On Bergson’s Pure Duration and Suzuki’s Sunyata-Tathata

Posted: June 28, 2008 in Bergson, Brain, Causality, Deleuze, Ecology of Sensation, Freedom, Method, Nietzsche, Perception, Representation, Succession, Time, Zen
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Bergson writes in Time and Free Will: “To say that the same inner causes will reproduce the same effects is to assume that the same cause can appear a second time on the stage of consciousness. Now, if duration is what we say, deep seated psychic states are radically heterogeneous to each other, and it is impossible that any two of them should be quite alike, since they are two different moments of a life-story. While the external object does not bear the mark of the time that has elapsed and thus, in spite of the difference of time, the physicist can again encounter identical elementary conditions, duration is something real for the consciousness which preserves the trace of it, and we cannot here speak of identical conditions, because the same moment does not occur twice. It is no use arguing that, even if there are no two deep-seated psychic states which are altogether alike, yet analysis would resolve these different states into more general and homogeneous elements which might be compared with each other. This would be to forget that even the simplest psychic elements possess a personality and a life of their own, however superficial they may be; they are in a constant state of becoming, and the same feeling, by the mere fact of being repeated, is a new feeling. Indeed, we have no reason for calling it by its former name save that it corresponds to the same external cause or projects itself outwardly into similar attitudes: hence it would simply be begging the question to deduce from the so-called likeness of two conscious states that the same cause produces the same effect. In short, if the causal relation still holds good in the realm of inner states, it cannot resemble in any way what we call causality in nature” (199-201). 

Now this brings us to some of the fundamental shifts that Bergson hopes to achieve in the history of philosophy. First, causality in nature is not the same causality of lived duration. Causality, the principle of logical necessity between cause and effect, is an abiding concern in Bergsonian theory, from Bergson himself through to Prigogine, Deleuze, Massumi, Hansen, Grosz, Delanda, Shaviro, and onward. One might pose usefully it seems to me the relation between Deleuze’s quasi-cause (as elaborated in the Logic of Sense) and Bergson’s non-linear causality of becoming. What is most important in this relation? First, time is an irreducible component of all physical and psychic being, its being in belonging to mixtures of co-evolution. Assemblages only happen in time, although time is not “of” an assemblage (by which we mean that temporal relations cannot give us “types” of assemblages, only statistical probabilities and their indefinable unfolding, patterned but stochastic). In that sense, non-linear causality helps us to pose becoming as an unfolding of resonant processes, which while statistically regular on large scales (robust to shocks), are nonetheless open to chance and mutation at other scales of interactions. This breaks with the notion that causes are fixed, unified, and predictable–they are none of those things in the short (human consciousness) and long (embedded timescales of evolution) run. 

But this brings us to a lingering problem in Bergson–at least in this text (we might usefully compare this to the much later Creative Evolution). Why does Bergson reduce pure succession to lived durations in consciousness? Many times, he insists that pure duration is only so for a consciousness which endures. But does this have to be so? Many today would argue that everything–from a sugar cube on fire or dissolving in a glass of water to the swirling hurricane-like vortex at Saturn’s south pole (see http://ciclops.org/view/2313/Looking_Saturn_in_the_Eye)–endures. Stuart Kauffman asks rightly by what criteria do we say such phenomena (he is mostly talking about dissipative structures like the vortex Great Red Spot on Jupiter, not sugar cubes! See At Home in the Universe 20-21) is or is not alive. There is a lively debate here on the nature of life, and it centers precisely on duration and non-linear causality. 

There are other relations to also keep in mind with the above quote. The insistence that no psychic state can have a predictable causal relation to subsequent psychic states is part of the larger project of grappling with the pure succession “by imperceptible steps” of intensive processes. That time cannot be figured (or pre-figured, as Bergson shows in his analysis of the future in present causality) as space–indeed, once it is figured at all, as symbolical representation, time becomes space–is the central thesis of this thesis (yes, this was his doctoral thesis, sheesh!). Time is a continuous, non-quantifiable multiplicity, and the aim of Bergson’s thought is to aspire to a form of intuitive rationality commensurate with time’s becoming. 


Some definitions: endos·mo·sis (en′däs mōsis)noun, in osmosis, the more rapid, inward diffusion of the less dense fluid through the semipermeable membrane to mingle with the more dense

Hylozoism is the philosophical conjecture that all or some material things possess life, or that all life is inseparable from matter.” 

