“Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin its existence on things unreasonable”
“The essential function of the universe, which is a machine for making gods.”
“We regard intelligence as man’s main characteristic and we know that there is no superiority which intelligence cannot confer on us, no inferiority for which it cannot compensate”
— Henri Bergson
Henri-Louis Bergson was a major French philosopher, influential in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in Paris in the Rue Lamartine in 1859, not far from the Paris Opera. He was descended from a Polish Jewish family (originally Berekson) on his father’s side, while his mother was from an English and Irish Jewish background. His family lived in London for a few years after his birth, and he obtained an early familiarity with the English language from his mother. Before he was nine, his parents crossed the English Channel and settled in France, Henri becoming a naturalized citizen of the Republic.
Bergson’s life was the quiet and uneventful one of a French professor, the chief landmarks in it being the publication of his four principal works, first, in 1889, the Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Time and Free Will), then Matière et Mémoire (Matter and Memory) in 1896, L’Evolution créatrice (Creative Evolution) in 1907 and finally Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion) in 1932.
Education and career
In Paris from 1868 to 1878 Bergson attended the Lycée Fontaine, now known as the Lycée Condorcet. While there he won a prize for his scientific work and another, when he was eighteen, for the solution of a mathematical problem. This was in 1877, and his solution was published the following year in Annales de Mathématiques. It is of interest as being his first published work. After some hesitation over his career, as to whether it should lie in the sphere of the sciences or that of “the humanities,” he decided in favour of the latter, and when nineteen years of age, he entered the famous École Normale Supérieure. While there he obtained the degree of Licence-ès-Lettres, and this was followed by that of Agrégation de philosophie in 1881.
The same year he received a teaching appointment at the Lycée in Angers, the ancient capital of Anjou. Two years later he settled at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, préfecture (capital) of the Puy-de-Dôme département, a town whose name is usually more of interest for motorists than for philosophers, it being the home of Michelin tyres and the Charade Circuit racing track.
The year after his arrival at Clermont-Ferrand Bergson displayed his ability in the humanities by the publication of an excellent edition of extracts from Lucretius, with a critical study of the text and the philosophy of the poet (1884), a work whose repeated editions are sufficient evidence of its useful place in the promotion of classical study among the youth of France. While teaching and lecturing in this part of his country (the Auvergne region), Bergson found time for private study and original work. He was engaged on his Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience. This essay, which, in its English translation, bears the more definite and descriptive title Time and Free Will, was submitted, along with a short Latin thesis on Aristotle, for the degree of Docteur-ès-Lettres, to which he was admitted by the University of Paris in 1889. The work was published in the same year by Felix Alcan, the Paris publisher, in his series La Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine.
It is interesting to note that Bergson dedicated this volume to Jules Lachelier, then public education minister, who was an ardent disciple of Felix Ravaisson and the author of a rather important philosophical work Du fondement de l’Induction (On the Founding of Induction, 1871). Lachelier endeavoured “to substitute everywhere force for inertia, life for death, and liberty for fatalism.” (Note: Lachelier was born in 1832, Ravaisson in 1813. Bergson owed much to both of these teachers of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Cf. his memorial address on Ravaisson, who died in 1900.)
Bergson now settled again in Paris, and after teaching for some months at the Municipal College, known as the College Rollin, he received an appointment at the Lycée Henri-Quatre, where he remained for eight years. In 1896 he published his second large work, entitled Matière et Mémoire. This rather difficult, but brilliant, work investigates the function of the brain, undertakes an analysis of perception and memory, leading up to a careful consideration of the problems of the relation of body and mind. Bergson had spent years of research in preparation for each of his three large works. This is especially obvious in Matière et Memoire, where he shows a very thorough acquaintance with the extensive amount of pathological investigation which had been carried out during the period, and for which France is justly entitled to a very honourable mention.
In 1898 Bergson became Maître de conférences at his Alma Mater, L’Ecole Normale Supérieure, and was later promoted to a Professorship. The year 1900 saw him installed as Professor at the Collège de France, where he accepted the Chair of Greek Philosophy in succession to Charles L’Eveque.
At the First International Congress of Philosophy, held in Paris during the first five days of August, 1900, Bergson read a short, but important, paper, Sur les origines psychologiques de notre croyance à la loi de causalité (Psychological origins of the belief in the law of causality). In 1901 Felix Alcan published a work which had previously appeared in the Revue de Paris, entitled Le rire (Laughter), one of the most important of Bergson’s minor productions. This essay on the meaning of “the comic” was based on a lecture which he had given in his early days in the Auvergne. The study of it is essential to an understanding of Bergson’s views of life, and its passages dealing with the place of the artistic in life are valuable.
