Henri-Louis Bergson (French: ; 18 October 1859 – 4 January 1941) was a French philosopher who was influential in the tradition of continental philosophy, especially during the first half of the 20th century until World War II.
Bergson is known for his influential arguments that processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality.
He was awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented”. In 1930 France awarded him its highest honour, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.
Bergson was born in the Rue Lamartine in Paris, not far from the Palais Garnier (the old Paris opera house) in 1859. His father, the pianist Micha Bergson, was of a Polish Jewish background (originally bearing the name Bereksohn). His great-grandmother, Temerl Bergson, was a well-known patroness and benefactor of Polish Jewry, especially those associated with the Hasidic movement. His mother, Katherine Levison, daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, was from an English and Irish Jewish background. The Bereksohns were a famous Jewish entrepreneurial family of Polish descent. Henri Bergson’s great-great-grandfather, Szmul Jakubowicz Sonnenberg, called Zbytkower, was a prominent banker and a protg of Stanisaw II Augustus, King of Poland from 1764 to 1795.
Henri Bergson’s family lived in London for a few years after his birth, and he obtained an early familiarity with the English language from his mother. Before he was nine, his parents settled in France, Henri becoming a naturalized French citizen.
Henri Bergson married Louise Neuberger, a cousin of Marcel Proust (1871-1922), in 1891. (The novelist served as best man at Bergson’s wedding.) Henri and Louise Bergson had a daughter, Jeanne, born deaf in 1896. Bergson’s sister, Mina Bergson (also known as Moina Mathers), married the English occult author Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the couple later relocated to Paris as well.
Bergson lived the quiet life of a French professor, marked by the publication of his four principal works:
- in 1889, Time and Free Will (Essai sur les donnes immdiates de la conscience)
- in 1896, Matter and Memory (Matire et mmoire)
- in 1907, Creative Evolution (L’volution cratrice)
- in 1932, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion)
In 1900 the College of France selected Bergson to a Chair of Greek and Roman Philosophy, which he held until 1904. He then replaced Gabriel Tarde in the Chair of Modern Philosophy, which he held until 1920. The public attended his open courses in large numbers.
Education and career
Bergson attended the Lyce Fontanes (known as the Lyce Condorcet 1870-1874 and 1883-present) in Paris from 1868 to 1878. He had previously received a Jewish religious education. Between 14 and 16, however, he lost his faith. According to Hude (1990), this moral crisis is tied to his discovery of the theory of evolution, according to which humanity shares common ancestry with modern primates, a process sometimes construed as not needing a creative deity.
While at the lyce Bergson won a prize for his scientific work and another, in 1877 when he was eighteen, for the solution of a mathematical problem. His solution was published the following year in Nouvelles Annales de Mathmatiques. It was his first published work. After some hesitation as to whether his career should lie in the sphere of the sciences or that of the humanities, he decided in favour of the latter, to the dismay of his teachers. When he was nineteen, he entered the cole Normale Suprieure. During this period, he read Herbert Spencer. He obtained there the degree of licence s lettres, and this was followed by that of agrgation de philosophie in 1881 from the University of Paris.
The same year he received a teaching appointment at the lyce in Angers, the ancient capital of Anjou. Two years later he settled at the Lyce Blaise-Pascal (Clermont-Ferrand) in Clermont-Ferrand, capital of the Puy-de-Dme dpartement.
The year after his arrival at Clermont-Ferrand Bergson displayed his ability in the humanities by the publication of an edition of extracts from Lucretius, with a critical study of the text and of the materialist cosmology of the poet (1884), a work whose repeated editions attest to its value in promoting Classics among French youth. While teaching and lecturing in this part of his country (the Auvergne region), Bergson found time for private study and original work. He crafted his dissertation Time and Free Will, which was submitted, along with a short Latin thesis on Aristotle (Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit, “On the Concept of Place in Aristotle”), for his doctoral degree which was awarded by the University of Paris in 1889. The work was published in the same year by Flix Alcan. He also gave courses in Clermont-Ferrand on the Pre-Socratics, in particular on Heraclitus.
Bergson dedicated Time and Free Will to Jules Lachelier (1832-1918), then public education minister, a disciple of Flix Ravaisson (1813-1900) and the author of a philosophical work On the Founding of Induction (Du fondement de l’induction, 1871). Lachelier endeavoured “to substitute everywhere force for inertia, life for death, and liberty for fatalism”. (Bergson owed much to both of these teachers of the cole Normale Suprieure. Compare his memorial address on Ravaisson, who died in 1900.)
