being of consciousness and challenges the privilege of presence.”, “Heidegger’s struggle, and perhaps his deepest kinship with Bergson, is to reveal [the double movement of memory] as the condition for the possibility of presence, a movement ontologically prior to substance or the subject”, (p. 217), and thus foreshadows much of Heidegger. But also that some differences remain, such as Heidegger’s insistence that philosophy be concerned with being rather than beings, hence refuses, whereas Bergson engages, with the positive sciences. They diverge regarding method, – though it’s not all that clear to me how intuition and hermeneutics are at odds. Their accounts of duration differ, Bergson’s an unceasing flow of qualitative blend of past, present and future, Heidegger’s a movement of presencing as such. And, fourth, Bergson does not regard death as crucial to temporality.

The main body of this book is expository and as such the customary study of philosophical texts recent or past, nearly, one might say, in the vein of comparative literature. It is done with command of the works, attention to detail, and energy, and therefore indeed useful for readers who haven’t yet studied – or are preparing to study – the two oeuvres in detail. It shall no doubt find a solid niche in the burgeoning secondary literature. By that I imply that I miss critical assessments of arguments (often mere postulates or statements), in short, advancement of insight on the obviously very interesting concept of time. So, we here have a very able account of two, perhaps somewhat divergent, ways of describing time. Then what? ‘Perhaps’, I wrote, because with the full deck on the table, one starts wondering whether it is merely two terminologies (delire?), one more gnarled than the other, pretty much the same dancer in two costumes (encumbered by layers of worn ones underneath). There are many obvious similarities and convergences.[iii]

Or is that impression the result of seduction by Massey’s comparisons? Perhaps a bit of provocation might be in order. Sure, one writes about history (though quite summarily ‘from Artistotle on to present [sic] day’), the other about evolution – but aren’t these just two versions of the same ‘idea’, perhaps even parodies of each other? Massey makes quite something of both protagonists’s reservations regarding space, now-series, counting, clocks, and so on, yet what is Heidegger’s ‘horizon’, ‘stretching’, etc., but space flights? Bergson admits that his descriptions, by the very language he’s compelled to use, are not totally free of spatial thinking, (p. 236). Both partook in a complete Copernican, never mind their airy strikes at Kant, oughtn’t Heidegger not have tackled, that is pinpoint the error(s) in, e.g., Augustine’s ‘time tends not to be’, or some of his contemporaries’ reasonings to the effect that time doesn’t exist, rather than quibble with ‘duration’? And you might similarly question Bergson whether ‘memory tends not to be’ isn’t overly virtual for his purpose? Obviously, both Bergson and Heidegger held that they had cast their net out to catch the “first” (another time term for original) concept, like Vico the origin of language (to think of it, once upon a time men didn’t chatter, bicker, or sing), the thirst for the first. Seemingly overlooking that the being of this consciousness, of thinking (res cogitans?) that thinks about being (and time) is in some sense a prior condition of that thought of originary thinking.[iv] That which thinks of being. Reduction of sorts, in other words, there are somethings ahead of this ‘originary time’.

But Massey spends, repeatedly, more attention and space on the couple’s rejection of measurement, etc., of time, yes, they do agree on that, than on supplementing their various introductions of special expansions of ‘now’, of ‘before and future’ as experienced phenomena, where it’s both needed and wished for, these, after all, by now pretty standard “theories” need clarification cum defense to become more convincing. There’s a limited use for another presentation of what Bergson or Heidegger wrote, uncritically, while Massey keeps circling around Heidegger’s remarks about Bergson, he offers no comment the other way, so to speak, nor independent, own or other’s, critical comment on either one. Clearly Bergson and Heidegger each proposed new alternatives, yet sober assessment as to their truth and further expansion is not so clear. Of course, Massey’s well-defined theme is not the place for an overall assessment of either Bergson’s or Heidegger’s work, but it might be the place to do so of their accounts of time.

Unless one thinks concepts are the sort of thing, alas the kind of being, that has a history or historicity, for the student of time, there’s very little, at least very little new in Massey’s book. The – for some – interesting question whether Heidegger’s dismissive remarks about Bergson are fair, unfair, or cross-purpose motivated, don’t really matter, and the individual consciousness and account thereof remain biographical “facts”, whatever they thought of them. It is refreshing to see that Heidegger’s aren’t that off-beat, besides appropriating Wartenburg on historicity, Husserl on method, &c., in the light of this rehabilitation of Bergson’s similar, possibly even sounder, account. The anthropocentric, the egocentric accounts are transferred and studied intensely from many angles,[v] and the accounts of consciousness likewise continue from, let’s just say, De Anima and on thru the British Psychologists, Kant, and the whole latterday psychology cartel to date. An overturn of “philosophy” has to be assigned to rhetoric. At most, it comes to the fashionable “rewriting” of the story, another version. (Btw. is Bergson right that we can’t act on the past?). Is it a better story? Yes, in the sense that people can now enjoy many stories of the same things.

