Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson's Political Philosophy

Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson's Political Philosophy

by Alexandre Lefebvre

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As the first book in English dedicated to Bergson's political philosophy, this study develops an original concept of human rights as a medium of self-care and personal transformation.See more details below


As the first book in English dedicated to Bergson's political philosophy, this study develops an original concept of human rights as a medium of self-care and personal transformation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Alexandre Lefebvre's beautifully conceived book is a bid to revive the moral philosophy of Henri Bergson, notably in the Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932), for our own age of human right . . . Lefebvre revisits it in an accessible and demotic style that suggests how easily a wide range of readers (including students of very different philosophical traditions) would gain from reading this book."—Samuel Moyn, Political Theory

"By analyzing Bergson's moral thinking from a contemporary viewpoint, the book advances a theory of human rights on the basis of self-care . . . The book's great merit is to introduce a novel approach to human rights studies, one that can eventually account for the fluidity and inconsistencies of the subject. More controversially, but no less stimulating, is Lefebvre's aspiration to introduce 'mysticism' as a procedure for philosophical research on the basis of Bergson's concept of open love."—Alessandra Sarquis, Political Studies Review

"He offers a creative synthesis of contemporary human rights theory, the philosophy of self-care, and several generations of Bergson scholarship; the result should be of interest to a wide range of scholars . . . Although human rights are often conceived in terms of political and legal measures to protect people from harm, Lefebvre's most original suggestion is to treat them in addition as forms of self-care or processes of conversion."—Alex Feldman, Contemporary Political Theory

"Alexandre Lefebvre took on the challenge, presenting his outlook with the required philosophical depth and writing style that grabs the reader from the start . . . Human Rights as a Way of Life does not take the easy path of arguing in favor of Bergson without facing some of the hidden implications of his thought. On the contrary, the depth and sharpness of Lefebvre's arguments are revealed as he presents and ingeniously answers some of the major critiques that Bergson's theoretical stands face . . . Thus, in its philosophical contents, Human Rights as a Way of Life makes several important contributions."—Magda Costa-Carvalho, The Review of Politics

"Through a distinctive interpretation of [Two Sources of Morality and Religion], Lefebvre's provocative work of genuine, scholarly creativity is the first monograph on human rights devoted to Bergson's thought . . . Lefebvre's work returns us to a nest of central questions in political philosophy and human-rights literature by returning these discussions to the level of the everyday agent—whether she comports herself with a closed or open love, an attitude or disposition that weakens or strengthens her commitment to human rights. As such, this work returns political philosophy and human-rights theory to 'a way of life', and it should be read closely and taken seriously."—Michael R. Kelly, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
"Clearly and engagingly written, with a good bibliography. . . . Recommended."—J. Donohoe, Choice
"An informed, informative, detailed, and impressive work of seminal scholarship, Human Rights As A Way Of Life is an important contribution and a highly recommended addition to academic library Political Philosophy reference collections and supplemental reading lists."—Midwest Book Review
"Lefebvre's new book is a fascinating interpretation of Bergson's last work . . . Lefebvre teases out the political implications of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, with its equally lovely and confronting description of open and closed societies . . . Thinking like Lefebvre's, channeling Bergson, can help jump the needle out of the deepening grooves of party-political discourse."—Miriam Cosic, The Australian
"Pierre Hadot wrote that essential to Bergsonism is the idea that philosophy entails the transformation of perception. In this hugely instructive new book Alexandre Lefebvre shows what such a transformation means for our appreciation of human rights. For him we require a new way of being in the world, one that involves a fundamental self-transformation and establishing relationships with others based on generosity and love. The remarkable innovation of this text is to use Bergson's philosophy for this end and to show that human rights involve a practice of self-care, one that opens us up to the world and to life and in which love is no longer tied to preference, exclusion, and closure. This message remains as vital today as when Bergson first attempted to articulate it in the 1930s. Lefebvre is to be congratulated for producing such a novel and fresh approach to the issue of human rights. The book is a fabulous exercise in contemporary philosophizing and deserves to be widely read."—Keith Ansell-Pearson, University of Warwick
"Lefebvre's elaboration of Bergson's concept of love is brilliant. His insistence on Bergson's use of biology to understand morality ties the book into contemporary debates on neo-vitalism, and his discussion of De Waal engages with contemporary debates around naturalism and morality. This important book makes a real contribution to contemporary political theory and, more locally, to Bergson studies and studies in recent French thought."—Leonard Lawlor, Penn State University