Bergson settled again in Paris in 1888, and after teaching for some months at the municipal college, known as the College Rollin, he received an appointment at the Lyce Henri-Quatre, where he remained for eight years. There, he read Darwin and gave a course on his theories. Although Bergson had previously endorsed Lamarckism and its theory of the heritability of acquired characteristics, he came to prefer Darwin’s hypothesis of gradual variations, which were more compatible with his continual vision of life.
In 1896 he published his second major work, entitled Matter and Memory. This rather difficult work investigates the function of the brain and undertakes an analysis of perception and memory, leading up to a careful consideration of the problems of the relation of body and mind. Bergson had spent years of research in preparation for each of his three large works. This is especially obvious in Matter and Memory, where he showed a thorough acquaintance with the extensive pathological investigations which had been carried out during the period.
In 1898 Bergson became matre de confrences at his alma mater, cole Normale Suprieure, and later in the same year received a promotion to a Professorship. The year 1900 saw him installed as Professor at the Collge de France, where he accepted the Chair of Greek and Roman Philosophy in succession to Charles Lvque.
At the first International Congress of Philosophy, held in Paris during the first five days of August 1900, Bergson read a short, but important, paper, “Psychological Origins of the Belief in the Law of Causality” (Sur les origines psychologiques de notre croyance la loi de causalit). In 1900 Felix Alcan published a work which had previously appeared in the Revue de Paris, entitled Laughter (Le rire), one of the most important of Bergson’s minor productions. This essay on the meaning of comedy stemmed from a lecture which he had given in his early days in the Auvergne. The study of it is essential to an understanding of Bergson’s views of life, and its passages dealing with the place of the artistic in life are valuable. The main thesis of the work is that laughter is a corrective evolved to make social life possible for human beings. We laugh at people who fail to adapt to the demands of society if it seems their failure is akin to an inflexible mechanism. Comic authors have exploited this human tendency to laugh in various ways, and what is common to them is the idea that the comic consists in there being “something mechanical encrusted on the living”.
In 1901 the Acadmie des sciences morales et politiques elected Bergson as a member, and he became a member of the Institute. In 1903 he contributed to the Revue de mtaphysique et de morale a very important essay entitled Introduction to Metaphysics (Introduction la metaphysique), which is useful as a preface to the study of his three large books. He detailed in this essay his philosophical program, realized in the Creative Evolution.
On the death of Gabriel Tarde, the sociologist and philosopher, in 1904, Bergson succeeded him in the Chair of Modern Philosophy. From 4 to 8 September of that year he visited Geneva, attending the Second International Congress of Philosophy, when he lectured on The Mind and Thought: A Philosophical Illusion (Le cerveau et la pense: une illusion philosophique). An illness prevented his visiting Germany from attending the Third Congress held at Heidelberg.
His third major work, Creative Evolution, the most widely known and most discussed of his books, appeared in 1907. Pierre Imbart de la Tour remarked that Creative Evolution was a milestone of new direction in thought. By 1918, Alcan, the publisher, had issued twenty-one editions, making an average of two editions per annum for ten years. Following the appearance of this book, Bergson’s popularity increased enormously, not only in academic circles but among the general reading public.
At that time, Bergson had already made an extensive study of biology including the theory of fecundation (as shown in the first chapter of the Creative Evolution), which had only recently emerged, ca. 1885 – no small feat for a philosopher specializing in the history of philosophy, in particular Greek and Roman philosophy. He also most certainly had read, apart from Darwin, Haeckel, from whom he retained his idea of a unity of life and of the ecological solidarity between all living beings, as well as Hugo de Vries, from whom he quoted his mutation theory of evolution (which he opposed, preferring Darwin’s gradualism). He also quoted Charles-douard Brown-Squard, the successor of Claude Bernard at the Chair of Experimental Medicine in the Collge de France, etc.
Relationship with James and Pragmatism
Bergson traveled to London in 1908 and met there with William James, the Harvard philosopher who was Bergson’s senior by seventeen years, and who was instrumental in calling the attention of the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. The two became great friends. James’s impression of Bergson is given in his Letters under date of 4 October 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.”
