Bergson’s Creative Evolution

H. Bergson Creative Evolution, Macmillan, 1911. (French original, 1907.)

A metaphysical work, introducing his notions of duration and ‘creative evolution’, that challenged and influenced subsequent science.

Introduction

“… the human intellect feels at home among inanimate objects … where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools; that our concepts have been formed on the model of solids; that our logic is, pre-eminently, the logic of solids …

… the kinship of logical thought with unorganized matter, and where the intellect has only to follow its natural movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably.
    … In fact, we do indeed feel that not one of the categories of our thought—unity, multiplicity, mechanical causality, intelligent finality, etc.—applies exactly to the things of life: who can say where individuality begins and ends, whether the living being is one or many, whether it is the cells which associate themselves into the organism or the organism which dissociates itself into cells? In vain we force the living into this or that one of our molds. All the molds crack. They are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them. Our reasoning, so sure of itself among things inert, feels ill at ease on this new ground. It would be difficult to cite a biological discovery due to pure reasoning. And most often, when experience has finally shown us how life goes to work to obtain a certain result, we find its way of working is just that of which we should never have thought.

… But these difficulties and contradictions all arise from trying to apply the usual forms of our thought to objects with which our industry has nothing to do, and for which, therefore, our molds are not made. Intellectual knowledge, in so far as it relates to a certain aspect of inert matter, ought, on the contrary, to give us a faithful imprint of it, having been stereotyped on this particular object. It becomes relative only if it claims, such as it is, to present to us life—that is to say, the maker of the stereotype-plate.

This amounts to saying that theory of knowledge and theory of life seem to us inseparable. A theory of life that is not accompanied by a criticism of knowledge is obliged to accept, as they stand, the concepts which the understanding puts at its disposal: it can but enclose the facts, willing or not, in pre-existing frames which it regards as ultimate. It thus obtains a symbolism which is convenient, perhaps even necessary to positive science, but not a direct vision of its object. On the other hand, a theory of knowledge which does not replace the intellect in the general evolution of life will teach us neither how the frames of knowledge have been constructed nor how we can enlarge or go beyond them. It is necessary that these two inquiries, theory of knowledge and theory of life, should join each other, and, by a circular process, push each other on unceasingly.”

Ch. I

“… Organic creation, on the contrary, the evolutionary phenomena which properly constitute life, we cannot in any way subject to a mathematical treatment. … As for the idea that the living body might be treated by some superhuman calculator in the same mathematical way as our solar system, this has gradually arisen from a metaphysic which has taken a more precise form since the physical discoveries of Galileo, but which, as we shall show, was always the natural metaphysic of the human mind. Its apparent clearness, our impatient desire to find it true, the enthusiasm with which so many excellent minds accept it without proof—all the seductions, in short, that it exercises on our thought, should put us on our guard against it. The attraction it has for us proves well enough that it gives satisfaction to an innate inclination. But, as will be seen further on, the intellectual tendencies innate to-day, which life must have created in the course of its evolution, are not at all meant to supply us with an explanation of life: they have something else to do.”

Bergson is critical of: “We can imagine the knowledge of nature arrived at a point where the universal process of the world might be represented by a single mathematical formula, by one immense system of simultaneous differential equations, from which could be deduced, for each moment, the position, direction, and velocity of every atom of the world.”

“It is of no use to hold up before our eyes the dazzling prospect of a universal mathematic; we cannot sacrifice experience to the requirements of a system. That is why we reject radical mechanism.”

