Bergson, Henri

views updated May 09 2018


BERGSON, HENRI (18591941), French philosopher. Born in Paris and educated at Lycée Condorcet and École Normale Supérieure, Bergson taught at three lycées and the École Normale Supérieure before he was invited to the Collège de France in 1900, where he lectured until 1914, formally retiring in 1921. His popular lectures influenced listeners from a wide variety of disciplines. He served as the first president of the Commission for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. In 1927, already awarded France's highest honors, Bergson received the Nobel Prize for lit-erature.

Although born Jewish, Bergson was increasingly attracted to Roman Catholicism. While declaring his "moral adherence" to Catholicism and requesting that a priest pray at his funeral, Bergson refused to abandon his fellow Jews in the face of Nazi anti-Semitism.

Bergson began his career as a disciple of Herbert Spencer, whose evolutionism exalted science and the individual. In the 1880s, however, Bergson decided that science provided an incomplete worldview, for its concept of time could not account for the experience of duration. From this disagreement came his first book, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889; translated as Time and Free Will, 1910). He next examined the relationship of mind to body in Matière et mémoire (1896; Matter and Memory, 1911). L'évolution créatrice, his most famous work, appeared in 1907 (Creative Evolution, 1911). In it he expounded a nonmechanistic portrait of biological evolution, propelled toward higher levels of organization by an inner vital impulse (élan vital). Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion appeared in 1932 (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1935). These four books constitute his major works.

In Two Sources Bergson distinguished between static and dynamic morality. The first, a morality of obligation, sanctions behavior consistent with an ordered community. The second, a morality of attraction, issues from mystical experience. The vital impulse, communicated from God through the mystic to others, generates a dynamic morality guided by a vision of humanity as a whole. Whatever his earlier views, by 1932 Bergson was affirming a transcendent God of love who is creatively involved in human existence.

Because many found Bergson's thought liberating, his influence in the early twentieth century was important and widespread. Although he regarded science very seriously, there was still room in Bergson's universe for intuition as well as reason, for morality and religion as well as mechanics, for organic communities as well as isolated individuals. A gifted writer, he bridged the worlds of literature, philosophy, and science.

Bergson was a seminal thinker, prompting others to move beyond his own conclusions. There were few disciples and no one to transform his essays into a polished system. The American philosopher William James and the Jesuit philosopher of science and religion Pierre Teilhard de Chardin borrowed much and yet departed from him at significant points.

Bergson's influence continues among existentialists who borrow his distinction between conventional and "higher" morality and continues within various process theologies that abandon classical theism to find both divine and human creativity at work in an evolving world.


The best introduction to Bergson's philosophy is the volume edited and introduced by Harold A. Larrabee, Selections from Bergson (New York, 1949). In addition to excerpts from Bergson's major works, it contains all but ten pages of his brief Introduction to Metaphysics (Introduction à la métaphysique, Paris, 1903). Translated by T. E. Hulme in 1913, this work, perhaps the best place to begin reading Bergson himself, has also been published separately with an introduction by Thomas Goudge (New York, 1955). Bergson's complete writings are available in one volume, Œuvres (Paris, 1959), introduced by Henri Gouhier and edited by André Robinet. P. A. Y. Gunter's Henri Bergson: A Bibliography (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1974) lists 4,377 entries: 470 refer to letters, articles, and books by Bergson himself, while 3,907 entries, some annotated, refer to essays on Bergson by various other authors. A brief introduction to Bergson's thought can be found on pages 4983 of French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century by Gary Gutting (Cambridge, U. K., 2001).Three studies of his philosophy are Vladimir Jankélévitch's Henri Bergson (Paris, 1959; in French), Daniel Herman's The Philosophy of Henri Bergson (Washington, D.C., 1980), and A. R. Lacey, Bergson (London, 1989). Jankélévitch's book contains a chapter entitled "Bergson et le judaïsme." Herman's relatively brief interpretive essay surveys major topic in Bergson's thought while focusing on the role of finality in his philosophy. Lacey's purpose is to state and assess Bergson's main arguments. The New Bergson (Manchester, England, 1999), edited by John Mullarkey, gives evidence of a renewed engagement with Bergson's philosophic ideas.

Darrell Jodock (1987 and 2005)

Bergson, Henri Louis

views updated May 11 2018

Bergson, Henri Louis

(b. Paris, France, 18 October 1859; d. Paris, 4 January 1941)


Henri Bergson was the son of a Polish musician and composer, Michael Bergson, and of an English mother (née Kate Lewison). The family settled in Paris, where Henri attended the Lycée Condorcet and the Ecole Normale Supérieure. His main studies were mathematics, literature, and philosophy; and his academic record was brilliant. After becoming agrégé in 1881, Bergson began teaching philosophy at the Angers Lycée. He advanced steadily through a series of other posts, until in 1900 he was appointed professor at the College de France, where he eventually succeeded Gabriel Tarde in the chair of modern philosophy. By this time his books and lectures had given him an international reputation as the author of an original and impressive philosophical doctrine.

Bergson was elected to the Académie Françhysaise in 1914, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1930. After World War I, he devoted himself to the cause of the League of Nations and served as chairman of its Committee for Intellectual Cooperation. III health forced him to retire from academic life in 1921; he then lived in comparative seclusion with his wife (née Louise Neuburger) and daughter Jeanne. Bergson’s parents were Jewish, but he himself had no formal religious affiliation, although toward the end of his life he expressed a sympathy for Roman Catholicism.

Bergson’s philosophy offers a new interpretation of four main ideas: time, freedom, memory, and evolution. These ideas are construed so as to produce a doctrine that is opposed to materialism, as well as to mechanistic and deterministic theories of living things. The doctrine strongly emphasizes the phenomenon of change or process, which continually creates unpredictable novelties in cosmic history. The doctrine also emphasizes the importance of direct, conscious experience as the source of man’s most reliable knowledge.