Bergson and Heidegger unite in engaging in the project of framing time in terms of time, pure time and originary time, that is, explicating time in time terms, “time will – itself – tell”, get them to cohere thereby letting time explain itself better or more fully than general theoretical accounts, which have often enough misled into problems, paradoxes, and strange conclusions. (Here they probably both do assume that such a complete expansion of the concept will be whole, free from internal ruffles). Leave aside their reasons for dissatisfaction with the standard time. No one has ever, to my knowledge, disputed time is a fundamental category. So the ‘origin’ of time should probably not be equated or confused with the ‘beginning’ of time (which Heidegger’s ‘primordial’ may suggest, but Bergson avoids). Then what is one to understand by origin? Right there another question surfaces, is it ‘an’ or ‘the’ origin? That aside, too. The best account (analysis, explication, expansion of a concept) is the one that dissolves not this and that, but all those misunderstandings leading to problems, puzzles, etc. That understanding, as is the commonsense task of philosophy, that understand misunderstandings is the deeper (the better, perhaps even correct) understanding. Mis- and partial understandings originate, are generated, by incomplete (inauthentic) notions, fx. those conditioned by irrelevant, extraneous, conditions, assumptions and presuppositions. That way Bergson’s and Heidegger’s discard of other metaphysics makes some sense, clearing the way for their proposed accounts – remaining to be seen is whether theirs generate similar, other, or insolvable problems. That’s where exegesis ends and critical assessment takes over. Until that’s done, they remain theories. I don’t mind repeat, theories are about what you don’t know, cover ignorance, once you know the facts – and I don’t think for a minute that either of them would disown facticity of time – theory is discarded. Whichever “method”, fashionable or unfashionable, is deployed, complete understanding, in the sense just mentioned, we can all agree, is (to borrow that expression) the being of philosophy. So time rises from down under, under-stands, temporalizings beings live out. Should one succumb to the craving for definition, Heidegger’s would go something like this: a coming toward oneself out of the future by coming back to one’s having-been; and Bergson’s something like: an inner qualitative multiplicity of past, present and future. The crux then becomes the paradox of definitions: if definiendum and definiens are equivalent, synonymous, the definition consequently true, it’s like a tautology and bland (uninformative) – if, on the other hand, they are not equivalent, the definition consequently false, it’s spurious and misleading. Both of the above are, despite complex forms, kinds of definitions.

Definitions are often made the goal of ontology. Whenever one reads (a piece by) Heidegger, his unremitting push for ontology seeds speculations as to what exactly – or even inexactly – ontology is. One proposal is that it’s the essential philosophical task, thanks to Parmenides, what is is, and its consequent tail wagger thru, practically speaking all, other philosophers. Hence ‘the ontology of being’ has a pleonastic ring to it. Still Heidegger is up to eschew traditional philosophy, perhaps even restart philosophy as such – by, alas, the very same. In a sense, but only in a sense, both he and Bergson spoil, side-track, that task by insisting being is conditioned by time, being is not of prime importance, time is. And what is time then? Is it? And here they agree, time is the character, the essense of, the primary sense of beings: consciousness. This, nearly clandestine, shift of topic from being as such to human being’s timing could also be said to replace ontology with anthropology. Both, unwilling to abandon the world, when it comes down to it, fight subjectivism, struggle more or less strainedly, to get that human condition back out into everything, replacing the being of beings with doing (care and utility, respectively) that make rather than take some time, resulting philosophically in brands of pragmatism. Massey provides the details of these struggles, first, how both Bergson and (later) Heidegger labour to criticize, dismiss ordinary or common time as derivative (especially, as mentioned, as deployed in the “natural sciences”) and instate this “original” human time; secondly, how both Bergson and Heidegger again labor, more or less successfully, to derive or reintegrate “world-time”. The C-turn turned things into phenomena, but contra Kant’s things, care and action involve, one might even say ‘imply’, things (incl. other people), so all the other beings, the other things that are besides consciousness, do after all “have”, are of (or in) the same time.


[i] ”ganske usaglige angreb” (c. ”entirely amateurish attacks”) Peter Kemp called them, Bergson, Berlingske Forlag, Copenhagen 1968, p. 19.

[ii] There’s never been doubt that Bergson’s entire oeuvre circles around ‘time’ (more than a 100 years ago dissertations were written precisely about that, e.g. Mircea Florian Der Begriff der Zeit bei Henri Bergson, Greifswald 1914). It was called ‘Bewusstseinmetaphysik’.

[iii] À propos similarity, an aside, similarity to fellow post-kantian relativists, is striking, e.g., Nelson Goodman would be a close relative. Though he deals with images and meanings as symbols, ecstatic as projection, etc., the structure of symbol systems is making worlds. By not positing an absolute grounding such as being (and then temporality) or life force (and then duration) maybe Goodman avoids a number of troubles that both Bergson and Heidegger have to face.

[iv] Søren Nordentoft argued convincingly that mere absolutizing being (and then temporality) does not prove ontological priority, Heideggers opgør med den filosofiske tradition kritisk belyst, (Hans Reitzel, København 1961) – and that applies as far as I can see to both Bergson and Heidegger.

[v] Could easily be Bergson’s ‘openness to rhythms’ that inspires all the internal clock works going on, cf., e.g., Sue Binkley The Clockwork Sparrow (Prentice Hall 1990), and several of the fanciful cosmological speculations.

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