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Henri Bergson (1859-1941)


French philosopher who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. Bergson argued that the intuition is deeper than the intellect. His Creative Evolution (1907) and Matter and Memory (1896) attempted to integrate the findings of biological science with a theory of consciousness. Bergson's work was considered the main challenge to the mechanistic view of nature. He is sometimes claimed to have anticipated features of relativity theory and modern scientific theories of the mind. Bertrand Russell, one of the most authoritative opponents of Bergson, did not consider him a philosopher at all, but merely a mediocre poet.

"In reality, the past is preserved by itself automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside." (from Creative Evolution)

Henri Bergson was born in Paris, the son of Michel, a prosperous musician from Poland and Katherine Levinson, a woman of Anglo-Irish descent; both were Jewish. Part of his childhood Bergson spent in London, learning English so well that in later life he checked the English translations of his books. When Bergson was eight, the family returned to France.

While still at the Lycée Concordet (then the Fontane), Bergson won an open prize for an original solution to a mathematical problem, which was in published in Annales de Mathematiques in 1878. Bergson studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and after earning his degree in 1881, he spent the following years as a teacher in a succession of lycées. One of his pupils was the journalist Charles Péguy, who established the journal Cahiers de la quinzaine.

In 1900 Bergson became a professor at the Collège de France. His lectures were highly popular, drawing students, academics, general public and tourists; students referred to the collège as "the house of Bergson." In 1913 he traveled to the United States, where occasioned one of New York City's first traffic jams. From 1914 until 1921 Édouard Le Roy functioned as Bergson's "permanent substitute" while the philosopher served on French diplomatic missions. Bergson resigned in 1921 in order to dedicate himself to his writing and to his work on behalf of the League of Nations. From 1921 to 1926 he acted as president of the committee on international cooperation of the League of Nations. Its other members included Paul Valéry, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein. Ill heath forced Bergson to retire from public duties. He never published a book engaged explicitly with political or economic questions but in Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (1932, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion) he criticized economic liberalism, and called for "brotherhood, human solidarity, and peace among men."  Before  World War I, Péguy and  George Sorel had urged him to  turn his attention in the direction of politics and social movements.

Between the World Wars, Bergson enjoyed the status of a cult figure. Although not a practicing Jew, Bergson refused the Vichy government's offers to excuse him from the scope of their anti-Semitic laws. He decided to join the persecuted and registered himself at the end of 1940 as a Jew. However, his religious thinking had brought him closer to Catholicism. Bergson died of bronchitis on January 3, 1941. For the last seventeen years of his life he had suffered from crippling arthritis. The popularity of Bergson's philosophy faded in the 1920s. Gilles Deleuze's study Le bergsonisme (1966), re-introduced Bergson to contemporary philosophy and analyzed Bergsonian intuition as a fundamental method of his philosophy.

"There is nothing in philosophy which could not be said in everyday language," Bergson told once in an interview. In spite of his good intentions, his ideas were often high-flown and difficult to follow. In his first major work, Time and Free Will (1889), Bergson aimed to show how pseudoproblems about the will and its freedom have arisen from a false phenomenology of mental states – essentially, a tendency to conceive and describe them in spatial terms. Human experience does not perceive real life as a succession of demarcated conscious states, progressing along some imaginary line, but rather a continuous flow. Bergson made the distinction between the concept and experience of time. While the physicist observes objects and events in succession, time is presented to consciousness as duration – an endlessly flowing process, which resists simple mathematization. Bergson argued that the 'real time' is experienced as duration and apprehended by intuition, not through separate operations of instinct and the intellect.

In An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903) Bergson saw that the intuition, the direct apprehension of process, as the discoverer of truth – intuition, not analysis, reveals the real world. Sometimes intuition in Bergson referred to getting bright ideas, sometimes it was the method of philosophy like intellect is of mathematics. His concept of élan vital, "creative impulse" or "living energy", was developed in Creative Evolution, his most famous book. Élan vital is an immaterial force, whose existence cannot be scientifically verified, but it provides the vital impulse that continuously shapes all life. Bergson questioned the Darwinist theories that evolution occurs in great leaps or alternatively through the gradual accumulation of slight mutations and explained by élan vital the creative course of evolution.

In 1914 all of Bergson's writings, but most especially Creative Evolution, were placed upon the list of books devout Catholics were forbidden to read. After its appearance twenty-five years elapsed before Bergson published another major work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, his final statement of his philosophy which also reflected the threats of nationalist-racist politics and hinted at the coming of mechanized warfare. The Creative Mind, published two years later, was a collection of essays and other writings.

"In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbour," Bergson stated in Laughter (1900). It is not among Bergson's best-known studies, but Arthur Koestler considered it as important for his book The Act of Creation as (1964) Freud's classic Wit and its Relations to the Unconscious. Bergson defined the comic as the result of the sense of relief we feel when we feel ourselves from the mechanistic and materialistic – his examples were the man-automaton, the puppet on strings, Jack-in-the Box, etc. "A situation is always comic", he wrote, "if it participates simultaneously in two series of events which are absolutely independent of each other, and if it can be interpreted in two quite different meanings." He saw laughter as the corrective punishment inflicted by society upon the unsocial individual. "It seems that laughter needs an echo. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group."

Bergson had been interested in Spencerian evolutionism in his youth, but he later abandoned Spencer's view placing intuition as the highest human faculty. In Creative Evolution Bergson argued that the creative urge, not the Darwinian concept of natural selection, is at the heart of evolution. Man's intellect has developed in the course of evolution as an instrument of survival. It comes to think inevitably in geometrical or 'spatializing' terms that are inadequate to lay hold of the ultimate living process. But intuition goes to the heart of reality, and enables us to find philosophic truth.

