A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson

Author: Edouard Louis Emmanuel Julien Le Roy

VII. the Problem of Knowledge: Analysis and Intuition.

We know what importance has been attached since Kant to the problem of reason: it would seem sometimes that all future philosophy is a return to it; that it is no longer called to speak of anything else. Besides, what we understand by reason, in the broad sense, is, in the human mind, the power of light, the essential operation of which is defined as an act of directing synthesis, unifying the experience and rendering it by that very fact intelligible. Every movement of thought shows this power in exercise. To bring it everywhere to the front would be the proper task of philosophy; at least it is in this manner that we understand it today. But from what point of view and by what method do we ordinarily construct this theory of knowledge?

The spontaneous works of mind, perception, science, art, and morality are the departure-point of the inquiry and its initial matter. We do not ask ourselves whether but how they are possible, what they imply, and what they suppose; a regressive analysis attempts by critical reflection to discern in them their principles and requisites. The task, in short, is to reascend from production to producing activity, which we regard as sufficiently revealed by its natural products.

Philosophy, in consequence, is no longer anything but the science of problems already solved, the science which is confined to saying why knowledge is knowledge and action action, of such and such a kind, and such and such a quality. And in consequence also reason can no longer appear anything but an original datum postulated as a simple fact, as a complete system come down ready-made from heaven, at bottom a kind of non-temporal essence, definable without respect to duration, evolution, or history, of which all genesis and all progress are absurd. In vain do we persist in maintaining that it is originally an act; we always come round to the fact that the method followed compels us to consider this act only when once accomplished, and when once expressed in results. The inevitable consequence is that we imprison ourselves hopelessly in the affirmation of Kantian relativism.

Such a system can only be true as a partial and temporary truth: at the most, it is a moment of truth. "If we read the "Critique of Pure Reason" closely, we become aware that Kant has made the critique, not of reason in general, but of a reason fashioned to the habits and demands of Cartesian mechanism or Newtonian physics." (H. Bergson, "Report of French Philosophical Society", meeting, 2nd May 1901.) Moreover, he plainly studies only adult reason, its present state, a plane of thought, a sectional view of becoming. For Kant, men progress perhaps in reason, but reason itself has no duration: it is the fixed spot, the atmosphere of dead eternity in which every mental action is displayed. But this could not be the final and complete truth. Is it not a fact that human intelligence has been slowly constituted in the course of biological evolution? To know it, we have not so much to separate it statically from its works, as to replace it in its history.

Let us begin with life, since, in any case, whether we will or no, it is always in life and by life that we are.

Life is not a brute force, a blind mechanism, from which one could never conceive that thought would spring. From its first pulsation, life is consciousness, spiritual activity, creative effort tending towards liberty; that is, discernment already luminous, although the quality is at first faint and diffused. In other terms, life is at bottom of the psychological nature of a tendency. But "the essence of a tendency is to develop in sheaf-form, creating, by the mere fact of its growth, diverging directions between which its impulse will be divided." ("Creative Evolution", page 108.)

Along these different paths the complementary potentialities are produced and intensified, separating in the very process, their original interpretation being possible only in the state of birth. One of them ends in what we call intelligence. This latter therefore has become gradually detached from a less intense but fuller luminous condition, of which it has retained only certain characteristics to accentuate them.

We see that we must conceive the word mind—or, if we prefer the word, thought—as extending beyond intelligence. Pure intelligence, or the faculty of critical reflection and conceptual analysis, represents only one form of thought in its entirety, a function, a determination or particular adaptation, the part organised in view of practical action, the part consolidated as language. What are its characteristics? It understands only what is discontinuous, inert, and fixed, that which has neither change nor duration; it bathes in an atmosphere of spatiality; it uses mathematics continually; it feels at home only among "things," and everything is reduced by it to solid atoms; it is naturally "materialist," owing to the very fact that it naturally grasps "forms" only. What do we mean by that except that its object of election is the mechanism of matter? But it supposes life; it only remains living itself by continual loans from a vaster and fuller activity from which it is sprung. And this return to complementary powers is what we call intuition.