Thus, Bergson glosses a fluid, imperceptible transference as a habit of thought: “We have seen that, though our deepest conscious states exclude numerical multiplicity, yet we break them up into parts external to one another; that though the elements of concrete duration permeate one another, duration expressing itself in extensity exhibits moments as distinct as the bodies scattered in space. Is it surprising, then, that between the moments of our life, when it has been, so to speak, objectified, we set up a relation analogous to the objective relation of causality, and that an exchange, which again may be compared to the phenomenon of endosmosis, takes place between the dynamic idea of free effort and the mathematical concept of necessary determination? But the sundering of these two ideas is an accomplished fact in the natural sciences” (218). Bergson has just suggested that “Here again the mistake made by consciousness arises from the fact that it looks at the self, not directly, but by a kind of refraction through the forms which it has lent to external perception, and which the latter does not give back without having left its mark on them” (217). The aim here as elsewhere is to restore to consciousness pure duration, and to stop treating time “as a homogeneous medium” (220); the obstacle is consciousness itself in its habits of reducing pure succession to simultaneity, difference to the homogeneous, and thus spatializing what ought to be understood as enduring. 

“We have seen that, though our deepest conscious states exclude numerical multiplicity, yet we break them up into parts external to one another; that though the elements of concrete duration permeate one another, duration expressing itself in extensity exhibits moments as distinct as the bodies scattered in space. Is it surprising, then, that between the moments of our life, when it has been, so to speak, objectified, we set up a relation analogous to the objective relation of causality, and that an exchange which again may be compared to the phenomenon of endosmosis, takes place between the dynamic idea of free effort and the mathematical concept of necessary determination?” (218). One could easily object that what after all is “our deepest conscious states”–is it some kind of essentialism of consciousness, and even more troubling doesn’t Bergson assume that he has gotten (we readers) there? Like many of the problematic terms that Bergson uses–purity, for me, most of all–it seems that the deepest conscious state actually turns out to be a confused mixture of imperceptible succession. But, then, could free will be located in something so confused and heterogeneous?

“We can now formulate our conception of freedom. Freedom is the relation of the concrete self to the act which it performs. This relation is indefinable, just because we are free. For we can analyse a thing, but not a process ; we can break up extensity, but not duration. Or, if we persist in analysing it, we unconsciously transform the process into a thing and duration into extensity. By the very fact of breaking up concrete time we set out its moments in homogeneous space ; in place of the doing we put the already done ; and, as we have begun by, so to speak, stereotyping the activity of the self, we see spontaneity settle down into inertia and freedom into necessity. Thus, any positive definition of freedom will ensure the victory of determinism” (219-20). 

What is after all concrete? Does it have a difference resonance in French? We would need to check the French which I have not done…But strikingly freedom is a relation of a body (a perceiving, cognizing, multiplicity) to specific kinds of actions; but this relation is graspable not as a definition but a definite process with a definite, but non-spatial, non-repeatable, singular, and irreversible duration. 

“To sum up ; every demand for explanation in regard to freedom comes back, without our suspecting it, to the following question Can time be adequately represented by space ? “To which we answer : Yes, if you are dealing with time flown ; No, if you speak of time flowing. Now, the free act takes place in time which is flowing and not in time which has already flown. Freedom is therefore a fact, and among the facts which we observe there is none clearer. All the difficulties of the problem, and the problem itself, arise from the desire to endow duration with the same attributes as extensity, to interpret a succession by a simultaneity, and to express the idea of freedom in a language into which it is obviously untranslatable” (221). 

So what then do we do with this undefinable relation, this fact called freedom? It is to insist the the absolutely undetermined event must be the constituted outside of all relations, all actions of the brain or body, the embodied mind, are constituted by this outside folded into the repetitions of its intensities. But note then that the folding of freedom into a process without end, or foreseeable product, is to insist that the aim of life is to actualize this experience of freedom by giving oneself to a given practice. The outside becomes the most intimate, and even the very stability of subject and object breaks down in duration. The outside simply turns out to be the virtual proceeding of the actual. 

There remains the problem of adequation. Is the language used by Bergson–intensity, sensation, sympathy, duration, succession, freedom, relation, action, perception–is this the language which best expresses the idea of freedom? And if it does, has this language escaped the spatializing tendency of symbolical representation? How?

