Bergson not systematic–His style–Difficult to classify–Empirical and spiritual–Value of his ideas on Change, the nature of Mind, of Freedom–Difficulties in his evolutionary theory–Ethical lack–Need for supplement-Emphasis on Will, Creativeness, Human Progress and Possibilities.
In concluding this study of Bergson’s philosophy, it remains to sum up and to review its general merits and deficiencies. We must remember, in fairness to Bergson, that he does not profess to offer us A SYSTEM of philosophy. In fact, if he were to do so, he would involve himself in a grave inconsistency, for his thought is not of the systematic type. He is opposed to the work of those individual thinkers who have offered “systems” to the world, rounded and professedly complete constructions, labelled, one might almost say, “the last word in Philosophy.” Bergson does not claim that his thought is final. His ideal, of which he speaks in his lectures on La Perception du Changement–that excellent summary of his thought–is a progressive philosophy to which each thinker shall contribute. If we feel disappointed that Bergson has not gone further or done more by attempting a solution of some of the fundamental problems of our human experience, upon which he has not touched, then we must recollect his own view of the philosophy he is seeking to expound. All thinking minds must contribute their quota. A philosophy such as he wishes to promote by establishing a method by his own works will not be made in a day. “Unlike the philosophical systems properly so called, each of which was the individual work of a man of genius, and sprang up as a whole to be taken or left, it will only be built up by the collective and progressive effort of many thinkers, of many observers also, completing, correcting, and improving one another.” [Footnote: Introduction to Creative Evolution, p. xiv. (Fr. p. vii).] Both science and the older kind of metaphysics have kept aloof from the vital problems of our lives. In one of his curious but brilliant metaphors Bergson likens Life to a river over which the scientists have constructed an elaborate bridge, while the laborious metaphysicians have toiled to build a tunnel underneath. Neither group of workers has attempted to plunge into the flowing tide itself. In the most brilliant of his short papers: L’Intuition philosophique, he makes an energetic appeal that philosophy should approach more closely to practical life. His thought aims at setting forth, not any system of knowledge, but rather a method of philosophizing; in a phrase, this method amounts to the assertion that Life is more than Logic, or, as Byron put it, “The tree of Knowledge is not the tree of Life.”
It is because Bergson has much to say that is novel and opposed to older conceptions that a certain lack of proportion occasionally mars his thought; for he–naturally enough–frequently lays little emphasis on important points which he considers are sufficiently familiar, in order to give prominent place and emphasis to some more novel point. Herein lies, it would now appear, the explanation of the seeming disharmony between Intuition and Intellect which was gravely distressing to many in his earlier writing on the subject. Later works, however, make a point of restoring this harmony, but, as William James has remarked: “We are so subject to the philosophical tradition which treats logos, or discursive thought generally, as the sole avenue to truth, that to fall back on raw, unverbalized life, as more of a revealer, and to think of concepts as the merely practical things which Bergson calls them, comes very hard. It is putting off our proud maturity of mind and becoming again as foolish little children in the eyes of reason. But, difficult as such a revolution is, there is no other way, I believe, to the possession of reality.” [Footnote: Lecture on Bergson and his anti-intellectualism, in A Pluralistic Universe. It may be remarked here that, although James hailed Bergson as an ally, Bergson cannot be classed as a pragmatist. His great assertion is that just because intellect is pragmatic it does not help us to get a vision of reality. Cf. the interesting work on William James and Henri Bergson, by W. H. Kallen.]
Bergson’s style of writing merits high praise. He is no “dry” philosopher; he is highly imaginative and picturesque; many of his passages might be styled, like those of Macaulay, “purple,” for at times he rises to a high pitch of feeling and oratory. Yet this has been urged against him by some critics. The ironic remark has been repeated, in regard to Bergson, which was originally made of William James, by Dr. Schiller, that his work was “so lacking in the familiar philosophic catch-words, that it may be doubted whether any professor has quite understood it.” There is in his works a beauty of style and a comparative absence of technical terms which have contributed much to his popularity. The criticism directed against his poetic style, accuses him of hypnotizing us by his fine language, of employing metaphors where we expect facts, and of substituting illustrations for proof. Sir Ray Lankester says: “He has exceeded the limits of fantastic speculation which it is customary to tolerate on the stage of metaphysics, and has carried his methods into the arena of sober science.” [Footnote: In the preface to Elliot’s volume, Modern Science and the Illusions of Bergson, p. xvii.] Another critic remarks that “as far as Creative Evolution is concerned, his writing is neither philosophy nor science.” [Footnote: McCabe: Principles of Evolution, p. 254.] Certainly his language is charming; it called forth from William James the remark that it resembled fine silk underwear, clinging to the shape of the body, so well did it fit his thought. But it does not seem a fair criticism to allege that he substitutes metaphor for proof, for we find, on examination of his numerous and striking metaphors, that they are employed in order to give relief from continuous abstract statements. He does not submit analogies as proof, but in illustration of his points. For example, when he likens the elan vital to a stream, he does not suggest that because the stream manifests certain characteristics, therefore the life force does so too. Certainly that would be a highly illegitimate proceeding. But he simply puts forward this to help us to grasp by our imaginative faculty what he is striving to make clear. Some critics are apt to forget the tense striving which must be involved in any highly philosophical mind dealing with deep problems, to achieve expression, to obtain a suitable vehicle for the thought–what wrestling of soul may be involved in attempting to make intuitions communicable. Metaphor is undoubtedly a help and those of Bergson are always striking and unconventional. Had Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, given more illustrations, many of his readers would have been more enlightened.
