Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Henri Bergson (1859–1941)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Pepperell Montague (1873–1953)
OF Jewish origin, Henri Louis Bergson was born at Paris and educated at the Lycée Condorcet. In 1878 he entered the École Normale Supérieure, and passed the “agrégation de philosophie” on leaving it in 1881. For two years after this he was professor of philosophy at the Lyce’e at Angers, and held one or two similar appointments before taking the doctorate in letters in 1889, his thesis being entitled ‘Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit.’ In the same year he published his essay, ‘Sur les Données immédiates de la Conscience,’ which was later translated into English under the title ‘Time and Free Will.’ His appointment to one of the most famous lycées in France, the Lycée Henri IV. in Paris, followed. In 1896 he published ‘Matière et Mémoire, Essai sur la Relation du Corps avec l’Esprit’ (Matter and Memory), and again received promotion, this time to be lecturer at the École Normale where he had been a student. His essay on ‘Laughter,’ ‘Le Rire, Essai sur la Signification du Comique,’ coincided in publication with his appointment to the highest academic dignity in France as professor at the Collège de France, which he still holds. He is also a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, a member of the Institute, and of the Academy of Moral and Political Science. He was elected to the French Academy in 1914. His ‘Creative Evolution’ (L’Evolution Créatrice’) was published in French in 1907 and in English in 1911, and his two Oxford lectures, ‘La Perception du Changement,’ in 1911; he has also published a number of articles in philosophical journals, one of which was translated into English under the title ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’ in 1912. In 1913 he received the degree of Litt.D. at Columbia University, New York City, and gave a course of lectures which was extraordinarily successful. In England he was elected President of the Society for Psychical Research, and delivered an address of very great interest. M. Bergson’s polished literary style and his unusual charm as a lecturer make his philosophical discourses and writings peculiarly attractive to the non-philosophical mind, and his remarkable popularity has perhaps militated to some extent against his reputation as a philosopher.  1
  Bergson’s philosophy contains:—  2
  I. A methodological theory of the way in which truth in science and philosophy should be sought. (Set forth in ‘Time and Free Will.’)  3
  II. A psychological theory of the relation of the mind of the individual to his brain and body. (Set forth in ‘Matter and Memory.’)  4
  III. A biological theory of the manner in which life evolves from lower to higher forms. (Set forth together with his other theories in ‘Creative Evolution.’)  5
  IV. An ethical and religious theory of human personality. (Nowhere explicitly set forth, but more or less implied in all of his writings.)  6
  The four branches of this philosophy appear to have sprung from a single source; viz., an aperçu or intuitive vision on the part of their author as to the inner nature of conscious life and of reality itself.  7
  For Bergson, as for other mystics who found their philosophy upon a principle that is a product of feeling rather than of thought, it is hard to communicate the result in terms of reason. We may gather, however, from his various descriptions that Bergson’s intuition reveals the self of man (1) as temporal rather than spatial; (2) as active rather than passive; (3) as free and creative rather than fixed and bound by law; (4) as a flowing continuum of dynamic states rather than a system of definitely related objects; (5) as a being that carries its own increasing past with it, and by means of this “pure duration” creates its own future, the nature of which not even the most perfect science could predict. From the standpoint of this intuition the world of mere intellect (consisting of definite objects and logical relations, of matter and space and physical law), is revealed as something which, though it was originally derived from the life-force, is now an antagonist which must, by the process of evolution, be subdued, and molded to the needs of the very spirit which created it and which increasingly pervades it.  8
  Fortunately it is not necessary to understand this mystic revelation, in which all aspects of the Bergsonian philosophy are summed up, in order to appreciate the main parts of Bergson’s system. For in spite of their common origin these parts are fairly independent of one another and can with advantage be treated separately. We shall, then, consider them in turn.  9
  I. Methodological: The Nature of Truth and the Criterion of Knowledge.—In his theory of the nature of truth and of the best way of obtaining it, Bergson combines in an interesting and original manner two standpoints which in philosophy are usually opposed to one another; he is at once a pragmatist and a mystic.  10
