Part 1 out of 3
A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson
Edouard le Roy
Translated from the French by
This little book is due to two articles published under the same title in
the "Revue des Deux Mondes", 1st and 15th February 1912.
Their object was to present Mr Bergson's philosophy to the public at large,
giving as short a sketch as possible, and describing, without too minute
details, the general trend of his movement. These articles I have here
reprinted intact. But I have added, in the form of continuous notes, some
additional explanations on points which did not come within the scope of
investigation in the original sketch.
I need hardly add that my work, though thus far complete, does not in any
way claim to be a profound critical study. Indeed, such a study, dealing
with a thinker who has not yet said his last word, would today be
premature. I have simply aimed at writing an introduction which will make
it easier to read and understand Mr Bergson's works, and serve as a
preliminary guide to those who desire initiation in the new philosophy.
I have therefore firmly waived all the paraphernalia of technical
discussions, and have made no comparisons, learned or otherwise, between Mr
Bergson's teaching and that of older philosophies.
I can conceive no better method of misunderstanding the point at issue, I
mean the simple unity of productive intuition, than that of pigeon-holing
names of systems, collecting instances of resemblance, making up analogies,
and specifying ingredients. An original philosophy is not meant to be
studied as a mosaic which takes to pieces, a compound which analyses, or a
body which dissects. On the contrary, it is by considering it as a living
act, not as a rather clever discourse, by examining the peculiar excellence
of its soul rather than the formation of its body, that the inquirer will
succeed in understanding it. Properly speaking, I have only applied to Mr
Bergson the method which he himself justifiably prescribes in a recent
article ("Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale", November 1911), the only
method, in fact, which is in all senses of the word fully "exact." I shall
none the less be glad if these brief pages can be of any interest to
professional philosophers, and have endeavoured, as far as possible, to
allow them to trace, under the concise formulae employed, the scheme which
I have refused to develop.
It has become evident to me that even today the interpretation of Mr
Bergson's position is in many cases full of faults, which it would
undoubtedly be worth while to assist in removing. I may or may not have
succeeded in my attempt, but such, at any rate, is the precise end I had in
In conclusion, I may say that I have not had the honour of being Mr
Bergson's pupil; and, at the time when I became acquainted with his
outlook, my own direct reflection on science and life had already produced
in me similar trains of thought. I found in his work the striking
realisation of a presentiment and a desire. This "correspondence," which I
have not exaggerated, proved at once a help and a hindrance to me in
entering into the exact comprehension of so profoundly original a doctrine.
The reader will thus understand that I think it in place to quote my
authority to him in the following lines which Mr Bergson kindly wrote me
after the publication of the articles reproduced in this volume:
"Underneath and beyond the method you have caught the intention and the
spirit...Your study could not be more conscientious or true to the
original. As it advances, condensation increases in a marked degree: the
reader becomes aware that the explanation is undergoing a progressive
involution similar to the involution by which we determine the reality of
Time. To produce this feeling, much more has been necessary than a close
study of my works: it has required deep sympathy of thought, the power, in
fact, of rethinking the subject in a personal and original manner. Nowhere
is this sympathy more in evidence than in your concluding pages, where in a
few words you point out the possibilities of further developments of the
doctrine. In this direction I should myself say exactly what you have
Paris, 28th March 1912.
Scope of Henri Bergson's Philosophy. Material and Authorities.
Investigation of Common-sense. Value of Science. Perception Discussed.
Practical Life and Reality. Concepts and Symbolism. Intuition and
Analysis. Use of Metaphor. The Philosopher's Task.
The Ego. Space and Number. Parallelism. Henri Bergson's View of Mind and
Matter. Qualitative Continuity. Memory. Real Duration Heterogeneous.
Liberty and Determinism. Meaning of Reality. Evolution and Automatism.
Triumph of Man. The Vital Impulse. Objections Refuted. Place of Religion
in the New Philosophy.
I. Henri Bergson's Work and the General Directions of Contemporary
Mathematics and Philosophy. The Inert and the Living. Realism and
Positivism. Henri Bergson and the Intuition of Duration.
Necessity of Criticism. Utilitarianism of Common-sense. Perception of
III. Theory of Perception.
Pure and Ordinary Perception. Kant's Position. Relation of Perception to
Matter. Complete Experience.
IV. Critique of Language.
Dynamic Schemes. Dangers of Language. The Eleatic Dialectic. Scientific
Thought and the Task of Intuition. Discussion of Change.
V. The Problem of Consciousness: Duration and Liberty.
States as Phases in Duration. The Scientific View of Time. Duration and
Freedom. Liberty and Determinism in the Light of Henri Bergson's
VI. The Problem of Evolution: Life and Matter.
Evolution and Creation. Laws of Conservation and Degradation. Quantity
and Quality. Secondary Value of Matter.
VII. The Problem of Knowledge: Analysis and Intuition.
Difficulties of Kant's Position. Insufficiency of Intelligence. Henri
Bergson and the Problem of Reason. Geometric and Vital Types of Order.
Moral and Religious Problems. Henri Bergson's Position.
A NEW PHILOSOPHY
There is a thinker whose name is today on everybody's lips, who is deemed
by acknowledged philosophers worthy of comparison with the greatest, and
who, with his pen as well as his brain, has overleapt all technical
obstacles, and won himself a reading both outside and inside the schools.
Beyond any doubt, and by common consent, Mr Henri Bergson's work will
appear to future eyes among the most characteristic, fertile, and glorious
of our era. It marks a never-to-be-forgotten date in history; it opens up
a phase of metaphysical thought; it lays down a principle of development
the limits of which are indeterminable; and it is after cool consideration,
with full consciousness of the exact value of words, that we are able to
pronounce the revolution which it effects equal in importance to that
effected by Kant, or even by Socrates.
Everybody, indeed, has become aware of this more or less clearly. Else how
are we to explain, except through such recognition, the sudden striking
spread of this new philosophy which, by its learned rigorism, precluded the
likelihood of so rapid a triumph?
Twenty years have sufficed to make its results felt far beyond traditional
limits: and now its influence is alive and working from one pole of
thought to the other; and the active leaven contained in it can be seen
already extending to the most varied and distant spheres: in social and
political spheres, where from opposite points, and not without certain
abuses, an attempt is already being made to wrench it in contrary
directions; in the sphere of religious speculation, where it has been more
legitimately summoned to a distinguished, illuminative, and beneficent
career; in the sphere of pure science, where, despite old separatist
prejudices, the ideas sown are pushing up here and there; and lastly, in
the sphere of art, where there are indications that it is likely to help
certain presentiments, which have till now remained obscure, to become
conscious of themselves. The moment is favourable to a study of Mr
Bergson's philosophy; but in the face of so many attempted methods of
employment, some of them a trifle premature, the point of paramount
importance, applying Mr Bergson's own method to himself, is to study his
philosophy in itself, for itself, in its profound trend and its
authenticated action, without claiming to enlist it in the ranks of any
Mr Bergson's readers will undergo at almost every page they read an intense
and singular experience. The curtain drawn between ourselves and reality,
enveloping everything including ourselves in its illusive folds, seems of a
sudden to fall, dissipated by enchantment, and display to the mind depths
of light till then undreamt, in which reality itself, contemplated face to
face for the first time, stands fully revealed. The revelation is
overpowering, and once vouchsafed will never afterwards be forgotten.
Nothing can convey to the reader the effects of this direct and intimate
mental vision. Everything which he thought he knew already finds new birth
and vigour in the clear light of morning: on all hands, in the glow of
dawn, new intuitions spring up and open out; we feel them big with infinite
consequences, heavy and saturated with life. Each of them is no sooner
blown than it appears fertile for ever. And yet there is nothing
paradoxical or disturbing in the novelty. It is a reply to our
expectation, an answer to some dim hope. So vivid is the impression of
truth, that afterwards we are even ready to believe we recognise the
revelation as if we had always darkly anticipated it in some mysterious
twilight at the back of consciousness.
Afterwards, no doubt, in certain cases, incertitude reappears, sometimes
even decided objections. The reader, who at first was under a magic spell,
corrects his thought, or at least hesitates. What he has seen is still at
bottom so new, so unexpected, so far removed from familiar conceptions.
For this surging wave of thought our mind contains none of those ready-cut
channels which render comprehension easy. But whether, in the long run, we
each of us give or refuse complete or partial adhesion, all of us, at
least, have received a regenerating shock, an internal upheaval not readily
silenced: the network of our intellectual habits is broken; henceforth a
new leaven works and ferments in us; we shall no longer think as we used to
think; and be we pupils or critics, we cannot mistake the fact that we have
here a principle of integral renewal for ancient philosophy and its old and
It is obviously impossible to sketch in brief all the aspects and all the
wealth of so original a work. Still less shall I be able to answer here
the many questions which arise. I must decide to pass rapidly over the
technical detail of clear, closely-argued, and penetrating discussions;
over the scope and exactness of the evidence borrowed from the most diverse
positive sciences; over the marvellous dexterity of the psychological
analysis; over the magic of a style which can call up what words cannot
express. The solidity of the construction will not be evidenced in these
pages, nor its austere and subtle beauty. But what I do at all costs wish
to bring out, in shorter form, in this new philosophy, is its directing
idea and general movement.
In such an undertaking, where the end is to understand rather than to
judge, criticism ought to take second place. It is more profitable to
attempt to feel oneself into the heart of the teaching, to relive its
genesis, to perceive the principle of organic unity, to come at the
mainspring. Let our reading be a course of meditation which we live. The
only true homage we can render to the masters of thought consists in
ourselves thinking, as far as we can do so, in their train, under their
inspiration, and along the paths which they have opened up.
In the case before us this road is landmarked by several books which it
will be sufficient to study one after the other, and take successively as
the text of our reflections.
In 1889 Mr Bergson made his appearance with an "Essay on the Immediate Data
This was his doctor's thesis. Taking up his position inside the human
personality, in its inmost mind, he endeavoured to lay hold of the depths
of life and free action in their commonly overlooked and fugitive
Some years later, in 1896, passing this time to the externals of
consciousness, the contact surface between things and the ego, he published
"Matter and Memory", a masterly study of perception and recollection, which
he himself put forward as an inquiry into the relation between body and
mind. In 1907 he followed with "Creative Evolution", in which the new
metaphysic was outlined in its full breadth, and developed with a wealth of
suggestion and perspective opening upon the distances of infinity;
universal evolution, the meaning of life, the nature of mind and matter, of
intelligence and instinct, were the great problems here treated, ending in
a general critique of knowledge and a completely original definition of
These will be our guides which we shall carefully follow, step by step. It
is not, I must confess, without some apprehension that I undertake the task
of summing up so much research, and of condensing into a few pages so many
and such new conclusions.
