Henri-Louis Bergson (October 18, 1859 – January 4, 1941) was a major French philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century. He was widely popular during his lifetime and his lectures in Paris were attended not only by philosophers and students, but also by artists, theologians, social theorists, and even the general public. At the core of his philosophy is his theory of “duration,” which he understands to be the ultimate and irreducible reality. Although Bergson understood duration to be the unified flow of time or becoming, he fought hard against all mechanistic and naturalistic interpretations of this temporal flux. Rather, he argued that duration is the élan vital or vital force of life, which evolves not as a result of brute forces (as in Darwinian evolution) but in a spontaneous and creative way. This “creative evolution,” which is basically free, is what allows for different forms of life to emerge. Methodologically Bergson argued that the élan vital of duration cannot be apprehended by the rational intellect or conceptual understanding but instead through intuition. Only in intuition can one enter into this passing of time and so experience at the concrete level the flux of becoming as the ultimate reality.
Bergson was born on October 18, 1859, in the Rue Lamartine, in Paris. Both his parents were Jewish, but while his father, a musician, came from a Polish background, his mother was English. His family lived in London for a few years after his birth, but before he was nine, his parents crossed the English Channel and settled in France. It was there that the young Henri became a naturalized citizen of the Republic.
Bergson attended the Lycée Fontaine in Paris, from 1868 to 1878. In early adulthood he excelled in science and mathematics, winning prizes in both fields. In fact, he won a prize for a solution to a complex mathematical problem that had originally been presented by Pascal. The solution was published in Annales de Mathématiques and was Bergson’s first published work. Despite these early accomplishments in the hard sciences, Bergson decided to pursue a career in the humanities. At the age of nineteen he entered the famous École Normale Supérieure, where he earned the degree of Licence-ès-Lettres, and later in 1881, the Agrégation de philosophie.
In 1884, while teaching at Clermont-Ferrand, Bergson published an excellent edition of extracts from Lucretius. Also, during this period Bergson began what was to become the first of his four major works, Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience). The work was submitted, along with a short thesis on Aristotle’s interpretation of Lucretius, for the degree of Docteur-ès-Lettres, which was awarded by the University of Paris in 1889. After teaching for some months at the Municipal College in Paris, Bergson received an appointment at the Lycée Henri-Quatre, where he remained for eight years. In 1896, he published his second major work, entitled Matter and Memory (Matière et mémoire). This rather difficult but brilliant work explores some of the problems of the mind-body relation. In the work, he considered the function of the brain, particularly as it relates to the cognitive powers of perception and memory.
In 1901, Bergson published a relatively short essay entitled Laughter (Le rire), one of the most important of his minor productions. This essay centers upon the meaning of comedy, and it reflects some of the essential aspects of Bergson's views on life. The main thesis of the work is that laughter is a corrective evolved to make social life possible for human beings. People laugh at those who fail to adapt to the demands of society when their failure is a result of an inflexible mechanism. Comic novelists and poets, in particular, exploit this human tendency to laugh at such social misfits by revealing the way "something mechanical” exists “in something living."
In 1903, Bergson wrote a short but important essay entitled Introduction to Metaphysics (Introduction à la metaphysique), which serves as a useful preface to the study of his larger works. Bergon’s third and perhaps most important major work, Creative Evolution (L'Evolution créatrice) appeared in 1907. The work was widely known and much discussed, as it offered a profound and original philosophical interpretation of the theory of evolution. Following the appearance of this book, Bergson's popularity increased enormously, not only in academic circles, but also among the general public. People in a variety of academic, literary, and artistic fields frequented his lectures at the Collège de France and even tourists would drop in to what became known as “the House of Bergson.”
In 1908, Bergson went to London and visited the well-known American philosopher William James. James had been instrumental in alerting the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. In fact, James's impression of Bergson is given in a letter dated October 4, 1908. "So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy."
