An Introduction to Metaphysics

by Henri Bergson

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Intuition and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729

Neither the term “intuition” nor the concept of a direct and immediate way of knowing objects was original with Bergson. A number of rationalists had used the word to describe the awareness of certain basic notions that exhibit a kind of transparency as to their truth and are commonly spoken of as self-evident. Mystics have often described the culmination of their mystic experiences, in which they see God face to face, as an intuitive experience. Many philosophers have recognized, as Bergson did, the need for a direct, as well as an indirect, way of knowing and have variously characterized intuition as “acquaintance,” “sensation,” “introspection,” “instinct,” and “feeling.” To Bergson goes the credit for extracting what is common to all of these conceptions of immediacy and for portraying the intuitive method in a clear and forceful manner by means of a wide range of vivid examples.

Intuition is defined by Bergson as “the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible.” In contrast, the method of analysis attempts to grasp the object by portraying the features that it possesses in common with other things. Analysis, therefore, always sees an object partially—from a certain perspective—rather than in its individuality and in terms of its peculiar properties. Intuition gives us what the object is in itself; analysis provides only the shell or the husk.

Of all the metaphors that Bergson uses to contrast the method of intuition with that of analysis, the spatial one is perhaps the most frequent. Consider the contrast between entering into an object and moving around it. Because of spatial perspective, an object appears different from various points of observation—larger or smaller, of different shapes, sometimes of varying colors. To identify the object with any one of these appearances would be a mistake. All such knowledge is relative and partial. However, the object has a true character of its own; otherwise it would not be capable of exhibiting itself in these many ways. We could not determine this character merely from the many appearances, for there would be an infinity of such manifestations, and we could not create the object by merely adding them together. However, if we can intuitively grasp the object by “entering into it,” we can see its essential nature and we can predict what the various perspectives will be. This knowledge does not depend on a point of view nor does it use any symbols. Hence it is absolute rather than relative.

Bergson illustrated the difference between intuition and analysis by examining the two methods by which we come to know a character whose adventures are portrayed in a novel. After the author has portrayed the hero through his speech and behavior, we feel that we understand him. However, this knowledge is superficial and unreliable unless we can succeed at some time in identifying ourselves with him, unless we become the hero and experience his feelings and drives. Once we have done this, we can see that his speech and behavior flow naturally from his personality; we are able, having seen him from the inside or absolutely, to account for his actions relative to varying situations. Having grasped his unique nature, we are able to recognize what he has in common with other people—what may be known of him through descriptions, symbols, and analysis.

Intuitive knowledge, according to Bergson, is not only absolute but perfect, whereas analytic knowledge is imperfect. Try to ascertain what the inner meaning of a poem would be by examining its translations into all possible languages, each with its own shade of meaning, and each correcting the other. The individual translations would be only symbolic representations and could never add up to the true meaning of the poem; they would all be imperfect because they were partial, and even their sum could not give the intended meaning.

Analysis and intuition are the respective methods of positive science and metaphysics. Science works with symbols: words, numbers, diagrams, graphs. It makes comparisons between forms and reduces complex forms to simple ones; it deals with classes of things, not with the individual objects. Metaphysics, on the other hand, attempts to grasp the world without any expression, translation, picture, model, or symbolic device. It is the study that claims to dispense with symbols.

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