Mr Bergson excels, even on points of least significance, in producing the
feeling of unfathomed depths and infinite levels. Never has anyone better
understood how to fulfil the philosopher's first task, in pointing out the
hidden mystery in everything. With him we see all at once the concrete
thickness and inexhaustible extension of the most familiar reality, which
has always been before our eyes, where before we were aware only of the
Do not imagine that this is simply a poetical delusion. We must be
grateful if the philosopher uses exquisite language and writes in a style
which abounds in living images. These are rare qualities. But let us
avoid being duped by a show of printed matter: these unannotated pages are
supported by positive science submitted to the most minute inspection. One
day, in 1901, at the French Philosophical Society, Mr Bergson related the
genesis of "Matter and Memory".
"Twelve years or so before its appearance, I had set myself the following
problem: 'What would be the teaching of the physiology and pathology of
today upon the ancient question of the connection between physical and
moral to an unprejudiced mind, determined to forget all speculation in
which it has indulged on this point, determined also to neglect, in the
enunciations of philosophers, all that is not pure and simple statement of
fact?' I set myself to solve the problem, and I very soon perceived that
the question was susceptible of a provisional solution, and even of precise
formulation, only if restricted to the problem of memory. In memory itself
I was forced to determine bounds which I had afterwards to narrow
considerably. After confining myself to the recollection of words I saw
that the problem, as stated, was still too broad, and that, to put the
question in its most precise and interesting form, I should have to
substitute the recollection of the sound of words. The literature on
aphasia is enormous. I took five years to sift it. And I arrived at this
conclusion, that between the psychological fact and its corresponding basis
in the brain there must be a relation which answers to none of the ready-
made concepts furnished us by philosophy."
Certain characteristics of Mr Bergson's manner will be remarked throughout:
his provisional effort of forgetfulness to recreate a new and untrammelled
mind; his mixture of positive inquiry and bold invention; his stupendous
reading; his vast pioneer work carried on with indefatigable patience; his
constant correction by criticism, informed of the minutest details and
swift to follow up each of them at every turn. With a problem which would
at first have seemed secondary and incomplete, but which reappears as the
subject deepens and is thereby metamorphosed, he connects his entire
philosophy; and so well does he blend the whole and breathe upon it the
breath of life that the final statement leaves the reader with an
impression of sovereign ease.
Examples will be necessary to enable us, even to a feeble extent, to
understand this proceeding better. But before we come to examples, a
preliminary question requires examination. In the preface to his first
"Essay" Mr Bergson defined the principle of a method which was afterwards
to reappear in its identity throughout his various works; and we must
recall the terms he employed.
"We are forced to express ourselves in words, and we think, most often, in
space. To put it another way, language compels us to establish between our
ideas the same clear and precise distinctions, and the same break in
continuity, as between material objects. This assimilation is useful in
practical life and necessary in most sciences. But we are right in asking
whether the insuperable difficulties of certain philosophical problems do
not arise from the fact that we persist in placing non-spatial phenomena
next one another in space, and whether, if we did away with the vulgar
illustrations round which we dispute, we should not sometimes put an end to
That is to say, it is stated to be the philosopher's duty from the outset
to renounce the usual forms of analytic and synthetic thought, and to
achieve a direct intuitional effort which shall put him in immediate
contact with reality. Without doubt it is this question of method which
demands our first attention. It is the leading question. Mr Bergson
himself presents his works as "essays" which do not aim at "solving the
greatest problems all at once," but seek merely "to define the method and
disclose the possibility of applying it on some essential points."
(Preface to "Creative Evolution".) It is also a delicate question, for it
dominates all the rest, and decides whether we shall fully understand what
is to follow.
We must therefore pause here a moment. To direct us in this preliminary
study we have an admirable "Introduction to Metaphysis", which appeared as
an article in the "Metaphysical and Moral Review" (January 1903): a short
but marvellously suggestive memoire, constituting the best preface to the
reading of the books themselves. We may say in passing, that we should be
grateful to Mr Bergson if he would have it bound in volume form, along with
some other articles which are scarcely to be had at all today.
Every philosophy, prior to taking shape in a group of co-ordinated theses,
presents itself, in its initial stage, as an attitude, a frame of mind, a
method. Nothing can be more important than to study this starting-point,
this elementary act of direction and movement, if we wish afterwards to
arrive at the precise shade of meaning of the subsequent teaching. Here is
really the fountain-head of thought; it is here that the form of the future
system is determined, and here that contact with reality takes effect.
The last point, particularly, is vital. To return to the direct view of
things beyond all figurative symbols, to descend into the inmost depths of
being, to watch the throbbing life in its pure state, and listen to the
secret rhythm of its inmost breath, to measure it, at least so far as
measurement is possible, has always been the philosopher's ambition; and
the new philosophy has not departed from this ideal. But in what light
does it regard its task? That is the first point to clear up. For the
problem is complex, and the goal distant.
"We are made as much, and more, for action than for thought," says Mr
Bergson; "or rather, when we follow our natural impulse, it is to act that
we think." ("L'Evolution Creatrice", page 321.) And again, "What we
ordinarily call a fact is not reality such as it would appear to an
immediate intuition, but an adaptation of reality to practical interests
and the demands of social life." ("Matiere et Memoire", page 201.) Hence
the question which takes precedence of all others is: to distinguish in
our common representation of the world, the fact in its true sense from the
combinations which we have introduced in view of action and language.
Now, to rediscover nature in her fresh springs of reality, it is not
sufficient to abandon the images and conceptions invented by human
initiative; still less is it sufficient to fling ourselves into the torrent
of brute sensations. By so doing we are in danger of dissolving our
thought in dream or quenching it in night.
Above all, we are in danger of committal to a path which it is impossible
to follow. The philosopher is not free to begin the work of knowledge
again upon other planes, with a mind which would be adequate to the new and
virgin issue of a simple writ of oblivion.
At the time when critical reflection begins, we have already been long
engaged in action and science, by the training of individual life, as by
hereditary and racial experience, our faculties of perception and
conception, our senses and our understanding, have contracted habits, which
are by this time unconscious and instinctive; we are haunted by all kinds
of ideas and principles, so familiar today that they even pass unobserved.
But what is it all worth?
Does it, in its present state, help us to know the nature of a
Nothing but a methodical examination of consciousness can tell us that; and
it will take more than a renunciation of explicit knowledge to recreate in
us a new mind, capable of grasping the bare fact exactly as it is: what we
require is perhaps a penetrating reform, a kind of conversion.
The rational and perceptive function we term our intelligence emerges from
darkness through a slowly lifting dawn. During this twilight period it has
lived, worked, acted, fashioned and informed itself. On the threshold of
philosophical speculation it is full of more or less concealed beliefs,
which are literally prejudices, and branded with a secret mark influencing
its every movement. Here is an actual situation. Exemption from it is
beyond anyone's province. Whether we will or no, we are from the beginning
of our inquiry immersed in a doctrine which disguises nature to us, and
already at bottom constitutes a complete metaphysic. This we term common-
sense, and positive science is itself only an extension and refinement of
it. What is the value of this work performed without clear consciousness
or critical attention? Does it bring us into true relation with things,
into relation with pure consciousness?
This is our first and inevitable doubt, which requires solution.
But it would be a quixotic proceeding first to make a void in our mind, and
afterwards to admit into it, one by one, after investigation, such and such
a concept, or such and such a principle. The illusion of the clean sweep
and total reconstruction can never be too vigorously condemned.
Is it from the void that we set out to think? Do we think in void, and
with nothing? Common ideas of necessity form the groundwork for the
broidery of our advanced thought. Further, even if we succeeded in our
impossible task, should we, in so doing, have corrected the causes of error
which are today graven upon the very structure of our intelligence, such as
our past life has made it? These errors would not cease to act
imperceptibly upon the work of revision intended to apply the remedy.
It is from within, by an effort of immanent purgation, that the necessary
reform must be brought about. And philosophy's first task is to institute
critical reflection upon the obscure beginnings of thought, with a view to
shedding light upon its spontaneous virgin condition, but without any vain
claim to lift it out of the current in which it is actually plunged.
One conclusion is already plain: the groundwork of common-sense is sure,
but the form is suspicious.
In common-sense is contained, at any rate virtually and in embryo, all that
can ever be attained of reality, for reality is verification, not
Everything has its starting-point in construction and verification. Thus
philosophical research can only be a conscious and deliberate return to the
facts of primal intuition. But common-sense, being prepossessed in a
practical direction, has doubtless subjected these facts to a process of
interested alteration, which is artificial in proportion to the labour
bestowed. Such is Mr Bergson's fundamental hypothesis, and it is far-
reaching. "Many metaphysical difficulties probably arise from our habit of
confounding speculation and practice; or of pushing an idea in the
direction of utility, when we think we fathom it in theory; or, lastly, of
employing in thought the forms of action." (Preface to "Matter and
Memory". First edition.)
The work of reform will consist therefore in freeing our intelligence from
its utilitarian habits, by endeavouring at the outset to become clearly
conscious of them.
Notice how far presumption is in favour of our hypothesis. Whether we
regard organic life in the genesis and preservation of the individual, or
in the evolution of species, we see its natural direction to be towards
utility: but the effort of thought comes after the effort of life; it is
not added from outside, it is the continuance and the flower of the former
effort. Must we not expect from this that it will preserve its former
habits? And what do we actually observe? The first gleam of human
intelligence in prehistoric times is revealed to us by an industry; the cut
flint of the primitive caves marks the first stage of the road which was
one day to end in the most sublime philosophies. Again, every science has
begun by practical arts. Indeed, our science of today, however
disinterested it may have become, remains none the less in close relation
with the demands of our action; it permits us to speak of and to handle
things rather than to see them in their intimate and profound nature.
Analysis, when applied to our operations of knowledge, shows us that our
understanding parcels out, arrests, and quantifies, whereas reality, as it
appears to immediate intuition, is a moving series, a flux of blended
That is to say, our understanding solidifies all that it touches. Have we
not here exactly the essential postulates of action and speech? To speak,
as to act, we must have separable elements, terms and objects which remain
inert while the operation goes on, maintaining between themselves the
constant relations which find their most perfect and ideal presentment in
Everything tends, then, to incline us towards the hypothesis in question.
Let us regard it henceforward as expressing a fact.
The forms of knowledge elaborated by common-sense were not originally
intended to allow us to see reality as it is.
Their task was rather, and remains so, to enable us to grasp its practical
aspect. It is for that they are made, not for philosophical speculation.
Now these forms nevertheless have existed in us as inveterate habits, soon
becoming unconscious, even when we have reached the point of desiring
knowledge for its own sake.
But in this new stage they preserve the bias of their original utilitarian
function, and carry this mark with them everywhere, leaving it upon the
fresh tasks which we are fain to make them accomplish.
