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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


BERGSON

(1859 — 1941)

 

EVOLUTIONARY DUALISM

Henri Bergson was born in Paris, the son of a musician. Although his family was Jewish he converted to Roman Catholicism in later life. He was educated at the Lycée Condorcet and at the École Normale Supérieure, his studies including both science and the classics. After graduating in 1881 he taught for a number of years in various lycées. In 1897 he was appointed a professor at the École Normale and then at the Collège de France, where he remained until 1924. After the First World War he worked actively for the League of Nations. In 1914 he was elected to the French Academy and in 1927 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

 

METAPHYSICS/ KNOWLEDGE

[1] [See Creative Evolution and Introduction to Metaphysics.] Bergson's philosophy starts from a consideration of a contrast between 'positivist' science, which deals with the material world, and metaphysics, whose concern is with 'spirit'. He is critical of science in so far as it is analytical and seeks to reduce physical objects to simpler parts such as atoms. He therefore regards it as 'distorting' our experience of the 'real'. He likewise criticizes philosophical systems for their abstractionist tendencies and remoteness from the actual world in which we live. Metaphysics, or 'pure' philosophy, on the other hand, deals with direct and undistorted awareness of reality [a]. The contrast between the two approaches is seen particularly in his discussion of time. In our inner, spiritual experience we grasp real time as 'pure duration'. The scientist, however, deals with mathematical time, treats it 'spatially', breaks it up into parts. This again is brought about by the intellect's distortion of the world. Bergson thinks of pure duration as an expression of the inner self, whereas our experience of time as fragmented is a characteristic of our 'superficial' self [b]. Nevertheless, he does not seek to reject science altogether. Science, he says, makes use of intelligence, while metaphysics is based on intuition. And we need both, because intelligence provides us with the means to conceptualize our intuitions in language, while science enables us to control our world and to cope with the demands of ordinary life [c]. How then can the analytical and fragmenting nature of both scientific enquiry and the language we use to articulate our experience of the material world be reconciled with a metaphysic which purports to be grounded in a direct awareness of a continuous and enduring yet qualitatively changing reality? This problem is encountered in a number of contexts in Bergson's philosophy — the conflict between mind and body, the nature of the self, freedom and determinism, and in his ethics and account of religion.

[2] With respect to the mind-body problem [see Matter and Memory], he rejects both epiphenomenalism (the theory that mind is a kind of 'extra' produced by the brain but which plays no causal role in our experience or behaviour) and identity theories [a] (which regard mental and physical processes as but different ways of talking about the same 'thing'). Central to his own essentially dualistic view is the concept of memory. He distinguishes two kinds. (1) 'Mechanistic' memory: this is a "closed system of automatic movements which succeed one another in the same order and occupy the same time". He understands it as a kind of bodily habit or disposition, which does not involve any mental images or representations. It is associated with the view of time as discrete, fragmented, successive. (2) 'Pure' memory, on the other hand, does consist of representations, and records and stores the events of our daily lives. It is spiritual and belongs to a part of the mind which exists below consciousness. And it belongs to pure duration [b]. The brain's function, Bergson says, is to monitor and bring out of store into full representatational consciousness only those recollections which can be relevant to and can be used in action. Action of course also calls on our habits for its implementation. But pure memory is not reducible to mechanistic memory. Neither is the totality of content of the 'infra-conscious' brought to consciousness at a given moment. Bergson thus supposes his theory to have avoided both materialist epiphenomenalism and identity or psycho-physical parallelism.

[3] It is in terms of the concept of action that Bergson offers an account of perception [Matter and Memory]. Again he makes a distinction — this time between 'pure' perception and actual or 'concrete' perception. Pure perception is to be understood solely in terms of 'virtual action', that is, a preparedness of the brain states (as 'subject') for action in relation to external objects. By concrete perception he means a synthesis of pure perception (from the side of matter) and pure memory (from the side of spirit). Body and soul are thus brought together in action [a]. What then of the problem of freedom? [See Time and Free Will.] Is not the body as explained in scientific terms subject to causal determinism? Bergson refers again to his distinction between self as pure duration and the 'superficial' self. To the extent we can "get back into pure duration", "gain possession of ourself', we act freely and creatively. But we remain determined in so far as we are acted on, for example, mechanically or socially [b].