As early as 1880, James had contributed an article in French to the periodical La Critique philosophique, of Renouvier and Pillon, entitled Le Sentiment de l’Effort. Four years later, a couple of articles by him appeared in the journal Mind: “What is an Emotion?” and “On some Omissions of Introspective Psychology”. Bergson quoted the first two of these articles in his 1889 work, Time and Free Will. In the following years, 1890-91 appeared the two volumes of James’s monumental work, The Principles of Psychology, in which he refers to a pathological phenomenon observed by Bergson. Some writers, taking merely these dates into consideration and overlooking the fact that James’s investigations had been proceeding since 1870 (registered from time to time by various articles which culminated in “The Principles”), have mistakenly dated Bergson’s ideas as earlier than James’s.
It has been suggested that Bergson owes the root ideas of his first book to the 1884 article by James, “On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology,” which he neither refers to nor quotes. This article deals with the conception of thought as a stream of consciousness, which intellect distorts by framing into concepts. Bergson replied to this insinuation by denying that he had any knowledge of the article by James when he wrote Les donnes immdiates de la conscience. The two thinkers appear to have developed independently until almost the close of the century. They are further apart in their intellectual position than is frequently supposed. Both have succeeded in appealing to audiences far beyond the purely academic sphere, but only in their mutual rejection of “intellectualism” as decisive as their actual agreement. Although James was slightly ahead in the development and enunciation of his ideas, he confessed that he was baffled by many of Bergson’s notions. James certainly neglected many of the deeper metaphysical aspects of Bergson’s thought, which did not harmonize with his own, and are even in direct contradiction. In addition to this, Bergson can hardly be considered a pragmatist. For him, “utility,” far from being a test of truth, was, in fact, the reverse: a synonym for error.
Nevertheless, William James hailed Bergson as an ally. In 1903, he wrote:
I have been re-reading Bergson’s books, and nothing that I have read for years has so excited and stimulated my thoughts. I am sure that his philosophy has a great future; it breaks through old frameworks and brings things to a solution from which new crystallizations can be reached.
The most noteworthy tributes James paid to Bergson come in the Hibbert Lectures (A Pluralistic Universe), which James gave at Manchester College, Oxford, shortly after meeting Bergson in London. He remarks on the encouragement he gained from Bergson’s thought, and refers to his confidence in being “able to lean on Bergson’s authority.” (See further James’s reservations about Bergson, below.)
The influence of Bergson had led James “to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be”. It had induced him, he continued, “to give up logic, squarely and irrevocably” as a method, for he found that “reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it”.
These remarks, which appeared in James’s book A Pluralistic Universe in 1909, impelled many English and American readers to investigate Bergson’s philosophy for themselves, but no English translations of Bergson’s major work had yet appeared. James, however, encouraged and assisted Dr. Arthur Mitchell in preparing an English translation of Creative Evolution. In August 1910, James died. It was his intention, had he lived to see the translation finished, to introduce it to the English reading public by a prefatory note of appreciation. In the following year, the translation was completed and still greater interest in Bergson and his work was the result. By coincidence, in that same year (1911), Bergson penned a preface of sixteen pages entitled Truth and Reality for the French translation of James’s book, Pragmatism. In it, he expressed sympathetic appreciation of James’s work, together with certain important reservations.
From 5 to 11 April, Bergson attended the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy held at Bologna, in Italy, where he gave an address on “Philosophical Intuition”. In response to invitations he visited England in May of that year, and on several subsequent occasions. These visits were well received. His speeches offered new perspectives and elucidated many passages in his three major works: Time and Free Will, Matter and Memory, and Creative Evolution. Although necessarily brief statements, they developed and enriched the ideas in his books and clarified for English audiences the fundamental principles of his philosophy.
Lectures on change
In May 1911 Bergson gave two lectures entitled The Perception of Change (La perception du changement) at the University of Oxford. The Clarendon Press published these in French in the same year. His talks were concise and lucid, leading students and the general reader to his other, longer writings. Oxford later conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Science.
Two days later he delivered the Huxley Lecture at the University of Birmingham, taking for his subject Life and Consciousness. This subsequently appeared in The Hibbert Journal (October 1911), and since revised, is the first essay in the collected volume Mind-Energy (L’nergie spirituelle). In October he again traveled to England, where he had an enthusiastic reception, and delivered at University College London four lectures on La Nature de l’me .