An inner reform is therefore imperative today, if we are to succeed in
unearthing and sifting, in our perception of nature, under the veinstone of
practical symbolism, the true intuitional content.
This attempt at return to the standpoint of pure contemplation and
disinterested experience is a task very different from the task of science.
It is one thing to regard more and more or less and less closely with the
eyes made for us by utilitarian evolution: it is another to labour at
remaking for ourselves eyes capable of seeing, in order to see, and not in
order to live.
Philosophy understood in this manner--and we shall see more and more
clearly as we go on that there is no other legitimate method of
understanding it--demands from us an almost violent act of reform and
The mind must turn round upon itself, invert the habitual direction of its
thought, climb the hill down which its instinct towards action has carried
it, and go to seek experience at its source, "above the critical bend where
it inclines towards our practical use and becomes, properly speaking, human
experience." ("Matter and Memory", page 203.) In short, by a twin effort
of criticism and expansion, it must pass outside common-sense and synthetic
understanding to return to pure intuition.
Philosophy consists in reliving the immediate over again, and in
interpreting our rational science and everyday perception by its light.
That, at least, is the first stage. We shall find afterwards that that is
Here is a genuinely new conception of philosophy. Here, for the first
time, philosophy is made specifically distinct from science, yet remains no
What science really does is to preserve the general attitude of common-
sense, with its apparatus of forms and principles.
It is true that science develops and perfects it, refines and extends it,
and even now and again corrects it. But science does not change either the
direction or the essential steps.
In this philosophy, on the contrary, what is at first suspected and finally
modified, is the setting of the points before the journey begins.
Not that, in saying so, we mean to condemn science; but we must recognise
its just limits. The methods of science proper are in their place and
appropriate, and lead to a knowledge which is true (though still
symbolical), so long as the object studied is the world of practical
action, or, to put it briefly, the world of inert matter.
But soul, life, and activity escape it, and yet these are the spring and
ultimate basis of everything: and it is the appreciation of this fact,
with what it entails, that is new. And yet, new as Mr Bergson's conception
of philosophy may deservedly appear, it does not any the less, from another
point of view, deserve to be styled classic and traditional.
What it really defines is not so much a particular philosophy as philosophy
itself, in its original function.
Everywhere in history we find its secret current at its task.
All great philosophers have had glimpses of it, and employed it in moments
of discovery. Only as a general rule they have not clearly recognised what
they were doing, and so have soon turned aside.
But on this point I cannot insist without going into lengthy detail, and am
obliged to refer the reader to the fourth chapter of "Creative Evolution",
where he will find the whole question dealt with.
One remark, however, has still to be made. Philosophy, according to Mr
Bergson's conception, implies and demands time; it does not aim at
completion all at once, for the mental reform in question is of the kind
which requires gradual fulfilment. The truth which it involves does not
set out to be a non-temporal essence, which a sufficiently powerful genius
would be able, under pressure, to perceive in its entirety at one view; and
that again seems to be very new.
I do not, of course, wish to abuse systems of philosophy. Each of them is
an experience of thought, a moment in the life of thought, a method of
exploring reality, a reagent which reveals an aspect. Truth undergoes
analysis into systems as does light into colours.
But the mere name system calls up the static idea of a finished building.
Here there is nothing of the kind. The new philosophy desires to be a
proceeding as much as, and even more than, to be a system. It insists on
being lived as well as thought. It demands that thought should work at
living its true life, an inner life related to itself, effective, active,
and creative, but not on that account directed towards external action.
"And," says Mr Bergson, "it can only be constructed by the collective and
progressive effort of many thinkers, and of many observers, completing,
correcting, and righting one another." (Preface to "Creative Evolution".)
Let us see how it begins, and what is its generating act.
How are we to attain the immediate? How are we to realise this perception
of pure fact which we stated to be the philosopher's first step?
Unless we can clear up this doubt, the end proposed will remain to our gaze
an abstract and lifeless ideal. This is, then, the point which requires
instant explanation. For there is a serious difficulty in which the very
employment of the word "immediate" might lead us astray.
The immediate, in the sense which concerns us, is not at all, or at least
is no longer for us the passive experience, the indefinable something which
we should inevitably receive, provided we opened our eyes and abstained
As a matter of fact, we cannot abstain from reflection: reflection is
today part of our very vision; it comes into play as soon as we open our
eyes. So that, to come on the trail of the immediate, there must be effort
and work. How are we to guide this effort? In what will this work
consist? By what sign shall we be able to recognise that the result has
These are the questions to be cleared up. Mr Bergson speaks of them
chiefly in connection with the realities of consciousness, or, more
generally speaking, of life. And it is here, in fact, that the
consequences are most weighty and far-reaching. We shall need to refer to
them again in detail. But to simplify my explanation, I will here choose
another example: that of inert matter, of the perception on which the
physical is based. It is in this case that the divergence between common
perception and pure perception, however real it may be, assumes least
Therefore it appears most in place in the sketch I desire to trace of an
exceedingly complex work, where I can only hope, evidently, to indicate the
main lines and general direction.
We readily believe that when we cast our eyes upon surrounding objects, we
enter into them unresistingly and apprehend them all at once in their
intrinsic nature. Perception would thus be nothing but simple passive
registration. But nothing could be more untrue, if we are speaking of the
perception which we employ without profound criticism in the course of our
daily life. What we here take to be pure fact is, on the contrary, the
last term in a highly complicated series of mental operations. And this
term contains as much of us as of things.
In fact, all concrete perception comes up for analysis as an indissoluble
mixture of construction and fact, in which the fact is only revealed
through the construction, and takes on its complexion. We all know by
experience how incapable the uneducated person is of explaining the simple
appearance of the least fact, without embodying a crowd of false
interpretations. We know to a less extent, but it is also true, that the
most enlightened and adroit person proceeds in just the same manner: his
interpretation is better, but it is still interpretation.
That is why accurate observation is so difficult; we see or we do not see,
we notice such and such an aspect, we read this or that, according to our
state of consciousness at the time, according to the direction of the
investigation on which we are engaged.
Who was it defined art as nature seen through a mind? Perception, too, is
This art has its processes, its conventions, and its tools. Go into a
laboratory and study one of those complex instruments which make our senses
finer or more powerful; each of them is literally a sheaf of materialised
theories, and by means of it all acquired science is brought to bear on
each new observation of the student. In exactly the same way our organs of
sense are actual instruments constructed by the unconscious work of the
mind in the course of biological evolution; they too sum up and give
concrete form and expression to a system of enlightening theories. But
that is not all. The most elementary psychology shows us the amount of
thought, in the correct sense of the term, recollection, or inference,
which enters into what we should be tempted to call pure perception.
Establishment of fact is not the simple reception of the faithful imprint
of that fact; it is invariably interpreted, systematised, and placed in
pre-existing forms which constitute veritable theoretical frames. That is
why the child has to learn to perceive. There is an education of the
senses which he acquires by long training. One day, which aid of habit, he
will almost cease to see things: a few lines, a few glimpses, a few simple
signs noted in a brief passing glance, will enable him to recognise them;
and he will hardly retain any more of reality than its schemes and symbols.
"Perception," says Mr Bergson on this subject, "becomes in the end only an
opportunity of recollection." ("Matter and Memory", page 59.)
All concrete perception, it is true, is directed less upon the present than
the past. The part of pure perception in it is small, and immediately
covered and almost buried by the contribution of memory.
This infinitesimal part acts as a bait. It is a summons to recollection,
challenging us to extract from our previous experience, and construct with
our acquired wealth a system of images which permits us to read the
experience of the moment.
With our scheme of interpretation thus constituted we encounter the few
fugitive traits which we have actually perceived. If the theory we have
elaborated adapts itself, and succeeds in accounting for, connecting, and
making sense of these traits, we shall finally have a perception properly
Perception then, in the usual sense of the word, is the resolution of a
problem, the verification of a theory.
Thus are explained "errors of the senses," which are in reality errors of
interpretation. Thus too, and in the same manner, we have the explanation
Let us take a simple example. When you read a book, do you spell each
syllable, one by one, to group the syllables afterwards into words, and the
words into phrases, thus travelling from print to meaning? Not at all:
you grasp a few letters accurately, a few downstrokes in their graphical
outline; then you guess the remainder, travelling in the reverse direction,
from a probable meaning to the print which you are interpreting. This is
what causes mistakes in reading, and the well-known difficulty in seeing
This observation is confirmed by curious experiments. Write some everyday
phrase or other on a blackboard; let there be a few intentional mistakes
here and there, a letter or two altered, or left out. Place the words in a
dark room in front of a person who, of course, does not know what has been
written. Then turn on the light without allowing the observer sufficient
time to spell the writing.
In spite of this, he will in most cases read the entire phrase, without
hesitation or difficulty.
He has restored what was missing, or corrected what was at fault.
Now, ask him what letters he is certain he saw, and you will find he will
tell you an omitted or altered letter as well as a letter actually written.
The observer then thinks he sees in broad light a letter which is not
there, if that letter, in virtue of the general sense, ought to appear in
the phrase. But you can go further, and vary the experiment.
Suppose we write the word "tumult" correctly. After doing so, to direct
the memory of the observer into a certain trend of recollection, call out
in his ear, during the short time the light is turned on, another word of
different meaning, for example, the word "railway."
The observer will read "tunnel"; that is to say, a word, the graphical
outline of which is like that of the written word, but connected in sense
with the order of recollection called up.
In this mistake in reading, as in the spontaneous correction of the
previous experiment, we see very clearly that perception is always the
fulfilment of guesswork.
It is the direction of this work that we are concerned to determine.
According to the popular idea, perception has a completely speculative
interest: it is pure knowledge. Therein lies the fundamental mistake.
Notice first of all how much more probable it is, a priori, that the work
of perception, just as any other natural and spontaneous work, should have
a utilitarian signification.
"Life," says Mr Bergson with justice, "is the acceptance from objects of
nothing but the useful impression, with the response of the appropriate
reactions." ("Laughter", page 154.)
And this view receives striking objective confirmation if, with the author
of "Matter and Memory", we follow the progress of the perceptive functions
along the animal series from the protoplasm to the higher vertebrates; or
if, with him, we analyse the task of the body, and discover that the
nervous system is manifested in its very structure as, before all, an
instrument of action. Have we not already besides proof of this in the
fact that each of us always appears in his own eyes to occupy the centre of
the world he perceives?
The "Riquet" of Anatole France voices Mr Bergson's view: "I am always in
the centre of everything, and men and beasts and things, for or against me,
range themselves around."
But direct analysis leads us still more plainly to the same conclusion.
