The stir caused in the civilized world by the writings of Bergson, particularly during the past decade, is evidenced by the volume of the stream of exposition and comment which has flowed and is still flowing. If the French were to be tempted to set up, after the German manner, a Bergson-Archive they would be in no embarrassment for material, as the Appendix to this book–limited though it wisely is–will show. Mr. Gunn, undaunted by all this, makes a further, useful contribution in his unassuming but workmanlike and well-documented account of the ideas of the distinguished French thinker. It is designed to serve as an introduction to Bergson’s philosophy for those who are making their first approach to it, and as such it can be commended.
The eager interest which has been manifested in the writings of M. Bergson is one more indication, added to the many which history provides, of the inextinguishable vitality of Philosophy. When the man with some important thought which bears upon its problems is forthcoming, the world is ready, indeed is anxious, to listen. Perhaps there is no period in recorded time in which the thinker, with something relevant to say on the fundamental questions, has had so large and so prepared an audience as in our own day. The zest and expectancy with which men welcome and listen to him is almost touching; it has its dangerous as well as its admirable aspects. The fine enthusiasm for the physical and biological sciences, which is so noble an attribute of the modern mind, has far from exhausted itself, but the almost boundless hope which for a time accompanied it has notably abated. The study of the immediate problems centring round the concepts of matter, life, and energy goes on with undiminished, nay, with intensified, zeal, but in a more judicious perspective. It begins to be noticed that, far from leading us to solutions which will bring us to the core of reality and furnish us with a synthesis which can be taken as the key to experience, it is carrying the scientific enquirer into places in which he feels the pressing need of Philosophy rather than the old confidence that he is on the verge of abolishing it as a superfluity. The former hearty and self-assured empiricism of science is giving way before the outcome of its own logic and a new and more promising spirit of reflection on its own “categories” is abroad. Things are turning out to be very far from what they seemed. The physicists have come to a point where, it may be to their astonishment, they often find themselves talking in a way which is suspiciously like that of the subjective idealist. They have made the useful discovery that if you sink your shaft deep enough in your search for reality you come upon Mind. Here they are in a somewhat unfamiliar region, in which they may possibly find that other instruments and other methods than those to which they have been accustomed are required. At any rate, they and the large public which hangs upon their words show a growing inclination to be respectful to the philosopher and an anxiety (sometimes an uncritical anxiety) to hear what he has to say.
No one needs to be reminded of the ferment which is moving in the world of social affairs, of the obscure but powerful tendencies which are forcing society out of its grooves and leaving it, aspiring but dubious, in new and uncharted regions. This may affect different minds in different ways. Some regret it, others rejoice in it; but all are aware of it. Time-honoured political and economic formulae are become “old clothes” for an awakened and ardent generation, and before the new garments are quite ready; the blessed word “reconstruction” is often mentioned. Men are not satisfied that society has really developed so successfully as it might have done; many believe that it finds itself in a cul-de-sac. But what is to be done? The experienced can see that many of the offered reforms are but the repetition of old mistakes which will involve us in the unhappy cycle of disillusion and failure. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, if men everywhere are seeking for a sign, a glimpse of a scheme of life, a view of reality, a hint of human destiny and the true outcome of human effort, to be an inspiration and a guide to them in their pathetic struggle out of the morass in which they, too obviously, are plunged. If Philosophy has anything to say which is to the point, then let Philosophy by all means say it. They are ready to attend. They may indeed expect too much from it, as those who best grasp the measure of Philosophy’s task would be the first to urge.
This is the opportunity of the charlatan. Puzzled and half-desperate, we strongly feel the influence of the need to believe, are prone to listen to any gospel. The greater its air of finality and assurance the stronger is its appeal. But it is the opportunity also of the serious and competent thinker, and it is fortunate for the world that one of M. Bergson’s quality is forthcoming. He is too wise a man, he knows the history of human thought too well, he realizes too clearly the extent of the problem to pretend that his is the last word or that he has in his pocket the final solution of the puzzle of the universe and the one and only panacea for human distresses. But he has one of the most subtle and penetrating intellects acting in and upon the world at this moment, and is more worthy of attention than all the charlatans. That he has obtained for himself so great an audience is one of the most striking and hopeful signs of the present time.
