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Bergson, Henri (1859–1941)


Henri Bergson, the French philosopher of evolution, was born in Paris of Anglo-Polish parentage. During a lifetime of teaching, lecturing, and writing, he gained an international reputation as the author of a new and distinctive philosophical outlook presented in a succession of books whose fluent, nontechnical style gave them a wide appeal. In 1900 Bergson became professor of philosophy at the Collège de France, a post he held until 1921, when ill health obliged him to retire. He received many honors, including election to the French Academy and in 1927 the Nobel Prize for literature. After World War I, Bergson devoted much attention to international affairs, in the hope of promoting peace and cooperation among nations. But World War II had begun and France had been occupied by the armies of Nazi Germany at the time of his death.

Despite the novelty of his outlook, Bergson owed much to his predecessors in the European, and especially in the French, philosophical tradition, primarily to thinkers whose ideas supported his opposition to materialism and mechanism; he was convinced that neither of these doctrines is philosophically tenable. Thus, he was influenced by the idea of Maine de Biran that we sense the "flow" of life as a primary inner experience; by the contentions of Felix Ravaisson that philosophic thought should be focused on the directly intuited, concrete individual, and that mechanism is the external form of an inner spiritual activity; by the contention of Alfred Fouillée that there is an intrinsic freedom in human action; and by the teaching of Émile Boutroux that there exists a radical contingency in nature. His obligation to ancient thought was chiefly to Plotinus, whose mysticism became increasingly congenial to Bergson in the later years of his life. The theory of biological evolution, in both Charles Darwin's scientific formulation and Herbert Spencer's speculative formulation deeply influenced him. He was once "very much attached to the philosophy of Spencer" (The Creative Mind, p. 93), but broke away because of its unsatisfactory treatment of evolution and of time.

Two Kinds of Time

Of central importance in Bergson's outlook is his distinction between the time that occurs in the theories of natural science and the time that we directly experience. Scientific time is a mathematical conception, symbolized in physical theory by the letter t and measured by clocks and chronometers. Because these measuring instruments are spatial bodies, scientific time is represented as an extended, homogeneous medium, composed of standard units (years, hours, seconds). Most of man's practical life in society is dominated by these units. But time thus represented neither "flows" nor "acts." It exists passively, like a line drawn on a surface. When we turn to our direct experience, Bergson urged, we find nothing that corresponds to this mathematical conception. What we find, on the contrary, is a flowing, irreversible succession of states that melt into each other to form an indivisible process. This process is not homogeneous but heterogeneous. It is not abstract but concrete. In short, it is "pure time" or "real duration" (durée reelle ), something immediately experienced as active and ongoing. If we try to represent it by a spatial image, such as a line, we only generate abstract, mathematical time, which is at bottom an illusion. The great weakness of mechanistic modes of thought is that they consider this illusion to be a reality.

Determinism and Freedom

In Time and Free Will Bergson undertook to show that the recognition of real duration provides a basis for vindicating human freedom and disposing of determinism. The determinist, according to Bergson, holds that freedom of choice does not exist. He supports his view by picturing the situation in which one confronts an ostensible choice as being like arriving at a point on a line where a branching occurs, and taking one of the branches. The determinist then contends that the particular branch taken could not not have been taken. He further holds that, given full knowledge of the antecedent states of mind of the agent, the branch taken could have been predicted beforehand.

The force of this argument, according to Bergson, derives from misrepresenting the situation of choice by using an abstract, spatialized conception of time. At best the determinist's image of the line symbolizes the choice already made, not the choice in the making. In acting we do not move along a path through time. Deliberating about a choice is not like being at a point on a line and oscillating in space between various courses confronting us. Deliberation and choice are temporal, not spatial, acts. Moreover, the determinist makes the associationist's mistake of supposing that the mind of the agent consists of a succession of atomic states that determine how he will act. The associationist's mechanistic interpretation of the mind produced a fallacious picture upon which determinism was superimposed.

Freedom of action, according to Bergson, is something directly experienced. Man feels himself to be free as he acts, even though he may be unable to explain the nature of his freedom. Nevertheless, we are free only when our act springs spontaneously from our whole personality as it has evolved up to the moment of action. If this spontaneity is absent, our actions will be simply stereotyped or mechanical responses. In such cases we behave like automata. Hence, freedom is far from being absolute. Indeed, for most people free acts are the exception, not the rule. To this extent the determinists are right.

Body and Mind

Direct experience not only establishes the reality of time and of freedom; it also testifies that each of us is a body, subject to the same laws as all other bits of matter. Bergson's dualism emerges clearly in Matter and Memory. Bodies are there interpreted as "images"; that is, objects perceived in space. Among these images is one that I know from the outside by perception and from the inside by sensation or affection. This is my own body, which I also know to be a center of action.

What is the relation between the body and the mind? Materialism holds that mind, or consciousness, is either identical with brain activity or existentially dependent on brain activity. Bergson rejected both positions because, he claimed, there is vastly more in a given occasion of consciousness than in the corresponding brain state. The attempt to substantiate this claim led him to reject the doctrine that a parallelism exists between the series of conscious states and the series of brain states. The considerations to which he appealed came mainly from an examination of memory.