Let us take the perception of bodies. It is easy to show--and I regret
that I cannot here reproduce Mr Bergson's masterly demonstration--that the
division of matter into distinct objects with sharp outlines is produced by
a selection of images which is completely relative to our practical needs.
"The distinct outlines which we assign to an object, and which bestow upon
it its individuality, are nothing but the graph of a certain kind of
influence which we should be able to employ at a certain point in space:
it is the plan of our future actions which is submitted to our eyes, as in
a mirror, when we perceive the surfaces and edges of things. Remove this
action, and in consequence the high roads which it makes for itself in
advance by perception, in the web of reality, and the individuality of the
body will be reabsorbed in the universal interaction which is without doubt
reality itself." Which is tantamount to saying that "rough bodies are cut
in the material of nature by a perception of which the scissors follow, in
some sort, the dotted line along which the action would pass." ("Creative
Evolution", page 12.)
Bodies independent of common experience do not then appear, to an attentive
criticism, as veritable realities which would have an existence in
themselves. They are only centres of co-ordination for our actions. Or,
if you prefer it, "our needs are so many shafts of light which, when played
upon the continuity of perceptible qualities, produce in them the outline
of distinct bodies." ("Matter and Memory", page 220.) Does not science
too, after its own fashion, resolve the atom into a centre of intersecting
relations, which finally extend by degrees to the entire universe in an
A qualitative continuity, imperceptibly shaded off, over which pass quivers
that here and there converge, is the image by which we are forced to
recognise a superior degree of reality.
But is this perceptible material, this qualitative continuity, the pure
fact in matter? Not yet. Perception, we said just now, is always in
reality complicated by memory. There is more truth in this than we had
seen. Reality is not a motionless spectrum, extending to our view its
infinite shades; it might rather be termed a leaping flame in the spectrum.
All is in passage, in process of becoming.
On this flux consciousness concentrates at long intervals, each time
condensing into one "quality" an immense period of the inner history of
things. "In just this way the thousand successive positions of a runner
contract into one single symbolic attitude, which our eye perceives, which
art reproduces, and which becomes for everybody the representation of a man
running." ("Matter and Memory", page 233.)
In the same way again, a red light, continuing one second, embodies such a
large number of elementary pulsations that it would take 25,000 years of
our time to see its distinct passage. From here springs the subjectivity
of our perception. The different qualities correspond, roughly speaking,
to the different rhythms of contraction or dilution, to the different
degrees of inner tension in the perceiving consciousness.
Pushing the case to its limits, and imagining a complete expansion, matter
would resolve into colourless disturbances, and become the "pure matter" of
the natural philosopher.
Let us now unite in one single continuity the different periods of the
preceding dialectic. Vibration, qualities, and bodies are none of them
reality by themselves; but all the same they are part of reality. And
absolute reality would be the whole of these degrees and moments, and many
others as well, no doubt. Or rather, to secure absolute intuition of
matter, we should have on the one hand to get rid of all that our practical
needs have constructed, restore on the other all the effective tendencies
they have extinguished, follow the complete scale of qualitative
concentrations and dilutions, and pass, by a kind of sympathy, into the
incessantly moving play of all the possible innumerable contractions or
resolutions; with the result that in the end we should succeed, by a
simultaneous view as it were, in grasping, according to their infinitely
various modes, the phases of this matter which, though at present latent,
admit of "perception."
Thus, in the case before us, absolute knowledge is found to be the result
of integral experience; and though we cannot attain the term, we see at any
rate in what direction we should have to work to reach it.
Now it must be stated that our realisable knowledge is at every moment
partial and limited rather than exterior and relative, for our effective
perception is related to matter in itself as the part to the whole. Our
least perceptions are actually based on pure perception, and "we are aware
of the elementary disturbances which constitute matter, in the perceptible
quality in which they suffer contraction, as we are aware of the beating of
our heart in the general feeling that we have of living." ("The Journal of
Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods", 7th July 1910.)
But the preoccupation of practical action, coming between reality and
ourselves, produces the fragmentary world of common-sense, much as an
absorbing medium resolves into separate rays the continuous spectrum of a
luminous body; whilst the rhythm of duration, and the degree of tension
peculiar to our consciousness, limit us to the apprehension of certain
What then have we to do to progress towards absolute knowledge? Not to
quit experience: quite the contrary; but to extend it and diversify it by
science, while, at the same time, by criticism, we correct in it the
disturbing effects of action, and finally quicken all the results thus
obtained by an effort of sympathy which will make us familiar with the
object until we feel its profound throbbing and its inner wealth.
In connection with this last vital point, which is decisive, call to mind a
celebrated page of Sainte-Beuve where he defines his method: "Enter into
your author, make yourself at home in him, produce him under his different
aspects, make him live, move, and speak as he must have done; follow him to
his fireside and in his domestic habits, as closely as you can...
"Study him, turn him round and round, ask him questions at your leisure;
place him before you...Every feature will appear in its turn, and take the
place of the man himself in this expression...
"An individual reality will gradually blend with and become incarnate in
the vague, abstract, and general type...There is our man..." Yes, that is
exactly what we want: it could not be better put. Transpose this page
from the literary to the metaphysical order, and you have intuition, as
defined by Mr Bergson. You have the return to immediacy.
But a new problem then arises: Is not our intuition of immediacy in danger
of remaining inexpressible? For our language has been formed in view of
practical life, not of pure knowledge.
The immediate perception of reality is not all; we have still to translate
this perception into intelligible language, into a connected chain of
concepts; failing which, it would seem, we should not have knowledge in the
strict sense of the word, we should not have truth.
Without language, intuition, supposing it came to birth, would remain
intransmissible and incommunicable, and would perish in a solitary cry. By
language alone are we enabled to submit it to a positive test: the letter
is the ballast of the mind, the body which allows it to act, and in acting
to scatter the unreal delusions of dream.
The act of pure intuition demands so great an inner tension from thought
that it can only be very rare and very fugitive: a few rapid gleams here
and there; and these dawning glimpses must be sustained, and afterwards
united, and that again is the work of language.
But while language is thus necessary, no less necessary is a criticism of
ordinary language, and of the methods familiar to the understanding. These
forms of reflected knowledge, these processes of analysis really convey
secretly all the postulates of practical action. But it is imperative that
language should translate, not betray; that the body of formulae should not
stifle the soul of intuition. We shall see in what the work of reform and
conversion imposed on the philosopher precisely consists.
The attitude of the ordinary proceedings of common thought can be stated in
a few words. Place the object studied before yourself as an exterior
"thing." Then place yourself outside it, in perspective, at points of
vantage on a circumference, whence you can only see the object of your
investigation at a distance, with such interval as would be sufficient for
the contemplation of a picture; in short, move round the object instead of
entering boldly into it. But these proceedings lead to what I shall term
analysis by concepts; that is to say, the attempt to resolve all reality
into general ideas.
What are concepts and abstract ideas really, but distant and simplified
views, species of model drawings, giving only a few summary features of
their object, which vary according to direction and angle? By means of
them we claim to determine the object from outside, as if, in order to know
it, it were sufficient to enclose it in a system of logical sides and
And perhaps in this way we do really grasp it, perhaps we do establish its
precise description, but we do not penetrate it.
Concepts translate relations resulting from comparisons by which each
object is finally expressed as a function of what it is not. They
dismember it, divide it up piece by piece, and mount it in various frames.
They lay hold of it only by ends and corners, by resemblances and
differences. Is not that obviously what is done by the converting theories
which explain the soul by the body, life by matter, quality by movements,
space itself by pure number? Is not that what is done generally by all
criticisms, all doctrines which connect one idea to another, or to a group
of other ideas?
In this way we reach only the surface of things, the reciprocal contacts,
mutual intersections, and parts common, but not the organic unity nor the
In vain we multiply our points of view, our perspectives and plane
projections: no accumulation of this kind will reconstruct the concrete
solid. We can pass from an object directly perceived to the pictures which
represent it, the prints which represent the pictures, the scheme
representing the prints, because each stage contains less than the one
before, and is obtained from it by simple diminution.
But, inversely, you may take all the schemes, prints, pictures you like--
supposing that it is not absurd to conceive as given what is by nature
interminable and inexhaustible, lending itself to indefinite enumeration
and endless development and multiplicity--but you will never recompose the
profound and original unity of the source.
How, by forcing yourself to seek the object outside itself, where it
certainly is not, except in echo and reflection, would you ever find its
intimate and specific reality? You are but condemning yourself to
symbolism, for one "thing" can only be in another symbolically.
To go further still, your knowledge of things will remain irremediably
relative, relative to the symbols selected and the points of view adopted.
Everything will happen as in a movement of which the appearance and formula
vary with the spot from which you regard it, with the marks to which you
Absolute revelation is only given to the man who passes into the object,
flings himself upon its stream, and lives within its rhythm. The thesis
which maintains the inevitable relativity of all human knowledge originates
mainly from the metaphors employed to describe the act of knowledge. The
subject occupies this point, the object that; how are we to span the
distance? Our perceptory organs fill the interval; how are we to grasp
anything but what reaches us in the receiver at the end of the wire?
The mind itself is a projecting lantern playing a shaft of light on nature;
how should it do otherwise than tint nature its own colour?
But these difficulties all arise out of the spatial metaphors employed; and
these metaphors in their turn do little but illustrate and translate the
common method of analysis by concepts: and this method is essentially
regulated by the practical needs of action and language.
The philosopher must adopt an attitude entirely inverse; not keep at a
distance from things, but listen in a manner to their inward breathing,
and, above all, supply the effort of sympathy by which he establishes
himself in the object, becomes on intimate terms with it, tunes himself to
its rhythm, and, in a word, lives it. There is really nothing mysterious
or strange in this.
Consider your daily judgments in matters of art, profession, or sport.
Between knowledge by theory and knowledge by experience, between
understanding by external analogy and perception by profound intuition,
what difference and divergence there is!
Who has absolute knowledge of a machine, the student who analyses it in
mechanical theorems, or the engineer who has lived in comradeship with it,
even to sharing the physical sensation of its laboured or easy working, who
feels the play of its inner muscles, its likes and dislikes, who notes its
movements and the task before it, as the machine itself would do were it
conscious, for whom it has become an extension of his own body, a new
sensori-motor organ, a group of prearranged gestures and automatic habits?
The student's knowledge is more useful to the builder, and I do not wish to
claim that we should ever neglect it; but the only true knowledge is that
of the engineer. And what I have just said does not concern material
objects only. Who has absolute knowledge of religion, he who analyses it
in psychology, sociology, history, and metaphysics, or he who, from within,
by a living experience, participates in its essence and holds communion
with its duration?
But the external nature of the knowledge obtained by conceptual analysis is
only its least fault. There are others still more serious.
