Durant 1926: Criticism (Bergson)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter X Section 1.4 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.

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I. HENRI BERGSON

4. Criticism

“I believe,” says Bergson, “that the time given to refutation in philosophy is usually time lost. Of the many attacks directed by the many thinkers against each other, what now remains? Nothing, or assuredly very little. That which counts and endures is the modicum of positive truth which each contributes. The true statement is of itself able to displace the erroneous idea, and becomes, without our having taken the trouble of refuting anyone, the best of refutations.” This is the voice of Wisdom herself. When we ”prove” or disprove” a philosophy we are merely offering another one, which, like the first, is a fallible compound of experience and hope. As experience widens and hope changes, we find more “truth” in the “falsehoods” we denounced, and perhaps more falsehood in our youth’s eternal truths. When we are lifted upon the wings of rebellion we like determinism and mechanism, they are so cynical and devilish; but when death looms up suddenly at the foot of the hill we try to see beyond it into another hope. Philosophy is a function of age. Nevertheless…

The time given to refutation in philosophy is usually time lost. That which counts and endures is the modicum of positive truth. The true statement is of itself able to displace the erroneous idea. Philosophy is a function of age. 

What strikes one first in reading Bergson is the style: brilliant not with the paradox-fireworks of Nietzsche, but with a steady brightness, as of a man who is resolved to live up to the fine traditions of luminous French prose. It is harder to be wrong in French than in some other languages; for the French will not tolerate obscurity, and truth is clearer than fiction. If Bergson is occasionally obscure it is by the squandered wealth of his, imagery, his analogies, and his illustrations; he has an almost Semitic passion for metaphor, and is apt at times to substitute ingenious simile for patient proof. We have to be on our guard against this image-maker, as one bewares of a jeweler, or a real-estate poet—while recognizing gratefully, in Creative Evolution, our century’s first philosophic masterpiece.*

* As with Schopenhauer, so with, Bergson, the reader will do well to pass by all summaries and march resolutely through the philosopher’s chef-d’oeuvre itself. Wildon Carr’s exposition is unduly worshipful, Hugh Elliott’s unduly disparaging; they cancel each other into confusion. The Introduction to Metaphysics is as simple as one may expect of metaphysics; and the essay on Laughter, though one-sided, is enjoyable and fruitful.

Bergson is very clear in his language. If he is occasionally obscure it is because of his excessive use of metaphors.

Perhaps Bergson would have been wiser to base his criticism of the intellect on the grounds of a broader intelligence, rather than on the ukases of intuition. Introspective intuition is as fallible as external sense; each must be tested and corrected by matter-of-fact experience; and each can be trusted only so far as its findings illumine and advance our action. Bergson presumes too much in supposing that the intellect catches only the states, and not the flux, of reality and life; thought is a stream of transitive ideas, as James had shown before Bergson wrote; “ideas” are merely points that memory selects in the flow of thought; and the mental current adequately reflects the continuity of perception and the movement of life.

Bergson presumes too much in supposing that the intellect catches only the states, and not the flux, of reality and life. He puts intuition above the intellect. But intuition is just as fallible as the intellect, and must be tested and corrected by matter-of-fact experience.

It was a wholesome thing that this eloquent challenge should check the excesses of intellectualism; but it was as unwise to offer intuition in the place of thought as it would be to correct the fancies of youth, with the fairy-tales of childhood. Let us correct our errors forward, not backward. To say that the world suffers from too much intellect would require the courage of a madman. The romantic protest against thinking, from Rousseau and Chateaubriand to Bergson and Nietzsche and James, has done its work; we will agree to dethrone the Goddess of Reason if we are not asked to re-light the candles before the ikon of Intuition. Man exists by instinct, but he progresses by intelligence.

Man exists by instinct, but he progresses by intelligence. We need a balance of both intuition and intellect.

That which is best in Bergson is his attack upon materialist mechanism. Our pundits of the laboratory had become a little too confident of their categories, and thought to squeeze all the cosmos into a test-tube. Materialism is like a grammar that recognizes only nouns; but reality, like language, contains action as well as objects, verbs as well as substantives, life and motion as well as matter. One could understand, perhaps, a merely molecular memory, like the “fatigue” of overburdened steel; but molecular foresight, molecular planning, molecular idealism?—Had Bergson met these new dogmas with a cleansing skepticism he might have been a little less constructive, but he would have left himself less open to reply. His doubts melt away when his system begins to form; he never stops to ask what “matter” is; whether it may not be somewhat less inert than we have thought; whether it may be, not life’s enemy, but life’s willing menial if life but knew its mind. He thinks of the world and the spirit, of body and soul, of matter and life, as hostile to each other; but matter and body and the “world” are merely the materials that wait to be formed by intelligence and will. And who knows that these things too are not forms of life, and auguries of mind? Perhaps here too, as Heraclitus would say, there are gods.

