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Birth and education—Teaches at Clermont-Ferrand—Les données immediates de la conscience—Matiere et Mémoire—Chair of Greek Philosophy, then of Modern Philosophy, Collège de France—L'Évolution créatrice—Relations with William James—Visits England and America—Popularity—Neo- Catholics and Syndicalists—Election to Académie française—War-work—L'Énergie spirituelle.
Bergson's life has been the quiet and uneventful one of a French professor, the chief landmarks in it being the publication of his three principal works, first, in 1889, the Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, then Matière et Mémoire in 1896, and L'Évolution créatrice in 1907. On October 18th, 1859, Henri Louis Bergson was born in Paris in the Rue Lamartine, not far from the Opera House.1 He is descended from a prominent Jewish family of Poland, with a blend of Irish blood from his mother's side. His family lived in London for a few years after his birth, and he obtained an early familiarity with the English language from his mother. Before he was nine years old his parents crossed the Channel and settled in France, Henri becoming a naturalized citizen of the Republic.
[Footnote 1 : He was not born in England as Albert Steenbergen erroneously states in his work, Henri Bergsons Intuitive Philosophie, Jena, 1909, p. 2, nor in 1852, the date given by Miss Stebbing in her Pragmatism and French Voluntarism.]
In Paris from 1868 to 1878 he attended the Lycée Fontaine, now known as the Lycée Condorcet. While there he obtained a prize for his scientific work and also won a prize when he was eighteen for the solution of a mathematical problem. This was in 1877, and his solution was published the following year in Annales de Mathématiques. It is of interest as being his first published work. After some hesitation over his career, as to whether it should lie in the sphere of the sciences or that of "the humanities," he decided in favour of the latter, and when nineteen years of age, he entered the famous École Normale Supérieure. While there he obtained the degree of Licencié-ès-Lettres, and this was followed by that of Agrégé de philosophie in 1881.
The same year he received a teaching appointment at the Lycée in Angers, the ancient capital of Anjou. Two years later he settled at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, chief town of the Puy de Dôme department, whose name is more known to motorists than to philosophers. The year after his arrival at Clermont-Ferrand he displayed his ability in "the humanities" by the publication of an excellent edition of extracts from Lucretius, with a critical study of the text and the philosophy of the poet (1884), a work whose repeated editions are sufficient evidence of its useful place in the promotion of classical study among the youth of France. While teaching and lecturing in this beautiful part of his country (the Auvergne region), Bergson found time for private study and original work. He was engaged on his Essai sur Les données immédiates de la conscience. This essay, which, in its English translation, bears the more definite and descriptive title, Time and Free Will, was submitted, along with a short Latin Thesis on Aristotle, for the degree of Docteur-ès-Lettres, to which he was admitted by the University of Paris in 1889. The work was published in the same year by Félix Alcan, the Paris publisher, in his series La Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine.
It is interesting to note that Bergson dedicated this volume to Jules Lachelier, then ministre de l'instruction publique, who was an ardent disciple of Ravaisson and the author of a rather important philosophical work Du fondement de l'Induction (1871), who in his view of things endeavoured "to substitute everywhere force for inertia, life for death, and liberty for fatalism."1
[Footnote 1 : Lachelier was born in 1832, Ravaisson in 1813. Bergson owed much to both of these teachers of the École Normale Superieure. Cf. his memorial address on Ravaisson, who died in 1900. (See Bibliography under 1904.)]
Bergson now settled again in Paris, and after teaching for some months at the Municipal College, known as the Collège Rollin, he received an appointment at the Lycée Henri-Quatre, where he remained for eight years. In 1896 he published his second large work, entitled Matière et Mémoire. This rather difficult, but brilliant, work investigates the function of the brain, undertakes an analysis of perception and memory, leading up to a careful consideration of the problems of the relation of body and mind. Bergson, we know, has spent years of research in preparation for each of his three large works. This is especially obvious in Matière et Mémoire, where he shows a very thorough acquaintance with the extensive amount of pathological investigation which has been carried out in recent years, and for which France is justly entitled to very honourable mention.
