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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...

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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

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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 Peter from Paul; if the ego itself is devoid of determination, the individual self must be also. Thus the empiricist tries to construct the unity of the self by filling in the gaps between the states by still other states, and the rationalist tries to find the unity in an empty form. The empiricist reduces the string of beads to the unstrung beads; the rationalist to the unbeaded string; both lose the reality with which they began. What is needed is a new empiricism that will define the self through an intuitive examination of the self. This definition can hardly produce a concept at all because it will apply to only one object. However, certainly no concept of the self can be reached by taking sides with empiricism or with rationalism. Only from an intuition of the self in its uniqueness can we descend with equal ease to both philosophical schools.

Bergson offers the idea of duration as another illustration of what happens when we try to understand the world through analysis. From one point of view, duration is multiplicity; it consists of elements that, unlike other elements, encroach on one another and fuse. If we try to “solidify” duration by adding together all of its parts, we fail; we find that we get not the mobility of the duration but the “frozen memory of the duration.” From another point of view, duration is unity. However, it is a moving, changing, and living unity, not at all like the abstract and empty form that pure unity demands. Shall we then try to get duration by combining multiplicity and unity? No sort of mental chemistry will permit this; we cannot get from either of them or from their synthesis the simple intuition of duration. If, however, we start with intuition, then we can easily see how it is unity and multiplicity, and many other things besides. Unity and multiplicity are only standpoints from which we may consider duration, not parts that constitute it.

Bergson shows the error in trying to understand the world through analysis. Movement can be considered as a series of potential stopping points; these are points through which the moving object passes, its positions at various times during its motion. Now suppose there were an infinite number of such potential stoppages. Would there be motion? Obviously not. If the object were judged to be at rest at each of these positions, no sum of them—finite or infinite—would constitute motion. If the object were judged to be in motion at each of these positions, then we should not really have analyzed motion; we should only have broken up a long motion into a series of shorter ones. Passage is movement, and stoppage is immobility, and the two have nothing in common. We try to get mobility from stoppages to infinity, and then, when this fails to give us what we want, we add a mysterious “passage from one stoppage to another.” The trouble is, of course, that we have supposed rest to be clearer than motion, and the latter to be definable from the former by way of addition. What we should recognize is that mobility is simple and clear, and that rest is merely the limit of the process of slackening movement. Given an intuition of motion, rest becomes easily understood; without this intuition the motion can never be grasped, whether approached from rest or from any of the other points of view that constitute notes of the total impression.

Through the intuition of movement, we can know it absolutely rather than relatively. Bergson uses the spatial “inside” and “outside” distinction to sharpen the contrast between the two methods of knowing. When we know motion absolutely, we insert ourselves into the object by an act of imagination. When we know it relatively, we see it only as a function of coordinate systems or points of reference, or as dependent on our own motion or rest with reference to it. The only way really to understand motion is to move. Motion has an interior (something like states of mind), and when we intuit motion, we sympathize with this inner nature. We no longer view the motion from outside, remaining where we are, but from within, where the movement really is.

Two Problems

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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 objects.

A second difficulty in accepting the intuitive method is that it seems to displace science and render all of its conclusions worthless. However, Bergson cautions against this inference on the grounds that both science and the analytic method have an important practical role to play. To illustrate, let us return to the concept of motion. We saw that motion cannot be grasped in its essence by thinking of it as an infinite series of positions occupied by the moving object. Suppose we wish to stop a moving object—as we might well wish to do for certain practical reasons. It will then be very important for us to know where the object is at a precise moment. Science, by the analytic method, can provide us with this information. Indeed, the need for this kind of information accounts for the exactness and precision of science, for its well-defined concepts, and for the method of inductive generalization that it so effectively employs. Through the centuries, increased emphasis on the techniques of logic has brought about great improvement in the scientific method. This, in turn, has increased our control over the world. However, we do not thereby penetrate deeper into the heart of nature. We can use nature better; we can see better how it will behave toward us and how we should behave toward it, but we do not have the intellectual sympathy that is identical with true understanding. Every concept is a practical question that we put to reality. Reality replies in the affirmative or in the negative. In doing so, however, it hides its true identity.

What sort of a world is it that is revealed by intuition? For an answer to this question, we must turn to Bergson’s other works. In An Introduction to Metaphysics, he states only a few conclusions. Reality is external, but it can be directly experienced by mind. It is characterized primarily by such words as tendency, mobility, change, and flux. It is a world being made rather than a world readymade. It is better understood as a “longing after the restlessness of life” than as a “settling down into an easy intelligibility,” as a world of soul than as a world of idea.

In this way, Bergson tells us about intuition. His success in this attempt, however, leads us to wonder if, in the achievement of his goal, he has destroyed the very thesis of his book, that the true nature of intuition cannot be communicated by means of abstract, general, or simple ideas. Perhaps his reply would be that he has not really analyzed intuition. What he has done is to select illustrations of intuition so skillfully that we have been able in each case to identify ourselves with intuition and thus to receive an intuition of intuition.


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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.

Lacey, Alan R. Bergson. New York: Routledge, 1989. Surveys most of Bergson’s major writings with a focus on Bergson as a philosopher of process and change. Bibliography, index.

Moore, Francis C. T. Bergson: Thinking Backwards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Brief and accessible exposition of the content and significance of Bergson’s most influential ideas.

Mullen, Mary D. Essence and Operation in the Teaching of St. Thomas in Some Modern Philosophies. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1941. Mullen shows the effect that Bergson had on the developing Thomism of Jacques Maritain, a debt that Maritain acknowledged. The portions of this book that deal with Bergson are chronicles of a spiritual journey that caused Bergson to see the Church as a creative force.

Pilkington, Anthony Edward. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. This five-chapter book presents an initial overview of Bergsonism, then devotes one chapter each to Bergson’s influence on Charles Péguy, Valéry, Proust, and Julien Benda. The chapter on Benda contains interesting insights into Bergson’s theory of mobility.

Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Bergson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Russell, more devoted to an undeviating scientific method than Bergson, looks with considerable skepticism on Bergson’s theories of knowledge and dependence on intuition in shaping arguments. He particularly questions Bergson’s Creative Evolution, in which the theory of the élan vital is fully expounded.

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