A NEW PHILOSOPHY: HENRI BERGSON
by Edouard le Roy
Translated from the French by Vincent Benson
This little book is due to two articles published under the same title in the "Revue des Deux Mondes", 1st and 15th February 1912.
Their object was to present Mr Bergson's philosophy to the public at large, giving as short a sketch as possible, and describing, without too minute details, the general trend of his movement. These articles I have here reprinted intact. But I have added, in the form of continuous notes, some additional explanations on points which did not come within the scope of investigation in the original sketch.
I need hardly add that my work, though thus far complete, does not in any way claim to be a profound critical study. Indeed, such a study, dealing with a thinker who has not yet said his last word, would today be premature. I have simply aimed at writing an introduction which will make it easier to read and understand Mr Bergson's works, and serve as a preliminary guide to those who desire initiation in the new philosophy.
I have therefore firmly waived all the paraphernalia of technical discussions, and have made no comparisons, learned or otherwise, between Mr Bergson's teaching and that of older philosophies.
I can conceive no better method of misunderstanding the point at issue, I mean the simple unity of productive intuition, than that of pigeon-holing names of systems, collecting instances of resemblance, making up analogies, and specifying ingredients. An original philosophy is not meant to be studied as a mosaic which takes to pieces, a compound which analyses, or a body which dissects. On the contrary, it is by considering it as a living act, not as a rather clever discourse, by examining the peculiar excellence of its soul rather than the formation of its body, that the inquirer will succeed in understanding it. Properly speaking, I have only applied to Mr Bergson the method which he himself justifiably prescribes in a recent article ("Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale", November 1911), the only method, in fact, which is in all senses of the word fully "exact." I shall none the less be glad if these brief pages can be of any interest to professional philosophers, and have endeavoured, as far as possible, to allow them to trace, under the concise formulae employed, the scheme which I have refused to develop.
It has become evident to me that even today the interpretation of Mr Bergson's position is in many cases full of faults, which it would undoubtedly be worth while to assist in removing. I may or may not have succeeded in my attempt, but such, at any rate, is the precise end I had in view.
In conclusion, I may say that I have not had the honour of being Mr Bergson's pupil; and, at the time when I became acquainted with his outlook, my own direct reflection on science and life had already produced in me similar trains of thought. I found in his work the striking realisation of a presentiment and a desire. This "correspondence," which I have not exaggerated, proved at once a help and a hindrance to me in entering into the exact comprehension of so profoundly original a doctrine. The reader will thus understand that I think it in place to quote my authority to him in the following lines which Mr Bergson kindly wrote me after the publication of the articles reproduced in this volume: "Underneath and beyond the method you have caught the intention and the spirit...Your study could not be more conscientious or true to the original. As it advances, condensation increases in a marked degree: the reader becomes aware that the explanation is undergoing a progressive involution similar to the involution by which we determine the reality of Time. To produce this feeling, much more has been necessary than a close study of my works: it has required deep sympathy of thought, the power, in fact, of rethinking the subject in a personal and original manner. Nowhere is this sympathy more in evidence than in your concluding pages, where in a few words you point out the possibilities of further developments of the doctrine. In this direction I should myself say exactly what you have said."
Paris, 28th March 1912.
Scope of Henri Bergson's Philosophy. Material and Authorities. Investigation of Common-sense. Value of Science. Perception Discussed. Practical Life and Reality. Concepts and Symbolism. Intuition and Analysis. Use of Metaphor. The Philosopher's Task.
The Ego. Space and Number. Parallelism. Henri Bergson's View of Mind and Matter. Qualitative Continuity. Memory. Real Duration Heterogeneous. Liberty and Determinism. Meaning of Reality. Evolution and Automatism. Triumph of Man. The Vital Impulse. Objections Refuted. Place of Religion in the New Philosophy.
I. Henri Bergson's Work and the General Directions of Contemporary Thought.
Mathematics and Philosophy. The Inert and the Living. Realism and Positivism. Henri Bergson and the Intuition of Duration.
Necessity of Criticism. Utilitarianism of Common-sense. Perception of Immediacy.
III. Theory of Perception.
Pure and Ordinary Perception. Kant's Position. Relation of Perception to Matter. Complete Experience.
IV. Critique of Language.
Dynamic Schemes. Dangers of Language. The Eleatic Dialectic. Scientific Thought and the Task of Intuition. Discussion of Change.
V. The Problem of Consciousness: Duration and Liberty.
States as Phases in Duration. The Scientific View of Time. Duration and Freedom. Liberty and Determinism in the Light of Henri Bergson's Philosophy.
VI. The Problem of Evolution: Life and Matter.
Evolution and Creation. Laws of Conservation and Degradation. Quantity and Quality. Secondary Value of Matter.
VII. The Problem of Knowledge: Analysis and Intuition.
Difficulties of Kant's Position. Insufficiency of Intelligence. Henri Bergson and the Problem of Reason. Geometric and Vital Types of Order.
Moral and Religious Problems. Henri Bergson's Position.
A NEW PHILOSOPHY
There is a thinker whose name is today on everybody's lips, who is deemed by acknowledged philosophers worthy of comparison with the greatest, and who, with his pen as well as his brain, has overleapt all technical obstacles, and won himself a reading both outside and inside the schools. Beyond any doubt, and by common consent, Mr Henri Bergson's work will appear to future eyes among the most characteristic, fertile, and glorious of our era. It marks a never-to-be-forgotten date in history; it opens up a phase of metaphysical thought; it lays down a principle of development the limits of which are indeterminable; and it is after cool consideration, with full consciousness of the exact value of words, that we are able to pronounce the revolution which it effects equal in importance to that effected by Kant, or even by Socrates.
Everybody, indeed, has become aware of this more or less clearly. Else how are we to explain, except through such recognition, the sudden striking spread of this new philosophy which, by its learned rigorism, precluded the likelihood of so rapid a triumph?
Twenty years have sufficed to make its results felt far beyond traditional limits: and now its influence is alive and working from one pole of thought to the other; and the active leaven contained in it can be seen already extending to the most varied and distant spheres: in social and political spheres, where from opposite points, and not without certain abuses, an attempt is already being made to wrench it in contrary directions; in the sphere of religious speculation, where it has been more legitimately summoned to a distinguished, illuminative, and beneficent career; in the sphere of pure science, where, despite old separatist prejudices, the ideas sown are pushing up here and there; and lastly, in the sphere of art, where there are indications that it is likely to help certain presentiments, which have till now remained obscure, to become conscious of themselves. The moment is favourable to a study of Mr Bergson's philosophy; but in the face of so many attempted methods of employment, some of them a trifle premature, the point of paramount importance, applying Mr Bergson's own method to himself, is to study his philosophy in itself, for itself, in its profound trend and its authenticated action, without claiming to enlist it in the ranks of any cause whatsoever.
Mr Bergson's readers will undergo at almost every page they read an intense and singular experience. The curtain drawn between ourselves and reality, enveloping everything including ourselves in its illusive folds, seems of a sudden to fall, dissipated by enchantment, and display to the mind depths of light till then undreamt, in which reality itself, contemplated face to face for the first time, stands fully revealed. The revelation is overpowering, and once vouchsafed will never afterwards be forgotten.
Nothing can convey to the reader the effects of this direct and intimate mental vision. Everything which he thought he knew already finds new birth and vigour in the clear light of morning: on all hands, in the glow of dawn, new intuitions spring up and open out; we feel them big with infinite consequences, heavy and saturated with life. Each of them is no sooner blown than it appears fertile for ever. And yet there is nothing paradoxical or disturbing in the novelty. It is a reply to our expectation, an answer to some dim hope. So vivid is the impression of truth, that afterwards we are even ready to believe we recognise the revelation as if we had always darkly anticipated it in some mysterious twilight at the back of consciousness.
Afterwards, no doubt, in certain cases, incertitude reappears, sometimes even decided objections. The reader, who at first was under a magic spell, corrects his thought, or at least hesitates. What he has seen is still at bottom so new, so unexpected, so far removed from familiar conceptions. For this surging wave of thought our mind contains none of those ready-cut channels which render comprehension easy. But whether, in the long run, we each of us give or refuse complete or partial adhesion, all of us, at least, have received a regenerating shock, an internal upheaval not readily silenced: the network of our intellectual habits is broken; henceforth a new leaven works and ferments in us; we shall no longer think as we used to think; and be we pupils or critics, we cannot mistake the fact that we have here a principle of integral renewal for ancient philosophy and its old and timeworn problems.
It is obviously impossible to sketch in brief all the aspects and all the wealth of so original a work. Still less shall I be able to answer here the many questions which arise. I must decide to pass rapidly over the technical detail of clear, closely-argued, and penetrating discussions; over the scope and exactness of the evidence borrowed from the most diverse positive sciences; over the marvellous dexterity of the psychological analysis; over the magic of a style which can call up what words cannot express. The solidity of the construction will not be evidenced in these pages, nor its austere and subtle beauty. But what I do at all costs wish to bring out, in shorter form, in this new philosophy, is its directing idea and general movement.