Comparisons are often made between the philosophies of Bergson and James due to the similarities in their work. For example, both thinkers rejected rationalism and materialism in favor of an interpretation of reality as transpiring in a temporal flux. Nevertheless Bergson’s metaphysics went beyond the pragmatism of James and so Bergson argued that utility, far from being a test of truth, was in fact the very source of error. As Jean Wahl described, the "ultimate disagreement" between James and Bergson: "for James, the consideration of action is necessary for the definition of truth, according to Bergson, action…must be kept from our mind if we want to see the truth."
Bergson visited the United States in 1913, where he lectured in several American cities and was welcomed by large audiences. Shortly thereafter he was elected as a member of the Académie française and later he delivered the famous Gifford Lectures under the title of The Problem of Personality. In 1927, Bergson won the Nobel Prize for Literature, “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented.”
In 1932, Bergson completed his final major work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion). Here he extended his philosophical theories to the realms of morality, religion, and art. Although the work was respectfully received by the public and philosophical community, Bergson's influence had by this time begun to fade. He was, however, able to give force to his core beliefs near the end of his life when he renounced all the posts and honors previously received rather than accept exemption from the anti-Semitic laws imposed by the Vichy government. Bergson died on January 4, 1941. He is buried in the Cimetière de Garches.
Bergson’s philosophy can be viewed as challenging two fundamental positions in the history of philosophy. The first is a scientific materialism which views all reality as being controlled or determined by mechanical laws or necessities. This view was prominent in the philosophical milieu of the late nineteenth century, in which Bergson had been educated. Although Bergson agreed with certain undeniable aspects of a “philosophy of becoming” such as the biological evolutionism of Darwin, he nevertheless did not hold to the randomness of natural selection or the interpretation of all order to a brute, biological force. There was for him something more “vital” which animated the process of becoming and which raised it above mechanistic laws.
On the other hand, Bergson also argued against a kind of rationalism which reduced all becoming to static natures or essences that are known through intellect. Such a reduction was common within the entire history of philosophy understood as metaphysics. In contrast, Bergson held to the irreducible flux of becoming. This notion of becoming for Bergson was the fundamental reality, which he called “duration.” Duration is the irreducible flux or flow of time. Although we are able to break up or isolate different pieces of this continuous flow into fragments of time or “states of consciousness,” this “knowledge” is merely derived or abstracted from the original source of duration as “concrete time.” For this reason, duration cannot be known in the normal sense of the word “knowing.” It requires a particular kind of access or descent into the self in order to experience this flux in its originality.
But duration as the ultimate reality does merely encompass individual selves, it also envelopes or runs through all things. When people turn their attention to “outward things” which initially appear to be stable entities in themselves, they can discover that like themselves, they exist in a kind of transience or flux, never standing still but always “caught up” in this passage of time. For this reason everything changes; everything is in movement. And yet, as mentioned above, this change is neither random nor mechanistic. Rather freedom itself is a fundamental component within duration. Here we see how Bergson sought to go beyond a Darwinian conception of evolution to a creative one, hence, the title of his major work Creative Evolution. The creative force of becoming Bergson calls the élan vital or vital force. It is the original dynamism or animating energy of the universe which is always in a flow of becoming and yet, at the same time, creative. Although Bergson acknowledges that the evolutionary process is limited by material forces, freedom nonetheless provides the possibility for new orders and structures to emerge or evolve within this ceaseless flux.
Given that absolute reality is a duration or flow one is most attuned to, this flow not in one's thought (which halts or stops this irreducible flux) but in actions in which one participates in and so move along with this flow. All theoretical knowing, therefore, is founded on a more primordial or original practical attitude of the knower to what is known. The mistake of metaphysics is to assume that universals or essences actually exist in the real things; rather all rational analysis is a kind of “objectifying” the absolute reality of duration into “segments” or static objects to be known. By adding up a number of segments or perspectives as “propositions” about the object we represent to ourselves an image of the thing that is known. In this way, one builds up or constructs a unity out of the parts which one has gathered or perceived. This knowledge can be very useful in practical affairs but it should not be confused with the ultimate reality itself, as if one were really knowing the things in themselves. Rather this unity of parts belongs to the symbol as opposed to the ultimate reality which has no parts. This capacity of intellectual knowing Bergson attributes to analysis. In analyzing, one dissects or breaks up into parts, only in order to later construct or unify that knowledge of the object under analysis. This tendency to analyze is a result of conceptual reason which always thinks in this way, that is, by objectifying. In doing this, time as the ultimate reality is conceived of in the form of space. But for Bergson time eludes all spatial representation and so there must be a more original way of accessing this ultimate reality.
