Early Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy

Early Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy

by Leonard Lawlor

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Early Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy elaborates the basic project of contemporary continental philosophy, which culminates in a movement toward the outside. Leonard Lawlor interprets key texts by major figures in the continental tradition, including Bergson, Foucault, Freud, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty, to develop the broad sweep of the aims of


Early Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy elaborates the basic project of contemporary continental philosophy, which culminates in a movement toward the outside. Leonard Lawlor interprets key texts by major figures in the continental tradition, including Bergson, Foucault, Freud, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty, to develop the broad sweep of the aims of continental philosophy. Lawlor discusses major theoretical trends in the work of these philosophers—immanence, difference, multiplicity, and the overcoming of metaphysics. His conception of continental philosophy as a unified project enables Lawlor to think beyond its European origins and envision a global sphere of philosophical inquiry that will revitalize the field.

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"Textual summaries are clear, and interpretations are fresh and compelling. Helpful bibliography and index.... Recommended." —Choice

Michael Naas

"Well conceived and well argued... eminently useful and important." —Michael Naas, DePaul University

Stephen H. Watson

"Leonard Lawlor has proven himself to be one of the most imaginative and original interpreters of French philosophy." —Stephen H. Watson, University of Notre Dame

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"Well researched and credible in its sweep through the various philosophical projects it considers." —James Risser, Seattle University

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Overall, this is an outstanding book that will serve as a fine supplement (and guide) to important primary texts in early twentieth-century continental philosophy. However, it will also be of great interest to scholars in this area due to the tendentious reframing agenda and the copious scholarly notes that append each chapter. This book would serve as an interesting supplemental text for a course on continental thought and is a valuable resource for any university library." —Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

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"Well conceived and well argued... eminently useful and important." —Michael Naas, DePaul University

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Early Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy

By Leonard Lawlor

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Leonard Lawlor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35702-1


Thinking beyond Platonism: Bergson's "Introduction to Metaphysics" (1903)

Near the end of "Introduction to Metaphysics," Bergson says, "The partial eclipse of metaphysics since the last half century has been caused more than anything else by the extraordinary difficulty the philosopher experiences today in making contact with a science already much too scattered" (CENT: 1432/CM: 200). Science has become scattered "today" because it is based on acquiring knowledge by analysis, that is, by taking up separate and particular viewpoints on things, from the exterior. Analysis is the work done by one faculty, the understanding (in French, l'entendement or, in German, der Verstand: the intellect). The understanding breaks things up and for each separate perspective, it assigns a symbol—so that knowledge looks to be based on symbols, relative to them, and metaphysics, based on relative knowledge, becomes impossible. For Bergson, analysis must be overcome. It is overcome by means of a different faculty, the faculty of intuition. Based in intuition, and not in symbolization, knowledge is immediate and absolute. Through intuition, then, metaphysics is possible once again. According to Bergson there is a second reason why metaphysics went into eclipse in the nineteenth century. In "Introduction to Metaphysics," again near its end, Bergson speaks of modern philosophy as the reversal of Platonism, reversing the relation of idea (or form) and the soul (or experience). No doubt, Bergson is thinking of Descartes. Yet in the prioritization of the soul, Platonism persists insofar as the understanding—here too in modern metaphysics—defines cognitive activity. Here Bergson is thinking of Kant. No one more than Kant (the Kant of The Critique of Pure Reason, where the faculty of the understanding or the intellect, der Verstand, plays such an important role), for Bergson has misunderstood the soul. Therefore, insofar as Bergson wants to overcome analysis, we can also say that he wants to overcome modern metaphysics. And if we can say that, then we can say that Bergson's project bears strong similarities to Heidegger's project of overcoming metaphysics.