In 1913 Bergson visited the United States of America at the invitation of Columbia University, New York, and lectured in several American cities, where very large audiences welcomed him. In February, at Columbia University, he lectured both in French and English, taking as his subjects: Spirituality and Freedom and The Method of Philosophy. Being again in England in May of the same year, he accepted the Presidency of the British Society for Psychical Research, and delivered to the Society an address on Phantoms of Life and Psychic Research (Fantmes des vivants et recherche psychique).
Meanwhile, his popularity increased, and translations of his works began to appear in a number of languages: English, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. In 1914 Bergson’s fellow-countrymen honoured him by his election as a member of the Acadmie franaise. He was also made President of the Acadmie des Sciences morales et politiques, and in addition, he became Officier de la Lgion d’honneur, and Officier de l’Instruction publique.
Bergson found disciples of many types. In France movements such as neo-Catholicism and Modernism on the one hand and syndicalism on the other endeavoured to absorb and appropriate for their own ends some central ideas of his teaching. The continental organ of socialist and syndicalist theory, Le Mouvement socialiste, portrayed the realism of Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as hostile to all forms of intellectualism, and argued, therefore, that supporters of Marxist socialism should welcome a philosophy such as that of Bergson. Other writers, in their eagerness, claimed that the thought of the holder of the Chair of Philosophy at the Collge de France, and the aims of the Confdration Gnrale du Travail and the Industrial Workers of the World were in essential agreement.
While social revolutionaries endeavoured to make the most out of Bergson, many religious leaders, particularly the more liberal-minded theologians of all creeds, e.g., the Modernists and Neo-Catholic Party in his own country, showed a keen interest in his writings, and many of them found encouragement and stimulus in his work. The Roman Catholic Church, however, banned Bergson’s three books on the charge of pantheism (that is, of conceiving of God as immanent to his Creation and of being himself created in the process of the Creation). They were placed on the Index of prohibited books (Decree of 1 June 1914).
In 1914 the Scottish universities arranged for Bergson to give the famous Gifford Lectures, planning one course for the spring and another for the autumn. Bergson delivered the first course, consisting of eleven lectures, under the title of The Problem of Personality, at the University of Edinburgh in the spring of that year. The course of lectures planned for the autumn months had to be abandoned because of the outbreak of war. Bergson was not, however, silent during the conflict, and he gave some inspiring addresses. As early as 4 November 1914, he wrote an article entitled Wearing and Nonwearing forces (La force qui s’use et celle qui ne s’use pas), which appeared in that unique and interesting periodical of the poilus, Le Bulletin des Armes de la Rpublique Franaise. A presidential address, The Meaning of the War, was delivered in December 1914, to the Acadmie des sciences morales et politiques.
Bergson contributed also to the publication arranged by The Daily Telegraph in honour of King Albert I of the Belgians, King Albert’s Book (Christmas, 1914). In 1915 he was succeeded in the office of President of the Acadmie des Sciences morales et politiques by Alexandre Ribot, and then delivered a discourse on “The Evolution of German Imperialism“. Meanwhile, he found time to issue at the request of the Minister of Public Instruction a brief summary of French Philosophy. Bergson did a large amount of traveling and lecturing in America during the war. He participated in the negotiations which led to the entry of the United States in the war. He was there when the French Mission under Ren Viviani paid a visit in April and May 1917, following upon America’s entry into the conflict. Viviani’s book La Mission franaise en Amrique (1917), contains a preface by Bergson.
Early in 1918 the Acadmie franaise received Bergson officially when he took his seat among “The Select Forty” as successor to Emile Ollivier (the author of the historical work L’Empire libral). A session was held in January in his honour at which he delivered an address on Ollivier. In the war, Bergson saw the conflict of Mind and Matter, or rather of Life and Mechanism; and thus he shows us the central idea of his own philosophy in action. To no other philosopher has it fallen, during his lifetime, to have his philosophical principles so vividly and so terribly tested.
