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Bergson on Science and Philosophy

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 29-43, Vol. 2, Number 1, Spring, 1972. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Bergson not only maintains an irreducible dualism of the ways of knowing but also the absolute character of both.

One of the most crucial issues underlying much of contemporary philosophy is the relation of philosophy and science. Phenomenologists and ordinary language philosophers come down hard on the side of there being a radical difference between these two modes of knowing while pragmatically inspired philosophers stress their continuity. The extremes of the spectrum axe probably marked by those who totally reserve the term “knowledge” for philosophical claims while relegating science to the realm of the conventional and the fictional, and those who run philosophy out of court while proclaiming that science is the measure of all things. Between these two extremes there are almost as many positions on this issue as there are philosophers who seriously reflect on it.

One of the most important gambits in this range is the Kantian and post-Kantian “appearance and reality” dichotomy. Herein, scientific claims are construed as merely phenomenal while those of speculative philosophy, if there are to be any, will be noumenal in nature. Inasmuch as Bergson sometimes talks this way, he is usually assimilated into this “appearance and reality” tradition. It is this assimilation against which I shall argue in this paper. Although Bergson does call scientific knowledge “relative” and philosophical knowledge “absolute,” it will be my contention that it is fundamentally wrong to interpret this distinction in the Kantian spirit. When such is done not only is Bergson’s historical position radically misrepresented, but a position philosophically different from the Kantian is suppressed from the range of possible alternatives.

The locus classicus for the Kantian interpretation of Bergson’s position is the introductory paragraph of his Introduction to Metaphysics:

If we compare the various ways of defining metaphysics and of conceiving the absolute, we shall find, despite apparent discrepancies, that philosophers agree in making a deep distinction between two ways of knowing a thing. The first implies going all around it, the second entering into it. The first depends on the viewpoint chosen and the symbols employed, while the second as taken from no viewpoint and rests on no symbol. Of the first kind of knowledge we shall say that it stops at the relative; of the second that, wherever possible, it attains the absolute. (CM 159)

Throughout the course of this paper I shall argue that the proper interpretation of “relative” as it is used in this text bears not on the subjective notion of an object’s relation to a knower but on the objective factor of the object’s own relations. In other words, it is not Bergson’s point that science is relative rather than objective, but that it has to do with relations rather than essences.

The paper as divided into four parts. In the first I shall examine Bergson s specific attempt to disassociate himself from the Kantian tradition. In parts two and three I shall examine his particular analyses of the scientific and the philosophical ways of knowing respectively and in the fourth part his reintegration of them in a somewhat unified picture. In the conclusion I shall briefly sketch what I think are the major difficulties with his whole program.

I. Bergson on Kant

Far from claiming to be Kantian, Bergson at least claims to be diametrically opposed to the necessary relegation of human knowledge (either scientific or philosophical) to the sphere of the merely phenomenal. He is specifically concerned to disassociate himself from that dimension of Kantianism whereby there is no possibility of knowing the real structures of existing things, but only objects constituted by their relations to us. This radical restriction of all knowledge, Bergson contends, follows from an essentially fallacious presentation of certain philosophical problems. In an effort to restore knowledge to the sphere of the absolute, he gives three distinct (though related) refutations of Kantian relativism.

The first of these concerns the questions of the antinomies. According to Bergson. the unchecked speculations of the human mind, an essentially practical instrument, inevitably lead to philosophical problems which are and will remain insoluble because they are presented backwards. Kant rightly saw the problems to be insoluble; but precisely because he did not appreciate the error in their presentation, he arrived at the conclusion that all knowledge was relative and that the absolute was impossible of attainment. The Kantian arguments for the rejection of any absolute knowledge can be seen to dissolve, however, once the true cause of the antinomies is uncovered. This being accomplished, Bergson feels, it will be possible to recover human knowledge from the depths of relativism. The key is to appreciate the fact that the antinomies are not necessary but of man’s making: “They did not come from the things themselves but from an automatic transfer to speculation of habits contracted in action, and what a careless attitude of the intellect had done, an effort on the part of the intellect could undo; this for the human mind would be a liberation” (CM 71).

Bergson, however, obviously feels that the relativistic attitude toward knowledge is not so easily dispelled as this selection from Creative Mind might lead one to believe. He realized that although one of its proximate origins may lie in the antinomies, its roots in the Kantian philosophy go much deeper than this. In Creative Evolution he gives a more thorough analysis of the historical factors leading to Kantian relativism and the misunderstandings they involve.