In 1898 Bergson became Maître de conférences at his Alma Mater, L'École Normale Superieure, and was later promoted to a Professorship. The year 1900 saw him installed as Professor at the Collège de France, where he accepted the Chair of Greek Philosophy in succession to Charles L'Evêque. The Collège de France, founded in 1530, by François I, is less ancient, and until recent years has been less prominent in general repute than the Sorbonne, which traces back its history to the middle of the thirteenth century. Nevertheless, it is one of the intellectual headquarters of France, indeed of the whole world. While the Sorbonne is now the seat of the University of Paris, the Collège is an independent institution under the control of the Ministre de l'Instruction publique. The lectures given by the very eminent professors who fill its forty- three chairs are free and open to the general public, and are attended mainly by a large number of women students and by the senior students from the University. The largest lecture room in the Collège was given to Bergson, but this became quite inadequate to accommodate his hearers.
At the First International Congress of Philosophy, which was held in Paris, during the first five days of August, 1900, Bergson read a short, but important, paper, Sur les origines psychologiques de notre croyance à la loi de causalité. In 1901 Félix Alcan published in book form a work which had just previously appeared in the Revue de Paris entitled Le Rire, one of the most important of his minor productions. This essay on the meaning of the Comic was based on a lecture which he had given in his early days in the Auvergne. The study of it is essential to an understanding of Bergson's views of life, and its passages dealing with the place of the artistic in life are valuable. In 1901 he was elected to the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, and became a member of the Institute. In 1903 he contributed to the Revue de métaphysique et de morale a very important essay entitled Introduction à la métaphysique, which is useful as a preface to the study of his three large books.
On the death of Gabriel Tarde, the eminent sociologist, in 1904, Bergson succeeded him in the Chair of Modern Philosophy. From the 4th to the 8th of September of that year he was at Geneva attending the Second International Congress of Philosophy, when he lectured on Le Paralogisme psycho-physiologique, or, to quote its new title, Le Cerveau et la Pensée: une illusion philosophique. An illness prevented his visiting Germany to attend the Third Congress held at Heidelberg.
His third large work—his greatest book—L'Évolution créatrice, appeared in 1907, and is undoubtedly, of all his works, the one which is most widely known and most discussed. It constitutes one of the most profound and original contributions to the philosophical consideration of the theory of Evolution. Un livre comme L'Évolution créatrice, remarks Imbart de la Tour, n'est pas seulment une oeuvre, mais une date, celle d'une direction nouvelle imprimée à la pensée. By 1918, Alcan, the publisher, had issued twenty-one editions, making an average of two editions per annum for ten years. Since the appearance of this book, Bergson's popularity has increased enormously, not only in academic circles, but among the general reading public.
He came to London in 1908 and visited William James, the American philosopher of Harvard, who was Bergson's senior by seventeen years, and who was instrumental in calling the attention of the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. This was an interesting meeting and we find James' impression of Bergson given in his Letters under date of October 4, 1908. "So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy."
As in some quarters erroneous ideas prevail regarding both the historical and intellectual relation between James and Bergson, it may be useful to call attention to some of the facts here. As early as 1880 James contributed an article in French to the periodical La Critique philosophique, of Renouvier and Pillon, entitled Le Sentiment de l'Effort.1 Four years later a couple of articles by him appeared in Mind: What is an Emotion?2 and On some Omissions of Introspective Psychology.3 Of these articles the first two were quoted by Bergson in his work of 1889, Les données immédiates de la conscience. In the following years 1890-91 appeared the two volumes of James' monumental work, The Principles of Psychology, in which he refers to a pathological phenomenon observed by Bergson. Some writers taking merely these dates into consideration, and overlooking the fact that James' investigations had been proceeding since 1870, registered from time to time by various articles which culminated in The Principles, have mistakenly assigned to Bergson's ideas priority in time.4 On the other hand insinuations have been made to the effect that Bergson owes the germ-ideas of his first book to the 1884 article by James On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology, which he neither refers to nor quotes. This particular article deals with the conception of thought as a stream of consciousness, which intellect distorts by framing into concepts. We must not be misled by parallels. Bergson has replied to this insinuation by denying that he had any knowledge of the article by James when he wrote Les données immédiates de la conscience.5 The two thinkers appear to have developed independently until almost the close of the century. In truth they are much further apart in their intellectual position than is frequently supposed.6 Both have succeeded in appealing to audiences far beyond the purely academic sphere, but only in their mutual rejection of "intellectualism" as final is there real harmony or unanimity between them. It will not do to press too closely analogies between the Radical Empiricism of the American and the Doctrine of Intuition of the Frenchman. Although James obtains a certain priority in point of time in the development and enunciation of his ideas, we must remember that he confessed that he was baffled by many of Bergson's notions. James certainly neglected many of the deeper metaphysical aspects of Bergson's thought, which did not harmonize with his own, and are even in direct contradiction. In addition to this Bergson is no pragmatist, for him "utility," so far from being a test of truth, is rather the reverse, a synonym for error.