  With the pragmatists he holds that the intellect and all the laws and forms of logic are evolved by the life-force as instruments in the struggle with matter. And as thought originates from practical needs so it has for its end or goal the satisfaction of practical needs. The tradition known in philosophy as intellectualism, which holds that thought begins and ends in itself, that logic is independent or at least autonomous, and that its laws are determined without reference to vital interests, is repudiated. Intellect as the creature of life is also its servant. Its aim is not to copy reality but to control it, and the supreme criterion of theoretical excellence is practical utility. But having gone thus far with the pragmatists, Bergson refuses to take the final step; he refuses, that is, to identify the new ideal of utility with the old ideal of truth. “Intelligence should aim at the useful, because the useful is the true,” say the pragmatists. “Intelligence should aim at the useful, although the useful is not the true,” says Bergson. In short, Bergson takes the discovery of truth in its ordinary meaning as the discovery of what things actually are regardless of whether the practical consequences of discovery are useful or harmful to the one who attains it. To discuss truth in this old-fashioned sense of the term, it is necessary to abandon the intellect to the pragmatist, and turn to that alleged faculty which the mystics of every age have adopted, namely intuition. It is not without significance that Plotinus, the most famous of ancient European mystics, is Bergson’s favorite philosopher. And yet intuition, as Bergson employs it, is far more accessible and far less mysterious than the intuition which Plotinus called “ecstacy” and which was to be obtained only in a state of trance. To our philosopher, the intuitive vision of reality is available to anyone who will turn his gaze away from the outer world with its practical interests, and watch, or rather feel, the inner current of his life as it wells up afresh at each moment and before it has time to split up into the perceptions and conceptions of science.  11
  Something of the nature of the reality thus revealed we have already described in the introductory section of this article. And here we can only repeat that the vision thus given suffices to convince Bergson that pure spiritual activity, enduring and creating in time, is infinitely more real than the world of matter extended in space and governed by fixed laws. The latter, which to most men is so terribly and oppressively real, is to Bergson merely the broken and inverted reflection of the life from which it originates.  12
  Bergson’s theory of method may be criticized on the ground that it fails to explain why the scientific picture of the world should be so useful if it is false. Ordinarily, if an idea is of use, it is because it pictures or presents the facts. If intuition is correct in its revelation of all reality as pure spiritual activity, it is hard to see why it should be helpful for the scientist to misrepresent it as composed of indestructible particles of matter which are controlled by mechanical laws. This objection is partly met by Bergson himself in his later books, in which he seems willing to accord to matter a more realistic status than in his earlier work. From this later standpoint, dead matter appears as the spent remnant of what was formerly life, and might be compared to the ashes that are produced by a fire. In this connection Bergson compares physical substance and its laws to the stick of a rocket, which in falling back to the earth reverses the principle of its former ascending movement. If we take this more realistic view, the theories of science appear not as useful falsehoods but as half-truths which present in exaggerated and over-simplified abstraction a perfectly true aspect of the evolving world. And intuition, instead of contradicting logic, is now employed to supplement its onesidedness and to reveal to us that in addition to matter there is another and greater reality, namely, spirit.  13
  A more serious objection to Bergson’s theory of method, or rather to the mystical part of it, is the misunderstanding to which it has given rise in the minds of those who have failed to study it in the light of the more positive parts of his philosophy. This misunderstanding is twofold. It has, in the first place, aroused so much prejudice on the part of scientists that they have neglected to give proper attention either to his destructive criticisms of commonly accepted theories in psychology and biology or to his still more interesting constructive hypotheses in both of those sciences. In the second place, the same mysticism which has repelled the scientists who should be his friends has attracted to him many foolish people who hate logic in any form and who hope above all things to see modern science discredited and their own pet brands of obscurantism and emotionalism enthroned in its place. We can only hope that this double misunderstanding will pass away and that time will bring to Bergson a new alignment of friends and of enemies.  14
