The Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900-1914

The Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900-1914

The Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900-1914

The Bergsonian Controversy in France, 1900-1914

Excerpt

Amid all the intellectual controversies before the First World War in France, none was more intense or bitter than the disputes ignited by the philosophy of Henri Bergson. A brilliant product of the lycée system, Bergson lectured at the Collège de France between 1900 and 1914. As the most charismatic intellectual figure of his day, he was able to communicate his attack on the mechanistic principles of nineteenth-century thought to a public which was increasingly attracted to his lectures. Between 1907 and 1914 he became the most controversial philosopher in the world and the first in the twentieth century to become an international celebrity.

In influencing his milieu Henri Bergson brought to many philosophers, writers and students who felt stifled by the climate of their society a sense of liberation and renewal, and a restoration of the spiritual dimension of human thought. He appeared to the generation that came to maturity between 1890 and 1914 as a philosophic liberator and as an opponent of the intellectual establishment. But to many others in that period before the Great War Bergsonianism constituted nothing less than a satanic threat, and its author was vilified as Europe's "organizer of disintegration." Julien Benda at one time is supposed to have said that he would happily have killed Bergson if this was the only way to destroy his influence. What alarmed Bergson's critics were the popular aspects of the Bergsonian vogue—the mystical pilgrimages to Bergson's summer home in Switzerland, for example, where locks of his hair at the local barbers were treated as holy relics, and the fact that as late as 1913 he could turn out 2,000 students during a visiting lecture at New York's City College.

Henri Bergson was most admired and most hated when he was most original and productive, in the brilliant culture of La belle époque before everything seemed to fall apart during World War I. This tells us a great deal about the life of the mind and the articulation of intellectual values in those last golden years of peace. It is true, of course, that many distinctions came Bergson's way between the wars, the most prominent being his appointment as the first president of the League of Nations committee which eventually evolved into UNESCO, and his winning of the Nobel Prize but these were honours received in recognition of his pre-1914 labours and to a great extent testify that his career was no longer as controversial as it once was. It is also true that Bergson lived until . . .

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