“… Moreover, the more sharply the idea of efficient causality is defined in our mind, the more it takes the form of a mechanical causality. And this scheme, in its turn, is the more mathematical according as it expresses a more rigorous necessity. That is why we have only to follow the bent of our mind to become mathematicians. But, on the other hand, this natural mathematics is only the rigid unconscious skeleton beneath our conscious supple habit of linking the same causes to the same effects; and the usual object of this habit is to guide actions inspired by intentions, or, what comes to the same, to direct movements combined with a view to reproducing a pattern. We are born artisans as we are born geometricians, and indeed we are geometricians only because we are artisans. Thus the human intellect, inasmuch as it is fashioned for the needs of human action, is an intellect which proceeds at the same time by intention and by calculation, by adapting means to ends and by thinking out mechanisms of[Pg 45] more and more geometrical form. Whether nature be conceived as an immense machine regulated by mathematical laws, or as the realization of a plan, these two ways of regarding it are only the consummation of two tendencies of mind which are complementary to each other, and which have their origin in the same vital necessities.”

Ch. III

“… Human intelligence, as we represent it, is not at all what Plato taught in the allegory of the cave. Its function is not to look at passing shadows nor yet to turn itself round and contemplate the glaring sun. It has something else to do. Harnessed, like yoked oxen, to a heavy task, we feel the play of our muscles and joints, the weight of the plow and the resistance of the soil. To act and to know that we are acting, to come into touch with reality and even to live it, but only in the measure in which it concerns the work that is being accomplished and the furrow that is being plowed, such is the function of human intelligence. … (191)

But leap it must, that is, leave its own environment. Reason, reasoning on its powers, will never succeed in extending them, though the extension would not appear at all unreasonable once it were accomplished. Thousands and thousands of variations on the theme of walking will never yield a rule for swimming: come, enter the water, and when you know how to swim, you will understand how the mechanism of swimming is connected with that of walking. Swimming is an extension of walking, but walking would never have pushed you on to swimming. So you may speculate as intelligently as you will on the mechanism of intelligence; you will never, by this method, succeed in going beyond it. … (194)

… Now, when the intellect undertakes the study of life, it necessarily treats the living like the inert, applying the same forms to this new object, carrying over into this new field the same habits that have succeeded so well in the old; and it is right to do so, for only on such[Pg 196] terms does the living offer to our action the same hold as inert matter. But the truth we thus arrive at becomes altogether relative to our faculty of action. It is no more than a symbolic verity.  … (195)

In many cases, however, we feel the frame cracking. But as we did not begin by distinguishing between the inert and the living, the one adapted in advance to the frame in which we insert it, the other incapable of being held in the frame otherwise than by a convention which eliminates from it all that is essential, we find ourselves, in the end, reduced to regarding everything the frame contains with equal suspicion. … (197)

Intelligence, as Kant represents it to us, is bathed in an atmosphere of spatiality to which it is as inseparably united as the living body to the air it breathes. Our perceptions reach us only after having passed through this atmosphere. They have been impregnated in advance by our geometry, so that our faculty of thinking only finds again in matter the mathematical properties which our faculty of perceiving has already deposed there. … It is, in our opinion, definitive in what it denies. But, in what it affirms, does it give us the solution of the problem? (205)

From this point of view the knowledge of matter that our perception on one hand and science on the other give to us appears, no doubt, as approximative, but not as relative. Our perception, whose rôle it is to hold up a light to our actions, works a dividing up of matter that is always too sharply defined, always subordinated to practical needs, consequently always requiring revision. Our science, which aspires to the mathematical form, over-accentuates the spatiality of matter; its formulae are, in general, too precise, and ever need remaking. For a scientific theory to be final, the mind would have to embrace the totality of things in block and place each thing in its exact relation to every other thing; but in reality we are obliged to consider problems one by one, in terms which are, for that very reason, provisional, so that the solution of each problem will have to be corrected indefinitely by the solution that will be given to the problems that will follow: thus, science as a whole is relative to the particular order in which the problems happen to have been put. It is in this meaning, and to this degree, that science must be regarded as conventional. But it is a conventionality of fact so to speak, and not of right. In principle, positive science bears on reality itself, provided it does not overstep the limits of its own domain, which is inert matter. (207)