  II. Psychological: The Nature of Mind and its Relation to Body.—As in his theory of method Bergson combined the new theory of pragmatism with the old theory of mysticism, so too in his psychology he combines a new point of view, sometimes called “behaviorism” with the much older doctrine of dualism, according to which the mind or spirit is an independent entity separable from the body. “Behaviorism” is a name used in America to characterize a rapidly increasing tendency on the part of contemporary psychologists to treat all mental states as forms of the body’s behavior when it is reacting to its environment. Not only acts of will, but thoughts, emotions, and even such passive states as sensations are treated as responses made by the nervous system to outside stimuli.  15
  Bergson holds that the perception of an object is merely the anticipation or potentiality of our body’s reaction to that object. In ‘Matter and Memory’ he writes: “Everything will happen as if we allowed to filter through us that action of external things which is real, in order to arrest and retain that which is virtual. This virtual action of things upon our body and of our body upon things is our perception itself.” Thus while Bergson does not agree with the behaviorists in identifying perception with bodily action itself he does identify it with potential or virtual action; and to that extent he is in sympathy with the prevailing tendency to interpret consciousness biologically as a motor function of the organism rather than spiritually as the inner state of a soul. Now if Bergson were to stop here his theory of mind would be only a variant of the biological materialism of present-day psychology. But it is just at this stage that a wholly different set of considerations are introduced. The real mind or self is for Bergson something entirely different from perceptual consciousness. The real mind consists of the enduring past which each individual carries with him in his memory, and which increases with each moment of life, as a snowball increases by accumulating the snow through which it rolls. Nothing that is once experienced is ever lost; and what we call “forgetting” is only the inability to bring the unconscious into consciousness.  16
  How is our perceptual consciousness related to this system of enduring memories? Perceptual consciousness, Bergson tells us, is only the fighting edge of the real self; or better, it is the surface of contact between the spirit of man and the world in which man lives. We could no more identify the self with conscious experience than we could identify a solid with one of its sides.  17
  How is the brain related to the true self of memory? The answer usually given is to the effect that memories, like other aspects of mind, are in the brain or at least dependent upon it, and explainable either as specific modifications of the cerebral substance or as associative paths of conduction between the various cerebral centers. Bergson answers quite differently. For him, the brain is in no sense the container of memory but rather is it a bridge connecting the realm of spiritual memory with the realm of bodily action. The memories constituting our spirit can exist without the brain, but they cannot act without the brain. And as memory is the stuff of life, and therefore dynamic in character, it is constantly pressing, as it were, upon the brain in order to express itself on the plane of perceptual consciousness. The extent to which this immaterial and unconscious mind can realize its creative activity will depend upon the condition of the brain and its relation to the other physical objects outside the body. During waking life the mind will modify and control the perceptual responses of the body; all intelligent beings react to the present in the light of the past experience. But during sleep, when the brain is deaf to the solicitations of the outer world, the inner voice can be heard more clearly; and in the imagery of the dream we shall find expressed the unsatisfied needs and interests of the unconscious self. In his theory of dreams Bergson is in accord with Dr. Sigmund Freud, though he does not attach that exclusive importance to sex desires which the great Austrian, on the basis of his extensive clinical observations, believes to be justified.  18
  Thus Bergson’s psychology, although beginning with a behavioristic interpretation of perception, ends in a dualism of mind and body. This dualism, which resembles that of Descartes, the founder of French philosophy, is based upon the impossibility of explaining in physical terms of brain action that endurance of the past which is expressed in memory. The theory is in keeping with the religious conception of human personality and its survival of death; for it allows us to explain the apparent deterioration of mental life which accompanies the disease and decay of the brain as due, not to a real destruction of the mind itself, but only to a destruction of the organ by which the mind comes into experiential contact with physical objects.  19
  The weak point of Bergson’s dualism is the weak point of all dualism,—namely, the difficulty of conceiving how a purely immaterial being could exist, and the manner in which, having no position in space, it could be causally related to the material brain.  20
