Henri Bergson was the leading French philosopher of the present century. He influenced William James and Whitehead, and had a considerable effect upon French thought. Sorel, who was a vehement advocate of syndicalism and the author of a book called Reflections on Violence, used Bergsonian irrationalism to justify a revolutionary labour movement having no definite goal. In the end, however, Sorel abandoned syndicalism and became a royalist. The main effect of Bergson's philosophy was conservative, and it harmonized easily with the movement which culminated in Vichy. But Bergson's irrationalism made a wide appeal quite unconnected with politics, for instance to Bernard Shaw, whose Back to Methuselah is pure Bergsonism. Forgetting politics, it is in its purely philosophical aspect that we must consider it. I have dealt with it somewhat fully as it exemplifies admirably the revolt against reason which, beginning with Rousseau, has gradually dominated larger and larger areas in the life and thought of the world.
The 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.
But there is another way of classifying philosophies, less precise, but perhaps more helpful to the non-philosophical; in this way, the principle of division is according to the predominant desire which has led the philosopher to philosophize. Thus we shall have philosophies of feeling, inspired by the love of happiness; theoretical philosophies, inspired by the love of knowledge; and practical philosophies, inspired by the love of action.
Among philosophies of feeling we shall place all those which are primarily optimistic or pessimistic, all those that offer schemes of salvation or try to prove that salvation is impossible; to this class belong most religious philosophies. Among theoretical philosophies we shall place most of the great systems; for though the desire for knowledge is rare, it has been the source of most of what is best in philosophy. Practical philosophies, on the other hand, will be those which regard action as the supreme good, considering happiness an effect and knowledge a mere instrument of successful activity. Philosophies of this type would have been common among Western Europeans if philosophers had been average men; as it is, they have been rare until recent times; in fact their chief representatives are the pragmatists and Bergson. In the rise of this type of philosophy we may see, as Bergson himself does, the revolt of the modern man of action against the authority of Greece, and more particularly of Plato; or we may connect it, as Dr Schiller apparently would, with imperialism and the motor-car. The modern world calls for such a philosophy, and the success which it has achieved is therefore not surprising.
Bergson's philosophy, unlike most of the systems of the past, is dualistic: the world, for him, is divided into two disparate portions, on the one hand life, on the other matter, or rather that inert something which the intellect views as matter. The whole universe is the clash and conflict of two opposite motions: life, which climbs upward, and matter, which falls downward. Life is one great force, one vast vital impulse, given once for all from the beginning of the world, meeting the resistance of matter, struggling to break a way through matter, learning gradually to use matter by means of organization; divided by the obstacles it encounters into diverging currents, like the wind at a street-corner; partly subdued by matter through the very adaptations which matter forces upon it; yet retaining always its capacity for free activity, struggling always to find new outlets, seeking always for greater liberty of movement amid the opposing walls of matter.
Evolution is not primarily explicable by adaptation to environment; adaptation explains only the turns and twists of evolution, like the windings of a road approaching a town through hilly country. But this simile is not quite adequate; there is no town, no definite goal, at the end of the road along which evolution travels. Mechanism and teleology suffer from the same defect: both suppose that there is no essential novelty in the world. Mechanism regards the future as implicit in the past, and teleology, since it believes that the end to be achieved can be known in advance, denies that any essential novelty is contained in the result.
As against both these views, though with more sympathy for teleology than for mechanism, Bergson maintains that evolution is truly creative, like the work of an artist. An impulse to action, an undefined want, exists beforehand, but until the want is satisfied it is impossible to know the nature of what will satisfy it. For example, we may suppose some vague desire in sightless animals to be able to be aware of objects before they were in contact with them. This led to efforts which finally resulted in the creation of eyes. Sight satisfied the desire, but could not have been imagined beforehand. For this reason, evolution is unpredictable, and determinism cannot refute the advocates of free will.
This broad outline is filled in by an account of the actual development of life on the earth. The first division of the current was into plants and animals; plants aimed at storing up energy in a reservoir, animals aimed at using energy for sudden and rapid movements. But among animals, at a later stage, a new bifurcation appeared: instinct and intellect became more or less separated. They are never wholly without each other, but in the main intellect is the misfortune of man, while instinct is seen at its best in ants, bees, and Bergson. The division between intellect and instinct is fundamental in his philosophy, much of which is a kind of Sandford and Merton, with instinct as the good boy and intellect as the bad boy.
Instinct at its best is called intuition. 'By intuition,' he says, 'I mean instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely.' The account of the doings of intellect is not always easy to follow, but if we are to understand Bergson we must do our best.