When we consider the admirable order of mathematics, the perfect agreement of the objects it deals with, the immanent logic in numbers and figures, our certainty of always getting the same conclusion, however diverse and complex our reasonings on the same subject, we hesitate to see in properties apparently so positive a system of negations, the absence rather than the presence of a true reality. But we must not forget that our intellect, which finds this order and wonders at it, is directed in the same line of movement that leads to the materiality and spatiality of its object. The more complexity the intellect puts into its object by analyzing it, the more complex is the order it finds there. And this order and this complexity necessarily appear to the intellect as a positive reality, since reality and intellectuality are turned in the same direction. (208)

… The more we perceive, symbolically, parts in an indivisible whole, the more the number of the relations that the parts have between themselves necessarily increases, since the same undividedness of the real whole continues to hover over the growing multiplicity of the symbolic elements into which the scattering of the attention has decomposed it.  … (209)

… But things change their aspect when we consider the whole of reality as an undivided advance forward to successive creations. It seems to us, then, that the complexity of the material elements and the mathematical order that binds them together must arise automatically when within the whole a partial interruption or inversion is produced. Moreover, as the intellect itself is cut out of mind by a process of the same kind, it is attuned to this order and complexity, and admires them because it recognizes itself in them. But what is admirable in itself, what really deserves to provoke wonder, is the ever-renewed creation which reality, whole and undivided, accomplishes in advancing; for no complication of the mathematical order with itself, however elaborate we may suppose it, can introduce an atom of novelty into the world, whereas this power of creation once given (and it exists, for we are conscious of it in ourselves, at least when we act freely) has only to be diverted from itself to relax its tension, only to relax its tension to extend, only to extend for the mathematical order of the elements so distinguished and the inflexible determinism connecting them to manifest the interruption of the creative act: in fact, inflexible determinism and mathematical order are one with this very interruption. (217)

We cannot insist too strongly that there is something artificial in the mathematical form of a physical law, and consequently in our scientific knowledge of things. … In a general way, measuring is a wholly human operation, which implies that we really or ideally superpose two objects one on another a certain number of times. Nature did not dream of this superposition. It does not measure, nor does it count. Yet physics counts, measures, relates “quantitative” variations to one another to obtain laws, and it succeeds. Its success would be inexplicable, if the movement which constitutes materiality were not the same movement which, prolonged by us to its end, that is to say, to homogeneous space, results in making us count, measure, follow in their respective variations terms that are functions one of another. To effect this prolongation of the movement, our intellect has only to let itself go, for it runs naturally to space and mathematics, intellectuality and materiality being of the same nature and having been produced in the same way. (218)

If the mathematical order were a positive thing, if there were, immanent in matter, laws comparable to those of our codes, the success of our science would have in it something of the miraculous. What chances should we have indeed of finding the standard of nature and of isolating exactly, in order to determine their reciprocal relations, the very variables which nature has chosen? But the success of a science of mathematical form would be no less incomprehensible, if matter did not already possess everything necessary to adapt itself to our formulae. One hypothesis only, therefore, remains plausible, namely, that the mathematical order is nothing positive, that it is the form toward which a certain interruption tends of itself, and that materiality consists precisely in an interruption of this kind. We shall understand then why our science is contingent, relative to the variables it has chosen, relative to the order in which it has successively put the problems, and why nevertheless it succeeds. It might have been, as a whole, altogether different, and yet have succeeded. This is so, just because there is no definite system of mathematical laws, at the base of nature, and because mathematics in general represents simply the side to which matter inclines. Put one of those little cork dolls with leaden feet in any posture, lay it on its back, turn it up on its head, throw it into the air: it will always[Pg 220] stand itself up again, automatically. So likewise with matter: we can take it by any end and handle it in any way, it will always fall back into some one of our mathematical formulae, because it is weighted with geometry.  (219)

Difficulties and illusions are generally due to this, that we accept as final a manner of expression essentially provisional. They are due to our bringing into the domain of speculation a procedure made for practice. … (221)

