Forget the Virtual: Bergson, Actualism, and the Refraction of Reality

John Mullarkey

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    In this essay I critique a particular reading of Bergson that places an excessive weight on the concept of the ‘virtual’. Driven by the popularity of Deleuze’s use of the virtual, this image of Bergson (seen especially through his text of 1896, Matter and Memory, where the idea is introduced) generates an imbalance that fails to recognise the importance of concepts of actuality, like space or psychology, in his other works. In fact, I argue that the virtual is not the key concept for Bergsonism and that there is a good deal of evidence in Bergson’s other writings, especially those connected with his actualist notion of ‘refraction’, to think of him as a perspectivist philosopher. Moreover, it will be seen that Virtualism resides within an economy of reflection that is subsumed within the broader paradigm of Actualist refraction. Taking these optical metaphors seriously, the virtual becomes a perspectival image seen from an actual position, or rather, an interacting set of actual positions. This interaction is termed ‘virtualization’, denoting the substitution of a substantive conception with a processual one. In the first two parts of the essay, I direct my remarks more towards Deleuzian readings of the actual rather than Deleuze himself (Deleuze is so open about the biases he brings to his reading of Bergson as to be beyond criticism). In the second two sections, I pursue a philosophical argument for the probity of a non-Virtualist position as such within philosophy, based upon the concept of refraction. This is done not only because it is important that we remain open to other readings of Bergson that are not so heavily mediated in one direction, but also in view of the power of refraction as a new concept for reconciling actual modes such as molar identity, the present, and extension, with their virtual opposites.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)469-493
    Number of pages25
    JournalContinental Philosophy Review
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2004


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