Tag Archives: Henri Bergson

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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An ‘Integrated Affair’: William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse

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I’ve been having a fascinating conversation with Dr. Andreas Sommer of Cambridge University (http://forbiddenhistories.wordpress.com/) in the comments of my earlier post “Affect and Rationality in William James” about whether Freud’s concept of “the return of the repressed” can viably be marshaled in relation to James’ ideas. I think Dr. Sommer is right that his approach as an historian is probably different from my approach as a philosopher and cultural theorist with a doctorate in English. But I also think he’s perpetuating a fallacy that’s fairly pervasive in contemporary academia, exemplified by the poststructuralist “incredulity towards metanarratives,” imposing an excessively critical analysis of conceptual wholes into their constituent parts. This primarily critical mode seems to miss the proverbial forest for the trees, which I believe is fundamentally counter to the integrative character of James’ philosophy. Indeed, James addresses this very issue extensively in his work. For instance, he writes in Pragmatism:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. . . . Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.  We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. . . . New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact. . . . ‘To be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function. . . . Loosely speaking, and in general, it may be said that all things cohere and adhere to each other somehow, and that the universe exists practically in reticulated or concatenated forms which make of it a continuous or ‘integrated’ affair. . . . Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized. (18-54)

The theoretical mode James consistently articulates is one in which diverse, and often contradictory theories, modes of thought, and thinkers can be brought into relation, their “metaphysical disputes” “settled” by the pragmatic “marriage-function,” which strives to unify, integrate, and reconcile seemingly incommensurable entities. This integrative impulse seems eminently applicable to the relation between the ideas of Freud and James himself, who, in the larger cultural context in which they are embedded, are more alike than they are different, not least in that they both spent their lives attempting to understand the same subject: the human mind in relation to the world.

Henri Bergson (with whom James was friends) also addresses the frequent modern academic preference for analysis over synthesis in Creative Evolution (to which James intended to write a laudatory preface for the English edition before he died):

Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known; it seeks this out, in order that it may apply its principle that ‘like produces like.’ . . . Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition. Though the whole be original, science will always manage to analyze it into elements or aspects which are approximately a reproduction of the past. Science can work only on what is supposed to repeat itself—that is to say, on what is withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time. Anything that is irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history eludes science. To get a notion of this irreducibility and irreversibility, we must break with scientific habits which are adapted to the fundamental requirements of thought, we must do violence to the mind, go counter to the natural bent of the intellect. But that is just the function of philosophy. (24-25)

The mode of thought that Dr. Sommer is employing in apparently denying the possibility of finding complementary conceptual elements in James and Freud seems to me essentially complicit with the methods of reductive materialist science, which continue implicitly to dominate the humanities despite frequent protestations to the contrary. While I think the kind of critical, historical contextualization Dr. Sommer prefers is valid in its own right, it oversteps its domain of validity when it denies the impulse to produce emergent wholes through the synthesis of different thinkers’ ideas.

This pragmatic approach is concisely expressed by John Stuart Mill (whom James thought would have been a leader of pragmatism had he still been alive) in his essay “Coleridge”:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

Dr. Sommer seems to want to reify the “controversy” between James and Freud as metaphysically fundamental. I agree that Freud and James were very different thinkers, a point I allude to when I write that “James perhaps goes farther than Freud,” particularly in that James affirmed the validity of formal and final causation in addition to material and efficient causation, whereas Freud was a materialist, only affirming the latter two causal modes. However, I believe that critical negation (which Alfred North Whitehead terms “the peak of mentality”) of the possibility of synthesis, as Dr. Sommer seems to call for, should be relegated back to its appropriate place in the scholarly armamentarium, so that we can again begin to see apparently disparate modes of thought as complementary “in what they affirm.” In fact, as James asserts in a footnote to The Varieties of Religious Experience (444), this “inextricably mixed” quality of all kinds of “distinctions” was the predominant mode of thought prior to the seventeenth century. While I agree that critical, analytical, historical contextualization is a vitally necessary and important activity, one that has required the last few centuries for its individuation, this impulse is only half of a dialectical process. As Whitehead (who calls James “that adorable genius”) writes in Adventures of Ideas:

The difference between the two, namely the Hellenic and the Hellenistic types of mentality, may be roughly described as that between speculation and scholarship. For progress, both are necessary.  But, in fact, on the stage of history they are apt to appear as antagonists. Speculation, by entertaining alternative theories, is superficially skeptical, disturbing to established modes of prejudice. But it obtains its urge from a deep ultimate faith, that through and through the nature of things is penetrable by reason. Scholarship, by its strict attention to accepted methodologies, is superficially conservative of belief. But its tone of mind leans towards a fundamental negation. For scholars the reasonable topics in the world are penned in isolated regions, this subject-matter or that subject-matter. (108)

Despite Dr. Sommer’s assertion that “it’s of course fine that you make it your task to synthesize ideas,” he appears to contradict this affirmation in the rest of his response. He seems, along with much of current academia, to take an essentially Hellenistic rather than Hellenic approach to the production of knowledge, almost purely scholarly and analytic rather than speculative and synthetic. While I fully acknowledge the validity of tracing the direct influence on James of less well-remembered figures like Frederic W. H. MyersThéodore Flournoy, and Pierre Janet, I prefer a mode of thought which synthesizes the scholarly and speculative modes, asserting that, because James and Freud were perhaps the two primary psychologists who mediated the founding of psychology as a viable discipline, it is not only our right, but even our duty given a century of perspective, to bring their respective positive content into relation if we hope to generate novel understanding. Rather than a “forced marriage,” as Dr. Sommer terms it, I see this activity as a hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” of opposites for the conception of discursive transformation via teleological concrescence.

