Henri Louis Bergson - biography
Henri-Louis Bergson (French pronunciation: [bɛʁksɔn] 18 October 1859–4 January 1941) was a major French philosopher, influential especially in the first half of the 20th century.
Bergson convinced many thinkers that immediate experience and intuition are more significant than rationalism and science for understanding reality.
Bergson was born in the Rue Lamartine in Paris, not far from the Palais Garnier (the old Paris opera house) in 1859 (the year in which France emerged as a victor in the Second Italian War of Independence and over a month before the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species). His father, the musician Michał Bergson had a Polish Jewish family background (originally bearing the name Bereksohn). His mother, Katherine Levison, daughter of a Yorkshire doctor, was from an English and Irish Jewish background. The Bereksohns were a famousJewish entrepreneurial family of Polish descent. Henri Bergson's great-great-grandfather, Szmul Jakubowicz Sonnenberg, called Zbytkower, was a prominent banker and a protégé of Stanisław August Poniatowski, King of Poland from 1764 to 1795.
Henri Bergon's family lived in London for a few years after his birth, and he obtained an early familiarity with the English language from his mother. Before he was nine, his parents crossed the English Channel and settled in France, Henri becoming a naturalized French citizen.
Henri Bergson married Louise Neuberger, a cousin of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), in 1891. They had a daughter, Jeanne, born deaf in 1896.
Bergson's sister, Mina Bergson (also known as Moina Mathers), married the English occult author Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the couple later relocated to Paris as well.
Bergson lived the quiet life of a French professor, marked by the publication of his four principal works:
1. in 1889, Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience) 2. in 1896, Matter and Memory (Matière et mémoire) 3. in 1907, Creative Evolution (L'Evolution créatrice) 4. in 1932, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion)
In 1900 the College of France selected Bergson to a Chair of Greek and Latin Philosophy, which he held until 1904. He then replaced Gabriel Tarde in the Chair of Modern Philosophy, which he held until 1920. The public attended his open courses in large numbers.
Education and career
Bergson attended the Lycée Fontaine (known as the Lycée Condorcet 1870-1874 and 1883- ) in Paris from 1868 to 1878. He had previously received a Jewish religious education. Between 14 and 16, however, he lost his faith. According to Hude (1990), this moral crisis is tied to his discovery of the theory of evolution, according to which humanity shares common ancestry with modern primates and was not necessarily created by a God or gods.
While at the lycée Bergson won a prize for his scientific work and another, in 1877 when he was eighteen, for the solution of a mathematical problem. His solution was published the following year in Annales de Mathématiques. It was his first published work. After some hesitation as to whether his career should lie in the sphere of the sciences or that of the humanities, he decided in favour of the latter, to the dismay of his teachers. When he was nineteen, he entered the famous École Normale Supérieure. During this period, he read Herbert Spencer. He obtained there the degree of Licence-ès-Lettres, and this was followed by that of Agrégation de philosophie in 1881. The same year he received a teaching appointment at the lycée in Angers, the ancient capital of Anjou. Two years later he settled at the Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, capital of the Puy-de-Dôme département.
The year after his arrival at Clermont-Ferrand Bergson displayed his ability in the humanities by the publication of an edition of extracts from Lucretius, with a critical study of the text and of the materialist cosmology of the poet (1884), a work whose repeated editions give sufficient evidence of its useful place in the promotion of classical study among the youth of France. While teaching and lecturing in this part of his country (the Auvergne region), Bergson found time for private study and original work. He crafted his dissertation Time and Free Will, which was submitted, along with a short Latin thesis on Aristotle (Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit), for his doctoral degree which was awarded by the University of Paris in 1889. The work was published in the same year by Félix Alcan. He also gave courses in Clermont-Ferrand on the Pre-Socratics, in particular on Heraclitus.
Bergson dedicated Time and Free Will to Jules Lachelier (1832–1918), then public education minister, a disciple of Félix Ravaisson (1813–1900) and the author of a philosophical work On the Founding of Induction (Du fondement de l'induction, 1871). Lachelier endeavoured "to substitute everywhere force for inertia, life for death, and liberty for fatalism". (Bergson owed much to both of these teachers of the École Normale Supérieure. Compare his memorial address on Ravaisson, who died in 1900.) Bergson settled again in Parisand after teaching for some months at the municipal college, known as the College Rollin, he received an appointment at the Lycée Henri-Quatre, where he remained for eight years. There, he read Charles Darwin and gave a course on him. Although Bergson had previously endorsed Lamarckism and its theory of the heritability of acquired characteristics, he came to prefer Darwin's hypothesis of gradual variations, which were more compatible with his continuist vision of life. In 1896 he published his second major work, entitled Matter and Memory. This rather difficult, but brilliant, work investigates the function of the brain and undertakes an analysis of perception and memory, leading up to a careful consideration of the problems of the relation of body and mind. Bergson had spent years of research in preparation for each of his three large works. This is especially obvious in Matter and Memory, where he showed a thorough acquaintance with the extensive pathological investigations which had been carried out during the period.
