Henri Louis Bergson

(1859-1941)

The philosopher and writer, Henri Louis Bergson (1859-1941) was the leading French philosopher at the start of 20th century and is well remembered for the eloquence and style of his writings. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927 "in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented". His philosophy is a revolt against materialism and advocates the idea of creative evolution. His masterpiece is L'Évolution créatrice (Creative Evolution), which brought him worldwide fame. Per Hallström, President of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy describes it as “a poem of striking grandeur, a cosmogony of great scope and unflagging power, without sacrificing a strictly scientific terminology….one always derives from it, without any difficulty, a strong aesthetic impression.”[1]

Bergson is well known for his ability to replace argument by the introduction of metaphor and analogy. His views have been expressed in several different books. In Time and Free Will and Matter and Memory is concerned with the study of consciousness. Talking about the relation of mind and body, Bergson believes the distinction to be only a matter of degree, and not that of a kind. In Creative Evolution Bergson has developed his philosophy of time and applied it to life and to the process of evolution, giving new insights regarding this concept. In Laughter he gave a theory of comedy which is of importance in aesthetics and literary criticism. In his later life, Bergson is said to have developed an inclination towards Catholicism but there is no evidence that he actually converted. He was also associated with the League of Nations, and had an important political role to play there.

Creative Evolution presents a drama of conflicts between two antagonistic forces. Bergson believes that the world is divided into life and matter, which he views as two opposing motions. Life is a force, an impetus, a vital impulse to which matter is a resistance, an inertia to be overcome, and life is forever fighting to free itself from the heavy chains of matter. The two forces are caught up in each other, chained and intermingled. They are prisoners of each other and are forever trying to break free. It is this conflict between the two that results in evolution, and the product of the two are branched at different levels. Evolution is the growth and progress of the impulse of life, but unlike the mechanistic Darwinian evolution, which maintains that the future is determined by past conditions, Bergson believes evolution to be truly creative, like the work of an artist. There is a novelty in evolution; it can’t be predicted. Life innovates and creates at every step, at every corner of evolution. Future is created by the life’s impulse to new creation, the élan vital, which is as novel as an artist.

Life first divided itself into plants and animals, but later in animals there was another dichotomy of intellect and instinct. It is instinct that works in ants and honeybees and allows them to create anthills and beehives with such perfection. Instinct at its best, Bergson calls, intuition. At the top of the chain of evolution is man, in whom intelligence is dominant and instinct has been suppressed but it nevertheless exists, hiding in the consciousness which binds all life in the current of ‘living time’ or ‘duration’. Intellect was developed by life to understand the matter, the solid inert things. It can only think in terms of separateness and discontinuity. It was not designed to understand life, and hence is naturally unable to comprehend the reality of life. It can’t grasp the continuous flow of things, the becoming of life. To perceive the nature of life, we must rely upon intuition as our guide.

An important element of Bergson’s philosophy is his philosophy of time. He gives the name ‘space’ to the separateness of things as they appear to intellect (In reality, Bergson maintains, nothing is separate. Everything is a part of a continuous stream of becoming with no static ‘states’) and the name ‘time’ or ‘duration’ to the continuity as revealed to intuition. Bergson believes mathematical time to be illusory because it treats time in terms of ‘instants’. Hence, mathematical time is really a form of ‘space’. ‘Time’ is, in fact, a continuous growth in which future is unpredicted. Time is not an abstract mathematical concept. It is deeply connected with life and human self. Perhaps it might be better called ‘living time’. This duration cannot be understood by reason, which is incapable of doing so, but rather perceived by an introspected and concentrated consciousness which turns inwards towards its origin. It is in this living time that evolution takes places, that creativity appears and in which free will manifests itself. In it there is originality and nothing is quite repeated again.

In the later part of Bergson’s life, around the time of Second World War, his philosophy began to fade out of the philosophical scenario and it was no longer a dominant school of thought. Although philosophers like Sartre openly accepted the influence of Bergson on their own philosophy but it was especially Gilles Deleuze's Bergsonism in 1966 that reawakened a growing interest in Bergson’s philosophy. His influence has been aptly put forth by Per Hallström: “We are indebted to him, nevertheless, for one achievement of importance: by a passage he has forced through the gates of rationalism, he has released a creative impulse of inestimable value, opening a large access to the waters of living time, to that atmosphere in which the human mind will be able to rediscover its freedom and thus be born anew.”[2]

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Footnotes:

[1] Presentation Speech by Per Hallström on December 10, 1928, from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969

[2] Ibid