In such an undertaking, where the end is to understand rather than to judge, criticism ought to take second place. It is more profitable to attempt to feel oneself into the heart of the teaching, to relive its genesis, to perceive the principle of organic unity, to come at the mainspring. Let our reading be a course of meditation which we live. The only true homage we can render to the masters of thought consists in ourselves thinking, as far as we can do so, in their train, under their inspiration, and along the paths which they have opened up.
In the case before us this road is landmarked by several books which it will be sufficient to study one after the other, and take successively as the text of our reflections.
In 1889 Mr Bergson made his appearance with an "Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness".
This was his doctor's thesis. Taking up his position inside the human personality, in its inmost mind, he endeavoured to lay hold of the depths of life and free action in their commonly overlooked and fugitive originality.
Some years later, in 1896, passing this time to the externals of consciousness, the contact surface between things and the ego, he published "Matter and Memory", a masterly study of perception and recollection, which he himself put forward as an inquiry into the relation between body and mind. In 1907 he followed with "Creative Evolution", in which the new metaphysic was outlined in its full breadth, and developed with a wealth of suggestion and perspective opening upon the distances of infinity; universal evolution, the meaning of life, the nature of mind and matter, of intelligence and instinct, were the great problems here treated, ending in a general critique of knowledge and a completely original definition of philosophy.
These will be our guides which we shall carefully follow, step by step. It is not, I must confess, without some apprehension that I undertake the task of summing up so much research, and of condensing into a few pages so many and such new conclusions.
Mr Bergson excels, even on points of least significance, in producing the feeling of unfathomed depths and infinite levels. Never has anyone better understood how to fulfil the philosopher's first task, in pointing out the hidden mystery in everything. With him we see all at once the concrete thickness and inexhaustible extension of the most familiar reality, which has always been before our eyes, where before we were aware only of the external film.
Do not imagine that this is simply a poetical delusion. We must be grateful if the philosopher uses exquisite language and writes in a style which abounds in living images. These are rare qualities. But let us avoid being duped by a show of printed matter: these unannotated pages are supported by positive science submitted to the most minute inspection. One day, in 1901, at the French Philosophical Society, Mr Bergson related the genesis of "Matter and Memory".
"Twelve years or so before its appearance, I had set myself the following problem: 'What would be the teaching of the physiology and pathology of today upon the ancient question of the connection between physical and moral to an unprejudiced mind, determined to forget all speculation in which it has indulged on this point, determined also to neglect, in the enunciations of philosophers, all that is not pure and simple statement of fact?' I set myself to solve the problem, and I very soon perceived that the question was susceptible of a provisional solution, and even of precise formulation, only if restricted to the problem of memory. In memory itself I was forced to determine bounds which I had afterwards to narrow considerably. After confining myself to the recollection of words I saw that the problem, as stated, was still too broad, and that, to put the question in its most precise and interesting form, I should have to substitute the recollection of the sound of words. The literature on aphasia is enormous. I took five years to sift it. And I arrived at this conclusion, that between the psychological fact and its corresponding basis in the brain there must be a relation which answers to none of the ready-made concepts furnished us by philosophy."
Certain characteristics of Mr Bergson's manner will be remarked throughout: his provisional effort of forgetfulness to recreate a new and untrammelled mind; his mixture of positive inquiry and bold invention; his stupendous reading; his vast pioneer work carried on with indefatigable patience; his constant correction by criticism, informed of the minutest details and swift to follow up each of them at every turn. With a problem which would at first have seemed secondary and incomplete, but which reappears as the subject deepens and is thereby metamorphosed, he connects his entire philosophy; and so well does he blend the whole and breathe upon it the breath of life that the final statement leaves the reader with an impression of sovereign ease.
Examples will be necessary to enable us, even to a feeble extent, to understand this proceeding better. But before we come to examples, a preliminary question requires examination. In the preface to his first "Essay" Mr Bergson defined the principle of a method which was afterwards to reappear in its identity throughout his various works; and we must recall the terms he employed.
"We are forced to express ourselves in words, and we think, most often, in space. To put it another way, language compels us to establish between our ideas the same clear and precise distinctions, and the same break in continuity, as between material objects. This assimilation is useful in practical life and necessary in most sciences. But we are right in asking whether the insuperable difficulties of certain philosophical problems do not arise from the fact that we persist in placing non-spatial phenomena next one another in space, and whether, if we did away with the vulgar illustrations round which we dispute, we should not sometimes put an end to the dispute."
That is to say, it is stated to be the philosopher's duty from the outset to renounce the usual forms of analytic and synthetic thought, and to achieve a direct intuitional effort which shall put him in immediate contact with reality. Without doubt it is this question of method which demands our first attention. It is the leading question. Mr Bergson himself presents his works as "essays" which do not aim at "solving the greatest problems all at once," but seek merely "to define the method and disclose the possibility of applying it on some essential points." (Preface to "Creative Evolution".) It is also a delicate question, for it dominates all the rest, and decides whether we shall fully understand what is to follow.
We must therefore pause here a moment. To direct us in this preliminary study we have an admirable "Introduction to Metaphysis", which appeared as an article in the "Metaphysical and Moral Review" (January 1903): a short but marvellously suggestive memoire, constituting the best preface to the reading of the books themselves. We may say in passing, that we should be grateful to Mr Bergson if he would have it bound in volume form, along with some other articles which are scarcely to be had at all today.
Every philosophy, prior to taking shape in a group of co-ordinated theses, presents itself, in its initial stage, as an attitude, a frame of mind, a method. Nothing can be more important than to study this starting-point, this elementary act of direction and movement, if we wish afterwards to arrive at the precise shade of meaning of the subsequent teaching. Here is really the fountain-head of thought; it is here that the form of the future system is determined, and here that contact with reality takes effect.
The last point, particularly, is vital. To return to the direct view of things beyond all figurative symbols, to descend into the inmost depths of being, to watch the throbbing life in its pure state, and listen to the secret rhythm of its inmost breath, to measure it, at least so far as measurement is possible, has always been the philosopher's ambition; and the new philosophy has not departed from this ideal. But in what light does it regard its task? That is the first point to clear up. For the problem is complex, and the goal distant.
"We are made as much, and more, for action than for thought," says Mr Bergson; "or rather, when we follow our natural impulse, it is to act that we think." ("L'Evolution Creatrice", page 321.) And again, "What we ordinarily call a fact is not reality such as it would appear to an immediate intuition, but an adaptation of reality to practical interests and the demands of social life." ("Matiere et Memoire", page 201.) Hence the question which takes precedence of all others is: to distinguish in our common representation of the world, the fact in its true sense from the combinations which we have introduced in view of action and language.
Now, to rediscover nature in her fresh springs of reality, it is not sufficient to abandon the images and conceptions invented by human initiative; still less is it sufficient to fling ourselves into the torrent of brute sensations. By so doing we are in danger of dissolving our thought in dream or quenching it in night.
Above all, we are in danger of committal to a path which it is impossible to follow. The philosopher is not free to begin the work of knowledge again upon other planes, with a mind which would be adequate to the new and virgin issue of a simple writ of oblivion.
At the time when critical reflection begins, we have already been long engaged in action and science, by the training of individual life, as by hereditary and racial experience, our faculties of perception and conception, our senses and our understanding, have contracted habits, which are by this time unconscious and instinctive; we are haunted by all kinds of ideas and principles, so familiar today that they even pass unobserved. But what is it all worth?
Does it, in its present state, help us to know the nature of a disinterested intuition?
Nothing but a methodical examination of consciousness can tell us that; and it will take more than a renunciation of explicit knowledge to recreate in us a new mind, capable of grasping the bare fact exactly as it is: what we require is perhaps a penetrating reform, a kind of conversion.
The rational and perceptive function we term our intelligence emerges from darkness through a slowly lifting dawn. During this twilight period it has lived, worked, acted, fashioned and informed itself. On the threshold of philosophical speculation it is full of more or less concealed beliefs, which are literally prejudices, and branded with a secret mark influencing its every movement. Here is an actual situation. Exemption from it is beyond anyone's province. Whether we will or no, we are from the beginning of our inquiry immersed in a doctrine which disguises nature to us, and already at bottom constitutes a complete metaphysic. This we term common-sense, and positive science is itself only an extension and refinement of it. What is the value of this work performed without clear consciousness or critical attention? Does it bring us into true relation with things, into relation with pure consciousness?
This is our first and inevitable doubt, which requires solution.
But it would be a quixotic proceeding first to make a void in our mind, and afterwards to admit into it, one by one, after investigation, such and such a concept, or such and such a principle. The illusion of the clean sweep and total reconstruction can never be too vigorously condemned.
Is it from the void that we set out to think? Do we think in void, and with nothing? Common ideas of necessity form the groundwork for the broidery of our advanced thought. Further, even if we succeeded in our impossible task, should we, in so doing, have corrected the causes of error which are today graven upon the very structure of our intelligence, such as our past life has made it? These errors would not cease to act imperceptibly upon the work of revision intended to apply the remedy.