He feels that the relativism of knowledge was implicitly contained in a confusion in scientific theory from the time of Galileo: “The idea of a science and of an experience entirely relative to the human understanding was therefore implicitly contained in the conception of a science, one and integral composed of laws: Kant only brought it to light” (CE 251). There are two factors involved in this conception: science is supposed to be uniquely one, and made up entirely of laws. Granting this description it can be argued that since a law is a relation, and a relation is essentially a comparison, it has objective reality only for an intelligence that represents to itself several terms at the same time. Hence, an experience made of laws, that is, of terms related to other terms, is an experience made of comparisons, which before we receive it. has already had to pass through an atmosphere of intellectuality (CE 2 1).

Bergson argues, however, that there is operative here a fundamental confusion between the generality of laws and that of genera. Though intelligence may be necessary to condition terms by relation to each other, we may conceive that in certain cases the terms themselves may exist independently. This being granted, there is a possibility of absolute knowledge:

And if besides relations of term to term, experience also presents to us independent terms, the living genera being something quite different from systems of laws, one-half, at least, of our knowledge bears on the “thing-in-itself,” the very reality. This knowledge may be very difficult, just because it no longer builds up its own object and is obliged, on the contrary, to submit to it; but however little it cuts into its object, it is into the absolute itself that it bites. We may go further: the other half of knowledge is no longer so radically relative, as certain philosophers say, if we can establish that it bears upon a reality of inverse order, a reality which we always express in mathematical laws, that is to say in relations that imply comparisons, but which lends itself to this work only because it is weighted with spatiality and consequently with geometry. It is the confusion of two kinds of order that lies behind the relativism of the moderns. (CE 251f)

In this paragraph he argues for the absolute character of both philosophical and scientific knowledge. One-half of our knowledge, the philosophical, can bear upon the absolute because it is not concerned with laws but with real genera. Even the other half, the scientific, is not completely relative because there is one aspect of reality which is geometrical and is the foundation for our mathematical laws. There are two distinct orders in reality and their confusion lies behind modern relativism.

This question of order brings Bergson to the third source of Kantian relativism, again founded on a misunderstanding. He maintains that the whole object of the Critique of Pure Reason is to explain how a particular order is superimposed on supposedly incoherent materials. Kant’s solution is that the mind imposes its form on the sensible manifold with the consequence that the order we find in things is the order which we ourselves put in them. This explanation has two results, both of which involve a “degradation” of human knowledge. Science would be legitimate but relative to our faculty of knowing, and metaphysics would be impossible since there would be no knowledge outside of science. Both conclusions subject the human mind to an unwarranted limitation. Bergson’s radical objection to this whole series of moves is that it rests on a positive idea of absolute disorder, an idea which he claims to be nonexistent. “Absolute disorder” is a mere expression by which one designates an oscillation of the mind between two different orders, in which case it is absurd to suppose that disorder logically and chronologically precedes order. The merit of Kantianism, for Bergson, has been to develop this natural illusion In all its consequences and to present it in systematic form. But it does rest on the illusion, and “once we dispel the illusion we immediately restore to the human mind, through science and through metaphysics, a knowledge of the absolute” (CM 65).

The Kantian analysis, however, is not without its value. It has an important negative role, inasmuch as it shows the direction which philosophy and science must follow if they are to avoid relativity. Kant prepared the way for a new philosophy which might have established itself on the grounds of a higher effort of intuition. Consciousness, by two darts of opposite direction, might be able to grasp from within and no longer perceive merely from without the two forms of reality, matter and mind. This twofold effort could enable us as far as possible to grasp the absolute. Moreover, “in the course of this operation, we should see intellect spring up of itself, cut itself out of the whole of mind, and intellectual knowledge would then appear as it is, limited but not relative” (CE 389). Hence, the Kantian analysis has a double negative yield. First, it points out the direction any scientific knowledge bearing upon the absolute would have to take. More importantly, however, it indicates the kind of knowing power necessary to make absolute metaphysical knowledge a possibility. Bergson considers this latter negative influence the greatest service Kant rendered to speculative philosophy: “He definitely established that if metaphysics is possible, it can be so only through an effort of intuition” (CM 140).

