Intellect and Intuition in Henri Bergson


As Bergson writes of the evolution of human intellect in Creative Evolution: “On other paths, divergent from it, other forms of consciousness have been developed, which have not been able to free themselves from external constraints or to regain control over themselves, as the human intellect has done, but which none the less, also express something that is immanent and essential in the evolutionary movement” (Bergson xxii). Bergson sees these “other forms of consciousness” (his French words translated into precisely the same phrase used by William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience) as struggling to become conscious in a modern humanity that has often literally defined humanness as homologous with intellect (as exemplified in the Cartesian cogito). These other modes are the forms of consciousness that we have come to associate almost exclusively with animality, often forgetting, in theory if not always in practice, that beneath our late-developed rational minds, we too are animals, and that animals often have instinctual and somatic capacities that modern humans generally do not possess. And Bergson, like James, gestures toward the integration of intellect and these unconscious, repressed, intuitive modes when he writes: “Suppose these other forms of consciousness brought together and amalgamated with intellect: would not the result be a consciousness as wide as life?” (Bergson xxii). According to Bergson, intellect is a mode of thought that can only analyze and reduce emergent qualities to their constituent parts. As Bergson presents it, intellect alone, with science as its ultimate expression, cannot comprehend the emergence of anything genuinely novel. He shows that the emergence of life itself, or of human consciousness, both radically emergent properties, appear to pure intellect as merely recombinations of existing elements. While this supposition is perhaps partially true from a rationalist and materialist standpoint, it completely misses the internal, subjective, relationality characteristic of organismic process.

Furthermore, Bergson shows that this internal quality of process has to do with the conception of time: where science sees time as a linear, static, quantitative medium, Bergson shows that duration, the lived experience of time, can also be conceived as qualitative, each moment possessing a quality particular to it: “Concentrated on that which repeats, solely preoccupied in welding the same to the same, intellect turns away from the vision of time. . . . We do not think real time.  But we live it, because life transcends intellect.” This “inner movement of life,” the “indistinct fringe” surrounding the “bright nucleus” (Bergson 24-25) of that which is comprehensible to egoic consciousness, is only accessible, Bergson suggests, to intuitive forms of engaging experience. Intellect provides access to what is already known, to what has already been described in symbolic systems like language and mathematics, while intuition is a name for the mode of perception that can directly know that which exceeds the current grasp of our language, and which Bergson sees as the duty of philosophy to explore and express verbally.

Until there is language to describe an experience, that experience is not conscious for our culture which, as has often been noted, is profoundly logocentric, privileging the word, particularly in its written form, and repressing anything that does not fit into our current language games. For Bergson, genuine novelty is that which “could not have been foreseen” by intellect, for it is driven by modes of relation to experience that exceed pure intellect involving “the whole of our person” (Bergson 39), our somatic, affective, and intuitive capacities. However, although perhaps seemingly apparent when articulated in this way, it is an insight that has often been lost in the myopic rationalism of modernity for, as Bergson notes: “Our reason, incorrigibly presumptuous, imagines itself possessed, by right of birth or by right of conquest, innate or acquired, of all the essential elements of the knowledge of truth” (Bergson 39). Thus, as James also understood, truth is not something that exists ready-made to be found by intellect.  Rather, truth seems to be a quality of experience that emerges from the negotiation between affective and intellectual epistemologies. As Bergson emphatically sums up this relationship: “There are things that intelligence alone is able to seek, but which, by itself, it will never find. These things instinct alone could find; but it will never seek them” (Bergson 124). Ultimately, Bergson believes that “intelligence” and “instinct” are both indispensable ways of knowing the world and that, although this may seem obvious in practice, particularly in an early twenty-first century context when affect has become a primary academic concern, the academic presuppositions of the last few centuries have explicitly and in many ways rendered intuitive modes as inferior to intellect, a privileging that has been concretized in class distinctions and various institutional hierarchies, not least in the field of education.

However, Bergson sees intelligence and instinct as forming an opposition that must be deconstructed if we are fully to move beyond the deepest implicit prejudices of modernity. For Bergson, “instinct” is the unconscious form of the “inner knowledge” that he traces, while “intuition” is instinct become conscious in what amounts to a kind of phenomenological empiricism that can exceed verbal formulation. Bergson believes that this mode of consciousness is indispensable for the production of genuine novelty in both thought and action as it is the appropriate mode for comprehending the “most intimate secrets of life” (Bergson 135), that which we can feel in the depths of our internal process, but have not yet found the means to express. As he puts it: “By intuition I mean instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely” (Bergson 145). As Bergson sees it, this repression of intuition in favor of intellect has been a “sacrifice” (Bergson 220) of other ways of relating to experience so that the materialist, mechanistic, intellectual habit of mind could be individuated and developed to its highest degree in science and rationalist philosophy. However, for Bergson as for James, this individuation of intellect has not been an end in itself, but has apparently been leading toward a reintegration of affectivity and rationality in an emergent domain of process.


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5 responses to “Intellect and Intuition in Henri Bergson

  1. I’m constantly reminded how much both James and Whitehead are indebted to Bergson’s work (especially “Creative Evolution”).

  2. Hi Matt, it’s pretty incredible that Creative Evolution and Pragmatism were both published in 1907. What a great year for philosophy. James was apparently slated to write the introduction to the English translation of Bergson’s book, published in 1911, but James unfortunately passed in 1910 before he could finish it.

  3. Nick Collins

    The influence (whether or not conscious) of some schools of Indian philosophy also seems to be very apparent in Bergson (and of course James talks a good deal about Indian religion- ‘healthy-mindedness,’ etc.), specifically samkhya’s distinction between manas (mind, as an instrument of division, akin to Bergson’s analytic thought) and buddhi (intellect is the typical translation but refers to a more intuitive form of awareness). An england-educated Indian contemporary of Bergson, Sri Aurobindo, discusses this in detail as well, and might even acknowledge Bergson directly (he was undoubtedly aware of him as he lived in French-occupied Pondicherry due to tensions with British gov related to his involvement with Indian Independence efforts).

    • Hi Nick, thanks for this. I agree that there are strong correlations between the philosophies of Bergson, James, and Aurobindo. I’d add a few others who seem to have thought along similar lines, particularly Whitehead, Gebser, and Jung. I’m actually working on a book that draws from all of these thinkers, so your comment is apropos. Have you written anything I could look at?

  4. Here is a paper I wrote on Aurobindo for a Religion and Nature seminar last fall (hopefully the link works): Bergson is discussed on page five, though I would like to delve further into his work, and that of Gebser, when I have time. Whitehead I am more familiar with, and he has been compared to Indian philosophy by Jeffrey Long ( Jung’s connections with India are also somewhat well documented (his “Psychology of Kundalini Yoga,” for one) Your book looks very interesting as well- music and philosophy both got a hold of me at a young age, and Ive been fascinated with them ever since. I am tentatively thinking of writing something on the impact of Hinduism in America in relation to popular music – though recognizing this beyond superficial characteristics (Beatles-Maharishi, Krishnacore, etc.), focusing on the evanescent or arbitrary aspect of the words/music by themselves, these being vehicles for the manifestation of profound experience (regarding Hinduism, the idea of many particular deities manifesting a generalized spiritual principle (Brahman/Nirvana in Buddhism)) Music obviously takes this far beyond apparently religious symbols like deities, and Hindu “gurus” and trends in America are far from being universally affective, but the similarities are more structural/relational than cosmetic. Much more to think about here (psychedelic music vs early rock n roll, intellect and intuition, changes in the nature of individuality, etc), any potential leads on people to look at would definitely be appreciated.

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