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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On Bergson's Political Philosophy

By Alexandre Lefebvre

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8578-5


A Dialogue on War

Just like the witches of Macbeth, the belligerents will say: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

In a letter written as the preface to Jean-Clet Martin's Variations, Gilles Deleuze has the following words of advice for a young philosopher:

In the analysis of concepts, it is always better to begin with extremely simple, concrete situations, not with philosophical antecedents, not even with problems as such (the one and the multiple, etc.). Take multiplicities for example. You want to begin with a question such as what is a pack? (it is different from a lone animal) ... I have only one thing to tell you: do not lose sight of the concrete, always return to it.

I have no idea whether or not Bergson inspired these lines. They do, however, capture his way of proceeding in Two Sources. In particular, they are apt for describing how he arrives at the concept of the "closed society."

The closed society is the major critical concept of Two Sources. It is of special importance for us because it is Bergson's point of attack against the picture of morality, along with the predominant dispensation of human rights it underpins. Part 1 will analyze the concept of the closed society, primarily through Bergson's critique of Émile Durkheim. And my purpose is to show the significance of Two Sources for theoretical and practical problems of human rights. But it is best to begin as Deleuze recommends, with the concrete situation. What is it that leads Bergson to create the concept of the closed society? The answer is simple and brutal: war.

The Picture of Morality and the Problem of War

Let us restate the picture of morality that Bergson challenges. In essence, it is the view that moral obligation expands from smaller to bigger groups, all the way to the whole of humanity. As previously quoted in the Introduction: "We observe that the three groups [i.e., family, nation, and humanity] to which we can attach ourselves comprise an increasing number of people, and we conclude that the increasing size of the loved object is simply matched by a progressive expansion of feeling. (DS 1001–2/32)

The point of calling this scheme a "picture" or an "image" is to underscore the sense in which it is less a worked-up theoretical position and more the ordinary grain or bent of our moral thinking. Indeed, once on the lookout for this view—that is, that a morality universal in scope is secured through step-by-step expansion—we can begin to detect it everywhere, in both friends and foes of human rights. We find it, for instance, in W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals: "At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world." And in Edmund Burke: "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind." Closer to our own time, it is revealed in a casual turn of phrase: "The goal of [human rights education] is to expand the reference of the terms 'our kind of people' and 'people like us.'" We could easily multiply examples. But it is Durkheim, the founder of French sociology, who gives it a definitive articulation. We will see that it is this version of the picture of morality that Bergson attacks in Two Sources.

Family, nation, and human represent different phases of our social and moral evolution, stages that have mutually prepared one another. Consequently, these groups can be superimposed on one another without mutual exclusion. Just as each has its part to play in historical development, they mutually complement each other in the present: each has its function. The family envelops the person in an altogether different way, and answers to different moral needs, than does the nation. It is not a matter then of making an exclusive choice among them. Man is not morally complete unless he undergoes this triple action.

Here we have a perfect match with the picture of morality. With just a glance we see that Durkheim explicitly deploys two of the four postulates identified in the Introduction. First, our group attachments are compatible (postulate 2). Properly arranged, our attachments to the three groups—family, nation, and humanity—are complementary. Durkheim thus closes off the inevitability of a tragic situation where the rights of one group would square off against the rights of another. Instead, each group fulfills a different function, all of which are necessary to form a complete moral person. But it is important to note that although the three groups are complementary, they are not equal. This is the second point: for Durkheim, there is a clear ranking to these levels and progress (postulate 4) is made by advancing to higher stages—from family, to nation, to humanity. Accordingly, "they constitute a hierarchy," with attachment to humanity at the summit.

Yet in addition to these explicit postulates, it is clear that Durkheim also presupposes the other two. On the one hand, our attachments are directed toward determinate objects or groups (postulate 1), and on the other hand, our attachments can be extended to quantitatively larger groups of people (postulate 3). This passage is, therefore, a model of the picture of morality and moral progress that Two Sources will extensively criticize.