[Footnote 1 : Cf. his Principles of Psychology, Vol. II., chap xxvi.]
[Footnote 2 : Mind, 1884, pp. 188-205.]
[Footnote 3 : Mind, 1884, pp. 1-26.]
[Footnote 4 : For example A. Chaumeix: William James (Revue des Deux Mondes, Oct, 1910), and J. Bourdeau: Nouvelles modes en philosophie, Journal de Debats, Feb., 1907. Cf. Flournoy: La philosophie de William James. (Eng. Trans. Holt and James, pp. 198-206).]
[Footnote 5: Relation à William James et à James Ward. Art. in Revue philosophique, Aug., 1905, lx., p. 229.]
[Footnote 6 : The reader who desires to follow the various views of the relation of Bergson and James will find the following works useful. Kallen (a pupil of James): William James and Henri Bergson: a study in contrasting theories of life. Stebbing: Pragmatism and French Voluntarism. Caldwell: Pragmatism and Idealism (last chap). Perry: Present Philosophical Tendencies. Boutroux: William James (Eng. Tr.). Flournoy: La philosophie de James (Eng. Tr.). And J. E. Turner: An Examination of William James' Philosophy.]
Nevertheless, William James hailed Bergson as an ally very enthusiastically. Early in the century (1903) we find him remarking in his correspondence: "I have been re-reading Bergson's books, and nothing that I have read since years has so excited and stimulated my thoughts. I am sure that that philosophy has a great future, it breaks through old cadres and brings things into a solution from which new crystals can be got." The most noteworthy tributes paid by him to Bergson were those made in the Hibbert Lectures (A Pluralistic Universe), which James gave at Manchester College, Oxford, shortly after he and Bergson met in London. He there remarked upon the encouragement he had received from Bergson's thought, and referred to the confidence he had in being "able to lean on Bergson's authority."1 "Open Bergson, and new horizons loom on every page you read. It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. It tells of reality itself, instead of merely reiterating what dusty-minded professors have written about what other previous professors have thought. Nothing in Bergson is shop-worn or at second- hand."2 The influence of Bergson had led him "to renounce the intellectualist method and the current notion that logic is an adequate measure of what can or cannot be."3 It had induced him, he continued, "to give up the logic, squarely and irrevocably" as a method, for he found that "reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows, and surrounds it."4
[Footnote 1 : A Pluralistic Universe, pp. 214-15. Cf. the whole of Lecture V. The Compounding of Consciousness, pp. 181-221, and Lecture VI. Bergson and His Critique of Intellectualism, pp. 225-273.]
[Footnote 2 : Lecture VI., p. 265.]
[Footnote 3 and 4 : A Pluralistic Universe, p. 212.]
Naturally, these remarks, which appeared in book form in 1909, directed many English and American readers to an investigation of Bergson's philosophy for themselves. A certain handicap existed in that his greatest work had not then been translated into English. James, however, encouraged and assisted Dr. Arthur Mitchell in his preparation of the English translation of L'Évolution créatrice. In August of 1910 James died. It was his intention, had he lived to see the completion of the translation, to introduce it to the English reading public by a prefatory note of appreciation. In the following year the translation was completed and still greater interest in Bergson and his work was the result. By a coincidence, in that same year (1911), Bergson penned for the French translation of James' book, Pragmatism,1 a preface of sixteen pages, entitled Vérité et Réalité. In it he expressed sympathetic appreciation of James' work, coupled with certain important reservations.