It is from within, by an effort of immanent purgation, that the necessary reform must be brought about. And philosophy's first task is to institute critical reflection upon the obscure beginnings of thought, with a view to shedding light upon its spontaneous virgin condition, but without any vain claim to lift it out of the current in which it is actually plunged.
One conclusion is already plain: the groundwork of common-sense is sure, but the form is suspicious.
In common-sense is contained, at any rate virtually and in embryo, all that can ever be attained of reality, for reality is verification, not construction.
Everything has its starting-point in construction and verification. Thus philosophical research can only be a conscious and deliberate return to the facts of primal intuition. But common-sense, being prepossessed in a practical direction, has doubtless subjected these facts to a process of interested alteration, which is artificial in proportion to the labour bestowed. Such is Mr Bergson's fundamental hypothesis, and it is far-reaching. "Many metaphysical difficulties probably arise from our habit of confounding speculation and practice; or of pushing an idea in the direction of utility, when we think we fathom it in theory; or, lastly, of employing in thought the forms of action." (Preface to "Matter and Memory". First edition.)
The work of reform will consist therefore in freeing our intelligence from its utilitarian habits, by endeavouring at the outset to become clearly conscious of them.
Notice how far presumption is in favour of our hypothesis. Whether we regard organic life in the genesis and preservation of the individual, or in the evolution of species, we see its natural direction to be towards utility: but the effort of thought comes after the effort of life; it is not added from outside, it is the continuance and the flower of the former effort. Must we not expect from this that it will preserve its former habits? And what do we actually observe? The first gleam of human intelligence in prehistoric times is revealed to us by an industry; the cut flint of the primitive caves marks the first stage of the road which was one day to end in the most sublime philosophies. Again, every science has begun by practical arts. Indeed, our science of today, however disinterested it may have become, remains none the less in close relation with the demands of our action; it permits us to speak of and to handle things rather than to see them in their intimate and profound nature. Analysis, when applied to our operations of knowledge, shows us that our understanding parcels out, arrests, and quantifies, whereas reality, as it appears to immediate intuition, is a moving series, a flux of blended qualities.
That is to say, our understanding solidifies all that it touches. Have we not here exactly the essential postulates of action and speech? To speak, as to act, we must have separable elements, terms and objects which remain inert while the operation goes on, maintaining between themselves the constant relations which find their most perfect and ideal presentment in mathematics.
Everything tends, then, to incline us towards the hypothesis in question. Let us regard it henceforward as expressing a fact.
The forms of knowledge elaborated by common-sense were not originally intended to allow us to see reality as it is.
Their task was rather, and remains so, to enable us to grasp its practical aspect. It is for that they are made, not for philosophical speculation.
Now these forms nevertheless have existed in us as inveterate habits, soon becoming unconscious, even when we have reached the point of desiring knowledge for its own sake.
But in this new stage they preserve the bias of their original utilitarian function, and carry this mark with them everywhere, leaving it upon the fresh tasks which we are fain to make them accomplish.
An inner reform is therefore imperative today, if we are to succeed in unearthing and sifting, in our perception of nature, under the veinstone of practical symbolism, the true intuitional content.
This attempt at return to the standpoint of pure contemplation and disinterested experience is a task very different from the task of science. It is one thing to regard more and more or less and less closely with the eyes made for us by utilitarian evolution: it is another to labour at remaking for ourselves eyes capable of seeing, in order to see, and not in order to live.
Philosophy understood in this manner—and we shall see more and more clearly as we go on that there is no other legitimate method of understanding it—demands from us an almost violent act of reform and conversion.
The mind must turn round upon itself, invert the habitual direction of its thought, climb the hill down which its instinct towards action has carried it, and go to seek experience at its source, "above the critical bend where it inclines towards our practical use and becomes, properly speaking, human experience." ("Matter and Memory", page 203.) In short, by a twin effort of criticism and expansion, it must pass outside common-sense and synthetic understanding to return to pure intuition.
Philosophy consists in reliving the immediate over again, and in interpreting our rational science and everyday perception by its light. That, at least, is the first stage. We shall find afterwards that that is not all.
Here is a genuinely new conception of philosophy. Here, for the first time, philosophy is made specifically distinct from science, yet remains no less positive.
What science really does is to preserve the general attitude of common-sense, with its apparatus of forms and principles.
It is true that science develops and perfects it, refines and extends it, and even now and again corrects it. But science does not change either the direction or the essential steps.
In this philosophy, on the contrary, what is at first suspected and finally modified, is the setting of the points before the journey begins.
Not that, in saying so, we mean to condemn science; but we must recognise its just limits. The methods of science proper are in their place and appropriate, and lead to a knowledge which is true (though still symbolical), so long as the object studied is the world of practical action, or, to put it briefly, the world of inert matter.
But soul, life, and activity escape it, and yet these are the spring and ultimate basis of everything: and it is the appreciation of this fact, with what it entails, that is new. And yet, new as Mr Bergson's conception of philosophy may deservedly appear, it does not any the less, from another point of view, deserve to be styled classic and traditional.
What it really defines is not so much a particular philosophy as philosophy itself, in its original function.
Everywhere in history we find its secret current at its task.
All great philosophers have had glimpses of it, and employed it in moments of discovery. Only as a general rule they have not clearly recognised what they were doing, and so have soon turned aside.
But on this point I cannot insist without going into lengthy detail, and am obliged to refer the reader to the fourth chapter of "Creative Evolution", where he will find the whole question dealt with.
One remark, however, has still to be made. Philosophy, according to Mr Bergson's conception, implies and demands time; it does not aim at completion all at once, for the mental reform in question is of the kind which requires gradual fulfilment. The truth which it involves does not set out to be a non-temporal essence, which a sufficiently powerful genius would be able, under pressure, to perceive in its entirety at one view; and that again seems to be very new.
I do not, of course, wish to abuse systems of philosophy. Each of them is an experience of thought, a moment in the life of thought, a method of exploring reality, a reagent which reveals an aspect. Truth undergoes analysis into systems as does light into colours.
But the mere name system calls up the static idea of a finished building. Here there is nothing of the kind. The new philosophy desires to be a proceeding as much as, and even more than, to be a system. It insists on being lived as well as thought. It demands that thought should work at living its true life, an inner life related to itself, effective, active, and creative, but not on that account directed towards external action. "And," says Mr Bergson, "it can only be constructed by the collective and progressive effort of many thinkers, and of many observers, completing, correcting, and righting one another." (Preface to "Creative Evolution".)
Let us see how it begins, and what is its generating act.
How are we to attain the immediate? How are we to realise this perception of pure fact which we stated to be the philosopher's first step?
Unless we can clear up this doubt, the end proposed will remain to our gaze an abstract and lifeless ideal. This is, then, the point which requires instant explanation. For there is a serious difficulty in which the very employment of the word "immediate" might lead us astray.
The immediate, in the sense which concerns us, is not at all, or at least is no longer for us the passive experience, the indefinable something which we should inevitably receive, provided we opened our eyes and abstained from reflection.
As a matter of fact, we cannot abstain from reflection: reflection is today part of our very vision; it comes into play as soon as we open our eyes. So that, to come on the trail of the immediate, there must be effort and work. How are we to guide this effort? In what will this work consist? By what sign shall we be able to recognise that the result has been obtained?
These are the questions to be cleared up. Mr Bergson speaks of them chiefly in connection with the realities of consciousness, or, more generally speaking, of life. And it is here, in fact, that the consequences are most weighty and far-reaching. We shall need to refer to them again in detail. But to simplify my explanation, I will here choose another example: that of inert matter, of the perception on which the physical is based. It is in this case that the divergence between common perception and pure perception, however real it may be, assumes least proportions.
Therefore it appears most in place in the sketch I desire to trace of an exceedingly complex work, where I can only hope, evidently, to indicate the main lines and general direction.
We readily believe that when we cast our eyes upon surrounding objects, we enter into them unresistingly and apprehend them all at once in their intrinsic nature. Perception would thus be nothing but simple passive registration. But nothing could be more untrue, if we are speaking of the perception which we employ without profound criticism in the course of our daily life. What we here take to be pure fact is, on the contrary, the last term in a highly complicated series of mental operations. And this term contains as much of us as of things.
In fact, all concrete perception comes up for analysis as an indissoluble mixture of construction and fact, in which the fact is only revealed through the construction, and takes on its complexion. We all know by experience how incapable the uneducated person is of explaining the simple appearance of the least fact, without embodying a crowd of false interpretations. We know to a less extent, but it is also true, that the most enlightened and adroit person proceeds in just the same manner: his interpretation is better, but it is still interpretation.
That is why accurate observation is so difficult; we see or we do not see, we notice such and such an aspect, we read this or that, according to our state of consciousness at the time, according to the direction of the investigation on which we are engaged.
Who was it defined art as nature seen through a mind? Perception, too, is an art.
This art has its processes, its conventions, and its tools. Go into a laboratory and study one of those complex instruments which make our senses finer or more powerful; each of them is literally a sheaf of materialised theories, and by means of it all acquired science is brought to bear on each new observation of the student. In exactly the same way our organs of sense are actual instruments constructed by the unconscious work of the mind in the course of biological evolution; they too sum up and give concrete form and expression to a system of enlightening theories. But that is not all. The most elementary psychology shows us the amount of thought, in the correct sense of the term, recollection, or inference, which enters into what we should be tempted to call pure perception.