What is Bergson's objection to it? Well, there are several. We will see that it is confused, moralistic, and ineffective. But his most basic criticism is that it doesn't fit the facts. In particular, it is at odds with the fact of war. How, he asks, is war so much as possible if the picture of morality is accurate? If our duties and attachments expand all the way to humankind—or better, if some countries do in fact profess respect for humanity and have mature human rights institutions—how do we account for the omnipresence of war?

This is how Bergson sets out the problem:

When we lay down that the duty of respecting the life and property of others is a fundamental demand of social life, what society are we talking about? To answer we need only consider what happens in time of war. Murder and pillage, as well as perfidy, fraud and lies become not only lawful; they are praiseworthy. Just like the witches of Macbeth, the belligerents will say: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." Would this be possible, would the transformation take place so easily, generally and instantaneously, if it were really a certain attitude of man toward man [i.e., of human beings toward human beings] that society had recommended up till then? Oh, I know what society says (it has, I repeat, its reasons for saying so); but to know what it thinks and what it wants, we must not listen too much to what it says, we must look at what it does. It says that the duties it defines are indeed, in principle, duties toward humanity, but that under exceptional circumstances, regrettably unavoidable, they are for the time being suspended in practice [l'exercice s'en trouve suspendu]. (DS 1000–1001/31)

Here we have the single most important critique Bergson makes of human rights. Indeed, to my knowledge, it is the only critique he makes of them! Granted, it may not look like much. But I believe this passage is of singular importance for two reasons.

First, the vision of human rights it sets out is the consistent expression of the picture of morality. This, Bergson is saying, is what human rights look like if they are based on it. And so considering that the critical apparatus of chapter 1 of Two Sources is given over to a critique of the picture of morality, we can use this passage to see precisely how it undermines human rights. Now, on its own the fact that the picture of morality vitiates human rights may not seem so terrible; it just looks like another thing that, according to Bergson, it gets wrong. Why make a mountain from a molehill? But this brings us to the second reason why the passage is important. It is that human rights are not "just another thing" for Bergson. Properly understood, they are the best-placed institution to realize the social, moral, political, and religious ideal that he will call the "open society." In light of the stakes, therefore, it does not seem to me excessive to put tremendous emphasis on this passage and make it carry the full weight of Bergson's critique of the picture of morality.

What Society Says and What the Belligerents Do

Our aim is to use this passage in order to pinpoint how human rights are seen from within the picture of morality. I propose to read the passage as a dialogue among three different voices, set in motion by the opening question, "What society are we talking about?" They are:

1. Belligerents: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair."

2. Bergson: "Would this be possible ...?"

3. Society: "Oh, I know what society says ... It says that the duties it defines ... "

Who are these characters? We should start with "society," as it is not altogether obvious to whom or what Bergson refers. In having society speak, I believe that Bergson plays on two different yet complementary meanings of the word, one commonplace and the other technical. On the one hand, there is the sense in which society refers to general opinion or to the public at large. Society is the voice of doxa, not in the sense of a particular opinion that we all hold but of a way of thinking that we all share. That way of thinking, of course, is the picture of morality. But on the other hand, I believe it also stands for something much more specific. I have said that Durkheim is the principal interlocutor of chapter 1 of Two Sources. A fundamental principle of Durkheim's social theory is that society has an existence independent of its individual members. Society, in other words, is not an abstraction but a real force. It makes sense then for Bergson to cast it as a living, breathing character. He simply follows Durkheim's lead; or, more exactly, by agreeing to posit the independent existence of society, Bergson writes Durkheim's voice into the dialogue.

How does society respond to Bergson's question? It says that the duty to respect the life and property of others applies to all human beings. That is, asked whether when we speak of duties to "others" we refer to our fellows or to humankind, society affirms that it means the latter. I recognize, of course, that Bergson has society speak the language of "duties toward humanity" rather than "human rights." Yet this is perfectly understandable if we acknowledge that Bergson channels Durkheim in this passage. For his part, Durkheim systematically favors the term "human duties" over "human rights" in order to reflect his view that a genuine right must always correlate with a concrete duty. On this view, rights do not attach to us "from birth" but are based in posited, substantial duties that are the true foundation of rights. In underemphasizing the language of human rights, however, Durkheim by no means dispenses with it. Instead, his purpose is to stress that "human rights" and "duties toward humanity" are convertible concepts. This is his take on the old adage that behind every right is a duty. And so, when Bergson has society say that it affirms that duties to life and property apply to all humankind, society will at one and the same time uphold human rights. Or, to phrase it in the form of the question posed in the dialogue, when society is asked "which others" have rights to life and property, society will reply that it means humanity as a whole and not this or that society.