Bergson's thinking and concept of time has influenced greatly Arnold Hauser, Claude Simon, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Santayana, and such authors as Péguy, Valéry, and John Dos Passos. Whitehead expanded Bergson's notions of duration and evolution from their applications to organic life into the phycial realm. It is said that for Marcel Proust, whose cousin Louise Neuberger the philosopher married in 1891, he gave the idea for the great novel of reminiscence, À la recherche de temps perdu (1913-27). Proust attended Bergson's lectures given at the Sorbonne from 1891 to 1893. However, there is only one recorded conversation between Proust and Bergson – the subject was the nature of sleep. Proust brought Bergson an excellent box of earplugs. Sartre also paid tribute to Bergson, and Martin Heidegger, whose ontology is echoed in existentialist writing, used some of Bergson's concepts, such as "no-being."

Despite his fame, Bergson never produced a movement. His influence on existentialism is not straight forward and in his own time the philosopher was considered an empiricist. On the other hand, Bergson's argumentation frustrated such philosophers as the empiricist Bertrand Russell, who criticized his thoughts in 1914 and later returned to them in History of Western Philosophy. Philosophers have pointed out that Bergson did not satisfactorily show how intuition could work apart from intellect. Russell argued in his analysis of the doctrine of intuition that "instinct is seen at its best in ants, bees, and Bergson."

Albert Einstein found serious mistakes from Bergson's Durée et simultanéité. À propos de la théorie d'Einstein (1921), dealing with Einstein's theory of relativity, which Bergson subsequently tried to withdraw from circulation. He had opposed in 1911 Einstein's ideas, but then his view had changed and he introduced the concept of non-linear time. Some of the leading physicists have devoted articles to his work. Nevertheless, Bergson was accused of rejecting the new physics of relativity because he had not understood it. Bergson retreated from public view and devoted himself to his final work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.

For further reading: The Philosophy of Bergson by B. Russell (1914); Un Romantisme utilitaire by R. Berthelot (1938); L'Intellectualisme de Bergson by L. Husson (1947); Bergson by I.W. Alexander (1957); Henri Bergson by H.W. Carr (1970); Bergson by J. Solomon (1970); Bergson and Modern Physics by M. Capec (1971); Bergson by L. Kolakowski (1985); Henri Bergson by P.A.Y Gunter (1986); Bergson and Modern Thought, ed. by A.C. Papanicolaou (1987); Bergsonism by G. Deleuze (1988); Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde by Mark Antliff (1993); The New Bergson, ed. by John Mullarkey (1999); Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life by Keith Ansell-Pearson (2001); Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson by Suzanne Guerlac (2006); Bergson, Politics, and Religion by Alexandre Lefebvre and Melanie White (2012) - See also: Nikos Kazantzakis, Gabriela Mistral, Anton Tammsaare

Selected bibliography:

  • Extraits de Lucrèce avec commentaire, études et notes, 1884
    - Philosophy of Poetry: the Genius of Lucretius (translated by Wade Baskin, 1959)
  • Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, 1888
    - Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (translated by F.L. Pogson, 1910)
  • Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit; thesim Facultati litterarum parisiensi proponebat H. Bergson, 1889
  • Matière et mémoire, 1896
    - Matter and Memory (translated by N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer, 1911)
  • Le Rire: essai sur la signification du comique, 1900
    - Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (translated by Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, 1911)
    - Nauru - tutkimus komiikan merkityksestä (suom. Sanna Isto ja Marko Pasanen, 1994)
  • Le rêve, 1901
    - Dreams (translated by Edwin E. Slosson, 1914) / The World of Dreams (translated from the French by Wade Baskin, 1958)
  • Introduction à la Métaphysique, 1903
    - Introduction to Metaphysics (translated by T.E. Hulme, 1912; Mabelle L. Andison, 1961)
  • L'évolution créatrice, 1907
    - Creative Evolution (translated by Arthur Mitchell, 1911)
  • La signification de la guerre, 1915
    - The Meaning of the War, Life & Matter in Conflict (with an introduction by H. Wildon Carr, 1915)
  • L'énergie spirituelle. Essais et conférences, 1919
    - Mind-Energy (translated by H. Wildon Carr, 1920)
    - Henkinen tarmo (suom. J. Hollo, 1923)
  • Durée et simultanéité. À propos de la théorie d'Einstein, 1921
    - Duration and Simultaneity (translated by Leon Jacobson, 1965)
  • Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion, 1932
    - The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (translated by R.A. Audra and C. Brereton, 1935)
  • La Pensée et le mouvant, Essais et conférences, 1934
    - The Creative Mind: an Introduction to Metaphysics (translated by M.L. Andison, 1946)
  • Selections from Bergson, 1949 (ed. with an introd. by Harold A. Larrabee)
  • Écrits et Paroles, 1957-59 (3 vols.)
    - The Philosophy of Poetry; The Genius of Lucretius (partial. transl., 1959)
  • Œuvres, 1959 (eds. André Robinet, Henri Gouhier)
  • La Nature de l'Âme, 1972
  • Mélanges, 1972
  • Cours I-III (1990-95)
  • Key Writings, 2002 (ed. by Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey, translated by Melissa McMahon)
  • Correspondances, 2002 (ed. by André Robinet ret al.)
  • Henri Bergson et Albert Kahn: Correspondances, 2003 (eds. Sophie Cœuré and Frédéric Worms, preface by Jeanne Beausoleil)
  • Ecrits philosophiques, 2011

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