It is the more impressive inasmuch as Bergson cannot be said to be an easy author. The originality and sweep of his conceptions, the fine and delicate psychological analysis in which he is so adept and which is necessary for the development of his ideas–e.g., in his exposition of duree–make exacting demands upon those readers who wish to closely follow his thought. An interesting fact is that this is realized most of all by those who come to Bergson with a long process of philosophical discipline behind them. It is not surprising when we remember what he is trying to do, namely, to induce philosophical thought to run in new channels. The general reader has here an advantage over the other, inasmuch as he has less to unlearn. In the old words, unless we become as little children we cannot enter into this kingdom; though it is true that we do not remain as little children once entry is made. This is a serious difficulty for the hard-bitten philosopher who at considerable pains has formed conceptions, acquired a technique, and taken an orientation towards life and the universe which he cannot dismiss in a moment. It says much for the charitable spirit of Bergson’s fellow-philosophers that they have given so friendly and hospitable a reception to his disturbing ideas, and so essentially humane a man as he must have been touched by this. The Bahnbrecher has his troubles, no doubt, but so also have those upon whose minds he is endeavouring to operate. Reinhold, one of Kant’s earliest disciples, ruefully stated, according to Schopenhauer’s story, that it was only after having gone through the Critique of Pure Reason five times with the closest and most scrupulous attention that he was able to get a grasp of Kant’s real meaning. Now, after the lapse of a century and a half, Kant to many is child’s play compared with Bergson, who differs more fundamentally from Kant than the Scoto-German thinker did from Leibniz and Hume. But this need not alarm the general reader who, innocent of any very articulate philosophical preconceptions, may indeed find in the very “novelty” of Bergson’s teaching a powerful attraction, inasmuch as it gives effective expression to thoughts and tendencies moving dimly and half-formed in the consciousness of our own epoch, felt rather than thought. In this sense Bergson may be said to have produced a “philosophy for the times.” In one respect Bergson has a marked advantage over Kant, and indeed over most other philosophers, namely, in his recognized masterly control over the instrument of language. There is a minimum of jargon, nothing turgid or crabbed. He reminds us most, in the skill and charm of his expression, of Plato and Berkeley among the philosophers. He does not work with so fine and biting a point as his distinguished countryman and fellow-philosopher, Anatole France, but he has, nevertheless, a burin at command of remarkable quality. He is a master of the succinct and memorable phrase in which an idea is etched out for us in a few strokes. Already, in his lifetime, a number of terms stamped with the impress of Bergson’s thought have passed into international currency. In this connexion, has it been remarked that while an Englishman gave to the French the term “struggle for life,” a Frenchman has given to us the term elan vital? It is worthy of passing notice and gives rise to reflections on the respective national temperaments, fanciful perhaps, but interesting. It is not, however, under the figure of the etcher’s art or of the process of the mint that we can fully represent Bergson’s resources of style. These suggest staccato effects, hard outlines, and that does not at all represent the prose of this writer. It is a fine, delicately interwoven, tissue-like fabric, pliant and supple. If one were in the secret of M. Bergson’s private thoughts, it might be discovered that he does not admire his style so much as others do, for his whole manner of thought must, one suspects, have led him often to attempt to express the inexpressible. The ocean of life, that fluide bienfaisant in which we are immersed, has no doubt often proved too fluid even for him. “Only the understanding has a language,” he almost ruefully declares in L’Evolution creatrice; and the understanding is, for him, compared with intuition peu de chose. Yet we can say that in what he has achieved his success is remarkable. The web of language which he weaves seems to fit and follow the movements of his thought as the skin ripples over the moving muscles of the thoroughbred. And this is not an accidental or trivial fact. M. Bergson may possibly agree with Seneca that “too much attention to style does not become a philosopher,” but the quality of his thought and temperament does not allow him to express himself otherwise than lucidly. Take this, almost at random, as a characteristic example. It must be given, of course, in the original:
“L’intelligence humaine, telle que nous la representons, n’est point du tout celle que nous montrait Platon dans l’allegorie de la caverne. Elle n’a pas plus pour fonction de regarder passer des ombres vaines que de contempler, en se retournant derriere elle, l’astre eblouissant. Elle a autre chose a faire. Atteles comme des boeufs de labour, a une lourde tache, nous sentons le jeu de nos muscles et de nos articulations, le poids de la charrue et la resistance du sol: agir et se savoir agir, entrer en contact avec la realite et meme la vivre, mais dans la measure seulement ou elle interesse l’oeuvre qui s’accomplit et le sillon qui se creuse, voila la fonction de l’intelligence humaine.”