Now, it must be said that in peacetime this question doesn't matter much. When there is no conflict between the duties owed to our fellows and those owed to humankind, it is easy enough to assert their compatibility. But this is not the circumstance in which Bergson presses his question. Instead he wants to know, within the context of war, whether the rights and duties that we profess apply to our fellows or to humankind. And here the question elicits two different answers, one given by society, the other by the belligerents.

Faced with war, society will maintain its support for universal duties, though with a crucial qualification. It says that while war does not eliminate rights due to all human beings, nor show them to be imaginary, it does suspend their application for the time being. Duties toward humanity are, therefore, affirmed in principle but temporarily denied in fact. This is how society reconciles its commitment to human rights with the reality of war.

It should be clear that Bergson distrusts this answer. But it is crucial to see why. He does not object that this response is insufficient, as if society really should uphold human rights, even in wartime. No, his criticism is that it is mendacious. And the basis for this accusation stems from the contrast between "saying" and "doing" that structures the dialogue. In fact, it is this contrast that establishes the other interlocutor of the dialogue: the belligerents.

Who are they? First of all, they are not a class of people separate from society. Society and belligerents are, instead, two faces of the same people at war, as distinguished by what they say (society) and what they do (belligerents). Whereas society may pronounce at length on its commitment to universal obligation (in this sense, they are talkers in line with another great Bergsonian persona, homo loquax), the terse motto of the belligerents—"fair is foul, and foul is fair"—verbalizes the actually effective standards and values of a people at war. Which is to say that when we look at the actual conduct of a people at war, acts that are normally praiseworthy become contemptible and acts that are normally abhorrent become laudatory.

And here we come back to Deleuze's sense that concrete situations are the touchstone of philosophical concepts. For Bergson wants to understand, quite plainly, how it is that a reversal of values can happen so suddenly and so completely, from one morning to the next. Society has an explanation, but it is theoretically empty and practically discouraging. On the one hand, it explains the apparent reversal of values as a lapse or deviation from the standards it professes. But this leaves unresolved how such a complete transformation could have taken place. And on the other hand, society reaffirms its commitment to universal duties but suspends them in the present instance. Here, Bergson has all the more reason to be disappointed. For if society suspends universal duties precisely when they are most required, what are they besides a moralistic irony? Or in other words, if human rights are a piety that folds when the nation is threatened, they become, as in Hannah Arendt's cutting phrase, "the uncertain sentiment of professional idealists." At once sanctimony and scold, it appears that society will not back human rights when it counts.

Restatement of the Problem of War

What about the third character in the dialogue, Bergson's own voice? It appears in the middle of the passage in the form of a question: "Would this be possible, would the transformation take place so easily, generally and instantaneously, if it were really a certain attitude of man toward man that society had been enjoining on us up till then?" As we said, Bergson homes in on the theoretical inadequacy of society's explanation of war: if society genuinely does enjoin duties to all of mankind, then how can these be so completely set aside in times of war? It would appear that society's account leaves an inexplicable discontinuity between peacetime ("fair is fair, and foul is foul") and wartime ("fair is foul, and foul is fair") morality.

But the phrasing of Bergson's question hints at his answer. What if, Bergson seems to suggest, war is not a break from the morality of society? What if it is instead fundamentally continuous with it? Maybe it is not a reversal. Maybe, in fact, the very idea of a "reversal" or of a "sudden transformation" of morality by war is already too much tied into the perspective of society. In short, it could be that the very attempt to explain the "reversal" of morality during war—or, more exactly, to assume that a reversal has in fact taken place—only makes sense from within the perspective of society that Bergson argues against.

Here we come to the great restatement of the problem of war in chapter 1 of Two Sources. We can introduce it as a methodological principle: if the attempt to account for war from the perspective of the morality of society leads to a dead end, then perhaps it would be more fruitful to use war to explain the morality of society. From this new perspective, war is not a mysterious departure from the morality of society; it is instead the key to bringing that morality clearly into view. In Bergson's hands war will become the ratio cognoscendi of moral obligation.

Excerpted from HUMAN RIGHTS AS A WAY OF LIFE by Alexandre Lefebvre. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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