The Case of the Falling Man: Bergson and Chaos Theory

By Gantar, Jure | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Case of the Falling Man: Bergson and Chaos Theory


Gantar, Jure, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In most cases, the influence of science on literary criticism, or more precisely, the connection between scientific progress and the evolution of textual interpretation is at best indirect. Usually, works by literary scholars are not substantially affected by developments in science and continue to exert their theoretical influence even after their authors' views on such things as the movement of celestial bodies or human anatomy have long been outdated. There are, however, also some works of criticism and philosophy whose attachment to the scientific ideas of their time is more than just implicit. These texts are more dependent on the prevailing scientific explanations of reality, and their methodological validity is seriously affected when scientific paradigms shift.

One such text is Henri Bergson's famous essay Le Rire (1900) which was, at least in part, originally written as a reaction to the empiricist science and positivist philosophy that dominated European society in the second half of the 19th century. Bergson (1859-1941), a French philosopher and Nobel-prize winner, established his reputation with works such as Matiere et memoire (1896) and L'Evolution creatrice (1907) in which he questions the very notion of philosophy as a merely intellectual enterprise. Like the rest of his early work, many of Bergson's arguments in Le Rire are thus based on the rejection of the theories of scientists and scholars such as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Hippolite Taine, and Emile Zola. It is in Bergson's overt and potentially detrimental association of laughter with the intellect - which indirectly implies the exclusion of laughter from intuition and spontaneity, two cornerstones of Bergson's epistemology - where the presence of this critique is the most obvious. Also, Bergson's description of laughter as a social corrective could be read as a veiled rebuttal of Spencer's physiological theory of laughter as a "discharge for nervous energy" ("On the Physiology" 303).

In this essay, I wish to move Bergson's engagement with science closer to our own time, specifically placing his theories in the context of 20th-century science. Beginning with a discussion of how science was changing in the earlier years of this century, I will then trace the general similarities between Bergson's understanding of life and the essential postulates of chaos theory. Next, I will look carefully at definitions of order and chaos, and show how they are related to Bergson's classification of three fundamental mechanisms for producing laughter, concluding with a possible explanation of the distinction Bergson makes between two different types of laughter. My overall purpose is to read Le Rire as a possible precursor of chaos theory in the humanities.

In terms of Bergson's philosophy, laughter is understood as a human response to any encroachment on the creative powers of the life force. As such, laughter parallels in its operation reactions to the rationalistic reduction typical of philosophical positivism and scientific materialism. Indeed, the central notion of laughter that he posits in Le Rife - that it is a response to the "mecanique plaque sur du vivant [mechanical encrusted on the living]" (35; 84)(1) - can be interpreted as a direct reflection of Bergson's attitude toward the mechanicist view of the world.

Yet, in Bergson's own time science had already started to change and was slowly beginning to discard the traditional Newtonian and Euclidean precepts. Among the first scientists to point out some of the weaknesses in the Newtonian explanation of the universe was the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell with his electromagnetic theory. At about the same time that Le Rife was written, Ernst Mach formulated his criticism of space and motion, while Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincare laid the foundations for the major scientific breakthrough of our age: the theory of relativity. When in 1905 Albert Einstein first presented his special theory of relativity to the public, the centuries old belief in the division of time and space, matter and energy, was finally buried for good. …

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