The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

14
BERGSON

Keith Ansell-Pearson


Introduction

Henri Bergson (1859–1941) is widely recognized to be France’s greatest philosopher of the modern period. He was the author of four classic texts of philosophy, three of them characterized by a combination of exceptional philosophical gifts and impressive mastery of extensive scientific literature. Each text offers readers a number of theoretical innovations. Time and Free Will (1889) provides a novel account of free will by showing that time is not space and that psychic states do not lend themselves to treatment as magnitudes. Matter and Memory (1896) provides a non-orthodox (non-Cartesian) dualism of matter and mind, seeking to show that whilst the difference between matter and perception is one of degree (unless we construe it in these terms the emergence of perception out of matter becomes something mysterious and inexplicable), that between perception and memory is one of kind (unless we construe it in these terms memory is deprived of any autonomous character and is reduced to being a merely diluted form of perception, a secondary perception as we find in Locke). Matter and Memory offers an extremely rich and novel account of different types of memory that philosophical psychology is still catching up with today. In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson endeavours to demonstrate the need for a philosophy of life in which the theory of knowledge and a theory of life are viewed as inseparably bound up with one another. In the text Bergson seeks to establish what philosophy must learn from the new biology (the neo-Darwinism established by August Weismann) and what philosophy can offer the new theory of the evolution of life. It is a tour de force, a work of truly extraordinary philosophical ambition. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), his final text, and where the engagement with scientific literature is not as extensive, Bergson outlines a novel approach to the study of society (sociology) with his categories of the “closed” and the “open” and the “static” and the “dynamic.” He advances a criticism of the rationalist approach to ethics that merits being taken as seriously as Nietzsche’s critique of attempts to establish ethics on a rational foundation (Nietzsche 1998: §186). Finally, there are two important collections of essays: Mind Energy and Creative Mind.

Bergson’s philosophy has a number of unique features to it. He has an impressive grasp of the history of science and of new scientific development such as thermodynamics

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