In his first book, Essai sur les;données immédiatesde la conscience (Time and Free Will), Bergson drew a distinction between two kinds of time. There is the time that occurs in the theories of the natural sciences, and there is the time that we experience directly. Scientific time is a mathematical conception, symbolized geometrically by a line or algebraically 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 (seconds, hours, years, and so forth). Most of man’spractical life in society is guided by reference to such units. But time thus represented neither “flows” nor “acts”; it is wholly passive. When we turn to our direct experience, however, we find nothing like scientific time. What we find, Bergson contended, is a flowing, irreversible succession of phenomena which melt into one another to form an indivisible process. This process is not homogeneous, but heterogeneous. It is concrete, not abstract. In short, it is “lived time” (temps vécu) or “real duration” (durée réelle), something immediately experienced as active and on going. If we try to represent it by a spatial image such as a line, we will only generate abstract mathematical time, which is a fiction. The mistake of mechanistic modes of thought is to regard this fiction as a reality.

The recognition of real duration provides a basis, Bergson held, for vindicating human freedom and disposing of the bogey of determinism. A determinist contends that freedom of choice is illusory. A man may feel that he is free to choose, but theoretical considerations show that he never is. To support this contention, a determinist may depict the case in which a man confronts an ostensible choice as a situation similar to arriving at a point on a line where branching occurs, and then taking one of the branches. The determinist asserts that in fact the branch taken could not not have been taken and, indeed, that the choice made was fully predictable before hand, given complete knowledge of the antecedent states of mind of the agent.

This argument has a spurious plausibility, according to Bergson, because it represents the case of choice by a spatial image. The image may serve to symbolize a choice already made, but it is totally inadequate to symbolize a choice in the making: in acting, we do not move along a linear path through time. Deliberating about a course of action is not like being at a point in space where we oscillate between paths laid out before us. Deliberation and choice are temporal, not spatial, acts. Moreover, the determinist makes the mistake of supposing that the way in which the agent acts is determined by the totality of antecedent states of mind, each atomically independent of the rest. This conception of mental life as made up of basic units was the misconception promulgated by association istic psychology. It invalidates all the traditional arguments for determinism.

Freedom of choice, Bergson held, is fully certified by direct experience. A man knows that he is free as he acts. However, one qualification must be added. Strictly speaking, a man is free only when his act springs spontaneously from his total personality as it has evolved up to the moment of action. If this spontaneity is absent, his action will be stereotyped and mechanical. Hence, free acts are far from being universal. Most people behave like automata most of the time. But the point is that they need not do so, for freedom is always attainable.

Bergson’s second book, Matière et mémoire, advocates a dualism of body and mind, of the material and the spiritual. Each of us is alleged to know his own body in two ways: from without, as an object among other objects, and from within, as a center of action. Likewise, each of us knows his own conscious processes directly. How are the body and mind—i.e., brain activity and mental activity related? The answer lies in a proper understanding of memory.

Living organisms, unlike nonliving things, retain their past in the present. This phenomenon is manifested, Bergson affirmed, in two kinds of memory. One kind consists of bodily habits fixed in the organism and designed to ensure its adaptation to the contemporary world. The other kind of memory, which man alone Possesses, records in the form of images each event of his daily life as it takes place. This is “pure memory:” which is wholly spiritual. It is quite independent of the brain, whose structure resembles that of a telephone exchange and which therefore has no facilities for storing memory traces.

How is pure memory related to the brain? Bergson’s answer depends on the assumption that each person’s memory retains the whole of his past experience. If this is so, something must prevent all of one’s memories from crowding into consciousness at every moment. The brain is the mechanism that performs this function. It is a device evolved to facilitate action by ensuring that only what is relevant to a particular occasion of action will be recalled. Hence, it acts as a filter which excludes the vast majority of memories at each instant. It is a device to promote forgetting, not remembering.

The relation between body and mind is, then, to he understood temporally. It is not to be envisaged as a spatial or quasi-spatial connection between two entities. On an occasion of action, body and mind (including memory) converge in time. A typical case is an act of perception. Traditional philosophers have thought of perception as being like a photographic process which provides a passive, cognitive reflection of the world. But this is a mistaken view. Perception is an adaptive response to the world in which the body contributes sense receptors to register the influences of environing objects, and the mind contributes relevant memory images to give a meaningful form to what is perceived. The aim is to put the organism in a condition in which it can act successfully. Body and mind are thus united in real duration, for perception is an event in the present, which is not a geometrical point or “knife edge” separating past from future, but a continuous flowing. Perceptual acts in which body and mind are fused are intrinsically temporal and practical.

In his next work, Introduction à la métaphysique, Bergson modified his position by affirming that sometimes “pure perception,” detached from memory and action, can occur. This process is also called “intuition” and is contrasted with conceptual thought, the product of the intellect. Both processes arose in human evolution, intuition being derived from instinct and conceptual thought being derived from man’s social existence, his tool-making capacity, and his power of speech. Because his inherently limited intellect is the human animal’s distinctive instrument which he employs in his interactions with the world, conceptual thought has certain limitations. It has an inherent tendency to use spatial notions, to analyze things mechanistically into ultimate units, and to interpret motion and change in static terms. Like a motion-picture camera, it translates everything into a series of discrete “frames.” Intuition, on the other hand, is a type of consciousness which achieves a direct participation in, or an identification with, what is intuited. By means of it “one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what is unique and consequently in expressible about it.”

In the case of ourselves, intuition is immersion in the flow of consciousness, a grasping of pure becoming and real duration. Unlike the intellect-which remains outside what it knows, requires symbols, and produces knowledge that is relative—intuition enters into what it knows, dispenses with symbols, and produces knowledge that is absolute.

The natural sciences were for Bergson a typical achievement of the intellect. Hence, they inevitably falsify time, motion, and change by interpreting these items in terms of static concepts. The sciences are equipped to deal with matter, but not with real becoming. Hence, there is need of a discipline to supplement them, if a full understanding of the universe is to be attained. Such a discipline, Bergson proposed, is metaphysics, not in the classical sense of rational speculation or system building, but redefined as a “true empiricism” that explores real becoming by participating directly in it. Thus, by adopting the method of intuition, metaphysics can provide a supplement to the sciences by giving a true account of duration, of becoming, and even of evolution.

This last topic was dealt with by Bergson in his most famous book, L’évolution créatrice (Creative Evolution). He accepted the historical fact of the evolution of living things on the earth, but rejected all mechanistic of materialistic explanations of the evolutionary process. In place of the theories of Darwin, Lamarck, and Spencer, he advanced a doctrine which owes much to the tradition of European vitalism and also draws inspiration from Plotinus. The result was a theory of cosmic evolution that goes far beyond the domain of biology.

