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Henri Bergson - Biography

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

Henri Bergson was born in Paris in 1859. His father was Jewish from Poland and his mother was Anglo-Irish. He was gifted in mathematics, and at an early age won an award for a unique solution to a mathematical problem, as well as a solution to a complex problem that Pascal had claimed to have solved (though he failed to have it published). At the age of eighteen, Bergson attended the École Normale Supérieure for four years, after which he began a career in teaching at Clermont-Ferrand in 1883. In the following year at Clermont-Ferrand, he published a critical study of the philosophy and poetry of Lucretius that has continued to be influential to Classical studies in France to date. Bergson was awarded his doctorate in 1889 for his Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience (Time and Free Will) along with a short Latin thesis. The essay was published the same year by Felix Alcan in his series La Bibliothèque de philosophie contemporaine.

Bergson shifted his focus away from mathematics and mechanics, preferring to develop his thoughts, first presented in Time and Free Will, in the humanities and philosophy, particularly to concepts of the mind, the intuition and the experience of time, or duration. Matter and Memory, his next publication in 1896, continues these investigations. For Bergson duration involves the succession of conscious states in an immeasurable flow, and real time therefore is the experience of duration as apprehended by intuition, time perceived as indivisible. He is led to a theory of mind-body relations, opposing the preference of the separate operations of instinct and intellect. In 1903 he wrote An Introduction to Metaphysics, which is a further elaboration of the central role that the intuition plays on his theory of knowledge.

Bergson was promoted to a professorship in 1898, and became Maitre de conferences at his Alma Mater, L'École Normale Superieure. Two years later he received another professorship at the Collège de France, where he accepted the Chair of Greek Philosophy in succession to Charles L'Eveque. At this time his lectures began to draw students and academics as well as a general public, leading some to name the college the "house of Bergson." In 1891 Bergson married the cousin of Marcel Proust and had a daughter.

Over the years, Bergson wrote many articles for periodicals, and at the request of his friends, he decided to allow the publication of these in a two-volume edition. The second volume, published in 1919, L'Energie spirituelle: Essais et Conferences (Spiritual Energy: Essays and Lectures) was translated into English by Dr. Wildon Carr under the title, Mind-Energy. It contains a series of Bergson's most influential lectures, most notably Le paralogisme psycho-physiologique (The Psycho-Physiolgical Paralogism), which now appears as Le Cerveau et la Pensee: une illusion philosophique, the lecture he delivered at the Congress of Philosophy at Geneva in 1904, and the Huxley Memorial Lecture of 1911, Life and Consciousness, L'Ame et le Corps, which contains the substance of the four London lectures on the Soul. Bergson was awarded a Doctor of Letters by Cambridge in 1920. In France, the College de France relieved him of his duties as a lecturer while allowing him to hold his chair. This permitted him time to devote to his new work on ethics, religion and sociology.

The concept of intuition was an on-going investigation for Bergson. He held that intuition is stronger than intellect. He also sought to wed current theories of biological science with those of consciousness, linking his own idea of an intuitive method and the problem of biological evolution as considered by Darwinism. Bergson posited an immaterial force, élan vital, as a creative impulse that better explained the expansive thrust of life than the ideas of Darwin. His ideas may have anticipated theories of relativity and modern theories of the mind. Due to these concepts, his ideas were greatly criticized by the Catholic Church. However, Bergson himself converted to Christianity in 1921.

In Duration and Simultaneity (1921) Bergson describes a non-linear notion of time linked to philosophical investigations of change. As he previously argued in his lectures, unlike space, time is not measurable by an objective standard, in particular, it cannot be divided into a linear series of discrete instances. The experience of time requires something of an understanding of a continuum of movement, perceptible when two subjects are moving in a likewise fashion, which Bergson explicates with the example of two people on separate trains. This contention is tried out here against Einstein's theory of relativity. Tracing the development of the theory from 'special' to 'general' relativity, Bergson posits that a fundamental requirement of the theory is an impossibility — it is based on the assumption that the experiences of two observers moving at different speeds within two different physical systems might be thought of as simultaneous. This is to ignore the limits of possible experience of time (while maintaining a disruption in the concept of space). Most academics concede that his arguments in 1911 with Einstein were not thoroughly grounded and therefore lost their credibility. Bergson would later drop the debate.

Bergson's concepts regarding time and duration have had a great influence on such philosophers as Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead, who expanded Bergson's notions of duration and evolution from their applications to organic life into the physical realm. Jean- Paul Sartre also paid tribute to him as well as Martin Heidegger, who used some of Bergson's concepts, such as "no-being".

Bergson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927 and maintained the status of something of a cult figure in the years between World Wars. He published only one book during the last two decades of his life, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932; trans. 1935), in which he aligned his own philosophy with Christianity. Although not a practicing Jew, Bergson renounced all of the posts and honors previously awarded him, rather than accept the Vichy government's offers to excuse him from the scope of their anti-Semitic laws. He decided to join the persecuted and registered himself at the end of 1940 as a Jew. For his last seventeen years he suffered from crippling arthritis and died of bronchitis on January 3, 1941, at the age of eighty-one.