The Philosophy of Henri Bergson

Schopenhauer’s thought impinges considerably not only on the thought of Nietzsche but also on Bergson’s philosophy and his theories of art and humor. Notwithstanding his self-dissociation from Schopenhauer,1 Bergson’s philosophy stands in direct line of descent. In fact, his student and translator T. E. Hulme saw the commensurability more clearly than his former master. In his essay Bergson’s Theory of Art (ca. 1913), Hulme comments that Bergson’s aesthetic theory “is exactly the same as Schopenhauer’s” but devoid of the latter’s “cumbrous” metaphysical machinery. Yet Hulme sees Bergson’s theory of art as an integral extension of his philosophy, the great advantage of this theory being that “it removes your account of art from the merely literary level,” being rather “part of a definite conception of reality.”2 This insight of Hulme’s may help us understand why so many later nineteenth-century thinkers, including Eliot, the French symbolists, humanists such as Arnold, and philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Bergson, called for a unity of philosophy and poetry. Behind this was a desire to define the aesthetic as a form of perception of reality: poetry could not take for granted the reality it was to express.

00-henri-bergson_93277-crop_1000_420_90_c1Bergson’s philosophy was expressed in his Creative Evolution (1907), where he had argued that what is most real is precisely what philosophers since Plato have condemned as unreal: time. Both Plato and Plotinus considered the temporal world as a degradation of the eternal. The main streams of Christian theology retained this hierarchy in broadened theological contexts. Bergson’s controversial ideas took root in an early twentieth-century intellectual climate exhausted by the tyranny of technology, science, industrial growth, and reason. Bergson attempted to situate reason within a larger context of evolutionary balance between instinct and intellect. For Bergson what is most real is the continuity of immediate experience. The intellect narrowly equates understanding this continuity with immobilizing it, breaking it up into timeless discrete sections. In affirming the reality of time rather than of eternity, Bergson was challenging both the classical Christian legacy and the various strands of Enlightenment thought which had attempted to overturn this. He was returning to the immediacy and authenticity of experience as against the conceptual and linguistic reduction of such experience to conventional categories, whether in the name of feudal Christianity, Enlightenment reason, or conservative humanism. Bergson’s notion of durée placed emphasis on the human personality, as the locus of the primary reality, duration: “There is at least one reality which we all seize from within, by intuition and not by simple analysis. It is our own person in its flowing through time, the self which endures” (CM, 162).

Like Schopenhauer, Bergson ascribes unique powers to art, whose essence he also sees as irony (CM, 27–28). Bergson’s theory of art also emerges as a reaction against, and transcendence of, bourgeois practical and utilitarian ways of thinking. He suggestst that, in everyday life, a veil is interposed between ourselves and nature: our understanding and our senses, conditioned by our needs, furnishes a merely utilitarian, “practical simplication” of reality. We classify things only with a view to their use and it is this classification we ordinarily perceive. We see not actual things but their labels; their individuality escapes us. For example, we do not perceive this table but a table. These utilitarian habits of perception are mediated through language; words denote genera, not individual things (Laughter, 158–160).3

The veil is transparent only to the artist and poet. The poet exercises a “virginal” manner of perception, being more detached from life and, as in Schopenhauer’s account, more objective since his perceptions are not riveted to practical need. Hence the poet, brushing aside the conventional generalities, has a more direct vision of reality: it is precisely a withdrawal from utilitarian existence, a retreat into ideality, that enables a resumption of contact with the fluid reality lying beneath its own practically simplified and categorized molds. Again, this applies to the inner as well as the outer reality: the artist and poet aim to dissolve this outer crust of the social self, bringing us back to the inner temporal core of ourselves. Hence the poet and artist aim at what is truly individual (Laughter, 160–166). It is clear that there are profound affiliations between Bergson, Baudelaire, and the French symbolists. Enid Starkie cites their common reaction against positivism and materialism, their conceptions of nature and intuition, their view of ultimate reality as ineffable, and their exaltation of the role of poet and artist.4 Yet there is a contrast between Bergson’s critique of bourgeois society and those advanced by the French symbolists and Eliot. Bergson’s critique, like Schopenhauer’s, is debilitated by its ahistorical foundation: what are actually tendencies of a specific era of bourgeois predominance – such as mechanization, exhaustion of individual by group identity, transformation of human into thing – are ascribed by Bergson indiscriminately to “society.” In his essay on Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin observes that, while for Bergson memory structures the pattern of experience, he yet rejects any historical determination of memory.5 Benjamin argues that it is Baudelaire rather than Bergson, the poet rather than the philosopher, who has grasped the historical significance of “bourgeois” experience.6

Integral to the views of art formulated by thinkers and poets in the heterological tradition are their views of language. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the French symbolists, and Bergson, as well as the modernists who were influenced by this tradition, opposed the bourgeois positivism, scientism, and mechanism embodied in literal language. For all of these writers, a subversion of literal language was the vehicle of access into a deeper reality. This subversion hinges on two broad strategies: first, a dislocation of the syntactical structure of language, the effect of which is to emphasize language as a temporal process rather than viewing it as a spatialized system of conventional concepts. Secondly, literal language is situated as merely one among several registers which undermine it. Such a radical treatment of language is much more than “literary” experimentation; it is a symptom of transformed metaphysical and political premises, embodying a rejection of the world as given, as composed of discrete objects and appearances, and an idealistic attempt to reach a higher reality through art, especially through poetry.

According to Bergson, language is inescapably general; it can never express the true individuality of an object or situation. The most basic premise of Bergson’s aesthetics is that art creates novelty. Whereas language is spatial, art is temporal, expressing duration, expressing the authentic flow of experience which is encrusted over by language. The poet’s business, then, is to rebel against the generality and conventionality of language. The poet individuates by deploying the materiality of language, treating words as sharing the same individual material status as other objects in the world rather than as universal meanings or atemporal signs of objects. The reality suggested by a poem is partly that envisaged by Bergson: a perpetual flux which always exceeds the linguistic categories of its attempted imprisonment. It is a world where, as urged by Schopenhauer, the “knowledge” offered by the intellect clashes with the deliverances of sense; where bourgeois rationality emerges in its impoverishment and limitation, unable to counter or exceed the authority of immediate experience. For these thinkers, poetry is effectively the conclusion and resting place of philosophy.


1 Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 30. Hereafter cited as CM.
2 The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme, ed. Karen Csengeri (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 193–194, 204.
3 Henri Bergson, Le Rire: Essai sur la Signification du Comique (Paris: Alcan, 1900). All references are to the following, easily accessible, translation: An Essay on Comedy: George Meredith; Laughter: Henri Bergson, introd. W. Sypher (New York: Doubleday, 1956). Hereafter cited as Laughter.
4 See, for example, Enid Starkie, “Bergson and Literature,” in The Bergsonian Heritage, ed. T. Hanna (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1962), pp. 78–79, 84–85, 88, 95.
5 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn (1955; rpt. Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1977), p. 159.
6 Ibid., p. 187.

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