Henri Bergson – Creative Evolution (1907, trans 1911)

Page numbers refer to Dover edition (1988)

Wants to bring together a theory of knowledge with a theory of life. The book reads like a polemic against interpeters of evolution that reduce that process to a mechanical chain ending in man as currently understood. Spencer’s thoery of evolution is wrong precisely because it interprets “evolution” from the standpoint of man as the finished product. There are “other forms of consciousness” that are eccentric to that narrative, and that exist in a register invisible to modes of understanding (dividing, solid, etc.), but nevertheless form “the luminous nucleus that we call the intellect” (xii). [Connect this with Woolf’s metaphor in Modern Fiction). The first chapter “tries on the ready-made  garments of mechanism and finality,” which neatly describe the explanations of Hume and Kant [Stage this conversation–talk about how Bergson’s solution is different.

The opening discussion of duration explains how stasis itself is change: every state of being is nothing other than the change from one state to another. “For a conscious being, to exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to on creating oneself endlessly” (7). But this creative process is paired with Time’s incessant “gnawing,” an accumulative snowballing process that threatens to overwhelm the subject, it seems.

Here is Bergson’s project: “Can we say that life, like conscious activity, is invention, is unceasing creation” (23)? My question: is Bergson articulating the subject that Marxism never could?

Radical mechanism is rejected, but finalist (teleology) is maintained in altered form. basically, Bergson wants to distinguish from assigning finite ends to particular objects, buts wants to maintain a sense of order that is defined precisely by its tendency to change. This rises above mechanism and finalism, because it renders the “variations” of nature non-accidental. It renders accident as somehow necessary….This converges with bergson’s thoughts on repetition: there is never repetition, only repetition with a difference (the accidental is therefore immanent to persistence of identity over time).The WILL is precisely that which does not counterfeit the intellectual modes of thought that abstract life as mere repetition, but partakes in evolution as such.

Another way to differ Bergson from, say, Kant, is that their ideas of how life proceeds to a particular goal are divergent. Bergson writes, “Life does not proceed by the association and addition of elements, but by disassociation and division.” Work out this in terms of Darwin, perhaps. ??? (89)

Bergson also has some curious stuff on the artist. Before we are willing, creative artists fashioning unforeseeable things, we are artisans that merely organize things within the boundaries of repetition. (45)

The next chapter is a critique of other philosophies of nature: Aristotle in particular, but Hegel is implied. The mistake is to see in vegetative torpor, animalistic instinct, and intelligence the very same tendency. Bergson says: no. They are three divergent directions of evolution they are successively disassociated. They are not a difference of intensity, but of kind (135). But they are interrelated. Consciousness (intelligence) is strictly negative: it measures the difference between the potential and the actual, between idea and act. It marks the deficit of instinct that gives rise to consciousness, which is in turn the starting point of instinct itself (145). He will say it otherwise: instinct is knowledge of matter, while intellect is knowledge of a form. Or, put yet another way: intelligence looks for things that it cannot find without instinct. Instinct alone can find these things, but it will not look (151). [Recapitulation of Schiller] Instinct/Intuition and intelligence comprise the ultimate tension within evolution as a whole (185).

The next chapter opens with a revision of Kant. The transcendental aesthetic spatializes all experience–Bergson claims that Kant gives an inadequate account of experience, describing instead what the intellect has already chopped up into intelligible chunks. Bergons will identify this as one of two processes that constitute life in general and distinguishes evolution from mere accident. Creative action, in fact, is nothing other than the “instantaneous cut” on a flux (249). Thus art can attain a sort of “perfect order” (223) that can “transcend finality” like creative evolution as such (224). In different terms, it will explicate this dialectic in terms of a global economy of energy: “a gradual accumulation of energy” and “an elastic canalization of this energy in variable and indeterminable directions, at the end of which are free acts” (255), or “explosive actions” as he says elsewhere, connecting him in interesting ways to Bataille (256). The chapter ends on a very Hegelian note, bringing together subject and substance, thought and life, etc. (Parmenedies, etc.):

Finally, consciousness is essentially free; it is freedom itself; but it cannot pass through matter without settling on it, without adapting itself to it: this adaptation is what we call intellectuality; and the intellect, turning itself back toward active, that is to say, free consciousness, naturally makes it enter into the conceptual forms into which it is accustomed to see matter fit. it will therefore always see freedom as necessity; it will always neglect the part of novelty or creation inherent in the free act. (270)

And the next chapter gets really Hegelian, claiming that we need to pay more attention to the “nought,” which is the secret motor of philosophical thought. The difference is that Bergson has intuition do a lot of the work that self-consciousness would do in Hegel, but still, a little fn. on Hegel would be nice. For Bergson, experience confronts us as becoming, which we then convert into something more static–“the mind seeks something that defies change” (314). This turns into a critique of Kant’s spatializing of experience. He cannot account for time spread out in space and real substantial duration (360). He can account for things that are sprung, but not grasp their “springing forth” (361). Thus Kant conflates sensuous experience with the cognitive faculty, both of which impose a form on external phenomena. Bergson asks, isn’t there a space for life? In Kant, perhaps, it is only the feeling of Life.






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