Establishment of fact is not the simple reception of the faithful imprint of that fact; it is invariably interpreted, systematised, and placed in pre-existing forms which constitute veritable theoretical frames. That is why the child has to learn to perceive. There is an education of the senses which he acquires by long training. One day, which aid of habit, he will almost cease to see things: a few lines, a few glimpses, a few simple signs noted in a brief passing glance, will enable him to recognise them; and he will hardly retain any more of reality than its schemes and symbols.
"Perception," says Mr Bergson on this subject, "becomes in the end only an opportunity of recollection." ("Matter and Memory", page 59.)
All concrete perception, it is true, is directed less upon the present than the past. The part of pure perception in it is small, and immediately covered and almost buried by the contribution of memory.
This infinitesimal part acts as a bait. It is a summons to recollection, challenging us to extract from our previous experience, and construct with our acquired wealth a system of images which permits us to read the experience of the moment.
With our scheme of interpretation thus constituted we encounter the few fugitive traits which we have actually perceived. If the theory we have elaborated adapts itself, and succeeds in accounting for, connecting, and making sense of these traits, we shall finally have a perception properly so called.
Perception then, in the usual sense of the word, is the resolution of a problem, the verification of a theory.
Thus are explained "errors of the senses," which are in reality errors of interpretation. Thus too, and in the same manner, we have the explanation of dreams.
Let us take a simple example. When you read a book, do you spell each syllable, one by one, to group the syllables afterwards into words, and the words into phrases, thus travelling from print to meaning? Not at all: you grasp a few letters accurately, a few downstrokes in their graphical outline; then you guess the remainder, travelling in the reverse direction, from a probable meaning to the print which you are interpreting. This is what causes mistakes in reading, and the well-known difficulty in seeing printing errors.
This observation is confirmed by curious experiments. Write some everyday phrase or other on a blackboard; let there be a few intentional mistakes here and there, a letter or two altered, or left out. Place the words in a dark room in front of a person who, of course, does not know what has been written. Then turn on the light without allowing the observer sufficient time to spell the writing.
In spite of this, he will in most cases read the entire phrase, without hesitation or difficulty.
He has restored what was missing, or corrected what was at fault.
Now, ask him what letters he is certain he saw, and you will find he will tell you an omitted or altered letter as well as a letter actually written.
The observer then thinks he sees in broad light a letter which is not there, if that letter, in virtue of the general sense, ought to appear in the phrase. But you can go further, and vary the experiment.
Suppose we write the word "tumult" correctly. After doing so, to direct the memory of the observer into a certain trend of recollection, call out in his ear, during the short time the light is turned on, another word of different meaning, for example, the word "railway."
The observer will read "tunnel"; that is to say, a word, the graphical outline of which is like that of the written word, but connected in sense with the order of recollection called up.
In this mistake in reading, as in the spontaneous correction of the previous experiment, we see very clearly that perception is always the fulfilment of guesswork.
It is the direction of this work that we are concerned to determine.
According to the popular idea, perception has a completely speculative interest: it is pure knowledge. Therein lies the fundamental mistake.
Notice first of all how much more probable it is, a priori, that the work of perception, just as any other natural and spontaneous work, should have a utilitarian signification.
"Life," says Mr Bergson with justice, "is the acceptance from objects of nothing but the useful impression, with the response of the appropriate reactions." ("Laughter", page 154.)
And this view receives striking objective confirmation if, with the author of "Matter and Memory", we follow the progress of the perceptive functions along the animal series from the protoplasm to the higher vertebrates; or if, with him, we analyse the task of the body, and discover that the nervous system is manifested in its very structure as, before all, an instrument of action. Have we not already besides proof of this in the fact that each of us always appears in his own eyes to occupy the centre of the world he perceives?
The "Riquet" of Anatole France voices Mr Bergson's view: "I am always in the centre of everything, and men and beasts and things, for or against me, range themselves around."
But direct analysis leads us still more plainly to the same conclusion.
Let us take the perception of bodies. It is easy to show—and I regret that I cannot here reproduce Mr Bergson's masterly demonstration—that the division of matter into distinct objects with sharp outlines is produced by a selection of images which is completely relative to our practical needs.
"The distinct outlines which we assign to an object, and which bestow upon it its individuality, are nothing but the graph of a certain kind of influence which we should be able to employ at a certain point in space: it is the plan of our future actions which is submitted to our eyes, as in a mirror, when we perceive the surfaces and edges of things. Remove this action, and in consequence the high roads which it makes for itself in advance by perception, in the web of reality, and the individuality of the body will be reabsorbed in the universal interaction which is without doubt reality itself." Which is tantamount to saying that "rough bodies are cut in the material of nature by a perception of which the scissors follow, in some sort, the dotted line along which the action would pass." ("Creative Evolution", page 12.)
Bodies independent of common experience do not then appear, to an attentive criticism, as veritable realities which would have an existence in themselves. They are only centres of co-ordination for our actions. Or, if you prefer it, "our needs are so many shafts of light which, when played upon the continuity of perceptible qualities, produce in them the outline of distinct bodies." ("Matter and Memory", page 220.) Does not science too, after its own fashion, resolve the atom into a centre of intersecting relations, which finally extend by degrees to the entire universe in an indissoluble interpenetration?
A qualitative continuity, imperceptibly shaded off, over which pass quivers that here and there converge, is the image by which we are forced to recognise a superior degree of reality.
But is this perceptible material, this qualitative continuity, the pure fact in matter? Not yet. Perception, we said just now, is always in reality complicated by memory. There is more truth in this than we had seen. Reality is not a motionless spectrum, extending to our view its infinite shades; it might rather be termed a leaping flame in the spectrum. All is in passage, in process of becoming.
On this flux consciousness concentrates at long intervals, each time condensing into one "quality" an immense period of the inner history of things. "In just this way the thousand successive positions of a runner contract into one single symbolic attitude, which our eye perceives, which art reproduces, and which becomes for everybody the representation of a man running." ("Matter and Memory", page 233.)
In the same way again, a red light, continuing one second, embodies such a large number of elementary pulsations that it would take 25,000 years of our time to see its distinct passage. From here springs the subjectivity of our perception. The different qualities correspond, roughly speaking, to the different rhythms of contraction or dilution, to the different degrees of inner tension in the perceiving consciousness.
Pushing the case to its limits, and imagining a complete expansion, matter would resolve into colourless disturbances, and become the "pure matter" of the natural philosopher.
Let us now unite in one single continuity the different periods of the preceding dialectic. Vibration, qualities, and bodies are none of them reality by themselves; but all the same they are part of reality. And absolute reality would be the whole of these degrees and moments, and many others as well, no doubt. Or rather, to secure absolute intuition of matter, we should have on the one hand to get rid of all that our practical needs have constructed, restore on the other all the effective tendencies they have extinguished, follow the complete scale of qualitative concentrations and dilutions, and pass, by a kind of sympathy, into the incessantly moving play of all the possible innumerable contractions or resolutions; with the result that in the end we should succeed, by a simultaneous view as it were, in grasping, according to their infinitely various modes, the phases of this matter which, though at present latent, admit of "perception."
Thus, in the case before us, absolute knowledge is found to be the result of integral experience; and though we cannot attain the term, we see at any rate in what direction we should have to work to reach it.
Now it must be stated that our realisable knowledge is at every moment partial and limited rather than exterior and relative, for our effective perception is related to matter in itself as the part to the whole. Our least perceptions are actually based on pure perception, and "we are aware of the elementary disturbances which constitute matter, in the perceptible quality in which they suffer contraction, as we are aware of the beating of our heart in the general feeling that we have of living." ("The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods", 7th July 1910.)
But the preoccupation of practical action, coming between reality and ourselves, produces the fragmentary world of common-sense, much as an absorbing medium resolves into separate rays the continuous spectrum of a luminous body; whilst the rhythm of duration, and the degree of tension peculiar to our consciousness, limit us to the apprehension of certain qualities only.
What then have we to do to progress towards absolute knowledge? Not to quit experience: quite the contrary; but to extend it and diversify it by science, while, at the same time, by criticism, we correct in it the disturbing effects of action, and finally quicken all the results thus obtained by an effort of sympathy which will make us familiar with the object until we feel its profound throbbing and its inner wealth.
In connection with this last vital point, which is decisive, call to mind a celebrated page of Sainte-Beuve where he defines his method: "Enter into your author, make yourself at home in him, produce him under his different aspects, make him live, move, and speak as he must have done; follow him to his fireside and in his domestic habits, as closely as you can...
"Study him, turn him round and round, ask him questions at your leisure; place him before you...Every feature will appear in its turn, and take the place of the man himself in this expression...
"An individual reality will gradually blend with and become incarnate in the vague, abstract, and general type...There is our man..." Yes, that is exactly what we want: it could not be better put. Transpose this page from the literary to the metaphysical order, and you have intuition, as defined by Mr Bergson. You have the return to immediacy.