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“That Slightest Change of Tone Which Yet Makes All the Difference”: Science and Bodily Knowledge in Alfred North Whitehead

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Alfred North Whitehead observes in Modes of Thought: “the current philosophic doctrines, mostly derived from Hume, are defective by reason of their neglect of bodily reference” (153), based explicitly on the privileging of science which, as Whitehead subsequently notes, “only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience” (154). Whitehead continues: “if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies” (159), for “the whole complexity of mental experience is either derived or modified by such [bodily] functioning. Also our basic feeling is this sense of derivation, which leads to our claim for unity, body and mind” (160). Thus, Whitehead sees the fundamental problems articulated so profoundly by modern philosophy to be resolvable by attention to “our personal bodies.”  By leaving out this whole domain of experience, Whitehead suggests, rational intellect has come to focus primarily on the negative, for as he writes in Process and Reality: “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality” (5).

Furthermore, in Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead observes that humanity “is now in one of its rare moods of shifting its outlook” (99), proclaiming that “transitions to new fruitfulness of understanding are achieved by recurrence to the utmost depths of intuition for the refreshment of imagination” (159). Thus, for Whitehead as for Henri Bergson, intuition appears to mean conscious attention to affective experience.  In Whitehead’s view, when intellect becomes static and locked into a fixed symbolic system as it has in the intellectual privileging of modernity, it is necessary to literally get “out of one’s head” and descend into the “depths” of the body that have been repressed and rendered unconscious since the Cartesian philosophical revolution, exemplified in the cogito’s equation of thought with human being in general. As illustration, Whitehead discusses several other historical moments when a similar static fixation has taken place. As he writes: “Modern scholarship and modern science reproduce the same limitations as dominated the bygone Hellenistic epoch, and the bygone Scholastic epoch. They canalize thought and observation within predetermined limits, based upon inadequate metaphysical assumptions dogmatically assumed” (118). However, though he sees the era of late modernity as bearing some deep similarities to these two older epochs, roughly ancient Rome and medieval Christianity, Whitehead seems to believe that our era has taken the focus on rationality and the concomitant exclusion of bodily reference to its most extreme conclusion. Indeed, as Whitehead contends, the focus solely on intellect denies conscious access to the more fundamental kinds of meaning that rational thought can structure, analyze, and critique, but cannot engender for, as he writes: “Knowledge is always accompanied with accessories of emotion and purpose” (4).

Whitehead demonstrates that the privileging of an intellectual epistemology over other modes is perhaps the primary fallacy of modern thought for, as he puts it: “Each mode of consideration is a sort of searchlight elucidating some of the facts, and retreating the remainder into an omitted background” (43). In Whitehead’s view, intellectual and intuitive ways of knowing reveal different, but equally valid information about experience. And Whitehead, like Bergson and William James, explicitly calls for the integration of these two modes, going so far as to nominate this epistemological synthesis “Wisdom.”  As he writes: “To some extent, to understand is always to exclude a background of intellectual incoherence. But Wisdom is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions” (47). While this kind of “wisdom” as an integration of intellect and intuition is no doubt something that individuals have achieved in our culture, Whitehead seems to believe that intuitive knowledge has generally been excluded from consideration in an academia in which scientific objectivity and rational logic are the implicit ideals, even in the humanities. While in our personal lives we may recognize the efficacy of intuitive modes, Whitehead seems to suggest that as long as these modes are “omitted” from open commerce with our explicit intellectual understanding, our culture will never attain “Wisdom” on a mass scale, but only rational knowledge, an unbalanced situation that seems to have played a large part in producing the ecological, economic, social, and political crises in which we now find ourselves.

Whitehead finds precedent for this more expansive way of thinking in Plato for, as Whitehead writes of the father of philosophy: “In his view, the entertainment of ideas is intrinsically associated with inward ferment, an activity of subjective feeling, which is at once immediate enjoyment, and also an appetition which melts into action. This is Plato’s Eros” (148). However, this acceptance of “subjective feeling” as a valid and indispensable tool in the process of cognition appears often to have been suppressed in our own era. As Whitehead writes in Science and the Modern World:

Each age has its dominant preoccupations; and, during the three centuries in question, the cosmology derived from science has been asserting itself at the expense of older points of view with their origins elsewhere. Men can be provincial in time, as well as in place. We may ask ourselves whether the scientific mentality of the modern world in the immediate past is not a successful example of such provincial limitation (vii).