Two Kinds of Memory

Living organisms, unlike nonliving objects, retain their past in the present. This phenomenon is manifested, according to Bergson, in two kinds of memory. One kind consists of sensory-motor mechanisms or "habits" fixed in the body of the organism and designed to ensure adaptation to a present situation. When an appropriate stimulus arises, one of these mechanisms "unwinds" as a response. The other kind of memory, which humans alone possess, records in the form of memory images all the events of daily life as they occur in time. These images provide the content of occasions of recalling. This is "pure" memory, which is wholly spiritual. "Consciousness signifies, before everything, memory."

To defend his view of pure memory, Bergson argued against any correlation of memory images with hypothetical memory traces stored in the brain. Physiologically, the brain consists of a vast number of neurons, synapsing with each other and with afferent and efferent nerves. It resembles a telephone exchange, not a storage device. There is no evidence that memories are located spatially within it. Moreover, if a visual recollection of an object were dependent on a brain trace, there would have to be thousands of traces, corresponding to all the variations due to different points of view from which the object has been perceived. But what we actually have in each case is one practically invariable memory image of an object, not a large class of different images. This, Bergson thought, constitutes proof that something quite distinct from mechanical registration is involved. Finally, there are facts associated with loss of word memory and its restoration which point to the conclusion that the recollective process is independent of brain traces. It follows that materialism and psychoneural parallelism are untenable doctrines.

How, then, is pure memory related to the brain? Bergson's answer is derived from his contention that pure memory retains the whole of our past. If this is the case, something must prevent all our memories from being simultaneously present to consciousness, since we do in fact recall only one or two things at a time. The brain must therefore act as a filter for our memories, allowing only those that are practically useful to emerge on a given occasion. In other words, the brain is a mechanism invented by nature to canalize and direct our attention toward what is about to happen, in order to assist our actions. It is designed not so much to promote remembering as to promote forgetting. By bringing pure memory into contact with practical actions, it also establishes a link with habit memory, since most of our everyday actions tend to be habitual and routine. In this way the two kinds of memory are united.

Although he would not countenance the idea that memory traces are stored in the brain, Bergson allowed for the storage of images in pure memory. He asserted that pure memory retains all our conscious states "in the order in which they occur." This view led him to accept the conclusion that part of the mind is unconscious or subconscious. It is erroneous to suppose that the existence of psychical states depends on their apprehension by consciousness. To suppose this is to vitiate the concept of mind by casting an artificial obscurity over the idea of the unconscious. The significance of pure memory can be understood only by supposing that past psychological states have a real, though unconscious, existence.

It is now possible to explain the relation between the body and the mind. Here, as elsewhere, there has been a strong temptation to think in spatial terms, envisaging two separate substances that have to be connected. But the relation between body and mind must be understood in temporal, not spatial, terms. The point becomes clear when we unite the insight derived from our consciousness of real duration with the recognition that the body is a center of action, for on an occasion of action, body and mind are related by a convergence in time. No spatial representation of this convergence can be adequate. It can be grasped only by noting what takes place whenever we act. A familiar example is our perception of the external world.

Perception and the External World

The discussion of this question forms an integral part of Matter and Memory. In considering perception, traditional realism and idealism have, according to Bergson, made two unjustified assumptions. First, they have assumed that perception is a kind of photographic process that yields a picture of what is perceived. The mind is envisaged as a camera obscura inside which images are generated. Second, they have regarded perception as a cognitive function whose aim is to provide pure knowledge. Bergson contended that perception cannot possibly be a photographic process, for images are not inside the mind but are part of the spatially extended world. Moreover, perception does not generate images, but selects those images that have a possible bearing on actions. Nothing remotely akin to pure knowledge is involved at the perceptual level. Once these assumptions are discarded, the dispute between realism and idealism can be resolved.

In supporting this idea Bergson used biological considerations. Biologists are agreed that there has been an evolution of the structure and the functions of the central nervous system in living organisms. This evolution has proceeded from relatively simple types of organization toward greater and greater complexity, through a series of minute, adaptively significant changes. In simple organisms the rudiments of perception are to be found in mechanical responses to external stimulation. Direct contact with bodies, such as we experience in tactile perception, belongs to this stage. The role of the rudimentary nervous system is to facilitate action. What occurs is a reflex activity, not a "representation" of things. The sole difference between this stage and much later ones is that voluntary action became possible as a result of the evolution of the higher brain centers. But the difference is not one of kind, but only one of complication. Accordingly, since the nervous system is constructed from one end of the evolutionary scale to the other as a utilitarian device, we must conclude that perception, whose evolution is regulated by the evolution of the nervous system, is also directed toward action, not toward knowledge.

