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Born: 1859, Paris, France

Died: 1941, Paris, France

Major Works: Time and Free Will (1889), Matter and Memory (1896), Laughter (1900), An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), Creative Evolution (1907), The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932)

Major Ideas

There are two methods of intellectual inquiry: intuition and analysis.

Analysis understands reality in terms of stability, predictability, and spatial location; intuition, on the other hand, experiences growth, novelty, and temporal duration.

True duration is experienced only in the human person, and that duration is preserved in memory.

Memory, while being informed by sense impressions, is not absolutely dependent upon the matter of the brain.

Freedom is the personal event of self-creation.

An inexhaustible, vital impulse orients all of creation to greater perfection and as such lies at the core of evolution.

Mysticism, as ultimate transcendence, experiences the unity of all things and expresses itself in a call to universal love; this is the insight of dynamic religion and morality.

Closed societies with their concern for social order and cohesion produce religions of authority, ritual, and hierarchy, as well as a morality focused on law.

Henri Bergson taught for twenty-one years at the College de France. He was a member of the French Academy and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. In his own lifetime he enjoyed an international reputation as the most important French philosopher of the day. His writings influenced discussions in the fields of psychology, biology, literature, ethics, and religion. His thoughts on intuition, memory, evolution, and society were widely discussed. He was known in the early years of the twentieth century as the great champion of the inner spiritual life of the individual and the spokesperson for the dynamic creative force at the heart of the evolving universe.

The Intuition of Duration

In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Bergson sets in contrast two methods of intellectual inquiry: intuition and analysis. They are two complementary yet fundamentally different ways of reflecting on reality. Although they both reveal something of the character of being, Bergson argues for the superiority of intuition as that method of knowledge that grasps the essential nature of time.

When Bergson was young, he studied the work of Herbert Spencer (1820- 1903). Spencer sought to describe the whole of reality from the perspective of the mechanical forces of natural selection made famous by Charles Darwin (1809-82). Initially Bergson was pleased with Spencer's nineteenth-century scientific analysis until he realized that it lacked a real awareness of our own awareness of the flowing continuity of all things. For Bergson, life was not only a vast series of interplays of natural causes and effects but, also, a dynamic active unfolding. Life, he argued, is immensely richer than our intellectual cognition of it.

The analytic method as used in the sciences attempts to grasp in precise terms the whole of reality and thus offer certainty and predictability. This is why in the West there has been a great respect for theory, explanation, and demonstrability. Since the time of the Greeks, mathematics has shown itself to be a powerful vehicle through which humanity can discover order. Language itself is a tool seeking to impose clarity and simplicity on the flow of experience. The mathematical and theoretical constructs are thus symbols that seek to understand the nature of a particular being in terms of common and familiar points of reference Scientific analysis, which tends to understand reality in terms of stability, predictability, and spatial location, offers to alleviate the anxiety experienced when we find our world too complex or dangerous.

This approach while valuable, has the problem that it offers only a photograph, a snapshot so to speak, of what is essentially a dynamic, active world. It is never able to penetrate into the essence of things but remains only on the surface. This critical method selects the perspective of a scientific discipline and is thus limited to that perspective. Further it focuses on the elements that a particular object shares with other objects rather than on what is unique and unpredictable. Indeed, Bergson would argue that the symbol system itself acts as a veil preventing one from getting at the fullness of being. That is why he writes that true metaphysics is the science that claims to dispense with symbols in order to get at reality itself.

If symbols distance the object known from the knower, then what is needed to overcome this conceptual distance is an intellectual sympathy that experiences being as a whole, as a dynamic continuum. This sympathy is called intuition by Bergson. Intuition enters into the interiority of an object to get at what is unique. It is an immediate nonconceptual knowledge, a direct participation and identification with the object of thought. Bergson does not dismiss the value of science, mathematics, or logic, but he does emphasize their inability to understand the whole of reality. For him, the empathic identification with being offers a deeper and more complete avenue of knowledge. Intuition may be a spontaneous insight or the result of a sustained effort to turn attention to ones consciousness. In either event, it offers a richness of knowledge beyond that given only to the senses. Contrary to materialistic empiricism, which claimed that what was known by the senses in contact with material reality was all that coul d be known, Bergson focused on the intellect's ability to have an intuitive awareness of time.

By turning to the data of human consciousness, our presence to ourselves is a presence to our own time. This time he calls "duration" (duree), or real time, in contradistinction to the time of clocks and celestial movements. This inner time is our own awareness of our past, present, and future, known in one introspective glance. Unlike analysis, where the mind is outer-directed, in intuition the mind redirects its attention to itself in an attitude of disinterested contemplation. In this way, the person achieves meaning and sees at once the complete pattern of relationships, just as one sees, so to speak, the intention of the poet in the words of the poem.

