Bergson advanced a theory of evolution based on a spiritual dimension of
human life. His thinking had widespread influence in a variety of
disciplines. In the Christian religion he opened the way to an
interpretation of reality which promised union with God through mystical
experience, an escape from the limitations which reason places upon
in Paris, on October 18, 1859, Bergson was educated at the Ecole Normale
Superieure and the University of Paris. He was influenced by the so-called
"activist" teachings of L Olle-Laprune and
taught in various secondary schools from 1881 until 1898, when he accepted
a professorship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Two years later he took
the chair of philosophy at the College de France.
Bergson's doctoral dissertation, Time and Free Will (1889)
presented his theories on the freedom of the mind and on human
work was followed by Matter and Memory (1896), emphasizing the
selectivity of the human brain. Laughter (1900) is an essay on the
mechanistic basis of comedy that is probably his most quoted work.
Creative Evolution (1907) probes the problem of human existence and
defines mind as pure energy, the Elan vital or vital force
responsible for all organic evolution.
1914 Bergson was elected to the French Academy. In 1921 he resigned from
the College de France to devote his time to international affairs,
politics, moral problems, and religion. He converted to Roman Catholicism
(his parents were Jewish). He published The Two Sources of Morality and
Religion in 1932, in which he attempted to align his philosophy with
Christianity. In 1927 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The influence of Bergson's earlier books, as well as his many papers and
lectures, on the philosophers, artists and writers of the 20th century is
extensive. He was considered a master prose stylist and a brilliant
argue that Bergson was too original and eclectic to be easily categorised.
He emphasized the importance of intuition over intellect and it is for
this reason that he has frequently been approved of and appropriated by
Roman Catholic modernists, dissatisfied with traditional emphasis on
knowledge through reason and the development of revelation by the human
intellect, welcomed his ideas. Bergson's thought has been perceived by
some as exemplifying a revolt, which began with Rousseau, against reason
as a dominant mode of being. This revolt - even though often based upon
poor thinking and false premises - has gradually penetrated many aspects
of contemporary life.
Bergson promoted the notion of two opposing currents in reality. Inert
matter is to be contrasted with organic life, the latter exhibiting the
life-force (elan vital) which strives towards novelty and free
creativity. Some think that this perception of reality is dualistic,
others that Bergson saw matter as a by-product of the life-force and
therefore as a unity.
Central to Bergson's system is the concept of duration.
This is "... the form which our conscious states assume when our ego lets
itself live." The kind of time which we normally associate with
space can be, as it were, carved up into units. It can be measured and is
a means of analysing matter in various ways.
Duration, on the other hand, is what produces
consciousness. It's a stream, not of disparate moments such as when we
listen to a clock ticking, but a unified, continuous and immediate
experience of life itself. Normal time is useful in our relation to space
and material objects, but it's essentially a construct. In contrast to
space/time, the duration of consciousness produces "succession without
mutual externality." This "flow of consciousness" is perhaps best
expressed in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and perhaps by certain
kinds of abstract art.
An immediate problem arises when the nature of memory is
considered. If duration or "true time" is of the essence, how can anything
in the past be remembered as a discrete mental entity? According to
Bergson, the present moment is the only real activity anyone can possibly
The past, says Bergson, is that which no longer "acts".
This position reveals Bergson's fundamental mistake. A person subsumed in
the flowing consciousness of duration cannot know a discrete past.
Therefore Bergson's definition of the past should have no meaning to us,
since we can't by definition know anything except, in Bergson's words,
"that which is acting" in the present at a particular moment in the
ongoing flow of duration.
The circularity of his position seems to arise from
confusing the present recollection of the past (which one assumes would be
active in the duration of consciousness) and the past events which are
remembered. The difference between the past and a recollection of the past
is not the same as the difference between the past and the present.
As if this were not problematic enough, the form of
Bergson's writing presents insuperable difficulties to any thinking
person. This is because he gives no reasons for his views. Rather, he
relies on what one writer calls "picturesque and varied statement" to
produce an overall impression which rests neither upon evidence nor
reason. Analogies and similes make his work more poetic than reasoned.
Life, for example, is like a shell which when it bursts forms a number of
new shells. Or again, life was originally only a "tendency to accumulate
in a reservoir, as do especially the green parts of vegetables."