In 1898 Bergson became Maître de conférences at his alma mater, l'Ecole Normale Supérieure, and later in the same year received promotion to a Professorship. The year 1900 saw him installed as Professor at the Collège de France, where he accepted the Chair of Greek and Latin Philosophy in succession to Charles L'Eveque.
At the First International Congress of Philosophy, held in Paris during the first five days of August, 1900, Bergson read a short, but important, paper, "Psychological Origins of the Belief in the Law of Causality" (Sur les origines psychologiques de notre croyance à la loi de causalité). In 1900 Felix Alcan published a work which had previously appeared in the Revue de Paris, entitled Laughter (Le rire), one of the most important of Bergson's minor productions. This essay on the meaning of comedy stemmed from a lecture which he had given in his early days in the Auvergne. The study of it is essential to an understanding of Bergson's views of life, and its passages dealing with the place of the artistic in life are valuable. The main thesis of the work is that laughter is a corrective evolved to make social life possible for human beings. We laugh at people who fail to adapt to the demands of society, if it seems their failure is akin to an inflexible mechanism. Comic authors have exploited this human tendency to laugh in various ways, and what is common to them is the idea that the comic consists in there being "something mechanical encrusted on the living". In 1901 the Académie des sciences morales et politiques elected Bergson as a member, and he became a member of the Institute. In 1903 he contributed to the Revue de métaphysique et de morale a very important essay entitled Introduction to Metaphysics (Introduction à la metaphysique), which is useful as a preface to the study of his three large books. He detailed in this essay his philosophical program, realized in the Creative Evolution.
On the death of Gabriel Tarde, the sociologist and philosopher, in 1904, Bergson succeeded him in the Chair of Modern Philosophy. From 4 to 8 September of that year he visited Geneva, attending the Second International Congress of Philosophy, when he lectured on The Mind and Thought: A Philosophical Illusion (Le cerveau et la pensée: une illusion philosophique). An illness prevented his visiting Germany to attend the Third Congress held at Heidelberg.
His third major work, Creative Evolution, undoubtedlythe most widely known and most discussed of his books, appeared in 1907. It constitutes one of the most profound and original contributions to the philosophical consideration of evolution. Pierre Imbart de la Tour remarked that Creative Evolution was a milestone of new direction in thought. By 1918, Alcan, the publisher, had issued twenty-one editions, making an average of two editions per annum for ten years. Following the appearance of this book, Bergson's popularity increased enormously, not only in academic circles, but among the general reading public.
At that time, Bergson had already made an extensive study of biology, knowing of the theory of fecundation (as shown by the first chapter of the Creative Evolution), which had only recently emerged, ca. 1885 — no small feat for a philosopher specializing in the history of philosophy, in particular of Greek and Latin philosophy. He also most certainly had read, apart from Darwin, Haeckel, from whom he retained his idea of a unity of life and of the ecological solidarity between all living beings, as well as Hugo de Vries, whom he quoted his mutation theory of evolution (which he opposed, preferring Darwin's gradualism). He also quoted Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, the successor of Claude Bernard at the Chair of Experimental Medicine in the College of France, etc.
Bergson served as a juror with Florence Meyer Blumenthal in awarding the Prix Blumenthal, a grant given between 1919-1954 to painters, sculptors, decorators, engravers, writers, and musicians.
In 1914, the Scottish universities arranged for Bergson to give the famous Gifford Lectures, planning one course for the spring and another for the autumn. Bergson delivered the first course, consisting of eleven lectures, under the title of The Problem of Personality, at the University of Edinburgh in the spring of that year. The course of lectures planned for the autumn months had to be abandoned because of the outbreak of war. Bergson was not, however, silent during the conflict, and he gave some inspiring addresses. As early as 4 November 1914, he wrote an article entitled Wearing and Nonwearing forces (La force qui s'use et celle qui ne s'use pas), which appeared in that unique and interesting periodical of the poilus, Le Bulletin des Armées de la République Française. A presidential address, The Meaning of the War, was delivered in December, 1914, to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques. Bergson contributed also to the publication arranged by The Daily Telegraph in honour of King Albert I of the Belgians, King Albert's Book (Christmas, 1914). In 1915 he was succeeded in the office of President of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques by Alexandre Ribot, and then delivered a discourse on "The Evolution of German Imperialism". Meanwhile he found time to issue at the request of the Minister of Public Instruction a brief summary of French Philosophy. Bergson did a large amount of travelling and lecturing in America during the war. He participated to the negotiations which led to the entry of the United States in the war. He was there when the French Mission under René Viviani paid a visit in April and May 1917, following upon America's entry into the conflict. Viviani's book La Mission française en Amérique (1917), contains a preface by Bergson.