  III. Biological: The Life-Force and its Evolution.—When Bergson turns to the problem of evolution, he finds himself confronted with two very ancient theories, neither of which appeals to him as satisfactory. These theories, which concern the nature of the world-process, are known as “idealism” and “materialism,” or, with more precision, as “teleology” and “mechanism.” The teleologist holds that the world’s evolution is the working out of a plan that pre-existed in the mind of God. The mechanist, on the other hand, holds that all that happens in nature, including both the development of individual life and the evolution of life in the species, happens blindly, without purpose or foresight, and in accordance with the same purely mechanical laws which suffice to explain the inorganic phenomena of physics and chemistry.  21
  The first or teleological theory is criticized by Bergson as follows: If the entire evolutionary process pre-existed as a plan in the mind of God, the relation of higher species to lower would constitute the same sort of problem, and would generate the same explanations as at present. The only difference would be a change of scene from the earth to the mind of God, and a change of name from biology to divine psychology. Moreover the temporal process itself would be meaningless if evolution were a mere repetition of a pre-existing reality. Time is real, and, as real, it must make a difference to things—which means that it must bring into being genuine novelties. In a true time-process the future cannot have pre-existed in the past, even as a potentiality. Thus does Bergson, in this brief but curiously penetrating criticism, dispose of the teleological conception of evolution.  22
  His criticism of the mechanistic theory is empirical and inductive rather than deductive and dialectical. He brings together numerous instances of evolution which seem impossible to account for on the present Darwinian theory according to which life advances blindly by the principle of natural selection alone, and every useful organ and instinct is regarded as built up out of an accumulation of minute variations which originated accidentally, and which have been preserved because they enable the animal possessing them to survive in the struggle for existence. Turning from criticism to construction, Bergson argues that there are many facts connected with the growth and behavior of the individual animal, and also with the development of new and higher species, which indicate the working of an élan vital or life-spirit. This life-spirit is neither stone-blind, like the atoms of the materialist, nor all-seeing, like the God of the idealist, but intermediate in wisdom and power. It gropes its way dimly outward and upward through matter. For this reason the specific form of a living organism will always be a composite product of two factors, (1) the life-force itself and its needs or interests, and (2) the particular form of matter available to the life-force. The original source of vital activity thus becomes split up into increasingly many forms and individuals, all of which, however, because of their common origin, retain a certain sympathy and community of nature. One current of life, for example, seizes upon the material of chlorophyl, and by virtue of that substance becomes able to derive its food directly from the air and from the soil in which it takes root; and so the vegetable kingdom is formed. Other streams of the life-current utilize the type of matter with which they are confronted to form organs of locomotion by means of which they can pursue their food from place to place; and so the animal kingdom is formed. Of the animals, some develop the material presented to them in such a way as to form in their own bodies nerve-mechanisms by which they perform unerringly and, as it were, intuitively many actions which further the life of their species; these are such animals as the bees, and in them instinct reaches its highest perfection. In other animals, however, the life-force experiments with a more plastic and more centralized nervous system, in which the unerring and somewhat unvarying instincts are replaced by variability of adjustment and the ability to profit by individual experience; this line, developing through the vertebrates, culminates in man, whose variability is so great that he can make from the matter outside of his body tools to accomplish his needs. And it is because of this tool-making faculty that we call him not merely intelligent but rational.  23
  Thus, according to Bergson, the useful variations in the way of sense-organs, instincts, and intelligence (by the accumulation of which life evolves from lower to higher forms) are neither the result of germinal accident plus natural selection as the neo-Darwinians claim, nor of conscious effort and design upon the part of the individual, as is maintained by the neo-Lamarckians, but rather are they the expression, unforeseen and yet purposive and harmonious, of the needs and interests of the life-force operating upon the matter surrounding it.  24