If concepts actually express what is common, general, unspecific, what
should make us feel the need of recasting them when we apply them to a new
Does not their ground, their utility, and their interest exactly consist in
sparing us this labour?
We regard them as elaborated once for all. They are building-material,
ready-hewn blocks, which we have only to bring together. They are atoms,
simple elements--a mathematician would say prime factors--capable of
associating with infinity, but without undergoing any inner modification in
contact with it. They admit linkage; they can be attached externally, but
they leave the aggregate as they went into it.
Juxtaposition and arrangement are the geometrical operations which typify
the work of knowledge in such a case; or else we must fall back on
metaphors from some mental chemistry, such as proportioning and
In all cases, the method is still that of alignment and blending of pre-
Now the mere fact of proceeding thus is equivalent to setting up the
concept as a symbol of an abstract class. That being done, explanation of
a thing is no more than showing it in the intersection of several classes,
partaking of each of them in definite proportions: which is the same as
considering it sufficiently expressed by a list of general frames into
which it will go. The unknown is then, on principle, and in virtue of this
theory, referred to the already known; and it thereby becomes impossible
ever to grasp any true novelty or any irreducible originality.
On principle, once more, we claim to reconstruct nature with pure symbols;
and it thereby becomes impossible ever to reach its concrete reality, "the
invisible and present soul."
This intuitional coinage in fixed standard concepts, this creation of an
easily handled intellectual cash, is no doubt of evident practical utility.
For knowledge in the usual sense of the word is not a disinterested
operation; it consists in finding out what profit we can draw from an
object, how we are to conduct ourselves towards it, what label we can
suitably attach to it, under what already known class it comes, to what
degree it is deserving of this or that title which determines an attitude
we must take up, or a step we must perform. Our end is to place the object
in its approximate class, having regard to advantageous employment or to
everyday language. Then, and only then, we find our pigeon-holes all
ready-made; and the same parcel of reagents meets all cases. A universal
catechism is here in existence to meet every research; its different
clauses define so many unshifting points of view, from which we regard each
object, and our study is subsequently limited to applying a kind of
nomenclature to the preconstructed frames.
Once again the philosopher has to proceed in exactly the opposite
direction. He has not to confine himself to ready-made business concepts,
of the ordinary kind, suits cut to an average model, which fit nobody
because they almost fit everybody; but he has to work to measure,
incessantly renew his plant, continually recreate his mind, and meet each
new problem with a fresh adaptive effort. He must not go from concepts to
things, as if each of them were only the cutting-point of several
concurrent generalities, an ideal centre of intersecting abstractions; on
the contrary, he must go from things to concepts, incessantly creating new
thoughts, and incessantly recasting the old.
There could be no solution of the problem in a more or less ingenious
mosaic or tessellation of rigid concepts, pre-existing to be employed. We
need plastic fluid, supple and living concepts, capable of being
continually modelled on reality, of delicately following its infinite
curves. The philosopher's task is then to create concepts much more than
to combine them. And each of the concepts he creates must remain open and
adjustable, ready for the necessary renewal and adaptation, like a method
or a programme: it must be the arrow pointing to a path which descends
from intuition to language, not a boundary marking a terminus. In this way
only does philosophy remain what it ought to be: the examination into the
consciousness of the human mind, the effort towards enlargement and depth
which it attempts unremittingly, in order to advance beyond its present
Do you want an example? I will take that of human personality. The ego is
one; the ego is many: no one contests this double formula. But everything
admits of it; and what is its lesson to us? Observe what is bound to
happen to the two concepts of unity and multiplicity, by the mere fact that
we take them for general frames independent of the reality contained, for
detached language admitting empty and blank definition, always
representable by the same word, no matter what the circumstances: they are
no longer living and coloured ideas, but abstract, motionless, and neutral
forms, without shades or gradations, without distinction of case,
characterising two points of view from which you can observe anything and
everything. This being so, how could the application of these forms help
us to grasp the original and peculiar nature of the unity and multiplicity
of the ego? Still further, how could we, between two such entities,
statically defined by their opposition, ever imagine a synthesis?
Correctly speaking, the interesting question is not whether there is unity,
multiplicity, combination, one with the other, but to see what sort of
unity, multiplicity, or combination realises the case in point; above all,
to understand how the living person is at once multiple unity and one
multiplicity, how these two poles of conceptual dissociation are connected,
how these two diverging branches of abstraction join at the roots. The
interesting point, in a word, is not the two symbolical colourless marks
indicating the two ends of the spectrum; it is the continuity between, with
its changing wealth of colouring, and the double progress of shades which
resolve it into red and violet.
But it is impossible to arrive at this concrete transition unless we begin
from direct intuition and descend to the analysing concepts.
Again, the same duty of reversing our familiar attitude, of inverting our
customary proceeding, becomes ours for another reason. The conceptual
atomism of common thought leads it to place movement in a lower order than
rest, fact in a lower order than becoming. According to common thought,
movement is added to the atom, as a supplementary accident to a body
previously at rest; and, by becoming, the pre-existent terms are strung
together like pearls on a necklace. It delights in rest, and endeavours to
bring to rest all that moves. Immobility appears to it to be the base of
existence. It decomposes and pulverises every change and every phenomenon,
until it finds the invariable element in them. It is immobility which it
esteems as primary, fundamental, intelligible of itself; and motion, on the
contrary, which it seeks to explain as a function of immobility. And so it
tends, out of progresses and transitions, to make things. To see
distinctly, it appears to need a dead halt. What indeed are concepts but
logical look-out stations along the path of becoming? what are they but
motionless external views, taken at intervals, of an uninterrupted stream
Each of them isolates and fixes an aspect, "as the instantaneous lightning
flashes on a storm-scene in the darkness." ("Matter and Memory", page
Placed together, they make a net laid in advance, a strong meshwork in
which the human intelligence posts itself securely to spy the flux of
reality, and seize it as it passes. Such a proceeding is made for the
practical world, and is out of place in the speculative. Everywhere we are
trying to find constants, identities, non-variants, states; and we imagine
ideal science as an open eye which gazes for ever upon objects that do not
move. The constant is the concrete support demanded by our action: the
matter upon which we operate must not escape our grasp and slip through our
hands, if we are to be able to work it. The constant, again, is the
element of language, in which the word represents its inert permanence, in
which it constitutes the solid fulcrum, the foundation and landmark of
dialectic progress, being that which can be discarded by the mind, whose
attention is thus free for other tasks. In this respect analysis by
concepts is the natural method of common-sense. It consists in asking from
time to time what point the object studied has reached, what it has become,
in order to see what one could derive from it, or what it is fitting to say
But this method has only a practical reach. Reality, which in its essence
is becoming, passes through our concepts without ever letting itself be
caught, as a moving body passes fixed points. When we filter it, we retain
only its deposit, the result of the becoming drifted down to us.
Do the dams, canals, and buoys make the current of the river? Do the
festoons of dead seaweed ranged along the sand make the rising tide? Let
us beware of confounding the stream of becoming with the sharp outline of
its result. Analysis by concepts is a cinematograph method, and it is
plain that the inner organisation of the movement is not seen in the moving
pictures. Every moment we have fixed views of moving objects. With such
conceptual sections taken in the stream of continuity, however many we
accumulate, should we ever reconstruct the movement itself, the dynamic
connection, the march of the images, the transition from one view to
another? This capacity for movement must be contained in the picture
apparatus, and must therefore be given in addition to the views themselves;
and nothing can better prove how, after all, movement is never explicable
except by itself, never grasped except in itself.
But if we take movement as our principle, it is, on the contrary, possible,
and even easy, to slacken speed by imperceptible degrees, and stop dead.
From a dead stop we shall never get our movement again; but rest can very
well be conceived as the limit of movement, as its arrest or extinction;
for rest is less than movement.
In this way the true philosophical method, which is the inverse of the
common method, consists in taking up a position from the very outset in the
bosom of becoming, in adopting its changing curves and variable tension, in
sympathising with the rhythm of its genesis, in perceiving all existence
from within, as a growth, in following it in its inner generation; in
short, in promoting movement to fundamental reality, and, inversely, in
degrading fixed states to the rank of secondary and derived reality.
And thus, to come back to the example of the human personality, the
philosopher must seek in the ego not so much a ready-made unity or
multiplicity as, if I may venture the expression, two antagonistic and
correlative movements of unification and plurification.
There is then a radical difference between philosophic intuition and
conceptual analysis. The latter delights in the play of dialectic, in
fountains of knowledge, where it is interested only in the immovable
basins; the former goes back to the source of the concepts, and seeks to
possess it where it gushes out. Analysis cuts the channels; intuition
supplies the water. Intuition acquires and analysis expends.
It is not a question of banning analysis; science could not do without it,
and philosophy could not do without science. But we must reserve for it
its normal place and its just task.
Concepts are the deposited sediment of intuition: intuition produces the
concepts, not the concepts intuition. From the heart of intuition you will
have no difficulty in seeing how it splits up and analyses into concepts,
concepts of such and such a kind or such and such a shade. But by
successive analyses you will never reconstruct the least intuition, just
as, no matter how you distribute water, you will never reconstruct the
reservoir in its original condition.
Begin from intuition: it is a summit from which we can descend by infinite
slopes; it is a picture which we can place in an infinite number of frames.
But all the frames together will not recompose the picture, and the lower
ends of all the slopes will not explain how they meet at the summit.
Intuition is a necessary beginning; it is the impulse which sets the
analysis in motion, and gives it direction; it is the sounding which brings
it to solid bottom; the soul which assures its unity. "I shall never
understand how black and white interpenetrate, if I have not seen grey, but
I understand without trouble, after once seeing grey, how we can regard it
from the double point of view of black and white." ("Introduction to
Here are some letters which you can arrange in chains in a thousand ways:
the indivisible sense running along the chain, and making one phrase of it,
is the original cause of the writing, not its consequence. Thus it is with
intuition in relation to analysis. But beginnings and generative
activities are the proper object of the philosopher. Thus the conversion
and reform incumbent on him consist essentially in a transition from the
analytic to the intuitive point of view.
The result is that the chosen instrument of philosophic thought is
metaphor; and of metaphor we know Mr Bergson to be an incomparable master.
What we have to do, he says himself, is "to elicit a certain active force
which in most men is liable to be trammelled by mental habits more useful
to life," to awaken in them the feeling of the immediate, original, and
concrete. But "many different images, borrowed from very different orders
of things, can, by their convergent action, direct consciousness to the
precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized. By choosing
images as unlike as possible, we prevent any one of them from usurping the
place of the intuition it is intended to call up, since it would in that
case be immediately routed by its rivals. In making them all, despite
their different aspects, demand of our mind the same kind of attention, and
in some way the same degree of tension, we accustom our consciousness
little by little to a quite peculiar and well-determined disposition,
precisely the one which it ought to adopt to appear to itself unmasked."