Intelligence or intellect, 'as it leaves the hands of nature, has for its chief object the inorganic solid'; it can only form a clear idea of the discontinuous and immobile; its concepts are outside each other like objects in space, and have the same stability. The intellect separates in space and fixes in time; it is not made to think evolution, but to represent becoming as a series of states. 'The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to understand life'; geometry and logic, which are its typical products, are strictly applicable to solid bodies, but elsewhere reasoning must be checked by common sense, which, as Bergson truly says, is a very different thing. Solid bodies, it would seem, are something which mind has created on purpose to apply intellect to them, much as it has created chess-boards in order to play chess on them. The genesis of intellect and the genesis of material bodies, we are told, are correlative; both have been developed by reciprocal adaptation. 'An identical process must have cut out matter and the intellect, at the same time, from a stuff that contained both.'
This conception of the simultaneous growth of matter and intellect is ingenious, and deserves to be understood. Broadly, I think, what is meant is this: Intellect is the power of seeing things as separate one from another, and matter is that which is separated into distinct things. In reality there are no separate solid things, only an endless stream of becoming, in which nothing becomes and there is nothing that this nothing becomes. But becoming may be a movement up or a movement down: when it is a movement up it is called life, when it is a movement down it is what, as misapprehended by the intellect, is called matter. I suppose the universe is shaped like a cone, with the Absolute at the vertex, for the movement up brings things together, while the movement down separates them, or at least seems to do so. In order that the upward motion of mind may be able to thread its way through the downward motion of the falling bodies which hail upon it, it must be able to cut out paths between them; thus as intelligence was formed, outlines and paths appeared, and the primitive flux was cut up into separate bodies. The intellect may be compared to a carver, but it has the peculiarity of imagining that the chicken always was the separate pieces into which the carving-knife divides it.
As intellect is connected with space, so instinct or intuition is connected with time. It is one of the noteworthy features of Bergson's philosophy that, unlike most writers, he regards time and space as profoundly dissimilar. Space, the characteristic of matter, arises from a dissection of the flux which is really illusory, useful, up to a certain point, in practice, but utterly misleading in theory. Time, on the contrary, is the essential characteristic of life or mind. 'Wherever anything lives,' he says, 'there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed.' But the time here spoken of is not mathematical time, the homogeneous assemblage of mutually external instants. Mathematical time, according to Bergson, is really a form of space; the time which is of the essence of life is what he calls duration. This conception of duration is fundamental in his philosophy; it appears already in his earliest book Time and Free Will, and it is necessary to understand it if we are to have any comprehension of his system. It is, however, a very difficult conception. I do not fully understand it myself, and therefore I cannot hope to explain it with all the lucidity which it doubtless deserves.
'Pure duration,' we are told, 'is the form which our conscious states assume when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states'. It forms the past and the present into one organic whole, where there is mutual penetration, succession without distinction. 'Within our ego, there is succession without mutual externality; outside the ego, in pure space, there is mutual externality without succession.'
'Questions relating to subject and object, to their distinction and their union, should be put in terms of time rather than of space.' In the duration in which we see ourselves acting, there are dissociated elements; but in the duration in which we act, our states melt into each other. Pure duration is what is most removed from externality and least penetrated with externality, a duration in which the past is big with a present absolutely new. But then our will is strained to the utmost; we have to gather up the past which is slipping away, and thrust it whole and undivided into the present. At such moments we truly possess ourselves, but such moments are rare. Duration is the very stuff of reality, which is perpetual becoming, never something made.
It is above all in memory that duration exhibits itself, for in memory the past survives in the present. Thus the theory of memory becomes of great importance in Bergson's philosophy. Matter and Memory is concerned to show the relation of mind and matter, of which both are affirmed to be real, by an analysis of memory, which is 'just the intersection of mind and matter'.
There are, he says, two radically different things, both of which are commonly called memory; the distinction between these two is much emphasized by Bergson. 'The past survives,' he says, 'under two distinct forms: first, in motor mechanisms; secondly, in independent recollections.' For example, a man is said to remember a poem if he can repeat it by heart, that is to say, if he has acquired a certain habit or mechanism enabling him to repeat a former action. But he might, at least theoretically, be able to repeat the poem without any recollection of the previous occasions on which he has read it; thus there is no consciousness of past events involved in this sort of memory. The second sort, which alone really deserves to be called memory, is exhibited in recollections of separate occasions when he has read the poem, each unique and with a date. Here, he thinks, there can be no question of habit, since each event only occurred once, and had to make its impression immediately. It is suggested that in some way everything that has happened to us is remembered, but as a rule only what is useful comes into consciousness. Apparent failures of memory, it is argued, are not really failures of the mental part of memory, but of the motor mechanism for bringing memory into action. This view is supported by a discussion of brain physiology and the facts of amnesia, from which it is held to result that true memory is not a function of the brain. The past must be acted by matter, imagined by mind. Memory is not an emanation of matter; indeed the contrary would be nearer the truth if we mean matter as grasped in concrete perception, which always occupies a certain duration.
