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A Critique of Bertrand Russell’s Critique of Henri Bergson

This piece is an “outtake” from my forthcoming book, Integration and Difference: Constructing a Mythical Dialectic (Routledge, 2022).

In “The Philosophy of Bergson,” Russell fundamentally misunderstands Bergson’s concept of intuition, writing that Bergson asserts “instinct as the good boy and intellect as the bad boy,” while “instinct at its best is called intuition,” though, for Bergson, intuition is an integration of instinct and intellect. Russell’s reductive misreading of this opposition as obeying the tertium non datur, the law of excluded middle, seems to preclude him from being able to see that one of the primary endeavors of what has come to be known as continental philosophy is to understand how such simplistic dualisms can be overcome through conceptions that exceed the traditional forms of logic. Bergson, far from proclaiming a “condemnation of the intellect” in favor of “the triumph of intuition,” as Russell insists, only critiques the exclusive privileging of intellect, which Russell implicitly assumes, thereby reducing Bergson’s argument to an either-or conflict in order to reject what he erroneously constructs as Bergson’s privileging of instinct over intellect, while Bergson is far beyond this kind of naïve dualism. In fact, the title of Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonism appears to have been a sly joke at the expense of this mania for oppositional categorization, perhaps especially common in analytic philosophy, in which positions ending with -ism engage in interminable logical combat, an approach anathema to both Bergson’s and Deleuze’s philosophies (Dosse, Intersecting Lives, 140).

Similarly, while Bergson figures life as a wave ascending through the medium of matter itself, countervalent to the entropic descent of nonlife, Russell renders this figure as life constituting an ascending train while matter is a descending train, reducing Bergson’s figure to two entirely separate entities rather than one serving as the substrate which the other animates. Russell asserts an utterly conventional dualism of mind and matter, subject and object, in what he imagines to be a devastating critique of Bergsonian duration and memory as mere poetic confusion, but which is really a reduction of Bergson’s much more profound conception back to the modern doxa’s center of gravity where Russell complacently resides, at least in this critique. Finally, Russell strangely depicts Bergson as advocating “activity without purpose” as opposed to Russell’s putatively solid grounding of visionary intellectual contemplation, completely ignoring Bergson’s advocacy of a subtle, inclinational form of teleological purpose beyond the fatalistic “radical finalism” (Creative Evolution) characteristic of much ancient and medieval thought, also ignoring Bergson’s expression of the purpose of philosophy as “a true work of integration” (Matter and Memory).

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