(1859 - 1941)
French philosopher, the first to elaborate what came to be called a
process philosophy, which rejected static values in favour of values
of motion, change, and evolution. He was also a master literary stylist,
of both academic and popular appeal, who received the Nobel Prize for
Literature in 1927.
Through his father, a talented musician, Bergson was descended from
a rich Polish Jewish family--the sons of Berek, or Berek-son, from which
the name Bergson is derived. His mother came from an English Jewish
family. Bergson's upbringing, training, and interests were typically
French, and his professional career, as indeed all of his life, was
spent in France, most of it in Paris.
He received his early education at the Lycee Condorcet in Paris, where
he showed equally great gifts in the sciences and the humanities. From
1878 to 1881 he studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, the
institution responsible for training university teachers. The general
culture that he received there made him equally at home in reading the
Greek and Latin classics, in obtaining what he wanted and needed from
the science of his day, and in acquiring a beginning in the career of
philosophy, to which he turned upon graduation.
His teaching career began in various lycees outside of Paris, first
at Angers (1881-83) and then for the next five years at Clermont-Ferrand.
While at the latter place, he had the intuition that provided both the
basis and inspiration for his first philosophical books. As he later
wrote to the eminent American Pragmatist William James:
I had remained up to that time wholly imbued with mechanistic theories,
to which I had been led at an early date by the reading of Herbert Spencer.
. . . It was the analysis of the notion of time, as that enters into
mechanics and physics, which overturned all my ideas. I saw, to my great
astonishment, that scientific time does not endure. . . that positive
science consists essentially in the elimination of duration. This was
the point of departure of a series of reflections which brought me,
by gradual steps, to reject almost all of what I had hitherto accepted
and to change my point of view completely.
The first result of this change was his Essai sur les donnees immediates
de la conscience (1889; Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate
Data of Consciousness), for which he received the doctorate the same
year. This work was primarily an attempt to establish the notion of
duration, or lived time, as opposed to what he viewed as the spatialized
conception of time, measured by a clock, that is employed by science.
He proceeded by analyzing the awareness that man has of his inner self
to show that psychological facts are qualitatively different from any
other, charging psychologists in particular with falsifying the facts
by trying to quantify and number them. Fechner's Law, claiming to establish
a calculable relation between the intensity of the stimulus and that
of the corresponding sensation, was especially criticized. Once the
confusions were cleared away that confounded duration with extension,
succession with simultaneity, and quality with quantity, he maintained
that the objections to human liberty made in the name of scientific
determinism could be seen to be baseless.
The publication of the Essai found Bergson returned to Paris, teaching
at the Lycee Henri IV. In 1891 he married Louise Neuburger, a cousin
of the French novelist Marcel Proust. Meanwhile, he had undertaken the
study of the relation between mind and body. The prevailing doctrine
was that of the so-called psychophysiological parallelism, which held
that for every psychological fact there is a corresponding physiological
fact that strictly determines it. Though he was convinced that he had
refuted the argument for determinism, his own work, in the doctoral
dissertation, had not attempted to explain how mind and body are related.
The findings of his research into this problem were published in 1896
under the title Matiere et memoire: Essai sur la relation du corps a
l'esprit (Matter and Memory).
This is the most difficult and perhaps also the most perfect of his
books. The approach that he took in it is typical of his method of doing
philosophy. He did not proceed by general speculation and was not concerned
with elaborating a great speculative system. He began in this, as in
each of his books, with a particular problem, which he analyzed by first
determining the empirical (observed) facts that are known about it according
to the best and most up-to-date scientific opinion. Thus, for Matiere
et memoire he devoted five years to studying all of the literature available
on memory and especially the psychological phenomenon of aphasia, or
loss of the ability to use language. According to the theory of psychophysiological
parallelism, a lesion in the brain should also affect the very basis
of a psychological power. The occurrence of aphasia, Bergson argued,
showed that this is not the case. The person so affected understands
what others have to say, knows what he himself wants to say, suffers
no paralysis of the speech organs, and yet is unable to speak. This
fact shows, he argued, that it is not memory that is lost but, rather,
the bodily mechanism that is needed to express it. From this observation
Bergson concluded that memory, and so mind, or soul, is independent
of body and makes use of it to carry out its own purposes.
The Essai had been widely reviewed in the professional journals, but
Matiere et memoire attracted the attention of a wider audience and marked
the first step along the way that led to Bergson's becoming one of the
most popular and influential lecturers and writers of the day. In 1897
he returned as professor of philosophy to the Ecole Normale Superieure,
which he had first entered as a student at the age of 19. Then, in 1900,
he was called to the College de France, the academic institution of
highest prestige in all of France, where he enjoyed immense success
as a lecturer. From then until the outbreak of World War I, there was
a veritable vogue of Bergsonism. William James was an enthusiastic reader
of his works, and the two men became warm friends. Expositions and commentaries
on the Bergsonian philosophy were to be found everywhere. It was held
by many that a new day in philosophy had dawned that brought with it
light to many other activities such as literature, music, painting,
politics, and religion.
