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By Bergson, Henri
Translated by T.E. Hulme
Introduction by John Mullarkey
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
ISBN: 10-0-230-51723-4
XXXviii and 64 pages



By Bergson, Henri
Introduction by H. Wildon Carr
London: T. Fisher Unwin LTD. Adelphi Terrace, 1915
47 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2014

By John Mullarkey
Pp. ix-xxxii

In 1903 Bergson published “Introduction to Metaphysics” in the Revue de metaphysique et de morale. What is this introduction to “metaphysics” which is something 2300 years old? Mullarkey indicates this is not an intro for students. Metaphysics was under great attack and this work could be a last ditch effort to save it from late 19th and then 20th century philosophers from Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and even Russell.

Bergson is transforming the meaning of metaphysics.

He will offer 3 notions for this transformation:
  1. “Thinking” changes source and direction, passing from things to concepts and not from concepts to things. His revolutionary view is that

    “ . . . we should no longer think of thought as something about things but rather as something that things do (to) themselves, passed blithely over the collective heads of most philosophers . . .”
  2. This “thing” we seek is not “of” the thing, but the thing itself. It is a primacy of becoming.
    “What other philosophers might deem the mystery of metaphysics is nothing more than the mysterious impression that process makes on the intellect, which can rarely comprehend the idea of becoming in itself.”
  3. His third central claim:
    “. . . metaphysics is a science, a knowing without symbols. This knowing, this intuition must dispense with symbols if it is to be a sympathy, if it is to be ‘within the object,’ coincident with its unique and inexpressible singularity.”

    . . .

    “All so simple to say, and yet so difficult to think.”

    Oh my, that seems to me to be a complete understatement!

    Bergson “. . . was not cast out from the mainstream because of any arrogance but because of others’ incomprehension.”

    His 9 theses of metaphysics can be broken down into 32 further ideas.

    His philosophy is a dualism between:

    A.“The momentary act of intuition shared with science.”
    B. “. . . its analytical expressions.”
    [For Bergson] “Philosophy becomes the search for unique intuitions that only subsequently are expressed, abstracted and extracted, as ‘different concepts.’” . . . “If there is anything eternal then it is the living eternal, the eternity of change.”

    He called Bergson’s philosophy “. . . metaphysics without Being.”

    Corbett notes: I read the introduction with some care. I’m not new to philosophy, having taught it for some 36 years, though I never formally studied or taught Bergson and had never before read any full work of his. Mullarkey does warn the reader that not only for the reader, but even for many well-known philosophers of his time, Bergson was seen to be virtually incomprehensible.

    I can understand that worry, and I couldn’t but be amused by the place of all those thoughts on to the name of this “introducer” – Mullarkey!!


    Bergson believes there are two ways of approaching intellectual objects:

    1. 1. “To move around the object.”
    2. 2. “That we enter it.”

    The first knowledge is relative. The second is absolute.

    A footnote warns: “Need I say that I do not in any way propose here a means of recognizing whether a movement is or is not absolute.”

    Analysis and science examine from the outside, and comparative analysis.

    Metaphysics . . . is the science which claims to dispense with symbols.”

    Somehow it is to enter sympathetically into some being or entity.

    One interesting example he gives is to enter into one’s self to understand one’s self. No two attempts could be identical, since one always has the earlier “entering” as part of the new entering.

    “Simple concepts have, then, not only the inconvenience of dividing the concrete unity of the object into so many symbolic expressions; they also divide philosophy into distinct schools, each of which takes it seat, chooses its counters, and carries on with the other game that will never end.”

    This certainly seems my experience with philosophy and metaphysics included. Bergson continues:

    “Either metaphysics is only this play of ideas, or else, it is a serious occupation of mind, it must transcend concepts in order to reach intuition.”

    I get this and am attracted to the notion, but it is not clear to me why ethics, aesthetics, even political philosophy could be different.

    “. . . if metaphysics here demands and can obtain an intuition, science has none the less need of an analysis. Now, it is confusion between the function of analysis and that of intuition which gives birth to the discussions between schools and the conflicts between systems.”

    Later he argues:

    “Philosophical empiricism is born . . . of a confusion between the point of view of intuition and that of analysis. Seeking for the original in the translation, where naturally it cannot be, it denies the existence of the original on the ground that it is not found in the translation.”

    I find it terribly frustrating to read Bergson’s metaphysics. I am very attracted to the parts, to this argument or that. Then, he makes some conclusion to an argument I followed so closely with approval, only to have him say something at the end of such an argument, his seeming crushing conclusion, which makes no sense to me at all. For example:

    “In short, philosophy thus defined does not consist in the choice of certain concepts, and in taking sides with a school, but in the search for a unique intuition from which we can descend with equal ease to different concepts, because we are placed above the division of the schools.”

    Certainly Bergson is not the father of a “school” of philosophy, but if Bersonianism, whatever it is, makes conclusions, isn’t it subject to the same criticism?

    To look at anything from the outside and to analyze it is to give it a “use” meaning to things. That is science and is quite useful. Philosophy, for Bergson, is not that. It is to enter into the thing as it is itself.

    The things we analyze keep changing, “enduring” as Bergson would prefer. Thus the analysis of something which is “enduring,” i.e. continuing to be, is never of a person or self it is examining, but an abstraction from it.