[Footnote 1 : Le Pragmatisme: Translated by Le Brun. Paris, Flammarion.]
In April (5th to 11th) Bergson attended the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy held at Bologna, in Italy, where he gave a brilliant address on L'Intuition philosophique. In response to invitations received he came again to England in May of that year, and has paid us several subsequent visits. These visits have always been noteworthy events and have been marked by important deliverances. Many of these contain important contributions to thought and shed new light on many passages in his three large works, Time and Free Will, Matter and Memory, and Creative Evolution. Although necessarily brief statements, they are of more recent date than his books, and thus show how this acute thinker can develop and enrich his thought and take advantage of such an opportunity to make clear to an English audience the fundamental principles of his philosophy.
He visited Oxford and delivered at the University, on the 26th and 27th of May, two lectures entitled La Perception du Changement, which were published in French in the same year by the Clarendon Press. As Bergson has a delightful gift of lucid and brief exposition, when the occasion demands such treatment, these lectures on Change form a most valuable synopsis or brief survey of the fundamental principles of his thought, and serve the student or general reader alike as an excellent introduction to the study of the larger volumes. Oxford honoured its distinguished visitor by conferring upon him the degree of Doctor of Science. Two days later he delivered the Huxley Lecture at Birmingham University, taking for his subject Life and Consciousness. This subsequently appeared in The Hibbert Journal (Oct., 1911), and since revised, forms the first essay in the collected volume L'Énergie spirituelle or Mind-Energy. In October he was again in England, where he had an enthusiastic reception, and delivered at London University (University College) four lectures on La Nature de l'Âme. In 1913 he visited the United States of America, at the invitation of Columbia University, New York, and lectured in several American cities, where he was welcomed by very large audiences. In February, at Columbia University, he lectured both in French and English, taking as his subjects: Spiritualité et Liberté and The Method of Philosophy. Being again in England in May of the same year, he accepted the Presidency of the British Society for Psychical Research, and delivered to the Society an impressive address: Fantômes des Vivants et Recherche psychique.
Meanwhile, his popularity increased, and translations of his works began to appear in a number of languages, English, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Magyar, Polish and Russian. In 1914 he was honoured by his fellow-countrymen in being elected as a member of the Académie française. He was also made President of the Academie des Sciences morales et politiques, and in addition he became Officier de la Legion d'Honneur, and Officier de l'Instruction publique. He found disciples of many varied types, and in France movements such as Neo-Catholicism or Modernism on the one hand and Syndicalism on the other, endeavoured to absorb and to appropriate for their own immediate use and propaganda some of the central ideas of his teaching. That important continental organ of socialist and syndicalist theory, Le Mouvement socialiste, suggested that the realism of Karl Marx and Prudhon is hostile to all forms of intellectualism, and that, therefore, supporters of Marxian socialism should welcome a philosophy such as that of Bergson. Other writers, in their eagerness, asserted the collaboration of the Chair of Philosophy at the Collège de France with the aims of the Conféderation Générale du Travail and the Industrial Workers of the World. It was claimed that there is harmony between the flute of personal philosophical meditation and the trumpet of social revolution. These statements are considered in the chapter dealing with the political implications of Bergson's thought.
While social revolutionaries were endeavouring to make the most out of Bergson, many leaders of religious thought, particularly the more liberal-minded theologians of all creeds, e.g., the Modernists and Neo- Catholic Party in his own country, showed a keen interest in his writings, and many of them endeavoured to find encouragement and stimulus in his work. The Roman Catholic Church, however, which still believes that finality was reached in philosophy with the work of Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, and consequently makes that mediaeval philosophy her official, orthodox, and dogmatic view, took the step of banning Bergson's three books by placing them upon the Index (Decree of June 1, 1914).