Such is Bergson’s analysis of Kantian relativism. A complete relativism of either mode of knowing, scientific or philosophical, he considers not only to be an unwarranted restriction of the human mind but also to be contrary to our fundamental experience. We know reality, not perfectly, not exhaustively, but reality nonetheless. Whatever partial knowledge we do have in either mode does have absolute value, does touch some real aspect of the world; for in the absolute we live and move and have our being. The knowledge we possess of it is incomplete, no doubt, but neither external nor relative: “it is reality itself, in the profoundest meaning of the word, that we reach by the combined and progressive development of science and philosophy” (CE 218).

Bergson, then, explicitly claims to be profoundly un-Kantian However, it is one thing for him to say this and quite another to give a philosophical account of its possibility. In the next section of this paper each of the two modes of knowing will be treated positively in order to indicate their particular objective referents and the claim concerning their absolute value. While he does maintain that both science and philosophy bear upon absolute reality, Bergson would be the first to uphold the fact that they are radically different ways of knowing radically different aspects of reality. Science and philosophy differ, then, both in object and in method. The object and method of science are inert matter and intellectual analysis, while those of philosophy are real duration and intuition. The two different ways of knowing bear upon two different aspects of the absolute. This will be brought out more dearly as we examine in a more positive and specific manner, first science, and then philosophy.

II. Scientific Knowledge

Science is essentially a function of the human intellect. i.e. discursive reason, and the intellect is essentially an instrument of action. Bergson maintains that the defining function of our intellect, as the evolution of life has fashioned it, is to be a light for our conduct, to make ready for our action on things. Its role is to foresee in a given situation the events favorable or unfavorable, which may follow thereupon. Thus, it instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known, and in applying the principle that “like produces like,” tries to get some prevision of future states. This pragmatic nature of the intellect tells us something about the objects with which it deals. The essential function of intelligence is therefore to see the way out of a difficulty in any circumstances whatever, to find out what is most suitable, what answers best the questions asked. Hence, “it bears essentially on the relations between a given situation and the means of utilizing it. . . . Where activity is directed toward manufacture, there knowledge necessarily bears on relations” (CE 166). Intellectual knowledge, then, is essentially rational. It is that way of knowing a thing which proceeds “by going all around it,” by relating it to other known reference points, rather than by “entering into it” (CM 159). And scientific knowledge is a function of this intellect. Science carries this faculty to its highest possible degree of exactitude and precision, but it does not alter its essential character (CE 34). Science, then, will be a relational analysis of reality.

Since it is the function of the intellect, and accordingly science, to grasp relations, the obvious point to be examined is the nature of these relations. Here Bergson issues an initial caution. The shift from a consideration of science as essentially relational to a consideration of science as merely relative is easily made once we start considering the intellect as a speculative faculty. We would then be tempted to take the general categories of the understanding for something absolute and inexplicable whose function would be some sort of unification (CE 167). In this context knowledge would become relative. If the intellect proceeds as it does simply because of a drive for unification, then the whole of our knowledge would seem to be relative to certain requirements of the mind that might have been entirely different from what they are. Then the claim would be made — for an intellect differently shaped, knowledge would have been different. Thus, intellect being no longer dependent on anything, everything becomes dependent on it; and so, having placed the understanding too high, we end by putting too low the knowledge it gives us. On Bergson’s account, then, knowledge becomes relative as soon as the intellect is made a kind of absolute (CE 168).

This relativistic conclusion can be avoided, he maintains, if we retain a proper view of intellect, i.e., as a tool for action rather than of pure speculation. If the intellectual form of man has been gradually modeled on the reciprocal actions and reactions of certain bodies and their material environment, if it is a mechanism of adjustment, how could it not reveal to us something of the very structure of these bodies? If we refer to this active pragmatic role of the intellect in the world, a role which does issue in success inasmuch as it does enable us to handle the real, it seems to follow that the relations the intellect deals with are real aspects of the world. Bergson will admit that a mind born to speculate or to dream might deform or transform the real or perhaps even create it. But, “an intellect bent upon the act to be performed and the reaction to follow, feeling its object so as to get its mobile impression at every instant, is an intellect that touches something of the absolute” (CE xxi). There seems to be a sort of communion of intellect and reality evidenced by the fact of fruitful action. The objects of the intellect — these relations — must be aspects of reality because in dealing with them the intellect meets with success.

Even more so than in individual actions is this evidenced by the great success of science, which is but intellect in macrocosmic proportions. The operations by which science isolates and explains a system cannot be altogether artificial. If it had no objective foundation, we could not explain why it is dearly indicated in some cases and impossible in others (CE 13). These do seem to be the facts of experience — the experience of successful action. They indicate that although science is relational, it is not relative. Bergson realizes, however, that this is hardly an explanation, but rather a fact of experience that calls for an explanation. It remains for him to outline the ontological structures that make possible the absolute value of such relational analysis.