… Heredity does not only transmit characters; it transmits also the impetus in virtue of which the characters are modified, and this impetus is vitality itself. That is why we say that the repetition which serves as the base of our generalizations is essential in the physical order, accidental in the vital order. The physical order is “automatic;” the vital order is, I will not say voluntary, but analogous to the order “willed.” … (231)

… But through the words, lines and verses runs the simple inspiration which is the whole poem. So, among the[Pg 259] dissociated individuals, one life goes on moving: everywhere the tendency to individualize is opposed and at the same time completed by an antagonistic and complementary tendency to associate, as if the manifold unity of life, drawn in the direction of multiplicity, made so much the more effort to withdraw itself on to itself. A part is no sooner detached than it tends to reunite itself, if not to all the rest, at least to what is nearest to it. Hence, throughout the whole realm of life, a balancing between individuation and association. Individuals join together into a society; but the society, as soon as formed, tends to melt the associated individuals into a new organism, so as to become itself an individual, able in its turn to be part and parcel of a new association. … (259) [Compare Turing on morphogenesis.]

Ch. IV

“Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. … But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. … Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile. …

… if the principle of all things exists after the manner of a logical axiom or of a mathematical definition, the things themselves must go forth from this principle like the applications of an axiom or the consequences of a definition, and there will no longer be place, either in the things nor in their principle, for efficient causality understood in the sense of a free choice. …

We must strive to see in order to see, and no longer to see in order to act.

Now, in order that it may represent as unmovable the result of the act which is being accomplished, the intellect must perceive, as also unmovable, the surroundings in which this result is being framed. Our activity is fitted into the material world. If matter appeared to us as a perpetual flowing, we should assign no termination to any of our actions. We should feel each of them dissolve as fast as it was accomplished, and we should not anticipate an ever-fleeting future. In order that our activity may leap from an act to an act, it is necessary that matter should pass from a state to a state, for it is only into a state of the material world that action can fit a result, so as to be accomplished. But is it thus that matter presents itself?

 … A man is so much the more a “man of action” as he can embrace in a glance a greater number of events: he who perceives successive events one by one will allow himself to be led by them; he who grasps them as a whole will dominate them. In short, the qualities of matter are so many stable views that we take of its instability.

… Now, life is an evolution. We concentrate a period of this evolution in a stable view which we call a form, and, when the change has become considerable enough to overcome the fortunate inertia of our perception, we say that the body has changed its form. But in reality the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of a transition. Therefore, here again, our perception manages to solidify into discontinuous images the fluid continuity of the real. When the successive images do not differ from each other too much, we consider them all as the waxing and waning of a single mean image, or as the deformation of this image in different directions. And to this mean we really allude when we speak of the essence of a thing, or of the thing itself.

… Each of our acts aims at a certain insertion of our will into the reality. There is, between our body and other bodies, an arrangement like that of the pieces of glass that compose a kaleidoscopic picture. Our activity goes from an arrangement to a rearrangement, each time no doubt giving the kaleidoscope a new shake, but not interesting itself in the shake, and seeing only the new picture. Our knowledge of the operation of nature must be exactly symmetrical, therefore, with the interest we take in our own operation. In this sense we may say, if we are not abusing this kind of illustration, that the cinematographical character of our knowledge of things is due to the kaleidoscopic character of our adaptation to them.

… Action is discontinuous, like every pulsation of life; discontinuous, therefore, is knowledge. The mechanism of the faculty of knowing has been constructed on this plan. Essentially practical, can it be of use, such as it is, for speculation? Let us try with it to follow reality in its windings, and see what will happen.

We must make complete abstraction of this mechanism, if we wish to get rid at one stroke of the theoretical absurdities that the question of movement raises. All is obscure, all is contradictory when we try, with states, to build up a transition. The obscurity is cleared up, the contradiction vanishes, as soon as we place ourselves along the transition, in order to distinguish states in it by making cross cuts therein in thought. The reason is that there is more in the transition than the series of states, that is to say, the possible cuts—more in the movement than the series of positions, that is to say, the possible stops. …

… Fill up this deficit: at once you suppress space and time, that is to say, the endlessly renewed oscillations around a stable equilibrium always aimed at, never reached. Things re-enter into each other. What was extended in space is contracted into pure Form. And past, present, and future shrink into a single moment, which is eternity.