If that is so, why is human perception a conscious process, and why does everything happen as if consciousness were a product of brain activity? The reason is that human perception is normally "impregnated with memory images." It is possible to form a metaphysical concept of "pure perception" free from any admixture of memory. It is even possible, Bergson thought, to have such a pure perception, which he spoke of as an "intuition." But most of the time our perceptions are interlaced with memories; conversely, a memory becomes actual by being embodied in some perception. The convergence that takes place accounts for the fact that perceptual images (objects perceived) have a "subjectivity." We become conscious of them. This phenomenon has a biological significance, for in humans, and in higher organisms generally, perception is predominantly directed toward distant objects spread over a wide field. These objects have a great many potential effects on action. One way an organism has of adapting to this situation is to anticipate the effects by "reflecting" possible lines of action from its body to the distant objects. This gives the organism a biological advantage by putting it in a position where it can select a course of action that will serve its needs. Thus the world is consciously perceived by us; but it is not a different world from the one that antedated our perception. It is the same world related to our needs and intentions.

Body and mind, then, are united in the selective act of perception. The body contributes perceptive centers that respond to the influences of environing bodies. The mind contributes appropriate memory images that give to what is perceived a completed, meaningful form. There is no "constructing" of the external world out of subjective impressions; no "inferring" of the existence of that world from ideas in the mind; no positing of things in themselves that are beyond the limits of possible experience. By interpreting physical things as images, Bergson was able to regard the material world as directly perceivable. Traditional idealism was therefore repudiated. Yet a partial concession to idealism was made by calling things "images." This term implies a rejection of the realist's view that things consist only of material particles, or of primary qualities, or of some hidden substance. Things have all the qualities they are perceived to have. A partial concession to realism was made by admitting that the totality of perceived things, past, present and future, must always be a small fragment of material reality. The upshot is a doctrine, intermediate between idealism and realism, that combines, Bergson contends, what is sound in each and discards what is unsound.

Body and mind are above all united in real duration, for perception is an event in the concrete present, and the present is no geometrical point or "knife edge" separating past from future. It is a continuous flowing, an "invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future." Perceptual acts are intrinsically temporal and dynamic. Yet the world we come to know by means of them is not a flux. It has a relative stability. Our concepts often refer to things that remain much the same for long periods. These things may have fixed position, sharp outlines, and clearly marked qualities. In view of what has been said about perception, how are such facts accounted for? The reply involves Bergson's conception of the intellect and its functioning.

The Intellect and Things

The evolution of the human species gave rise to the capacity for conceptual or rational thought. This capacity is traditionally referred to as the intellect. Its origin, Bergson contended, was conditioned by several circumstances. First, man is one of the social animals, and effective action in human societies requires some use of rational thought. Second, man is a tool-using and tool-making animal. These activities could not advance far without fostering conceptualization. Third, man is an animal who invents and uses language. This powerful instrument of communication stimulated the development of intellect, and was in turn profoundly influenced by it. Here again the aim was to promote community of action. Thus, both in origin and in function, the intellect is a practical capacity. It is no more speculative than is perception.

By using his intellect, civilized man has produced a vast body of knowledge about the world. Is not much of this knowledge speculative, in the sense of being a cognitive reflection of the world as it really is? Bergson held that this is not so. Since the intellect is practical, its products must be instrumental to action, not mirrorlike reflections. Concepts, even when they belong to advanced theories in the sciences, are still pragmatic devices. For scientific knowledge is directed toward prediction and control of events, being in this respect an extension of commonsense knowledge. The technological triumphs of modern man provide the clue to the proper understanding of his intellectual powers.

Because of its practical orientation, the intellect functions in a characteristic way. It treats whatever it deals with in spatial terms, as if the latter were a three-dimensional body. Ordinary language is pervaded by spatial metaphors; and scientific theories, especially those of physics, make great use of geometrical models. The operations of our intellect, especially in science, "tend to geometry, as to the goal where they find their perfect fulfilment" (Creative Mind, Introduction II). Again, the intellect has an inherent tendency to break up whatever it deals with into homogeneous units. A whole can be understood only by analyzing it in terms of uniform parts. This tendency is reflected in the predominance of measuring operations and instruments, such as clocks, scales, and yardsticks, in civilized societies. Furthermore, the intellect is at home only when dealing with what is static, fixed, immobile.

Hence, in seeking to understand the phenomenon of motion, the intellect has recourse to immobile units, such as points of space or instants of time, out of which motion is reconstructed. Bergson spoke of "the cinematographical method" of the intellect, likening it to a movie camera that translates motion into a series of static "frames." An important consequence of this is that the intellect is committed to the use of formal logic and mathematics, both of which supply unchanging structures for thought. Finally, when something comes into existence or ceases to exist, the intellect interprets what happens as a rearranging of constituent elements. This means that the arising of something absolutely new, the creation of novelty, cannot be admitted by rational thought. Even growth and evolution must be understood as new arrangements of old parts.