Nevertheless, as Heidegger and Husserl and perhaps Freud recognized, it is possible to overcome modern metaphysics only by adopting the discovery made by Descartes: immanence. For Bergson, as we shall see shortly, intuition is self-sympathy, even introspection. But the specific kind of introspection that Bergson thinks leads to absolute knowledge is not the slender experience of my current state of mind. Intuition for Bergson requires the effort to expand or dilate one's present. Self-dilation puts us in contact with what Bergson famously calls the duration, the temporal flow of experience. This flow includes a kind of unity and a kind of multiplicity, a kind of continuity and a kind of heterogeneity, which means that through self-dilation I come into contact with something other than myself. Intuition does not enclose me, but opens me to the outside. In Bergsonian intuition therefore we find the basic impulse of all continental philosophy. Starting from a certain inside, it is driven by an impulse to exit. The impulse to the outside requires the reconception of thinking. Like Heidegger, Bergson too calls for such a reconception when he tries to reconceive the very concept of concept. He calls for this reconception because the duration is in itself inexpressible and yet knowledge of it given in intuition requires expression, even conceptual expression. In our "Interpretation," we shall be particularly interested in Bergson's new concept of concept. Just as the qualitative multiplicity of the duration sets the stage for all investigations of difference, 3 the idea of a "fluid concept" sets the stage for all the investigations of language. It shows that thinking is capable of more than Platonizing. But first in our commentary, let us see what Bergson does with immanent subjective experience.

Summary-Commentary: Intuition and Duration


The context for Bergson's revival of metaphysics and intuition is the development of modern philosophy since Kant (CENT: 1427–28/CM: 195). 5 Kant had made metaphysics impossible because he showed that human knowledge is always and merely relative. For Bergson, however, our knowledge can be absolute (CENT: 1424/CM: 192). If our knowledge is absolute, then metaphysics is possible. For Bergson, the mistake Kant had made was that he relied on the "habitual work of the intelligence" (CENT: 1409/CM: 177). The habitual work of intelligence serves a practical interest; it consists in going from the general concepts that we have already acquired to the things. The general concepts classify things, separating them and juxtaposing them; when classified, the things are then labeled, and by means of these labels, the general concepts allow the things to be manipulated for our own benefit. Yet for Bergson, metaphysics is possible only if we go from the things—we might say here that "we must go from the things themselves"—to the concepts (CENT: 1410/CM: 177). Only through this "reversal" of the habitual work of intelligence—Husserl would speak of the reversal of the natural attitude—is it possible to intuit. But what is intuition in Bergson?

In the opening pages of "Introduction to Metaphysics," Bergson differentiates between analysis and intuition, which are mixed together within knowing (connaître) (CENT: 1392—93/CM: 159). Bergson makes the distinction between analysis and intuition along the line of inside and outside. Analysis remains outside the thing; it consists in turning about the thing and adopting viewpoints on the thing. The turning about aims at taking the thing apart, at division and complexity; it is "analysis" in the literal sense. The result of analysis is "elements" or what Bergson will call "partial expressions" of the thing (CENT: 1405/CM: 171). Then one reconstructs the thing out of the partial expressions or one "translates" the thing, as Bergson says, into symbols. Analysis always results in symbolization. In analysis our access to the thing is mediated by these partial viewpoints and these symbols; thus it is relative and abstract. It is important to realize immediately that the distinction Bergson is making between analysis and intuition does not imply that intuition, being opposed to analysis, is a kind of synthesis (CENT: 1362/CM: 125). For Bergson, synthesis is the process of reconstruction of partial expressions broken apart by the analysis, a process that results in mixtures (CENT: 1409/CM: 176). So, in contrast to both analysis and synthesis, intuition in Bergson involves no viewpoints and supports itself on no symbols used in a reconstruction. Intuition is concrete; "one enters into" (en) the thing. One coincides with it immediately in its simplicity and indivisibility. Therefore, intuitive knowledge in Bergson is absolute and, we must say, even a-perspectival.

