"So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy."
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 was born in the Rue Lamartine in Paris, not far from the Palais Garnier (the old Paris opera house) in 1859. His father, the Pianist Michał Bergson, was of a Polish Jewish background (originally bearing the name Bereksohn). His great-grandmother, Temerl Bergson, was a well-known patroness and benefactor of Polish Jewry, especially those associated with the Hasidic movement. His mother, Katherine Levison, daughter of a Yorkshire Doctor, was from an English and Irish Jewish background. The Bereksohns were a famous Jewish 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 II Augustus, King of Poland from 1764 to 1795.
Bergson attended the Lycée Fontanes (known as the Lycée Condorcet 1870–1874 and 1883–present) 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, a process sometimes construed as not needing a creative deity.
Henri Bergson married Louise Neuberger, a cousin of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), in 1891. (The Novelist served as best man at Bergson's wedding.) Henri and Louise Bergson 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.
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 Nouvelles 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 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 from the University of Paris.
As early as 1880, James had contributed an article in French to the periodical La Critique philosophique, of Renouvier and Pillon, entitled Le Sentiment de l'Effort. Four years later, a couple of articles by him appeared in the journal Mind: "What is an Emotion?" and "On some Omissions of Introspective Psychology". Bergson quoted the first two of these articles in his 1889 work, Time and Free Will. In the following years, 1890–91 appeared the two volumes of James's monumental work, The Principles of Psychology, in which he refers to a pathological phenomenon observed by Bergson. Some Writers, taking merely these dates into consideration and overlooking the fact that James's investigations had been proceeding since 1870 (registered from time to time by various articles which culminated in "The Principles"), have mistakenly dated Bergson's ideas as earlier than James's.
It has been suggested that Bergson owes the root ideas of his first book to the 1884 article by James, "On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology," which he neither refers to nor quotes. This article deals with the conception of thought as a stream of consciousness, which intellect distorts by framing into concepts. Bergson replied to this insinuation by denying that he had any knowledge of the article by James when he wrote Les données immédiates de la conscience. The two thinkers appear to have developed independently until almost the close of the century. They are further apart in their intellectual position than is frequently supposed. Both have succeeded in appealing to audiences far beyond the purely academic sphere, but only in their mutual rejection of "intellectualism" as decisive as their actual agreement. Although James was slightly ahead in the development and enunciation of his ideas, he confessed that he was baffled by many of Bergson's notions. James certainly neglected many of the deeper metaphysical aspects of Bergson's thought, which did not Harmonize with his own, and are even in direct contradiction. In addition to this, Bergson can hardly be considered a pragmatist. For him, "utility," far from being a test of truth, was, in fact, the reverse: a synonym for error.
At that time, Bergson had already made an extensive study of biology including the theory of fecundation (as shown in 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 Greek and Roman 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, from 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 Collège de France, etc.
Bergson settled again in Paris in 1888, and 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 Darwin and gave a course on his theories. 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 continual vision of life.
As early as the 1890s, Santayana attacked certain key concepts in Bergson's philosophy, above all his view of the New and the indeterminate:
In 1896 he published his second major work, entitled Matter and Memory. This rather difficult 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, École Normale Supérieure, and later in the same year received a 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 Roman Philosophy in succession to Charles Lévêque .
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.
Nevertheless, william James hailed Bergson as an ally. In 1903, he wrote:
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 from attending the Third Congress held at Heidelberg.
Élan vital ranks as Bergson's third essential concept, after Duration and intuition. An idea with the goal of explaining evolution, the élan vital first appeared in 1907's Creative Evolution. Bergson portrays élan vital as a kind of vital impetus which explains evolution in a less mechanical and more lively manner, as well as accounting for the creative impulse of mankind. This concept led several authors to characterize Bergson as a supporter of vitalism—although he criticized it explicitly in The Creative Evolution, as he thought, against Driesch and Johannes Reinke (whom he cited) that there is neither "purely internal finality nor clearly cut individuality in nature":
Bergson traveled to London in 1908 and met there with william James, the Harvard Philosopher who was Bergson's senior by seventeen years, and who was instrumental in calling the attention of the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. The two became great friends. James's impression of Bergson is given in his Letters under date of 4 October 1908:
These remarks, which appeared in James's book A Pluralistic Universe in 1909, impelled many English and American readers to investigate Bergson's philosophy for themselves, but no English translations of Bergson's major work had yet appeared. James, however, encouraged and assisted Dr. Arthur Mitchell in preparing an English translation of Creative Evolution. In August 1910, James died. It was his intention, had he lived to see the translation finished, to introduce it to the English reading public by a prefatory note of appreciation. In the following year, the translation was completed and still greater interest in Bergson and his work was the result. By coincidence, in that same year (1911), Bergson penned a preface of sixteen pages entitled Truth and Reality for the French translation of James's book, Pragmatism. In it, he expressed sympathetic appreciation of James's work, together with certain important reservations.