It is now possible to explain why the world external to us consists of relatively stable, discrete things. The intellect, functioning in its characteristic way, is responsible. It "breaks up," "cuts up," or "carves up" matter into distinct and separate objects so as to promote the interests of action. Presumably, the operation requires the collaboration of perception, although Bergson did not make the point clear. He also failed to make clear whether the intellect is perfectly free in carving out individual things, or whether it has to follow certain lines of cleavage in the intrinsic structure of matter. Sometimes he talked as if the external world of things had been "fabricated" by the intellect's imposing form on a featureless, material flux. At other times, he implied that the intellect "carves nature at the joints," following "the lines which mark out the boundaries of real bodies or of their real elements." In one place he even stated that "matter is primarily what brings division and precision" into things; but this can hardly be construed as an acceptance of the doctrine that matter is the principle of individuation. Despite these obscurities, Bergson's position entails that the intellect is necessary, if not sufficient, for the "individuating" of things in space.

This requirement is relevant, of course, only to things of which we have conceptual knowledge. What is its bearing on the knowledge each of us has of his own body? Here a further obscurity arises. Bergson declared that we know our body in two ways, externally by perception and internally by affection. But since at the level of affection the intellect is not involved, it would appear to follow that the object known cannot be a separate, individual thing. Nevertheless, Bergson did speak of the central image, "distinct from all others," that each of us identifies as his body. What determines its distinct individuality? In Matter and Memory he remarked that "our needs carve out, within this continuity [of the perceptible world], a body which is to be their own." This is a puzzling remark, because often the body is what has the needs, and hence it can scarcely be "carved out" by them. It may be that the living human body, unlike inanimate bodies, has an individuality that does not depend on the functioning of the intellect. Or it may be that the obscurity here originates in Bergson's doctrine about what the intellect knows and what can be known only by intuition.

Intuition and Intellect

Alongside the capacity for conceptual thought, there exists in humans a capacity that Bergson called "intuition." Both capacities are the result of evolution, but the second is derived from instinct, the type of biological activity most elaborately manifested in the social insects. Instinctive activity has consciousness "slumbering" within it, and evolution has awakened the consciousness in humankind. Intuition for Bergson is "instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely." Since it is disinterested, the capacity is detached from the demands of action and of social life. It is like a painter's power of seeing the world just as it is presented to him in pure perception. But instead of yielding an aesthetic experience, intuition yields knowledge. Hence, it is of profound importance for the philosopher.

In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Bergson emphasized the immediate, nonconceptual character of intuition, envisaging it as a direct participation in, or identification with, what is intuited. In the case of the external world, intuition is an act "by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible about it." In the case of the self, intuition is an immersion in the indivisible flow of consciousness, a grasping of pure becoming and real duration. The result is "knowledge which is contact and even coincidence." Unlike the intellect, which remains outside what it knows, requires symbols, and produces knowledge that is always relative to some viewpoint, intuition enters into what it knows, dispenses with symbols, and produces knowledge that is absolute.

Bergson subsequently modified this doctrine in certain respects. He came to emphasize the cogitative character of intuition instead of its immediacy, and even spoke of it as a mode of thinking. As such, it is not a spontaneous flash of insight but an act that is engendered by mental effort. To achieve an intuition, we must turn our attention away from its natural concern with action. This act demands concentration of thought. Even when we are successful, the results are impermanent. Yet the intellect can effect a partial communication of the results by using "concrete ideas," supplemented by images. "Comparisons and metaphors will here suggest what cannot be expressed." Consequently, the knowledge attained by intuition is not altogether ineffable. Nor is it, in the strict sense, absolute, for intuition is a progressive activity that can widen and deepen its scope indefinitely. Its limits cannot be fixed a priori. These modifications were related to changes in Bergson's conception of the roles of metaphysics and the natural sciences.

The Natural Sciences and Metaphysics

The natural sciences are for Bergson a typical achievement of the intellect, and they therefore reflect a limitation in the intellect's functioning. This limitation emerges when the sciences form their conceptions of time and motion. In each case a static abstraction is produced. Time is conceived as what clocks measure in spatially discrete units. Motion is conceived as a succession of fixed positions on a linear path. Both abstractions are practically useful, but they falsify the nature of time and motion as concretely experienced by ignoring the crucial element of becoming. This falsification is inherent in the intellect's way of working. By its very nature, the intellect is equipped to handle only what is repetitive and routine; real becoming baffles it. Hence the sciences have a severe disability built into them. Moreover, as the ancient philosopher Zeno of Elea first pointed out, conceptual thought runs into contradictions or "paradoxes" whenever it tries to give a thorough analysis of motion. These paradoxes, although designed by Zeno for a different purpose, show, according to Bergson, that the scientific concept of motion is basically incoherent. The conclusion must be that the sciences can never provide a complete and adequate account of the universe. They need to be supplemented by some other discipline.