Having put aside relativism, Bergson is now faced with the task of providing some sort of ontological guarantee of the correspondence of the structures of the intellect and at least some aspect of reality. He finds this guarantee in the dynamics of evolution:

Neither does matter determine the form of the intellect, nor does the intellect impose its form on matter, nor have matter and intellect been regulated in regard to one another by we know not what pre-established harmony, but intellect and matter have progressively adapted themselves one to the other in order to attain at least a common form. This adaption, moreover, has been brought about quite naturally, because it is the same inversion of the same movement which creates at once the intellectuality of the mind and the materiality of things. (CE 226)

Hence, between the logical structures of mind and the structures of matter there exists a harmony, proceeding not from any imposition of divine authority, but from the working out of the evolutionary process itself. The correspondence of the intellect and material reality does not have to be mysterious; it is due to their simultaneous genesis.

Bergson never tires of insisting that man is not something outside the stream of evolution but is himself a product of it, with the result that theory of knowledge and theory of life are inseparable. The one analysis of evolution will illumine both. It is, then, with a certain confidence that he attempts the rather prodigious task of explaining the simultaneous engendering of intelligence and material bodies: ~we are now, then, to attempt the genesis of intellect at the same time as the genesis of material bodies — two enterprises that are evidently correlative if it be true that the main lines of our intellect mark out the general form of our action on matter, and that the detail of matter is ruled by the requirements of our action” (CE 2040. Thus, intellectuality and materiality have been constituted, in detail, by reciprocal adaption; both are derived from a wider and higher form of existence. Bergson imaginatively replaces them in this context in order to “explain” their genesis.

On the basis of empirical analyses Bergson maintains that in the cosmological order there are two main currents, the organic and the inorganic, and that in the gnoseological order there are also two clearly defined powers, instinct (intuition being instinct become conscious) and intelligence (CE 203). Each of these dualisms (organic-inorganic, instinct-intelligence) derived from a more fundamental source; in the first case, the primordial flux, and in the second case, consciousness (CE 204). Ultimately, as soon as we abandon the prejudice that man is exempted from the implications of evolution, the flux and consciousness become identified as the one fundamental source of all reality. From this primal force, then, the same process has cut out both matter and intellect simultaneously, thus accounting for their evident agreement and defining their particular characteristics.

At the origin and heart of reality, then, is a creative impulse, and materiality is but an interruption of this movement. Matter is not another positive force, but the result of the “retardation” and consequent “extension” of the original impetus (CE 262). He says:

The whole of reality is an undivided advance forward to successive creations. It seems to us, then, that the complexity of the material elements and the mathematical order that binds them together must arise automatically when within the whole a partial interruption or inversion is produced. Moreover, as the intellect itself is cut out of the mind by a process of the same kind, it is attuned to this order and complexity, and admires them because it recognizes itself in them. (CE 237)

Hence, the same movement by which the vital force materializes itself, i.e., breaks itself up into objects excluding one another, brings the mind to form itself into intellect, i.e., into distinct concepts excluding one another. And the more matter is spatialized, the more consciousness is intellectualized. Moreover, this distention of the creative impulse involves a natural mathematical ordering of the extension, to which there corresponds the natural geometrization of the mind. Herein lies the ground of the absolute value of scientific analysis. There is a mathematical order in reality, a real spatialization, corresponding to the mathematical relations our intellect sets up. There is a correspondence because both factors have been simultaneously generated by “distention,” and confirmed by interaction. It is this which is the ontological foundation of science’s success: “Its success would be inexplicable, if the movement which constitutes materiality were not the same movement which, prolonged by us to its end. that is to say, to homogeneous space, results in making us count, measure. follow in their respective variations terms that are functions one of another” (CE 239). The intellect naturally tends toward space and mathematics, intellectuality and materiality being of the same nature and having been produced in the same way. This retardation of the creative forte, then, has a spatializing or mathematical effect on part of reality, and consequently on part of the mind. The absolute value and the success of a science of mathematical form is understandable inasmuch as matter already possesses everything necessary to adapt itself to our formulae (CE 240).

