Henri Bergson Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)