Intuition of the Instant: French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Our Paradoxical Experience of Time
By Maria Popova
“All eternity is in the moment,” Mary Oliver wrote. One of the greatest lines of poetry is also a sublime summation of one of the greatest debates in the history of science and philosophy: the nature of time. In 1932, exactly a decade after Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson’s famous confrontation on the matter, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884–October 19, 1962) addressed this question with uncommon acuity of insight in Intuition of the Instant (public library) — a timelessly rewarding exploration of “the problems of duration and the instant, of habit and life.”
Puzzled by the paradox of how duration can be composed of instants that are by definition durationless, much as a line is composed of lengthless points, Bachelard begins by considering the nature of the instant and its role in the human experience:
Whether it comes from suffering, or whether it comes from joy, we all experience as human beings this moment of illumination at some point in our lives: a moment when we suddenly understand our own message, a moment when knowledge, by shedding light on passion, detects at once the rules and relentlessness of destiny — a truly synthetic moment when decisive failure, by rendering us conscious of the irrational, becomes the success of thought. That is the locus of the differential of knowledge, the Newtonian burst that allows us to appreciate how insight springs forth from ignorance — the sudden inflection of human genius upon the curvature of life’s progress. Intellectual courage consists in actively and vitally preserving this instant of nascent knowledge, of making it the unceasing fountain of our intuition, and of designing, with the subjective history of our errors and faults, the model of a better, more illuminated life.
Bachelard turns to the essence of this wellspring of knowledge and intellectual courage, the instant, or what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world”:
Time is a reality confined to the instant and suspended between two voids. Although time will no doubt be reborn, it must first die. It cannot transport its being from one instant to another in order to forge duration. The instant is already solitude… It is solitude in its barest metaphysical value. Yet an even more poignant solitude confirms the tragic solitude of the instant: through a sort of creative violence, time limited to the instant isolates us not only from others but even from ourselves, since it breaks with our most cherished past.
Time presents itself as the solitary instant, as the consciousness of solitude… If being is conscious of itself only in the present instant, how could we not realize that the present instant is the sole domain in which reality is experienced? If we were eventually to eliminate our being we should still have to start from ourselves to prove being.
But even the instant, in its singular suddenness, is marked by the duality that permeates every aspect of the human experience, just like love presupposes frustration and happiness presupposes difficulty. In one of the book’s most piercing sentences, Bachelard observes:
If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer, and that a young or tragic novelty — always sudden — never ceases to illustrate the essential discontinuity of time.
In other words, any notion of the instant requires a notion of duration — a paradox also at the heart of ancient Eastern traditions and their concern with cultivating the art of staying present, the notion of staying being a function of duration and presence bearing the immediacy of the instant.
Bachelard traces this disconnect from philosophy to science — shortly after Einstein’s relativity rattled our understanding of time, he laments that mathematicians have dehumanized time by reducing it to measurable units of duration:
Upon entering the domain of such prophets of the abstract, time is hence reduced to a simple algebraic variable — the variable par excellence — better suited to the analysis of the possible than to the examination of the real. Continuity is indeed a schema of pure possibility for mathematicians, rather than an essential character of reality.
This view, Bachelard argues, makes it impossible to locate the instant — where does it belong, exactly, in this dominion of durations? He considers Bergson’s ideas about time and duration:
The human intellect, in its ineptitude to pursue what is vital, immobilizes time within an ever-artificial present. Such present is pure nothingness — a nothingness that cannot even succeed at truly separating past from future. It seems indeed that the past carries its forces into the future, and that the future is necessary as an outlet for forces issuing form the past. A single sweeping life force, an identical élan vital, would thus suffice to consolidate duration. Thought, as a fragment of life, should not impose its rules upon life. Devoted as it is to the contemplation of static being, of spatial being, the intellect must guard against misunderstanding the reality of becoming… It then becomes necessary for us to take time as a whole, if we are to grasp its reality. Time is at the very source of the élan vital. Though life may be showered with flashes of insight, it is truly duration that explains life.
This notion of the parts revealing the whole, Bachelard asserts, holds up in every aspect of life. In a sentiment that Anna Deavere Smith would come to echo decades later in her exhortation to “start now, every day, becoming, in your actions, your regular actions, what you would like to become in the bigger scheme of things,” he writes:
In each of our acts, in the least of our gestures, we should be able to grasp the completeness of what is just unfolding: the end in the beginning.
A century and a half after Hegel admonished against the mistaken conception of knowledge as a static end, Bachelard argues for this incremental accretion of completeness as the dynamic means to human knowledge:
Knowledge is preeminently the work of time… In its labor of knowledge, the mind manifests itself as a series of discrete instants. It is in writing the history of knowledge that the psychologist, like every historian, artificially introduces the string of duration.
Calling to mind Simone Weil’s enduring wisdom on attention, Bachelard considers what gives the instant its temporal gravity and grace:
We must underscore the role of the act of attention in the experience of the instant. For there is no real evidence of such an experience other than in an act of will, in the consciousness that intensifies itself to the point it decides to act.
At the heart of the inquiry is the relationship between time and progress. Bachelard writes:
Life cannot be understood in passive contemplation. Understanding life is more than just living it; it is indeed propelling it forward. Life does not flow along a slope on the axis of objective time that would serve as its channel. Although it may be a form imposed upon time’s successive instants, life always finds its primary reality in an instant. Hence, if we delve into the heart of psychological evidence, to the point where sensation is no more than the complex reflection or response of a simple act of volition — when intense attention concentrates life’s focus upon a single isolated element — then we will become aware that the instant is the truly specific character of time.
With an eye to how the rise of relativity theory challenged the notion of duration as the primary principle for the ordering of events, Bachelard adds:
Duration can only accrue in an artificial way, in a climate of preexisting conventions and definitions [and] its alleged unity comes only from the idle generality of our investigations. The instant reveals itself, on the other hand, as capable of precision and objectivity. We can sense in it the mark of something definite and absolute.
Writing just a few years after Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the illusory elasticity of time, Bachelard adds:
Like substance, duration delivers nothing but phantoms. Duration and substance are, indeed, forever enacting the fable of the deceived deceiver in a hopeless reciprocity with regard to one another: becoming as the phenomenon of substance, substance as the phenomenon of becoming.
Time is noticed solely through instants; duration … is felt solely through instants. Duration is a dust cloud of instants or, better yet, a group of points organized more or less coherently by a phenomenon of perspective.
Decades before Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman made the distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self, Bachelard writes:
The point is to become aware that the immediate experience of time is not the experience of duration — elusive, difficult, and abstruse as it is — but rather the sober experience of the instant, apprehended in its immobility. All that is simple and strong in us, even all that is enduring, is the fit of an instant.
Long before Oliver Sacks offered the scientific counterpart to this philosophical observation, Bachelard writes:
Memory, that guardian of time, guards the instant alone. It preserves nothing, absolutely nothing, of our complicated and artificial sense of duration.
Attention… receives its entire intensity value within a single instant.
Since attention has both the need and the power to recapture itself, it is in essence to be found entirely in its resumptions. Attention is also a series of beginnings; it is constituted by those mental rebirths that occur in consciousness when it heeds time’s instants.
Intuition of the Instant, translated from French by Eileen Rizo-Patron, is a mind-stretching read in its slim but potent entirety. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on time and our thinking ego and Claudia Hammond on the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid and speeds up as you age, then revisit Bachelard on love, solitude, and happiness and the meditative magic of housework.
Published January 18, 2016