The words of the poem, the natural world, appear stable and static; yet the intention of the poet, the inner life of persons, is ever-creating, novel, and unpredictable. Duration, grasped by intuition, is the organizing principle of the personality, the point of unity that underlies the multiplicity of self-expressions. Here is the core of the individual where past, present, and future interpenetrate to form the inexhaustible richness and depth of the human. This core expresses itself not in a utilitarian manipulation of the world (one aim of science and the goal of all animal instinct) but in art, philosophy, and religion. So music captures the motion that underlies reality, while art offers a contact with human consciousness. Philosophical introspection and religious mysticism are not irrational or purely emotive acts but intellectual activities that seek to make the implicit core of being explicit.

There is no time in matter, only location in space. It is the human person who alone communes with time and is able by the creation of symbolic representations of duration to project into matter temporality. Science, with its analytic methods, sees things like successive beads on a string, as separate states. A philosophy of the intuition of duration sees lived time as a fluid, indivisible continuum. As Bergson put it in his Creative Evolution, "To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." For Bergson, Spencer's philosophy was that of inert matter, not that of dynamic growth. Mechanistic thinking leveled off the uniqueness and inexhaustible creative depth of the human personality. That is why in his work on laughter (Le Rire) he argues that we respond with the social corrective of laughter when we see the self or the other acting like a mechanical, repetitive thing rather than adjusting to reality. Thus Don Quixote is the object of laughter when he molds h is perceptions to his preconceived ideas and sees giants rather than windmills.


At the depth of the human personality is memory. Bergson in his most difficult work, Matter and Memory, seeks to describe the nature of memory and thus critique such authors as Hippolyte Tame (1828-93) and Alexander Bain (1818-1903), who claimed that all mental images are only the result of the association of sensations. The idea that Bergson rejects is that ideas are recorded on specific brain tissues just as sound is recorded in the grooves of a gramophone record. He argues that memory is our ability to unify duration so that our many isolated sensations throughout time form a focused image of a particular person, event, or thing. Memory binds perceptions into a continuum. Memory brings the past into the present so that the world becomes "for me." Memory makes the world personal, with patterns of significant perception and meaningful acts. Thus memory transcends the separateness of sense impressions taken one by one by bringing experience into an organic ever-expanding whole. Memory, as Bergson understands it, becomes the doorway to the core of the person--a theme that stands at the center of the important novel A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922).

This dynamic activity of memory that retains all experiences is limited by matter. The function of the brain is to focus consciousness on survival needs. This move away from the total picture captured by memory to the particular is required, for we must deal selectively with our environment by adapting to the necessities of the moment. In dreams, however, when the memory is freed from this connectedness, the unconscious expresses itself.

In these ideas, Bergson would be in harmony with the emerging tradition of psychoanalysis. He would also anticipate a later author, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-61), for whom the dynamic personal aspect of the human is mediated through yet limited by the materiality of the body. Indeed, in a broad sense, here is a foreshadowing of the phenomenological/existential tradition of the twentieth century, which sees the person as able to create a meaningful world in the world of things. As Bergson puts it in Matter and Memory: ". . . spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom."


Memory operates in two spheres: in a mechanical way by rote recall of those ideas necessary to deal with the demands of the present, and as a vehicle of independent recollection of the past. Bergson believes that this latter sphere carries with it the continuum of personal identity, which, because of its noncongruence with matter, offers the real possibility of personal immortality. In other words, interiority is different from, yet complementary to, exteriority; the "deep self" is other than the "outer self." This dualism, like that of time and space, quality and quantity, is the framework from which Bergson discusses freedom and determinism.

Many in the history of philosophy have made the error of discussing freedom in terms of what was chosen. In essence, this was to look upon freedom in terms of the determinism or indeterminism of objects "out there." Freedom, Bergson argues, needs to be examined in terms of duration, not space. We not only choose from among possible objects but create possibilities in acts in which we create ourselves. In freedom, we turn from our superficial and spatialized self to the unity of the self experienced through intuition and memory. Freedom sums up the past and sets a direction for the future. As he puts it in Time and Free Will, we are free when our acts spring from our whole personality and express it, as in the relationship between an artist and his work.

Freedom is not a constant quality, for the moments in which we fully grasp the self are rare. There are, however, acts that so project the whole self into the future that they offer real orientation and meaning to the person. Determinism is the result of preset patterns; freedom is an event that creates the future. Thus, freedom is not reasoned about but lived and intuitively experienced. These themes would be the object of much discussion by the later existentialists.

