This famous essay first appeared in the Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale in January, 1903. Published in book form in 1912, it has been translated into many languages and constitutes what many philosophers consider to be the best introduction to Bergson’s philosophy. Strictly speaking, the title is misleading. The book is not an introduction to metaphysics but rather an introduction to the method of metaphysics, or intuition. Although there is a close relation between Bergson’s view of the world and his conception of the intuitive method, the emphasis in this book is predominantly on the latter. Metaphysics, in fact, is defined by Bergson as the science that uses intuition.

Self, Duration, and Motion

From the many illustrations that Bergson gives of the contrast between the intuitive and the analytic methods, three may be selected for special emphasis. These are to be found in our knowledge of the self, duration, and motion.

According to Bergson, as I first look at myself, I see three things: a series of perceptions of the external world, a group of memories that adhere to the perceptions, and a crowd of motor habits or urges. However, as I examine these elements more carefully, they seem to recede from my true self, which begins to take on the character of the center of a sphere with the perceptions, memories, and tendencies radiating outward toward the surface. The self that I discover here is not like any flux that I know because the successive stages merge into one another, each retaining something of what has just passed and each giving a hint of what is still to come. It is not like a series of discrete elements but more like the unrolling of a coil or the rolling up of a thread on a ball. Or it can be compared to a spectrum of colors, with insensible gradations from one hue to the next. However, none of these metaphors is quite adequate. The spectrum, for example, is something that is ready-made, while the self is a living, growing, developing being, with retentions of what has taken place in its past existence and expectations of what is to come. The inner life of the self has variety, continuity, and unity—yet it is not merely the synthesis of these, for they are themselves abstract and static concepts, while the self is characterized by mobility.

Both empiricists and rationalists miss the real self, for they try to find it in its manifestations, which they mistake for its parts, not realizing that these are really partial expressions of a total impression obtained through intuition. Empiricists can find in the personality nothing but a series of psychical events, which they call “states of the ego.” However, the ego eludes them because they have only a very confused notion of what it is that they seek; they are looking for an intuition but are using in this search the method of analysis, which is the very negation of intuition. No matter how closely the states are joined or how thoroughly the intervals are explored, the ego escapes. We might as well conclude that Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) has no meaning because we fail to find it between the letters of which it is composed.

Rationalism is no more successful. It, too, begins with the psychical states. However, it realizes that the unity of the personality cannot lie merely in the series of percepts, images, and feelings. Hence, it concludes that the self must be something purely negative—the absence of all determination, form without content, a void in which shadows move. Small wonder that the rationalist finds it hard to distinguish...

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Two Problems

Bergson admits that there are certain difficulties in accepting the intuitive method. One difficulty is that the adoption of the intuitive method requires a change in our ordinary habits of thinking. When we try to understand an object, we customarily pass from the concept to the thing rather than the reverse. Concepts are abstractions and generalizations; they portray only what is common to objects, not what is peculiar to them. If we try to capture an object by putting concepts together, we are doomed to failure, for a concept can only circumscribe an object, creating a circle that is too large and does not fit exactly. Realizing this in the case of any one concept, we add another concept, which is also too large but which partially overlaps the previous circle and thus cuts down the area within which the object is to be found. We continue the process to infinity, confidently believing that we will finally reach an area so small that it will contain only the object, will characterize it uniquely, and thus will coincide with it. However, although the area does coincide with the properties, it does not coincide with the object; the identity of the properties and the object can be grasped only if we start with the object, not if we start with its properties. If we know the thing, we can understand its properties, for from a unity we can proceed to the various ways of viewing that unity; but once the unity has been divided into many symbolic expressions, it can never be restored. There will ever remain a gap between the object, which is a unique member of a class, and the class of which the object is the only member. To avoid this predicament, we have only to reverse the usual methods of thinking. Instead of starting with concepts and trying to get objects, we should start with intuitively grasped objects and then proceed to symbolize their aspects and properties. Only in this way can inconsistent concepts be harmonized, and only in this way can concepts be molded to fit their...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Alexander, Ian W. Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection. New York: Hillary House, 1957. This book provides an introspective look into Henri Bergson’s theories of knowledge and consciousness. It is lucid and direct in presenting the salient parts of Bergson’s philosophy and theology, noting the effects of his thinking on creative artists.

Gunter, Pete A. Y., ed. Bergson and the Evolution of Physics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969. Gunter and his contributors try to show that Bergson was not antiscientific and that his emphasis on the élan vital and on intuition is positive for science rather than negative as it has often been portrayed.

Hanna, Thomas, ed. The Bergsonian Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. The eleven essays in this collection, drawn from a convention held at Hollins College to commemorate the centennial of Bergson’s birth, present assessments of Bergson’s impact on theological thought and on literature. The book also contains reminiscences by people who knew him at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A concise overview of Bergson’s major ideas, written as an elementary introduction to his work for the general student....

(The entire section is 430 words.)