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
State University of New York Press
Paperback $25.95

Reviewed by: Massimiliano Zanin (The Innaxis Foundation & Research Institute José Ortega y Gasset)

This work offers a comparative analysis of two philosophers of the 19th and 20th century, Henri Bergson and Martin Heidegger, around their revision of the concept of time. If Heidegger is considered one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, the former is much less popular. Indeed, Bergson’s ideas are classified as old-fashioned by some, ignored by others. Nevertheless, in their analysis of the concept of time, both Bergson and Heidegger share many similarities, casting doubts about such difference in recognition. Massey’s book specifically focusses on the relation between Heidegger and Bergson, how much the former constructs on top of the ideas of the latter, and to what degree is Heidegger unfair in dismissing Bergson’s ideas as old-fashioned.

At first glance, both philosophers appear to walk quite different paths. Bergson criticises classical thinkers for being almost obsessed with the idea of getting rid of time, and thus elevate the mind from the temporal realm to a position from which the eternal can be contemplated. In doing so, temporal phenomena are mainly interpreted as spatial ones: this raises many problems, the most important being free will. According to Bergson, the solution is to “go back into duration”, and distinguish between “pure duration”, a succession of overlapping qualitative states, and “time”, our way of measuring duration and making it explicit in spatial terms. Heidegger’s approach is somewhat more radical. He avoids questions such as“what is time?”, as they already presuppose that time is something; the problem is thus shifted towards understanding the origin of the concept itself and to see how time , and the objectiveness we attribute to it, emerges from a priori structures of consciousness. At the end, time emerges from the way Dasein understands and interprets being itself. Despite these differences, it has to be recognised that both thinkers share a common goal: challenge the common conception of time as something akin to space, an idea that was shared by philosophers from Aristotle to Kant.

Throughout Heidegger’ works,  several reference are made to Bergson’s ideas, mostly dismissed as old-fashioned, if not mere copies of Aristotle’s ones: bad examples from which Heidegger wants to differentiate himself. The aim of this book is to show that this is indeed not true and that Bergson’s theory of time is indeed quite revolutionary . This is achieved by accentuating that Heidegger himself partly constructs on top of what proposed by the French philosopher. While Heidegger deeply studied the work of Bergson and engaged with Bergson’s theories, he never acknowledged that fact. Massey thus tries to  shed light on the true relationship between the two philosophers, focusing on the period from 1915 to 1928, in which Heidegger most directly confronts the ideas of Bergson.

The relationship between Heideggerand Bergson’s ideas on time is complex and in constant evolution. Massey makes this evident in the book structure. It starts in Chapter 1 with an analysis of Heidegger’s work before Being and Time, mainly based on several lectures, e.g. his habilitation lecture of 1915. In this first phase, Heidegger mainly analyses Bergson’s Time and Free Will, on the one hand praising him for distinguishing between time and duration, while on the other hand criticising him for not being radical enough in his thinking. Chapter 2 reverses this approach, by deeply analysing Bergson’s Time and Free Will and explaining the ideas there contained. Chapters 3 and 4 go back to Heidegger, respectively with an analysis of Being and Time and of The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Here, Heidegger’s critique become more explicit. He associates Bergson’s theories with that of Aristotle, suggesting Bergson equates time with space, a thesis that is easily dismissed in the light of what was explored in Chapter 2. He goes further suggesting that Bergson misunderstood the message of Aristotle, although we should consider this with caution as it is based on rather “free” interpretations of the classical Physics text. Finally, Heidegger criticises the fact that Bergson neglects the question of being which is later disproved in Chapter 5, where the evolution of the concept of time in Bergson’s Matter and Memory is presented and discussed.

What will the reader learn from this book? Well, quite a lot. Massey does an excellent job in showing the evolution of both philosophers’ thought. Indeed, deas are not presented as static objects, but as dynamical entities evolving through time. This embodied in the very structure of the book, in which the focus oscillates between Bergson and Heidegger, actually suggesting that there is a subtle parallelism in the evolution of both philosophers’ ideas.  All concepts are presented clearly with many references to other thinkers that have discussed similar topics – from Kant to Dilthey and Husserl among others. It has to be appreciated that the text is far from being a simple collection of copy/pasted reference.While relevant paragraphs are reported, the author always presents the main ideas in an original and accessible way. As a result, the text itself   remains appealing even when  complicated concepts are discussed.

The main objective of the book is achieved insofar as it elucidates the relationships between both philosophers. It clearly illustrates that Heidegger’s criticism of Bergson is  not always founded, and that in some cases his own work leverages on concepts previously developed by the french philospher. But beyond this,one has the impression that something else is missing, and that Heidegger’s dismissal of Bergson’s work may be due to conflicts of a personal nature.

If a lot can be learnt from this book, this does not mean that it could be used as a textbook on Bergson’s or Heidegger’s philosophies, not evento explain their conceptualisation of time. This is especially clear in the introduction, many concepts, which will be subsequently developed, are shortly presented and discussed. Someone who is not familiar with such concepts may easily get confused, although any doubt will be clarified in the main part of the text. It is an interesting exercise to go back and read again the introduction after having finished the book the introduction then becomes the conclusion.

All in all, Massey’s book is highly recommendable. While it does not provide an overall view of theories related to time, as the title may initially suggests, it nevertheless presents us with two theories. Their commonalities and differences, and the relationships between them and other classical visions of time are all outlined clearly and in a well organised way.

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