Bergson’s thought, although in many respects it is strikingly original and novel, is, nevertheless, the continuation, if not the culmination, of a movement in French philosophy which we can trace back through Boutroux, Guyau, Lachelier and Ravaisson to Maine de Biran, who died in 1824. Qui sait, wrote this last thinker, [Footnote: In his Pensees, p. 213.] tout ce que peut la reflection concentree et s’il n’y a pas un nouveau monde interieur qui pourra etre decouvert un jour par quelque Colomb metaphysicien.
Many of the ideas contained in Bergson’s work find parallels in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, as given in his work The World as Will and Idea (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung), particularly his Voluntarism and his Intuitionism. The German thinker regarded all great scientific discoveries as an immediate intuition, a flash of insight, not simply the result of a process of abstract reasoning. Schelling also maintained a doctrine of intuition as supra-rational.
Ravaisson, [Footnote: Ravaisson (1813-1900) wrote De l’habitude, 1832; La metaphysique d’Aristote, 1837; and his Rapport sur la philosophie en France au xix siecle, 1867. See Bergson’s Memoir, 1904.] to whom Bergson is indebted for much inspiration, attended the lectures of Schelling at Munich in 1835. This French thinker, Ravaisson, has had an important influence on the general development of thought in France during the latter half of the last century, and much of his work foreshadows Bergson’s thought. He upheld a spiritual activity, manifesting itself most clearly in love and art, while he allowed to matter, to mathematics and logic only an imperfect reality. He extolled synthetic views of reality rather than analytic ones. We are prevented, he said, from realizing our true selves because of our slavery to habit. To the ultimate reality, or God, we can attain because of our kinship with that reality, and by an effort of loving sympathy enter into union with it by an intuition which lies beyond and above the power of intellectual searching. As Maine de Biran foretold the coming of a metaphysical Columbus, so Ravaisson, in his famous Rapport sur la philosophic en France au xix siecle, published in 1867, prophesied as follows: “Many signs permit us to foresee in the near future a philosophical epoch of which the general character will be the predominance of what may be called spiritualistic realism or positivism, having as generating principle the consciousness which the mind has of itself of an existence recognized as being the source and support of every other existence, being none other than its action.”
Lachelier, a disciple of Ravaisson, brought out–as has been already remarked [Footnote: Page 3.]–the significance of the operations of vital forces and of liberty. Guyau, whose brief life ended in 1888 and whose posthumous work La Genese de I’Idee de Temps was reviewed by Bergson two years after the publication of his own Time and Free Will, laid great stress on the intensification and expansion of life. Boutroux, in his work, has insisted upon the fact of contingency.
These forecasts of Bergson’s thought made by men to whom he owes much and for whom he personally has the greatest admiration are interesting, but we are not yet able to look upon his work through the medium of historical perspective. We can however see it as the culmination of various tendencies in modern French philosophy; first, the effort to bring philosophy into the open air of human nature, into immediate contact with life and with problems vital to humanity; secondly, the upholding of contingency in all things, thus ensuring human freedom; thirdly, a disparagement of purely intellectual constructions as true interpretations of human life and all existence, coupled with an insistence on an insight that transcends logical formulation.