    “This means that analysis operates always on the immobile, whilst intuition places itself in mobility, or what comes to the same thing, in duration.”

    Thus he sees any such analysis is only a “diagram, a simplified reconstruction “ . . . of the moving entity. This leads him to argue that such knowledge, while it is extremely useful, is not knowledge of the thing itself.

    “It is to forget that, if metaphysics is possible, it can only be a laborious, and even painful, effort to remount the natural slope of the work of thought, in order to place oneself directly, by a kind of intellectual expansion, within the thing studied: in short, a passage from reality to concept, and no longer from concepts to reality!”

    The concept of “duration” will be central to his view:

    “I shall have to say . . . that there is on the one hand a multiplicity of successive states of consciousness, and on the other a unity which binds them together. Duration will be the ‘synthesis’ of this unity and this multiplicity, a mysterious operation which takes place in darkness . . .”

    Bergson does want to extend the argument. He thinks he has shown that metaphysics transcends the methods of both empiricism and idealism and that his argument has shown a third path.

    He ends the essay by returning to 9 propositions which are central to his argument.

    1. ”There is a reality that is external and yet given immediately to the mind."
    2. “This reality is mobility. Not things made, but things in the making, not self-maintaining states but only changing states, exist.” [Duration]
    3. “In everyday life and practicality our minds seek life as being of states and things.
    4. He agrees that the standard methods of philosophy can’t obtain the ultimate truth of reality GIVEN ITS RATIONAL METHODS.
    5. The practical need of # 3 has led to the two main schools of modern metaphysics to be misguided.
      “. . . it this clear that fixed concepts may be so extracted by our thoughts from mobile reality; but there are no means of reconstructing the mobility of the real with fixed concepts."
    6. There is a way – difficult as it is – that can lead to value. It is intellectual sympathy.
      “. . . to philosophize, therefore, is to invert the habitual direction of the work of thought.”
    7. Modern mathematics has led the way.
      “Modern mathematics is precisely an effort to substitute the being made For the ready-made, to follow the generation of magnitudes, to grasp motion no longer from without and in its displayed result, but from within and in its tendency to change. . .”
    8. Philosophers have overlooked the “relativity of scientific knowledge.”
      What is relative is the symbolic knowledge by pre-existing concept, which proceeds from the fixed to the moving, and not the intuitive knowledge which installs itself in that which is moving and adopts the very life of things.
    9. Bergson maintains that ancient philosophy had it right in maintaining:
      “There is more in the immutable than in the moving, and we pass from the stable to the immutable, and we pass from the stable to the unstable by a mere diminution.”

      But the contrary is now the case.

      “Modern science dates from the day when mobility was set up as an independent reality. It dates from . . . Galileo.”

    I wish I could close these notes on this Bergson essay with some nice clear notes summarizing the argument crisply and clearly. Alas I can’t. In my 36 years of teaching philosophy I had a pleasant reputation of often being able to sum up a fairly complex philosophical argument with a clear summary. However, that was never universally true. I could do it for a significantly large number of famous philosophers in the western tradition, but not for all. Bergson is a philosopher I never studied, and I had never read any of his primary sources before. He came up in my student days in some history of philosophy classes, but not with any concentration.

    I struggled to make sense of this book-essay, and I’m not comfortable that I could end these notes with some clarifying explanations, so I will simply let the notes stand as I wrote them along the way of the reading.


    The two books in these comments are NOT related. The one above is to the heart of metaphysics and standard philosophy. The essay commented on below is about the “Great War” being waged in Europe in 1914.

    I wanted to get a sampling of Bergson’s writing and chose the two short pieces, the essay-book above and this lecture below. I just wanted to clarity that these pieces are not related to each other with the exception that the author is the same person.


    Bergson’s argument is divided into two parts. The first: the meaning of the war, argues that slowly from Prussia and then to Germany, two things developed together which changed both the material and moral perspective of Germany:

    First the industrial revolution, and Germany’s great ability to succeed in it, convinced Germany that it was somehow morally superior to other peoples. Further, the military of Germany worked hand and glove with the industrial sphere to aid in its growth. However, there was no moral compass under Bismarck. Rather, he embraced a notion that might makes right, and the source of this might was Germany. Thus he and his nation were assured of their victory.

    Bergson is convinced this intellectual and moral failing will be Germany’s downfall. The rest of the world is becoming more and more conscious of this attitude, and this war is increasingly a war of survival of the rest of the world against Germany. Germany simply doesn’t had the adequate resources, natural and financial, to win without allies and without the outer world. It will, at some point, run out of natural resources and even soldiers. The rest of the world will not allow Germany credit, nor supply the goods and services or acts as allies. The ideology of Germany is clear to the rest of the world and Germany will eventually fall. It cannot stand alone.

    Perhaps Bergson’s argument does presage what really happens with World War I. However, it may well be that German leaders THEMSELVES came to understand much of this analysis after WWI, and recognized the necessity to form an alliance with Russia for the Second World War, yet, no matter what the German high command might have taken for the loss of WWI, Hitler himself did not understand it. His arrogance and crazy decision to turn on Russia led to a situation in the 1940s that sounds once again, very much like what Bergson predicted would happen back in 1914.

    Bob Corbett


    Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


    Bob Corbett