As many of Bergson’s contributions to French periodicals remained relatively inaccessible, he agreed to the request of his friends to have such works collected and published in two volumes. The first of these was being planned when war broke out. The conclusion of strife was marked by the appearance of a delayed volume in 1919. It bears the title Spiritual Energy: Essays and Lectures (reprinted as Mind-Energy – L’nergie spirituelle: essais et confrences). The advocate of Bergson’s philosophy in England, Dr. Wildon Carr, prepared an English translation under the title Mind-Energy. The volume opens with the Huxley Memorial Lecture of 1911, “Life and Consciousness”, in a revised and developed form under the title “Consciousness and Life”. Signs of Bergson’s growing interest in social ethics and in the idea of a future life of personal survival are manifested. The lecture before the Society for Psychical Research is included, as is also the one given in France, L’me et le Corps, which contains the substance of the four London lectures on the Soul. The seventh and last article is a reprint of Bergson’s famous lecture to the Congress of Philosophy at Geneva in 1904, The Psycho-Physiological Paralogism (Le paralogisme psycho-physiologique), which now appears as Le cerveau et la pense: une illusion philosophique. Other articles are on the False Recognition, on Dreams, and Intellectual Effort. The volume is a most welcome production and serves to bring together what Bergson wrote on the concept of mental force, and on his view of “tension” and “detension” as applied to the relation of matter and mind.
In June 1920, the University of Cambridge honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Letters. In order that he might devote his full-time to the great new work he was preparing on ethics, religion, and sociology, the Collge de France relieved Bergson of the duties attached to the Chair of Modern Philosophy there. He retained the chair, but no longer delivered lectures, his place being taken by his disciple, the mathematician and philosopher douard Le Roy, who supported a conventionalist stance on the foundations of mathematics, which was adopted by Bergson. Le Roy, who also succeeded to Bergson at the Acadmie franaise and was a fervent Catholic, extended to revealed truth his conventionalism, leading him to privilege faith, heart and sentiment to dogmas, speculative theology and abstract reasoning. Like Bergson’s, his writings were placed on the Index by the Vatican.
Debate with Albert Einstein
In the fall of 1922 Bergson’s book Dure et simultanit, a propos de la theorie d’Einstein (Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe) was published. Earlier in the spring Einstein had come to the French Society of Philosophy and briefly replied to a short speech made by Bergson. The book has been often considered as one of his worst, many alleging that his knowledge of physics was insufficient, and that the book did not follow up contemporary developments on physics. (But in “Einstein and the Crisis of Reason,” a leading French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, accused Einstein of failing to grasp Bergson’s argument. This argument, Merleau-Ponty claims, which concerns not the physics of special relativity but its philosophical foundations, addresses paradoxes caused by popular interpretations and misconceptions about the theory, including Einstein’s own.) It was not published in the 1951 Edition du Centenaire in French, which contained all of his other works, and was only published later in a work gathering different essays, titled Mlanges. Duration and simultaneity took advantage of Bergson’s experience at the League of Nations, where he presided starting in 1920 the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation (the ancestor of the UNESCO, which included Einstein, Marie Curie, etc.).
Later years and death
While living with his wife and daughter in a modest house in a quiet street near the Porte d’Auteuil in Paris, Bergson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927 for having written The Creative Evolution. Because of serious rheumatics ailments, he could not travel to Stockholm, and sent instead a text subsequently published in La Pense et le mouvant. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1928.
After his retirement from the Collge, Bergson began to fade into obscurity: he suffered from a degenerative illness (rheumatism, which left him half paralyzed). He completed his new work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, which extended his philosophical theories to the realms of morality, religion, and art, in 1935. It was respectfully received by the public and the philosophical community, but all by that time realized that Bergson’s days as a philosophical luminary were passed. He was, however, able to reiterate his core beliefs near the end of his life, by renouncing all of the posts and honours previously awarded him, rather than accept exemption from the antisemitic laws imposed by the Vichy government.
Bergson inclined to convert to Catholicism, writing in his will on 7 February 1937: My thinking has always brought me nearer to Catholicism, in which I saw the perfect complement to Judaism. Though wishing to convert to Catholicism, as stated in his will, he did not convert in view of the travails inflicted on the Jewish people by the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s; he did not want to appear to want to leave the persecuted. On 3 January 1941 Bergson died in occupied Paris from bronchitis. A Roman Catholic priest said prayers at his funeral per his request. Bergson is buried in the Cimetire de Garches, Hauts-de-Seine.