  In his vitalistic biology as in his dualistic psychology, Bergson is strong in his destructive criticism of current theories, and original and stimulating in his constructive suggestions. He gives us the conception of a life-force struggling against matter’s tendency to fixity and equilibrium, groping its way upward towards more and more perfect expressions of the freedom and mobility which is its essence, and experimenting now with one form and again with another. Though there remains the difficulty, inherent in all dualism and vitalism, in conceiving how an immaterial force can act upon a material body, this difficulty by no means deprives his system of permanent value and significance.  25
  IV. Theological: The Religious and Ethical Implications of Creative Evolution.—Every individual life, every species of life, in a sense even matter itself, is derived from a single source, one great original impulse from which the whole world proceeds. This source of life may well possess something of the unity and individuality which constitutes what we know as conscious personality. But if the Origin is personal it is not therefore a self-contained substance existing behind or above the world, a spectator of evolving nature. The power which was the transcendent cause is now the immanent essence of living individuals, who are thus at once the creatures of and the participants in the cosmic life. Thus the world is not merely a neo-Platonic emanation from God, but also it is a self-creative evolution of God. The cosmic life, which is found in its unity in each individual, maintains itself in some measure distinct from its multiple forms of expression, and may even be communed with or prayed to by those through whom it flows. And yet, when we speak of life in its universal aspect as God, we must recognize that such a God is not omniscient in the sense of foreseeing the future; for a future that was adequately foreknown would be already realized, and time would have lost its significance. The Bergsonian God is also lacking in omnipotence, being bound by the past which he has created but which is now a limiting part of him. Yet on the other hand, if God and his creatures are alike in being limited by the past, they are also alike in being free as to the future. For the future is not a mysterious realm towards which we are drifting, and in which strange destinies may lurk. The future cannot be foreseen, because there is nothing in it to foresee. It is absolutely empty and open, and will be filled only with what we choose to fill it. Life universal and life individuated, God and his creatures, are comrades in an absolute venture, creating their future as they go and possessed of a power and a freedom that is limited only by their own past.  26
  It is such a religion, if religion it can be called, which appears implicit in Bergson’s teaching. And as for his ethics, likewise implicit rather than expressed, the central idea would seem to be the same as that which I have attributed to his religion,—the idea, namely, of the open future. Life’s evolution is a creation, not a fulfillment. It makes its ideals as it goes. If we still seek in the spirit of an older ethic to demand of Bergson an answer to such questions as:—(1) What is the good of life, what is it for? (2) What is the end towards which the whole creation moves? (3) What is the categorical imperative or absolute moral law? (4) What is sin? It seems to me he might reply as follows:—(1) The good of life—what it is for—is more life, and more abundant life. (2) The end towards which life moves and strives is its own unendingness. (3) The categorical imperative or absolute moral law is the law that there shall be no law except such as may happen to serve freedom, and may be capable of being instantly revised or abandoned when it has ceased to serve freedom. (4) Sin is the yielding by life to the temptation to become fixed by habits, legalized, stereotyped. The vegetable is lower than the animal because it has let itself become less mobile, less effortful, less free. For the same reason the animals protected in sluggishness by their heavy shells are inferior; likewise those who have chosen the unerring but unvarying efficiency of instinct rather than the erring but more adaptable intelligence. The man encrusted and dominated by habits, the society weighed down and kept safe by unchanging laws and customs, sin also against the life-spirit. The thing that should be most precious to the conscience, and which God or nature has most at heart, is the unending increase of free and varied life for all.  27
  Conclusion.—There is a large and increasing class of people throughout the world whose minds are unable to accept the idealism of the traditional religions and whose hearts are reluctant to accept the materialism of modern science. To such as these Bergson must be the supreme prophet of the present day. His philosophy, though daringly original, is neither anti-scientific nor anti-religious. It reveals a new appreciation of the meaning and promise of evolving nature, and a new sense of the freedom and power of human life.  28
  BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE.  There is an excellent bibliography in ‘The Ethical Implications of Bergson’s Philosophy’ by Una Bernard Sait (New York, 1914). To this should be added a few addresses and articles since the beginning of the War collected in ‘The Meaning of the War; Life and the Conflict of Matter’ (New York, 1915).  29

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