Continental Philosophy


Félix Ravaisson, Habit, and the Metaphysics of Life.

The reason Félix Ravaisson is worth studying is because in his work we find a confluence of themes from Aristotle, debates in 18th and 19th century French vitalism, or spiritualism as it was called then, and a foreshadowing of European Philosophy in the 20th century. His most well-known works of the time were on the history of philosophy, works such as Essay on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (1837), French Philosophy in the 19th Century (1867) and The Philosophy of Pascal (1887). His original philosophy can certainly be detected in these engagements with key figures in the history of philosophy, but his most significant work is found in the published doctoral thesis of 1838 Sur L'Habitude [Of Habit] and the long article Métaphysique et morale [1893- Metaphysics and Morals]. We will focus here on the essay Of Habit, taking up themes of being, time and space and the formation of habits as consequences of an active and passive principle, or the double law of habit as Ravaisson calls it. 

Episode Image: Rémi Mathis, Public Domain.

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Henri Bergson on Creative Evolution

In Henri Bergson’s bestselling 1907 book Creative Evolution (Évolution créatrice in French), Bergson attempts to make his theory of duration speak to evolutionary science. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution would seem to be diametrically opposed to what we have heard of Bergson to date. Evolution has space and environment emphasised over time, we see deep, long, quantified time emphasised over duration, and we see emphasis on external material determinants rather than inner purposiveness. Bergson though thinks that this basic Darwinian picture is somewhat lacking and needs to be supplemented with a philosophical theory. And that is what Creative Evolution is, it is a philosophical theory which makes material evolution intelligible. Creative Evolution itself then – and these are the themes I turn to in this lecture – offers a fortified theory of evolution, where what Bergson calls finalist and teleological forms of life are consolidated with a Bergson’s own theory of futural direction. As well, Bergson suggests evolution requires a theory of the unconditioned (free) emergence of organisms. And finally, Bergson wants to challenge our picture of evolutionary development. We typically take the development and change of matter to be ordered, quantitative and measured over time. Bergson thinks in doing so, we conceal the necessity of disorder and contingency for the emergence of life. Bergson’s idea is that, free, and unpredictable creativity is a necessary condition of evolutionary change. So, to be clear, Bergson on this own terms, is not repudiating evolutionary change he is perfecting it.

Henri Bergson on Matter and Memory

In the last lecture I spoke about Bergson’s radical distinction between space and time, quality and quantity, duration, and extension. In another of Bergson’s major works Matter and Memory Bergson builds on the insights of his earlier work, this time in the context of memory. Now, when we think of memory, usually we consider it to be a psychological concept. It is a type of thinking located in the mind pertaining in some way to a retrieval of the past. Bergson thinks this is true, but only tells a very small part of the story. In fact, Bergson actually thinks that memory, and the way it works is indicative of something much deeper, broader, and metaphysically more interesting. So, Matter and Memory offers us an exploration of how the relationship between time, matter and memory unfolds. More specifically, Matter and Memory offers fresh and detailed descriptions of different types of memory. For example, Bergson talks about the function of body memory or habitual and muscle memory. As well, he talks of things like episodic memory, processual and memory-image. In this lecture, I aim to explain the ways Bergson’s account of memory maps onto his theory of duration. Doing so will allow me to explain how he conceives of the operation of memory, how Bergson thinks the mind relates to the body, and how conscious memory relate to unconscious bodily memory in the form of habit. But also, how the mind is always more than just mind!