An obvious choice would seem to be metaphysics, but classical metaphysics is equally a creation of the intellect and suffers from the same disability as the sciences. Metaphysicians, with a few exceptions like Heraclitus, have misconstrued change and failed to give it the priority it actually has in the world. They have regarded being as ultimate, and becoming as derivative. Accordingly, metaphysical theories have been based on such concepts as the indestructible atoms of Democritus, the eternal forms of Plato, or the fixed categories of Immanuel Kant. These concepts illustrate the intellect's addiction to unchanging units that are mechanically combined or separated according to the rules of logic. Neither time nor change can be understood when so approached. The constructions of metaphysics are as inadequate here as those of science, without the latter's usefulness.

Classical metaphysics has also mistakenly supposed that an all-embracing "system" can be constructed, bringing within its scope not only what is actual but also what is possible. This idea rests on a fallacious assumption that there is a "realm of possibility" over and above the realm of actuality. The belief in possibles that would be realized by acquiring existence is an illusion of the intellect, designed to exclude the notion of absolute novelty. "Let us have done," Bergson urged, "with great metaphysical systems embracing all the possible and sometimes even the impossible!"

By following this course, we shall automatically get rid of a number of pseudo problems that classical metaphysicians have generated. They have asked, for instance, why something exists rather than nothing. This has seemed a sensible question because they could always add, "There could be nothing." Bergson replied that the sentence "There could be nothing" has no meaning. "'Nothing' is a term in ordinary language which can only have meaning in the sphere proper to man, of action and fabrication." The term designates the absence of what we are seeking in the world around us. It can be properly used only because many things already exist. To oppose "nothing" in an absolute sense to existence is to embrace a pseudo idea and engender pseudo problems.

These criticisms do not imply that metaphysics is to be rejected, for Bergson proposed to redefine metaphysics and provide it with a new method. Instead of employing the intellect, it is to employ intuition. This is the theme of the Introduction to Metaphysics. In elaborating it, Bergson sometimes seemed to be saying that since intuition alone provides knowledge of the real, the intellect is restricted to knowledge of appearances. It would follow from this that metaphysics is a discipline superior to the natural sciences. Indeed, from a philosophical standpoint the sciences are cognitively worthless because they can say nothing about reality. The impression was thus created that Bergson's outlook was "antiscientific." In later writings he endeavored to correct this impression by urging that metaphysics and the sciences must be coordinate and equal in value. Both are concerned with the real, the sciences with the domain of matter, metaphysics with the domain of spirit. Moreover, the knowledge that each gains is capable of indefinite expansion, and can approach completeness as an ideal limit. It was in this connection that Bergson seems to have revised his doctrine of intuition, closing the gap between it and the intellect without obliterating the distinction between the two. His objective was to formulate a philosophy that would submit to the control of science and that could in turn enable science to progress. The disciplines would then have a common frontier. In adopting the method of intuition, metaphysics is able to supplement the sciences by giving a true account of duration, of becoming, and even of evolution.

Mechanistic and Creative Evolution

Bergson was born in the same year that The Origin of Species was published, and the revolutionary implications of this work permanently affected his thought. He accepted the historical reality of evolution, but rejected attempts to explain it in mechanistic or materialistic terms. Hence he criticized Darwin's explanation, and also the less influential explanations of the Chevalier de Lamarck, Theodor Eimer, and Spencer. In place of them he advanced a doctrine that owed much to the tradition of European and especially French vitalism, and at the same time drew inspiration from Plotinus. The result was a vision of the cosmos going far beyond the facts of biology, though purportedly based on them. These matters were presented in Creative Evolution, Bergson's most famous book.

Darwin explained the evolutionary process by supposing that in every population of organisms there occur random variations that have different degrees of adaptive value. The variations having maximum value for the survival and reproduction of the organisms are "naturally selected"; that is, they are preserved and transmitted to subsequent generations, while the other variations are eliminated.

Bergson argued that this explanation failed to account for a number of facts. A multicellular animal, or an organ like the vertebrate eye, is a functional whole made up of coordinated parts. If just one or a few of the parts happened to vary independently of the rest, the functioning of the whole would be impaired. Since evolution has occurred, we must suppose that at each stage all the parts of an animal and of its complex organs have varied contemporaneously so that effective functioning was preserved. But it is utterly implausible to suppose, as Darwin did, that such coadapted variations could have been random, for then their coadaptation would remain a mystery. Some agency other than natural selection must have been at work to maintain continuity of functioning through successive alterations of form.

Another fact that Darwinism failed to explain is why living things have evolved in the direction of greater and greater complexity. The earliest living things were simple in character and well adapted to their environments. Why did the evolutionary process not stop at this stage? Why did life continue to complicate itself "more and more dangerously"? To appeal to the mechanism of selection for an answer was, Bergson thought, insufficient. Something must have driven life on to higher and higher levels of organization, despite the risks involved.

Darwin's predecessor Lamarck avoided the idea of random variations by supposing that variations were caused by the "effort" exerted by individuals in adapting to the environment. Bergson considered this a more adequate explanation than the Darwinian. Yet it involved accepting the principle that acquired characteristics are transmitted from one generation to the next, and empirical evidence is heavily against this. Furthermore, the Lamarckian notion of a conscious "effort" is too limited to serve as an explanatory device. It could perhaps operate in the case of animals but hardly in the case of plants or microorganisms. To make the notion work, it must be broadened and deepened. Similarly, Eimer's appeal to orthogenesis; that is, to an inner principle that directs the course of evolution, has merit if interpreted nonmechanistically, but not if interpreted, as Eimer did, in physicochemical terms.