… Our perception and thought begin by substituting for the continuity of evolutionary change a series of unchangeable forms which are turn by turn, “caught on the wing,” like the rings at a merry-go-round, which the children unhook with their little stick as they are passing. Now, how can the forms be passing, and on what “stick” are they strung? As the stable forms have been obtained by extracting from change everything that is definite, there is nothing left, to characterize the instability on which the forms are laid, but a negative attribute, which must be indetermination itself. Such is the first proceeding of our thought: it dissociates each change into two elements—the one stable, definable for each particular case, to wit, the Form; the other indefinable and always the same, Change in general. And such, also, is the essential operation of language. Forms are all that it is capable of expressing. It is reduced to taking as understood or is limited to suggesting a mobility which, just because it is always unexpressed, is thought to remain in all cases the same.—Then comes in a philosophy that holds the dissociation thus effected by thought and language to be legitimate. What can it do, except objectify the distinction with more force, push it to its extreme consequences, reduce it into a system?

Modern, like ancient, science proceeds according to the cinematographical method. It cannot do otherwise; all science is subject to this law. For it is of the essence of science to handle signs, which it substitutes for the objects themselves. These signs undoubtedly differ from those of language by their greater precision and their higher efficacy; they are none the less tied down to the general condition of the sign, which is to denote a fixed aspect of the reality under an arrested form. In order to think movement, a constantly renewed effort of the mind is necessary. Signs are made to dispense us with this effort by substituting, for the moving continuity of things, an artificial reconstruction which is its equivalent in practice and has the advantage of being easily handled. But let us leave aside the means and consider only the end. What is the essential object of science? It is to enlarge our influence over things. Science may be speculative in its form, disinterested in its immediate ends; in other words we may give it as long a credit as it wants. But, however long the day of reckoning may be put off, some time or other the payment must be made. It is always then, in short, practical utility that science has in view. Even when it launches into theory, it is bound to adapt its behavior to the general form of practice. However high it may rise, it must be ready to fall back into the field of action, and at once to get on its feet. This would not be possible for it, if its rhythm differed absolutely from that of action itself. Now action, we have said, proceeds by leaps. To act is to re-adapt oneself. To know, that is to say, to foresee in order to act, is then to go from situation to situation, from arrangement to rearrangement. Science may consider rearrangements that come closer and closer to each other; it may thus increase the number of moments that it isolates, but it always isolates moments. As to what happens in the interval between the moments, science is no more concerned with that than are our common intelligence, our senses and our language: it does not bear on the interval, but only on the extremities. So the cinematographical method forces itself upon our science, as it did already on that of the ancients.

… This is why the idea of reading in a present state of the material universe the future of living forms, and of unfolding now their history yet to come, involves a veritable absurdity. But this absurdity is difficult to bring out, because our memory is accustomed to place alongside of each other, in an ideal space, the terms it perceives in turn, because it always represents past succession in the form of juxtaposition. It is able to do so, indeed, just because the past belongs to that which is already invented, to the dead, and no longer to creation and to life. Then, as the succession to come will end by being a succession past, we persuade ourselves that the duration to come admits of the same treatment as past duration, that it is, even now, unrollable, that the future is there, rolled up, already painted on the canvas. An illusion, no doubt, but an illusion that is natural, ineradicable, and that will last as long as the human mind!

Time is invention or it is nothing at all. But of time-invention physics can take no account, restricted as it is to the cinematographical method. It is limited to counting simultaneities between the events that make up this time and the positions of the mobile T on its trajectory. It detaches these events from the whole, which at every moment puts on a new form and which communicates to them something of its novelty. It considers them in the abstract, such as they would be outside of the living whole, that is to say, in a time unrolled in space. It retains only the events or systems of events that can be thus isolated without being made to undergo too profound a deformation, because only these lend themselves to the application of its method. Our physics dates from the day when it was known how to isolate such systems.