Bergson did accept one aspect of Lamarck’s doctrine. “the power of varying by use or disuse” certain bodily organs, and the transmission of such acquired variations to descendants. He may have derived this notion from his early study of Herbert Spencer, rather than from the study of Lamarck himself. However, he does not link the notion with a doctrine of “racial memory” (as did, for example, Samuel Butler). Bergson hints that the Lamarckian idea of “effort” has to be understood not in an individualistic sense, but in “a deeper sense” as a manifestation of the élanvital.

Bergson argued against the Darwinian doctrine that the cause of evolution was natural selection acting on random variations. This doctrine fails to give a satisfactory explanation of the evolution of complex organs and functions, such as the eye of vertebrates, for it obliges us to suppose that at each stage all the parts of an animal and of its organs vary contemporaneously, since integral functioning has to be preserved to ensure survival. But it is utterly implausible to suppose that such coadapted variations could have been random. Some agency must have been at work to maintain continuity of functioning through successive alterations of form.

Another fact that points in the same direction is the evolution of complex organisms from relatively simple ones. The earliest living things were minute, unicellular entities well adapted to their environment. Why did the evolutionary process not stop at this stage? Why did life continue to complicate itself “more and more dangerously”? Random variations and selection pressures cannot provide a satisfactory explanation. Something must have driven life on to higher and higher levels of organization, despite the risks involved. Neither Spencer, with his appeal to mechanistic notions, nor Lamarck, with his appeal to the “effort” exerted by individual organisms, can account for the great diversity and complexity which evolution has created.

The clue to this problem, Bergson affirmed, is to be found not in biology, but in metaphysics. Human beings, with their capacity for intuition, are typical constituents of the universe, and hence the forces that work in them may be supposed to work in all things. Intuition not only discloses pure duration and becoming in our experience, but also gives us a consciousness of a vital impulse (élan vital) within us. We are thus led to the idea of “un élan original de la vie” which pervades the whole evolutionary process and accounts for its dominant features. Accordingly, the history of life is to be understood as a process of creative evolution which has resulted from this primordial impulse.

Bergson spoke of the vital impulse as a “current of consciousness” that has penetrated matter, produced living organisms, and made possible an ever increasing freedom of action. Yet the impulse is not striving to attain a final goal. Bergson was as opposed to radical finalism as he was to mechanism. Both doctrines disregard the creativity by which unpredictable novelties have periodically “leaped into existence.” One of these novelties is man, for his appearance was in no sense designed or prefigured. Terrestrial evolution might have produced some other being “of the same essence,” Such beings doubtless have arisen elsewhere, for the vital impulse must be supposed to animate countless planets in the universe. Creative evolution is thus cosmic in its scope.

Bergson’s interest in science was shown not only by his discussion of biology but also by his discussion of physics. This subject is treated in Durée et simullanéité, which deals with the view of time set forth in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Here, as in the case of evolution, Bergson sought to demonstrate how philosophy can supplement science by providing a more adequate account of phenomena. Einstein’s theory has, of course, a precisely defined physical sense and stands in no need of support from metaphysics. But some persons have sought to derive from the theory certain “paradoxes” that have their source in the notion of multiple times which flow more rapidly or less rapidly, depending on the motion of the reference systems with which they are associated. Bergson contended that these paradoxes arise because of a philosophical misconception. They rest on an assumption that all of the times are real when the observers in the various systems disagree in their measurements. But from a philosophical standpoint only experienced or “lived” time (temps vécu) is real. Hence, the paradoxes can be avoided by considering just one observer and his time as real at each stage of the calculation. For that observer the times of all other reference systems are mathematical fictions, not realities. A similar treatment can be given to simultaneity. It is even possible in the light of this to reinstate the idea of universal time (I’idée d’une duréede l’univers) as a philosophical basis for physics.

The religious element in Bergson’s thought became more pronounced in his later works. Creative Evolution contains a reference to the vital impulse as a “supraconsciousness” to which the name “God” might be applied. This was a use of the term quite alien to traditional Christian theology. For if God is the vital impulse, He is pure activity, limited by the material world through which He is struggling to manifest Himself and, hence, is evolving rather than complete and perfect. In Bergson’s final book, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion, this conception is qualified so that it moves closer to the Christian position. God is now affirmed to be love and the object of love. A divine purpose in evolution is also affirmed, for 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 special sort of intuition that is the mystical experience. The vital impulse, Bergson declared, is “communicated in its entirety” to certain exceptional persons. These are the mystics who attain partial union with the creative effort that “is of God, if it is not God Himself.” But the mystical experience does not lead to passive withdrawal from the world; it leads to intense activity. The true mystics are impelled to help the divine purpose to advance by helping mankind to advance beyond its present state.

An important step in this advance is the replacing of a “closed” society with an “open” one. Bergson’s analysis here is influenced by that of the French sociological school of Émile Durkheim. A closed society is one dominated by what is routine and mechanical. It is resistant to change, conservative and authoritarian. Its morality is static and absolutistic, and its religion is ritualistic and dogmatic. An open society is progressive, diversified, experimental, and continually growing. Its morality is flexible and spontaneous. Religion in this society will dispense with stereotyped dogmas formulated by the intellect. These dogmas will be replaced by the intuition and illumination now achieved by the mystics. Men in the open society will be free, integral, creative, and able to reflect in their lives the divine élan that is the basic reality in the universe.

Bergson’s philosophy represents an impressive statement of the antimechanist position. His use of biological and psychological material to support his contentions, his capacity to invent striking metaphors, and above all his fluent, persuasive style gave his philosophy wide appeal. Philosophers such as William James, dramatists such as G. B. Shaw, and littérateurs such as Proust were all influenced by Bergsonian doctrines. Yet the absence of precise definition and of rigorous argument in his books leaves many doctrines obscure. It is far from clear, for example, how his theory of knowledge, which is a form of idealism, can be made compatible with his Parabiological theory, which is a form or evolutionary realism. Intuition is said to disclose pure becoming, real duration, and the vital impulse. Yet the differences, if any, between these items ate not clearly specified. Sometimes matter and spirit are treated as quite distinct from one another, and sometimes as the “inverse of one another, matter being spirit that has become “devitalized” and uniform. These obscurities are perhaps to be expected in the work of a philosopher for whom intuition is superior to conceptual thought. Bergson displayed his greatest originality when he undertook to describe direct experience and the temporal dimension of life.


