Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson

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Appearing here in English for the first time, Vladimir Jankélévitch's Henri Bergson is one of the two great commentaries written on Henri Bergson. Gilles Deleuze's Bergsonism renewed interest in the great French philosopher but failed to consider Bergson's experiential and religious perspectives. Here Jankélévitch covers all aspects of Bergson's thought, emphasizing the concepts of time and duration, memory, evolution, simplicity, love, and joy. A friend of Bergson's, Jankélévitch first published this book in 1931 and revised it in 1959 to treat Bergson's later works. This unabridged translation of the 1959 edition includes an editor's introduction, which contextualizes and outlines Jankélévitch's reading of Bergson, additional essays on Bergson by Jankélévitch, and Bergson's letters to Jankélévitch.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375333
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/17/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
File size: 681 KB

About the Author

Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985) held the chair in moral philosophy at the University of Paris-Sorbonne from 1951 to 1978, and was the author of more than twenty books on philosophy and music.

Alexandre Lefebvre is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He is the coeditor of Bergson, Politics, and Religion, also published by Duke University Press.

Nils F. Schott is James M. Motley Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and the translator of several books, including The Helmholtz Curves: Tracing Lost Time, by Henning Schmidgen.

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Henri Bergson

By Vladimir Jankélévitch, Alexandre Lefebvre, Nils F. Schott

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1959 Presses Universitaires de France
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7533-3



Take comfort; you would not seek me if you had not found me. — Pascal

Bergson's philosophy is one of the rare philosophies in which the investigation's theory blends with the investigation itself. It excludes the kind of reflexive doubling that gives rise to gnoseologies, propaedeutics, and methods. In a sense, we may repeat à propos of Bergson's thought what has been said about Spinoza's philosophy, in which there is no method substantially and consciously distinct from the meditation of its objects. Instead, the method is immanent to this meditation whose general figure, as it were, it traces out. Bergson has carefully insisted on the vanity of the ideological phantoms that perpetually insinuate themselves in-between thought and facts and mediatize knowledge. The philosophy of life embraces the sinuous curve of the real, and no transcendent method of any kind weakens this strict adherence. Better still, its "method" is the very line of the movement that leads thought into the thick of things. In Friedrich Schlegel's profound words, the thinking of life does without any propaedeutic because life presupposes nothing but life, and a living thought that adopts the rhythm of life goes straight to the real without troubling itself with methodological scruples. The difference between timid scholastic abstractions and the generosity of concrete philosophy is that the former are eternally preliminary or — which amounts to the same thing — relative to something absolutely ulterior that would constitute their application or would derive from them, while the latter is at every moment present to itself. The former refer to some kind of future from which a gaping void separates them; the latter on the contrary is enveloped in what is presently evident and visibly certain: it accepts no transcendent jurisdiction because it carries its law and its sanction within itself. The method, thus, is already true knowing. Far from preparing a doctrinal deduction of concepts, it comes into being by degrees as spiritual progress unfolds, a progress of which the method, in sum, is nothing but the physiognomy and internal rhythm.

Let us, therefore, not seek the starting point of Bergson's philosophy in a critique of knowledge or (the way Høffding seems to do) in a gnoseology centered on the idea of intuition. Such an exposition retains of Bergson's thought only a certain system of formulas, a certain ism (in this case, "intuitionism"). It condemns the interpreter to confront Bergson's philosophy all said and done instead of witnessing its generation and penetrating its meaning [sens]. Incidentally, in the response he sent to Høffding, Bergson protests quite clearly (and perhaps without giving all of his reasons) against so retrospective an exposition, alleging that Duration, much more so than Intuition, is the living center of his doctrine. As a metaphysics of intuition, Bergson's philosophy is only one system among others. But the experience of duration determines its true and internal style. Duration is what we find in the "infinitely simple" image at issue in the lecture "Philosophical Intuition," and it is really the lively source of Bergson's meditations. Before we follow its successive incarnations by way of four problem-types — the effort of intellection, freedom, finality, heroism — we have to go back to the "primitive fact" that, in matters of the soul, governs all of Bergson's ascetic approach.