But has Bergson really proved too much? If reality has an inherent mathematical structure, and mans intellect is naturally geometrical, should not science be a complete and exhaustive account of reality? In accounting for the absolute character of scientific knowledge, hasn’t be eliminated the need for any other kind of explanation? Nothing could be further from Bergson’s mind. Two very important factors in his thought militate against drawing such a conclusion: first, the degree of correspondence he admits between the intellect and materiality; and secondly, the fact that it is only materiality that the intellect has reference to.

In the first place, he maintains that there is a certain correspondence between the intellect and inert matter, but not a congruity. Material reality does not go quite as far in this direction of isolation and geometrization as the intellect would have it go. Matter has a tendency to constitute isolated systems that can be treated geometrically, but it is only a tendency. Matter does not go to the end, and the isolation is never complete. If science does go to the end and isolate completely, it is for the convenience of study (CE 13). Intellect is very much in tune with matter, and this is why Bergson will even say that the physics and metaphysics of inert matter are very near each other. They are very near but they are not identical. Science, aspiring to the mathematical form, over-accentuates the spatiality of matter; its formulae are too precise and constantly in need of remaking. It is not the case of there being a definite system of mathematical laws at the base of nature, but rather the fact that mathematics represents simply the side to which matter inclines (CE 240). There seems to be some surd element (surd as far as science is concerned) even in material reality that makes it fall short of the absolute isolation and geometrization of the intellect and of science. This surd, of course, is the residual influence of the ever-present creative force whose retardation is matter.

This brings me to the second, and most important, restriction of science mentioned above. Science bears on reality itself; it has absolute value, but only with reference to the domain of inert matter. With regard to the fundamental principle in reality, the original creative force, science can have at best a completely relative value. It can and does treat this area of movement and life, but it necessarily treats it as if it were inert. In this instance, “the knowledge we arrive at becomes altogether relative to our faculty of action; it is no more than a symbolic verity” (CE 214). Hence, the intellect, and accordingly science, can never attain any knowledge of the life force as it is in itself. It can never have any absolute knowledge of the positive, creative current in reality. This latter is strictly the sphere of intuition and philosophy.

III. Philosophical Knowledge

Bergson insists that philosophy is not just generalized science. There were and are those who would maintain that the effort of the philosopher should be to embrace in one great synthesis the results of the particular sciences. His task would be to take possession of existing science and bring it to increasing degrees of generality, and to proceed from condensation to condensation, to what has been called the unification of knowledge (CM 122). This conception of philosophy Bergson feels to be injurious both to science and to philosophy. In the first place, this view of philosophy, proposed in the name of science and out of respect for science, is really quite insulting to the latter:

Here, if you like, is a man who, over a long period of time, has followed a certain scientific method and laboriously gained his results, who says to us: “Experience, with the help of reasoning, leads to this point; scientific knowledge begins here and ends there; such are my conclusions”; and the philosopher would have the right to answer: “Very well, leave it to me, and I’ll show you what I can do with it! The knowledge you bring me unfinished, I shall complete. What you put before me in bits, I shall put together. With the same materials, since it is understood that I shall keep to the facts that you have observed, with the same kind of work, since I must restrict myself as you did to induction and deduction, I shall do more and better than you have done.” Truly a very strange pretension! (CM 122)

The philosopher is, in effect, saying that the scientist is sort of an under laborer who can’t see even the more general scientific implications of what he’s doing, and must wait for the philosopher to generalize his results. Bergson feels that this whole outlook depreciates science. The scientist is certainly able to forge ahead and generalize his results; he has no need for the philosopher in this properly scientific task.

Secondly such a conception is degrading to philosophy. It should be clear, Bergson argues, that the reason why the scientist stops at a certain point along the road of generalization and synthesis is because beyond that point objective evidence and sure reasoning do not permit us to advance. Hence, in claiming to go farther in the same direction, the philosopher automatically implies that he is making arbitrary generalizations that go beyond the scope of the evidence: “To make of philosophy an ensemble of generalities which goes beyond scientific generalization, is to insist that the philosopher be content with the plausible” (CM 123). But Bergson maintains that such is hardly the lot of philosophy. It is not to be relegated to the merely plausible over-extension of the evidence, for philosophy is not a synthesis of particular sciences but a unique way of knowing reality.

