The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) opposed mechanism and determinism and vigorously asserted the importance of pure intuition, duration, and liberty. Bergsonian thought is often referred to as vitalism.
Henri Bergson was born on Oct. 18, 1859, in Paris to a Jewish family of Polish and Irish ancestry. A brilliant student of classics and mathematics, he began to study philosophy in 1878 at the École Normale Supérieure. Three years later he started his long teaching career in Angers. He later taught at Clermont-Ferrand but returned in 1889 to Paris, where he spent the remainder of his teaching career. In 1900 he became a professor at the Collège de France, where his lectures attracted enormous audiences.
During World War I Bergson represented France in diplomatic missions to Spain and the United States; he was later active in the League of Nations. In 1921 he retired because of ill health but continued to meditate and write. Bergson was elected to the French Academy, and he received the 1927 Nobel Prize in literature. At the time of his death, in 1941, he was strongly attracted to Roman Catholicism but felt that he must remain a Jew as a protest against the Nazi occupation of France.
Charles Darwin's epic work Origin of Species was published in 1859. Within the next 30 years the doctrine of evolution—supported by the positivist methodology of empirical observation and controlled hypotheses—gained widespread intellectual acceptance. Bergson's writings, however, may be seen as a series of essays on the limitations of positivism and its narrow concept of evolution.
In Time and Free Will (1889) Bergson suggests that the distinction of philosophy from science indicates that there may be different modes of knowledge. In order to discover if science is the only valid from of cognition, he examines the data of experience to see whether the mind reads from nature or into nature. Bergson concludes that the immediate data of perception give man's mind an object extended in space; but equally important considerations—the object's duration and intensity—are given only by man's inner, temporal intuition. He criticizes determinism because it fails to consider the free variables of choice and deliberation.
In Matter and Memory (1896) Bergson continues this line of criticism by showing that the assumption of an exact one-to-one correspondence between mental image and physical stimulus completely fails to account for human consciousness. He points out that human "consciousness is a memory" that permits the body and mind to meet in action. Pure memory, as opposed to habitual or motor memory, selects one image from the large number of separate perceptions of an object. Elements of vitalism and pragmatism are evident in this work, especially in Bergson's view that sensation is not primarily a cognitive process but an action-oriented response of a living organism.
In Introduction to Metaphysics (1903) Bergson clearly distinguishes between science and philosophy. The scientific mind abstracts from reality by "Freezing the flux" of real duration into discontinues elements of juxtaposition and succession or space and time. This technique of reductive analysis is oriented toward the domination and control of nature. But metaphysics or philosophy attempts "to dispense with symbols" and to grasp the inner reality of things by intuition, a nonconceptual, empathetic seeing-into.
Bergson's best-known work, Creative Evolution (1907), argues that the traditional accounts of evolution ignore the fact of real, temporal duration. If evolution is reduced to mechanical laws, then time is merely another measure of place in which what is predictable or predetermined can occur. But Bergson holds that nature, like man, often exhibits unpredictable creative break-throughs. For example, the difference "of kind rather than degree" between sentient and conscious beings is a leap in the evolutionary scale. Man's capacities for thought, for symbolic communication in language, and for the invention of tools indicate "the unique, exceptional success which life has won at a given moment of its evolution."
In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932) Bergson states that, just as scientific abstractions tend to eliminate the élan vital, or creative impulse, of nature, so can morality and religion become the residual abstractions of once-vital impulses. He compares "closed societies," which reduce religion to blind adherence to dogma and ritual, to the "open morality and souls" of saints and heroes in whose works are found the creative moments of spirit that signal a radical transformation of humanity.
Further Reading on Henri Bergson
The majority of Bergson's writings are available in English translations. Secondary sources include Herbert W. Carr, Henri Bergson: The Philosophy of Change (1912; rev. ed. 1919); Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Bergson (1914); and Jacques Chevalier, Henri Bergson (1926; trans. 1928). A recent study, consisting of articles by several scholars on aspects of Bergson's life and work, is Thomas Hanna, ed., The Bergsonian Heritage (1962). See also lan W. Alexander, Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection (1957).