[4] In his main work, Creative Evolution, Bergson presents his own account of evolution and attempts to brings all these various ideas into harmony with it. He rejects the supposedly mechanistic theory of Darwin and his emphasis on natural selection and 'fitness' as the determining factor in the survival of species, and argues in favour of a vital force (élan vital). We are aware of this, he says, in our inner lives, in that we experience ourselves as agents with the capacity to organize, control, and overcome the 'resistance' of 'inert' matter. This vital force is found throughout life in all its manifestations [a], and gives rise to three levels or tendencies: plant life, instinctive life, and intelligent, rational life. These categories are not mutually exclusive but are found together in varying degrees in all life forms. But in plants insensibility and immobility are primary features; consciousness predominates in animals — the highest species exhibiting intelligence as well as instinct. Instinct is a faculty for using and constructing the organism itself; while intelligence enables an organism to make use of 'artificial instruments', that is, tools. Considered from the historical point of view, man is thus homo faber rather than homo sapiens.

[5] Bergson goes on to argue that we can extrapolate from the intuition we have of ourselves as free creative agents to a view of the universe as a whole as a creative process of 'perpetual becoming', which is continuously 'making' and 'unmaking' itself [a], both leaping forward through the emergence of new species and falling back relatively in the perpetuation of the same species. On balance, however, the process is progressive. Now there would seem to be a problem here in that, given his account of intellect or intelligence as primarily geared to action, it is difficult to see how Bergson can be said to know in an undistorted way the reality of the universe as an evolutionary process. To deal with this he says that in the course of evolution instinct becomes conscious of itself, capable of reflection on its object.; and this in turn splits into intelligence and intuition [b]. These two facets of the human organism then work together: intuition provides the content for intelligence-in-action, while this latter is monitored or checked by intuition, and is thereby prevented from falling into abstraction and producing a distorted and fragmented picture of the real world.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[6] [See Creative Evolution and Two Sources of Morality and Religion.] Corresponding to his 'dualism' between intuition and intellect, Bergson distinguishes two types of religion. (1) Static religion originates with primitive man. It is grounded in conventionally accepted myths and appeals to a divine being as the source of authority, who lays down what is permissible and punishes transgressors. Dynamic religion, on the other hand, is mystical. In actual practice human religion involves both static and dynamic aspects as interpenetrating each other. Bergson thinks of them as receptive of and directed towards the creative power of the universe as expressed through the progressive evolutionary process. This creative power or vital force Bergson thinks of as 'supra-consciousness', perhaps even to be identified with God. Later, however, he tended to think of it in terms of divine love rather than the divinity Himself [a].

 

ETHICS

[7] [See Creative Evolution, 2nd edn, and Two Sources.] Static and dynamic religion are seen by Bergson to be respectively 'infra-intellectual/rational' and 'supra-intellectual'. These descriptions are equally applicable to what he calls 'closed' (or static) and 'open' (dynamic) morality, both of which offer alternative explanations for our motivation to act morally. Bergson rejects practical reason or the 'categorical imperative' as the source of man's sense of obligation. He says that in the static society it originates from the influence or 'pressure' exercised on individuals by society. In general we conform to the norms of the closed society naturally and unreflectingly, in so far as we have a 'social self'. We feel the sense of obligation when we experience society as offering us 'resistance'. Open morality concerns the direct relation of human beings to each other or to an 'ideal' society not yet attained, and is grounded in universal love — the consequence of the mystical relationship to God. The drive or motivation for action therefore lies not in social obligation but in the emotional vital force of individual will [a]. As in his account of religion, Bergson recognises that both kinds of morality may be present simultaneously in a particular society. And while the static and dynamic tendencies are in a sense in opposition, they are also necessary to each other. Through the mediation of reason closed morality is made more universal and open. At the same time the ideals of open morality are restrained or controlled — the aim being the realization of a truly human society in which social obligation is transformed through man's participation in the divine life. In either type of society, however, obligation presupposes man's freedom [b].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Bergson's philosophy is of interest for a number of reasons. (1) He contrasts positivist mechanistic and 'distorting' science with a spiritual or intuitive metaphysics which relates to the 'inner self' and is based on a pure 'undistorted' awareness of the real; and he exhibits this contrast in his distinction between time as respectively (a) 'spatially fragmented' and (b) pure duration, a flow of consciousness. (2) He blends his views in general with an account of the universe as a (non-Darwinian) evolutionary process. (3) He emphasizes action as a manifestation of 'vital force', by reference to which he attempts to provide a treatment of Cartesian dualism which avoids materialist and identity theories. This modified dualism runs through his philosophy as a whole, exhibited in such polarities as vital-static, intuition-intelligence, creative/mystical-mechanistic, free-determined.

