Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Bergson Comes to America

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Bergson Comes to America

Article excerpt

In the introduction to the English translation of Matière et mémoire that he penned in 1910, Henri Bergson presented his seminal work as "frankly dualistic."1 The dualist method was already evident in the book's original 1896 publication; yet it was only after he wrote Le rire (1899) and L'Évolution créatrice (1907) that Bergson would return to Matière et mémoire and foreground the book's engagement with the dualist tradition. Those subsequent works influenced Bergson's decision to make explicit his earlier theoretical commitment. But what was it about his English audience that induced Bergson to bring his book's dualism to the fore?

This problem offers the lens through which I will document Bergson's encounter with America during his lecture tour in February 1913. Bergson came at a time when philosophers claimed a cultural cachet. Freud had come to America in 1909, Bertrand Russell in 1914. Yet the craze for Bergson was unique, best captured by the frequent mentions of the Broadway traffic jam that his arrival caused.2 His presidency of the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation under the nascent League of Nations and his 1927 Nobel Prize in literature cemented his fame. The principal histories of Bergson make passing note of his popularity during his visit.3 However, no one has documented just what happened during the twenty-five days that spanned his visits to Columbia University, Princeton University, Harvard University, and City College of New York between February 2 and 27.

This essay aims to fill this biographical lacuna and to reconstruct Bergson's visit as a philosophical event. That is to say, the historical context of the visit and the conceptual stakes of Bergson's thought were mutually influential. Americans both enamored by and skeptical of Bergson saw in his thought a series of dualisms: between life and matter, intuition and intellect, memory and matter, time and space. In their efforts to resolve these dualisms in various ways, American readers, both academic and popular, brought the dualistic nature of Bergson's thought into sharp relief. Their receptions were not, I argue, merely external appropriations, however faithful or not to the Bergsonian letter. I take it as my task to demonstrate why, on the occasion of Bergson's voyage, his thought lent itself to the dualist terms of its American receptions.


"Prof. Henri Bergson To Arrive Today. Famous Jewish Philosopher Will Spend Three Weeks In This Country," announced The Sun, then the chief rival of the New York Times, on February 2, 1913.4 Bergson's arrival received ample attention in the New York City press at a time when Jewish intellectuals received little. Columbia University invited Bergson to give a series of lectures, which became an engrossing public affair. Popular enthusiasm manifested itself in the projections of hopes, desires, and fears onto his image, suggesting an urge on the part of many at least to adapt Bergson to American culture, and at most claim him as their own. "It is peculiarly fitting that Professor Bergson should come to the United States," The Sun suggested, "for it is more directly associated with his philosophy than in Pany other part of the world."5 Writing as if its readership already knew that Bergson was in town, The Evening Post introduced his public talks, "There is every reason why the principles of Henri Bergson's philosophy should prove even more popular in this country than they have been abroad."6 The North American Review even suggested that Henry Mills Alden, in his 1885 A Study of Death, had been the first to discover the Bergsonian method of intuition.7

Bergson gave six public lectures, titled "Spiritualité et liberté." Even though Bergson requested a small lecture room, since, he claimed, "it is impossible for me to obtain clarity of articulation if I'm obliged to make an effort with my voice,"8 Columbia provided him with a large hall that filled with 500 attendants. …

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