Elan Vital

Bergson's idea of "elan vital," a vital impulse or life force, is presented in his most celebrated book, Creative Evolution. This French philosopher, born the same year as the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), would use the idea of a life force to accept Darwin's theory of evolution as well as to repudiate its materialistic and mechanistic connotations. For Bergson, the core problem with nineteenth-century Darwinian theory was that it was an extension of the Newtonian mechanical worldview whereby biological changes were understood to be governed by the rigid laws of cause and effect. What is missed in this view is that the universe has within it a vital impulse driving it to greater and greater complexity, creativity, and adaptability, as spirit struggles with the resistance of matter.

Here is the metaphysical vision, an intuition of real duration at the core of the cosmos. If the essence of the person is self-forming growth of which we are conscious over the continuum of time, then there exists a similar power with the evolutionary advance of all species. These themes, with their emphasis on activity would be developed in different ways throughout 'the twentieth century by writers as diverse as Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

Religion and Morality

Our deepest solidarity with the universe stems from the, fact that we participate in its source. Just as the dynamic thrust of the vital force of the cosmos calls the whole of the creation to greater complexity, self-mastery, intelligence, and intuition, so also the great goal of religion and morality is to aid in the achievement of spiritual and moral perfection. With this in mind, Bergson claims in his last book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, that the universe is a "machine for the making of gods."

God in Creative Evolution is uninterrupted life, action, and freedom. Bergson, a Jew who in later life expressed his attraction to Roman Catholicism, rejected the charge made by some Thomists of his day (especially Jacques Maintain, 1882-1973) that his philosophy amounted to pantheism. He thought in theistic terms of God as a free creator generating both matter and life. "Elan vital" was the vehicle of divine creativity and activity. This dynamic spirit, this inexhaustible mystery at the core of being, defies clear-cut definitive rational or empirical distinctions. It is only the mystics and the saints who in acts of intuition and love are able to grasp the meaning and unity of all experiences. They alone fully apprehend, as he puts it in his Two Sources, "the point of intersection of the timeless with time."

Genuine mysticism is the guiding force that creates what Bergson calls open religion and morality. In the insight that in essence all persons are one, there emerges in open religion and morality a world-view of universal brotherhood and love. This was the wisdom of the founders of world religions and as such they served as ideal models for their followers. Open dynamic religion and morality are clear and profound manifestations of the life force, calling humanity to leap beyond the limits of all that encloses society in the experience of limitless aspiration. This transcendence gives human life purpose and ultimate significance.

In contrast to an open society based on aspirations and idealism in touch with the ever-creating divine impulse, Bergson offers an analysis of closed societies influenced by his reading of two French sociologists of primitive religious phenomenon: Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939). A closed society creates structures to defend itself against the awareness of intelligence, which experiences in its attempts to impose order on the natural world an unfriendly cosmos of tragedies and death. Hence, static religion responds by creating deities whose function it is to offer a sense of comfort to threatened humanity. A powerful helping deity is understood to be protecting the faithful in this life and in the next. The myths of static religion in this way offer confidence and reassurance while the rituals of religion provide strength, discipline, and social cohesion.

In open societies, morality is centered on trustful love and risk-filled self-donation. In closed societies, morality is centered on laws interpreted as the fixed order of nature designed to restrain an egotism that would, if given free rein, destroy social order. In closed societies, which emphasize hierarchy, authority, and group solidarity, intense social pressures create for the individual a strong sense of obligation to conform. In such a tightly structured situation, defensiveness forms an ethic of loving the fellow citizen while hating the enemy. In a morality of aspiration informed by the vital forces within all things, the goal is to unite humanity by transcending the artificial boundaries between persons.

Further Reading

Alexander, Ian W Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection. London: Bowes and Bowes, 1957. A positive appraisal of Bergson with special attention to repudiating the charge that his was a philosophy of the irrational.

Gallagher, Idella J. Morality in Evolution: The Moral Philosophy of Henri Bergson. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970. This work sets the major claims of Bergson's Two Sources of Morality and Religion within the context of his total philosophical effort.

Gunter, Pete A. Y Henri Bergson: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1989. This is an indispensable bibliographic guide to the entire corpus of Bergsonian literature up to 1985. Gunter, aside from listing all the works of Bergson and all available translations, cites close to six thousand studies on Bergson's philosophy and its influence.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. A short, easy-to-read overview with special attention to Bergson's critics and followers.

Levi, Albert William. Philosophy and the Modern World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959. Bergson is one chapter in this sweeping, competent overview of twentieth century thought. Helpful in situating the French philosopher is Levi's introductory chapters, which deal with the problems of fragmentation, rationality, irrationality, and the distinction between clock time and real time.

Maritain, Jacques. Bergsonian Philosophy and Thomism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. This is the famous, or as some would say, infamous, critique of Bergson from the perspective of Thomism by a former student.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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