Since in all rational knowledge, one understands through concepts, which “freeze” the ultimate reality of duration into static representations, there must be a way to penetrate this ultimate reality in order to “know” it. Bergson calls this means of access “intuition.” Intuition is opposed to intellect and is used as a philosophical method by which one enters into a reality in order to experience it immediately in its original manner. For Bergson, intuition is deeper than intellect and so is able to penetrate the reality and so experience it even if it can’t know it, strictly speaking, through rational analysis.
Although not rational analysis itself, intuition is still a kind of reflection rather than some kind of instinct, feeling, or sensible perception. The disclosure of duration occurs, therefore, through an introspection of self whereby one sees through memory the flux of time, which passes through all one's various experiences, knowledge, associations, and so forth. But given this limitation of intuition, Bergson is forced into metaphorical imagery to evoke this more original experience of time. Moreover, he holds that one can “think” in duration by reflecting upon this ultimate flow from within this very flow itself, which is what metaphorical language is able to achieve because its imagery is more basic to the original flux than is the "imagery" of conceptual representation. Furthermore, because such “knowledge” is based on this original metaphysical experience, Bergson refers to his philosophy as the “true empiricism.” Therefore, he encourages his readers to penetrate for themselves the hidden depths by which the original dynamism of duration can be experienced. Likewise, the freedom, which is inherent in duration, can also be experienced within this metaphysical intuition; thus, one encounters the élan vital which eludes the mechanical necessity of brute force and so opens the space for creative possibility.
As mentioned, Bergson was extremely popular during his lifetime, not only with philosophers but also with artists, theologians, social theorists, and even the general public. For this reason, Bergson acquired disciples of many types, and in France, movements such as Neo-Catholicism, Modernism, and Marxism tried to absorb and appropriate his central ideas in their own ways and for their own purposes. Marxism, for example, suggested that the realism of Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is hostile to all forms of intellectualism; therefore, supporters of Marxist socialism should welcome a philosophy such as Bergson’s. Moreover, many religious thinkers as well, particularly the more liberal-minded theologians, showed a keen interest in his writings, and many of them sought encouragement and stimulus in his work. Finally, artists too were greatly inspired by his work. Many of the ideas of Marcel Proust, for example, are considered to have been highly influenced by Bergson.
From his first publications, Bergson's philosophy drew strong criticism. His favoring of intuition over intellect led to the charge that his thought was “anti-intellectual” or even “irrational.” For this reason, many philosophers of the early twentieth century criticized his intuitionism as being too “indeterminate” or “psychological,” and so was a confused interpretation of the scientific impulse. Among those who explicitly criticized Bergson were Bertrand Russell, George Santayana, G. E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and C. S. Peirce. Pierce, for instance, took strong exception to being aligned with Bergson. In response to a letter comparing his work with that of Bergson he wrote, "a man who seeks to further science can hardly commit a greater sin than to use the terms of his science without anxious care to use them with strict accuracy; it is not very gratifying to my feelings to be classed along with a Bergson who seems to be doing his prettiest to muddle all distinctions."
Also, according to Santayana and Russell, Bergson projected false claims onto the aspirations of scientific method. Russell takes particular exception to Bergson's understanding of number in Time and Free-will. According to Russell, Bergson uses an outmoded spatial metaphor ("extended images") to describe the nature of mathematics as well as logic in general. Furthermore, Bergson’s notion of élan vital was seen to be a projection of the inner life onto the world at large. The external world, according to certain theories of probability, provides less and less indeterminism with further refinement of scientific method. For this reason, an important distinction must be maintained between our inner sense of becoming and the non-human character of the outer world.
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