But a new problem then arises: Is not our intuition of immediacy in danger of remaining inexpressible? For our language has been formed in view of practical life, not of pure knowledge.
The immediate perception of reality is not all; we have still to translate this perception into intelligible language, into a connected chain of concepts; failing which, it would seem, we should not have knowledge in the strict sense of the word, we should not have truth.
Without language, intuition, supposing it came to birth, would remain intransmissible and incommunicable, and would perish in a solitary cry. By language alone are we enabled to submit it to a positive test: the letter is the ballast of the mind, the body which allows it to act, and in acting to scatter the unreal delusions of dream.
The act of pure intuition demands so great an inner tension from thought that it can only be very rare and very fugitive: a few rapid gleams here and there; and these dawning glimpses must be sustained, and afterwards united, and that again is the work of language.
But while language is thus necessary, no less necessary is a criticism of ordinary language, and of the methods familiar to the understanding. These forms of reflected knowledge, these processes of analysis really convey secretly all the postulates of practical action. But it is imperative that language should translate, not betray; that the body of formulae should not stifle the soul of intuition. We shall see in what the work of reform and conversion imposed on the philosopher precisely consists.
The attitude of the ordinary proceedings of common thought can be stated in a few words. Place the object studied before yourself as an exterior "thing." Then place yourself outside it, in perspective, at points of vantage on a circumference, whence you can only see the object of your investigation at a distance, with such interval as would be sufficient for the contemplation of a picture; in short, move round the object instead of entering boldly into it. But these proceedings lead to what I shall term analysis by concepts; that is to say, the attempt to resolve all reality into general ideas.
What are concepts and abstract ideas really, but distant and simplified views, species of model drawings, giving only a few summary features of their object, which vary according to direction and angle? By means of them we claim to determine the object from outside, as if, in order to know it, it were sufficient to enclose it in a system of logical sides and angles.
And perhaps in this way we do really grasp it, perhaps we do establish its precise description, but we do not penetrate it.
Concepts translate relations resulting from comparisons by which each object is finally expressed as a function of what it is not. They dismember it, divide it up piece by piece, and mount it in various frames. They lay hold of it only by ends and corners, by resemblances and differences. Is not that obviously what is done by the converting theories which explain the soul by the body, life by matter, quality by movements, space itself by pure number? Is not that what is done generally by all criticisms, all doctrines which connect one idea to another, or to a group of other ideas?
In this way we reach only the surface of things, the reciprocal contacts, mutual intersections, and parts common, but not the organic unity nor the inner essence.
In vain we multiply our points of view, our perspectives and plane projections: no accumulation of this kind will reconstruct the concrete solid. We can pass from an object directly perceived to the pictures which represent it, the prints which represent the pictures, the scheme representing the prints, because each stage contains less than the one before, and is obtained from it by simple diminution.
But, inversely, you may take all the schemes, prints, pictures you like—supposing that it is not absurd to conceive as given what is by nature interminable and inexhaustible, lending itself to indefinite enumeration and endless development and multiplicity—but you will never recompose the profound and original unity of the source.
How, by forcing yourself to seek the object outside itself, where it certainly is not, except in echo and reflection, would you ever find its intimate and specific reality? You are but condemning yourself to symbolism, for one "thing" can only be in another symbolically.
To go further still, your knowledge of things will remain irremediably relative, relative to the symbols selected and the points of view adopted. Everything will happen as in a movement of which the appearance and formula vary with the spot from which you regard it, with the marks to which you relate it.
Absolute revelation is only given to the man who passes into the object, flings himself upon its stream, and lives within its rhythm. The thesis which maintains the inevitable relativity of all human knowledge originates mainly from the metaphors employed to describe the act of knowledge. The subject occupies this point, the object that; how are we to span the distance? Our perceptory organs fill the interval; how are we to grasp anything but what reaches us in the receiver at the end of the wire?
The mind itself is a projecting lantern playing a shaft of light on nature; how should it do otherwise than tint nature its own colour?
But these difficulties all arise out of the spatial metaphors employed; and these metaphors in their turn do little but illustrate and translate the common method of analysis by concepts: and this method is essentially regulated by the practical needs of action and language.
The philosopher must adopt an attitude entirely inverse; not keep at a distance from things, but listen in a manner to their inward breathing, and, above all, supply the effort of sympathy by which he establishes himself in the object, becomes on intimate terms with it, tunes himself to its rhythm, and, in a word, lives it. There is really nothing mysterious or strange in this.
Consider your daily judgments in matters of art, profession, or sport.
Between knowledge by theory and knowledge by experience, between understanding by external analogy and perception by profound intuition, what difference and divergence there is!
Who has absolute knowledge of a machine, the student who analyses it in mechanical theorems, or the engineer who has lived in comradeship with it, even to sharing the physical sensation of its laboured or easy working, who feels the play of its inner muscles, its likes and dislikes, who notes its movements and the task before it, as the machine itself would do were it conscious, for whom it has become an extension of his own body, a new sensori-motor organ, a group of prearranged gestures and automatic habits?
The student's knowledge is more useful to the builder, and I do not wish to claim that we should ever neglect it; but the only true knowledge is that of the engineer. And what I have just said does not concern material objects only. Who has absolute knowledge of religion, he who analyses it in psychology, sociology, history, and metaphysics, or he who, from within, by a living experience, participates in its essence and holds communion with its duration?
But the external nature of the knowledge obtained by conceptual analysis is only its least fault. There are others still more serious.
If concepts actually express what is common, general, unspecific, what should make us feel the need of recasting them when we apply them to a new object?
Does not their ground, their utility, and their interest exactly consist in sparing us this labour?
We regard them as elaborated once for all. They are building-material, ready-hewn blocks, which we have only to bring together. They are atoms, simple elements—a mathematician would say prime factors—capable of associating with infinity, but without undergoing any inner modification in contact with it. They admit linkage; they can be attached externally, but they leave the aggregate as they went into it.
Juxtaposition and arrangement are the geometrical operations which typify the work of knowledge in such a case; or else we must fall back on metaphors from some mental chemistry, such as proportioning and combination.
In all cases, the method is still that of alignment and blending of pre-existent concepts.
Now the mere fact of proceeding thus is equivalent to setting up the concept as a symbol of an abstract class. That being done, explanation of a thing is no more than showing it in the intersection of several classes, partaking of each of them in definite proportions: which is the same as considering it sufficiently expressed by a list of general frames into which it will go. The unknown is then, on principle, and in virtue of this theory, referred to the already known; and it thereby becomes impossible ever to grasp any true novelty or any irreducible originality.
On principle, once more, we claim to reconstruct nature with pure symbols; and it thereby becomes impossible ever to reach its concrete reality, "the invisible and present soul."
This intuitional coinage in fixed standard concepts, this creation of an easily handled intellectual cash, is no doubt of evident practical utility. For knowledge in the usual sense of the word is not a disinterested operation; it consists in finding out what profit we can draw from an object, how we are to conduct ourselves towards it, what label we can suitably attach to it, under what already known class it comes, to what degree it is deserving of this or that title which determines an attitude we must take up, or a step we must perform. Our end is to place the object in its approximate class, having regard to advantageous employment or to everyday language. Then, and only then, we find our pigeon-holes all ready-made; and the same parcel of reagents meets all cases. A universal catechism is here in existence to meet every research; its different clauses define so many unshifting points of view, from which we regard each object, and our study is subsequently limited to applying a kind of nomenclature to the preconstructed frames.
Once again the philosopher has to proceed in exactly the opposite direction. He has not to confine himself to ready-made business concepts, of the ordinary kind, suits cut to an average model, which fit nobody because they almost fit everybody; but he has to work to measure, incessantly renew his plant, continually recreate his mind, and meet each new problem with a fresh adaptive effort. He must not go from concepts to things, as if each of them were only the cutting-point of several concurrent generalities, an ideal centre of intersecting abstractions; on the contrary, he must go from things to concepts, incessantly creating new thoughts, and incessantly recasting the old.
There could be no solution of the problem in a more or less ingenious mosaic or tessellation of rigid concepts, pre-existing to be employed. We need plastic fluid, supple and living concepts, capable of being continually modelled on reality, of delicately following its infinite curves. The philosopher's task is then to create concepts much more than to combine them. And each of the concepts he creates must remain open and adjustable, ready for the necessary renewal and adaptation, like a method or a programme: it must be the arrow pointing to a path which descends from intuition to language, not a boundary marking a terminus. In this way only does philosophy remain what it ought to be: the examination into the consciousness of the human mind, the effort towards enlargement and depth which it attempts unremittingly, in order to advance beyond its present intellectual condition.
