Durant 1926: The Revolt against Materialism (Bergson)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 1.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

.

I. HENRI BERGSON

1. The Revolt Against Materialism

The history of modern philosophy might be written in terms of the warfare of physics and psychology. Thought may begin with its object, and at last, in consistency, try to bring its own mystic reality within the circle of material phenomena and mechanical law; or it may begin with itself, and be driven, by the apparent necessities of Iogic, to conceive all things as forms and creatures of mind. The priority of mathematics and mechanics in the development of modern science, and the reciprocal stimulation of industry and physics under the common pressure of expanding needs, gave to speculation a materialistic impulsion; and the most successful of the sciences became the models of philosophy. Despite Descartes’ insistence that philosophy should begin with the self and travel outward, the industrialization of Western Europe drove thought away from thought and in the direction of material things.

The history of modern philosophy might be written in terms of the warfare of physics and psychology. Thought may begin with its object, and bring its own mystic reality to the interpretation of material phenomena; or it may begin with itself, and be driven by logic to conceive all things as forms.

Spencer’s system was the culminating expression of this mechanical point of view. Hailed though he was as “the philosopher of Darwinism,” he was more truly the reflex and exponent of industrialism; he endowed industry with glories and virtues which to our hind-sight seem ridiculous; and his outlook was rather that of a mechanician and an engineer absorbed in the motions of matter, than that of a biologist feeling the elan of life. The rapid obsolescence of his philosophy is due largely to the replacement of the physical by the biological stand-point in recent thought; by the growing disposition to see the essence and secret of the world in the movement of life rather than in the inertia of things. And indeed, matter itself has in our days almost taken on life: the study of electricity, magnetism, and the electron has given a vitalistic tinge to physics; so that instead of a reduction of psychology to physics—which was the more or less conscious ambition of English thought—we approach a vitalized physics and an almost spiritualized matter. It was Schopenhauer who first, in modern thought, emphasized the possibility of making the concept of life more fundamental and inclusive than that of force; it is Bergson who in our own generation has taken up this idea, and has almost converted a skeptical world to it by the force of his sincerity and his eloquence.

Spencer’s outlook was rather that of a mechanician absorbed in the motions of matter, than that of a biologist feeling the elan of life. But Schopenhauer was the first to emphasize the possibility of making the concept of life more fundamental and inclusive than that of force.

Bergson was born in Paris, in 1859, of French and Jewish parentage. He was an eager student, and seems to have taken every prize that turned up. He did homage to the traditions of modern science by specializing at first in mathematics and physics, but his faculty for analysis soon brought him face to face with the metaphysical problems that lurk behind every science; and he turned spontaneously to philosophy. In 1878 he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, and on graduating, was appointed to teach philosophy at the Lycee of Clermont-Ferrand. There, in 1888, he wrote his first major work—the Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience (Essay on the immediate data of consciousness), translated as Time and Free-will. Eight quiet years intervened before the appearance of his next (and his most difficult) book—Matiere et memoiren (Matter and memory). In 1898 he became professor at the Ecole Normale, and in 1900 at the College de France, where he has been ever since. In 1907 he won international fame with his masterpiece—L’Evolution creatrice (Creative Evolution); he became almost overnight the most popular figure in the philosophic world; and all that was needed for his success was the placing of his books upon the Index Expurgatorius (Index of Purgatory) in 1914. In that same year he was elected to the French Academy.

Bergson specialized at first in mathematics and physics, but as he came face to face with the metaphysical problems, he turned spontaneously to philosophy. 

It is a remarkable thing that Bergson, the David destined to slay the Goliath of materialism, was in youth a devotee of Spencer. But too much knowledge leads to skepticism; early devotees are the likeliest apostates, as early sinners are senile saints. The more he studied Spencer, the more keenly conscious Bergson became of the three rheumatic joints of the materialist mechanism: between matter and life, between body and mind, and between determinism and choice. The patience of Pasteur had discredited the belief in abiogenesis (the generation of life by non-living matter); and after a hundred years of theory and a thousand vain experiments, the materialists were no nearer than before to solving the problem of the origin of life. Again, though thought and brain were obviously, connected, the mode of connection was as far from obvious as it had ever been. If mind was matter, and every mental act a mechanical resultant of neural states, of what use was consciousness? Why could not the material mechanism of the brain dispense with this “epiphenomenon,” as the honest and logical Huxley called it, this apparently useless flame thrown up by the heat of cerebral commotion? Finally, was determinism any more intelligible than free will? If the present moment contains no living and creative choice, and is totally and mechanically the product of the matter and motion of the moment before, then so was that moment the mechanical effect of the moment that preceded it, and that again of the one before … and so on, until we arrive at the primeval nebula as the total cause of every later event, of every line of Shakespeare’s plays, and every suffering of his soul; so that the sombre rhetoric of Hamlet and Othello, of Macbeth and Lear, in every clause and every phrase, was written far off there in the distant skies and the distant aeons, by the structure and content of that legendary cloud. What a draft upon credulity! What an exercise of faith such a theory must demand in this unbelieving generation! What mystery or miracle, of Old, Testament or New, could be half so incredible as this monstrous fatalistic myth, this nebula composing tragedies? There was matter enough for rebellion here; and if Bergson rose so rapidly to fame it was because he had the courage to doubt where all the doubters piously believed.

The mechanical view of no living and creative choice in the present moment inevitably leads to the primeval nebula as the total cause of every later event. Bergson had the courage to doubt this monstrous fatalistic myth.

.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: