Henri Bergson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1992

Article abstract: Bergson, by rejecting the mechanistic view of life held by the noted positivists of his day, focused renewed attention on the importance of the human spirit, its creative potential, and its inherent freedom, thereby opening new intellectual vistas to many creative artists.

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Early Life

Henri Louis Bergson was born into a sophisticated, multinational family in the year that Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), a book that profoundly affected Bergson’s thinking and against whose dispassionate view of human existence he reacted significantly. Bergson’s father, Michel, studied piano under Frédéric Chopin before leaving his native Warsaw to pursue a career in music elsewhere in Europe and in Great Britain. There he met Katherine Levinson, a beauty of Irish-Jewish lineage. He soon married her and took British citizenship.

Henri, although born in Paris, was taken to London as an infant and remained there until he was eight, whereupon the family resettled in Paris. There Bergson spent most of his remaining years, taking French citizenship as soon as he turned twenty-one. He attended the Lycée Fontane, later renamed the Lycée Condorcet, from the time he was nine until he was nineteen, the year in which he published his first article, a prizewinning solution to a problem in mathematics, in the Annales de mathématiques (Annals of mathematics).

Equally gifted in the sciences and the humanities, Bergson decided upon entering the École Normale Supérieure to concentrate on philosophy. Earning his degree and license to teach in 1881, he taught first at the Lycée D’Angers, then at the Lycée Blaise Pascal in Auvergne. His first book, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889; Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1910), appeared when he was thirty, at which time he also completed his doctoral dissertation, in Latin, on Aristotle, which won for him a Ph.D. from the University of Paris.

Returning to Paris in 1891, he married a cousin of Marcel Proust, Louise Neuberger. Bergson taught at the Lycée Henri IV until 1900, when he was appointed to the chair in Greek philosophy at the prestigious Collège de France. Before assuming this position, he had published Matière et mémoire; (1896; Matter and Memory, 1911), which was concerned with how the brain’s physiology is related to consciousness. He found neurophysiological explanations of consciousness frustratingly limited because they failed to explain satisfactorily the roots of recollection.

Life’s Work

Bergson had gained considerable attention and some celebrity through his early publications, but his Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1900; Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911), a short study of the essence of the comic, placed him in the company of the more significant thinkers of his day. Bergson’s theory is that people laugh as a result of a mechanistic impediment, physical or mental, to the usual progression of any activity in life. Using such classic writers as Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, and Molière to support and illustrate his contentions, Bergson considered laughter a release of tensions caused by a situation in which the flow of life is impeded by the mechanical.

Following this book was Introduction à la métaphysique (1903; An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1912), in which Bergson defends intuition against the analytical approach of science, which had been adopted by many humanistic disciplines in an attempt to make them seem more scientific and therefore more credible. Bergson considers analysis, dependent on abstract symbols for its expression, to reside outside humans and outside knowledge, whereas intuition resides within them. It is through intuition, Bergson contends, that humans approach reality in the Platonic sense.

The study for which Bergson is best known is L’Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911) a work that changed the thinking of a whole generation of creative people. Bergson accepts Darwin’s evolutionary theory but interjects into it the notion of the élan vital, the life energy that Darwin in his mechanistic, analytical approach denies. Perhaps the most influential concept in Bergson’s thought at this time was that humans do not exist in time, but rather that time exists in humans, a notion with which William Faulkner experimented in his writing.

This distinction is at the heart of Bergson’s departure from that considerable legion of intellectuals that was in his day trying to apply scientific method to all intellectual concerns. Never antiscientific, Bergson insisted, nevertheless, that science must be kept in a proper relation to human intuition and that humans must revere it less than intuition, the quintessential humanizing element in all intellectual processes.

Creative Evolution, widely read by intellectuals, also had considerable appeal to a more general reading public, largely because of Bergson’s clarity of expression and overall persuasiveness. Bergson departed from Darwin in postulating that human evolution was not simply a routine, mechanistic alteration of the species but that inherent in it was a creative process that had purpose. Obviously, Bergson was moving away from science toward religion, and he was embraced happily by Roman Catholic and other Christian thinkers of his time.