The obvious, if not quite fully satisfying answer, is that Bergson defines this language as without definition, without visual perspective, the done product grasped in vision as opposed to the imperceptible unfolding of the lived duration of an event: a kind of synaesthesia of time. So in that sense the formulation (as translated) of Bergson’s triumphant sentence last quoted has this double sense, of a thought that has not left the desire for adequation, and thus for space, and a dim realization of a method that has found a kind of transcendental empiricism as its practice. To grow old and young in the event at once, to discover the untimely in all things, at every moment as an affirmation of freedom. But perhaps the post-Nietzschean/ Deleuzian experiment with Bergson is our new spatialization (for an attempt to practice something like that for media assemblage theory see: Deleuze, Cinema, and Zen: Break the Motor)? Is it not possible that concepts once monstrous but now part of the machinery of capture and domestication, as they enter the world of philosophy, of sociology, or literary and media criticism inevitably ossify the durational into the spatial, become the product (with their own cultural capital accruing or waning) of that which has already escaped it?  

How to think durational movement without product, space, simultaneity–without telos (goal, aim)? How could such a thought make a claim to 1. thought, 2. politics, 3. the future?

A practical way to go forward here is to compare some of Bergson’s theses on duration to Suzuki on Zen. In his 1951 paper “The Philosophy of Zen” (Philosophy East and West, 1:2, 3-16), Daisetz Suzuki writes that “When I say that Zen is life, I mean that Zen is not to be confined within conceptualization, that Zen is what makes conceptualization possible, and therefore that Zen is not to be identified with any particular brand of ‘ism'” (3). I take conceptualization here to mean symbolical representation, that it comes out of life itself, or what Bergson calls lived duration. Suzuki goes on to say that the experience of Zen is best expressed–again we are to contemplate what forms of expression, language, indeed (non)conceptualization best describes the non-conceptualizable–by the doctrine of sunyata which “means emptiness” but has no direct equivalence in English. It is not a negative term, it “is a positive concept with a definite connotation, but it ought not to be considered an outcome of abstraction or generalization, for it is not a postulated idea. It is what makes the existence of anything possible, but it is not to be conceived immanently, as if it lay hidden in or under every existence as an independent entity. A world of relativities is set on and in sunyata; sunyata envelops, as it were, the whole world, and yet is in every object existing in the world” (4). Sunyata is the experience that reconciles the contradiction between immanentism and transcendentalism. 

When we are out of sunyata we experience the duality of object/subject, but in it we are “in Zen.” “To experience means to become aware of, but not in the way in which we become aware of the world of sense-and-intellect. In the latter case, we always have a subject that is aware of something and an object of which the subject is aware, for the world of sense-and-intellect is a dichotomous world of subject and object. This unique way consists in sunyata’s remaining in itself and yet making itself an object of experience to itself. This means dividing itself and yet holding itself together” (5). Clearly, sunyata would be an experience that would fundamentally call into question causality and non-contradiction, and in that sense Bergson’s notion of the qualitative multiplicity of lived duration before symbolical representation would help us to affirm this experience. But, on the one hand, Suzuki is too categorical in his dismissal of logic. Aren’t there different logics which proceed through the pragmatism of functional mixtures and dynamic thresholds? Topological reasoning would be one example, tactical media (see Race, Perception, and the Institutionalization of Networks) would be another. More, isn’t intuitional reason a kind of logic of sense? On the other, sunyata helps us to critically engage the desire for adequation that marks Bergson’s final passage quoted above. 

Sunyata can help us to focus, to stay focused on the interminable process of a method, that is like one continuous mistake. A practice of the false. “Reasoning defeats itself, finds itself altogether futile, in its attempt to reach sunyata, because reasoning, instead of trying to see sunyata itself in the process of reasoning, strives to reach sunyata as the goal of reasoning, that is, when all the reasoning comes to an end” (6). Suzuki’s Zen and Bergson’s duration converge here on the insistence that one cannot substitute analysis for process-practice without turning time into space. 