1. Original Works. Bergson’s works include Écrits et paroles, R. M. Mossé-Bastide, ed. (I, Paris, 1957; II and III, Paris, 1959); and Oeuvres, Édition du centenaire, annotated by André Robinet, intro. by Henri Gouhier (Paris, 1959). This edition contains the following works: Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Paris, 1889); Matière et mémoire (Paris, 1896); Le rire (Paris, 1900);Introduction à la metaphysique (Paris, 1903); L’évolution créatrice (Paris, 1907); L’ ënergie spirituelle (Paris, 1919); Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (Paris, 1932); La pensée et la mouvant (Paris, 1934). The only major work omitted is Durée et simultanéité (Paris, 1922; 3rd ed., 1926), for the reasons given by E. Le Roy in “Lettre-préface” to Écrits et paroles, I, vii-viii.

English translations of Bergson’s writings include Laughter, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. C. Brereton and F, Rothwell (New York, 1910); Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Podgson (New York, 1910); Creative Evolution, trans. A. Mitchell (New York, 1911); Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (New York, 1911); Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Hulme (New York, 1914, 1949); Mind-Energy, trans. H. W. Carr (New York, 1920); The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. A. Audra and C. Brereton (New York, 1935); and The Creative Mind, trans. M. L. Andison (New York, 1946).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bergson and his philosophy include H. W. Carr. Henri Bergson, the Philosophy of Change (London, 1912; new ed., rev., 1919); J. Chevalier, Henri Bergson (New York, 1928); J. Delhomme, Vie et conscience de la vie: Essai sur Bergson (Paris, 1954); M. V. Jankélévitch, Henri Bergson (Paris, 1959), a centenary completion of a work published in 1931 Which undertakes to refuse the view that Bergson’s philosophy is dualistic and to relate it to the contemporary movement of European phenomenology: A. D. Lindsay, The Philosophy of Bergson (London, 1911); A. O. Love joy, The Reason, the Understanding and Time (Baltimore, 1961), contains a valuable discussion of Bergson’s ideas in relation to post-Kantian thought in Germany; J. Maritain, La philosophie bergsonienne (Paris, 1930), trans. M. L. and G. Andison as Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism (New York, 1955), a highly polemical work by an ex-Bergsonian turned Thomist; R. M. Mossé-Bastide, Bergson éducateur (Paris, 1955), a full and accurate account of Bergson’s career, with a massive bibliography of primary and secondary sources; B. A. Sharfstein, Roots of Bergson’s Philosophy (New York, 1943); and Les études bergsoniennes (Paris, 1948–1966), studies published at intervals under the editorship of various Bergsonian scholars, of which Vol. II (1949) contains the text of Bergson’s doctoral thesis (1889), translated into French from Latin as L’idée de lieu chez Aristote.

T. A. Goudge

Bergson, Henri Louis

views updated Jun 11 2018


French philosopher who overthrew the exaggerated scientism and mechanistic evolutionism of the 19th century and advanced a new theory of evolution acknowledging the spiritual dimension of man; b. Paris, Oct. 18, 1859; d. Paris, Jan. 4, 1941. Educated at the Lycée Condorcet and the École Normale Supérieure, where he distinguished himself in mathematics and physics, Bergson turned to philosophy, receiving the agrégé in 1881. After

teaching at Angers and Clermont-Ferrand, he returned to Paris in 1888 to teach at the Lycée Henri Quatre and the École Normale Supérieure. At the Collège de France he held the chair of the history of philosophy from 1900 to 1921, attracting huge crowds to his lectures by the beauty and eloquence of his language and by the extraordinary appeal of his message. He became a member of the Académie Française in 1918, was elected president of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation after World War I, and received the Nobel prize for literature in 1927. Although born of Jewish parents, Bergson grew up without religion and began his philosophical career as an enthusiastic follower of Herbert spencer. However, his attempts to give a full and accurate account of reality led him to abandon Spencer's evolutionary theory, and the subsequent development of his thought brought him closer and closer to Catholicism. In his will he confessed his moral adhesion to the Catholic Church and revealed that he would have become a convert had he not felt obliged to remain with his Jewish brethren, then being persecuted under Hitler. Shortly before his death he arose from his sickbed to appear for the registration of Jews in Paris. A Catholic priest said the prayers at his funeral, as he had requested.

Philosophy. Although deeply influenced by evolutionism and empiricism, Bergson rejected the narrow conception of man and of the world characteristic of scientific positivism, and sought to continue the metaphysicospiritualist tradition of maine de biran and Félix Ravaisson (18131900). His philosophy constitues a defense of spirit against materialism, intuition against ra tionalism, freedom against determinism (both physical and biological), creativity against mechanism, and philosophy against scientism. Setting out from the "intuition of duration," which is the dominant idea in his philosophy, Bergson offered a renovated empiricism and a new and profoundly original doctrine of evolution.

In a thoroughgoing critique of science Bergson showed why, in his opinion, science does not and cannot give a true picture of life or of reality as a whole. Science is the product of intelligence, which evolved solely to assure man's physical survival and to make possible his dominion over nature. Intelligence views all reality as solid, timeless, and spatial. Since its function is the manipulation of matter for practical purposes, it seeks exact formulas for things and expresses them in ready-made concepts that serve as substitutes for the real. A mechanistic explanation of the universe results. All reality is described as static, homogeneous, discontinuous, and predictable; nothing vital, dynamic, novel, or unforeseeable is admitted. The very structure of intelligence renders it incapable of comprehending life, becoming, spirit, and free dom. The refusal to admit the existence of god, the human soul, or free will is the consequence of recognizing as real only what can be grasped by intelligence.

