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Henri Bergson philosophy of matter, time & evolution

Dive into the philosophical works of Henri Bergson and explore his unique ideas on time, matter, creative evolution and Laughter. From his insights on evolution to human life as an art form, gain a better understanding of what drives Bergson’s theories and how they differ from traditional philosophy. 

HENRI BERGSON (1859-1941)

Introduction to Henri Bergson 

Henri Bergson was a French philosopher who lived from 1859 to 1941. His works spanned many topics, but his famous writings revolve around the concept of time and movement. He proposed that matter doesn’t exist as a static entity – it is, instead, a creative force that has potentiality and dynamic productivity. He argued that all life is progress, which lends itself to an ongoing evolution of thinking in the human species

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.

Bergsonian philosophy

Dig deep into French philosopher Henri Bergson's revolutionary writings and explore his mind-expanding ideas on time, matter, and existence. 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 motorcar. The modern world calls for such a philosophy, and the success which it has achieved is therefore not surprising. 

Henri Bergson's creative evolution theory explores more than just the concept of time – it can be applied to a wide range of things. From social change, to the development of new species, Bergson's concepts can help us think about complex questions in an entirely new way. For example, by understanding how living organisms evolved from inorganic matter over time.

Creative evolution by Henri Bergson

Bergson's central tenet of creative evolution states that time and matter inextricably influence each other to drive forward the process of change. In order to make sense of this, he elaborated on the concept of "duration"  a temporal experience defined by an individual's perception of reality. For Bergson, this allows us to recognize the fullness of time, as we experience it with our own subjective perspectives through our individual movements through the universe. 

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 the 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, 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.

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Bergson intuition

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 matter  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.

"The intellect," Bergson says, "always behaves as if it were fascinated by the contemplation of inert matter. It is life looking outward, putting itself outside itself, adopting the ways of unorganized nature in principle, in order to direct them in fact." If we may be allowed to add another image to the many by which Bergson's philosophy is illustrated, we may say that the universe is a vast funicular railway, in which life is the train that goes up, and matter is the train that goes down. 

The intellect consists in watching the descending train as it passes the ascending train in which we are. The obviously nobler faculty which concentrates its attention on our own train is instinct or intuition. It is possible to leap from one train to the other; this happens when we become the victims of automatic habit, and is the essence of the comic. Or we can divide ourselves into parts, one part going up and one down; then only the part going down is comic. But intellect is not itself a descending motion, it is merely an observation of the descending motion by the ascending motion.

Henri Bergson dreams

Intellect, which separates things, is, according to Bergson, a kind of dream; it is not active, as all our life ought to be, but purely contemplative. When we dream, he says, our self is scattered, our past is broken into fragments, things which really interpenetrate each other are seen as separate solid units: the extra-spatial degrades itself into spatiality, which is nothing but separateness. Thus all intellect, since it separates, tends to geometry; and logic, which deals with concepts that lie wholly outside each other, is really an outcome of geometry, following the direction of materiality.

 Both deduction and induction require spatial intuition behind them; "the movement at the end of which is spatiality lays down along its course the faculty of induction, as well as that of deduction, in fact, intellectuality entire." It creates them in mind, and also the order in things which the intellect finds there. Thus logic and mathematics do not represent a positive spiritual effort, but a mere somnambulism, in which the will is suspended, and the mind is no longer active. Incapacity for mathematics is therefore a sign of grace-fortunately a very common one.

We must now return to the subject of instinct or intuition, as opposed to intellect. It was necessary first to give some account of duration and memory, since Bergson's theories of duration and memory are presupposed in this account of intuition. In man, as he now exists, intuition is the fringe or penumbra of intellect: it has been thrust out of the centre by being less useful in action than intellect, but it has deeper uses which make it desirable to bring it back into greater prominence. 

Bergson wishes to make intellect "turn inwards on itself, and awaken the potentialities of intuition which still slumber within it." The relation between instinct and intellect is compared to that between sight and touch. Intellect, we are told, will not give knowledge of things at a distance; indeed the function of science is said to be to explain all perceptions in terms of touch. 

"Instinct alone," he says, "is knowledge at a distance. It has the same relation to intelligence that vision has to touch." We may observe in passing that, as appears in many passages, Bergson is a strong visualizer, whose thought is always conducted by means of visual images. 