That is sufficiently clear; we may legitimately doubt whether it is an adequate account of the function of the human intelligence, but we cannot be in any doubt as to what the view is; and more than that, once we have become acquainted with it, we are not likely to forget it.
For the student as yet unpractised in philosophical reflection, Bergson’s skill and clarity of statement, his fertility in illustration, his frequent and picturesque use of analogy may be a pitfall. It all sounds so convincing and right, as Bergson puts it, that the critical faculty is put to sleep. There is peril in this, particularly here, where we have to deal with so bold and even revolutionary a doctrine. If we are able to retain our independence of judgment we are bound sooner or later, in spite of Bergson’s persuasiveness, to have our misgivings. After all, we may begin to reflect, he has been too successful, he has proved too much. In attempting to use, as he was bound to do, the intelligence to discredit the intelligence he has been attempting the impossible. He has only succeeded in demonstrating the authority, the magisterial power, of the intelligence. No step in Philosophy can be taken without it. What are Life, Consciousness, Evolution, even Movement, as these terms are employed by Bergson, but the symbolization of concepts which on his own showing are the peculiar products of the human understanding or intelligence? It seems, indeed, on reflection, the oddest thing that Philosophy should be employed in the service of an anti-intellectual, or as it would be truer to call it a supra-intellectual, attitude. Philosophy is a thinking view of things. It represents the most persistent effort of the human intelligence to satisfy its own needs, to attempt to solve the problems which it has created: in the familiar phrase, to heal the wounds which it has itself made. The intellect, therefore, telling itself that it is incompetent for this purpose, is a strange, and not truly impressive, spectacle.
We are not enabled to recover from the sense of impotency thus created by being referred to “intuition.” Bergson is not the first to try this way out. It would be misleading, no doubt, to identify him with the members of the Scottish School of a hundred years ago or with Jacobi; he reaches his conclusion in another way, and that conclusion is differently framed; nevertheless, in essence there is a similarity, and Hegel’s comments [Footnote: Smaller Logic, Wallace’s translation, c. v.] on Bergson’s forerunners will often be found to have point with reference to Bergson himself.
It is hardly conceivable that any careful observer of human experience would deny the presence and power of intuition in that experience. The fact is too patent. Many who would not give the place to intuition which is assigned to it by Bergson would be ready to say that there may be more in the thrilling and passionate intuitive moments than Philosophy, after an age-long and painful effort, has been able to express. All knowledge, indeed, may be said to be rooted in intuition. Many a thinker has been supported and inspired through weary years of inquiry and reflection by a mother-idea which has come to him, if not unsought yet uncompelled, in a flash of insight. But that is the beginning, not the end, of his task. It is but the raw material of knowledge, knowledge in potentia. To invert the order is to destroy Philosophy not to serve it, is, indeed, a mere counsel of desperation. An intuitive Philosophy so-called finds itself sooner or later, generally sooner, in a blind alley. Practically, it gives rise to all kinds of crude and wasteful effort. It is not an accident that Georges Sorel in his Reflexions sur la Violence takes his “philosophy” from Bergson or, at least, leans on him. There are intuitions and intuitions, as every wise man knows, as William James once ruefully admitted after his adventures with nitrous oxide, or as the eaters of hashish will confess. To follow all our intuitions would lead us into the wildest dervish dance of thought and action and leave us spent and disheartened at the end. “Agnosticism” would be too mild a term for the result. Our intuitions have to be tried and tested; there is a thorny and difficult path of criticism to be traversed before we can philosophically endorse them and find peace of mind. What Hoffding says is in a sense quite true: “When we pass into intuition we pass into a state without problems.” But that is, as Hoffding intends us to understand, not because all problems are thereby solved, but because they have not yet emerged. If we consent to remain at that point, we refuse to make the acquaintance of Philosophy; if we recognize the problems that are really latent there, we soon realize that the business of Philosophy is yet to be transacted.