Two days later he delivered the Huxley Lecture at the University of Birmingham, taking for his subject Life and Consciousness. This subsequently appeared in The Hibbert Journal (October 1911), and since revised, is the first essay in the collected volume Mind-Energy (L'Énergie spirituelle). In October he again traveled to England, where he had an enthusiastic reception, and delivered at University College London four lectures on La Nature de l'Âme [The nature of the soul].
In 1913 Bergson visited the United States of America at the invitation of Columbia University, New York, and lectured in several American cities, where very large audiences welcomed him. In February, at Columbia University, he lectured both in French and English, taking as his subjects: Spirituality and Freedom and The Method of Philosophy. Being again in England in May of the same year, he accepted the Presidency of the British Society for Psychical Research, and delivered to the Society an address on Phantoms of Life and Psychic Research (Fantômes des vivants et recherche psychique).
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 Alex Andre 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 traveling and lecturing in America during the war. He participated in 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 friends to 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 (reprinted as Mind-Energy – L'Énergie 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 Édouard 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 reasoning. Like Bergson's, his writings were placed on the Index by the Vatican.
In the fall of 1922 Bergson's book Durée et simultanéité, a propos de la theorie d'Einstein (Duration and Simultaneity: Bergson and the Einsteinian Universe) was published. Earlier in the spring Einstein had come to the French Society of Philosophy and briefly replied to a short speech made by Bergson. The book has been often considered as one of his worst, many alleging that his knowledge of physics was insufficient, and that the book did not follow up contemporary developments on physics. (But in "Einstein and the Crisis of Reason," a leading French Philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, accused Einstein of failing to grasp Bergson's argument. This argument, Merleau-Ponty claims, which concerns not the physics of special relativity but its philosophical foundations, addresses paradoxes caused by popular interpretations and misconceptions about the theory, including Einstein's own.) 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.).
In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson develops a theory not of laughter itself but of how laughter can be provoked (see his objection to Delage, published in the 23rd edition of the essay). He describes the process of laughter (refusing to give a conceptual definition which would not approach its reality), used in particular by comics and clowns, as caricature of the mechanistic nature of humans (habits, automatic acts, etc.), one of the two tendencies of life (degradation towards inert matter and mechanism, and continual creation of new forms). However, Bergson warns us that laughter's criterion of what should be laughed at is not a moral criterion and that it can in fact cause serious damage to a person's self-esteem. This essay made his opposition to the Cartesian theory of the animal-machine obvious.
While 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. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1928.
Alfred North Whitehead acknowledged Bergson's influence on his process philosophy in his 1929 Process and Reality. However, Bertrand Russell, Whitehead's collaborator on Principia Mathematica, was not so entranced by Bergson's philosophy. Although acknowledging Bergson's literary skills, Russell saw Bergson's arguments at best as persuasive or emotive speculation but not at all as any worthwhile Example of sound reasoning or philosophical insight. The epistemologist Gaston Bachelard explicitly alluded to him in the last pages of his 1938 book The Formation of the Scientific Mind. Others influenced by Bergson include Vladimir Jankélévitch, who wrote a book on him in 1931, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Gilles Deleuze who wrote Le bergsonisme in 1966. Bergson also influenced the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas, although Merleau-Ponty had reservations about Bergson's philosophy. The Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis studied under Bergson in Paris and his writing and philosophy were profoundly influenced as a result.
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 passed. 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 in his will on 7 February 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, as stated in his will, he did not convert in view of the travails inflicted on the Jewish people by the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s; he did not want to appear to want to leave the persecuted. On 3 January 1941 Bergson died in occupied Paris from bronchitis. A Roman Catholic priest said prayers at his funeral per his request. Bergson is buried in the Cimetière de Garches, Hauts-de-Seine.
The Vatican accused Bergson of pantheism, while free-thinkers (who formed a large part of the teachers and professors of the French Third Republic) accused him of spiritualism. Still others have characterized his philosophy as a materialist emergentism – Samuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan explicitly claimed Bergson as their forebear. According to Henri Hude (1990, II, p. 142), who supports himself on the whole of Bergson's works as well as his now published courses, accusing him of pantheism is a "counter-sense". Hude alleges that a mystical experience, roughly outlined at the end of Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, is the inner principle of his whole philosophy, although this has been contested by other commentators.
From his first publications, Bergson's philosophy attracted strong criticism from different quarters, although he also became very popular and durably influenced French philosophy. The Mathematician Édouard Le Roy became Bergson's main disciple. Nonetheless, Suzanne Guerlac has argued that his institutional position at the Collège de France, delivering lectures to a general audience, may have retarded the systematic reception of his thought: "Bergson achieved enormous popular success in this context, often due to the emotional appeal of his ideas. But he did not have the equivalent of graduate students who might have become rigorous interpreters of his thought. Thus Bergson's philosophy—in principle open and nonsystematic—was easily borrowed piecemeal and altered by enthusiastic admirers".