From this point of view it becomes easy to escape Kantian relativity. We are confronted by an intelligence which is doubtless no longer a faculty universally competent, but which, on the contrary, possesses in its own domain a greater power of penetration. It is arranged for action. Now action would not be able to move in irreality. Intelligence, then, makes us acquainted, if not with all reality, at least with some of it, namely that part by which reality is a possible object of mechanical or synthetic action.

More profoundly, intuition falls into analysis as life into matter: they are two aspects of the same movement. That is why, "provided we only consider the general form of physics, we can say that it touches the absolute." ("Creative Evolution", page 216.)

In other terms, language and mechanism are regulated by each other. This explains at once the success of mathematical science in the order of matter, and its non-success in the order of life.

For, when confronted with life, intelligence fails. "Being a deposit of the evolutive movement along its path, how could it be applied throughout the evolutive movement itself? We might as well claim that the part equals the whole, that the effect can absorb its cause into itself, or that the pebble left on the shore outlines the form of the wave which brought it." (Preface to "Creative Evolution".)

Is not that as good as saying that life is unknowable? Must we conclude that it is impossible to understand it?

"We should be forced to do so, if life had employed all the psychic potentialities it contains in making pure understandings; that is to say, in preparing mathematicians. But the line of evolution which ends in man is not the only one. By other divergent ways other forms of consciousness have developed, which have not been able to free themselves from external constraint, nor regain the victory over themselves as intelligence has done, but which, none the less for that, also express something immanent and essential in the movement of evolution.

"By bringing them into connection with one another, and making them afterwards amalgamate with intelligence, should we not thus obtain a consciousness co-extensive with life, and capable, by turning sharply round upon the vital thrust which it feels behind it, of obtaining a complete, though doubtless vanishing vision?" ("Creative Evolution", Preface.) It is precisely in this that the act of philosophic intuition consists. "We shall be told that, even so, we do not get beyond our intelligence, since it is with our intelligence, and through our intelligence, that we observe all the other forms of consciousness. And we should be right in saying so, if we were pure intelligences, if there had not remained round our conceptual and logical thought a vague nebula, made of the very substance at the expense of which the luminous nucleus, which we call intelligence, has been formed. In it reside certain complementary powers of the understanding, of which we have only a confused feeling when we remain shut up in ourselves, but which will become illumined and distinct when they perceive themselves at work, so to speak, in the evolution of nature. They will thus learn what effort they have to make to become more intense, and to expand in the actual direction of life." ("Creative Evolution", Preface.) Does that mean abandonment to instinct, and descent with it into infra-consciousness again? By no means. On the contrary, our task is to bring instinct to enrich intelligence, to become free and illumined in it; and this ascent towards super-consciousness is possible in the flash of an intuitive act, as it is sometimes possible for the eye to perceive, as a pale and fugitive gleam, beyond what we properly term light, the ultraviolet rays of the spectrum.

Can we say of such a doctrine that it seeks to go, or that it goes "against intelligence"? Nothing authorises such an accusation, for limitation of a sphere is not misappreciation of every legitimate exercise. But intelligence is not the whole of thought, and its natural products do not completely exhaust or manifest our power of light.

Besides, that intelligence and reason are not things completed, for ever arrested in their inner structure, that they evolve and expand, is a fact: the place of discovery is precisely the residual fringe of which we were speaking above. In this respect, the history of thought would furnish examples in plenty. Intuitions at first obscure, and only anticipated, facts originally admitting no comparison, and as it were irrational, become instructive and luminous by the fruitful use made of them, and by the fertility which they manifest. In order to grasp the complex content of reality, the mind must do itself violence, must awaken its sleeping powers of revealing sympathy, must expand till it becomes adapted to what formerly shocked its habits so much as almost to seem contradictory to it. Such a task, moreover, is possible: we work out its differential every moment, and its complete whole appears in the sequence of centuries.

