Bergson and the Invention of Time

By Sam Berlin

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson (1911, p.342) notes that physics can only describe time using the ‘cinematic method’ – our ability to understand and reference time is limited to representations. These representations form the basis of human relationships with time and constitute the lived experience of it. We are unable to approach time ‘out there’ except obliquely, through biological capacities, the deployment of linguistic tools such as description and metaphor, and technological mediations. Because these are all that is directly available to us, biological rhythms and cues, metaphors of time, and technologies become time to us.

These phenomena – time and its representations and mediations – are the subject of the MSc unit Geographies of Time and Timing. While it may seem counterintuitive that time could be an area of geographical enquiry, not only is the human experience of space intimately interlinked with our experience of time, but the ways we experience time – those mediations and representations – themselves have complicated histories and geographies. As social scientists, it is important for human geographers to understand time as it is experienced in order to understand how sociality occurs in respect to the persistent march of time.

What follows in an excerpt from a paper I wrote for the Time and Timing unit about the relationship between physical time and how time is lived and represented within human societies and human bodies. In this excerpt, I discuss the relationship between ‘objective’ (physical) time and consciousness, and the ways that time is experienced through memory, intuition and sense. It is the need for these processes to apprehend time that underpinned the development of the representations of time that we take for granted today.


Time ‘out there’

Lived, human time is built both on the basis of (and as a tool for approaching) a pre-existing physical time – what is referred to as ‘B-series’ or ‘objective’ time (Bear 2014, p.16; Hodges 2008, p.404). B-series time is invisible and impossible to isolate. It is fundamentally inaccessible and not directly observable, and as a result, it can only be known theoretically, through physics and philosophy (Nuñez and Cooperrider 2013).

Contemporary philosophies of time are highly influenced by the work of Bergson, alongside Deleuze’s later elaboration of his ideas. Time in the Bergsonian/Deleuzian tradition differs from conventional conceptions of time in that it is neither synchronic nor cyclical. Instead, time is based on ‘durations’, or periods of present existence, from which other times emanate. Understood this way, time can be seen to be both singular (fleeting ‘real’ presents) and infinitely multiple (Hodges 2008).

The infinite span of time, its multiplicity, is a result of the ‘virtuality’ of time, or the infinite range of possible futures that emerge from the present. Like the future, the past is also manifested as virtualities in the present, as it persists through the present as memory. The result of understanding both the past and future as virtualities in the present is that the distinction between the past, present, and future becomes difficult to maintain, as all exist at the same point in time (Hodges 2008).

Phenomenological time

Bergsonian time relies on the existence of a world ‘out there’ that is fundamentally real as it is perceived. Whether the outside world is real or not is unknowable, and thus a moot point in day-to-day life. Phenomenological accounts of time thus focus on time of the perceived world as it exists in consciousness.

Husserl’s description of time consciousness is one such account. According to Husserl, time is a medium across which consciousness maintains itself. It does this through a continuity of mental acts of ‘impression’, ‘retention’, and ‘protention’ (Gallagher and Varela 2003, p.114). The objects of this cycle are both that which is perceived and consciousness itself, and from a phenomenological perspective, the cycle constitutes both.

It is this recursion through time that consciousness organises itself along. Consciousness must be able to refer not just to the (fleeting) present, but also the past and the future to complete practically any task (Gallagher and Varela 2003, pp.113-116). For example, catching a ball requires knowing where it is now (in the present) and where it just was (in the past) in order to decide where it will soon be at the point of catching it (in the future). Impressions of the ball’s path, made in the recently-present-but-now-past, are continually retained in ever-elapsing present moments (incessantly becoming past) in order to portend another soon-to-arrive present (the future), so as to prepare for it. This parallels the Bergsonian/Deleuzian model of time described above, in that the past and the future are both located in the present as the virtualities of memory and intention.