Do you want an example? I will take that of human personality. The ego is one; the ego is many: no one contests this double formula. But everything admits of it; and what is its lesson to us? Observe what is bound to happen to the two concepts of unity and multiplicity, by the mere fact that we take them for general frames independent of the reality contained, for detached language admitting empty and blank definition, always representable by the same word, no matter what the circumstances: they are no longer living and coloured ideas, but abstract, motionless, and neutral forms, without shades or gradations, without distinction of case, characterising two points of view from which you can observe anything and everything. This being so, how could the application of these forms help us to grasp the original and peculiar nature of the unity and multiplicity of the ego? Still further, how could we, between two such entities, statically defined by their opposition, ever imagine a synthesis? Correctly speaking, the interesting question is not whether there is unity, multiplicity, combination, one with the other, but to see what sort of unity, multiplicity, or combination realises the case in point; above all, to understand how the living person is at once multiple unity and one multiplicity, how these two poles of conceptual dissociation are connected, how these two diverging branches of abstraction join at the roots. The interesting point, in a word, is not the two symbolical colourless marks indicating the two ends of the spectrum; it is the continuity between, with its changing wealth of colouring, and the double progress of shades which resolve it into red and violet.
But it is impossible to arrive at this concrete transition unless we begin from direct intuition and descend to the analysing concepts.
Again, the same duty of reversing our familiar attitude, of inverting our customary proceeding, becomes ours for another reason. The conceptual atomism of common thought leads it to place movement in a lower order than rest, fact in a lower order than becoming. According to common thought, movement is added to the atom, as a supplementary accident to a body previously at rest; and, by becoming, the pre-existent terms are strung together like pearls on a necklace. It delights in rest, and endeavours to bring to rest all that moves. Immobility appears to it to be the base of existence. It decomposes and pulverises every change and every phenomenon, until it finds the invariable element in them. It is immobility which it esteems as primary, fundamental, intelligible of itself; and motion, on the contrary, which it seeks to explain as a function of immobility. And so it tends, out of progresses and transitions, to make things. To see distinctly, it appears to need a dead halt. What indeed are concepts but logical look-out stations along the path of becoming? what are they but motionless external views, taken at intervals, of an uninterrupted stream of movement?
Each of them isolates and fixes an aspect, "as the instantaneous lightning flashes on a storm-scene in the darkness." ("Matter and Memory", page 209.)
Placed together, they make a net laid in advance, a strong meshwork in which the human intelligence posts itself securely to spy the flux of reality, and seize it as it passes. Such a proceeding is made for the practical world, and is out of place in the speculative. Everywhere we are trying to find constants, identities, non-variants, states; and we imagine ideal science as an open eye which gazes for ever upon objects that do not move. The constant is the concrete support demanded by our action: the matter upon which we operate must not escape our grasp and slip through our hands, if we are to be able to work it. The constant, again, is the element of language, in which the word represents its inert permanence, in which it constitutes the solid fulcrum, the foundation and landmark of dialectic progress, being that which can be discarded by the mind, whose attention is thus free for other tasks. In this respect analysis by concepts is the natural method of common-sense. It consists in asking from time to time what point the object studied has reached, what it has become, in order to see what one could derive from it, or what it is fitting to say of it.
But this method has only a practical reach. Reality, which in its essence is becoming, passes through our concepts without ever letting itself be caught, as a moving body passes fixed points. When we filter it, we retain only its deposit, the result of the becoming drifted down to us.
Do the dams, canals, and buoys make the current of the river? Do the festoons of dead seaweed ranged along the sand make the rising tide? Let us beware of confounding the stream of becoming with the sharp outline of its result. Analysis by concepts is a cinematograph method, and it is plain that the inner organisation of the movement is not seen in the moving pictures. Every moment we have fixed views of moving objects. With such conceptual sections taken in the stream of continuity, however many we accumulate, should we ever reconstruct the movement itself, the dynamic connection, the march of the images, the transition from one view to another? This capacity for movement must be contained in the picture apparatus, and must therefore be given in addition to the views themselves; and nothing can better prove how, after all, movement is never explicable except by itself, never grasped except in itself.
But if we take movement as our principle, it is, on the contrary, possible, and even easy, to slacken speed by imperceptible degrees, and stop dead.
From a dead stop we shall never get our movement again; but rest can very well be conceived as the limit of movement, as its arrest or extinction; for rest is less than movement.
In this way the true philosophical method, which is the inverse of the common method, consists in taking up a position from the very outset in the bosom of becoming, in adopting its changing curves and variable tension, in sympathising with the rhythm of its genesis, in perceiving all existence from within, as a growth, in following it in its inner generation; in short, in promoting movement to fundamental reality, and, inversely, in degrading fixed states to the rank of secondary and derived reality.
And thus, to come back to the example of the human personality, the philosopher must seek in the ego not so much a ready-made unity or multiplicity as, if I may venture the expression, two antagonistic and correlative movements of unification and plurification.
There is then a radical difference between philosophic intuition and conceptual analysis. The latter delights in the play of dialectic, in fountains of knowledge, where it is interested only in the immovable basins; the former goes back to the source of the concepts, and seeks to possess it where it gushes out. Analysis cuts the channels; intuition supplies the water. Intuition acquires and analysis expends.
It is not a question of banning analysis; science could not do without it, and philosophy could not do without science. But we must reserve for it its normal place and its just task.
Concepts are the deposited sediment of intuition: intuition produces the concepts, not the concepts intuition. From the heart of intuition you will have no difficulty in seeing how it splits up and analyses into concepts, concepts of such and such a kind or such and such a shade. But by successive analyses you will never reconstruct the least intuition, just as, no matter how you distribute water, you will never reconstruct the reservoir in its original condition.
Begin from intuition: it is a summit from which we can descend by infinite slopes; it is a picture which we can place in an infinite number of frames. But all the frames together will not recompose the picture, and the lower ends of all the slopes will not explain how they meet at the summit. Intuition is a necessary beginning; it is the impulse which sets the analysis in motion, and gives it direction; it is the sounding which brings it to solid bottom; the soul which assures its unity. "I shall never understand how black and white interpenetrate, if I have not seen grey, but I understand without trouble, after once seeing grey, how we can regard it from the double point of view of black and white." ("Introduction to Metaphysics.")
Here are some letters which you can arrange in chains in a thousand ways: the indivisible sense running along the chain, and making one phrase of it, is the original cause of the writing, not its consequence. Thus it is with intuition in relation to analysis. But beginnings and generative activities are the proper object of the philosopher. Thus the conversion and reform incumbent on him consist essentially in a transition from the analytic to the intuitive point of view.
The result is that the chosen instrument of philosophic thought is metaphor; and of metaphor we know Mr Bergson to be an incomparable master. What we have to do, he says himself, is "to elicit a certain active force which in most men is liable to be trammelled by mental habits more useful to life," to awaken in them the feeling of the immediate, original, and concrete. But "many different images, borrowed from very different orders of things, can, by their convergent action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized. By choosing images as unlike as possible, we prevent any one of them from usurping the place of the intuition it is intended to call up, since it would in that case be immediately routed by its rivals. In making them all, despite their different aspects, demand of our mind the same kind of attention, and in some way the same degree of tension, we accustom our consciousness little by little to a quite peculiar and well-determined disposition, precisely the one which it ought to adopt to appear to itself unmasked." ("Introduction to Metaphysics".)
Strictly speaking, the intuition of immediacy is inexpressible. But it can be suggested and called up. How? By ringing it round with concurrent metaphors. Our aim is to modify the habits of imagination in ourselves which are opposed to a simple and direct view, to break through the mechanical imagery in which we have allowed ourselves to be caught; and it is by awakening other imagery and other habits that we can succeed in so doing.
But then, you will say, where is the difference between philosophy and art, between metaphysical and aesthetic intuition? Art also tends to reveal nature to us, to suggest to us a direct vision of it, to lift the veil of illusion which hides us from ourselves; and aesthetic intuition is, in its own way, perception of immediacy. We revive the feeling of reality obliterated by habit, we summon the deep and penetrating soul of things: the object is the same in both cases; and the means are also the same; images and metaphors. Is Mr Bergson only a poet, and does his work amount to nothing but the introduction of impressionism in metaphysics?
It is an old objection. If the truth be told, Mr Bergson's immense scientific knowledge should be sufficient refutation.
Only those who have not read the mass of carefully proved and positive discussions could give way thus to the impressions of art awakened by what is truly a magic style. But we can go further and put it better.
That there are analogies between philosophy and art, between metaphysical and aesthetic intuition, is unquestionable and uncontested.
At the same time, the analogies must not be allowed to hide the differences.
Art is, to a certain extent, philosophy previous to analysis, previous to criticism and science; the aesthetic intuition is metaphysical intuition in process of birth, bounded by dream, not proceeding to the test of positive verification. Reciprocally, philosophy is the art which follows upon science, and takes account of it, the art which uses the results of analysis as its material, and submits itself to the demands of stern criticism; metaphysical intuition is the aesthetic intuition verified, systematised, ballasted by the language of reason.
Philosophy then differs from art in two essential points: first of all, it rests upon, envelops, and supposes science; secondly, it implies a test of verification in its strict meaning. Instead of stopping at the acts of common-sense, it completes them with all the contributions of analysis and scientific investigation.