In 1901 Bergson was elected to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, and became a member of the Institute. In 1903 he contributed to the Revue de metaphysique et de morale a very important essay entitled Introduction à la metaphysique (Introduction to Metaphysics), which is useful as a preface to the study of his three large books.
On the death of Gabriel Tarde, the eminent sociologist, in 1904, Bergson succeeded him in the Chair of Modern Philosophy. From the 4th to the 8th of September of that year he was at Geneva attending the Second International Congress of Philosophy, when he lectured on Le Paralogisme psycho-physiologique, or, to quote its new title, Le Cerveau et la Pensée: une illusion philosophique (The Mind and Thought: A Philosophical Illusion). An illness prevented his visiting Germany to attend the Third Congress held at Heidelberg.
His third major work, L’Evolution créatrice, appeared in 1907, and is undoubtedly the most widely known and most discussed. It constitutes one of the most profound and original contributions to the philosophical consideration of the theory of evolution. “Un livre comme L’Evolution créatrice,” remarks Imbart de la Tour, “n’est pas seulement une œuvre, mais une date, celle d’une direction nouvelle imprimée à la pensée.” (A book such as Creative Evolution is not so much a work, but a milestone in print of a new direction of thought.) By 1918, Alcan, the publisher, had issued twenty-one editions, making an average of two editions per annum for ten years. Following the appearance of this book, Bergson’s popularity increased enormously, not only in academic circles, but among the general reading public.
Relationship with James and pragmatism
Bergson came to London in 1908 and visited William James, the American philosopher of Harvard, who was Bergson’s senior by seventeen years, and who was instrumental in calling the attention of the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. This was an interesting meeting and we find James’s impression of Bergson given in his Letters under date of October 4, 1908. “So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy.”
As early as 1880 James had contributed an article in French to the periodical La Critique philosophique, of Renouvier and Pillon, entitled Le Sentiment de l’Effort. Four years later a couple of articles by him appeared in “Mind: What is an Emotion?” and “On some Omissions of Introspective Psychology.” Of these articles the first two were quoted by Bergson in his work of 1889, Les données immédiates de la conscience. In the following years 1890-91 appeared the two volumes of James’s monumental work, The Principles of Psychology, in which he refers to a pathological phenomenon observed by Bergson. Some writers, taking merely these dates into consideration and overlooking the fact that James’s investigations had been proceeding since 1870 (registered from time to time by various articles which culminated in “The Principles”), have mistakenly dated Bergson’s ideas as earlier than James’s.
It has been suggested that Bergson owes the root ideas of his first book to the 1884 article by James, “On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology,” which he neither refers to nor quotes. This article deals with the conception of thought as a stream of consciousness, which intellect distorts by framing into concepts. Bergson replied to this insinuation by denying that he had any knowledge of the article by James when he wrote Les données immédiates de la conscience. The two thinkers appear to have developed independently until almost the close of the century. They are further apart in their intellectual position than is frequently supposed. Both have succeeded in appealing to audiences far beyond the purely academic sphere, but only in their mutual rejection of “intellectualism” as final is there real unanimity. Although James was slightly ahead in the development and enunciation of his ideas, he confessed that he was baffled by many of Bergson’s notions. James certainly neglected many of the deeper metaphysical aspects of Bergson’s thought, which did not harmonize with his own, and are even in direct contradiction. In addition to this, Bergson can hardly be considered a pragmatist. For him, “utility,” far from being a test of truth, was in fact the reverse: a synonym for error.
Nevertheless, William James hailed Bergson as an ally. Early in the century (1903) he wrote: “I have been re-reading Bergson’s books, and nothing that I have read since years has so excited and stimulated my thoughts. I am sure that that philosophy has a great future, it breaks through old cadres and brings things into a solution from which new crystals can be got.” The most noteworthy tributes paid by him to Bergson were those made in the Hibbert Lectures (A Pluralistic Universe), which James gave at Manchester College, Oxford, shortly after meeting Bergson in London. He remarks on the encouragement he has received from Bergson’s thought, and refers to the confidence he has in being “able to lean on Bergson’s authority.”