Although Bergson held that intelligence is man's natural mode of knowing, he believed that the human mind is also capable of intuitiona direct contact or coincidence with things. To think intuitively is to think in duration, thereby experiencing the inner dynamism of being. Bergson regarded intuition as the kind of knowledge proper to philosophy, and attributed the failures of most philosophers to their having ignored intuition and based their metaphysics on abstraction, generalization, and reasoning. The true philosophy dispenses with all ready-made concepts in order to achieve an inner view of being. To communicate his intuition the philosopher must invent new words and employ those images best suited to suggest the inexpressible. According to Bergson, philosophy must be both empirical and intuitive. Although he rejected the prevailing empiricism, it was not because it placed too high a value on experience. Bergson believed that all philosophical problems must be solved according to the experimental method, since it is only experience that can give one certitude. An integral empiricism, however, must admit not only the knowledge of matter, but also all that man knows through intro spection all the vague suggestions of consciousness, all that is revealed in the intuition of duration.

To start with the intellect's view of reality meant for Bergson to attempt a reconstruction of life and movement out of concepts appropriate only to inert matter. He sought to reverse the order and to start with life and movement grasped in intuition. Life (or consciousness) is then seen to be the primordial reality, and matter but its degradation or descending motion. From this fresh perspective reality appears to be ever moving and growing, a ceaseless flux. It is essentially dynamic, qualitative, creative, and unpredictable. To know existing things as they really are is to grasp them intuitively, that is, sub specie durationis. The implications of this approach to reality so impressed William james that he hailed it as a new Copernican revolution comparable in its significance for philosophy to that of G. berkeley or I. kant.

Principal Works. Bergson's leading ideas are encompassed in four principal works. In Time and Free Will he showed that free will is the most evident of facts and that its denial follows upon the confusion of succession with simultaneity, duration with intensity, and quality with quantity. In Matter and Memory he proved that spirit as well as matter exists. By demonstrating that consciousness is not identical with cerebral activity, he paved the way for a proof of the survival of the soul after death. In Creative Evolution, his most famous work, he showed that the mechanistic interpretation of evolution is not justified by the facts. Viewing the data of evolution in the light of his intuition of duration, he described the evolutionary process as the forward thrust of a great spiritual force, the life impulse (élan vital ), rushing through time, insinuating itself into matter, and producing the various living forms culminating in man. Its movement is not predetermined but creative, ever generating novel and unpredictable forms. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion represents the full flowering of Bergson's thought. Morality and religion are traced back to their double source in the evolutionary process. Bergson distinguished two separate moralities and religionsthe open and closed moralities, the static and dynamic religions. Closed morality pertains to social cohesion. It is static and rooted in social pressure, the morality of a group enclosed upon itself. It represents a halt in the evolutionary process. Open morality transcends the group to unite all mankind in a common brotherhood. It is progressive and creative, a forward thrust of the élan vital. Whereas closed morality and static religion originate in the instinct for survival, open morality and dynamic religion are inspired by the moral heroes, saints and mystics, those superior representatives of the human race who, like a new species, foreshadow the future condition of man. They draw man upward to a higher spiritual level by their vision of human destiny and of God, the source of all love. It is in the experience of the mystics that Bergson found the most convincing evidence for the existence of God.

Influence and Critique. Bergson's manner of philosophizinghis repugnance for definition and for a technical vocabulary and his method of attacking each problem separatelydid not lend itself to the formation of a Bergsonian school. Yet his influence on 20th-century thought has been profound. Among the philosophers whose works reflect a strong Bergsonism are Édouard le roy, Maurice blondel, Max scheler, and Maurice Pradines. Many Catholic scholars, notably Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, and Gabriel Marcel, though voicing disagreement on certain points of doctrine, have acknowledged with gratitude his great inspiration. Bergson's influence is also discernible in the thought of numerous scientists, including Alexis carrel, Pierre lecomte du noÜy, and Pierre teilhard de chardin; in many literary works, including those of Marcel proust and Charles pÉguy; and in some schools of painting and music. From the start his books gained unprecedented fame. Appealing to a wide reading public, they were translated into many languages and have been reprinted again and again.

Acclaimed by many of his contemporaries as the long-awaited liberator from the tyranny of materialism, mechanism, and determinism, Bergson was criticized by some for stopping short of the Christian conception of God, creation, the human soul, and free choice. From the viewpoint of Christian doctrine, Bergson's philosophy remains at bestand in spite of his intentions perhaps ambiguous and incomplete. For the primacy of being as a reality accessible to intellect, he substituted the primacy of becoming as a reality accessible only to intuition. His depreciation of reason necessitated the denial that the existence of God can be rationally demonstrated. Man's approach to God can be only through the intuitive experience of the mystic, he said. God is described as Love and Creative Energy; but since the relationship between Creative Energy and the élan vital is never clearly defined, the distinction between God and creatures remains blurred. The depreciation of rational knowledge also led Bergson to base morality on the infrarational faculty of instinct and the suprarational faculty of intuition. He allowed to reason no essential role in moral obligation; its function is merely to formulate and coordinate moral rules and to assure their logical consistency.

Furthermore, having identified being with becoming, Bergson was forced to deny the substantiality of the soul and to define soul as a duration or participation in the élan vital. While upholding the distinction between soul and body, he was unable to avoid a dualistic position in fixing their mutual relationship. A champion of free will, Bergson rejected all forms of determinism; yet he regarded freedom not as the rational determination of a human act but as the spontaneous bursting forth of vital energy from the depths of the self, a creative but nonrational act expressive of the total personality. To the Catholic philosopher or theologian such points of criticism, together with a misunderstanding of the supernatural character of Christian mysticism, represent important deficiencies in Bergson's thought. Yet no evaluation of his philosophy that is limited to pointing out its metaphysical inadequacies will render it full justice. It must also be seen as the sincere and arduous endeavor of a great soul to discover the truth, a spiritual itinerary from materialistic mechanism to the God known and loved by the Christian mystics.

See Also: time; life philosophies.