From the critical point of view the obvious question is whether the opposing elements in each polarity are genuinely harmonizable with each other. Moreover, it can be objected that it is not clear how, if at all, the dualisms are to be integrated within the vital evolutionary process. The test for Bergson is not scientific. So what is the basis of the metaphysical process? How does it relate to his concept of a God? Many commentators have objected that Bergson does not really provide adequate analysis or argument. He has a tendency to be carried away by fancy; his language is often unclear and poetic. The concept of the élan vital is itself an all-embracing one, but arguably it is illegitimate to extend it to different spheres.

 

READING

Bergson: [of many works] Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889) (Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness; translated as Time and Free Will by F.L. Pogson); Matière et mémoire (1896) (Matter and Memory, trans. N.M. Paul & W.S. Palmer); Introduction la métaphysique (1903) (Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T.E. Hulme); L'évolution créatrice (1907) (Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell); Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (1932) (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R.A. Audra and C. Brereton, assisted by W. Horsfall Carter). See also Bergson: Key Writings, eds. K. Ansell Pearson and J. Mullarkey.

Studies:

Introductory

L. Kolakowski, Bergson.

Advanced

J. Chevalier, Henri Bergson.

A. R. Lacey, Bergson.

K. Ansell Pearson, Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Bergson

 

Note: A possible (largely negative) influence of Condillac on Bergson was probably mediated through Maine de Biran (1766-1824), while marked parallels between many of Bergson's ideas and the thought of Schelling can be attributed to the influence of Jean Ravaisson-Mollien (1813-1900). Influences of other German philosophers such as Fichte and Schopenhauer — again most likely through French thinkers — should also be considered.

 

[1a] Positivist science (matter) distorts reality, metaphysics (inner spirit) does not; rejection of abstract philosophical systems

   Condillac

   [Cf. also Ravaisson]

Whitehead

   Merleau-Ponty

[2a 3a]

 

[1b 2a]

[3a]

 

[1b] Time: (i) duration (inner spiritual experience); (ii) discrete/ fragmented (scientific — 'superficial self')

   Kant

   James

Whitehead

   Merleau-Ponty

Heidegger

[2b]

[2b]

[1c]

[3d]

[3d]

 

[1c] Science utilizes intelligence (i) to conceptualize intuitions in language, (2) to control world (daily life, needs); metaphysics based on intuitions

   Bacon (Francis)

   Fichte

   Schopenhauer

   James

   Whitehead

[1e]

[2c 3b]

[2b]

[2b]

[4e]

 

[2a] Mind and body: rejection of epiphenomenalist and identity type theories

   Condillac

   James

[3a]

[2b]

 

[2b] Memory: (i) mechanistic (through habits, dispositions), no images, representations (relates to discrete time); (ii) 'pure' (spiritual), from sub-conscious to representations, records events (pure duration)

   Cf. Ravaisson

   Merleau-Ponty

 

[2a]

 

[3a] Action and perception: pure perception in terms of 'virtual' action; concrete as synthesis of pure perception (matter) and pure memory (spirit)

   Schelling

   Merleau-Ponty

[1e 2b]

[1c]

 

[3b; cf. 1b] Freedom: actions free when self-possession and pure duration achieved; determined when acted on mechanically/ socially ('superficial' self)

   Kant

   Schelling

   James

Whitehead

   Merleau-Ponty

[5c 7a]

[2c 6c]

[1k]

[4i]

[3g]

 

[4a; cf. 6a] (Non-mechanistic) evolution; 'vital force' throughout all life; self as agency → overcomes resistance of matter

   Condillac

   Fichte

   Schelling

   Schopenhauer

   Spencer

   James

Whitehead

Scheler

[4b]

[2b]

[1e]

[1d]

[1g]

[2a]

[4d]

[1b 2c]

 

[5a; see also 3b 6a] Universe as creative process of perpetual becoming

   Schelling

   Whitehead

Scheler

[1e]

[5a]

[3c]

 

[5b; cf. 1c] Instinct becomes aware of itself in intelligence and intuition

   Schelling

   Whitehead

[2b]

[4e]

 

[6a; cf. 4a 5a] Religion: (i) static (myths, divine authority); (ii) dynamic (mystical relation to God); both interpenetrate to exhibit creative power (vital force) of universe/ God

   Plotinus

   Schelling

Whitehead

Scheler

[3b]

[6a b]

[5b]

[3c 4d]

 

[7a] Morality and obligation: rejection of practical reason/ categorical imperative; in 'static' (closed) society obligation derives from social conformity; in dynamic open society people motivated by vital force of individual will (originating in human relations and mystical relationship to God)

   Plotinus

   Kant

   Schelling

[3b]

[6a-e]

[4a]

 

[7b; cf. 3b]

Obligation presupposes freedom    Kant [7a]