("Introduction to Metaphysics".)
Strictly speaking, the intuition of immediacy is inexpressible. But it can
be suggested and called up. How? By ringing it round with concurrent
metaphors. Our aim is to modify the habits of imagination in ourselves
which are opposed to a simple and direct view, to break through the
mechanical imagery in which we have allowed ourselves to be caught; and it
is by awakening other imagery and other habits that we can succeed in so
But then, you will say, where is the difference between philosophy and art,
between metaphysical and aesthetic intuition? Art also tends to reveal
nature to us, to suggest to us a direct vision of it, to lift the veil of
illusion which hides us from ourselves; and aesthetic intuition is, in its
own way, perception of immediacy. We revive the feeling of reality
obliterated by habit, we summon the deep and penetrating soul of things:
the object is the same in both cases; and the means are also the same;
images and metaphors. Is Mr Bergson only a poet, and does his work amount
to nothing but the introduction of impressionism in metaphysics?
It is an old objection. If the truth be told, Mr Bergson's immense
scientific knowledge should be sufficient refutation.
Only those who have not read the mass of carefully proved and positive
discussions could give way thus to the impressions of art awakened by what
is truly a magic style. But we can go further and put it better.
That there are analogies between philosophy and art, between metaphysical
and aesthetic intuition, is unquestionable and uncontested.
At the same time, the analogies must not be allowed to hide the
Art is, to a certain extent, philosophy previous to analysis, previous to
criticism and science; the aesthetic intuition is metaphysical intuition in
process of birth, bounded by dream, not proceeding to the test of positive
verification. Reciprocally, philosophy is the art which follows upon
science, and takes account of it, the art which uses the results of
analysis as its material, and submits itself to the demands of stern
criticism; metaphysical intuition is the aesthetic intuition verified,
systematised, ballasted by the language of reason.
Philosophy then differs from art in two essential points: first of all, it
rests upon, envelops, and supposes science; secondly, it implies a test of
verification in its strict meaning. Instead of stopping at the acts of
common-sense, it completes them with all the contributions of analysis and
We said just now of common-sense that, in its inmost depths, it possesses
reality: that is only quite exact when we mean common-sense developed in
positive science; and that is why philosophy takes the results of science
as its basis, for each of these results, like the facts and data of common
perception, opens a way for critical penetration towards the immediate.
Just now I was comparing the two kinds of knowledge which the theorist and
the engineer can have of a machine, and I allowed the advantage of absolute
knowledge to practical experience, whilst theory seemed to me mainly
relative to the constructive industry. That is true, and I do not go back
upon it. But the most experienced engineer, who did not know the mechanism
of his machine, who possessed only unanalysed feelings about it, would have
only an artist's, not a philosopher's knowledge. For absolute intuition,
in the full sense of the word, we must have integral experience; that is to
say, a living application of rational theory no less than of working
To journey towards living intuition, starting from complete science and
complete sensation, is the philosopher's task; and this task is governed by
standards unknown to art.
Metaphysical intuition offers a victorious resistance to the test of
thorough and continued experiment, to the test of calculation as to that of
working, to the complete experiment which brings into play all the various
deoxidising agents of criticism; it shows itself capable of withstanding
analysis without dissolving or succumbing; it abounds in concepts which
satisfy the understanding, and exalt it; in a word, it creates light and
truth on all mental planes; and these characteristics are sufficient to
distinguish it in a profound degree from aesthetic intuition.
The latter is only the prophetic type of the former, a dream or
presentiment, a veiled and still uncertain dawn, a twilight myth preceding
and proclaiming, in the half-darkness, the full day of positive
Every philosophy has two faces, and must be studied in two movements--
method and teaching.
These are its two moments, its two aspects, no doubt co-ordinate and
mutually dependent, but none the less distinct.
We have just examined the method of the new philosophy inaugurated by Mr
Bergson. To what teaching has this method led us, and to what can we
foresee that it will lead us?
This is what we have still to find.
The sciences properly so called, those that are by agreement termed
positive, present themselves as so many external and circumferential points
from which we view reality. They leave us on the outside of things, and
confine themselves to investigating from a distance.
The views they give us resemble the brief perspectives of a town which we
obtain in looking at it from different angles on the surrounding hills.
Less even than that: for very soon, by increasing abstraction, the
coloured views give place to regular lines, and even to simple conventional
notes, which are more practical in use and waste less time. And so the
sciences remain prisoners of the symbol, and all the inevitable relativity
involved in its use. But philosophy claims to pierce within reality,
establish itself in the object, follow its thousand turns and folds, obtain
from it a direct and immediate feeling, and penetrate right into the
concrete depths of its heart; it is not content with an analysis, but
demands an intuition.
Now there is one existence which, at the outset, we know better and more
surely than any other; there is a privileged case in which the effort of
sympathetic revelation is natural and almost easy to us; there is one
reality at least which we grasp from within, which we perceive in its deep
and internal content. This reality is ourselves. It is typical of all
reality, and our study may fitly begin here. Psychology puts us in direct
contact with it, and metaphysics attempt to generalise this contact. But
such a generalisation can only be attempted if, to begin with, we are
familiar with reality at the point where we have immediate access to it.
The path of thought which the philosopher must take is from the inner to
the outer being.
"Know thyself": the old maxim has remained the motto of philosophy since
Socrates, the motto at least which marks its initial moment, when,
inclining towards the depth of the subject, it commences its true work of
penetration, whilst science continues to extend on the surface. Each
philosophy in turn has commented upon and applied this old motto. But Mr
Bergson, more than anyone else, has given it, as he does everything else he
takes up, a new and profound meaning. What was the current interpretation
before him? Speaking only of the last century, we may say that, under the
influence of Kant, criticism had till now been principally engaged in
unravelling the contribution of the subject in the act of consciousness, in
establishing our perception of things through certain representative forms
borrowed from our own constitution. Such was, even yesterday, the
authenticated way of regarding the problem. And it is precisely this
attitude which Mr Bergson, by a volte-face which will remain familiar to
him in the course of his researches, reverses from the outset.
"It has appeared to me," says he, ("Essay on the Immediate Data of
Consciousness", Conclusion.) "that there was ground for setting oneself the
inverse problem, and asking whether the most apparent states of the ego
itself, which we think we grasp directly, are not most of the time
perceived through certain forms borrowed from the outer world, which in
this way gives us back what we have lent it. A priori, it seems fairly
probable that this is what goes on. For supposing that the forms of which
we are speaking, to which we adapt matter, come entirely from the mind, it
seems difficult to apply them constantly to objects without soon producing
the colouring of the objects in the forms; therefore in using these forms
for the knowledge of our own personality, we risk taking a reflection of
the frame in which we place them--that is, actually, the external world--
for the very colouring of the ego. But we can go further, and state that
forms applicable to things cannot be entirely our own work; that they must
result from a compromise between matter and mind; that if we give much to
this matter, we doubtless receive something from it; and that, in this way,
when we try to possess ourselves again after an excursion into the outer
world, we no longer have our hands free."
To avoid such a consequence, there is, we must admit, a conceivable
loophole. It consists in maintaining on principle an absolute analogy, an
exact similitude between internal reality and external objects. The forms
which suit the one would then also suit the other.
But it must be observed that such a principle constitutes in the highest
degree a metaphysical thesis which it would be on all hands illegal to
assert previously as a postulate of method. Secondly, and above all, it
must be observed that on this head experience is decisive, and manifests
more plainly every day the failure of the theories which try to assimilate
the world of consciousness to that of matter, to copy psychology from
physics. We have here two different "orders." The apparatus of the first
does not admit of being employed in the second. Hence the necessity of the
attitude adopted by Mr Bergson. We have an effort to make, a work of
reform to undertake, to lift the veil of symbols which envelops our usual
representation of the ego, and thus conceals us from our own view, in order
to find out what we are in reality, immediately, in our inmost selves.
This effort and this work are necessary, because, "in order to contemplate
the ego in its original purity, psychology must eliminate or correct
certain forms which bear the visible mark of the outer world." ("Essay on
the Immediate Data of Consciousness", Conclusion.) What are these forms?
Let us confine ourselves to the most important. Things appear to us as
numerable units, placed side by side in space. They compose numerical and
spatial multiplicity, a dust of terms between which geometrical ties are
But space and number are the two forms of immobility, the two schemes of
analysis, by which we must not let ourselves be obsessed. I do not say
that there is no place to give them, even in the internal world. But the
more deeply we enter into the heart of psychological life, the less they
are in place.
The fact is, there are several planes of consciousness, situated at
different depths, marking all the intervening degrees between pure thought
and bodily action, and each mental phenomenon interests all these planes
simultaneously, and is thus repeated in a thousand higher tones, like the
harmonies of one and the same note.
Or, if you prefer it, the life of the spirit is not the uniform transparent
surface of a mere; rather it is a gushing spring which, at first pent in,
spreads upwards and outwards, like a sheaf of corn, passing through many
different states, from the dark and concentrated welling of the source to
the gleam of the scattered tumbling spray; and each of its moods presents
in its turn a similar character, being itself only a thread within the
whole. Such without doubt is the central and activating idea of the
admirable book entitled "Matter and Memory". I cannot possibly condense
its substance here, or convey its astonishing synthetic power, which
succeeds in contracting a complete metaphysic, and in gripping it so firmly
that the examination ends by passing to the discussion of a few humble
facts relative to the philosophy of the brain! But its technical severity
and its very conciseness, combined with the wealth it contains, render it
irresumable; and I can only in a few words indicate its conclusions.
First of all, however little we pride ourselves on positive method, we must
admit the existence of an internal world, of a spiritual activity distinct
from matter and its mechanism. No chemistry of the brain, no dance of
atoms, is equivalent to the least thought, or indeed to the least
Some, it is true, have brought forward a thesis of parallelism, according
to which each mental phenomenon corresponds point by point to a phenomenon
in the brain, without adding anything to it, without influencing its
course, merely translating it into another tongue, so that a glance
sufficiently penetrating to follow the molecular revolutions and the fluxes
of nervous production in their least episodes would immediately read the
inmost secrets of the associated consciousness.
But no one will deny that a thesis of this kind is only in reality a
hypothesis, that it goes enormously beyond the certain data of current
biology, and that it can only be formulated by anticipating future
discoveries in a preconceived direction. Let us be candid: it is not
really a thesis of positive science, but a metaphysical thesis in the
unpleasant meaning of the term. Taking it at its best, its worth today
could only be one of intelligibleness. And intelligible it is not.
How are we to understand a consciousness destitute of activity and
consequently without connection with reality, a kind of phosphorescence
which emphasises the lines of vibration in the brain, and renders in
miraculous duplicate, by its mysterious and useless light, certain
phenomena already complete without it?