As a thinker, Bergson is very difficult to classify. “All classification of philosophies is effected, as a rule, either by their methods or by their results, ’empirical’ and ‘a priori’ is a classification by methods; ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ is a classification by results. An attempt to classify Bergson’s philosophy, in either of these ways, is hardly likely to be successful, since it cuts across all the recognized divisions.” [Footnote: Mr. Bertrand Russell’s remark at the opening of his Lecture on The Philosophy of Bergson, before The Heretics, Trinity College, Cambridge, March 11, 1912.] We find that Bergson cannot be put in any of the old classes or schools, or identified with any of the innumerable isms. He brings together, without being eclectic, action and reflection, free will and determinism, motion and rest, intellect and intuition, subjectivity and externality, idealism and realism, in a most unconventional way. His whole philosophy is destructive of a large amount of the “vested interests” of philosophy. “We are watching the rise of a new agnosticism,” remarked Dr. Bosanquet. A similar remark came from one of Bergson’s own countrymen, Alfred Fouillee, who, in his work Le Mouvement idealist et la reaction contre la science positive, expressed the opinion that Bergson’s philosophy could but issue in le scepticisme et le nihilisme (p. 206). Bergson runs counter to so many established views that his thought has raised very wide and animated discussions. The list of English and American articles in the Bibliography appended to the present work shows this at a glance. In his preface to the volume on Gabriel Tarde, his predecessor in the chair of Modern Philosophy at the College de France, written in 1909, we find Bergson remarking: On mesure la portee d’une doctrine philosophique a la variete des idees ou elle s’epanouit et a la symplicite du principe ou elle se ramasse. This remark may serve us as a criterion in surveying his own work. The preceding exposition of his thought is a sufficient indication of the wealth of ideas expressed. Bergson is most suggestive. Moreover, no philosopher has been so steeped in the knowledge of both Mind and Matter, no thinker has been at once so “empirical” and so “spiritual.” His thought ranges from subtle psychological analyses and minute biological facts to the work of artists and poets, all-embracing in its attempt to portray Life and make manifest to us the reality of Time and of Change. His insistence on Change is directed to showing that it is the supreme reality, and on Time to demonstrating that it is the stuff of which things are made. He is right in attacking the false conception of Time, and putting before us la duree as more real; right, too, in attacking the notion of empty eternity. But although Change and Development may be the fundamental feature of reality, Bergson does not convincingly show that it is literally THE Reality, nor do we think that this can be shown. He does not admit that there is any THING that changes or endures; he is the modern Heraclitus; all teaching which savours of the Parmenidean “one” he opposes. Yet it would seem that these two old conceptions may be capable of a reconciliation and that if all reality is change, there is a complementary principle that Change implies something permanent.
Then, again, we feel Bergson is right in exposing the errors which the “idea of the line,” the trespassing of space, causes; but he comes very near to denying, in his statements regarding duree pure, any knowledge of the past as past; he overlooks the decisive difference between the “no more” and the “not yet” feeling of the child’s consciousness, which is the germ of our clear knowledge of the past as past, and distinct from the future.
To take another of his “pure” distinctions, we cannot see any necessity for his formulation of what he terms “Pure Perception.” Not only does it obscure the relation of Sensation to Perception, but it seems to be quite unknown and unknowable and unnecessary as an hypothesis. As to his “Pure” Memory, there is more to be said. It stands on a different plane and seems to be the statement of a very profound truth which sheds light on many difficult problems attaching to personality and consciousness, for it is the conservation of memories which is the central point in individuality. His distinction between the habit of repeating and the “pure” memory is a very good and very necessary one. In his study of the relation of Soul and Body, we find some of his most meritorious work–his insistence on the uniqueness of Mind and the futility of attempts to reduce it to material terms. His treatment of this question is parallel to that of William James in the first part of his Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard in 1898, when he called attention to “permissive” or “transmissive” function of the brain. Bergson’s criticisms of Parallelism are very valuable.
No less so are his refutations of both physical and psychological Determinism. Men were growing impatient of a science claiming so much and yet admittedly unable to explain the really vital factors of existence, of which the free action of men is one of the most important. The value placed on human freedom, on the creative power of human beings to mould the future, links Bergson again with James, and it is this humanism which is the supremely valuable factor in the philosophies of both thinkers. This has been pointed out in the consideration of the ethical and political implications of Bergson’s Philosophy. Nevertheless, although his insistence on Freedom and Creative Evolution implies that we are to realize that by our choices and our free acts we may make or mar the issue, and that through us and by us that issue may be turned to good, the good of ourselves and of our fellows, there is an ethical lack in Bergson’s philosophy which is disappointing. Then, as has been remarked in the chapter on Religion, there is the lack of teleology in his conception of the Universe; his denial of ANY purpose hardly seems to be in harmony with his use of the phrase “the meaning of life.”
Much in Bergson would point to the need for the addition of a philosophy of Values. This, however, he does not give us. He shirks the deeper problems of the moral and spiritual life of man. He undervalues, indeed ignores, the influence of transcendent ideas or ideals on the life-history of mankind. The study of these might have led him to admit a teleology of some kind; for “in the thinking consciousness the order of growth is largely determined by choice; and choice is guided by valuation. We are, in general, only partially aware of the ends that we pursue. But we are more and more seeking to attain what is good, true and beautiful, and the order of human life becomes more and more guided by the consciousness of these ends.” [Footnote: Professor Mackenzie: Elements of Constructive Philosophy, p. 111.] Bergson, however, will not ultimately be able to evade the work of attempting some reconciliation of moral ideas and ideals with their crude and animal origins and environment, to which they are so opposed and to which they are actually offering a very strong opposition. That he himself has seen this is proved by the attention he is now giving to the problems of social Ethics.