The essential characteristic of intuition is that it does not divide the world into separate things, as the intellect does; although Bergson does not use these words, we might describe it as synthetic rather than analytic. It apprehends a multiplicity, but a multiplicity of interpenetrating processes, not of spatially external bodies. There are in truth no things: "things and states are only views, taken by our mind, of becoming. There are no things, there are only actions." This view of the world, which appears difficult and unnatural to intellect, is easy and natural to intuition.  

Bergsonian time

The concept of time is often misunderstood, but Bergson provides a clear framework for understanding it. His creative evolution theory demonstrates how the notion of time can be used to make sense of the changing world around us by considering the overlap between the past and present. 

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 in stants. 

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.

 Bergson duration

"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. 

 Bergson matter and memory

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, Bergson on memory says, two radically different things, both of which are commonly called memory; the distinction between these two is much emphasised 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."

Memory affords no instance of what is meant, for in memory the past lives on into the present and interpenetrates it. Apart from mind, the world would be perpetually dying and being born again; the past would have no reality, and therefore there would be no past. It is memory, with its correlative desire, that makes the past and the future real and therefore creates true duration and true time. Intuition alone can understand this mingling of past and future: to the intellect they remain external, spatially external as it were, to one another. Under the guidance of intuition, we perceive that "form is only a snapshot view of a transition," and the philosopher "will see the material world melt back into a single flux." 

The perception of time

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. 

Time and free will Henri Bergson

Closely connected with the merits of intuition are Bergson's doctrine of freedom and his praise of action. "In reality," he says, "a living being is a centre of action. It represents a certain sum of contingency entering into the world, that is to say, a certain quantity of possible action." The arguments against free will depend partly upon assuming that the intensity of psychical states is a quantity, capable, at least in theory, of numerical measurement; this view Bergson undertakes to refute in the first chapter of Time and Free Will. 

Partly the determinist depends, we are told, upon a confusion between true duration and mathematical time, which Bergson regards as really a form of space. Partly, again, the determinist rests his case upon the unwarranted assumption that, when the state of the brain is given, the state of the mind is theoretically determined. Bergson is willing to admit that the converse is true, that is to say, that the state of brain is determinate when the state of mind is given, but he regards the mind as more differentiated than the brain, and therefore holds that many different states of mind may correspond to one state of brain. He concludes that real freedom is possible: "We are free when our acts spring from our whole personality, when they express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it which one sometimes finds between the artist and his work."


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 best rides 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. 

bergson on laughter

Henri Bergson's Theory of Laughter is one of the most influential works on the study of humor. It focuses on why people laugh and the positive effects that laughing has, both mentally and physically. The book outlines Bergson's belief that human beings have an instinctive sense of the ridiculous which underlies all humorous experiences.

Introduction to Bergson’s Theory of Laughter. 

Henri Bergson's "Theory of Laughter" was published in 1900 and still serves as an influential work when discussing the topic of laughter. His proposal consists of three main points: that laughter is a physiological response to the unexpected; that it serves as a defense mechanism against threatening ideas or thoughts; and that it can be seen as a way for us to find joy in novelty.

Bergson's Definition of Laughter.

Bergson defined laughter as an uncontrollable and physiological response to the unexpected or incongruous occurring in a given context. He believed that this form of emotion arises from the clash between our expectations andreality, creating something new and remarkable. Furthermore, he argued that laughter serves both as a defense mechanism against ideas or thoughts that may be threatening to the individual, and as a way for us to find joy in novelty.

we laugh at things when we find them unexpected, unpredictable, and incongruous. He believed that laughter originates in the mind's surprise at being presented with an unexpected event or situation. When faced with something unexpected and incongruous, our minds search for a relationship between it and what we already know; when they fail to find one, we laugh due to the impossibility of finding meaning.

According to Bergson, there are three conditions that must be present in order for an experience to be considered humorous: it must be unexpected; it must happen spontaneously; and it has to involve a certain degree of intellectual effort. He also argued that laughter is an expression of humanity's instinctive reaction against rigidity and stagnation; it is a kind of self-correction.

Henri Bergson's Theory of Creative Evolution was an idea he introduced in his book Creative Evolution which suggests that the universe is always evolving and developing new ideas and things which break the expectations of what can emerge. He argued that laughter came from a moment of surprise where we encounter something unexpected and incongruous; it expresses our inability to find meaning in something, as well as our recognition of novelty. By laughing at something, we show appreciation for this creative emergence; it's only because the human mind can keep up with, and create meaning from, these uninterrupted changes that laughter can exist at all.


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