L'Evolution creatrice (1907; Creative Evolution), the greatest work
of these years and Bergson's most famous book, reveals him most clearly
as a philosopher of process at the same time that it shows the influence
of biology upon his thought. In examining the idea of life, Bergson
accepted evolution as a scientifically established fact. He criticized,
however, the philosophical interpretations that had been given of it
for failing to see the importance of duration and hence missing the
very uniqueness of life. He proposed that the whole evolutionary process
should be seen as the endurance of an elan vital ("vital impulse")
that is continually developing and generating new forms. Evolution,
in short, is creative, not mechanistic.
In this developing process, he traced two main lines: one through instinct,
leading to the life of insects; the other through the evolution of intelligence,
resulting in man; both of which, however, are seen as the work of one
vital impulse that is at work everywhere in the world. The final chapter
of the book, entitled "The Cinematographical Mechanism of Thought
and the Mechanistic Illusion," presents a review of the whole history
of philosophical thought with the aim of showing that it everywhere
failed to appreciate the nature and importance of becoming, falsifying
thereby the nature of reality by the imposition of static and discrete
Among Bergson's minor works are Le Rire: Essai sur la significance
du comique (1900; Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic) and,
Introduction a la metaphysique (1903; An Introduction to Metaphysics).
The latter provides perhaps the best introduction to his philosophy
by offering the clearest account of his method. There are two profoundly
different ways of knowing, he claimed. The one, which reaches its furthest
development in science, is analytic, spatializing, and conceptualizing,
tending to see things as solid and discontinuous. The other is an intuition
that is global, immediate, reaching into the heart of a thing by sympathy.
The first is useful for getting things done, for acting on the world,
but it fails to reach the essential reality of things precisely because
it leaves out duration and its perpetual flux, which is inexpressible
and to be grasped only by intuition. Bergson's entire work may be considered
as an extended exploration of the meaning and implications of his intuition
of duration as constituting the innermost reality of everything.
In 1914 Bergson retired from all active duties at the College de France,
although he did not formally retire from the chair until 1921. Having
received the highest honours that France could offer him, including
membership, since 1915, among the "40 immortals" of the Academie
Francaise, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.
After L'Evolution creatrice, 25 years elapsed before he published another
major work. In 1932 he published Les Deux Sources de la morale et de
la religion (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion). As in the earlier
works, he claimed that the polar opposition of the static and the dynamic
provides the basic insight. Thus, in the moral, social, and religious
life of men he saw, on the one side, the work of the closed society,
expressed in conformity to codified laws and customs, and, on the other
side, the open society, best represented by the dynamic aspirations
of heroes and mystical saints reaching out beyond and even breaking
the strictures of the groups in which they live. There are, thus, two
moralities, or, rather, two sources: the one having its roots in intelligence,
which leads also to science and its static, mechanistic ideal; the other
based on intuition, and finding its expression not only in the free
creativity of art and philosophy but also in the mystical experience
of the saints.
Bergson in Les Deux Sources had come much closer to the orthodox religious
notion of God than he had in the vital impulse of L'Evolution creatrice.
He acknowledged in his will of 1937, "My reflections have led me
closer and closer to Catholicism, in which I see the complete fulfillment
of Judaism." Yet, although declaring his "moral adherence
to Catholicism," he never went beyond that. In explanation, he
wrote: "I would have become a convert, had I not foreseen for years
a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world. I
wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted."
To confirm this conviction, only a few weeks before his death, he arose
from his sickbed and stood in line in order to register as a Jew, in
accord with the law just imposed by the Vichy government and from which
he refused the exemption that had been offered him.
Henri Bergson, Oeuvres, 5th ed. (1991), with notes by Andre Robinet,
is the best collection of his works. Selections from Bergson, ed. by
Harold A. Larrabee (1949), provides a good introduction in English to
his writings. P.A.Y. Gunter, Henri Bergson: A Bibliography, rev. 2nd
ed. (1986), lists works by and about Bergson.
A good sympathetic account in French of his life and work is Vladimir
Jankelevitch, Henri Bergson (1959, reissued 1989). Jean Guitton, La
Vocation de Bergson (1960), presents a good account of Bergson the man.
Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Henri Bergson (1914, reprinted
1978), is highly critical. Critical, yet also sympathetic, are Jacques
Chevalier, Henri Bergson, trans. by Lilian A. Clare (1928, reissued
1970; originally published in French, 1926); and Jacques Maritain, La
Philosophie bergsonienne, 3rd ed. (1948). Romeo Arbour, Henri Bergson
et les lettres francaises (1956), covers his influence on literature
and the arts. A.E. Pilkington, Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment
(1976), examines Bergson's influence on four younger contemporaries.
Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism (1988; originally published in French, 1966),
provides an introduction to Bergson's philosophy. A.R. Lacey, Bergson
(1989), is a more advanced treatment.