The functioning of consciousness is an extension of this process, complicated by its composition as an enormous array of smaller, synchronised phenomenological time cycles that function across a range of scales (such as short-term, long-term, and historical memory). These processes must be coordinated in time in order to maintain the synchronicity required by the mind and body to function. This results from the ‘double intentionality’ that forms a part of this cycle of applied memory (Gallagher and Varela 2003, p.115). In preparing for the future, we do not only retain the object of perception in our passing presents, but also a meta-awareness of our awareness of the object, and thus remain conscious of our presence in our perception of time. The retention of this awareness is the raw material for both our consciousness of time and consciousness itself. Self-consciousness and time-consciousness converge, emphasising two parts of the phenomena of perception and retention against a backdrop of ceaseless change (and ceaseless inputs), while ‘meta’ time-consciousness provides the framework time-consciousness needs to continue.


Movement and time-space

These accounts of time-consciousness are dependent on memory and the ability to carry out comparisons in real time. We are constantly invoking memory (at various levels) in order to judge change and movement. I know I’ve caught the ball because it is in my hand now and it wasn’t before. I heard it hit my hand, though now there is no sound. I feel it in my hand, where before there was emptiness. I saw it in the air; I see it in my palm. Every part of this consciousness involves a comparison of past and present, the past only accessible through memory.

Comparison relies on memory, and memory relies on the senses. We are only able to remember that which has entered our minds, and everything that enters our minds from our environments does so by means of the senses. As a result, perception of time in the external world cannot be separated from sensory input. Perceiving time is, in fact, the same process as sensing movement and change; time itself is elusive.

Because movement and time are perceived (and lived) in the same way, perception of time in the external world cannot be distinguished from perceptions of space, as being ‘in time’ is intuited from movement and stillness in space (May and Thrift 2001).  If the world and everything on it ceased moving, we would be ‘frozen in time’. Whether ‘real’ physical time ‘out there’ had stopped would be unknowable. Subjective time, however, would end, as experience itself would become impossible.

Conclusion: phenomenology and ‘objective’ time

‘Objective’ B-series time is, by definition, independent of human beings to the degree of complete inaccessibility. It would be very anthropocentric to assume that, with the passing of the human race, so would go a fundamental physical building-block of the universe. But from a phenomenological perspective (in which our time-sense is located), this is exactly what might happen, as we have no way of ascertaining whether B-series time or the rest of the world ‘out there’ really exists or not.

This may seem to be an invocation of philosophy where it doesn’t belong, since as far as everyday life is concerned, the world ‘out there’ is real enough, and there are few better alternative explanations for us to fall back on. But upon deeper inspection into the realities of human time-senses and time cultures, phenomenology is revealed not to be a distraction, but rather a central question to what ‘objective’ time is, as from our perspective, there is no other observable existence to B-series time except as it exists to us. Aside from theoretical physics or schemas that simply replace time with movement (Merriman 2011), though indirect, phenomenological experience is our only way of approximately observing time.  In this respect, ‘objective’ time refers to a series of explanations of an unknowable facet of reality – human invention rather than that reality itself.



Bear, L. (2014) Doubt, conflict, mediation: the anthropology of modern time. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 20 (S1), 3-30.

Bergson, H. (1911) Creative Evolution. New York: Camelot Press.

Gallagher, S. and Varela, F. (2013) Redrawing the Map and Resetting the Time: Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 33 (S1), 93-132.

Hodges, M. (2008) Rethinking time’s arrow: Bergson, Deleuze and the anthropology of time. Anthropological Theory, 8 (4), 399-429.

May, J. and Thrift, N. (2001) Introduction. In: J. May and N. Thrift, eds. Timespace: Geographies of Temporality. London: Routledge.

Merriman, P. (2011) Human geography without time-space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37 (1), 13-27.

Nuñez, R. and Cooperrider, K. (2013) The tangle of space and time in human cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (5), 220-229.


Further reading

Deleuze, G. (1988) Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books.

Glennie, P. and Thrift, N. (2009) Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackenzie, A. (2001) The Technicity of Time: From 1.00 oscillations/sec to 9,192,631,770 Hz. Time and Society, 10, 235-257.



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