I. The Whole and Its Elements

This ascetic approach is necessary because a method that works only on the level of material realities (what, to abbreviate, I will call mechanisms) has been extended erroneously to spiritual — mental and vital — realities (what I will call organisms). The truly fundamental fact, both in the order of the mind and in the order of life, is the fact of "enduring" [durer] or, which amounts to the same, the mnemic property. This property, when properly considered (as it is by Richard Semon) is the only guarantee of perpetuating our experiences at each moment of life. Memory is not, as has been claimed, a derivative and belated function. Before it becomes an independent organ, a methodical faculty for classifying and distributing, memory is nothing but the spiritual face of a duration internal to itself. Some persist in treating it as something like the agenda or the calendar of the soul when it simply expresses the following: our person is a world in which nothing is lost, an infinitely susceptible environment in which the slightest vibration calls up deep and prolonged resonances. Memory is but my experiences' entirely primitive perseverance in surviving themselves. It is that which continues innumerable contents, continues the ones through the others; these contents, together, form at any moment the current state of our interior person. But to say "continuity" is to say "infinity," and the immanence of everything in everything thereby becomes the law of the mind ...

Not that memory is literally the thesaurization or capitalization of recollections. Philippe Fauré-Fremiet has lucidly shown that memory is the exercise of an ability rather than the augmentation of a possession, that it is the "re-creation" or active actualization of the past rather than a recording of this past. Bergson himself, hostile as he is to spatial metaphors, refuses to consider the brain as a receptacle of images and refuses to consider these images as contents in a container, and he is certainly not going to turn time itself into a receptacle for recollections! Yet (as a reservoir!) conservation is a spatial image ...

It remains no less true that the past imperceptibly qualifies our current being and that it can be evoked at any moment, even if such conservation is simply inferred from the immediate givenness of the recall, even if the past neither literally survives in us nor lies dormant in the unconsciousness of becoming. Is Bergsonian time not this paradoxical latency without either inesse or being-in, without either virtual conservation or virtual reservation? Is Bergsonian time not this non-representable survival in which there isn't anything that survives or anything in which the surviving past could survive? Is it not creative conservation, conservation without conservatory? This provision granted, we retain the right to compare (as Bergson does in Creative Evolution) duration to a snowball that grows in an avalanche. May the discontinuity of recall not keep us from having the continuity of becoming subtend it!

What we have here, then, is a first opposition between the life of organisms and the existence of mechanisms. A material system is entirely what it is at any moment one observes it, and it is nothing but that. Since it does not endure, it is in a way eternally pure because it has no past whatsoever to color and temper its present. And this is why Bergson, on this subject, reminds us of Leibniz's expression, mens momentanea. Is this not the instantaneous consciousness that Plato, in the Philebus, attributes to oysters? A rock can change and, apparently, "age"; but in this case, its successive states will remain external one to the other without any transition, no matter how imperceptible, succeeding in soliciting the old in the new. For we may very well say, in a paraphrase of a well-known verse, that without duration, "things would indeed only be what they are." And that is the case for material things that are always and totally themselves.

A spiritual reality, which serves as a vehicle for impalpable and subtle traditions, on the contrary, perpetually takes on innuendos [sous-entendus]. Thanks to all of its supposed implicit allusions and accumulated experiences, each of its contents is so to speak venerable and profound. The most mediocre human emotion is a treasure whose riches we will never be able to enumerate because it testifies to a continuous past in which a person's innumerable experiences have silently settled like sediment. To be sure, there isn't any sedimentation in the literal sense because all localization is deceptive. Nor do experiences accumulate the way staples pile up in a pantry. But there is nonetheless an enrichment and a continual modification of the way the mind lights up.

This first opposition gives rise to a second that completes it. To make up the duration of the mind [esprit], conservatory memory must in fact have an auxiliary. Temporal "immanence" by itself would not suffice irreducibly to differentiate organisms and mechanisms. For it to be possible to talk about, if not a veritable implication of the past in the present, then at least a certain presence of the past, a kind of immanence of coexistence must immediately accompany the immanence of succession. Because the spiritual is in many respects more "elastic" than it is malleable, that is to say, because it records and perpetuates all the modifications of which it is the theater, it also tends to reconstitute at each moment its own totality: at every moment, we may say, it remains organically complete. But since it has conserved "adventitious" experiences and bears no trace of profound breaking or plurality, we must admit that it has assimilated, digested, totalized them and that they have modified it as it has modified them. All spiritual reality thus by nature possesses a certain totalizing power that makes it engulf all imported modifications and reconstitute at each step its total but continually transformed organism. And as this totalization applies at every moment to all elements of the spiritual organism, we have to say that the contents of life not only survive themselves in time, they so to speak revive themselves — partially in each of the contemporaneous contents and totally in the spiritual person they express.