But we should not lose site of the fact that for Suzuki, in Zen there is the experience of “sudden enlightenment.” We should not take this too seriously, or too lightly. “When sunyata is awakened to itself or becomes aware of itself, which is ‘knowing and seeing’ itself, we have another name for it: sunyata is tathata. Tathata is everyday thought, it is “an affirmation through and through” (6). But tathata is sunyata, and sunyata is tathata. “A Buddhist philosopher declares: A mountain is a mountain and water is water before a sunyata-experience takes place; but after it a mountain is not a mountain and water is not water; but again when the experience deepens, a mountain is a mountain and water is water” (7).

Nothing special, like a frog just sitting. We are reminded here of another Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki who in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970) wrote: “Zen stories, or koans, are very difficult to understand before you know what we are doing moment after moment. But if you know exactly what we are doing in each moment, you will not find koans so difficult. There are so many koans. I have often talked to you about a frog, and each time everybody laughs. But a frog is very interesting. He sits like us, too, you know. But he does not think that he is doing anything so special. When you go to a zendo and sit, you may think you are doing some special thing. While your husband or wife is sleeping, you are practicing zazen! You are doing some special thing, and your spouse is lazy! That may be your understanding of zazen. But look at the frog. A frog also sits like us, but he has no idea of zazen. Watch him. If something annoys him, he will make a face. If something comes along to eat, he will snap it up and eat, and he eats sitting. Actually that is our zazen—not any special thing. Here is a kind of frog koan for you. Baso was a famous Zen master called the Horse-master. He was the disciple of Nangaku, one of the Sixth Patriarch’s disciples. One day while he was studying under Nangaku, Baso was sitting, practicing zazen. He was a man of large physical build; when he talked, his tongue reached to his nose; his voice was loud; and his zazen must have been very good. Nangaku saw him sitting like a great mountain or like a frog. Nangaku asked, “What are you doing?” ‘Tampracticingzazen,” Baso replied. “Why are you practicing zazen?” “I want to attain enlightenment; I want to be a Buddha,” the disciple said. Do you know what the teacher did? He picked up a tile, and he started to polish i t . In Japan, after taking a tile from the kiln, we polish it to give it a beautiful finish. So Nangaku picked up a tile and started to polish it. Baso, his disciple, asked, “What are you doing?” “I want to make this tile into a  jewel,” Nangaku said. “How is it possible to make a tile a jewel?” Baso asked. “How is it possible to become a Buddha by practicing zazen?” Nangaku replied. “Do you want to attain Buddhahood ? There is no Buddhahood besides your ordinary mind. When a cart does not go, which do you whip, the cart or the horse?” the master asked. Nangaku’s meaning here is that whatever you do, that is zazen. True zazen is beyond being in bed or sitting in the zendo. If your husband or wife is in bed, that is zazen. If you think, “I am sitting here, and my spouse is in bed,” then even though you are sitting here in the cross-legged position, that is not true zazen. You should be like a frog always. That is true zazen.”

This is too beautiful not to quote in full, and in any case, as Patricia Clough and I affirmed to each other just before we saw Wall-E with As’sia, my daughter, we only aspire to bring together in a new diagram the force of innumerable quotes!

In any case, Daisetz Suzuki differentiates sunyata-tathata from pragmatism by radically de-linking practice from teleology, and Zen from time. “Time and teleology are interwoven, and Zen transcends time, and therefore, teleology also” (8). But what Bergson has shown throughout his life’s work is that time is teleology only after the done is separated from the doing, the product from the process, that is when time is spaced. But lived duration, and the intuitional reason that gives it its singular dynamism, its pure potentiality, is radically free, and also and for precisely that reason, non-teleological. 

