Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson's Political Philosophy

Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson's Political Philosophy

Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson's Political Philosophy

Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson's Political Philosophy


For me the essential of Bergsonism will always be the idea of philosophy as trans
formation of perception.

Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone Is Our Happiness

In 1932, nearly a dozen years after the appearance of his previous major work, Henri Bergson published The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Although he was still regarded as the preeminent French philosopher of his time, the publication of this book caught nearly everyone off guard. “One fine day,” wrote Jacques Maritain, a close reader of Bergson, “without any publicity, without any press release, without anyone, even among the author’s closest friends, having been informed, the work that had been anticipated for twenty-five years appeared in bookstores.”

The surprise that greeted Two Sources is indicative of its fate. The debate and controversy that surrounded its immediate reception were characterized by misunderstanding and polemic. On top of that, the book was soon afterward nearly forgotten. No doubt there are several possible explanations for this. Perhaps it seemed that a book on morality and politics written during the interwar years could no longer reach contemporary problems. Or maybe it was because so many of its principal themes (such as mysticism, love, and moral obligation) were uncongenial to his leading interpreters. Whatever the reason, it remains the case that Two Sources is by far the least read of Bergson’s major works.

Unexpected in its arrival, misunderstood in its reception, and by and large ignored, what interest can this text have for us now? To approach this question, a remark made by Pierre Hadot is helpful. An expert in ancient philosophy, he is by no means a Bergson specialist. But his standing as an appreciative outsider allows him to assess what is timely and vital in this

1. Cited in Soulez and Worms, Bergson, 229.

2. Ibid., 229–39. “Make no mistake: behind the noisy liveliness of the debate that immediately followed its appearance, the reserve and misunderstandings that marked the scholarly reception of Bergson’s last book will contribute a great deal to its future eclipse” (235). See also Soulez, “Bergson as Philosopher of War and Theorist of the Political,” 119–22.

3. See Lefebvre and White, “Introduction: Bergson, Politics, and Religion.”

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