Thus, according to Whitehead, the broader Platonic cosmology, having evolved through many permutations over the centuries, was effectively repressed by Cartesianism in favor of the pure equation of thought with being so concisely expressed in the cogito. For a view of the world based on the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, subject and object, Whitehead explains that “Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly . . . However you disguise it, this is the practical outcome of the characteristic scientific philosophy which closed the seventeenth century” (54).  In Whitehead’s view, this is not the only way to approach immediate experience, for the world can appear radically different based on different fundamental premises about the nature of reality, particularly when those premises are held for centuries, worked out through countless lives to their inevitable conclusions. As Whitehead explains:

This quiet growth of science has practically recoloured our mentality so that modes of thought which in former times were exceptional are now broadly spread through the educated world. . . . It has altered the metaphysical presuppositions and the imaginative contents of our minds; so that now the old stimuli provoke new response . . . that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference (2).

We live in a radically different world than that inhabited by people of earlier ages because of the radically different assumptions that we hold and through which we cognize that world by means of collective attention and discourse. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead critiques the “fundamental duality” of “mind” and “material” instituted by science. As he writes: “In between there lie the concepts of life, organism, function, instantaneous reality, interaction, order of nature, which collectively form the Achilles heel of the whole system” (57). This domain of “instantaneous reality” is apparently coextensive with the Bergsonian durational affectivity of lived experience that has been repressed by the predominance of scientific rationality, but which seems to have been slowly reemerging in the twentieth century through various artistic media such as popular music, painting, dance, and cinema, as well as in depth psychology perhaps more than the main streams of philosophy, excepting those exemplified by James, Bergson, Whitehead, and their conceptual progeny.

Furthermore, Whitehead sees William James as the initiator, much like Descartes, of a qualitatively new mode of thought still in the process of emerging from the previously dominant Cartesian philosophy:

The scientific materialism and the Cartesian Ego were both challenged at the same moment, one by science and the other by philosophy, as represented by William James with his psychological antecedents; and the double challenge marks the end of a period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years. . . . The reason why I have put Descartes and James in close juxtaposition is now evident. Neither philosopher finished an epoch by a final solution of a problem. Their great merit is of the opposite sort. They each of them open an epoch by their clear formulation of terms in which thought could profitably express itself at particular stages of knowledge, one for the seventeenth century, the other for the twentieth century (143-47).

Thus, Whitehead suggests that while the seventeenth century was a period of transition from the static orthodoxy of medieval scholasticism to the liberating rationality of the Enlightenment, the twentieth century initiated a similar moment of transition from Enlightenment rationalism, which had itself developed into a static orthodoxy, to a new way of approaching experience that integrates the rational capacities developed particularly over the last few centuries with the older capacities that had been developed in premodernity, which Whitehead describes, along with Bergson, as “intuition.”

Ultimately, none of these three philosophers, James, Bergson, and Whitehead, wish to place intuition above intellect, but merely to redress the imbalanced emphasis of these two primary ways of knowing the world. And to be sure, this imbalance did not go unnoticed in modernity, for various strains of literature, Romanticism and its issue in particular, have been vocal in their objections to the privileging of rationality, which Blake, for but one early instance, memorably referred to as “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” To this point, Whitehead writes: “the literature of the nineteenth century, especially its English poetic literature, is a witness to the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science” (87). However, despite this literary awareness, the primacy of science as the governing metaphor for the production of knowledge still seems to have come to dominate even the study of literature in the academy, though the deconstructions of the last few decades have amended this imbalance to some extent, and the current widespread interest in affect perhaps suggests that a shift in the modes of thought considered acceptable in academia is now underway. Indeed, as Whitehead presaged this emerging mode of thought, intuition and affect may become ways of knowing the world considered equally valid to scientific calculability and repeatability:

The make-weight which balances the thoroughness of the specialist intellectual training should be of a radically different kind from purely intellectual analytical knowledge . . . This professional training can only touch one side of education. Its centre of gravity lies in the intellect, and its chief tool is the printed book. The centre of gravity of the other side of training should lie in intuition without an analytical divorce from the total environment (198).

Whitehead seems to suggest here that, in order for true knowledge to be attained in the academy, as elsewhere, we must pursue a more complete kind of education in which scientific rationality is balanced and mediated by training in intuitive modes, though what this intuitive education might entail is probably the project of generations to determine. However, one suspects that those schools which have begun to integrate primarily Eastern and indigenous meditative, contemplative, yogic, and shamanic practices with the curriculum more traditional in the West are taking significant strides in this direction, experimenting with activities that may gradually find their way into the curricula of more orthodox institutions of higher learning to produce a more comprehensive kind of knowledge.

References:

Blake, William. “Letter to Thomas Butt.” 22 November, 1802. The Letters of William Blake. Ed.

Geoffrey Keynes. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

Whitehead. Alfred North. Modes of Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1968.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

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Intellect and Intuition in Henri Bergson

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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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