The synthetic philosophy of Spencer also had merit in so far as it sought to extend the evolutionary conception to the universe at large. Yet because Spencer relied exclusively on the intellect, and because he subscribed to the false idea that philosophy can be a super science, Spencer failed to do justice to real duration and to the creation of novelty. He held that evolution is due to combinations of matter and motion. This makes his philosophy a thinly disguised version of mechanical materialism, which reconstructs evolution "with fragments of the evolved."

To obtain a true understanding of the evolutionary process, the findings of biology must be supplemented, Bergson thought, by the findings of metaphysics. The chief clue is found in what intuition reveals of our own inner nature as living beings; we are typical constituents of the universe, and the forces that work in us also work in all things. When we focus upon what intuition discloses of ourselves, we find not only continuous becoming and real duration, but also a consciousness of a vital impetus (élan vital ), of our own evolution in time. We are thus led to the idea of "an original impetus of life" (un élan original de la vie ) that pervades the whole evolutionary process and accounts for its dominant features. Accordingly, the history of life is to be understood in creative, not mechanistic, terms.

The Vital Impetus and Evolution

Bergson's doctrine of the vital impetus is speculative, although often formulated as if it were a report of an established fact. The impetus is declared to be "a current of consciousness" that has penetrated matter, given rise to living bodies, and determined the course of their evolution. The current passes from one generation to the next by way of reproductionin bisexual organisms, by way of the reproductive cells. The vital impetus is the cause of variations that accumulate and produce new species. It coordinates the appearance of variations so as to preserve continuity of functioning in evolving structures. And it carries life toward ever higher complexity of organization. Strictly speaking, the impetus does not generate energy of its own, over and above that already present in matter. What it does is "to engraft on to the necessity of physical forces the largest possible amount of indetermination." This indetermination is evident in the contingency and creativity that have characterized the history of life. At every stage the impetus has been limited by recalcitrant matter. Hence, it is always seeking to transcend the stage it has reached and always remains inadequate to what it tries to produce.

The earliest living things were physicochemical systems into which the vital impetus "insinuated itself." Its potentialities could be realized only minimally in these systems. Consequently, it divided so that life moved forward in several quite different directions. One direction was taken by the plants, another by the insects, and a third by the vertebrates. The three directions illustrate respectively the predominance of stability, instinct, and intelligence. No predetermined plan or purpose was involved in all this. Bergson expressed as much opposition to the doctrine of radical finalism as he did to mechanism. Both doctrines deny that there has been an unforeseeable creation of forms, that these forms involve discontinuous "leaps," and that real duration is a cumulative, irreversible flow. Yet although the vital impetus is not finalistic, it does engender progress. A perfecting of functions has occurred through successive stages. An increasing realization of consciousness has also occurred.

This last contention made it difficult for Bergson to maintain an opposition to finalism, for it is in man that consciousness has been most fully realized. Here the vital impetus has found its most adequate expression as intelligence. It has likewise achieved genuine freedom by at last making matter its instrument. There was in fact "a sudden leap from the animal to man." Hence in Creative Evolution Bergson said that man might be considered the reason for the existence of the entire organization of life on our planet. He immediately qualified this statement by adding that it is "only a manner of speaking." We should not think that humanity was "prefigured" in the evolutionary process from the beginning.

By the time he wrote the essay that became the "Second Introduction" to The Creative Mind, Bergson was more forthright. He there stated categorically that the appearance of humans is the raison d'être of life on the earth. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion he also contended that it is humankind, "or some other being of like significance, which is the purpose of the entire process of evolution." This contention seems very close to finalism. Nevertheless, Bergson continued to insist that the appearance of man was in no sense predetermined, though "it was not accidental, either." Terrestrial evolution might have produced some other being "of the same essence." Such beings have doubtless arisen elsewhere, for Bergson thought that the vital impetus animates innumerable planets in the universe. The impetus is thus not limited to the earth; creative evolution is a cosmic process.

This contention is not argued for in any detail. As so often in his writings, Bergson tried to make the contention acceptable by means of analogies. He likened the vital impetus to steam escaping at high pressure through the cracks in a container. Jets gush out unceasingly, the steam condenses into drops of water, and the drops fall back to the source. Each jet and its drops represent a world of matter animated by life. A small part of the jet remains uncondensed for an instant, and makes an effort to raise the drops that are falling. But it succeeds at most in retarding their fall. So the vital impetus achieves a moment of freedom at its highest point, in humans. It might be inferred from this analogy that matter is not something sui generis, but is rather the lowest form assumed by the outpouring of spirit. Matter and spirit, however, were repeatedly described by Bergson as coexistent and interdependent.