It will be recalled that Bergson has maintained that reality itself is not simple, but is made up of two opposing currents, one being Just the negation or condensation of the other. Moreover, it is only with regard to the negative current, the sphere of inert matter, that science has any absolute value. When extended and applied to the positive principle of reality, science has only relative value inasmuch as it cannot absolutely lay hold of the real, but must “run around it” with its various symbolic interpretations. This positive aspect of reality — duration, life, spirit, the creative impetus itself — which is outside the grasp of science, is the real objective of philosophy. Just as science is at home in the sphere of inert matter, so philosophy is at home in the sphere of life. Each inquiry pertains to a different aspect of reality.

Moreover, not only does philosophy have its own distinct object, but obviously will demand a distinct method consonant with it. For as we saw earlier, the intellect is attuned to inert matter; and in the face of any instance of the creative aspect of the real, it can but “run around it” without ever grasping its reality. The method of philosophy, then, must be something different from this intellectual analysis; it must be a way of knowing that enables us to sympathize with the real, to be transported into it and coincide with it, instead of going all around it with our conceptual frameworks (CM 161). This Bergson calls intuition. And he concludes: “to metaphysics, then, we assign a limited object, principally spirit, and a special method, mainly intuition” (CM 37).

But what guarantee have we that this type of knowledge, this intuition, is possible? Putting aside the question of an intuition of things external for a moment, Bergson assures us that we have one fundamental intuition which is both clear and certain — the intuition of our own internal duration. It is in terms of this primary instance, in fact, that intuition is defined: intuition is the direct vision of the mind by the mind — nothing intervening, no refraction through the prism; it signifies first of all consciousness, but immediate consciousness, a vision that is scarcely distinguishable from the object seen, a knowledge which is contact and even coincidence” (CM 32). This claim of assurance with regard to the possibility of intuition, however, seems to greatly restrict the scope of philosophy. In view of this fundamental meaning of intuition, philosophy should be and is primarily defined as a “science of the mind” (CM 79). But philosophy so defined seems to be locked within the confines of human subjectivity, and hence unable to shed any light on the structure of reality in general. There doesn’t seem to be any ground for the extension of this absolute knowledge of the positive current in reality beyond the sphere of our own internal duration.

But again Bergson reminds us of evolution. We are not isolated from this cosmic process but are an element in it, and our internal duration is but an instance of that creative current that is running through all reality. Hence, since our duration is in communion with the positive current in all reality, our intuition is not so circumscribed as originally thought:

So the intuition of our duration. . . . puts us in contact with a whole continuity of duration which we should try to follow either downwardly or upwardly: in both cases we can dilate ourselves indefinitely by a more and more vigorous effort, in both cases transcend ourselves. In the first case, we advance toward a duration more and more scattered, whose palpitations, more rapid than ours, dividing our simple sensation, dilute its quality into quantity: at the limit would be the homogeneous, the pure repetition by which we shall define materiality. In advancing in the other direction, we go towards a duration which stretches, tightens, and becomes more and more intensified: at the limit would be eternity. Between these two extremes moves intuition, and this movement is metaphysics itself. (CM 187f)

This is the ontological structure that makes possible the absolute value of philosophical knowledge. On this basis it is possible to make the inference: “Such is my inner life and such also is life in general” (CE 281). Through intuition we can come into contact with and enter into that aspect of reality that is beyond the scope of science, the creative impulse itself in all its manifestations.

While this framework does claim to render possible the absolute value of a philosophical knowledge of external reality, it might be objected that it goes too far. If we are able to attain this intuition of our own duration, and this puts us in immediate contact with the durational current that is running through all reality, why isn’t our philosophy complete? It would seem that such an intuitional philosophy would completely mirror the positive aspect of reality. But again Bergson has a ready answer. He concedes that if this intuitional state could be sustained, we could attain this complete and exhaustive philosophy: intuition, if it could be prolonged beyond a few instants, would not only make the philosopher agree with his own thought, but also all philosophers with each other. . . . The object of philosophy would be reached if this intuition could be sustained and generalized” (CE 260f).

Unfortunately, however, such a sustained intuition does not seem to be possible. Man is not the vital current itself, hut this current already loaded down with matter. All that seems within his power is the attainment of a few “fleeting intuitions, which light up their object only at distant intervals” (CE 292). The good part of his philosophy is still made up of dialectic, which has both advantages and disadvantages. It does enable intuition to break itself up into concepts and so be communicated to other men, but it also introduces a certain arbitrary note into philosophical knowledge. But such is man’s lot — his philosophy (to use Bergson’s image) is like a tornado that touches solid ground only at distant intervals. Its life blood is intuition, but it is an intuition which is infrequently achieved and almost impossible to sustain. Hence, we can not expect of philosophy an exhaustive knowledge of reality of even absolute certitude: “In the realm of experience, on the contrary, with incomplete solutions and provisional conclusions it will achieve an increasing probability which can ultimately become the equivalent of certitude” (CM 45f). Such, then, is the object, method and limit of philosophical knowledge.

