Sources returnpage

Bergson, Henri

Category: Philosopher

Henri-Louis Bergson (1859 –1941) was a major French philosopher, influential especially in the first half of the 20th century. He was greatly praised in his lifetime.  He was awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature "in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented". In 1930, France awarded him its highest honour, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d'honneur.

But he also came in for a lot of criticism and the criticism came mostly from those who had no interest in anything spiritual or related to anything other than a material universe.  Where criticism is levelled at his ideas it still comes from these sources.  Clever men but not wise men.

The Roman Catholic Church  took the step of banning Bergson's three books,  placing them upon the Index of prohibited books (Decree of 1 June 1914).  This is always a good sign for the spiritual traveller, as it means whoever has been singled out has come  too near the truth and the dogma needed for power is under threat.  Here is a wonderful quote

“ the teachers and professors of the French Third Republic accused him of spiritualism”!

Henri's sister Moina

Indeed they might, for Bergson was indeed a very very spiritual man.  His father,  was of a Polish Jewish family background.  His mother, daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, was from an English and Irish Jewish background. A heady combination.  But this does not quite show the full picture.  So we need to add that Bergson's sister, married the English occult author Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  Bergson also became the President of  the British Society for Psychical Research, and delivered to the Society an impressive address: Phantoms of Life and Psychic Research (Fantômes des vivants et recherche psychique).

Then there are his lecture subjects, for example, : Spirituality and Freedom;  also the one given in France, L'Âme et le Corps, which contains the substance of the four London lectures on the Soul.

 

There are his articles.  He contributed to the Revue de métaphysique et de morale, a very important essay entitled Introduction to Metaphysics (Introduction à la metaphysique).  As many of Bergson's contributions to French periodicals remained relatively inaccessible, he agreed  to have such works collected and published in two volumes. The first of these  bears the title Spiritual Energy: Essays and Lectures (reprinted as Mind-Energy) (L'Energie spirituelle: essais et conférences).  Other articles include Dreams.

 Henri Hude “ alleges that a mystical experience, roughly outlined at the end of Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, is the inner principle of his whole philosophy

Not one experience, in fact, but a whole series of experiences, which is why he placed such emphasis in his books on 'inspiration' or as he called it 'intuition'.  Bergson even managed to convince many fellow philosophers that intuition is more significant than intellect and reason in both the arts and sciences.

What he was actually advocating was spiritual experience as the means of understanding 'the truth' – reality.  Intellect as far as Bergson was concerned only got you so far.  It helped you organise, maybe classify, maybe invent man made systems, but it totally blocked you in understanding the nature of the universe.   Intelligence, for Bergson, was a practical faculty, a product of evolution used by man to survive.  It gave you knowledge of sorts, but it did not give you wisdom.

 

“only  through the use of intuition, can one gain an understanding of the absolute and  of reality”.

 And he knew this to be true because that is what helped him write his books.  He combined observation and careful study with inspiration.  His four principal books are philosophical works, but they are not written using the hard slog of intellect and reason, they are observation coupled with pure inspiration and wisdom: 

  • Time and Free Will – 1889 -  (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience)
  • Matter and Memory – 1896 -  (Matière et mémoire)
  • Creative Evolution – 1907 -  (L'Evolution créatrice)
  • The Two Sources of Morality and Religion – 1932 -  (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion)

 All four books have been of inestimable value to me and the Model of spiritual experience was helped by having his books confirm what was, for me, also inspiration.   Matter and Memory covers the functions of the brain – so mind - and undertakes an analysis of perception and memory, learning and memory recall as well as reasoning.

I have been able to incorporate his ideas on emotion [he proposed the idea of a sliding scale of emotion], his concept of the will and his ideas on creativity and the role of spiritual experience as the driver to imagination.

 

In the Creative Evolution, Bergson provides an example of the limitations of reason and deduction.  Reason alone would never have been able to deduce that it was possible for the human being to swim, as it cannot deduce swimming from walking. For swimming to be possible, man must throw itself in water, and this requires an impulse that tells him it is possible to do this safely.  This is inspiration – help from the spiritual world.  For which, incidentally, you need faith!

So a wonderful man, less of a philosopher, and more a mystic.  I don't know what methods he used to obtain his experiences, but there is the hint that it was a form of relaxation.  But he was also very ill and like many of his day may have been helped a little by laudanum.

As he said “Pride, like laudanum and other poisonous medicines, is beneficial in small, though injurious in large quantities”.

Bergson lived with his wife and deaf daughter in a modest house in a quiet street near the Porte d'Auteuil in Paris.  When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927 he was so ill with serious rheumatoid arthritis that  he could not travel to Stockholm.  Eventually he was left half paralysed.   On 3 January 1941 Bergson died in occupied Paris from bronchitis.

William James,  in his Letters under date of 4 October 1908, said:

So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy.

Well I hope so.

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.