The influence of Bergson had led him “to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be.” It had induced him, he continued, “to give up logic, squarely and irrevocably” as a method, for he found that “reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it.”
Naturally, these remarks, which appeared in book form in 1909, directed many English and American readers to an investigation of Bergson’s philosophy for themselves. A certain handicap existed in that his greatest work had not then been translated into English. James, however, encouraged and assisted Dr. Arthur Mitchell in his preparation of the English translation of L’Evolution créatrice. In August of 1910 James died. It was his intention, had he lived to see the completion of the translation, to introduce it to the English reading public by a prefatory note of appreciation. In the following year the translation was completed and still greater interest in Bergson and his work was the result. By a coincidence, in that same year (1911), Bergson penned for the French translation of James’s book, “Pragmatism”, a preface of sixteen pages, entitled Vérité et Realité. In it he expressed sympathetic appreciation of James’s work, coupled with certain important reservations.
In April (5th to 11th) Bergson attended the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy held at Bologna, in Italy, where he gave a brilliant address on L’Intuition philosophique. In response to invitations received he came again to England in May of that year, and paid England several subsequent visits. These visits were always noteworthy events and were marked by important deliverances. Many of these contain important contributions to thought and shed new light on many passages in his three large works: Time and Free Will, Matter and Memory, and Creative Evolution. Although necessarily brief statements, they were of more recent date than his books, and thus showed how this acute thinker could develop and enrich his thought and take advantage of such an opportunity to make clear to an English audience the fundamental principles of his philosophy.
The lectures on change, and Bergson’s later life
Bergson visited the University of Oxford, where he delivered two lectures entitled La Perception du Changement (The Perception of Change), which were published in French in the same year by the Clarendon Press. As he had a delightful gift of lucid and brief exposition, when the occasion demands such treatment, these lectures on Change formed a most valuable synopsis or brief survey of the fundamental principles of his thought, and served the student or general reader alike as an excellent introduction to the study of the larger volumes. Oxford honoured its distinguished visitor by conferring upon him the degree of Doctor of Science.
Two days later he delivered the Huxley Lecture at the University of Birmingham, taking for his subject Life and Consciousness. This subsequently appeared in The Hibbert Journal (October, 1911), and since revised, forms the first essay in the collected volume L’Energie spirituelle or Mind-Energy. In October he was again in England, where he had an enthusiastic reception, and delivered at University College London four lectures on La Nature de l’Ame.
In 1913 he visited the United States of America, at the invitation of Columbia University, New York, and lectured in several American cities, where he was welcomed by very large audiences. In February, at Columbia University, he lectured both in French and English, taking as his subjects: Spiritualité et Liberté and The Method of Philosophy. Being again in England in May of the same year, he accepted the Presidency of the British Society for Psychical Research, and delivered to the Society an impressive address: Fantômes des Vivants et Recherche psychique (Phantoms of Life and Psychic Research).
Meanwhile, his popularity increased, and translations of his works began to appear in a number of languages: English, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, Polish and Russian. In 1914 he was honoured by his fellow-countrymen in being elected as a member of the Académie française. He was also made President of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, and in addition he became Officier de la Légion d’honneur, and Officier de l’Instruction publique.
Bergson found disciples of many varied types, and in France movements such as Neo-Catholicism or Modernism on the one hand and Syndicalism on the other, endeavoured to absorb and to appropriate for their own immediate use and propaganda some of the central ideas of his teaching. That important continental organ of socialist and syndicalist theory, Le Mouvement socialiste, suggested that the realism of Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is hostile to all forms of intellectualism, and that, therefore, supporters of Marxian socialism should welcome a philosophy such as that of Bergson. Other writers, in their eagerness, asserted the collaboration of the Chair of Philosophy at the College de France with the aims of the Confédération Générale du Travail and the Industrial Workers of the World. It was claimed that there is harmony between the flute of personal philosophical meditation and the trumpet of social revolution.
While social revolutionaries were endeavouring to make the most out of Bergson, many leaders of religious thought, particularly the more liberal-minded theologians of all creeds, e.g., the Modernists and Neo-Catholic Party in his own country, showed a keen interest in his writings, and many of them endeavoured to find encouragement and stimulus in his work. The Roman Catholic Church, however, which still believed that finality was reached in philosophy with the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and consequently had made that mediaeval philosophy her official, orthodox, and dogmatic view, took the step of banning Bergson’s three books by placing them upon the Index of prohibited books (Decree of June 1, 1914).