God and the Mystics

The religious aspect of Bergson's outlook became increasingly pronounced toward the close of his life. Even in Creative Evolution he had spoken of the vital impetus as a "supra-consciousness" to which the name "God" might be attached. But this is very different from the conception of traditional Western theology. For if God is identical with the vital impetus, then he is pure activity, limited by the material world in which he is struggling to manifest himself. He is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. God "has nothing of the already made," but is ceaselessly changing. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson moved somewhat closer to the Christian position; he affirmed that God is love and the object of love. There is also a divine purpose in the evolutionary process. Evolution is nothing less than God's "undertaking to create creators, that He may have, besides Himself, beings worthy of His love."

The discovery of this purpose and of the reality of God cannot be made by the intellect. It can be made only by the sort of intuition that is the mystical experience. For the vital impetus, Bergson contended, is communicated "in its entirety" to exceptional persons. These are the mystics who achieve contact and partial coincidence with the creative effort that "is of God, if it is not God Himself." This experience does not terminate in passivity, but leads to intense activity. The mystics participate in God's love for humankind. They are therefore impelled to advance the divine purpose by helping to complete the development of man. They want to make of humanity what it would straightway have become if humanity had been able to reach its final form without the aid of humans themselves. The spirit of the mystics must become universal in order to ensure man's future evolution.

Bergson acknowledged that the biggest obstacle to the spread of the mystical spirit is the ceaseless struggle that most people must wage against the material conditions of life. Yet he did not believe that these conditions could be ameliorated by programs of political and economic reform devised by the intellect. Consequently, the most we can hope for at present is that the spirit of the mystics will be kept alive by small groups of privileged souls, "until such time as a profound change in the material conditions imposed on humanity by nature should permit, in spiritual matters, of a profound transformation." The mystics, through their experience of love, will keep open a trail along which the whole of humanity can eventually pass.

Closed and Open Societies

Since man is a social animal, his future evolution will be accelerated or retarded by the sort of group in which he lives. Bergson discussed this question in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, where he drew a distinction between a society that is "closed" and one that is "open," describing in each case corresponding types of religion and of morality.

A closed society is one dominated by the routine and mechanical. It is resistant to change, conservative, and authoritarian. Its stability is achieved by increasing its self-centeredness. Hence, conflict with other self-centered groups, often involving war, is a condition of its preservation. Internal cohesiveness is secured by a closed morality and a closed religion. Bergson's analysis was influenced by the sociological doctrines of Émile Durkheim. Closed morality is static and absolutistic; closed religion is ritualistic and dogmatic. Both institutions exert pressure on individuals to accept the standard practices of the community. Spontaneity and freedom are reduced to a minimum. Conformity becomes the prime duty of the citizen. There is an obvious analogy between such a society and the repetitive mechanisms dealt with by the intellect. Indeed, Bergson regarded closed societies as in large measure the intellect's products.

The existence of a multiplicity of closed societies on the earth is an obstacle to human evolution. Accordingly, the next development in humankind requires the establishment of an open society. Instead of being limited, it will embrace all humankind; instead of being static, it will be progressive; instead of demanding conformity, it will encourage the maximum diversity among individuals. Its moral and religious beliefs will be equally flexible and subject to growth. Religion will replace the stereotyped dogmas elaborated by the intellect with the intuition and illumination now achieved by the mystics. The spread of the mystical spirit must ultimately create an open society whose freedom and spontaneity will express the divine élan which pervades the universe.

Bergson's outlook had a marked influence on the thought and literature of Europe. His gifts as a writer, his ingenuity in constructing vivid analogies, and his flair for describing the subtleties of immediate experience"true empiricism," as he called itcontributed to the popularity of his work, as did the impressive use that he made of the biological and psychological ideas of his time. On the other hand, critics have contended that many of his doctrines are vague and ill-supported by arguments. Too often, it is said, rhapsodic formulations are offered where there ought to be sustained logical analysis. There is, for instance, no clear statement of how real duration, the flow of consciousness, and the vital impetus are related. Are these separate processes, or just distinguishable aspects of one process? Does matter have an independent status, or is it simply a "devitalized" form of the élan vital ? Such questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Many critics have also deplored the encouragement that Bergson's doctrine of the intellect gave to the advocates of irrationalism and the cruder versions of pragmatism. Yet when all these criticisms have been made, the Bergsonian heritage remains an important element in twenty-first-century philosophy.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Continuity; Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwinism; Determinism and Freedom; Durkheim, Émile; Evolutionary Theory; Fouillée, Alfred; Idealism; Intuition; Irrationalism; Kant, Immanuel; Lamarck, Chevalier de; Leucippus and Democritus; Maine de Biran; Materialism; Memory; Metaphysics, History of; Mind-Body Problem; Mysticism, History of; Nothing; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Science, History of; Plato; Plotinus; Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean Gaspard Félix; Realism; Time; Vitalism; Zeno of Elea.


works by bergson

Quid Aristoteles de Loco Senserit. Paris: F. Alcan, 1889. Bergson's doctoral thesis. Translated by Robert Mossé-Bastide as "L'Idée de lieu chez Aristote," in Les Études bergsoniennes. Paris: A. Michel, 1949. Vol. II.

