Continental Philosophy


Henri Bergson on Time and Free Will

Henri Bergson is one of our most significant vitalist thinkers who from the late 1800s until his death in 1941 offers one of the most sophisticated modern versions of vitalism. His work is constructed as a reaction to variety of strains of rationalist thought as found in the likes of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Auguste Comte. In contrast, Bergson emphasizes themes of life, vitality, duration, creativity - themes which he developed in a collection of works famed for their prose style and his use of metaphor and imagery. Notably, Bergson would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. His work is famed for a recursive expression of life itself. His writings are not strictly representation of his themes, they are written to express what life itself is. We can find the common denominator of many themes of his work in his 1889 work Time and Free Will [Essai sur les donnes immédiates de la conscienceEssay on the Immediate Givens of Consciousness (roughly)]. In this lecture then I will explain the core themes of Time and Free Will.  I will begin with a short biography of Bergson to give you a sense of the man. Subsequently, I will talk about the overall core themes of time and free will, Bergson’s famous distinctions between time and space, the qualitative and quantitative, his theory of duration and how that tells us about why the human being is fundamentally free.

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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!