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The chapter argues that Bergson’s vitalism is a pseudo-naturalism that serves as a cover for pursuing a traditional metaphysical project. Bergson seems to work in the same direction as pragmatism to overcome the entrenched opposition between evolutionist, naturalist materialism and exceptionalist, antinaturalist spiritualism, underscoring the continuity between biological life and human social, moral, and political life and at the same time contrasting the latter’s specificity with our species’ biological nature. Yet this does not amount to a naturalist position, for two reasons. First, Bergson reasserts the primacy of mind over matter and articulates a global supernaturalism that fixes the point of departure of nature in a “supraconsciousness” and proposes that the telos of culture lies in the spiritual union of humans in and through the love of God. Bergson’s position is thus a variant of spiritualism, not a naturalist alternative to it. Second, an examination of Bergson’s method of identifying “differences in kind” reveals that the way he integrates humanity into the natural evolution of the species accords perfectly with the foundationalist project of metaphysics to discover a “source,” an antecedent nonhuman reality.
In the years just before the First World War, Henri Bergson (1859–1941) was at the height of his fame. His first two books, Time and Free Will (1889) and Matter and Memory (1896), had established him as the preeminent philosopher of France. But it was the publication of Creative Evolution in 1907 that made him a genuine cultural sensation. Avant-garde artists and writers flocked to his lectures at the Collège de France. As did “high society”: so much so that students, tired of losing their seats to those able to send valets hours in advance to reserve seats, circulated an (ultimately unsuccessful) petition to ban the general public. And on the day Bergson was elected to the French Academy, he found his lectern showered with flower petals, leading him to protest, “but … I am not a dancer!”
Summarizing the results of Bergson’s inquiry into the realities generally referred to under the heading “religion,” the chapter identifies what Bergson calls the “specifically religious element” as love (the mystics’ word for the élan vital) in action. To account for its possibility, the chapter turns to Bergson’s use of the term “conversion,” which he consistently employs to describe qualitative change, and articulates the mystic experience as a conversion that aims at a creative transformation of humanity. The very terms in which Bergson couches this conversion call up and shed new light on major themes of Bergson’s philosophy, including liberty, the élan vital, and philosophical intuition. The conclusion of the essay addresses Bergson’s problematic “conversion” to Catholicism as an instance of love in action.
This chapter lays out the principal features of Bergson’s new conception of truth. Although not always foregrounded by Bergson (and consequently overlooked by commentators), the issue of truth is central for him. Like William James, Bergson rejects the correspondence theory of truth because the world we seek to describe is endlessly changing. Accordingly, truth is not discovered in a quest for knowledge: it is invented. To counter the charge that such an invented truth is subjective and arbitrary, Bergson, again like James, insists on its practical verifiability. But, unlike James, he does not stop there: he seeks to establish theoretical criteria as well. This has three consequences: an emphasis on the notion of problems in philosophy; a recasting of the theory of general ideas; and the elaboration of Bergson’s well-known theory of intuition. Against this background, the chapter presents the central achievement of Bergson’s theory of truth, namely that it shows how what is true can be new and how what is new can be true.
Bergson was a pre-eminent European philosopher of the early twentieth century and his work covers all major branches of philosophy. This volume of essays is the first collection in twenty years in English to address the whole of Bergson's philosophy, including his metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of life, aesthetics, ethics, social and political thought, and religion. The essays explore Bergson's influence on a number of different fields, and also extend his thought to pressing issues of our time, including philosophy as a way of life, inclusion and exclusion in politics, ecology, the philosophy of race and discrimination, and religion and its enduring appeal. The volume will be valuable for all who are interested in this important thinker and his continuing relevance.
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