Bibliography: Works. Oeuvres, ed. h. gouhier and a. robinet (Paris 1959), critical ed. of Bergson's major works; Time and Free Will (Essais sur les Données Immédiates de la Conscience 1889) tr. f. l. pogson (New York 1910; repr. 1950); Matter and Memory (Matière et Mémoire 1896), tr. n. m. paul and w. s. palmer (New York 1911); Creative Evolution (L'Évolution créatrice 1907) tr. a. mitchell (New York 1911); Mind-Energy: Lectures and Essays (L'Énergie Spirituelle 1920), tr. h. w. carr (New York 1920); The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion, Paris 1932), tr. r. a. audra and c. brereton (New York 1935); The Creative Mind (La Pensée et le Mouvant 1934), tr. m. l. andison (New York 1946), collected essays. Studies. i. w. alexander, Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection (New York 1957). j. chevalier, Henri Bergson, tr. l. a. clare (New York 1928). É. le roy, The New Philosophy of Henri Bergson, tr. v. benson (New York 1913). l. adolphe, La Philosophe religieuse de Bergson (Paris 1946). l. husson, L'Intellectualisme de Bergson (Paris 1947). r. m. mossÉbastide, Bergson éducateur (Thèse; Paris 1955), contains 90 pages of bibliog. m. t. l. penido, La Méthode intuitive de M. Bergson (Paris 1918). b. a. scharfstein, Roots of Bergson's Philosophy (New York 1943). For evaluation of Bergson's thought from the Catholic viewpoint, see esp. j. maritain, Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism, tr. m. l. and j.g. andison (New York 1955) and É. h. gilson, The Philosopher and Theology, tr. c. gilson (New York 1962).

[i. j. gallagher]

Bergson, Henri

views updated May 14 2018


BERGSON, HENRI (1859–1941), French philosopher.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson became an international celebrity following the 1907 publication of Creative Evolution; elected to the French Academy in 1914, he received a Nobel prize in literature in 1927. His major books include Time and Free Will (1889), which described the temporal dimension of human consciousness as synonymous with creative freedom, and Matter and Memory (1896), a philosophical analysis of the relation of mind to body. In addition he published more specialized studies, the most notable being Duration and Simultaneity (1922) and The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932); his complete writings and additional correspondence were later collected in his Oeuvres (1959) and Mélanges (1972).

Born in Paris on 18 October 1859, Bergson came from a Jewish background: his father, an accomplished musician, was Polish, while his mother hailed from northern England. After attending the École Normale Supérieure from 1878 to 1881, Bergson was appointed professor of philosophy, eventually gaining a post at the Lycée Clermont-Ferrand in 1883. In 1888 he moved back to Paris where he taught at the Lycée Henri IV (1890–1897) before being appointed senior lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure (1897–1900). In 1891 he married Louise Neuberger, and in 1893 they had a daughter, Jeanne, who would later become a painter. In 1900 Bergson was named professor of philosophy at the Collège de France, where he remained until his resignation in 1921 because of poor health. Before 1914 Bergson disseminated his ideas through public lectures at the Collège de France and speaking tours that took him to Italy (1911), England (1911), and the United States (1913). Aside from attracting such period luminaries as the writer Charles Péguy, the Catholic Thomist Jacques Maritain, and the anarchosyndicalist Georges Sorel, Bergson's weekly lectures drew an educated public, which further consolidated his international fame. By 1914 all his major works had been translated into English, German, Polish, and Russian.

Bergson's influence before 1914 was pervasive, in part because of the relation his philosophy had to the widespread "revolt against positivism" that typified the era. Central to Bergson's philosophy was an instrumental conception of the intellect and an attempt to define intuition as a mode of cognition able to grasp the creative essence of durée (duration), Bergson's term for time. The intellect reduced all temporal phenomena—the very essence of life—into quantative and deterministic schemas designed to suit the intellect's utilitarian ends. Intuition by contrast allow humans to enter into living things to grasp their unique character and creative potential. As a result intuition revealed the qualitative, rhythmic, and organic properties of the natural world. Bergson labeled all forms of life material manifestations of a vital impulse (élan vital) resulting in the rhythmic unfolding of temporality into extensity, Bergson's term for spatial form. Concrete extensity, argued Bergson, is composed of nothing more than changes in tension or energy, in short, qualitative movement. Bergson compared this movement to a melody and argued that all that distinguished the durational melody of matter from that of human consciousness is the faster rhythm of the latter when compared to the former. In Bergson's cosmology, matter itself possessed a latent consciousness, taking its place as the slowest rhythm on the scale of being whose degrees of rhythmic tension are a function of the degree of freedom inherent in their activity. Human beings, by virtue of their unique ability to intuit duration, are at the apex of the cosmological chain of being, and within the human species itself, artists, mystics, scientists, and metaphysicians are singled out as having developed their intuitive capacities to the utmost. Thus artists took up an exalted position in Bergson's metaphysics, which accounts for his widespread appeal among avant-garde artists of his generation.

Historians have charted the impact his concept of psychological durée had on the development of Anglo-American literature: authors as diverse as Willa Cather, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens all registered his influence. In France Bergson gained a widespread following among French symbolists and a younger generation that included Péguy, the novelist Marcel Proust, and the poet and essayist Paul Valéry. In Russia the pattern repeated itself, with symbolists such as Andrei Bely and postsymbolists such as Osip Mandelstam and the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov all falling under the sway of Bergsonism. Bergson's impact was just as central to European avant-gardists associated with the visual arts. The fauvist Henri Matisse, the French cubists Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, the Italian futurists Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini, the English vorticist Wyndham Lewis, and the Russians Mikhail Larionov and Kazimir Malevich were among those profoundly influenced by the philosopher.

Among contemporary scientists and philosophers, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William James, Nishida Kitaro, Henri Poincaré, and Alfred North Whitehead all benefited from exposure to Bergson. Bergson's claim in Creative Evolution that durée found expression not only in art but also in an élan vital (vital impulse) was welcomed by occultists as support for their spiritualist critique of scientific and biological determinism. Bergson also influenced proponents of Catholic modernism, including Édouard Le Roy, and Alfred Firmin Loisy, who critiqued the rationalist assumptions underlying the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The rise of modernism provoked a backlash within the Catholic Church, which culminated in the placing of Bergson's book on the papal index of prohibited books in 1914. Bergson was caught up in other "culture wars": members of Charles Maurras's monarchist organization, Action Française, attacked Bergson in the name of French rationalism; Sorel conjured with Bergson's philosophy in formulating a voluntarist theory of revolution; and the writers Henri Massis and Alfred de Tarde pitted Bergson against Émile Durkheim in their well-publicized attack on pedagogy at the Sorbonne. Prominent intellectuals even switched sides in the battle over Bergson: thus the former Bergsonian Jacques Maritain wrote a neo-Thomist diatribe against him in 1913, while the British critic T. E. Hulme rejected Bergson following his exposure to Action Française in 1911. The "Bergsonian controversy" came to an abrupt end, however, when the European intelligentsia was swept up in World War I, and Bergson temporarily suspended his philosophical pursuits while playing a diplomatic role in the French war effort.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Fin de Siècle; France; Modernism.