Immediately before World War I, Bergson was at the peak of his influence, lecturing in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. As war encroached upon Europe in 1914, he was inducted into the French Academy. In that year, he was the Gifford Lecturer at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. He gave his first series of lectures, “The Problem of Personality,” in the spring, but he could not return to give his final lectures in the fall because war had erupted.

Rather, he wrote two thoughtful essays, “The Meaning of War” and “The Evolution of German Imperialism,” in both of which he tried to analyze according to his own philosophy the reasons for the conflict. He cast the French as those who represented individual freedom and their opponents as those who venerated the masses rather than the individual. During the war, Bergson served as a French diplomat to Spain and the United States, and, at the war’s end, he embraced Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, becoming president of its Commission on Intellectual Cooperation.

Shortly after the end of the war, Bergson’s health began to fail. Badly crippled with arthritis that occasionally caused paralysis of his limbs, he was unable to go to Stockholm in 1928 to receive the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature that had been reserved and that he was awarded the following year. The award speech in Stockholm stressed Bergson’s role in freeing the creative imagination and indicated his profound influence on artists of his day. He was praised for breaking out of the stultifying mold in which he was educated, for forging beyond it to celebrate the greatness of the human spirit, and for realizing its creative potential.

Bergson’s last book, Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion (1932; The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1935), completed at a time when he was extremely ill and suffered from blinding migraine headaches, has to do with his conception of God. This conception was largely Christian, although Bergson remained a Jew. In a will that he executed in 1937, Bergson indicated that he would have become a Roman Catholic at that time had he not felt compelled to support his fellow Jews at a time when their futures and their very lives were being seriously threatened by the Nazi incursions.

Because of Bergson’s international celebrity, his age, and his membership in the French Academy, which he once served as president, France’s Vichy government excused him from resigning his official offices and registering with the government as Jews were required to do. To show his support for his Jewish compatriots, however, Bergson, then eighty-one years old, resigned his honorary chair in philosophy at the Collège de France. He registered with the government as a Jew, having to stand in line on a bitterly cold, damp day, when he was already ill, until he was served. In consequence he developed a lung inflammation that resulted in his death on January 4, 1941.

Summary

Henri Bergson sought to free his fellow intellectuals from the constricted scientific approach to learning that dominated much of the philosophical thinking of his day and that has since continued to dominate intellectual circles. Frequently accused of being antiscientific, Bergson, who understood the sciences well, wanted merely to control the extent to which scientific method was used in pursuits that were essentially nonscientific.

Bergson’s most appreciative audience was found among graphic artists, composers, and writers, many of whom felt constrained by the scientific bias of contemporary society. Thinkers such as Bertrand Russell complained that much of Bergson’s work was based on opinion rather than on hard research data; it is hard to deny that such was the case. One cannot ignore, however, the incredible promise that Bergson’s writings and his idea of the creative force, the élan vital, stirred in a broad range of writers who derived from his writing precisely the kind of justification they required to validate their activities.

Writing about consciousness, Bergson outlined a methodology for many modern writers who were grappling with the stream-of-consciousness as a method. Writers such as Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Paul Valéry, as well as painters such as Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, imbibed the spirit that emanated from Bergson’s writing and translated it into their own media, thereby creating challenging art forms. It is for this kind of contribution that Bergson will be remembered.

Bibliography

Alexander, Ian W. Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection. New York: Hillary House, 1957. This book provides an introspective look into 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.

Čapek, Milič. Bergson and Modern Physics: A Re-interpretation and Re-evaluation. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1971. The three portions of this book deal with Bergson’s biological theory of knowledge, with his notion of “intuition,” and with his theory of matter and its relationship to modern physics. An interesting book to read in tandem with Gunter’s study below.

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.

Mullen, Mary D. Essence and Operation in the Teaching of St. Thomas in Some Modern Philosophies. Washington, D.C.: The 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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