Bergson

With Henri Bergson we reach the 20th century in this history of western philosophy. Russell categorises Bergson’s philosophy as a practical one, inspired by a love of action, where knowledge is merely the instrument of successful activity. This is in contrast to philosophies of feeling, inspired by a love of happiness, and theoretical philosophies, inspired by a love of knowledge. Bergson has a dynamic conception of reality, and praises those who act on instinct. Intellectual thought is condemned as slow and constraining, and inconsistent with the nature of life.

The Struggle of Life

Bergson divides the world into life and matter. These two are in perpetual conflict and travelling in opposite directions – life climbs upwards, whereas matter falls downward. Life is a great force which is constantly fighting its way past the inert matter in its path. It is always struggling to get through, sometimes divided by obstacles into divergent streams, sometimes held and pushed backwards by matter, but always looking for ways to climb upwards, and always looking for ways to manipulate and organise matter in order to get through. Through this struggle life changes and evolves.

Historically there had been two ways to explain why things happen. One is teleological – things have a natural tendency to develop to their potential, or to fulfil their natural purpose. For example, it is the natural purpose of an acorn to grow into an oak tree. The other is mechanistic – things happen due to past causes. Bergson rejected both explanations, believing that life has an impulse to action to achieve undefined wants, and this drives events. Traditional evolutionary theory would say that chance mutations, such as those leading to the ability to see, are passed on because they make an animal better adapted to survive. Bergson believed that sightless animals would have had a vague desire to be more aware of the objects they came into contact with, and this desire led to efforts which resulted in the creation of eyes. However, eyes could not have been imagined until they came into being, which shows that the evolutionary outcome of life’s desires is unpredictable. This is disconcerting to anyone who wants to think that we consciously determine a goal and act in order to achieve that outcome. Rather, we are blindly driven by instinct, like objects floating on the sea, drifting according to invisible currents.

Against Intellect

At one point in evolution, instinct and intellect appeared. According to Bergson, instinct is good and intellect is bad. Intellect thinks in the context of space, and is only capable of understanding the world as discrete and static objects. As shown earlier, this is not how the world really is – things are in constant movement, upwards in the case of life and downwards in the case of matter. The mind artificially creates discrete objects to try and make sense of the world. The exceptions are the realms of logic and geometry, but otherwise a reliance on reasoning is likely to lead to misunderstandings. Instinct, on the other hand, thinks in the context of time, which is the essential characteristic of an ever changing world. What we would commonly conceive of time, as the sequence of multiple events, is really just a type of space. Real time is referred to by Bergson as duration. Russell admits to not fully understanding what Bergson means by duration, but I have done my best to provide an explanation. Duration is the form that our conscience takes when we stop artificially separating our present state from our past states, and combine them into a single organic whole. When we think in terms of duration we can experience reality as it really is – as perpetual change, where nothing is static.

We best experience this through memory, where the past can survive in the present. The ability to recite something by heart, e.g. a poem, is not really memory. Memory is the ability to recall past events, such as a past occasion of reading said poem. Memory is evidence of the soul, and is entirely independent of matter. Opposite to memory is perception. Empirical idealists, such as Berkeley, said that mind played an important role in perception – we cannot objectively perceive the world around us, so the mind generates our own subjective vision as to what the world is like. Bergson on the other hand, takes an ‘ultra-realist view’ in almost entirely dismissing the role of mind from the process of perception. When we perceive something, we step outside of our minds and experience an object first hand. We would perceive everything around us, were it not for the brain, which determines what we perceive and what we don’t. In this sense, the brain limits our life (mentally at least) to what is practically useful.

Bergson generally does not give reasons for his opinions, but according to Russell, he is helped by an attractive literary style. Russell declares that he can find no reason for accepting Bergson’s view of the universe. Bergson’s anti-intellectual philosophy, we are told, ‘thrives upon the errors and confusion of the intellect’. Every past intellectual error of humankind, and every problem not solved by rational argument, is used as evidence for the bankruptcy of intellect and the primacy of intuition. In mathematics for example, Russell claims that Bergson deliberately focuses on traditional errors and ignores more modern advances in understanding. Russell is also unimpressed by Bergson’s conception of time. Bergson appears to have believed that the past does not exist, because existence is defined by action, and action only exists in the present. When we recollect things they exist in the present, according to Bergson. He rejects the conception of time as separate events and for that reason rejects the idea of considering past and present as separate things. Life is continuous change, and whatever is not around us exists in the present through recollections that we have in the present. However, if action only exists in the present, where did our recollections come from? Why consider the present moment as being more special than what has come before?  

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