Bergson rejected what he saw as the overly mechanistic predominant view of causality (as expressed in, say, finalism). He argued that we must allow space for free will to unfold in an autonomous and unpredictable fashion. While Kant saw free will as something beyond time and space and therefore ultimately a matter of faith, Bergson attempted to redefine the modern conceptions of time, space, and causality in his concept of Duration, making room for a tangible marriage of free will with causality. Seeing Duration as a mobile and fluid concept, Bergson argued that one cannot understand Duration through “immobile” analysis, but only through experiential, first-person intuition.
Bergson considers the appearance of novelty as a result of pure undetermined creation, instead of as the predetermined result of mechanistic forces. His philosophy emphasises pure mobility, unforeseeable novelty, creativity and freedom; thus one can characterize his system as a process philosophy. It touches upon such topics as time and identity, free will, perception, change, memory, consciousness, language, the foundation of mathematics and the limits of reason.
Criticizing Kant‘s theory of knowledge exposed in the Critique of Pure Reason and his conception of truth – which he compares to Plato‘s conception of truth as its symmetrical inversion (order of nature/order of thought) – Bergson attempted to redefine the relations between science and metaphysics, intelligence and intuition, and insisted on the necessity of increasing thought’s possibility through the use of intuition, which, according to him, alone approached a knowledge of the absolute and of real life, understood as pure duration. Because of his (relative) criticism of intelligence, he makes a frequent use of images and metaphors in his writings in order to avoid the use of concepts, which (he considers) fail to touch the whole of reality, being only a sort of abstract net thrown on things. For instance, he says in The Creative Evolution (chap. III) that thought in itself would never have thought it possible for the human being to swim, as it cannot deduce swimming from walking. For swimming to be possible, man must throw itself in water, and only then can thought consider swimming as possible. Intelligence, for Bergson, is a practical faculty rather than a pure speculative faculty, a product of evolution used by man to survive. If metaphysics is to avoid “false problems”, it should not extend the abstract concepts of intelligence to pure speculation, but rather use intuition.
The Creative Evolution in particular attempted to think through the continuous creation of life, and explicitly pitted itself against Herbert Spencer‘s evolutionary philosophy. Spencer had attempted to transpose Charles Darwin‘s theory of evolution in philosophy and to construct a cosmology based on this theory (Spencer also coined the expression “survival of the fittest“). Bergson disputed what he saw as Spencer’s mechanistic philosophy.
Bergson’s Lebensphilosophie (philosophy of life) can be seen as a response to the mechanistic philosophies of his time, but also to the failure of finalism. Indeed, he considers that finalism is unable to explain “duration” and the “continuous creation of life”, as it only explains life as the progressive development of an initially determined program – a notion which remains, for example, in the expression of a “genetic program”; such a description of finalism was adopted, for instance, by Leibniz. It clearly announces Alfred North Whitehead‘s.
Bergson regarded planning beforehand for the future as impossible, since time itself unravels unforeseen possibilities. Indeed, one could always explain a historical event retrospectively by its conditions of possibility. But, in the introduction to the Pense et le mouvant, he explains that such an event created retrospectively its causes, taking the example of the creation of a work of art, for example a symphony: it was impossible to predict what would be the symphony of the future, as if the musician knew what symphony would be the best for his time, he would realize it. In his words, the effect created its cause. Henceforth, he attempted to find a third way between mechanism and finalism, through the notion of an original impulse, the lan vital, in life, which dispersed itself through evolution into contradictory tendencies (he substituted to the finalist notion of a teleological aim a notion of an original impulse).
The foundation of Henri Bergson’s philosophy, his theory of Duration, he discovered when trying to improve the inadequacies of Herbert Spencer‘s philosophy. Bergson introduced Duration as a theory of time and consciousness in his doctoral thesis Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness as a response to another of his influences: Immanuel Kant.
Kant believed that free will (better perceived as The Will) could only exist outside of time and space, indeed the only non-determined aspect of our private existence in the universe, separate to water cycles, mathematics and mortality. However, we could therefore not know whether or not it exists, and that it is nothing but a pragmatic faith. Bergson responded that Kant, along with many other philosophers, had confused time with its spatial representation. In reality, Bergson argued, Duration is unextended yet heterogeneous, and so its parts cannot be juxtaposed as a succession of distinct parts, with one causing the other. Based on this he concluded that determinism is an impossibility and free will pure mobility, which is what Bergson identified as being the Duration.
