In no sense was Henri Bergson’s philosophy a mere compilation of the scientific findings of his time. Nevertheless, his kind of empiricism required him to investigate on his own principles the subject matter of various sciences. His early works may be viewed as studies in psychology. In L’Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911), he turned to biology. His last great work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, took him into the fields of sociology and cultural anthropology. Here he made the élan vital (vital impulse) the key to understanding morality, religion, and history. The work is admittedly more speculative than its predecessors. Whereas in Creative Evolution, he had tried to “keep as close as possible to facts,” in this later work, he permitted himself to argue from “probabilities” on the grounds that “philosophical certainty admits of degrees.” Whenever possible, philosophic intuition should be “backed up by science”; however, where science falls short, Bergson maintained, it is legitimate to appeal to the testimony of great prophetic and mystical teachers. The author regarded this work as a valuable confirmation of the thesis presented in Creative Evolution. Others have found it rewarding for the fresh perspectives it has brought to social studies.
As the title indicates, the author’s approach was a genetic one. Understanding of the phenomena under investigation meant seeing how they were necessitated by the evolutionary impulse. Bergson’s contribution was to suggest that morality and religion cannot be understood in terms of one kind of explanation only. Followers of Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx had tried to explain all morality and religion as arising out of the needs of society. Bergson went a long way with them; but he insisted that because some morality and religion are, in the usual sense, antisocial, they must be traced to another source; namely, the spiritual vision of exceptional people. In fact, according to Bergson, all historical systems of morality and religion are blends, combining idealistic with pragmatic elements. This amalgamation takes place because people’s lives are so largely dominated by intelligence, which moderates the seemingly extravagant claims of mystical insight even as it relaxes the hold of tradition and habit. Bergson denied that it is possible to explain either moral obligation or religious belief on intellectual grounds: Reason is emphatically not one of the two sources from which morality and religion arise. Nonetheless, its presence is felt.
To make his thesis plain, Bergson discussed morality and religion under separate chapters. His argument is that there are two kinds of morality and two kinds of religion. Corresponding to these, there are two kinds of souls and two kinds of societies.
The first kind of morality is a common, compulsive morality demanded by society for its protection. Bergson regarded social life as a device of the life impulse for increasing its mastery over matter and enhancing its freedom. Social life is an evolutionary advance because the true individual is found only in society. However, there are grades of social life. Insects have purchased their efficient organization only at the expense of adaptability. It was the gift of intelligence that enabled humans to break out of the hard and fast regulations imposed by instinct. The problem for humans is that of preserving the social organism. Bergson imagines, as an example, that an ant momentarily endowed with sufficient intelligence asks itself whether it is in its interests to perform the onerous tasks imposed upon it by the group. He concludes that were it to consider long enough, it might at last arrive at the conclusion reached in the history of human thought by John Stuart Mill and resume its labors, happy in the belief that its interests are identical with those of the group. Meanwhile, however, it will perish unless instinct draws it back with the...
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