IV. Interrelationship of Science and Philosophy

To the degree that we have treated these two modes of knowing, science and philosophy, in isolation from one another, we have been untrue to the Bergsonian spirit. Neither operates in a vacuum but in the context of the other. Having seen the characteristics of each, we must now indicate their interrelationships and interdependences in order to appreciate his integral view of human knowing.

In the first place, philosophy does have a certain dependence upon science. In addition to the liberating view Bergson takes of technology, which would be an extrinsic contribution, science does play a role intrinsic to the working out of philosophy itself. The philosopher does not work in a void; even a cursory glance at the history of philosophy would point out that the masters of modern philosophy have been men who had assimilated all the material of the sciences of their time. Moreover, Bergson insists that the partial eclipse of metaphysics since the last half century has been caused more than anything else by the extraordinary difficulty the philosopher experiences today in making contact with a science already much too scattered (CM 200). In this spirit Bergson insists that “Metaphysics can not get along without the other sciences” (CM 168).

Nowhere is this dependence closer than in areas such as psychology and biology. Even the direct contact of the self with the self, the primary instance of intuition must be preceded by a great number of psychological analyses. The point is made even more forcefully with regard to evolution. If Spencer had begun by putting to himself the question of the hereditability of acquired characteristics, his evolutionism would, no doubt, have taken an altogether different form (CE 87). In this regard Bergson counsels the philosopher: “Nowhere is it clearer that philosophers cannot today content themselves with vague generalities, but must follow the scientists in experimental detail and discuss the results with them” (CE 87). And this points up one area wherein the philosopher would do well to emulate the scientist. In sharp contrast to philosophical theories, the scientific explanation gives evidence of a great deal of control and precision on the part of the scientist. This precision in fitting the explanation to the evidence should be carried over into philosophy: “The only explanation we should accept as satisfactory is one which fits tightly to its object with no space between them, no crevice in which any other explanation might equally well be lodged; one which fits the object only and to which alone the object lends itself” (CM 11). Then philosophy could progress.

Even more so, however, is science impregnated with metaphysical intuition. While science does tend to mold reality in fixed and static frameworks, the history of this very science itself is a series of creative advances forward, and these are the workings of intuition. Bergson’s favorite example of this is the ; introduction of the calculus: “It is my belief, in fact, that the idea of differential, or rather, fluxion, was suggested to science by a vision of this kind; metaphysical in its origins, it became scientific as it grew more rigorous, that is, expressible in static terms” (CM 33). It was an instance of creative intuition that suggested this substitution of a mathematics of becoming for the mathematics of the ready-made. It is true, Bergson admits, that it has been able to realize its marvelous applications only through the invention of certain symbols, and that, if the intuition we have just mentioned is at the origin of the invention, it is the symbol alone that intervenes in the application (CM 190f). But this is the way intuition operates in science: it effects certain creative break-throughs but then is immediately covered over by the static or symbolic translation of them. It is present, but it is “stopped up.” Occasionally it breaks through, and then science takes another stride forward to its next stop.

Bergson concludes, then, that science and philosophy need an intuition. A truly intuitive philosophy would realize the union so greatly desired of mathematics and science:

At the same time that it constituted metaphysics in positive science — I mean progressive and indefinitely perfectible — it would lead the positive sciences, properly speaking, to become conscious of their true bearing, which is often very superior to what they suppose. It would put more of science into metaphysics and more of metaphysics into science. Its result would be to re-establish the continuity between the intuitions which the various positive sciences have obtained at intervals in the course of their history, and which they have obtained only by strokes of genius. (CM 192)

In such an interaction, all our knowledge, both scientific and metaphysical, would be heightened; and the extent of our absolute knowledge greatly increased. Both aspects of reality would be within our grasp by the combined and progressive development of science and philosophy. Both ways of knowing commune in experience, which, together, they explain.


We have seen that Bergson not only maintains an irreducible dualism of the ways of knowing but also the absolute character of both. Both science and philosophy proceed by different methods and bear upon different aspects of the real; through the combined efforts of both we can grasp to some degree the material and immaterial dimensions of reality. Thus, in Bergson we have a position with regard to the relation of philosophy and science which is somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum sketched at the beginning of this paper. There remains, of course, the philosophically important question of its viability.