This mutual immanence horrifies our understanding. The arts, on the contrary, seek to imitate it. None, however, succeeds better than music, no doubt because, thanks to polyphony, it has more means at its disposal than any other art to express this intimate copenetration of states of mind. Does not polyphony make it possible to conduct several superposed voices in parallel, voices that express themselves simultaneously and harmonize among themselves and all the while remain distinct and even opposed to one another? Recall, for example, the mysterious prelude to Pelléas et Mélisande which, starting in the eighteenth bar, sets Golaud's theme against Mélisande's and thereby expresses the tragic union that will tie the two destinies together. And how can one not admire the marvelous subtlety with which Liszt's Faust Symphony meshes the most opposite emotions: Faust's love and his speculative unrest in the first movement, Faust's love and Gretchen's love in the second? The themes confront, blend with, contaminate one another, and each of them bears the signature of all the others. This is what the inner life does at every moment: in paradoxical counterpoints, it associates experiences that appear to us as without connection, such that each of them bears witness to the entire person. Is the "total blending" that the Stoics articulated as a paradox not a reality we continually live?

The distinctive and truly inimitable trait of spiritual things — organisms, works of art, or states of mind — is thus to always be complete, to perfectly suffice onto themselves ... The distinction between partial and total makes sense only in the world of inert bodies. These, subsisting outside of one another, can always be considered to be parts of a larger set and have an entirely external relation with this set — a topographical relation. The universe of life, on the contrary, is a universe of individuals, of "insular" totalities and, in the proper sense of the word, of masterpieces. Like Plotinus's intelligibles, these masterpieces are total parts, that is to say, each expresses the complete set of the world of which they seem to be the parts. "Thus all is Dionysus," Schelling says. And for Plotinus, panta pasai, all souls are all things!

This is proven, first, by the study of instinct. We cannot imagine instinct to be mutilated or fractional any more than we can conceive of half an emotion or of a piece of sensation. From one species to the next, instinct varies simply in quality, but the theme is entirely present in each of the variations in which it clothes itself. In each, the original theme tends to grow, to set itself up in the center of a private domain. Only raw bodies allow for gradual transitions between the whole and the part. One of the roles of science is to skillfully appropriate insensible transitions and to turn them into pretty genealogies that erase the originality of individuals. The biologist Vialleton, whose acute sense for discontinuity leads him even to negate transformism, affirms Bergson's intuitions on this point. Every species has to emerge such that it is viable from the beginning. Correlations appear sufficient for allowing the organism to live from the outset. There are no drafts of organs, no rudiments of function: those are fictitious intermediaries destined to complete our genealogies. In reality, every form is necessarily determinate because it subsists, and the function makes the organ all at once. Elsewhere, Vialleton shows that the least of single-cell organisms is already a complete being and that there is, really, no such thing as an "elementary" individual. The organism is in its entirety or it is not at all.

This is shown even more clearly by the distinction between pure or spiritual recollections and motor recollections. Pure recollection is perfect at once. While habit constitutes itself little by little as an effect of repetition, veritable recollection, like Minerva, is born an adult. Repetition has no hold on pure recollection, which is at any moment determinate and autonomous. Its essence is to be presently experienced and lived by a consciousness: it must therefore momentarily fill all of the mind and from the outset appear as organized and independent. That is why the pure past sometimes surges up in us as abruptly as do biological species in Vialleton's theory, through sudden fits and ruptures of experience. As in Proust, it is an invasion and a surge, a sudden irruption, an abrupt transformation. Spiritual things are thus always whole; that is no doubt why there are no fragments of life to correspond to fragments of matter, just as there are no pieces of ideas to correspond to pieces of a sentence. And we can already foresee that between the two kinds of texts, so unlike each other, between the spiritual text of which every fragment is total and the material text of which every fragment is fragmentary, there is no conceivable literal parallelism, no juxtalinear transposition. The poem always lies beyond its own text.