Duration, as defined by Bergson, then is a unity and a multiplicity, but, being mobile, it cannot be grasped through immobile concepts. Bergson hence argues that one can grasp it only through his method of intuition. Two images from Henri Bergson’s An Introduction to Metaphysics may help one to grasp Bergson’s term intuition, the limits of concepts, and the ability of intuition to grasp the absolute. The first image is that of a city. Analysis, or the creation of concepts through the divisions of points of view, can only ever give us a model of the city through a construction of photographs taken from every possible point of view, yet it can never give us the dimensional value of walking in the city itself. One can only grasp this through intuition; likewise the experience of reading a line of Homer. One may translate the line and pile commentary upon commentary, but this commentary too shall never grasp the simple dimensional value of experiencing the poem in its originality itself. The method of intuition, then, is that of getting back to the things themselves.
lan vital ranks as Bergson’s third essential concept, after Duration and intuition. An idea with the goal of explaining evolution, the lan vital first appeared in 1907’s Creative Evolution. Bergson portrays lan vital as a kind of vital impetus which explains evolution in a less mechanical and more lively manner, as well as accounting for the creative impulse of mankind. This concept led several authors to characterize Bergson as a supporter of vitalismalthough he criticized it explicitly in The Creative Evolution, as he thought, against Driesch and Johannes Reinke (whom he cited) that there is neither “purely internal finality nor clearly cut individuality in nature”:
Hereby lies the stumbling block of vitalist theories (…) It is thus in vain that one pretends to reduce finality to the individuality of the living being. If there is finality in the world of life, it encompasses the whole of life in one indivisible embrace.
In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson develops a theory not of laughter itself but of how laughter can be provoked (see his objection to Delage, published in the 23rd edition of the essay). He describes the process of laughter (refusing to give a conceptual definition which would not approach its reality), used in particular by comics and clowns, as caricature of the mechanistic nature of humans (habits, automatic acts, etc.), one of the two tendencies of life (degradation towards inert matter and mechanism, and continual creation of new forms). However, Bergson warns us that laughter’s criterion of what should be laughed at is not a moral criterion and that it can in fact cause serious damage to a person’s self-esteem. This essay made his opposition to the Cartesian theory of the animal-machine obvious.
From his first publications, Bergson’s philosophy attracted strong criticism from different quarters, although he also became very popular and durably influenced French philosophy. The mathematician douard Le Roy became Bergson’s main disciple. Nonetheless, Suzanne Guerlac has argued that his institutional position at the Collge de France, delivering lectures to a general audience, may have retarded the systematic reception of his thought: “Bergson achieved enormous popular success in this context, often due to the emotional appeal of his ideas. But he did not have the equivalent of graduate students who might have become rigorous interpreters of his thought. Thus Bergson’s philosophyin principle open and nonsystematicwas easily borrowed piecemeal and altered by enthusiastic admirers”.
Alfred North Whitehead acknowledged Bergson’s influence on his process philosophy in his 1929 Process and Reality. However, Bertrand Russell, Whitehead’s collaborator on Principia Mathematica, was not so entranced by Bergson’s philosophy. Although acknowledging Bergson’s literary skills, Russell saw Bergson’s arguments at best as persuasive or emotive speculation but not at all as any worthwhile example of sound reasoning or philosophical insight. The epistemologist Gaston Bachelard explicitly alluded to him in the last pages of his 1938 book The Formation of the Scientific Mind. Others influenced by Bergson include Vladimir Janklvitch, who wrote a book on him in 1931,Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Gilles Deleuze who wrote Le bergsonisme in 1966. Bergson also influenced the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas, although Merleau-Ponty had reservations about Bergson’s philosophy. The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis studied under Bergson in Paris and his writing and philosophy were profoundly influenced as a result.
Many writers of the early 20th century criticized Bergson’s intuitionism, indeterminism, psychologism and interpretation of the scientific impulse. Those who explicitly criticized Bergson, either in published articles or in letters, included Bertrand RussellGeorge Santayana,G. E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger,Julien Benda,T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis,Wallace Stevens,Paul Valry, Andr Gide, Jean Piaget, Marxist philosophers Theodor W. Adorno,Lucio Colletti,Jean-Paul Sartre, and Georges Politzer, as well as Maurice Blanchot, American philosophers such as Irving Babbitt, Arthur Lovejoy, Josiah Royce, The New Realists (Ralph B. Perry, E. B. Holt, and William Pepperell Montague), The Critical Realists (Durant Drake, Roy W. Sellars, C. A. Strong, and A. K. Rogers), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Roger Fry (see his letters), Julian Huxley (in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis) and Virginia Woolf (for the latter, see Ann Banfield, The Phantom Table).