One day Mr Bergson came down into the arena of dialectic, and, talking to
his opponents in their own language, pulled their "psycho-physiological
paralogism" to pieces before their eyes; it is only by confounding in one
and the same argument two systems of incompatible notations, idealism and
realism, that we succeed in enunciating the parallelist thesis. This
reasoning went home, all the more as it was adapted to the usual form of
discussions between philosophers. But a more positive and more categorical
proof is to be found all through "Matter and Memory". From the precise
example of recollection analysed to its lowest depths, Mr Bergson
completely grasps and measures the divergence between soul and body,
between mind and matter. Then, putting into practice what he said
elsewhere about the creation of new concepts, he arrives at the conclusion-
-these are his own expressions--that between the psychological fact and its
counterpart in the brain there must be a relation sui generis, which is
neither the determination of the one by the other, nor their reciprocal
independence, nor the production of the latter by the former, nor of the
former by the latter, nor their simple parallel concomitance; in short, a
relation which answers to none of the ready-made concepts which abstraction
puts at our service, but which may be approximately formulated in these
terms: ("Report of the French Philosophical Society", meeting, 2nd May
"Given a psychological state, that part of the state which admits of play,
the part which would be translated by an attitude of the body or by bodily
actions, is represented in the brain; the remainder is independent of it,
and has no equivalent in the brain. So that to one and the same state of
the brain there may be many different psychological states which
correspond, though not all kinds of states. They are psychological states
which all have in common the same motor scheme. Into one and the same
frame many pictures may go, but not all pictures. Let us take a lofty
abstract philosophical thought. We do not conceive it without adding to it
an image representing it, which we place beneath.
"We do not represent the image to ourselves, again, without supporting it
by a design which resumes its leading features. We do not imagine this
design itself without imagining and, in so doing, sketching certain
movements which would reproduce it. It is this sketch, and this sketch
only, which is represented in the brain. Frame the sketch, there is a
margin for the image. Frame the image again, there remains a margin, and a
still larger margin, for the thought. The thought is thus relatively free
and indeterminate in relation to the activity which conditions it in the
brain, for this activity expresses only the motive articulation of the
idea, and the articulation may be the same for ideas absolutely different.
And yet it is not complete liberty nor absolute indetermination, since any
kind of idea, taken at hazard, would not present the articulation desired.
"In short, none of the simple concepts furnished us by philosophy could
express the relation we seek, but this relation appears with tolerable
clearness to result from experiment."
The same analysis of facts tells us how the planes of consciousness, of
which I spoke just now, are arranged, the law by which they are
distributed, and the meaning which attaches to their disposition. Let us
neglect the intervening multiples, and look only at the extreme poles of
We are inclined to imagine too abrupt a severance between gesture and
dream, between action and thought, between body and mind. There are not
two plane surfaces, without thickness or transition, placed one above the
other on different levels; it is by an imperceptible degradation of
increasing depth, and decreasing materiality, that we pass from one term to
And the characteristics are continually changing in the course of the
transition. Thus our initial problem confronts us again, more acutely than
ever: are the forms of number and space equally suitable on all planes of
Let us consider the most external of these planes of life, and one which is
in contact with the outer world, the one which receives directly the
impressions of external reality. We live as a rule on the surface of
ourselves, in the numerical and spatial dispersion of language and gesture.
Our deeper ego is covered as it were with a tough crust, hardened in
action: it is a skein of motionless and numerable habits, side by side,
and of distinct and solid things, with sharp outlines and mechanical
relations. And it is for the representation of the phenomena which occur
within this dead rind that space and number are valid.
For we have to live, I mean live our common daily life, with our body, with
our customary mechanism rather than with our true depths. Our attention is
therefore most often directed by a natural inclination to the practical
worth and useful function of our internal states, to the public object of
which they are the sign, to the effect they produce externally, to the
gestures by which we express them in space. A social average of individual
modalities interests us more than the incommunicable originality of our
deeper life. The words of language besides offer us so many symbolic
centres round which crystallise groups of motor mechanisms set up by habit,
the only usual elements of our internal determinations. Now, contact with
society has rendered these motor mechanisms practically identical in all
men. Hence, whether it be a question of sensation, feeling, or ideas, we
have these neutral dry and colourless residua, which spread lifeless over
the surface of ourselves, "like dead leaves on the water of a pond."
("Essay on the Immediate Data," page 102.)
Thus the progress we have lived falls into the rank of a thing that can be
handled. Space and number lay hold of it. And soon all that remains of
what was movement and life is combinations formed and annulled, and forces
mechanically composed in a whole of juxtaposed atoms, and to represent this
whole a collection of petrified concepts, manipulated in dialectic like
Quite different appears the true inner reality, and quite different are its
profound characteristics. To begin with, it contains nothing quantitative;
the intensity of a psychological state is not a magnitude, nor can it be
measured. The "Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness" begins with
the proof of this leading statement. If it is a question of a simple
state, such as a sensation of light or weight, the intensity is measured by
a certain quality of shade which indicates to us approximately, by an
association of ideas and thanks to our acquired experience, the magnitude
of the objective cause from which it proceeds. If, on the contrary, it is
a question of a complex state, such as those impressions of profound joy or
sorrow which lay hold of us entirely, invading and overwhelming us, what we
call their intensity expresses only the confused feeling of a qualitative
progress, and increasing wealth. "Take, for example, an obscure desire,
which has gradually become a profound passion. You will see that the
feeble intensity of this desire consisted first of all in the fact that it
seemed to you isolated and in a way foreign to all the rest of your inner
life. But little by little it penetrated a larger number of psychic
elements, dyeing them, so to speak, its own colour; and now you find your
point of view on things as a whole appears to you to have changed. Is it
not true that you become aware of a profound passion, once it has taken
root, by the fact that the same objects no longer produce the same
impression upon you? All your sensations, all your ideas, appear to you
refreshed by it; it is like a new childhood." (Loc. cit., page 6.)
There is here none of the homogeneity which is the property of magnitude,
and the necessary condition of measurement, giving a view of the less in
the bosom of the more. The element of number has vanished, and with it
numerical multiplicity extended in space. Our inner states form a
qualitative continuity; they are prolonged and blended into one another;
they are grouped in harmonies, each note of which contains an echo of the
whole; they are encircled by an innumerable degradation of halos, which
gradually colour the total content of consciousness; they live each in the
bosom of his fellow.
"I am the scent of roses," were the words Condillac put in the mouth of his
statue; and these words translate the immediate truth exactly, as soon as
observation becomes naive and simple enough to attain pure fact. In a
passing breath I breathe my childhood; in the rustle of leaves, in a ray of
moonlight, I find an infinite series of reflections and dreams. A thought,
a feeling, an act, may reveal a complete soul. My ideas, my sensations,
are like me. How would such facts be possible, if the multiple unity of
the ego did not present the essential characteristic of vibrating in its
entirety in the depths of each of the parts descried or rather determined
in it by analysis? All physical determinations envelop and imply each
other reciprocally. And the fact that the soul is thus present in its
entirety in each of its acts, its feelings, for example, or its ideas in
its sensations, its recollections in its percepts, its inclinations in its
obvious states, is the justifying principle of metaphors, the source of all
poetry, the truth which modern philosophy proclaims with more force every
day under the name of immanence of thought, the fact which explains our
moral responsibility with regard to our affections and our beliefs
themselves; and finally, it is the best of us, since it is this which
ensures our being able to surrender ourselves, genuinely and unreservedly,
and this which constitutes the real unity of our person.
Let us push still further into the hidden retreat of the soul. Here we are
in these regions of twilight and dream, where our ego takes shape, where
the spring within us gushes up, in the warm secrecy of the darkness which
ushers our trembling being into birth. Distinctions fail us. Words are
useless now. We hear the wells of consciousness at their mysterious task
like an invisible shiver of running water through the mossy shadow of the
caves. I dissolve in the joy of becoming. I abandon myself to the delight
of being a pulsing reality. I no longer know whether I see scents, breathe
sounds, or smell colours. Do I love? Do I think? The question has no
longer a meaning for me. I am, in my complete self, each of my attitudes,
each of my changes. It is not my sight which is indistinct or my attention
which is idle. It is I who have resumed contact with pure reality, whose
essential movement admits no form of number. He who thus makes the really
"deep" and "inner" effort necessary to becoming--were it only for an
elusive moment--discovers, under the simplest appearance, inexhaustible
sources of unsuspected wealth; the rhythm of his duration becomes amplified
and refined; his acts become more conscious; and in what seemed to him at
first sudden severance or instantaneous pulsation he discovers complex
transitions imperceptibly shaded off, musical transitions full of
unexpected repetitions and threaded movements.
Thus, the deeper we go in consciousness, the less suitable become these
schemes of separation and fixity existing in spatial and numerical forms.
The inner world is that of pure quality. There is no measurable
homogeneity, no collection of atomically constructed elements. The
phenomena distinguished in it by analysis are not composing units, but
phases. And it is only when they reach the surface, when they come in
contact with the external world, when they are incarnated in language or
gesture, that the categories of matter become adapted to them. In its true
nature, reality appears as an uninterrupted flow, an impalpable shiver of
fluid changing tones, a perpetual flux of waves which ebb and break and
dissolve into one another without shock or jar. Everything is ceaseless
change; and the state which appears the most stable is already change,
since it continues and grows old. Constant quantities are represented only
by the materialisation of habit or by means of practical symbols. And it
is on this point that Mr Bergson rightly insists. ("Creative Evolution",
"The apparent discontinuity of psychological life is due, then, to the fact
that our attention is concentrated on it in a series of discontinuous acts;
where there is only a gentle slope, we think we see, when we follow the
broken line of our attention, the steps of a staircase. It is true that
our psychological life is full of surprises. A thousand incidents arise
which seem to contrast with what precedes them, and not to be connected
with what follows. But the gap in their appearances stands out against the
continuous background on which they are represented, and to which they owe
the very intervals that separate them; they are the drumbeats which break
into the symphony at intervals. Our attention is fixed upon them because
they interest it more, but each of them proceeds from the fluid mass of our
entire psychological existence. Each of them is only the brightest point
in a moving zone which understands all that we feel, think, wish; in fact,
all that we are at a given moment. It is this zone which really
constitutes our state. But we may observe that states defined in this way
are not distinct elements. They are an endless stream of mutual
And do not think that perhaps such a description represents only or
principally our life of feeling. Reason and thought share the same
characteristic, as soon as we penetrate their living depth, whether it be a
question of creative invention or of those primordial judgments which
direct our activity. If they evidence greater stability, it is in
permanence of direction, because our past remains present to us.