… The first kind of knowledge has the advantage of enabling us to foresee the future and of making us in some measure masters of events; in return, it retains of the moving reality only eventual immobilities, that is to say, views taken of it by our mind. It symbolizes the real and transposes it into the human rather than expresses it. The other knowledge, if it is possible, is practically useless, it will not extend our empire over nature, it will even go against certain natural aspirations of the intellect; but, if it succeeds, it is reality itself that it will hold in a firm and final embrace. Not only may we thus complete the intellect and its knowledge of matter by accustoming it to install itself within the moving, but by developing also another faculty, complementary to the intellect, we may open a perspective on the other half of the real. For, as soon as we are confronted with true duration, we see that it means creation, and that if that which is being unmade endures, it can only be because it is inseparably bound to what is making itself. Thus will appear the necessity of a continual growth of the universe, I should say of a life of the real. And thus will be seen in a new light the life which we find on the surface of our planet, a life directed the same way as that of the universe, and inverse of materiality. To intellect, in short, there will be added intuition.

What, indeed, could the unification of physics be? The inspiring idea of that science was to isolate, within the universe, systems of material points such that, the position of each of these points being known at a given moment, we could then calculate it for any moment whatever. As, moreover, the systems thus defined were the only ones on which the new science had hold, and as it could not be known beforehand whether a system satisfied or did not satisfy the desired condition, it was useful to proceed always and everywhere as if the condition was realized. There was in this a methodological rule, a very natural rule—so natural, indeed, that it was not even necessary to formulate it. For simple common sense tells us that when we are possessed of an effective instrument of research, and are ignorant of the limits of its applicability, we should act as if its applicability were unlimited; there will always be time to abate it. But the temptation must have been great for the philosopher to hypostatize this hope, or rather this impetus, of the new science, and to convert a general rule of method into a fundamental law of things. So he transported himself at once to the limit; he supposed physics to have become complete and to embrace the whole of the sensible world. The universe became a system of points, the position of which was rigorously determined at each instant by relation to the preceding instant and theoretically calculable for any moment whatever. The result, in short, was universal mechanism. But it was not enough to formulate this mechanism; what was required was to found it, to give the reason for it and prove its necessity. And the essential affirmation of mechanism being that of a reciprocal mathematical dependence of all the points of the universe, as also of all the moments of the universe, the reason of mechanism had to be discovered in the unity of a principle into which could be contracted all that is juxtaposed in space and successive in time. Hence, the whole of the real was supposed to be given at once. The reciprocal determination of the juxtaposed appearances in space was explained by the indivisibility of true being, and the inflexible determinism of successive phenomena in time simply expressed that the whole of being is given in the eternal.

Now, it might easily be shown that the conclusions of this metaphysic, springing from science, have rebounded upon science itself, as it were, by ricochet. They penetrate the whole of our so-called empiricism. Physics and chemistry study only inert matter; biology, when it treats the living being physically and chemically, considers only the inert side of the living: hence the mechanistic explanations, in spite of their development, include only a small part of the real. To suppose a priori that the whole of the real is resolvable into elements of this kind, or at least that mechanism can give a complete translation of what happens in the world, is to pronounce for a certain metaphysic—the very metaphysic of which Spinoza and Leibniz have laid down the principles and drawn the consequences. Certainly, the psycho-physiologist who affirms the exact equivalence of the cerebral and the psychical state, who imagines the possibility, for some superhuman intellect, of reading in the brain what is going on in consciousness, believes himself very far from the metaphysicians of the seventeenth century, and very near to experience. Yet experience pure and simple tells us nothing of the kind. It shows us the interdependence of the mental and the physical, the necessity of a certain cerebral substratum for the psychical state—nothing more. From the fact that two things are mutually dependent, it does not follow that they are equivalent. Because a certain screw is necessary to a certain machine, because the machine works when the screw is there and stops when the screw is taken away, we do not say that the screw is the equivalent of the machine. …

… But, according to Kant, these facts are spread out on one plane as fast as they arise; they are external to each other and external to the mind. Of a knowledge from within, that could grasp them in their springing forth instead of taking them already sprung, that would dig beneath space and spatialized time, there is never any question. Yet it is indeed beneath this plane that our consciousness places us; there flows true duration.