We said just now of common-sense that, in its inmost depths, it possesses reality: that is only quite exact when we mean common-sense developed in positive science; and that is why philosophy takes the results of science as its basis, for each of these results, like the facts and data of common perception, opens a way for critical penetration towards the immediate. Just now I was comparing the two kinds of knowledge which the theorist and the engineer can have of a machine, and I allowed the advantage of absolute knowledge to practical experience, whilst theory seemed to me mainly relative to the constructive industry. That is true, and I do not go back upon it. But the most experienced engineer, who did not know the mechanism of his machine, who possessed only unanalysed feelings about it, would have only an artist's, not a philosopher's knowledge. For absolute intuition, in the full sense of the word, we must have integral experience; that is to say, a living application of rational theory no less than of working technique.
To journey towards living intuition, starting from complete science and complete sensation, is the philosopher's task; and this task is governed by standards unknown to art.
Metaphysical intuition offers a victorious resistance to the test of thorough and continued experiment, to the test of calculation as to that of working, to the complete experiment which brings into play all the various deoxidising agents of criticism; it shows itself capable of withstanding analysis without dissolving or succumbing; it abounds in concepts which satisfy the understanding, and exalt it; in a word, it creates light and truth on all mental planes; and these characteristics are sufficient to distinguish it in a profound degree from aesthetic intuition.
The latter is only the prophetic type of the former, a dream or presentiment, a veiled and still uncertain dawn, a twilight myth preceding and proclaiming, in the half-darkness, the full day of positive revelation...
Every philosophy has two faces, and must be studied in two movements—method and teaching.
These are its two moments, its two aspects, no doubt co-ordinate and mutually dependent, but none the less distinct.
We have just examined the method of the new philosophy inaugurated by Mr Bergson. To what teaching has this method led us, and to what can we foresee that it will lead us?
This is what we have still to find.
The sciences properly so called, those that are by agreement termed positive, present themselves as so many external and circumferential points from which we view reality. They leave us on the outside of things, and confine themselves to investigating from a distance.
The views they give us resemble the brief perspectives of a town which we obtain in looking at it from different angles on the surrounding hills.
Less even than that: for very soon, by increasing abstraction, the coloured views give place to regular lines, and even to simple conventional notes, which are more practical in use and waste less time. And so the sciences remain prisoners of the symbol, and all the inevitable relativity involved in its use. But philosophy claims to pierce within reality, establish itself in the object, follow its thousand turns and folds, obtain from it a direct and immediate feeling, and penetrate right into the concrete depths of its heart; it is not content with an analysis, but demands an intuition.
Now there is one existence which, at the outset, we know better and more surely than any other; there is a privileged case in which the effort of sympathetic revelation is natural and almost easy to us; there is one reality at least which we grasp from within, which we perceive in its deep and internal content. This reality is ourselves. It is typical of all reality, and our study may fitly begin here. Psychology puts us in direct contact with it, and metaphysics attempt to generalise this contact. But such a generalisation can only be attempted if, to begin with, we are familiar with reality at the point where we have immediate access to it.
The path of thought which the philosopher must take is from the inner to the outer being.
"Know thyself": the old maxim has remained the motto of philosophy since Socrates, the motto at least which marks its initial moment, when, inclining towards the depth of the subject, it commences its true work of penetration, whilst science continues to extend on the surface. Each philosophy in turn has commented upon and applied this old motto. But Mr Bergson, more than anyone else, has given it, as he does everything else he takes up, a new and profound meaning. What was the current interpretation before him? Speaking only of the last century, we may say that, under the influence of Kant, criticism had till now been principally engaged in unravelling the contribution of the subject in the act of consciousness, in establishing our perception of things through certain representative forms borrowed from our own constitution. Such was, even yesterday, the authenticated way of regarding the problem. And it is precisely this attitude which Mr Bergson, by a volte-face which will remain familiar to him in the course of his researches, reverses from the outset.
"It has appeared to me," says he, ("Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness", Conclusion.) "that there was ground for setting oneself the inverse problem, and asking whether the most apparent states of the ego itself, which we think we grasp directly, are not most of the time perceived through certain forms borrowed from the outer world, which in this way gives us back what we have lent it. A priori, it seems fairly probable that this is what goes on. For supposing that the forms of which we are speaking, to which we adapt matter, come entirely from the mind, it seems difficult to apply them constantly to objects without soon producing the colouring of the objects in the forms; therefore in using these forms for the knowledge of our own personality, we risk taking a reflection of the frame in which we place them—that is, actually, the external world—for the very colouring of the ego. But we can go further, and state that forms applicable to things cannot be entirely our own work; that they must result from a compromise between matter and mind; that if we give much to this matter, we doubtless receive something from it; and that, in this way, when we try to possess ourselves again after an excursion into the outer world, we no longer have our hands free."
To avoid such a consequence, there is, we must admit, a conceivable loophole. It consists in maintaining on principle an absolute analogy, an exact similitude between internal reality and external objects. The forms which suit the one would then also suit the other.
But it must be observed that such a principle constitutes in the highest degree a metaphysical thesis which it would be on all hands illegal to assert previously as a postulate of method. Secondly, and above all, it must be observed that on this head experience is decisive, and manifests more plainly every day the failure of the theories which try to assimilate the world of consciousness to that of matter, to copy psychology from physics. We have here two different "orders." The apparatus of the first does not admit of being employed in the second. Hence the necessity of the attitude adopted by Mr Bergson. We have an effort to make, a work of reform to undertake, to lift the veil of symbols which envelops our usual representation of the ego, and thus conceals us from our own view, in order to find out what we are in reality, immediately, in our inmost selves. This effort and this work are necessary, because, "in order to contemplate the ego in its original purity, psychology must eliminate or correct certain forms which bear the visible mark of the outer world." ("Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness", Conclusion.) What are these forms? Let us confine ourselves to the most important. Things appear to us as numerable units, placed side by side in space. They compose numerical and spatial multiplicity, a dust of terms between which geometrical ties are established.
But space and number are the two forms of immobility, the two schemes of analysis, by which we must not let ourselves be obsessed. I do not say that there is no place to give them, even in the internal world. But the more deeply we enter into the heart of psychological life, the less they are in place.
The fact is, there are several planes of consciousness, situated at different depths, marking all the intervening degrees between pure thought and bodily action, and each mental phenomenon interests all these planes simultaneously, and is thus repeated in a thousand higher tones, like the harmonies of one and the same note.
Or, if you prefer it, the life of the spirit is not the uniform transparent surface of a mere; rather it is a gushing spring which, at first pent in, spreads upwards and outwards, like a sheaf of corn, passing through many different states, from the dark and concentrated welling of the source to the gleam of the scattered tumbling spray; and each of its moods presents in its turn a similar character, being itself only a thread within the whole. Such without doubt is the central and activating idea of the admirable book entitled "Matter and Memory". I cannot possibly condense its substance here, or convey its astonishing synthetic power, which succeeds in contracting a complete metaphysic, and in gripping it so firmly that the examination ends by passing to the discussion of a few humble facts relative to the philosophy of the brain! But its technical severity and its very conciseness, combined with the wealth it contains, render it irresumable; and I can only in a few words indicate its conclusions.
First of all, however little we pride ourselves on positive method, we must admit the existence of an internal world, of a spiritual activity distinct from matter and its mechanism. No chemistry of the brain, no dance of atoms, is equivalent to the least thought, or indeed to the least sensation.
Some, it is true, have brought forward a thesis of parallelism, according to which each mental phenomenon corresponds point by point to a phenomenon in the brain, without adding anything to it, without influencing its course, merely translating it into another tongue, so that a glance sufficiently penetrating to follow the molecular revolutions and the fluxes of nervous production in their least episodes would immediately read the inmost secrets of the associated consciousness.
But no one will deny that a thesis of this kind is only in reality a hypothesis, that it goes enormously beyond the certain data of current biology, and that it can only be formulated by anticipating future discoveries in a preconceived direction. Let us be candid: it is not really a thesis of positive science, but a metaphysical thesis in the unpleasant meaning of the term. Taking it at its best, its worth today could only be one of intelligibleness. And intelligible it is not.
How are we to understand a consciousness destitute of activity and consequently without connection with reality, a kind of phosphorescence which emphasises the lines of vibration in the brain, and renders in miraculous duplicate, by its mysterious and useless light, certain phenomena already complete without it?
One day Mr Bergson came down into the arena of dialectic, and, talking to his opponents in their own language, pulled their "psycho-physiological paralogism" to pieces before their eyes; it is only by confounding in one and the same argument two systems of incompatible notations, idealism and realism, that we succeed in enunciating the parallelist thesis. This reasoning went home, all the more as it was adapted to the usual form of discussions between philosophers. But a more positive and more categorical proof is to be found all through "Matter and Memory". From the precise example of recollection analysed to its lowest depths, Mr Bergson completely grasps and measures the divergence between soul and body, between mind and matter. Then, putting into practice what he said elsewhere about the creation of new concepts, he arrives at the conclusion—these are his own expressions—that between the psychological fact and its counterpart in the brain there must be a relation sui generis, which is neither the determination of the one by the other, nor their reciprocal independence, nor the production of the latter by the former, nor of the former by the latter, nor their simple parallel concomitance; in short, a relation which answers to none of the ready-made concepts which abstraction puts at our service, but which may be approximately formulated in these terms: ("Report of the French Philosophical Society", meeting, 2nd May 1901.)