It was arranged by the Scottish Universities that Bergson should deliver in 1914 the famous Gifford Lectures, and one course was planned for the spring and another for the autumn. The first course, consisting of eleven lectures, under the title of The Problem of Personality, was delivered at Edinburgh University in the Spring of that year.
Then came the War. The course of lectures planned for the autumn months had to be abandoned. Bergson has not, however, been silent during the conflict, and he has given some inspiring addresses. As early as November 4th, 1914, he wrote an article entitled La force qui s'use et celle qui ne s'use pas, which appeared in that unique and interesting periodical of the poilus, Le Bulletin des Armees de la Republique Française. A presidential address delivered in December, 1914, to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, had for its title La Significance de la Guerre. This, together with the preceding article, has been translated and published in England as The Meaning of the War. Bergson contributed also to the publication arranged by The Daily Telegraph in honour of the King of the Belgians, King Albert's Book (Christmas, 1914). In 1915 he was succeeded in the office of President of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques by M. Alexandre Ribot, and then delivered a discourse on The Evolution of German Imperialism. Meanwhile he found time to issue at the request of the Minister of Public Instruction a delightful little summary of French Philosophy. Bergson did a large amount of travelling and lecturing in America during the war. He was there when the French Mission under M. Viviani paid a visit in April and May of 1917, following upon America's entry into the conflict. M. Viviani's book La Mission Française en Amerique, 1917, contains a preface by Bergson.
Early in 1918 he was officially received by the Académie française, taking his seat among "The Select Forty" as successor to M. Emile Ollivier, the author of the large and notable historical work L'Empire libéral. A session was held in January in his honour at which he delivered an address on Ollivier.
In the War, Bergson saw the conflict of Mind and Matter, or rather of Life and Mechanism; and thus he shows us in action the central idea of his own philosophy. To no other philosopher has it fallen, during his lifetime, to have his philosophical principles so vividly and so terribly tested. We are too close to the smoking crucible of war to be aware of all that has been involved in it. Even those who have helped in the making of history are too near to it to regard it historically, much less philosophically. Yet one cannot help feeling that the defeat of German militarism has been the proof in action of the validity of much of Bergson's thought.
As many of Bergson's contributions to French periodicals are not readily accessible, he agreed to the request of his friends that these should be collected and published in two volumes. The first of these was being planned when war broke out. The conclusion of strife has been marked by the appearance of this delayed volume in 1919. It bears the title L'Énergie spirituelle: Essais et Conferences. The noted expounder of Bergson's philosophy in England, Dr. Wildon Carr, has prepared an English Translation under the title Mind-Energy. The volume opens with the Huxley Memorial Lecture of 1911, Life and Consciousness, in a revised and developed form under the title Consciousness and Life. Signs of Bergson's growing interest in social ethics and in the idea of a future life of personal survival are manifested. The lecture before the Society for Psychical Research is included, as is also the one given in France, L'Âme et le Corps, which contains the substance of the four London lectures on the Soul. The seventh and last article is a reprint of Bergson's famous lecture to the Congress of Philosophy at Geneva in 1904, Le paralogisme psycho-physiologique, which now appears as Le Cerveau et la Pensée: une illusion philosophique. Other articles are on the False Recognition, on Dreams, and Intellectual Effort. The volume is a most welcome production and serves to bring together what Bergson has written on the concept of mental force, and on his view of "tension" and "detension" as applied to the relation of matter and mind.
It is Bergson's intention to follow up this collection shortly by another on the Method of Philosophy, dealing with the problems of Intuition. For this he is preparing an important introduction, dealing with recent developments in philosophy. This second volume will include the Lectures on The Perception of Change given at Oxford, The Introduction to Metaphysics, and the brilliant paper Philosophical Intuition. In June, 1920, Cambridge honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Letters. In order that he may be able to devote his full time to the great new work he is preparing on ethics, religion, and sociology, Bergson has been relieved of the duties attached to the Chair of Modern Philosophy at the Collège de France. He still holds this chair, but no longer delivers lectures, his place being taken by his brilliant pupil Edouard Le Roy. Living with his wife and daughter in a modest house in a quiet street near the Porte d'Auteuil in Paris, Bergson is now working as keenly and vigorously as ever.
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