… Real duration is that in which each form flows out of previous forms, while adding to them something new, and is explained by them as much as it explains them …

If we are to do that, we must give up the method of construction, which was that of Kant’s successors. We must appeal to experience—an experience purified, or, in other words, released, where necessary, from the molds that our intellect has formed in the degree and proportion of the progress of our action on things. An experience of this kind is not a non-temporal experience. It only seeks, beyond the spatialized time in which we believe we see continual rearrangements between the parts, that concrete duration in which a radical recasting of the whole is always going on. It follows the real in all its sinuosities. It does not lead us, like the method of construction, to higher and higher generalities—piled-up stories of a magnificent building. But then it leaves no play between the explanations it suggests and the objects it has to explain. It is the detail of the real, and no longer only the whole in a lump, that it claims to illumine.

… Therefore, instead of saying that the relations between facts have generated the laws of thought, I can as well claim that it is the form of thought that has determined the shape of the facts perceived, and consequently their relations among themselves: the two ways of expressing oneself are equivalent; they say at bottom the same thing. …

    And yet it is this evolution that we must discover. Already, in the field of physics itself, the scientists who are pushing the study of their science furthest incline to believe that we cannot reason about the parts as we reason about the whole; that the same principles are not applicable to the origin and to the end of a progress; … Evolution appears and, within this evolution, the progressive determination of materiality and intellectuality by the gradual consolidation of the one and of the other. But, then, it is within the evolutionary movement that we place ourselves, in order to follow it to its present results, instead of recomposing these results artificially with fragments of themselves. Such seems to us to be the true function of philosophy. So understood, philosophy is not only the turning of the mind homeward, the coincidence of human consciousness with the living principle whence it emanates, a contact with the creative effort: it is the study of becoming in general, it is true evolutionism and consequently the true continuation of science—provided that we understand by this word a set of truths either experienced or demonstrated, and not a certain new scholasticism that has grown up during the latter half of the nineteenth century around the physics of Galileo, as the old scholasticism grew up around Aristotle.”

Comments

William James was helping prepare the translation before he died. Bergson sees a form of pragmatism as a key part of the prevalent misunderstandings. Evolution seems to have fitted mankind to deal with things in the short-run, but not the long run.

While this work helped inspire Whitehead and Smuts, Smuts has a distinctly different view. Mankind has been shaped by infrequent challenges and has the mental equipment to withstand them: the problem is that cultures have come to value the short-run while disregarding the long run. Smuts also credits mathematics with providing him with key insights whereas Bergson is critical of mathematics. The difference between Bergson and later works can be put down to two things: firstly, Bergson is not critical of geometry or calculus as mathematics, but is rather critical of those physicists (like Newton) who assumed that they were adequate for modelling the world; secondly, Smuts was thinking of the modern mathematics of Russell and Whitehead, which was both better founded and more expressive than the classical mathematics of Newton.

These quibbles aside, it is still clear that science had mistaken ‘the map for the territory’ and was in need of the reforms that led to modern science. More generally:

“… simple common sense tells us that when we are possessed of an effective instrument of research, and are ignorant of the limits of its applicability, we should act as if its applicability were unlimited… .”

is misleading as applied to science, and perhaps to other human endeavours.

Dave Marsay

One Response to Bergson’s Creative Evolution

  1. Pingback: The End of a Physics Worldview (Kauffman) « djmarsay

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