Ode to the Unjustly Forgotten: Henri Bergson, A History Boy, 28/07/2013

I can write so much about Henri Bergson. This is a Sunday post, so I’m not going to write very much. And because I can write so much about Bergson, I’m going to concentrate on doing most of that in peer-reviewed journals of continental philosophy, because those are likely venues to publish writing about Bergson, and will continue bulking up my already impressive CV. 

Bergson, who in his day was
considered a contender in
philosophy for G.O.A.T.
Today, I simply want to say that Bergson should be remembered. And not only by Thomas Nagel. By anyone interested in a fascinating figure of the history of philosophy. He was dismissed as a mystic because of his concept of élan vital, a vital force that was the progressive energy of biological evolution, which was translated badly into English. Many people thought Bergson was actually talking about a mystical force, and his analysis of prophetic mysticism as religion’s progressive form in his last major book, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, didn’t help deny that. But if you look at how he developed the concept in Creative Evolution, his most popularly successful book, élan vital is conceived as simply the tendency to complexify, for the unicellular to become multicellular, for life to bifurcate into plants and animals, insects and mammals. I mean, it’s still a strange concept. But it isn’t a stupid concept, as his generally terrible reputation implies.

Gilles Deleuze’s book Bergsonism goes into the details of his philosophy, and the reasons for his eclipse much better than I can in a single post. This book was my first detailed exposure to Bergson’s ideas, having read it for the first time in, I think, 2005. While I didn’t fully see all their implications, I was fascinated. I only really got into Bergson seriously myself after my PhD supervisor did, devoting his winter semester graduate seminar in 2011 to examining all four of Bergson's major books.

But I think it’s important to understand Bergson as a philosopher with intriguing ideas, a man from whom we can learn much. He was both an easy and a difficult writer. Reading his books is a joy, each sentence a beautifully clear explanation of at times strange and difficult concepts. He would take concepts developed from one argument and bring them seamlessly to another. Time and Free Will, a book about the nature of time and the problem of determinism, developed a concept of time and duration that he used to help develop his theory of how a human personality forms through memory in Matter and Memory. The concept of élan vital was developed as part of his critique of conservative Darwinist theories of evolution in Creative Evolution. Then he applies it to an exploration into what constitutes human progress in Two Sources.

But he would write a new book with absolutely no recap of the last one, even though each new book pushed the conclusions of the previous book into new territories. I think Bergson made many mistakes and wrong turns. But even his mistakes contain much from which we can learn, seeing how and why he went wrong, but being able to rescue those ideas and apply them better today. Or seeing how issues which confuse us today can be clarified and progressed by seeing what Bergson had to say.

More than that, he was the first philosophical celebrity in the contemporary era of mass media. The first traffic jam in human history was caused by people rushing to reach a public lecture Bergson was giving in New York. If he were alive today, he’d be a youtube sensation and a top download on iTunes U. And just like in the heyday of his public popularity in the 1910s and 20s, no one would know what to make of him.

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