Authors: Henri Bergson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French philosopher

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Extraits de Lucrèce, 1884 (The Philosophy of Poetry: The Genius of Lucretius, 1959)

Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit, 1889

Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, 1889 (Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, 1910)

Matière et mémoire: Essai sur la relation du corps à l’esprit, 1896 (Matter and Memory, 1911)

Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique, 1900 (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, 1911)

Introduction à la métaphysique, 1903 (An Introduction to Metaphysics, 1912)

L’Évolution créatrice, 1907 (Creative Evolution, 1911)

L’Énergie spirituelle, 1919 (Mind-Energy: Lectures and Essays, 1920)

Durée et simultanéité, 1922, 1923, 1926 (Duration and Simultaneity with Reference to Einstein’s Theory, 1965)

Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion, 1932 (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1935)

La Pensée et le mouvant, 1934 (The Creative Mind, 1946)

Écrits et paroles, 1957-1959

Œuvres: Édition du centenaire, 1959

Henri Bergson: Key Writings, 2002


Henri Louis Bergson (behrg-sohn) was born in Paris in 1859 of Irish-Jewish parents. As a naturalized French citizen, he enrolled in the École Normale Supérieure in 1878. From 1881 to 1898, he taught at the lycées of Angers, Clermont, and Paris. In 1898, he received an appointment to the École Normale Supérieure and then, in 1900, moved to the Collège de France as professor of philosophy. He remained there officially until 1921 but served France on diplomatic missions to Spain and the United States during World War I. He also served as president of a League of Nations’ committee striving for intellectual cooperation. In 1928, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Poor health restricted his activities after World War I. Late in his life, Bergson became convinced of the essential truth of Roman Catholicism. However, this conviction coincided with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Not wanting to appear to be abandoning his fellow Jews, he put off actual conversion until he was close to dying.{$I[AN]9810000695}{$I[A]Bergson, Henri}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Bergson, Henri}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Bergson, Henri}{$I[tim]1859;Bergson, Henri}

Henri Bergson

(©The Nobel Foundation)

After the fall of France in 1940, the German-dominated Vichy government instituted anti-Semitic regulations in imitation of the Nazis, but it specifically exempted world-famous Bergson from the necessity of complying. Aged and infirm, Bergson spurned such hypocrisy. He resigned the honors bestowed upon him by the French government and, supported by friends because he was too ill to stand alone, took his turn in line before the offices which issued the Jews of Paris certain papers curtailing their liberties and privileges. On January 4, 1941, only a few days after this ordeal, Bergson died.

Bergson’s place as a leading influence upon modern thought rests upon his discussions of the élan vital, durée (durational time), and his theory of the comic. In contrast to contemporary rationalistic French philosophical schools, Bergson did not believe that reality was a static, fixed structure perceived by the logical reasoning processes; he postulated that reality was forever in flux and that it could not be directly apprehended by reason. Substituting a faculty he termed “intuition,” Bergson compared the pragmatic conceptualizing of the intellect, which perceived only the spatial, secondary reality of things with the intuition, which alone could grasp the real inner nature of the world. Bergson viewed time both as durée and as physical, scientific, or chronological. Chronological time–with its units of seconds, minutes, and hours–was accepted by scientists as the proper way to measure objectively, but chronological time presupposed a fixed, unvarying reality, a reality where one could ascertain change of state by referring to completely different and independent entities. For Bergson, psychic changes could not be conceived as separate and individual things, but instead were a continuous process. To cut into units, measurable in periods of time, is to distort the unity of change and perform a rational operation upon a subjective process. Durée, then, is time as perceived by the mind, an unfolding duration.

Bergson rejected Charles Darwin’s doctrine of natural selection as mechanistic. Instead, he argued in Creative Evolution that the evolution of life, and even the history of the universe, could be explained only as the creative product of vital energy (élan vital). Vital energy drives evolution as it overcomes the resistance of matter, molds matter to fulfill its needs, and ultimately achieves its ends after a series of generations. The only true reality is vital energy, and God is its source.

In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson distinguishes between the morality of obligation and the morality of aspiration. The former is basically static and conservative. It is necessary for holding a society together. The latter, on the other hand, is revolutionary and appeals to higher ideals. It is necessary to give meaning to the mores and conventions of the former.

In his 1900 essay on laughter, Bergson describes his theory of the causes of laughter. He states that the comic arises whenever “the mechanical is encrusted upon the living.” Any time the vital living spirit of the human, with all its suppleness, flexibility, and adaptability, becomes inelastic, immobile, or fixed in a machinelike rigidity, a comic effect is produced.

BibliographyAnsell-Pearson, Keith. Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life. New York: Routledge, 2001. Explores Bergson’s explosive insights into the idea of time.Gunter, P. A. Y. Henri Bergson: A Bibliography. 2d rev. ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1986. A useful resource.Hanna, Thomas, ed. The Bergsonian Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. The eleven essays in this collection, drawn from a convention held at Hollins College to commemorate the centennial of Bergson’s birth, present assessments of Bergson’s impact on theological thought and on literature. Also contains reminiscences by people who knew him at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France.Herman, Daniel J. The Philosophy of Henri Bergson. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980. A book-length study of Bergson’s philosophy and life.Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001. A concise overview of Bergson’s major ideas, written as an elementary introduction to his work for the general student.Lacey, Alan R. Bergson. New York: Routledge, 1993. Surveys most of Bergson’s major writings with a focus on Bergson as a philosopher of process and change. Includes a bibliography and an index.Maxwell, Donald R. The Abacus and the Rainbow: Bergson, Proust, and the Digital-Analogic Opposition. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Provides insight into the similarities between Bergson’s philosophy and elements of the Proustian universe.Moore, Francis C. T. Bergson: Thinking Backwards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Brief and accessible exposition of the content and significance of Bergson’s most influential ideas.Pilkington, Anthony Edward. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Presents an initial overview of Bergsonism, then devotes one chapter each to Bergson’s influence on Charles Péguy, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, and Julien Benda. The chapter on Benda contains interesting insights into Bergson’s theory of mobility.Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Bergson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Russell, more devoted to an undeviating scientific method than Bergson, looks with considerable skepticism on Bergson’s theories of knowledge and dependence on intuition in shaping arguments. He particularly questions Bergson’s Creative Evolution, in which the theory of the élan vital is fully expounded.
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