Bergson’s Inspires Artists and Thinkers

Henri Bergson addressed the fact that at the beginning of the twentieth century, people were already speaking of evolution as something of the past, as though they considered modern humans exempt from evolution’s workings.

Summary of Event

Henri Bergson was born in Paris on October 18, 1859—the year Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published. Bergson was of Jewish ancestry; his father was a talented Polish musician, and his mother was a cultured Anglo-Irish woman. His education was typically Parisian French, beginning at the Lycée Fontane (subsequently renamed the Lycée Condorcet). His early education was divided between the sciences and the humanities, and he received a prize for his mathematics studies in 1876. He chose to focus his studies on philosophy, however, and he trained to become a university teacher at the École Normale Supérieure. Bergson’s serious reading of the works of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer gave a mechanistic bent to his developing thought, although he also became acquainted with the sociology of Émile Durkheim. Creative Evolution (Bergson)
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[kw]Creative Evolution Inspires Artists and Thinkers, Bergson’s (1907)
Creative Evolution (Bergson)
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Bergson, Henri
Darwin, Charles
Spencer, Herbert
Le Roy, Édouard

At the École Normale Supérieure from 1878 to 1881, Bergson successively received at the end of each of three years the licentiate, the definitif (diploma), and second place in the agrégation (oral examinations). These enabled him to lecture, first outside Paris at Angers (1881-1883) and at Clermont-Ferrand (1883-1888), before returning to Paris and the Collège Rollin. During that time, he prepared his Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889; Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1910) Time and Free Will (Bergson) and a dissertation, in Latin, on Aristotle, for which he received a doctorate from the University of Paris.

With the publication of his theses, Bergson became professor for advanced students at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, and in 1891 he married Louise Neuberger, a cousin to the novelist Marcel Proust. He had also met the poet and literary journalist Charles Péguy, who established the journal Cahiers de la quinzaine in 1900 and who became Bergson’s pupil. Research into the interrelationships of body and mind followed, and Bergson published his findings in 1896 as Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l’esprit (Matter and Memory, 1911). Matter and Memory (Bergson)

It was customary in French academia at the beginning of the twentieth century for a professor to name and pay half salary to a substitute for a given year, during which the professor took research leave from lecturing duties. Bergson substituted at the Collège de France from 1897 to 1898 as a professor of Greek and Latin philosophy. In 1899, he was appointed as a permanent professor of Greek and Latin philosophy, and in 1904 he was able to transfer to the more appropriate post of professor of modern philosophy.

In the interim, Bergson published several books, including Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1900; Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911) Laughter (Bergson) and Introduction à la métaphysique (1903; An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1912). Introduction to Metaphysics, An (Bergson) The former illustrated Bergson’s contention that laughter is a release of tension, and the latter defended the use of intuition. Because An Introduction to Metaphysics pointed to the forthcoming work for which Bergson is best known, it remains the best place to begin a reading of his work. These publications provided the setting for L’Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911). What is now that book’s final part developed out of a course of lectures on the history of the idea of time in which Bergson compared the mechanism of conceptual thought to cinematography. In 1905, he named his own substitute so that he might prepare Creative Evolution for publication.

Part 1 of the book drew on the discussion of evolution as it had developed up to the work of Charles Darwin and its subjection to criticism by Darwin’s successors in biology. Recalling the conclusions of Matter and Memory, Bergson summarized the result of the inquiry, which sought to discover both the mechanism and the purpose of evolution. He referred to this key concept as élan vital, Élan vital or the “vital impetus.”

Part 2 considered the divergent directions of evolution, with special reference to torpor, intelligence, and instinct. Bergson developed these within his concept of intuition and drew his discussion toward the apparent place of the human within the natural world through references to both life and consciousness.

In part 3, Bergson attempted to relate life and matter through common origins. Here, the culmination of the book was stated, in terms of the life of the body and the life of the spirit. Bergson developed his ideas about the inseparability of the theories of knowledge and of life in this section.

The final, fourth part sketched Bergson’s and academic philosophy’s interest in precedent systems, including those of Plato, Aristotle, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, and especially Spencer. Antiquity’s philosophical issues of immutability, “no-thing,” form, and “becoming” were placed against the seventeenth century’s metaphysical foundations of modern science, thereby concluding the volume at the point from which Bergson initiated part 1.

What Bergson described in his original thought and within his eloquent and precise language were the certainty of evolution and the necessity of creativity in propelling the evolutionary process. In no meaningful sense does Bergson’s Creative Evolution present a single systematic philosophy; rather, his work is descriptive.