'Memory must be, in principle, a power absolutely independent of matter. If, then, spirit is a reality, it is here, in the phenomena of memory, that we may come into touch with it experimentally.'
At the opposite end from pure memory Bergson places pure perception, in regard to which he adopts an ultra-realist position. 'In pure perception,' he says, 'we are actually placed outside ourselves, we touch the reality of the object in an immediate intuition.' So completely does he identify perception with its object that he almost refuses to call it mental at all. 'Pure perception,' he says, 'which is the lowest degree of mind—mind without memory—is really part of matter, as we understand matter.' Pure perception is constituted by dawning action, its actuality lies in its activity. It is in this way that the brain becomes relevant to perception, for the brain is not an instrument of action. The function of the brain is to limit our mental life to what is practically useful. But for the brain, one gathers, everything would be perceived, but in fact we only perceive what interests us. 'The body, always turned towards action, has for its essential function to limit, with a view to action, the life of the spirit.' It is, in fact, an instrument of choice.
In the above outline, I have in the main endeavoured merely to state Bergson's views, without giving the reasons adduced by him in favour of their truth. This is easier than it would be with most philosophers, since as a rule he does not give reasons for his opinions, but relies on their inherent attractiveness, and on the charm of an excellent style. Like advertisers, he relies upon picturesque and varied statement, and on apparent explanation of many obscure facts. Analogies and similes, especially, form a very large part of the whole process by which he recommends his views to the reader. The number of similes for life to be found in his works exceeds the number in any poet known to me. Life, he says, is like a shell bursting into fragments which are again shells. It is like a sheaf. Initially, it was 'a tendency to accumulate in a reservoir, as do especially the green parts of vegetables'. But the reservoir is to be filled with boiling water from which steam is issuing; 'jets must be gushing out unceasingly, of which each, falling back, is a world'. Again 'life appears in its entirety as an immense wave which, starting from a centre, spreads outwards, and which on almost the whole of its circumference is stopped and converted into oscillation: at one single point the obstacle has been forced, the impulsion has passed freely'. Then there is the great climax in which life is compared to a cavalry charge. 'All organized beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion, the inverse of the movement of matter, and in itself indivisible. All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and to clear many obstacles, perhaps even death.'
But a cool critic, who feels himself a mere spectator, perhaps an unsympathetic spectator, of the charge in which man is mounted upon animality, may be inclined to think that calm and careful thought is hardly compatible with this form of exercise. When he is told that thought is a mere means of action, the mere impulse to avoid obstacles in the field, he may feel that such a view is becoming in a cavalry officer, but not in a philosopher, whose business, after all, is with thought: he may feel that in the passion and noise of violent motion there is no room for the fainter music of reason, no leisure for the disinterested contemplation in which greatness is sought, not by turbulence, but by the greatness of the universe which is mirrored. In that case, he may be tempted to ask whether there are any reasons for accepting such a restless view of the world. And if he asks this question, he will find, if I am not mistaken, that there is no reason whatever for accepting this view, either in the universe or in the writings of M. Bergson.
One of the bad effects of an anti-intellectual philosophy, such as that of Bergson, is that it thrives upon the errors and confusions of the intellect. Hence it is led to prefer bad thinking to good, to declare every momentary difficulty insoluble, and to regard every foolish mistake as revealing the bankruptcy of intellect and the triumph of intuition. There are in Bergson's works many allusions to mathematics and science, and to a careless reader these allusions may seem to strengthen his philosophy greatly. As regards science, especially biology and physiology, I am not competent to criticize his interpretations. But as regards mathematics, he has deliberately preferred traditional errors in interpretation to the more modern views which have prevailed among mathematicians for the last eighty years. In this matter, he has followed the example of most philosophers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the infinitesimal calculus, though well developed as a method, was supported, as regards its foundations, by many fallacies and much confused thinking. Hegel and his followers seized upon these fallacies and confusions, to support them in their attempt to prove all mathematics self-contradictory. Thence the Hegelian account of these matters passed into the current thought of philosophers, where it has remained long after the mathematicians have removed all the difficulties upon which the philosophers rely. And so long as the main object of philosophers is to show that nothing can be learned by patience and detailed thinking, but that we ought rather to worship the prejudices of the ignorant under the title of 'reason' if we are Hegelians, or of 'intuition' if we are Bergsonians, so long philosophers will take care to remain ignorant of what mathematicians have done to remove the errors by which Hegel profited.