There are four problems which confront every evolutionary theory. These concern the origin of: Matter, Life, Consciousness, and Conscience. Bergson finds it very difficult to account for the origin of Matter, and it is not clear from what he says why the original consciousness should have made Matter and then be obliged to fight against it in order to be free. Then, in speaking of the law of Thermodynamics, he says: “Any material system which should store energy by arresting its degradation to some lower level, and produce effects by its sudden liberation, would exhibit something in the nature of Life.” This, however, is not very precise, for this would hold true of thunder-clouds and of many machines. In regard to Instinct, it has been pointed out by several experts that Instinct is not so infallible as Bergson makes out. Of the mistakes of Instinct he says little. Dr. McDougall in his great work Body and Mind says, when speaking of Bergson’s doctrine of Evolution: “Its recognition of the continuity of all Life is the great merit of Professor Bergson’s theory of Creative Evolution; its failure to give any intelligible account of individuality is its greatest defect. I venture to think,” he continues, “that the most urgent problem confronting the philosophic biologist is the construction of a theory of life which will harmonize the facts of individuality with the appearance of the continuity of all life, with the theory of progressive evolution, and with the facts of heredity and biparental reproduction.” [Footnote: McDougall, Body and Mind, Footnote to p. 377.]
In the light of such criticism it is important to note that Bergson is now giving attention to the problem of personality which he made the subject of his Gifford Lectures. It is a highly important problem for humanity, and concentration on it seems the demand of the times upon those who feel the urgent need of reflection and who have the ability to philosophize. Can philosophy offer any adequate explanation of human personality, its place and purpose in the cosmos? Why should individual systems of energy, little worlds within the world, appear inside the unity of the whole, depending on their environment, physical and mental, for much, but yet capable of freedom and unforeseen actions, and of creative and progressive development? Further, why should ideals concentrate themselves as it were round such unique centres of indeterminateness as these are? On these problems of our origin and destiny, in short, on an investigation of human personality, thinkers must concentrate. Humanity will not be satisfied with systems which leave no room for the human soul. Human personality and its experience must have ample place and recognition in any philosophy put forward in these days.
Bergson’s work is a magnificent attempt to show us how, in the words of George Meredith: “Men have come out of brutishness.” His theory of evolution is separated from Naturalism by his insistence on human freedom and on the supra-consciousness which is the origin of things; on the other hand, he is separated from the Idealists by his insistence upon the reality of la duree. He contrasts profoundly with Absolute Idealism. While in Hegel, Mind is the only truth of Nature, in Bergson, Life is the only truth of Matter, or we may express it–whereas for Hegel the truth of Reality is its ideality, for Bergson the truth of Reality is its vitality.
The need for philosophical thought, as Bergson himself points out, [Footnote: See the closing remarks in his little work on French philosophy, La Philosophie.] is world-wide. Philosophy aims at bringing all discussion, even that of business affairs, on to the plane of ideas and principles. By looking at things from a truly “general” standpoint we are frequently helped to approach them in a really “generous” frame of mind, for there is an intimate connexion between the large mind and the large heart.
Bergson has rendered valuable service in calling attention to the need for man to examine carefully his own inner nature, and the deepest worth and significance of his own experiences. For the practical purposes of life, man is obliged to deal with objects in space, and to learn their relations to one another. But this does not exhaust the possibilities of his nature. He has himself the reality of his own self-consciousness, his own spiritual existence to consider. Consequently, he can never rest satisfied with any purely naturalistic interpretation of himself. The step of realizing the importance of mental constructions to interpret the impressions of the external world, and the applying them to practical needs, was a great advance. Much greater progress, however, is there in man’s realization of qualities within himself which transcend the ordinary dead level of experience, the recognition of the spiritual value of his own nature, of himself as a personality, capable even amid the fluctuations of the world about him, and the illusions of sense impressions, of obtaining a foretaste of eternity by a life that has the infinite and the eternal as its inheritance; “He hath set eternity in the heart of man.” Man craves other values in life than the purely scientific. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in the philosophies of the materialist or the naturalist. Bergson assures us that the future belongs to a philosophy which will take into account THE WHOLE of what is given. Transcending Body and Intellect is the life of the Spirit, with needs beyond either bodily satisfaction or intellectual needs craving its development, satisfaction and fuller realization. The man who seeks merely bodily satisfaction lives the life of the animal; even the man who poses as an intellectual finds himself entangled ultimately in relativity, missing the uniqueness of all things–his own life included. An intuitive philosophy introduces us to the spiritual life and makes us conscious, individually and collectively, of our capacities for development. Humanity may say: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be,” for man has yet “something to cast off and something to become.”