Henri Bergson (1859)
It was also on this date, October 18, 1859, that French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson was born in Paris, in the Rue Lamartine, not far from the Opera House. His heritage was a blend of a prominent Jewish family from Poland and Irish stock on his mother’s side. Bergson spent most of his life in the dignified domain of academe in France, although he learned English from his mother and spent his first eight years in London. At age 18, by which time he had lost his faith in Judaism and Catholicism, he won a prize for solving a mathematical problem, and another for his scientific work in 1877. He earned a Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Paris in 1889.
He was influenced early on by the writings of Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. Bergson’s three principal works were Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience, 1889), Matter and Memory (Matiére et Mémoire, 1896), and Creative Evolution (L’Évolution créatrice, 1907). It was in this 1907 work that Bergson answered William Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God – that if a watch requires a watchmaker, then a world requires a world-maker:
In short, intelligence, considered in what seems to be its original feature, is the faculty of manufacturing artificial objects, especially tools to make tools, and of indefinitely urging the manufacture.*
In other words, intelligence can be inferred only from the making of artificial objects, not natural objects. But it was this same Creative Evolution in which Bergson worked out his theory that a Vital Impulse – élan vital – or soul of the universe, guides and controls evolution. This acceptance of a quasi-religious philosophy appealed to the Modernists and Neo-Catholic Party in France, but the Roman Catholic Church, in which it was believed that philosophy had reached its zenith in the thirteenth century with Thomas Aquinas, succeeded in banning Bergson’s three books by placing them upon the Index of Prohibited Books by Decree of 1 June 1914.
He traveled to London in 1908 and befriended psychologist William James, 17 years his senior, with whom Bergson had much in common philosophically, and who was promoting the Frenchman’s work in England. James described Bergson thus:
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 won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. He continued to write after his retirement. His last work, The Two Sources of Religion and Morality, in which Bergson attempted to extend his philosophical theories into morality, religion and art, was published in 1932, and respectfully received, but it was clear that his days as a philosophical luminary were past.
He died in Paris on 4 January 1941 at age 81. Bergson’s élan vital he was pleased to call God, but not in the personal, prayerful sense in which most Christians understand the concept. Indeed, he rejected the personal God of theology, saying, “he is nothing, since he does nothing.”† Joseph M. Wheeler, in his Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations (1889), claims Bergson; the Catholic Encyclopedia does not.
* Henri-Louis Bergson, Creative Evolution, 1907, chapter II.
** William James, Letters, letter dated October 4, 1908.
† Creative Evolution, p. 197.
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.