Primary Sources

Bergson, Henri. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Translated by F. L. Pogson. London, 1910. Translation of Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889).

——. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York, 1911. Reprint, Lanham, Md., 1984. Translation of L'Évolution créatrice (1907).

——. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. London, 1911. Reprint, Mineola, N.Y., 2001. Translation of Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l'esprit (1896).

——. Oeuvres. Edited by André Robinet. Paris, 1959.

——. Mélanges. Edited by André Robinet. Paris, 1972.

Secondary Sources

Antliff, Mark. Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Burwick, Frederick, and Paul Douglass, eds. The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Fink, Hilary L. Bergson and Russian Modernism, 1900–1930. Evanston, Ill., 1999.

Gillies, Mary Ann. Henri Bergson and British Modernism. Montreal, 1996.

Grogin, R. C. The Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900–1914. Calgary, Alta., 1988.

Mullarkey, John, ed. The New Bergson. Manchester, U.K., 1999.

Pilkington, A. E. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. Cambridge, U.K., 1976.

Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990.

Mark Antliff

Bergson, Henri Louis

views updated Jun 27 2018


BERGSON, HENRI LOUIS (1859–1941), French philosopher. His father, Michael *Bergson, came from a distinguished Warsaw family; his mother from England. He was born in Paris and from 1881 taught philosophy at the Angers Lycée and subsequently at Clermont-Ferrand, where he gave his famous lectures on laughter, and where, after long meditations in the countryside, he first devised the idea of the vital, continuous, and generative impulse of the universe. From the age of 25, Bergson devoted himself to elaborating this theory in various forms. In 1889 he returned to Paris, published his Ph.D. thesis Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Time and Free Will, 1910), and lectured at the Lycée Henri iv and the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In 1900 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the Collège de France. His lectures were popular and were attended by the elite of Paris society. These lectures, like his books, especially L'Evolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911), were distinguished by their lucid and brilliant style and established his fame in France and throughout the world. In 1914 he became a member of the French Academy and in 1928 was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Bergson was also politically active, especially in foreign affairs, and headed a French delegation to the U.S. He was president of the League of Nations' Committee for Intellectual Cooperation. In 1940, after the French surrender to the Nazis, Bergson returned all his decorations and awards, and, rejecting the French authorities' offer to exclude him from the edicts against the Jews, queued for many hours to register as a Jew although he was weak and ill. In his latter years he was attracted to Catholicism but remained a Jew in order to maintain his identification with the persecuted. He died a Jew in 1941.

Most of his works deal with the conception and explication of the notions of "duration" and "movement," not as static concepts defined by the mind but as experiences, conceived by the intuition when it is freed from the limitations which the intellectual consciousness imposes upon the conceiver and the conceived. According to Bergson, the dynamic element of the duration, the flowing time, is the sole penetrator of real existence. "Time" abolishes the static world of the conscious mind and the concept of "duration" may be defined as the continual change which takes place in time. This change is not transcendentally motivated but results from an inner energy – the vital impulse (élan vital) which derives from an unlimited source. The actual duration of the vital impulse is the basic element of the universe, while matter and awareness are only momentary manifestations or creations of the central stream. The consciousness can grasp the essence of reality, both in its primary purity as a duration and in its consolidation and objectification as matter in space. In the same manner consciousness can also reach self-knowledge in two different ways: through intellectual static self-consciousness, and through an intimate awareness of its essence as a conscious duration, a vital and fluctuating spirit, regenerating and developing continuously. From this it follows that the factor fashioning consciousness is memory. Memory comprises the duration for it accumulates all past achievements and within it "the past grows into the present." Through the intuition, which is the essence of the memory, man grasps his personal essence as a vital and conscious duration, and, similarly, grasps the creative duration, which is absolute reality.

Bergson's view also appears in his theories on the functions of instinct, intellect, and intuition. Life evolution advances in three directions: vegetative, instinctive, and rational. The instinct is the capability of utilizing organic instruments, but this function is merely a blind practical knowledge. The intellect has the ability of execution and of utilizing inorganic instruments, and it introduces, therefore, the knowledge of the qualities of objects, accompanied by self-knowledge. When the intellect has time enough to develop its knowledge, it judges all objects as if they were inorganic instruments, thus viewing the living reality itself in a mechanical, devitalized mirror. This perverted conception can be corrected by intuition, which is a developed instinct with self-awareness. Bergson conceived the intuition as the only means by which it is possible to inject a primary flexibility into fossilized scientific methods and draw them closer to reality.

Bergson recognized that the potential capability for immediately grasping reality is actualized only in a few select men. Strong fetters of habit tie man down to the social, moral, and conceptual reality of his environment, and only an elite few are capable of extricating themselves. Therefore, Bergson admired the great mystics (see his Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion, 1932; Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1935).


A.D. Lindsay, The Philosophy of Bergson, 1911; H. Wildon Carr, Henri Bergson: The Philosophy of Change, 1912; Hugh S. Elliot, Modern Science and the Illusions of Professor Bergson, 1912; V. Jankelevitch, Henri Bergson, 1931; A. Keller, Eine Philosophie des Lebens (1914); J. Maritain, La philosophie Bergsonienne (1914); A. Thibaudet, Le Bergsonisme (1923); J. Chevalier, Bergson (Fr., 1948); A. Pallière, Bergson et le Judaïsme (1932); I. Benrubi, Souvenirs sur Henri Bergson (1942); B. Scharfstein, Roots of Bergson's Philosophy (1943); A. Cresson, Bergson, sa vie, son oeuvre (1950); R.M. Mossé-Bastide, Bergson éducateur (1955); idem, Bergson et Plotin (1959); I.W. Alexander, Bergson, Philosopher of Reflection (1957). add. bibliography: B. Gilson, L'individualité dans la philosophie de Bergson (1985); G. Deleuze, Bergsonism (1988); F. Burwick and P. Douglas (eds.), The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy (1992); K. Ansell-Pearson, Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life (2002); L. Lawlor, The Challenge of Bergsonism: Phenomenology, Ontology, Ethics (2003).