That which is best in Bergson is his attack upon materialist mechanism. Reality contains life and motion as well as matter. Bergson thinks of the world and the spirit, of body and soul, of matter and life, as hostile to each other; but they are merely the materials that wait to be formed by intelligence and will.

Bergson’s critique of Darwinism issues naturally from his vitalism. He carries on the French tradition established by Lamarck, and sees impulse and desire as active forces in evolution; his spirited temper rejects the Spencerian conception of an evolution engineered entirely by the mechanical integration of matter and dissipation of motion; life is a positive power, an effort that builds its organs through the very persistence of its desires. We must admire the thoroughness of Bergson’s biological preparation, his familiarity with the literature, even with the periodicals in which current science hides itself for a decade of probation. He offers his erudition modestly, never with the elephantine dignity that weighs down the pages of Spencer. All in all, his criticism of Darwin has proved effective; the specifically Darwinian features of the evolution theory are now generally abandoned.*

* Bergson’s arguments, however, are not all impregnable: the appearance of similar effects (like sex or sight) in different lines might be the mechanical resultant of similar environmental exigencies; and many of the difficulties of Darwinism would find a solution if later research should justify Darwin’s belief in the partial transmission of characters repeatedly acquired by successive generations.

Bergson rejects the Spencerian conception of an evolution engineered entirely by the mechanical integration of matter and dissipation of motion. Life is a positive power, an effort that builds its organs through the very persistence of its desires.

In many ways the relation of Bergson to the age of Darwin is a replica of Kant’s relation to Voltaire. Kant strove to repulse that great wave of secular, and partly atheistic, intellectualism which had begun with Bacon and Descartes, and had ended in the skepticism of Diderot and Hume; and his effort took the line of denying the finality of intellect in the field of transcendental problems. But Darwin unconsciously, and Spencer consciously, renewed the assaults which Voltaire, and his more-than-Voltairean followers, had leveled at the ancient faith; and mechanist materialism, which had given ground before Kant and Schopenhauer, had won all of its old power at the beginning of our century. Bergson attacked it, not with a Kantian critique of knowledge, nor with the idealist contention that matter is known only through mind; but by following the lead of Schopenhauer, and seeking, in the objective as well as in the subjective world, an energizing principle, an active entelechy, which might make more intelligible the miracles and subtleties of life. Never was Vitalism so forcefully argued, or so attractively dressed.

Bergson sought in the objective as well as in the subjective world, an energizing principle, an active entelechy, which might make more intelligible the miracles and subtleties of life.

Bergson soared to an early popularity because he had come to the defense of hopes which spring eternally in the human breast. When people found that they could believe in immortality and deity without losing the respect of philosophy, they were pleased and grateful; and Bergson’s lecture-room became the salon of splendid ladies happy to have their heart’s desires upheld with such learned eloquence. Strangely mingled with them were the ardent syndicalists who found in Bergson’s critique of intellectualism a justification of their gospel of “less thought and more action.” But this sudden popularity exacted its price; the contradictory nature of Bergson’s support disintegrated his following; and Bergson may share the fate of Spencer, who lived to be present at the burial of his own reputation.

Bergson soared to an early popularity because he had come to the defense of hopes which spring eternally in the human breast. But the contradictory nature of Bergson’s support disintegrated his following.

Yet, of all contemporary contributions to philosophy, Bergson’s is the most precious. We needed his emphasis on the elusive contingency of things, and the remoulding activity of mind. We were near to thinking of the world as a finished and pre-determined show, in which our initiative was a self-delusion, and our efforts a devilish humor of the gods; after Bergson we come to see the world as the stage and the material of our own originative powers. Before him we were cogs and wheels in a vast and dead machine; now, if we wish it, we can help to write our own parts in the drama of creation.

Bergson’s contribution to philosophy, however, is quite precious. Before him we were cogs and wheels in a vast and dead machine. After him we come to see the world as the stage and the material of our own originative powers. 

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