The Sting of a Philosopher’s Rejection, Research Time, 23/09/2013

In the last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about Bergson’s philosophy, its fascinating creative insights and the saddening ingenuity even of its blind alleys. I think his work is among the most interesting for philosophers to study, if only because he seems to stand outside all the major trends and -isms of the last two hundred years of philosophy. He came of age in a century that, in our official histories of philosophy at least, never escaped the shadow of Hegel. Yet Bergson developed his first major philosophical work, Time and Free Will, in the shadow of Zeno and Bishop Berkeley of all people.

I have many issues with Bergson's philosophy,
most obviously my problems with his accounts
of evolutionary biology. But his theories and
concepts do not deserve the blanket dismissal
they received for so long.
That turn in Bergson’s career I discussed last week is equally fascinating to me, how he could turn so quickly from an internationally famous public intellectual to a laughable pariah, little more than someone to laugh at. In the early 1900s, Bergson stoked a friendship with American psychologist/philosopher William James that has become a minor legend in some circles of philosophy. A few decades later, Bertrand Russell led the intellectual world in mocking Bergson as a deluded old mystic whose books were barely worth storing in a library. His Nobel Prize was awarded for literature, even though he never wrote a word of fiction. Bergson considered all his books parts of an argument that sought a universally objective truth, the continuing success of pure reason. Yet in the address of the Nobel committee praising his work, they say:
As stylist and as poet, he yields place to none of his contemporaries; in their strictly objective search for truth, all his aspirations are animated by a spirit of freedom which, breaking the servitude that matter imposes, makes room for idealism.”
His arguments are not about truth, but about poetry and inspiration. What happened?

I think it was the dispute with Einstein. It was a public embarrassment for him, simply because so many other influential intellectuals heard about this and turned against him. It would take me too long to go into the full story by myself, and someone has already done it for me. In particular, I mean Jimena Canales, in her 2006 article “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations.” You can read the whole article at this link, and I strongly recommend its artful blend of historical scholarship and philosophical reflection. 

This is my favourite kind of research about the history of philosophy: examining how non-philosophical features influence what we think about philosophies themselves. The widespread uptake of Bergson’s and Einstein’s fights over the 1920s was that Bergson tried to disprove special relativity with reference to his own theory of duration, but understood so little of the new physics involved that he was laughed out of the room. Bergson himself had won national prizes in mathematics as a young man in the nineteenth century. He was certainly not ignorant of the science. He pitched his own theory of time not as an alternative to relativity, but as a supplement. Indeed, in his last major published book, the essay collection published in English as The Creative Mind, he described his philosophy as about the subjective experience of time, and discussed the goal of his most derided book, Duration and Simultaneity, as to reconcile the mathematical understanding of time as space-like with the everyday experience of time’s passage and flow. Yet no one gave Bergson the benefit of the doubt after Einstein stopped giving him the time of day.

And Canales’ research shows that the bulk of their disagreement had nothing to do with their theories at all. Einstein disagreed with Bergson’s wanting to give a place for the subjective intuition of time in an account of reality. But the real source of tension between them was over the International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation (CIC). This was the forerunner to UNESCO at the League of Nations, a forum for leading intellectuals from around the world to collaborate and discuss the issues of the day in science, wider human knowledge, and politics. International cooperation between intellectuals was seen as a forerunner to cooperation among states and peoples.

Like most of the approach of the League of Nations, it was flawed. It was too top-down in its organization, for one. The goal was to attract already-established leading intellectual figures — stars of the sciences, humanities, and arts. It was essentially a place for intellectual celebrities. The entire premise of the organization didn’t understand that real peace is built among ordinary people, not among those who have already become exceptional and well-known through growing up in the old system. But one figure who was dedicated to this organization as a means to build peace was Henri Bergson.

And Bergson, along with the other members and organizers of the CIC tried to get Einstein on board, as the other biggest intellectual celebrity of the time. But Einstein continued to keep the CIC at arm’s length, not trusting whether the organization was truly ready to overcome the prejudices still in place since the last war. Einstein doubted that the CIC could become truly international, seeing its steering committees stacked with French figures and officials, and seeing Bergson as tolerating and encouraging the CIC to become more French. Bergson seems to have been so naive as to not even believe it to be a problem that more people in decision-making positions at the CIC were French, and that its headquarters was to be Paris, and that no German other than Einstein was ever approached for a leadership role. 

This conflict over international politics between an already world-weary Einstein and a naive Bergson, not the disagreement over their theories of time, truly sealed the end of any good spirits between them. But when philosophers discuss the history of philosophy as a discipline, we so rarely pay attention to the non-philosophical factors in its development, like this. I had originally planned an entire post-doctoral project on a kind of historiography of the history of philosophy. I would examine several key issues and developments in the history of analytic philosophy and show how political and social factors shaped them just as much as the purely conceptual arguments. And I would look at many histories of analytic philosophy that have already been written, trying to understand why we take the a-worldly perspective in writing philosophical history. 

I never got the funding for this project, I suspect because it was, on paper, too much of a departure from my doctoral work. But this notion that the development of a discipline is shaped by extra-disciplinary matters has never left my concerns, and has come to underlie my approaches to my more conceptually rarefied projects since the idea first came to be in 2010. I hope, slowly, to gain enough knowledge to write that project, and that people can learn from it. Especially philosophers, whose histories sometimes turn away from the ways we’re influenced by the messy world.

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