Bergson illuminates the distinction between intuition and analysis with two examples, the first of which is "the movement of an object in space," in particular, the simple movement of me lifting my arm (CENT: 1395/CM: 161). This example is important since Bergson defines intuition as "sympathy" (CENT: 1393/CM: 159), and first of all as self-sympathy (CENT: 1396/CM: 163): me lifting my arm (CENT: 1396/CM: 162–63). If I look at my arm lifting from the outside, I perceive the moving and the changes according to viewpoints. Being points, the viewpoints look to be points on a line, which can then be coordinated on a grid. The points on the grid, which are unrelated to one another and all homogeneously the same, can be expressed by one symbol. Now, translated into a spatial grid of points, into a symbol, the movement no longer moves. With the translation I have lost the original. So, in contrast, when I perceive my arm lifting from the inside, I sense change and changes immediately. But the sensing changes not according to the different viewpoints adopted; rather as my arm moves, my feelings change. Then I am "sympathizing" with the object, which in this case is my own arm. But any example of bodily movement will illuminate the distinction. When I am running, I experience or sense change all the time, but I do not take the movement apart and coordinate it with spatial axes; I do not symbolize the movement on a grid. To do this coordination, I would have to be standing still, not running. I would have to be perceiving the running from the outside.

The second example is a literary example. This example too is important since it concerns creativity in language; we shall return to language below in the "Interpretation." The example works this way. A novelist, Bergson says, will be able to multiply the features of the character about whom he is writing (CENT: 1394/CM: 160). The novel would recount thousands of incidents, but these thousands of incidents would be only viewpoints taken on the character. The features described would be symbols, according to Bergson, by means of which the reader would come to know the character only by "comparing" him to other things he or she already knows. This description of what the novelist does means that the reader remains outside the character, in the divided, multiple elements. But, as Bergson says, "if I were to identify for a single moment with the character himself," if, in other words, I could intuit the character, the character would be "given with one blow in its entirety and the thousand incidents that manifest the character ... do not exhaust or impoverish" the simple and indivisible feeling I would be having (CENT: 1394/CM: 160). In contrast, what the novel gives us (instead of me entering into the character's life) is the analysis of the character into "the thousand incidents." If we again think of any bodily movement, we see that any bodily movement can be potentially or virtually analyzed into an infinite number of points that would fill every interval of the movement. So, as Bergson says, "Now what lends itself at the same time to an indivisible apprehension and to an inexhaustible enumeration is, by the very definition of the word, an infinite [infini]" (CENT: 1395/CM: 161).


Of course, the infinite that is given in intuition—after the reversal of the normal work of intelligence—and that with which metaphysics concerns itself is the flow (or movement) of experience within the self. If intuition is first of all "entering in," then our starting point is immanent subjective experience, which Bergson calls "the duration." The duration is a succession of states, each one of which announces what follows and contains what precedes. The duration does not consist in multiple separate states. And if we think it does consist of states, this belief is based in retrospection, when we "observe the track" of what has flowed (CENT: 1397/CM: 163). As Bergson says, "while I was experiencing them they were so solidly organized, so profoundly animated with a common life, that I could never have said where any one of them finished or the next one began" (CENT: 1397/CM: 163). Instead of separation and juxtaposition, the "states" "prolong themselves" into one another. One finds therefore in the depth of the self, according to Bergson, "a continuous flux [écoulement] which is not comparable to any other flux I have ever seen" (CENT: 1397/CM: 163). For Bergson, the duration is primarily defined by continuity, more precisely continuity without contiguity or juxtaposition, or continuity with heterogeneity. 11 But also for Bergson the flow of the duration is unique. Being unique, the duration cannot be conceived by means of resemblances and comparisons. It is even inexpressible (CENT: 1395/CM: 161). Nevertheless, we are able to get closer to what duration is by means of images (CENT: 1355–56/CM: 118). For Bergson, images are intermediary between intuition and the elaboration of the intuition in words and concepts (CENT: 1347/CM: 109). Here, in "Introduction to Metaphysics," Bergson provides three images. Each of the images is necessarily inadequate to the flow of the duration. All the images can do is lead us to the place where we might be able to have the intuition (CENT: 1399/CM: 166).