"Given a psychological state, that part of the state which admits of play, the part which would be translated by an attitude of the body or by bodily actions, is represented in the brain; the remainder is independent of it, and has no equivalent in the brain. So that to one and the same state of the brain there may be many different psychological states which correspond, though not all kinds of states. They are psychological states which all have in common the same motor scheme. Into one and the same frame many pictures may go, but not all pictures. Let us take a lofty abstract philosophical thought. We do not conceive it without adding to it an image representing it, which we place beneath.
"We do not represent the image to ourselves, again, without supporting it by a design which resumes its leading features. We do not imagine this design itself without imagining and, in so doing, sketching certain movements which would reproduce it. It is this sketch, and this sketch only, which is represented in the brain. Frame the sketch, there is a margin for the image. Frame the image again, there remains a margin, and a still larger margin, for the thought. The thought is thus relatively free and indeterminate in relation to the activity which conditions it in the brain, for this activity expresses only the motive articulation of the idea, and the articulation may be the same for ideas absolutely different. And yet it is not complete liberty nor absolute indetermination, since any kind of idea, taken at hazard, would not present the articulation desired.
"In short, none of the simple concepts furnished us by philosophy could express the relation we seek, but this relation appears with tolerable clearness to result from experiment."
The same analysis of facts tells us how the planes of consciousness, of which I spoke just now, are arranged, the law by which they are distributed, and the meaning which attaches to their disposition. Let us neglect the intervening multiples, and look only at the extreme poles of the series.
We are inclined to imagine too abrupt a severance between gesture and dream, between action and thought, between body and mind. There are not two plane surfaces, without thickness or transition, placed one above the other on different levels; it is by an imperceptible degradation of increasing depth, and decreasing materiality, that we pass from one term to the other.
And the characteristics are continually changing in the course of the transition. Thus our initial problem confronts us again, more acutely than ever: are the forms of number and space equally suitable on all planes of consciousness?
Let us consider the most external of these planes of life, and one which is in contact with the outer world, the one which receives directly the impressions of external reality. We live as a rule on the surface of ourselves, in the numerical and spatial dispersion of language and gesture. Our deeper ego is covered as it were with a tough crust, hardened in action: it is a skein of motionless and numerable habits, side by side, and of distinct and solid things, with sharp outlines and mechanical relations. And it is for the representation of the phenomena which occur within this dead rind that space and number are valid.
For we have to live, I mean live our common daily life, with our body, with our customary mechanism rather than with our true depths. Our attention is therefore most often directed by a natural inclination to the practical worth and useful function of our internal states, to the public object of which they are the sign, to the effect they produce externally, to the gestures by which we express them in space. A social average of individual modalities interests us more than the incommunicable originality of our deeper life. The words of language besides offer us so many symbolic centres round which crystallise groups of motor mechanisms set up by habit, the only usual elements of our internal determinations. Now, contact with society has rendered these motor mechanisms practically identical in all men. Hence, whether it be a question of sensation, feeling, or ideas, we have these neutral dry and colourless residua, which spread lifeless over the surface of ourselves, "like dead leaves on the water of a pond." ("Essay on the Immediate Data," page 102.)
Thus the progress we have lived falls into the rank of a thing that can be handled. Space and number lay hold of it. And soon all that remains of what was movement and life is combinations formed and annulled, and forces mechanically composed in a whole of juxtaposed atoms, and to represent this whole a collection of petrified concepts, manipulated in dialectic like counters.
Quite different appears the true inner reality, and quite different are its profound characteristics. To begin with, it contains nothing quantitative; the intensity of a psychological state is not a magnitude, nor can it be measured. The "Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness" begins with the proof of this leading statement. If it is a question of a simple state, such as a sensation of light or weight, the intensity is measured by a certain quality of shade which indicates to us approximately, by an association of ideas and thanks to our acquired experience, the magnitude of the objective cause from which it proceeds. If, on the contrary, it is a question of a complex state, such as those impressions of profound joy or sorrow which lay hold of us entirely, invading and overwhelming us, what we call their intensity expresses only the confused feeling of a qualitative progress, and increasing wealth. "Take, for example, an obscure desire, which has gradually become a profound passion. You will see that the feeble intensity of this desire consisted first of all in the fact that it seemed to you isolated and in a way foreign to all the rest of your inner life. But little by little it penetrated a larger number of psychic elements, dyeing them, so to speak, its own colour; and now you find your point of view on things as a whole appears to you to have changed. Is it not true that you become aware of a profound passion, once it has taken root, by the fact that the same objects no longer produce the same impression upon you? All your sensations, all your ideas, appear to you refreshed by it; it is like a new childhood." (Loc. cit., page 6.)
There is here none of the homogeneity which is the property of magnitude, and the necessary condition of measurement, giving a view of the less in the bosom of the more. The element of number has vanished, and with it numerical multiplicity extended in space. Our inner states form a qualitative continuity; they are prolonged and blended into one another; they are grouped in harmonies, each note of which contains an echo of the whole; they are encircled by an innumerable degradation of halos, which gradually colour the total content of consciousness; they live each in the bosom of his fellow.
"I am the scent of roses," were the words Condillac put in the mouth of his statue; and these words translate the immediate truth exactly, as soon as observation becomes naive and simple enough to attain pure fact. In a passing breath I breathe my childhood; in the rustle of leaves, in a ray of moonlight, I find an infinite series of reflections and dreams. A thought, a feeling, an act, may reveal a complete soul. My ideas, my sensations, are like me. How would such facts be possible, if the multiple unity of the ego did not present the essential characteristic of vibrating in its entirety in the depths of each of the parts descried or rather determined in it by analysis? All physical determinations envelop and imply each other reciprocally. And the fact that the soul is thus present in its entirety in each of its acts, its feelings, for example, or its ideas in its sensations, its recollections in its percepts, its inclinations in its obvious states, is the justifying principle of metaphors, the source of all poetry, the truth which modern philosophy proclaims with more force every day under the name of immanence of thought, the fact which explains our moral responsibility with regard to our affections and our beliefs themselves; and finally, it is the best of us, since it is this which ensures our being able to surrender ourselves, genuinely and unreservedly, and this which constitutes the real unity of our person.
Let us push still further into the hidden retreat of the soul. Here we are in these regions of twilight and dream, where our ego takes shape, where the spring within us gushes up, in the warm secrecy of the darkness which ushers our trembling being into birth. Distinctions fail us. Words are useless now. We hear the wells of consciousness at their mysterious task like an invisible shiver of running water through the mossy shadow of the caves. I dissolve in the joy of becoming. I abandon myself to the delight of being a pulsing reality. I no longer know whether I see scents, breathe sounds, or smell colours. Do I love? Do I think? The question has no longer a meaning for me. I am, in my complete self, each of my attitudes, each of my changes. It is not my sight which is indistinct or my attention which is idle. It is I who have resumed contact with pure reality, whose essential movement admits no form of number. He who thus makes the really "deep" and "inner" effort necessary to becoming—were it only for an elusive moment—discovers, under the simplest appearance, inexhaustible sources of unsuspected wealth; the rhythm of his duration becomes amplified and refined; his acts become more conscious; and in what seemed to him at first sudden severance or instantaneous pulsation he discovers complex transitions imperceptibly shaded off, musical transitions full of unexpected repetitions and threaded movements.
Thus, the deeper we go in consciousness, the less suitable become these schemes of separation and fixity existing in spatial and numerical forms. The inner world is that of pure quality. There is no measurable homogeneity, no collection of atomically constructed elements. The phenomena distinguished in it by analysis are not composing units, but phases. And it is only when they reach the surface, when they come in contact with the external world, when they are incarnated in language or gesture, that the categories of matter become adapted to them. In its true nature, reality appears as an uninterrupted flow, an impalpable shiver of fluid changing tones, a perpetual flux of waves which ebb and break and dissolve into one another without shock or jar. Everything is ceaseless change; and the state which appears the most stable is already change, since it continues and grows old. Constant quantities are represented only by the materialisation of habit or by means of practical symbols. And it is on this point that Mr Bergson rightly insists. ("Creative Evolution", page 3.)
"The apparent discontinuity of psychological life is due, then, to the fact that our attention is concentrated on it in a series of discontinuous acts; where there is only a gentle slope, we think we see, when we follow the broken line of our attention, the steps of a staircase. It is true that our psychological life is full of surprises. A thousand incidents arise which seem to contrast with what precedes them, and not to be connected with what follows. But the gap in their appearances stands out against the continuous background on which they are represented, and to which they owe the very intervals that separate them; they are the drumbeats which break into the symphony at intervals. Our attention is fixed upon them because they interest it more, but each of them proceeds from the fluid mass of our entire psychological existence. Each of them is only the brightest point in a moving zone which understands all that we feel, think, wish; in fact, all that we are at a given moment. It is this zone which really constitutes our state. But we may observe that states defined in this way are not distinct elements. They are an endless stream of mutual continuity."