Early in 1918 the Académie française received Bergson officially when he took his seat among "The Select Forty" as successor to Emile Ollivier (the author of the historical work L'Empire libéral). A session was held in January in his honour at which he delivered an address on Ollivier. In the war, Bergson saw the conflict of Mind and Matter, or rather of Life and Mechanism; and thus he shows us the central idea of his own philosophy in action. To no other philosopher has it fallen, during his lifetime, to have his philosophical principles so vividly and so terribly tested.
As many of Bergson's contributions to French periodicals remained relatively inaccessible, he agreed to the request of his friendsto have such works collected and published in two volumes. The first of these was being planned when war broke out. The conclusion of strife was marked by the appearance of a delayed volume in 1919 . It bears the title Spiritual Energy: Essays and Lectures (L'Energie spirituelle: essais et conférences). The advocate of Bergson's philosophy in England, Dr. Wildon Carr, prepared an English translation under the title Mind-Energy. The volume opens with the Huxley Memorial Lecture of 1911, "Life and Consciousness", in a revised and developed form under the title "Consciousness and Life". Signs of Bergson's growing interest in social ethics and in the idea of a future life of personal survival are manifested. The lecture before the Society for Psychical Research is included, as is also the one given in France, L'Âme et le Corps, which contains the substance of the four London lectures on the Soul. The seventh and last article is a reprint of Bergson's famous lecture to the Congress of Philosophy at Geneva in 1904, The Psycho-Physiological Paralogism (Le paralogisme psycho-physiologique), which now appears as Le cerveau et la pensée: une illusion philosophique. Other articles are on the False Recognition, on Dreams, and Intellectual Effort. The volume is a most welcome production and serves to bring together what Bergson wrote on the concept of mental force, and on his view of "tension" and "detension" as applied to the relation of matter and mind.
In June 1920, the University of Cambridge honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Letters. In order that he might devote his full time to the great new work he was preparing on ethics, religion, and sociology, the Collège de France relieved Bergson of the duties attached to the Chair of Modern Philosophy there. He retained the chair, but no longer delivered lectures, his place being taken by his disciple, the mathematician and philosopher Edouard Le Roy, who supported a conventionalist stance on the foundations of mathematics, which was adopted by Bergson. Le Roy, who also succeeded to Bergson at the Académie française and was a fervent Catholic, extended to revealed truth his conventionalism, leading him to privilege faith, heart and sentiment to dogmas, speculative theology and abstract reasonings. Like Bergson's, his writings were placed on the Index by the Vatican.
Bergson then published Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe (Durée et simultanéité), a book on physics, which he followed with a polemical conversation with Albert Einstein at the French Society of Philosophy. The latter book has been often considered as one of his worst, many alleging that his knowledge of physics was very insufficient, and that the book did not follow up contemporary developments on physics. It was not published in the 1951 Edition du Centenaire in French, which contained all of his other works, and was only published later in a work gathering different essays, titled Mélanges. Duration and simultaneity took advantage of Bergson's experience at the League of Nations, where he presided starting in 1920 the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation (the ancestor of the UNESCO, which included Einstein, Marie Curie, etc.).
Living with his wife and daughter in a modest house in a quiet street near the Porte d'Auteuil in Paris, Bergson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927 for having written The Creative Evolution. Because of serious rheumatics ailments, he could not travel to Stockholm, and sent instead a text subsequently published in La Pensée et le mouvant.
After his retirement from the Collège, Bergson began to fade into obscurity: he suffered from a degenerative illness (rheumatism, which left him half paralyzed). He completed his new work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, which extended his philosophical theories to the realms of morality, religion and art, in 1935. It was respectfully received by the public and the philosophical community, but all by that time realized that Bergson's days as a philosophical luminary were past. He was, however, able to reiterate his core beliefs near the end of his life, by renouncing all of the posts and honours previously awarded him, rather than accept exemption from the antisemitic laws imposed by the Vichy government.
Bergson inclined to convert to Catholicism, writing on February 7, 1937: My thinking has always brought me nearer to Catholicism, in which I saw the perfect complement to Judaism. Though wishing to convert to Catholicism, he held off in view of the travails inflicted on the Jewish people by the Nazis and by their French collaborators; he wanted to remain among the persecuted. On 3 January 1941 Bergson died in occupied Paris from pneumonia contracted after standing for several hours in a queue for registration as a Jew. A Roman Catholic priest said prayers at his funeral per his request. Henri Bergson is buried in the Cimetière de Garches, Hauts-de-Seine.