Henri Bergson

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Bergson, Henri

(äNrē` bĕrgsôN`), 1859–1941, French philosopher. He became a professor at the Collège de France in 1900, devoted some time to politics, and, after World War I, took an interest in international affairs. He is well known for his brilliant and imaginative philosophical works, which won him the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his works that have been translated into English are Time and Free Will (1889), Matter and Memory (1896), Laughter (1901), Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), Creative Evolution (1907), The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), and The Creative Mind (1934). Bergson's philosophy is dualistic—the world contains two opposing tendencies—the life force (élan vital) and the resistance of the material world against that force. Human beings know matter through their intellect, with which they measure the world. They formulate the doctrines of science and see things as entities set out as separate units within space. In contrast with intellect is intuition, which derives from the instinct of lower animals. Intuition gives us an intimation of the life force which pervades all becoming. Intuition perceives the reality of time—that it is duration directed in terms of life and not divisible or measurable. Duration is demonstrated by the phenomena of memory.


See H. W. Carr, The Philosophy of Change (1914, repr. 1970); H. M. Kallen, William James and Henri Bergson (1914); P. A. Y. Gunter, Bergson and the Evolution of Physics (1969); L. Kołakowski, Bergson (1985); G. Deleuze, Bergsonism (tr. 1988).

Bergson, Henri


Born Oct. 18, 1859, in Paris; died there Jan. 4, 1941. French idealist philosopher, representative of intuitionism and the “philosophy of life.” From 1900 he was a professor at the Collège de France, and from 1914 he was a member of the Académie Française. In 1927, Bergson was awarded the Nobel Prize as a brilliant stylist.

Bergson’s world view was formulated under the direct influence of French spiritualism, which can be traced to Maine de Biran; F. Schelling exercised some influence over Bergson through his follower F. Ravaisson. Intuitionist metaphysics is also connected at its roots to neoplatonism. Coming out against mechanism and dogmatic rationalism, Bergson contended that life is a genuine and original form of reality. Life is interpreted as a certain integral whole, radically different from matter and spirit, which, taken by themselves, are products of the disintegration of the life process. The essence of life can be understood only with the aid of intuition, which, being of a distinctive sympathetic character, penetrates as if spontaneously into an object, merging with its individual nature. Intuition does not assume the relationship of the known to the knower to be that of an object to a subject; it is the process by which life becomes self-conscious. Therefore, Bergson called upon one to appeal to his own life of consciousness, which is given directly to each person. Introspection, according to Bergson, allows one to discover that the fabric of psychological life is composed of continual changeability of conditions, which pass unnoticed from one state to another and endure. Constituting its own life of consciousness and its own structure, the duration is the mutual penetration of the conditions of consciousness; they do not have extension and therefore cannot be arranged next to each other; they are distinguished not quantitatively but qualitatively, and therefore they resist the kind of measurement and calculation that can be applied to material objects (see Time and Free Will, Moscow, 1910, p. 103). According to Bergson, duration, which is life, has not a spatial but a temporal character. This “qualitative,” “living” time is radically different from that concept of mechanical-physical time, which, according to Bergson, arises as a result of the corruption of duration by the intellect. Discussing intellect in the spirit of A. Schopenhauer, Bergson contrasted it with intuition, viewing intellect as a tool of operation with “dead things”—material, spatial objects. In accordance with its nature—its ability to think only in spatial, quantitative categories (“our concepts were formulated according to the model of solids . . . ,” Tvorcheskaia evoliutsiia, Moscow-St. Petersburg, 1914, p. iii)—the intellect is able to understand something living and organic only after it has converted it into something dead and mechanical because, according to Bergson, the intellect has a purely practical purpose—to form and fabricate unorganized matter.

The studies of the intellect and intuition were grounded by Bergson in his metaphysics—in his concept of the evolution of the organic world. Life, which appears internally as psychological reality or duration, is, according to Bergson, a certain metaphysical cosmic process, anélan vital, a powerful stream with its own kind of creative formation. When the élan subsides, life disintegrates, turning into matter, which is characterized by Bergson as an inanimate mass, substance, and so forth. Thus, matter, lacking an independent ontologi-cal status, turns out to be the shortcoming and weakness of life. In the process of the development that results from resistance to the matter that is found on the path of the original united life stream, the life stream is as if divided into several streams, in each of which life in its own way constructs a path for itself through the inert matter (Ibid., p. 121).

At the center of Bergson’s philosophy is the problem of creation, which he views as a cosmic objective process: man is a creative being insofar as the path of the élan vital runs through him. The capacity for creation, according to Bergson, who is following Schopenhauer, is connected with irrational intuition, which is given as a divine gift to the chosen. Thus, Bergson arrives at an elitist concept of creation and culture generally, although he appears to be one of the forerunners of the theory of mass culture. Creation of all kinds of value, including social, is equally subordinated to the law of elitism in Bergson’s view. He recognizes two types of society and, accordingly, two types of ethics—closed and open. The first satisfies the demands of social instinct and has as its aim the preservation of the race; the personality is sacrificed to the collective, truth is sacrificed to the benefit of all. In open ethics, personality and the creation of aesthetic, religious, and moral values are rated higher than the interests of preserving the race.

The philosophy of Bergson is internally inconsistent. As soon as the conceptual method of thinking is proclaimed to be false and to be a distortion of reality, then the use of conceptual thinking (which Bergson uses for a statement of his system) proves to be a contradiction. It is true that Bergson from time to time violates his veto on discursive thinking and contrasts “fluctuating” concepts that are able to follow reality to “bad” inert ones. But these reservations do not solve the problem. Bergson’s sharp opposition of reason and intuition makes philosophical cognition impossible because what is being contemplated in “pure” intuition without any conceptualized differentiation must remain inexpressible. In his absolutization of changeability, Bergson arrives at full subjectivism (see Perceptions of Changeability, St. Petersburg, 1913).

The studies of Bergson exerted a major influence on philosophy (the pragmatism of James, personalism, existentialism, Toynbee’s philosophy of history), literature (M. Proust), and art (impressionism in painting and other fields). In Marxist literature, Bergson’s philosophy is subjected to sharp criticism (see V.G. Plekhanov, “H. Bergson: Creative Evolution,” in Selected Philosophical Works, vol. 3, Moscow, 1957; Zh. Politser, “On One Philosophical Mystification,” in French Communists in the Struggle for a Progressive Ideology, Moscow, 1953; L. Sev, Contemporary French Philosophy, Moscow, 1968, pp. 270–74; and others).


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“Filosofskaia intuitsiia.” Novye idei v filosofii, 1912, collection 1.
Dlitel’nost’ i odnovremennost’. Petrograd, 1923.


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Vysheslavtsev, B. Etika Fikhte. Moscow, 1914. Chapter 6.
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Barlow, M. H. Bergson. Paris, 1966.
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