At bottom, the new theory of knowledge has nothing new in it except the demand that all the facts shall be taken into account: it renews duration in the thinking mind, and places itself at the point of view of creative invention, not only at that of subsequent demonstration. Hence its conception of experience, which, for it, is not simple information, fitted into pre-existing frames, but elaboration of the frames themselves.

Hence the problem of reason changes its aspect. A great mistake has been made in thinking that Mr Bergson’s doctrine misunderstands it: to deny it and to place it are two different things. In its inmost essence, reason is the demand for unity; that is why it is displayed as a faculty of synthesis, and why its essential act is presented as apperception of relation. It is unifying activity, not so much by a dialectic of harmonious construction as by a view of reciprocal implication. But all that, however shaded we suppose it, entails a previous analysis. Therefore if we place ourselves in a perspective of intuition, I mean, of complete perception, the demand for reason appears second only, without being deprived, however, of its true task: it is an echo and a recollection, an appeal and a promise of profound continuity, our original anticipation and our final hope, in the bosom of the elementary atomism which characterises the transitory region of language; and reason thus marks the zone of contact between intelligence and instinct.

Is thought only possible under the law of number? Does reality only become an object of knowledge as a system of distinct but regulated factors and moments? Do ideas exist only by their mutual relations, which first of all oppose them and afterwards force intelligence to move endlessly from one term to another? If such were the case, reason would certainly be first, as alone making an intelligible continuity out of discontinuous perception and restoring total unity to each temporary part by a synthetic dialectic. But all this really has meaning only after analysis has taken place. The demand for rational unity constitutes in the bosom of atomism something like a murmur of deep underlying continuity: it expresses in the very language of atomism, atomism’s basic irreality. There is no question of misunderstanding reason, but only of putting it in its proper place. In a perspective of complete intuition nothing would require to be unified. Reason would then be reabsorbed in perception. That is to say, its present task is to measure and correct in us the limits, gaps, and weaknesses of the perceptive faculty. In this respect not a man of us thinks of denying it its task. But we try with Mr Bergson to reduce this task to its true worth and genuine importance. For we are decidedly tired of hearing "Reason" invoked in solemn and moving tones, as if to write the venerable name with the largest of capital R’s were a magic solution of all problems.

Mind, in fact, sets out from unity rather than arrives at it; and the order which it appears to discover subsequently in an experience which at first is manifold and incoherent is only a refraction of the original unity through the prism of a spontaneous analysis. Mr Bergson admirably points out ("Creative Evolution", pages 240-244 and 252-257.) that there are two types of order, geometric and vital, the one a static hierarchy of relations, the other a musical continuity of moments. These two types are opposed, as space to duration and matter to mind; but the negation of one coincides with the position of the other. It is therefore impossible to abolish both at once. The idea of disorder does not correspond to any genuine reality. It is essentially relative, and arises only when we do not meet the type of order which we were expecting; and then it expresses our deception in the language of our expectation, the absence of the expected order being equivalent, from the practical point of view, to the absence of all order. Regarded in itself, this notion is only a verbal entity, unduly taking form as the common basis of two antithetic types. How therefore do we come to speak of a "perceptible diversity" which mind has to regulate and unify? This is only true at most of the disjointed experience employed by common-sense. Reason, accepting this preliminary analysis, and proceeding to language, seeks to organise it according to the mathematical type. But it is the vital type which corresponds to absolute reality, at least when it is a question of the Whole; and only intuition has re-access to it, by soaring above synthetic dissociations.


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Chicago: Edouard Louis Emmanuel Julien Le Roy, "VII. The Problem of Knowledge: Analysis and Intuition.," A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson, trans. Benson, Vincent in A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L7NS4U4DAIPJN9U.

MLA: Le Roy, Edouard Louis Emmanuel Julien. "VII. The Problem of Knowledge: Analysis and Intuition." A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson, translted by Benson, Vincent, in A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson, Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L7NS4U4DAIPJN9U.

Harvard: Le Roy, EL, 'VII. The Problem of Knowledge: Analysis and Intuition.' in A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson, trans. . cited in , A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L7NS4U4DAIPJN9U.