Apart from the question of number, which we have already considered, the chief point at which Bergson touches mathematics is his rejection of what he calls the 'cinematographic' representation of the world. Mathematics conceives change, even continuous change, as constituted by a series of states; Bergson, on the contrary, contends that no series of states can represent what is continuous, and that in change a thing is never in any state at all. The view that change is constituted by a series of changing states he calls cinematographic; this view, he says, is natural to the intellect, but is radically vicious. True change can only be explained by true duration; it involves an interpenetration of past and present, not a mathematical succession of static states. This is what is called a 'dynamic' instead of a 'static' view of the world. The question is important, and in spite of its difficulty we cannot pass it by.
Bergson's theory of duration is bound up with his theory of memory. According to this theory, things remembered survive in memory, and thus interpenetrate present things: past and present are not mutually external, but are mingled in the unity of consciousness. Action, he says, is what constitutes being; but mathematical time is a mere passive receptacle, which does nothing and therefore is nothing. The past, he says, is that which acts no longer, and the present is that which is acting. But in this statement, as indeed throughout his account of duration, Bergson is unconsciously assuming the ordinary mathematical time; without this, his statements are unmeaning. What is meant by saying 'the past is essentially that which acts no longer' (his italics), except that the past is that of which the action is past? the words 'no longer' are words expressive of the past; to a person who did not have the ordinary notion of the past as something outside the present, these words would have no meaning. Thus his definition is circular. What he says is, in effect, 'the past is that of which the action is in the past'. As a definition, this cannot be regarded as a happy effort. And the same applies to the present. The present, we are told, is 'that which is acting' (his italics). But the word 'is' introduces just that idea of the present which was to be defined. The present is that which is acting as opposed to that which was acting or will be acting. That is to say, the present is that whose action is in the present, not in the past or in the future. Again the definition is circular. An earlier passage on the same page will illustrate the fallacy further. 'That which constitutes our pure perception,' he says, 'is our dawning action…. The actuality of our perception thus lies in its activity, in the movements which prolong it, and not in its greater intensity: the past is only idea, the present is ideo-motor.' This passage makes it quite clear that, when Bergson speaks of the past, he does not mean the past, but our present memory of the past. The past when it existed was just as active as the present is now; if Bergson's account were correct, the present moment ought to be the only one in the whole history of the world containing any activity. In earlier times there were other perceptions, just as active, just as actual in their day, as our present perceptions; the past, in its day, was by no means only idea, but was in its intrinsic character just what the present is now. This real past, however, Bergson simply forgets; what he speaks of is the present idea of the past. The real past does not mingle with the present, since it is not part of it; but that is a very different thing.
The whole of Bergson's theory of duration and time rests throughout on the elementary confusion between the present occurrence of a recollection and the past occurrence which is recollected. But for the fact that time is so familiar to us, the vicious circle involved in his attempt to deduce the past as what is no longer active would be obvious at once. As it is, what Bergson gives is an account of the difference between perception and recollection—both present facts—and what he believes himself to have given is an account of the difference between the present and the past. As soon as this confusion is realized, his theory of time is seen to be simply a theory which omits time altogether.
Of course a large part of Bergson's philosophy, probably the part to which most of its popularity is due, does not depend upon argument, and cannot be upset by argument. His imaginative picture of the world, regarded as a poetic effort, is in the main not capable of either proof or disproof. Shakespeare says life's but a walking shadow, Shelley says it is like a dome of many-coloured glass, Bergson says it is a shell which bursts into parts that are again shells. If you like Bergson's image better, it is just as legitimate.
The good which Bergson hopes to see realized in the world is action for the sake of action. All pure contemplation he calls 'dreaming', and condemns by a whole series of uncomplimentary epithets: static, Platonic, mathematical, logical, intellectual. Those who desire some prevision of the end which action is to achieve are told that an end foreseen would be nothing new, because desire, like memory, is identified with its object. Thus we are condemned, in action, to be the blind slaves of instinct: the life-force pushes us on from behind, restlessly and unceasingly. There is no room in this philosophy for the moment of contemplative insight when, rising above the animal life, we become conscious of the greater ends that redeem man from the life of the brutes. Those to whom activity without purpose seems a sufficient good will find in Bergson's books a pleasing picture of the universe. But those to whom action, if it is to be of any value, must be inspired by some vision, by some imaginative foreshadowing of a world less painful, less unjust, less full of strife than the world of our everyday life, those, in a word, whose action is built on contemplation, will find in this philosophy nothing of what they seek, and will not regret that there is no reason to think it true.