Essai sur les donnés immédiates de la conscience. Paris, 1889. Translated by F. L. Pogson as Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Matière et mémoire. Paris, 1896. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer [pseud.] as Matter and Memory. New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Le rire. Paris, 1900. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell as Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: Macmillan, 1911.

"Introduction à la métaphysique." Revue de la métaphysique et de morale 11 (January 1903): 136. Translated by T. E. Hulme as Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Putnam, 1912.

L'évolution créatrice. Paris: F. Alcan, 1909. Translated by Arthur Mitchell as Creative Evolution. New York: Henry Holt, 1911.

L'énergie spirituelle. Paris: F. Alcan, 1919. Translated by H. Wildon Carr as Mind-Energy. New York: Henry Holt, 1920. A collection of essays.

Durée et simultanéité. Paris: F. Alcan, 1922; 2nd ed. with 3 appendices, 1923. On aspects of the theory of relativity; not included in centenary edition of Bergson's works.

Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion. Paris: F. Alcan, 1932. Translated by R. A. Audra and Cloudesley Brereton as The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. New York: Henry Holt, 1935.

La pensée et le mouvant. Paris: F. Alcan, 1934. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison as The Creative Mind. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946. A collection of essays.

Écrits et paroles. Edited by R. M. Mossé-Bastide. 3 vols. Paris, 19571959. Preface by Édouard LeRoy.

Oeuvres. Édition du centenaire. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1959. Annotated by André Robinet, introduction by Henri Gouhier.

works on bergson


Carr, Herbert Wildon. The Philosophy of Change. New York, 1912.

Chevalier, Jacques. Henri Bergson. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Hanna, Thomas, ed. The Bergsonian Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. Articles on Bergson's thought by various scholars.

Höffding, Harald. Henri Bergson's Filosofi. Karacteristik ag Kritik. Copenhagen, 1914. Translated by Alfred C. Mason in Modern Philosophers and Lectures on Bergson. London, 1915.

Huxley, Julian. Essays in Popular Science. New York: Knopf, 1927. Claims that Bergson's vitalism was based on dubious factual material.

LeRoy, Édouard. Une Philosophie nouvelle: Henri Bergson. Paris, 1912. Translated by Vincent Benson as The New Philosophy of Henri Bergson. New York: Henry Holt, 1913.

Lindsay, A. D. The Philosophy of Henri Bergson. London, 1911.

Ruhe, Algot, and Nancy Margaret Paul. Henri Bergson. London: Macmillan, 1914.

Russell, Bertrand. Our Knowledge of the External World. London, 1914. Ch. 1. Highly critical.

Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Bergson. Cambridge, U.K.: Bowes and Bowes, 1914. Highly critical.

Santayana, George. Winds of Doctrine. New York: Scribners, 1913. Highly critical.

Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. Roots of Bergson's Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

Stephen, Karin. The Misuse of Mind. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1922.

Stewart, J. McK. A Critical Exposition of Bergson's Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1911.


Delhomme, Jeanne. Vie et conscience de la vie: Essai sur Bergson. Paris, 1954.

Les études bergsoniennes. Paris: A. Michel, 19481959. Vols. IV.

Husson, Léon. L'intellectualisme de Bergson. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1947.

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Henri Bergson. Paris, 1959.

Marietti, Angèle. Les formes du mouvement chez Bergson. Paris, 1957.

Maritain, Jacques. La philosophie bergsonienne. Paris: M. Rivière, 1930.

other works of interest

Ansell-Pearson, Keith. Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Bergson, Henri. Durée et simultanéité. 7th ed. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1968.

Bergson, Henri. An Introduction to Metaphysics: The Creative Mind. Totowa, NY: Littlefield, Adams, 1975.

Bergson, Henri. Mind-Energy: Lectures and Essays. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975,.

Bergson, Henri. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Bergson, Henri, and André Robinet. Correspondances. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2002.

Bergson, Henri, and André Robinet. OEuvres. 5th ed. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1991.

Capek, Milic. Bergson and Modern Physics. A Reinterpretation and Re-evaluation. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1971.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Fink, Hilary L. Bergson and Russian Modernism, 19001930. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

Gallagher, Idella J. Morality in Evolution: The Moral Philosophy of Henri Bergson. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970.

Gunter, P. A. Y., comp. Bergson and The Evolution of Physics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969.

Gunter, P. A. Y. Henri Bergson: A Bibliography. 2nd rev. ed. Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center, Bowling Green State University, 1986.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. Oxford, Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lacey, A. R. Bergson. London; New York: Routledge, 1989.

Maritain, Jacques. Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1955, 1968.

Mullarkey, John. Bergson and Philosophy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.

Mullarkey, John. The New Bergson. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Pilkington, Anthony Edward. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

T. A. Goudge (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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