But that is not all Susuki has to say here on time; indeed, he goes on to suggest that momentalistic Zen is not, because each moment has eternity in it. “To Zen, time and eternity are one. This is open to misinterpretation, as most people interpret Zen as annihilating time and putting in its place eternity, which to them means a state of absolute quietness or doing-nothingness. They forget that if time is eternity, eternity is time, according to Zen. Zen has never espoused the cause of doing-nothing-ness; eternity is our everyday experience in this world of sense-and-intellect, for there is no eternity outside this time-conditionedness. Eternity is possible only in the midst of birth and death, in the midst of time process” (8-9). So eternity is the difference immanent to process (of course in Zen Buddhism, eternity is inseparable from divinity). The (non)aim would be a kind of motionless duration, echoing with a future that will only ever remain potential. I would think this potentiality is divinity, if I needed divinity to make this thought, how shall we say, living. But the thought needs nothing, because it is isomorphic with the life it models, enters into mixtures with it, and emerges as multiform expression. Only certain of the expressive forms–narrative, sign, icon, figuration, discourse, metaphor, montage, syntagmatic unit, character–are recognized and legitimated through pedagogical institutions of gridding and exploitative value, even when they are part of movements of counter-actualization (anarcho-Marxism, ecofeminism, womanist anti-imperialism, Maoist postcolonialism, poly-sexualization). Couldn’t we think of a political practice of counter-actualization in various media–from literature to the screen to the cellphone–that begins with a new lexicon: attach and attack the grid in the grid, denaturalize it, and then radically naturalize it. Expressive forms are thus refunctioned, and the political becomes the untimely in the potentialities of co-evolution. By calling into question the stability of the category “political” itself, new gradients will emerge as a froglike practice reassembles media and their intensities. Strictly, nothing special. 


I don’t mean to fetishize Suzuki’s Zen, because we know of the use Japanese Zen buddhists made of their practice during World War II. Zizek speaks about this in his talk at Google, and his words are important to think about. 




  1. KRishna says:

    “in place of the doing we put the already done ; and, as we have begun by, so to speak, stereotyping the activity of the self, we see spontaneity settle down into inertia and freedom into necessity. Thus, any positive definition of freedom will ensure the victory of determinism”


    Eye are a mobius strip.

    I am not sure about Suzuki’s definition of concept and simmering to symb. rep. (what is the relation between zen and more traditional buddhism in regards to symbols?)

    Either way…maybe OUR problem, if there is one, is that we have thought symbolical representation into a corner (why?) and taken away its own duration. WHy limit the power of symbols? Why intellectually limit the power of anything? What do we know about symbols? Symbols are like everything else, meaning “spirit” can slip through them. There is nothing that spirit, or ki, or chi, or universal life force, or god, cannot move through. Save for maybe our own crystallized thoughts which become a blockage. And always if we try to see, it is trying to seep through that too.

    I think you’ve taught me that anything has the potential for positive use, negative use. Symbols are no different. They can be used to connect with the universal life force (duration?), indeed are used to great effect.

    But maybe I am limiting your concepts and creating my own thought crystal? Flow flow flow, breathe, breathe, breathe. (breathing conciously reinforces our mobius stripness)

  2. KRishna says:

    link to Kate Bush’s “Breathing” video

    recommend full screen

  3. amitsrai says:

    I think I see what you mean here. But what has been the ongoing struggle with language, representation, and symbolization? The first thing has been to break with the binary notion of the sign. That was to think outside of Saussurean linguistics, toward something more pragmatic (Pierce) and embodied (Nietzsche). But Bergson is suggesting something even more radical about language, to wit: all conceptualization is a remove from lived duration, which happens before and to the side of symbolical representation. There is a way to experience symbolical representation which returns intensity to it, but that is after, after the fact of its capture!

  4. Tim says:

    I enjoyed your post. I thought I’d venture to extrapolate one of your phrases, regarding time in eternity:

    “The (non)aim would be a kind of motionless duration, echoing with a future that will only ever remain potential.”

    I think the loss of subjectivity is key to this notion. As I understand it, we experience ourselves conventionally as standing anchors in time, which allows us to contrast present effects with past causes. In Zen then, with the loss of self as the stable anchor, all that can initially be said to be experienced is change. But a dialectical reverse occurs simultaneously: if there is no permanent self, there can be no notion of change. If everything is in flux, this amounts to no change whatsoever – there being no fixed standpoint from which to characterise change. In thus revealing their conceptual interdependence, neither can be said to apply in the final analysis.

    Therein lies the limits of language, resulting in the apophatic or ‘via negativa’ writings of mystics. Not this, not that! Neti neti.

    Keep it up!

    • amitsrai says:

      I liked that, Tim, thank you. I think there is an overcoming of both language and concepts in the practices of Zen, or Deleuzian aesthetico-politics. But this overcoming should be thought of as a denial of language or concepts, but a transformation in the habits of the body associated with them. This is why the emphasis (for instance in Varela’s Ethical Know-How) on a continuous transformation of patterns of enaction (assembling forms of life through repetitive intensive processes). Anyway, thanks!

  5. Kreuzfahrten says:

    That was very illuminating piece of writing!

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