The first image of the duration is two spools, with a tape running between them, one spool unwinding the tape, the other winding it up. The duration resembles this image, according to Bergson, because, as we grow older, our future grows smaller and our past grows larger. The benefit of this image is that it presents a continuity of experiences without juxtaposition. Yet there is a drawback to it: Because a tape moves between the two spools, the image presents the duration as being homogeneous, as if one could fold the tape back over other parts of it, as if the tape were superposable, implying that two moments in consciousness might be identical and homogeneous. Yet, as Bergson says, "There are no two identical moments in the life of the same conscious being" (CENT: 1398/CM: 164). The duration, for Bergson, is continuity of progress and heterogeneity. Continuity, Bergson realizes, never makes difference vanish; difference becomes internal. 13 There is difference, because, as this image shows, the duration conserves the past. Indeed, for Bergson, and this is the center of his truly novel idea of memory, memory conserves the past and this conservation does not imply that one experiences the same (re-cognition), but difference. One moment is added onto the old ones, and thus, when the next moment occurs, it is added onto all the other old ones plus the one that came immediately before. The current moment cannot be the same as the one immediately before, because the past is "larger" for the current moment than it was for the last moment. Although Bergson does not say this, one might say that Tuesday is different from Monday because Monday only includes itself and Sunday, while Tuesday includes itself, Monday, and Sunday. This first image, therefore, implies that the duration is memory; it the prolongation of the past into the present. The second image is the color spectrum. Since a color spectrum has a multiplicity of different shades or nuances, the second image helps us see that the duration is constant difference or heterogeneity, precisely the characteristic of the duration that was lacking in the spool image. But there is a drawback to the color spectrum image as well. With the color spectrum, we lose the characteristic of continuity or unity since the spectrum has colors juxtaposed. The color spectrum is a spatial image, while the duration is time. So, as Bergson says, "pure duration excludes all idea of juxtaposition, reciprocal externality, and extension" (CENT: 1398/CM: 164). We come then to the third image, which is an elastic being stretched. Bergson tells us first to contract the elastic to a mathematical point, which represents the now of our experience, then draw it out to make a line growing progressively longer. But he warns us not to focus on the line but on the action that traces it. If we can focus on the action of tracing, then we can see that the movement—which is duration—is not only continuous and differentiating or heterogeneous, but also indivisible. We can always insert breaks into the spatial line that represents the motion, but the motion itself is indivisible. In Bergson, there is always a priority of movement over the thing that moves; the thing that moves is an abstraction from the movement. Now, the elastic being stretched is a more exact image of duration. But the image of the elastic is still, according to Bergson, incomplete. With this image, we forget the wealth of coloring (as we saw in the color spectrum) characteristic of the duration as it is lived. Instead, with the elastic we see only the simple movement of consciousness as it goes from one shade to another. Importantly, we must recall that the color spectrum image does not represent the duration since the color spectrum is "a thing already made, while the duration is in the process of making itself continually" (CENT: 1399/CM: 166). Although never presenting the duration itself—such a presentation takes place only in intuition—these three images are supposed to bring us into the disposition or attitude in which we are able to have an intuition of the duration (CENT: 1399–1400/CM: 165–66). We can see a progression here: from intuition to image to concept. Conceptual representations, however, never enclose the duration, especially "if we give to the word concept its proper meaning" (CENT: 1402/CM: 168; my emphasis). Literally, a concept (based on the Latin root "capere," to take or to grasp) immobilizes, while the duration is pure mobility (it is always in the process of being made). Below, in the "Interpretation," we shall return to the problem of conceptual representation. But we can say now that Bergson needs some sort of conceptual representation in order to communicate the knowledge that intuition provides. This improper conceptual representation is what we shall call a "fluid concept," a concept enlarged, as we see already, with images.


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Meet the Author

Leonard Lawlor is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. He is author of Derrida and Husserl (IUP, 2002) and Thinking through French Philosophy (IUP, 2003).

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