The best example of his poetic method is, however, when he
compares life's energy to a cavalry charge:
All organised beings, from the humblest to the highest,
from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all
places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion ... one immense
army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming
charge able to beat down every resistance and to clear many obstacles,
perhaps even death.
A philosophy which does not depend on argument can't, of
course, be refuted by argument.
In further assessing Bergson's work it may be useful to
note that the so-called "death of God" in the 1960s was the end of a
process, extending over more than two centuries, which has made the
supernatural God of traditional theology less and less credible. The
vacuum which resulted has, I think, made the God of mysticism more
desirable, if only because a subjective God can't be tested in any way by
The way Bergson arrives at his conclusions has more in
common with the paradigms and methods of the mystics. It appears to be a
sort of global apprehension of truth or reality which is, by definition,
inaccessible to reason. There is no way in which an intuitive world can be
truly thought about, since thought requires a kind of reflectivity which
discovers meaning through pattern and analysis.
Bergson equates life-force with God:
God, thus defined, has nothing of the already made; he is
unceasing life, action, freedom. Creation, so conceived, is not a mystery;
we experience it in ourselves when we act freely.
As we have seen, only through the "duration" of
consciousness is this freedom attainable.
Bergson's dualism lies more in how he presents humanity
than in how he views matter and life-force. He regards human beings as
split into two contrasting aspects - intellect and intuition.
Intellect is the means by which we handle the
reality of experience, the practical side of life. Through it we
conceptualise, we attribute and fix values, we analyse and quantify. It is
a "translation in terms of inertia".
Intuition is derived from animal instinct. It is
inside life not separate from it as is intellect. It is sympathetic
feeling, not thought. It leads to the life of inwardness because it is
... instinct that has become disinterested,
self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it
It enables us to expand consciousness into life's domain
to become fully part of a continuing creation. It is dynamic, not static.
In placing the two aspects of humanity in opposition,
Bergson writes that there are
... two profoundly different ways of knowing a thing. The
first [intellect] implies that we move round an object; the second
[intuition] that we enter into it. The first depends on the point of view
at which we are placed and on the symbols by which we express ourselves.
The second neither depends on a point of view nor relies on any symbol.
The first kind of knowledge may be said to stop at the relative; the
second, in those places where it is possible, to attain the absolute.
It seems to me that to claim access to what is absolute is
to claim not only truth but absolute truth. In other words, Bergson claims
for intuition the capacity for getting everything right. But if intuition
attains such absolute truth or knowledge, how are we to know it is right
unless we somehow test it? And if we are to test it, is there any way other
than to test it by means of the intellect or action? I don't think Bergson's
approach stands in this respect.
In relation to Christianity there are at least two
Christianity is fundamentally an historical faith. That is, it's
founded on a real-life, actual person who once lived and died. History
is essentially a discipline which uses evidence and reason to arrive
at conclusions. While intuition may result in startlingly accurate
hypotheses, the latter can only be tested through what Bergson calls
the intellect. A Jesus of "intuition" has no force until confirmed by
a Jesus of history.
Some modern Christian practice, perhaps driven by fear of
intellectual uncertainty, seeks to venerate a "spiritual"
Jesus-cum-God who seems to have much in common with the flowing,
eternal life-force which Bergson proposes. Its practitioners meditate
and pray, apparently seeking enlightenment through something very
close to Bergson's stream-of-consciousness intuition. In contrast,
another kind of Christian practice appears to relate mainly to a
thoroughly human Jesus - and therefore to focus mainly on practical
matters. This seems more like the intellect of Bergson's approach, one
which strives to reinterpret the Christian faith in terms suitable and
meaningful to contemporary society.
Towards the end of his life, having become a Roman
Catholic, Bergson tried to move closer to traditional Christian teaching
about God in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. He affirmed
that God is love and the object of love and that there is divine purpose
in the evolutionary process.
But the discovery of this
purpose cannot, he said, be made by the intellect, but only by the sort of
intuition that is the mystical experience. He contended that the Elan
vital is communicated "in its entirety" to exceptional persons - the
mystics who achieve contact with the creative effort which "is of God, if it
is not God Himself." The spiritual intuition of the mystics must become
universal to ensure mankind's future evolution.