For we are endowed with memory, and that perhaps is, on the whole, our most
profound characteristic. It is by memory we enlarge ourselves and draw
continually upon the wealth of our treasuries. Hence comes the completely
original nature of the change which constitutes us. But it is here that we
must shake off familiar representations! Common-sense cannot think in
terms of movement. It forges a static conception of it, and destroys it by
arresting it under pretext of seeing it better. To define movement as a
series of positions, with a generating law, with a time-table or
correspondence sheet between places and times, is surely a ready-made
presentation. Are we not confusing the trajectory and its performance, the
points traversed and the traversing of the points, the result of the
genesis of the result; in short, the quantitative distance over which the
flight extends, and the qualitative flight which puts this distance behind
it? In this way the very mobility which is the essence of movement
vanishes. There is the same common mistake about time. Analytic and
synthetic thought can see in time only a string of coincidences, each of
them instantaneous, a logical series of relations. It imagines the whole
of it to be a graduated slide-rule, in which the luminous point called the
present is the geometrical index.
Thus it gives form to time in space, "a kind of fourth dimension," ("Essay
on the Immediate Data".) or at least it reduces it to nothing more than an
abstract scheme of succession, "a stream without bottom or sides, flowing
without determinable strength, in an indefinable direction."
("Introduction to Metaphysics".) It requires time to be homogeneous, and
every homogeneous medium is space, "for as homogeneity consists here in the
absence of any quality, it is not clear how two forms of homogeneity could
be distinguished one from the other." ("Essay on the Immediate Data", page
Quite different appears real duration, the duration which is lived. It is
pure heterogeneity. It contains a thousand different degrees of tension or
relaxation, and its rhythm varies without end. The magic silence of calm
nights or the wild disorder of a tempest, the still joy of ecstasy or the
tumult of passion unchained, a steep climb towards a difficult truth or a
gentle descent from a luminous principle to consequences which easily
follow, a moral crisis or a shooting pain, call up intuitions admitting no
comparison with one another. We have here no series of moments, but
prolonged and interpenetrating phases; their sequence is not a substitution
of one point for another, but rather resembles a musical resolution of
harmony into harmony. And of this ever-new melody which constitutes our
inner life every moment contains a resonance or an echo of past moments.
"What are we really, what is our character, except the condensation of the
history which we have lived since our birth, even before our birth, since
we bring with us our prenatal dispositions? Without doubt we think only
with a small part of our past; but it is with our complete past, including
our original bias of soul, that we desire, wish, and act." ("Creative
Evolution", pages 5-6.) This is what makes our duration irreversible, and
its novelty perpetual, for each of the states through which it passes
envelops the recollection of all past states. And thus we see, in the end,
how, for a being endowed with memory, "existence consists in change, change
in ripening, ripening in endless self-creation." ("Creative Evolution",
With this formula we face the capital problem in which psychology and
metaphysics meet, that of liberty. The solution given by Mr Bergson marks
one of the culminating points of his philosophy. It is from this summit
that he finds light thrown on the riddle of inner being. And it is the
centre where all the lines of his research converge.
What is liberty? What must we understand by this word? Beware of the
answer you are going to give. Every definition, in the strict sense of the
term, will imply the determinist thesis in advance, since, under pain of
going round in a circle, it will be bound to express liberty as a function
of what it is not. Either psychological liberty is an illusive appearance,
or, if it is real, we can only grasp it by intuition, not by analysis, in
the light of an immediate feeling. For a reality is verified, not
constructed; and we are now or never in one of those situations where the
philosopher's task is to create some new concept, instead of abiding by a
combination of previous elements.
Man is free, says common-sense, in so far as his action depends only on
himself. "We are free," says Mr Bergson, ("Essay on the Immediate Data of
Consciousness", page 131.) "when our acts proceed from our entire
personality, when they express it, when they exhibit that indefinable
resemblance to it which we find occasionally between the artist and his
work." That is all we need seek; two conceptions which are equivalent to
each other, two concordant formulae. It is true that this amounts to
determining the free act by its very originality, in the etymological sense
of the word: which is at bottom only another way of declaring it
incommensurable with every concept, and reluctant to be confined by any
definition. But, after all, is not that the only true immediate fact?
That our spiritual life is genuine action, capable of independence,
initiative, and irreducible novelty, not mere result produced from outside,
not simple extension of external mechanism, that it is so much ours as to
constitute every moment, for him who can see, an essentially incomparable
and new invention, is exactly what represents for us the name of liberty.
Understood thus, and decidedly it is like this that we must understand it,
liberty is a profound thing: we seek it only in those moments of high and
solemn choice which come into our life, not in the petty familiar actions
which their very insignificance submits to all surrounding influences, to
every wandering breeze. Liberty is rare; many live and die and have never
known it. Liberty is a thing which contains an infinite number of degrees
and shades; it is measured by our capacity for the inner life. Liberty is
a thing which goes on in us unceasingly: our liberty is potential rather
than actual. And lastly, it is a thing of duration, not of space and
number, not the work of moments or decrees. The free act is the act which
has been long in preparing, the act which is heavy with our whole history,
and falls like a ripe fruit from our past life.
But how are we to establish positive verification of these views? How are
we to do away with the danger of illusion? The proof will in this case
result from a criticism of adverse theories, along with direct observation
of psychological reality freed from the deceptive forms which warp the
common perception of it. And it will here be an easy task to resume Mr
Bergson's reasoning in a few words.
The first obstacle which confronts affirmation of our liberty comes from
physical determinism. Positive science, we are told, presents the universe
to us as an immense homogeneous transformation, maintaining an exact
equivalence between departure and arrival. How can we possibly have after
that the genuine creation which we require in the act we call free?
The answer is that the universality of the mechanism is at bottom only a
hypothesis which is still awaiting demonstration. On the one hand it
includes the parallelist conception which we have recognised as effete.
And on the other it is plain that it is not self-sufficient. At least it
requires that somewhere or other there should be a principle of position
giving once for all what will afterwards be maintained. In actual fact,
the course of phenomena displays three tendencies: a tendency to
conservation, beyond question; but also a tendency to collapse, as in the
diminution of energy; and a tendency to progress, as in biological
evolution. To make conservation the sole law of matter implies an
arbitrary decree, denoting only those aspects of reality which will count
for anything. By what right do we thus exclude, with vital effort, even
the feeling of liberty which in us is so vigorous?
We might say, it is true, that our spiritual life, if it is not a simple
extension of external mechanism, yet proceeds according to an internal
mechanism equally severe, but of a different order. This would bring us to
the hypothesis of a kind of psychological mechanism; and in many respects
this seems to be the common-sense hypothesis. I need not dwell upon it,
after the numerous criticisms already made. Inner reality--which does not
admit number--is not a sequence of distinct terms, allowing a disconnected
waste of absolute causality.
And the mechanism of which we dream has no true sense--for, after all, it
has a sense--except in relation to the superficial phenomena which take
place in our dead rind, in relation to the automaton which we are in daily
life. I am ready to admit that it explains our common actions, but here it
is our profound consciousness which is in question, not the play of our
Without insisting, then, too strongly on this mongrel conception, let us
pass to the direct examination of inner psychological reality. Everything
is ready for the conclusion. Our duration, which is continually
accumulating itself, and always introducing some irreducible new factor,
prevents any kind of state, even if superficially identical, from repeating
itself in depth. "We shall never again have the soul we had this evening."
Each of our moments remains essentially unique. It is something new added
to the surviving past; not only new, but unable to be foreseen.
For how can we speak of foresight which is not simple conjecture, how can
we conceive an absolute extrinsic determination, when the act in birth only
makes one with the finished sum of its conditions, when these conditions
are complete only on the threshold of the action beginning, including the
fresh and irreducible contribution added by its very date in our history?
We can only explain afterwards, we can only foresee when it is too late, in
retrospect, when the accomplished action has fallen into the plan of
Thus our inner life is a work of enduring creation: of phases which mature
slowly, and conclude at long intervals the decisive moments of emancipating
discovery. Undoubtedly matter is there, under the forms of habit,
threatening us with automatism, seeking at every moment to devour us,
stealing a march on us whenever we forget. But matter represents in us
only the waste of existence, the mortal fall of weakened reality, the swoon
of the creative action falling back inert; while the depths of our being
still pulse with the liberty which, in its true function, employs mechanism
itself only as a means of action.
Now, does not this conception make a singular exception of us in nature, an
empire within an empire? That is the question we have yet to investigate.
We have just attempted to grasp what being is in ourselves; and we have
found that it is becoming, progress, and growth, that it is a creative
process which never ceases to labour incessantly; in a word, that it is
duration. Must we come to the same conclusion about external being, about
existence in general?
Let us consider that external reality which is nearest us, our body. It is
known to us both externally by our perceptions and internally by our
affections. It is then a privileged case for our inquiry. In addition,
and by analogy, we shall at the same time study the other living bodies
which everyday induction shows us to be more or less like our own. What
are the distinctive characteristics of these new realities? Each of them
possesses a genuine individuality to a far greater degree than inorganic
objects; whilst the latter are hardly limited at all except in relation to
the needs of the former, and so do not constitute beings in themselves, the
former evidence a powerful internal unity which is only further emphasised
by their prodigious complication, and form wholes with are naturally
complete. These wholes are not collections of juxtaposed parts: they are
organisms; that is to say, systems of connected functions, in which each
detail implies the whole, and where the various elements interpenetrate.
These organisms change and modify continually; we say of them not only that
they are, but that they live; and their life is mutability itself, a
flight, a perpetual flux. This uninterrupted flight cannot in any way be
compared to a geometrical movement; it is a rhythmic succession of phases,
each of which contains the resonance of all those which come before; each
state lives on in the state following; the life of the body is memory; the
living being accumulates its past, makes a snowball of itself, serves as an
open register for time, ripens, and grows old. Despite all resemblances,
the living body always remains, in some measure, an absolutely original and
unique invention, for there are not two specimens exactly alike; and, among
inert objects, it appears as the reservoir of indetermination, the centre
of spontaneity, contingence, and genuine action, as if in the course of
phenomena nothing really new could be produced except by its agency.
Such are the characteristic tendencies of life, such the aspects which it
presents to immediate observation. Whether spiritual activity
unconsciously presides over biological evolution, or whether it simply
prolongs it, we always find here and there the essential features of
But I spoke just now of "individuality." Is it really one of the
distinctive marks of life? We know how difficult it is to define it
accurately. Nowhere, not even in man, is it fully realised; and there are
beings in existence in which it seems a complete illusion, though every
part of them reproduces their complete unity.
True, but we are now dealing with biology, in which geometrical precision
is inadmissible, where reality is defined not so much by the possession of
certain characteristics as by its tendency to accentuate them. It is as a
tendency that individuality is more particularly manifested; and if we look