Henri Bergson.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Biographers recall Bergson as being at odds with the philosophical establishment, especially as represented by those at the Sorbonne, across the Rue Saint Jacques from the Collège de France. Coming as he did through the École Normale Supérieure, Bergson exerted an influence on those students who had studied with him and who themselves went forth to teach. Thus his works were being read as they appeared, and on his appointment to the Collège de France in 1900 his lectures became an even greater draw—so much so that by 1911, students already referred to the Collège de France as the “house of Bergson.”

From 1900 to 1914, Bergson lectured to packed halls. His lectures were attended not merely by academics and students but also by the general public, including members of the elite who sent their servants early to keep places for them and tourists taking in the attractions of Paris. Many who wished to hear Bergson speak were turned away; others would arrive at lecture locations so early that they would sit through someone else’s prior lecture merely to secure a seat to hear Bergson.

From 1914 until 1921, Édouard Le Roy functioned as Bergson’s “permanent substitute” while Bergson served on French diplomatic missions to Spain and to the United States. Thereafter, Bergson took early retirement, partially in exasperation at his own success; his strenuous lecturing duties, he said, “demanded a great deal of meditation and a serious attempt at perfection.” In 1922, he published his attempt to relate his own theory of time as inner duration to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. He acted as president of the committee on international cooperation of the League of Nations from 1921 to 1926. He also continued his philosophical work while acting as a diplomat, and in 1932 he published his last book, Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1935).

Another measure of Bergson’s impact is visible in the response of the Roman Catholic Church to his work. In 1914, the Church placed all of Bergson’s writings, but most especially Creative Evolution, on the list of books devout Catholics were forbidden to read or possess. The Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre discussed physical anthropology and paleontology in terms derived from Bergson’s Creative Evolution and was himself subjected to discipline from Rome. Yet, peculiarly, Bergson helped to provide the impetus for a Catholic revival by inspiring such Catholic intellectuals as the art critic Henri Focillon; the literary critic Charles de Bos; the poets Anna de Noailles, Paul Claudel, and Charles Péguy; and Jacques Maritain, a Protestant convert who led many intellectuals back to the Catholic tradition and who was mentor to Pope Paul VI.

Bergson’s work also provided a rationale for the Surrealist movement in art, and his ideas influenced the novelist Marcel Proust, the essayist Albert Thibaudet, the poet Paul Valéry, and the existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Bergson’s own literary genius was recognized with the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1927. Nobel Prize recipients;Henri Bergson[Bergson]
Literature;Nobel Prizes

Two philosophical traditions of the twentieth century received their impetus from Bergson. Although Bergson was not the innovator of the existentialist movement, the fourth part of Creative Evolution, with its stress on the role of the philosophical concepts of “not-being” and “becoming” as well as on Bergson’s pervasive concern for time as “duration,” had implications that can be followed in the works of Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Heidegger. In addition, Bergson’s concern to reclaim the validity of metaphysics within modern philosophy made him one of the stimuli for the development of “process philosophy.” Specifically, Alfred North Whitehead, Whitehead, Alfred North who came to philosophy from mathematics and physical science, expanded Bergson’s notions of duration and evolution from their original, restricted applications to organic life into the broader physical realm.

Bergson also made an impact through his own courageous personal stand. Although intellectually long attracted to Catholicism, Bergson had remained a Jew, and after the surrender of France to the Nazis in 1940, he was required by the Vichy government to register as a Jewish citizen of Paris. Given his old age, infirmity, and fame, Bergson could certainly have obtained an exemption, but he insisted on registering to show his support for other Jews. Although ill, he stood in line to register on a cold, damp day, and as a result contracted a lung inflammation. He died shortly thereafter, on January 4, 1941. Creative Evolution (Bergson)

Further Reading

  • Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. 1911. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1998. The treatise that helped set the tone for twentieth century thought. The translation was revised by Bergson. Detailed index.
  • _______. The Creative Mind. Translated by Mabell L. Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 1946. Incorporates ten of Bergson’s essays. Also includes an introduction, which serves as a brief intellectual biography.
  • Bowler, Peter J. Evolution: The History of an Idea. 3d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. A survey of the idea of evolution by one of its leading scholars. Places Bergson’s thought within its largest context. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane, eds. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1976. Collection of essays useful for tracing the wider influence of Bergson on literature and art. Includes chronology of events, brief biographies, extended bibliography, and detailed index.
  • Chevalier, Jacques. Henri Bergson. Translated by Lilian A. du Long Clare. New York: Macmillan, 1928. An extensive study that places Bergson within the intellectual developments in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Index.
  • Hanna, Thomas, ed. The Bergsonian Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. Collection of essays by French and American scholars reflecting on Bergson’s life and evaluating the meaning of his work. Includes bibliography.
  • Pilkington, Anthony Edward. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. A reevaluation of Bergson from the perspective of the 1970’s. Index.
  • Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Bergson. Chicago: Open Court, 1912. An early, highly critical view of Bergson from an alternate philosophical perspective of logical analysis.

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