[Pepita Haezrahi]

Henri Bergson

views updated May 23 2018

Henri Bergson

The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) opposed mechanism and determinism and vigorously asserted the importance of pure intuition, duration, and liberty. Bergsonian thought is often referred to as vitalism.

Henri Bergson was born on Oct. 18, 1859, in Paris to a Jewish family of Polish and Irish ancestry. A brilliant student of classics and mathematics, he began to study philosophy in 1878 at the École Normale Supérieure. Three years later he started his long teaching career in Angers. He later taught at Clermont-Ferrand but returned in 1889 to Paris, where he spent the remainder of his teaching career. In 1900 he became a professor at the Collège de France, where his lectures attracted enormous audiences.

During World War I Bergson represented France in diplomatic missions to Spain and the United States; he was later active in the League of Nations. In 1921 he retired because of ill health but continued to meditate and write. Bergson was elected to the French Academy, and he received the 1927 Nobel Prize in literature. At the time of his death, in 1941, he was strongly attracted to Roman Catholicism but felt that he must remain a Jew as a protest against the Nazi occupation of France.

Philosophical Works

Charles Darwin's epic work Origin of Species was published in 1859. Within the next 30 years the doctrine of evolution—supported by the positivist methodology of empirical observation and controlled hypotheses—gained widespread intellectual acceptance. Bergson's writings, however, may be seen as a series of essays on the limitations of positivism and its narrow concept of evolution.

In Time and Free Will (1889) Bergson suggests that the distinction of philosophy from science indicates that there may be different modes of knowledge. In order to discover if science is the only valid from of cognition, he examines the data of experience to see whether the mind reads from nature or into nature. Bergson concludes that the immediate data of perception give man's mind an object extended in space; but equally important considerations—the object's duration and intensity—are given only by man's inner, temporal intuition. He criticizes determinism because it fails to consider the free variables of choice and deliberation.

In Matter and Memory (1896) Bergson continues this line of criticism by showing that the assumption of an exact one-to-one correspondence between mental image and physical stimulus completely fails to account for human consciousness. He points out that human "consciousness is a memory" that permits the body and mind to meet in action. Pure memory, as opposed to habitual or motor memory, selects one image from the large number of separate perceptions of an object. Elements of vitalism and pragmatism are evident in this work, especially in Bergson's view that sensation is not primarily a cognitive process but an action-oriented response of a living organism.

In Introduction to Metaphysics (1903) Bergson clearly distinguishes between science and philosophy. The scientific mind abstracts from reality by "Freezing the flux" of real duration into discontinues elements of juxtaposition and succession or space and time. This technique of reductive analysis is oriented toward the domination and control of nature. But metaphysics or philosophy attempts "to dispense with symbols" and to grasp the inner reality of things by intuition, a nonconceptual, empathetic seeing-into.

Bergson's best-known work, Creative Evolution (1907), argues that the traditional accounts of evolution ignore the fact of real, temporal duration. If evolution is reduced to mechanical laws, then time is merely another measure of place in which what is predictable or predetermined can occur. But Bergson holds that nature, like man, often exhibits unpredictable creative break-throughs. For example, the difference "of kind rather than degree" between sentient and conscious beings is a leap in the evolutionary scale. Man's capacities for thought, for symbolic communication in language, and for the invention of tools indicate "the unique, exceptional success which life has won at a given moment of its evolution."

In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932) Bergson states that, just as scientific abstractions tend to eliminate the élan vital, or creative impulse, of nature, so can morality and religion become the residual abstractions of once-vital impulses. He compares "closed societies," which reduce religion to blind adherence to dogma and ritual, to the "open morality and souls" of saints and heroes in whose works are found the creative moments of spirit that signal a radical transformation of humanity.

Further Reading

The majority of Bergson's writings are available in English translations. Secondary sources include Herbert W. Carr, Henri Bergson: The Philosophy of Change (1912; rev. ed. 1919); Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Bergson (1914); and Jacques Chevalier, Henri Bergson (1926; trans. 1928). A recent study, consisting of articles by several scholars on aspects of Bergson's life and work, is Thomas Hanna, ed., The Bergsonian Heritage (1962). See also lan W. Alexander, Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection (1957). □

Bergson, Henri (1859-1941)

views updated May 23 2018

Bergson, Henri (1859-1941)

Famous French philosopher whose concepts of free will, intuition, and mental life have relevance to psychic research and are frequently cited in that context. Born October 18, 1859, in Paris of Anglo-Jewish parents, he became a naturalized French citizen and studied at the École Normale Supérieure. He taught philosophy at academies in Angers, Clermont, and Paris, then succeeded Émile Ollivier at the Academie Française in 1918 but soon abandoned teaching for international affairs. Heading a mission to the United States after World War I, he served as president of the Committee of Intellectual Cooperation.

His books, which brought him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928, included Matiére et mémoire (1896), L'évolution créatrice (1907), Durée et simultanéité (1922), L'énergie spirituelle (1919), Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion (1932), and La Pensée et le mouvant (1935).

His main concept was of an eternal flux in which everything is moving, changing, and becoming, including all matter in the cosmos. Conscious life itself is not a succession of states but an unceasing becoming. Bergson believed that intuition could apprehend reality independently of the limitations of intellect, and he distinguished between the soul and mental life, the soul being independent of, although influenced by, mental life. He claimed that free will is the very nature of our lives and the expression of individuality, although much of our life is largely automatic, deriving from habits and conventions. Bergson's ideas were quite compatible with occult philosophies; his sister, Mina Bergson, married ritual magician MacGregor Mathers, who had moved to Paris in 1891. Bergson died January 4, 1941, in Paris.


Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. New York: Modern Library, 1944.

. The World of Dreams. New York: Philosophical Library, 1958.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Bergson, Henri

views updated May 29 2018

Bergson, Henri (1859–1941) French philosopher of evolution. He saw existence as a struggle between a person's life-force (élan vital) and the material world: people perceive the material world through the use of intellect, whereas the life-force is perceived through intuition. Bergson received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927. His works include Time and Free Will (1889) and Creative Evolution (1907).

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