The Vatican accused Bergson of pantheism, while free-thinkers (who formed a large part of the teachers and professors of the French Third Republic) accused him of spiritualism. Still others have characterized his philosophy as a materialist emergentism – Samuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan explicitly claimed Bergson as their forebear. According to Henri Hude (1990, II, p. 142), who supports himself on the whole of Bergson’s works as well as his now published courses, accusing him of pantheism is a “counter-sense”. Hude alleges that a mystical experience, roughly outlined at the end of Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, is the inner principle of his whole philosophy, although this has been contested by other commentators.
Charles Sanders Peirce took strong exception to those who associated him 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 utmost to muddle all distinctions.” William James‘s students resisted the assimilation of his work to that of Bergson. See, for example, Horace Kallen‘s book on the subject James and Bergson. As Jean Wahl described the “ultimate disagreement” between James and Bergson in his System of Metaphysics: “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”. Gide even went so far as to say that future historians will overestimate Bergson’s influence on art and philosophy just because he was the self-appointed spokesman for “the spirit of the age”.
As early as the 1890s, Santayana attacked certain key concepts in Bergson’s philosophy, above all his view of the New and the indeterminate:
the possibility of a new and unaccountable fact appearing at any time, he writes in his book on Hermann Lotze, “does not practically affect the method of investigation;…the only thing given up is the hope that these hypotheses may ever be adequate to the reality and cover the process of nature without leaving a remainder. This is no great renunciation; for that consummation of science…is by no one really expected.
According to Santayana and Russell, Bergson projected false claims onto the aspirations of scientific method, claims which Bergson needed to make in order to justify his prior moral commitment to freedom. Russell takes particular exception to Bergson’s understanding of number in chapter two of 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. “Bergson only succeeds in making his theory of number possible by confusing a particular collection with the number of its terms, and this again with number in general”, writes Russell (see The Philosophy of Bergson and A History of Western Philosophy).
Furthermore, writers such as Russell, Wittgenstein, and James saw lan vital as a projection of subjectivity onto the world. The external world, according to certain theories of probability, provides less and less indeterminism with further refinement of scientific method. In brief, one should not confuse the moral, psychological, subjective demand for the new, the underivable and the unexplained with the universe. One’s subjective sense of duration differs the (non-human) world, a difference which, according to the ancient materialist Lucretius should not be characterized as either one of becoming or being, creation or destruction (De Rerum Natura).
Suzanne Guerlac has argued that the more recent resurgence of scholarly interest in Bergson is related to the growing influence of his follower Deleuze within continental philosophy: “If there is a return to Bergson today, then, it is largely due to Gilles Deleuze whose own work has etched the contours of the New Bergson. This is not only because Deleuze wrote about Bergson; it is also because Deleuze’s own thought is deeply engaged with that of his predecessor, even when Bergson is not explicitly mentioned.”Leonard Lawlor and Valentine Moulard agree with Guerlac that “the recent revitalization of Bergsonism is almost entirely due to Deleuze.” They explain that Bergson’s concept of multiplicity “is at the very heart of Deleuze’s thought, and duration is the model for all of Deleuze’s ‘becomings.’ The other aspect that attracted Deleuze, which is indeed connected to the first, is Bergson’s criticism of the concept of negation in Creative Evolution. Thus Bergson became a resource in the criticism of the Hegelian dialectic, the negative.”
Comparison to Eastern philosophies
Several Hindu authors have found parallels to Hindu philosophy in Bergson’s thought. The integrative evolutionism of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher from the early 20th century, has many similarities to Bergson’s philosophy. Whether this represents a direct influence of Bergson is disputed, although Aurobindo was familiar with many Western philosophers. K Narayanaswami Aiyer, a member of the Theosophical Society, published a pamphlet titled “Professor Bergson and the Hindu Vedanta”, where he argued that Bergson’s ideas on matter, consciousness, and evolution were in agreement with Vedantic and Puranic explanations. Nalini Kanta Brahma, Marie Tudor Garland and Hope Fitz are other authors who have comparatively evaluated Hindu and Bergsonian philosophies, especially in relation to intuition, consciousness and evolution.