The fact is that in this part of his doctrine–and it is an important part–the brilliant French writer, in his endeavours to make philosophizing more concrete and practical, makes it too abstract. Intuition is not a process over against and quite distinct from conceptual thought. Both are moments in the total process of man’s attempt to come to terms with the universe, and too great emphasis on either distorts and falsifies the situation in which we find ourselves on this planet. The insistence on intuition is doubtless due, at bottom, to Bergson’s admiration for the activity in the creative artist. The border-line between Art and Philosophy becomes almost an imaginary line with him. In the one case as in the other we have, according to him, to get inside the object by a sort of sympathy. True, there is this difference, he says, that aesthetic intuition achieves only the individual–which is doubtful–whereas the philosophic intuition is to be conceived as a “recherche orientee dans la meme sens que l’art, indeed, but qui prendrait pour objet la vie en general.” He fails to note, it may be observed, that the expression of the aesthetic intuition, that is to say, Art, is always fixed and static. This in view of other aspects of his doctrine is remarkable. But apart from this attempt to practically identify Art and Philosophy–a hopeless attempt–there is, of course, available as a means of explanation the well-known and not entirely deplorable tendency of the protestant and innovator to overstate his case, to bring out by strong emphasis the aspect with which he is chiefly concerned and which he thinks has been unduly neglected. This, as hinted, has its merits, and not only or chiefly for Philosophy, but also, and perhaps primarily, for the conduct of life. If he convinces men, should they need convincing, that they cannot be saved by the discursive reason alone, he will have done a good service to his generation, and to the philosophers among them who may (though they ought not to) be tempted to ignore the intuitive element in experience.
The same tendency to over-emphasis can be observed elsewhere. It is noticeable, for instance, in his discussions of Change, which are so marked and important a feature in his writings. His Philosophy has been called, with his approval apparently, the Philosophy of Change, though it might have been called, still more truly and suggestively, the Philosophy of Creation. It is this latter phase of it which has so enormously interested and stimulated the world. As to his treatment of Change, it reveals Bergson in one of his happiest moods. It is difficult to restrain one’s praise in speaking of the subtle and resourceful way in which he handles this tantalizing and elusive question. It is a stroke of genius. The student of Philosophy, of course, at once thinks of Heraclitus; but Bergson is not merely another Heraclitus any more than he is just an echo of Jacobi. He places Change in a new light, enables us to grasp its character with a success which, if he had no other claim to remembrance, would ensure for him an honourable place in the History of Philosophy. In the process he makes but a mouthful of Zeno and his eternal puzzles. But, as Mr. Gunn also points out,[Footnote: See p. 142.] Change cannot be the last word in our characterization of Reality. Pure Change is not only unthinkable–that perhaps Bergson would allow–but it is something which cannot be experienced. There must be points of reference–a starting point and an ending point at least. Pure Change, as is the way with “pure” anything, turns into its contradictory. Paradoxical though it may seem, it ends as static. It becomes the One and Indivisible. This, at least, was recognized by Heraclitus and is expressed by him in his figure of the Great Year.
It is not my purpose, however, to usurp the function of the author of this useful handbook to Bergson. The extent of my introductory remarks is an almost involuntary tribute to the material and provocative nature of Bergson’s discussions, just as the frequent use by the author of this book of the actual words of Bergson are a tribute to the excellence and essential rightness of his style. The Frenchman, himself a free and candid spirit, would be the last to require unquestioning docility in others. He knows that thereby is the philosophic breath choked out of us. If we read him in the spirit in which he would wish to be read, we shall find, however much we may diverge from him on particular issues, that our labour has been far from wasted. He undoubtedly calls for considerable effort from the student who takes him, as he ought to be taken, seriously; but it is effort well worth while. He, perhaps, shines even more as a psychologist than as a philosopher–at least in the time-honoured sense. He has an almost uncanny introspective insight and, as has been said, a power of rendering its result in language which creates in the reader a sense of excitement and adventure not to be excelled by the ablest romancer. Fadaises, which are to be met with in philosophical works as elsewhere, are not to be frequently encountered in his writings. There is always the fresh breeze of original thought blowing here. He is by nature as well as by doctrine the sworn foe of conventionality. Though he may not give us all we would wish, in our haste to be all-wise, let us yet be grateful to him for this, that he has the purpose and also the power to shake us out of complacency, to compel us to recast our philosophical account. In this he is supremely serviceable to his generation, and is deserving of the gratitude of all who care for Philosophy. For, while Philosophy cannot die, it may be allowed to fall into a comatose condition; and this is the unpardonable sin.