Henri Bergson  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Henri-Louis Bergson (October 18, 1859January 4, 1941) was a major French philosopher, influential in the first half of the 20th century.

Criticisms and reception

From his first publications, Bergson's philosophy attracted strong criticism from different angles, although he was also very popular and durably influenced French philosophy — the epistemologist Gaston Bachelard, for example, explicitly alluded to him in the last pages of his 1938 book (The Formation of the Scientific Mind). The mathematician Edouard Le Roy was Bergson's main disciple. Others influences count Vladimir Jankélévitch, who wrote a book on him (Henri Bergson) in 1931, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or Gilles Deleuze who wrote Le bergsonisme in 1966 (transl. 1988). Bergson is also often classified as an influence upon the process philosophy of (beside Deleuze) Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Lévinas.

Many writers of the early 20th century criticized his intuitionism, indeterminism, psychologism and unique interpretation of the scientific impulse. Among those who explicitly criticized Bergson (either in published articles or letters) were Bertrand Russell (see his short book on the subject), George Santayana (see his study on the author in "Winds of Doctrine"), G. E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Julien Benda (see his book on the subject), T. S. Eliot, Paul Valéry (despite some recent claims otherwise), Andre Gide (see below), Marxists philosophers such as Theodor W. Adorno (see "Against Epistemology"), Lucio Colletti (see "Hegel and Marxism"), , Jean-Paul Sartre (see his early book Imagination — although Sartre also appropriated himself Bergsonian thesis on novelty as pure creation - see Situations I, Gallimard 1947, p.314) and Georges Politzer (see the latter's two books on the subject: Le Bergsonisme, une Mystification Philosophique and La fin d'une parade philosophique: le Bergsonisme both of which had a tremendous effect on French existential phenomenology), as well as (the non-Marxist) Maurice Blanchot (see Bergson and Symbolism), American philosophers such as Irving Babbitt, Arthur Lovejoy, Josiah Royce, The New Realists (Ralph B. Perry, E. B. Holt, and William P. Montague), The Critical Realists (Durant Drake, Roy W. Sellars, C. A. Strong, and A. K. Rogers), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Roger Fry (see his letters), Julian Huxley (in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis) and Virginia Woolf (for the latter, see Ann Banfield, The Phantom Table).

Bergson was accused by the Vatican of being pantheistic, while free-thinkers, who formed a large part of the teachers and professors of the French Third Republic, accused him of spiritualism. Still others have characterized his philosophy as a materialist emergentismSamuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan explicitly claimed Bergson as their forebearer. According to Henri Hude (1990, II, p.142), who supports himself on the whole of Bergson's works as well as his now published courses, accusing him of pantheism is a "counter-sense". Hude alleges that a mystical experience, roughly outlined at the end of Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, is the inner principle of his whole philosophy, although this has been contested by other commentators.

C. S. Peirce took strong exception to being aligned with Bergson. In response to a letter comparing his work with that of Bergson he wrote, “a man who seeks to further science can hardly commit a greater sin than to use the terms of his science without anxious care to use them with strict accuracy; it is not very gratifying to my feelings to be classed along with a Bergson who seems to be doing his prettiest to muddle all distinctions.” William James’s students resisted the assimilation of his work to that of Bergson’s. See, for example, Horace Kallen’s book on the subject James and Bergson. As Jean Wahl described the “ultimate disagreement” between James and Bergson in his System of Metaphysics:

“for James, the consideration of action is necessary for the definition of truth, according to Bergson, action...must be kept from our mind if we want to see the truth.” Gide even went so far as to say that future historians will over-estimate Bergson’s influence on art and philosophy just because he was the self-appointed spokesman for “the spirit of the age.”

As early as the 1890s, Santayana attacked certain key concepts in Bergson’s philosophy, above all his view of the New and the indeterminate:

“the possibility of a new and unaccountable fact appearing at any time,” he writes in his book on Lotze, “does not practically affect the method of investigation;...the only thing given up is the hope that these hypotheses may ever be adequate to the reality and cover the process of nature without leaving a remainder. This is no great renunciation; for that consummation of science...is by no one really expected.”

According to Santayana and Russell, Bergson projected false claims onto the aspirations of scientific method, which Bergson needed to make in order to justify his prior moral commitment to freedom. Russell takes particular exception to Bergson’s understanding of number in chapter two of Time and Free-will. According to Russell, Bergson uses an outmoded spatial metaphor (“extended images”) to describe the nature of mathematics as well as logic in general. “Bergson only succeeds in making his theory of number possible by confusing a particular collection with the number of its terms, and this again with number in general,” writes Russell (see The Philosophy of Bergson and A History of Western Philosophy).

Further still, the élan vital was seen to be a projection of the inner life, a moral feeling, onto the world at large. The external world, according to certain theories of probability, provides less and less indeterminism with further refinement of scientific method. In brief, the moral, psychological, and aesthethic demand for the new, the underivable and the unexplained should not be confused with our imagination of the universe at large. A difference remains between our inner sense of becoming and the non-human character of the outer world, which, according to the ancient materialist Lucretius should not be characterized as either one of becoming or being, creation or destruction (De Rerum Natura).


See also

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