It seems to me that the Bergsonian position is radically vulnerable to several interrelated criticisms that have their origin in the work of C. S. Peirce and which have become almost contemporary commonplaces. On the most general level the target would be his designation of intuition as the primary source of philosophical understanding. In a set of papers belatedly gaining recognition as philosophical classics, Peirce submitted the concept of intuition to a sustained critique. ((The papers referred to are “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man” and “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” in volume five of C. S. Peirce: Collected Papers, edited by C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, l931-35.))) His contention was threefold. First, even if we have intuitions we have no intuitive power of distinguishing an intuition from another cognition, thus nullifying their alleged role in grounding knowledge. Secondly, in fact we don’t have intuitions. And thirdly, neither scientific nor philosophical knowledge depends on our having them.

Toward establishing the first point Peirce puts forward a whole battery of arguments of differing texture. If we did have such a power of intuitively distinguishing our intuitions from other cognitions, surely there would be reasonable agreement among men as to which cognitions are intuitive; but, of course, history attests to the contrary. Moreover, the general psychological fact of perceptual supplementation renders it impossible in concrete to distinguish sharply between what we have seen and what we have inferred. From these and other considerations it seems to follow that even if we have intuitions, we have no power of intuitively distinguishing them from our other cognitions. On the second point Peirce argues in the Kantian spirit that all knowledge is interpretation, or, that there is no premise that is not itself a conclusion. In answer to the infinite regress objection that there must be a first, Peirce maintains that knowing is a process, processes are continuous, and continuous series do not have first members. To establish his third point Peirce invokes the pragmatic shift of concern from origins to consequences and argues that knowledge is justified not because it has an absolute foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy though not all at once.

Specifically, Peirce goes after the positing of an intuitive knowledge of the self. Here he attacks not only the strong claim of an intuition of the self but even the more mitigated claim of an introspective knowledge thereof. His argument is that the positing of such an intuition or introspection is unnecessary because all the facts of self-knowledge can be explained given only known faculties operating under conditions known to exist.

He argues that the knowledge of the self arises only in and by means of social interaction; specifically, as an hypothesis to account for ignorance and error. As the child becomes aware of ignorance it is necessary to suppose a self in which this ignorance can inhere, and the dawning of error can be explained only by supposing a self which is fallible. On this account self-knowledge is always in fact inferential, but the inferences have become so habitual to us that it has the appearance of an immediate intuition. He goes on further to argue against an introspective knowledge of the self. Introspection is actually a weaker claim than intuition since it involves not a total lack of mediation but simply a direct knowledge of the internal world not derived from external observation. But Peirce argues that since knowledge involves classification, and classification the possibility of significant identification and reidentification, and such identification is possible only with regard to publicly accessible objects, it follows that our classificatory predicates apply primarily to external objects and only in a derived or parasitic sense to internal objects. Our knowledge of ourselves is, then, not introspective but dependent on external observation

Now the obvious Bergsonian objection to this whole line of reasoning is that Peirce’s arguments are telling only against the claim to have an intuitive knowledge which is at the same time conceptual. But Bergson’s point, it will be argued, is that there is genuinely non-conceptual knowledge. i.e., knowledge by acquaintance. This objection, while in a sense appropriate, brings to the fore many of the difficulties Peirce is worried about. To the degree that Bergson comes down hard on the non-conceptual character of intuition, to that degree intuition seems to lack the determinateness needed to enable it to function epistemically in grounding or falsifying metaphysical claims or at least as revealing the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain metaphors. On the other hand, to the degree that the intuition is determinate enough to function metaphysically in this fashion, it would seem to have to be conceptual and thus subject to the above critique.

Moreover, these criticisms of Peirce are of more than simply historical interest — they have become the truisms of contemporary philosophy. In contemporary terms, Bergson’s general adherence to intuition would be seen as a paradigm case of “the myth of the given” and his specific intuition of the self as committing him to either pre-linguistic knowledge or the possibility of a private language. This, of course, is not to say that Bergson is wrong, but it is to say that this whole cluster of problems surrounding Bergson’s doctrine of intuition will have to be cleared up for his position to earn a contemporary hearing.


CE — Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Mitchell. New York: Modern Library, 1944.

CM — Henri Bergson, Creative Mind, trans. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946.

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