This particularity of matters of the soul requires us to adopt a method that is entirely paradoxical. We cannot quite say that Bergson's philosophy, a philosophy of plenitude, admits the absolutist and totalitarian law of all-or-nothing, a law that, according to the Stoics, is valid for the alternative between virtue and vice, between wisdom and folly ... Nor does Bergson adopt Hamlet's abrupt ultimatum, to be or not to be! What is true is that only sudden mutation results in qualitative newness, which the scalar gradations of geneticism will never obtain. "Love begins with love," La Bruyère writes, and in the same way we may say that the mind begins with the mind. There is no chance we will encounter an emotion on the path of our deduction unless we give ourselves this emotion at the outset in its entirety, in its specificity, and its irreducible originality. In opposition to "reductionism," to the mania of reducing ... or deducing, Bergson wants every experience, every problem to be thought apart and for itself as if it were by itself. Nothing is won, therefore, by engendering one living reality from another: instinct from intelligence, recollection from habit, the human from the animal, the complete emotion from the embryonic one.

That is why, as we shall see, the act of understanding does not proceed from words to meaning but from meaning to meaning; not from part to whole, but from whole to whole; and in just this way, there is nothing prior to meaning if not meaning, since meaning is the whole [le sens est tout]. Leibniz, whose analytical theory of Expression, on this point, is perhaps not as different from Bergson's immanentism as one might believe, has given profound expression to this particularity of the spiritual. Essentially, albeit in different terms, he writes that what differentiates a machine from a living being is that a part of a machine is truly and purely a part, whereas a part of the organism is yet another organism and so is a part of this part, and so on ad infinitum. The infinitely great just like the infinitesimal, in this regard, challenge the principles of identity and conservation: just as the monad is the microcosmic expression of the macrocosm, the organism, down to the least of its microscopic elements is still organic. This seems to be the case for magnets, which are infinitely magnetic ...


Excerpted from Henri Bergson by Vladimir Jankélévitch, Alexandre Lefebvre, Nils F. Schott. Copyright © 1959 Presses Universitaires de France. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Editors' Preface  vii

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction. Jankélévitch on Bergson: Living in Time / Alexandre Lefebvre  xi

Introduction  1

1. Organic Totalities  3
I. The Whole and Its Elements  4
II. The Retrospective View and the Illusion of the Future Perfect  11

2. Freedom  23
I. Actor and Spectator  24
II. Becoming  30
III. The Free Act  49

3. Soul and Body  66
I. Thought and Brain  66
II. Recollection and Perception  79
III. Intellection  89
IV. Memory and Matter  94

4. Life  109
I. Finality  109
II. Instinct and Intellect  119
III. Matter and Life  137

5. Heroism and Saintliness  151
I. Suddenness  152
II. The Open and the Closed  156
III. Bergson's Maximalism  159

6. The Nothingness of Concepts and the Plentitude of Spirit  167
I. Fabrication and Organization: The Demiurgic Prejudice  167
II. On the Possible  179

7. Simplicity . . . and Joy  191
I. On Simplicity  191
II. Bergson's Optimism  203

Appendices   211

Supplementary Pieces  247
Preface to the First Edition of Henri Bergson (1930)  247
Letters to Vladimir Jankélévitch by Henri Bergson  248
Letter to Louis Beauduc on First Meeting Bergson (1923)  250
What Is the Value of Bergson's Thought? Interview with Françoise Reiss (1959)  251
Solemn Homage to Henri Bergson (1959)  253

Notes  261

Bibliography  299

Index  315

What People are Saying About This

Leonard Lawlor

"There is no question that Vladimir Jankélévitch’s Henri Bergson is one of the most important books written on Bergson. Equally, there is no question that Deleuze’s book on Bergson is one of most important. However, what distinguishes the two, and what makes Jankélévitch’s book really valuable are the three chapters he added in 1959. These three chapters tell us precisely how to understand Bergson’s ethics (especially the chapter on Bergson and Judaism), and they contain the seeds of Jankélévitch’s own later work. Having such an accurate and scholarly English translation is great. The Introduction, by Alexandre Lefebvre, who is one of our most important Anglophone commentators on Bergson, is illuminating."

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