In 1914, the Scottish Universities arranged for Bergson to deliver the famous Gifford Lectures, and one course was planned for the spring and another for the autumn. The first course, consisting of eleven lectures, under the title of The Problem of Personality, was delivered at the University of Edinburgh in the Spring of that year. The course of lectures planned for the autumn months had to be abandoned because of the outbreak of war. Bergson was not, however, silent during the conflict, and he gave some inspiring addresses. As early as November 4, 1914, he wrote an article entitled La force qui s’use et celle qui ne s’use pas (Wearing and Nonwearing forces), which appeared in that unique and interesting periodical of the poilus, Le Bulletin des Armées de la République Française. A presidential address delivered in December, 1914, to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, had for its title La Significance de la Guerre. This, together with the preceding article, has been translated and published in England as The Meaning of the War.
Bergson contributed also to the publication arranged by The Daily Telegraph in honour of the King of the Belgians, King Albert’s Book (Christmas, 1914). In 1915 he was succeeded in the office of President of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques by M. Alexandre Ribot, and then delivered a discourse on The Evolution of German Imperialism. Meanwhile he found time to issue at the request of the Minister of Public Instruction a delightful little summary of French Philosophy. Bergson did a large amount of travelling and lecturing in America during the war. He was there when the French Mission under M. Viviani paid a visit in April and May of 1917, following upon America’s entry into the conflict. M. Viviani’s book La Mission française en Amérique (1917), contains a preface by Bergson.
Early in 1918 he was officially received by the Académie française, taking his seat among “The Select Forty” as successor to Emile Ollivier, the author of the large and notable historical work L’Empire libéral. A session was held in January in his honour at which he delivered an address on Ollivier. In the war, Bergson saw the conflict of Mind and Matter, or rather of Life and Mechanism; and thus he shows us the central idea of his own philosophy in action. To no other philosopher has it fallen, during his lifetime, to have his philosophical principles so vividly and so terribly tested.
As many of Bergson’s contributions to French periodicals were not readily accessible, he agreed to the request of his friends that these should be collected and published in two volumes. The first of these was being planned when war broke out. The conclusion of strife was marked by the appearance of a delayed volume in 1919. It bears the title L’Energie spirituelle: Essais et Conférences (Spiritual Energy: Essays and Lectures). The noted expounder of Bergson’s philosophy in England, Dr. Wildon Carr, prepared an English translation under the title Mind-Energy. The volume opens with the Huxley Memorial Lecture of 1911, Life and Consciousness, in a revised and developed form under the title Consciousness and Life.
Signs of Bergson’s growing interest in social ethics and in the idea of a future life of personal survival are manifested. The lecture before the Society for Psychical Research is included, as is also the one given in France, L’Ame et le Corps, which contains the substance of the four London lectures on the Soul. The seventh and last article is a reprint of Bergson’s famous lecture to the Congress of Philosophy at Geneva in 1904, Le paralogisme psycho-physiologique (The Psycho-Physiolgical Paralogism), which now appears as Le Cerveau et la Pensée: une illusion philosophique. Other articles are on the False Recognition, on Dreams, and Intellectual Effort. The volume is a most welcome production and serves to bring together what Bergson wrote on the concept of mental force, and on his view of “tension” and “detension” as applied to the relation of matter and mind.
In June, 1920, the University of Cambridge honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Letters (D.Litt). In order that he may be able to devote his full time to the great new work he was preparing on ethics, religion, and sociology, Bergson was relieved of the duties attached to the Chair of Modern Philosophy at the Collège de France. He retained the chair, but no longer delivered lectures, his place being taken by his noted pupil Edouard Le Roy. Living with his wife and daughter in a modest house in a quiet street near the Porte d’Auteuil in Paris, Bergson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927.
After his retirement from the Collège, Bergson faded into obscurity, because he was suffering from a degenerative illness. He completed his great new work, Les Deux Sources de la religion et de la Morale, which extended his philosophical theories to the realms of morality, religion and art, in 1935. It was respectfully received by the public and the philosophical community, but all by that time realized that Bergson’s days as a philosophical luminary were past. He was, however, able to reiterate his core beliefs near the end of his life, by renouncing all of the posts and honours previously awarded him, rather than accept exemption from the antisemitic laws imposed by the Vichy government. Though wanting to convert to Catholicism, he held off instead and showed solidarity with his fellow Jews by signing the registry books.