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Iain McGilchrist recommended Bergson’s Creative Evolution as a way to understand the reality and importance of time, or, as Bergson himself would have it, duration.  I found the book hugely inspiring and, so as to really understand (and remember) the extent and complexity of Bergson’s thinking, I decided to summarise the book in my own words, as best as I could.  I’m still digesting the full scope of what Bergson thinks and so what follows is not my opinion about his ideas, but as always, I would love nothing more than to engage in discussion.  You can read the whole book itself here.
Adam John Miller, March 2019


Our faculty of intellect has evolved from our faculty of action, intended to best fit the body to its environment and to represent the relationships of external things amongst themselves.  Action is impossible without fixity and stability and so the intellect feels at home amongst the inanimate.  The immobile is all it knows.  If the intellect is created by life then how is it possible for it to wholly embrace life, of which it is but an aspect?  Not one of the aspects of our thought: unity or multiplicity, mechanical causality or intelligent finality, applies exactly to the things of life.

“Who can say where individuality begins and ends, whether the living being is one or many, whether it is the cells which associate themselves into the organism or the organism which dissociates itself into cells?”


Chapter I: The Evolution of Life / Mechanism and Teleology

Of all things, we are most assured of our own existence, which can be said to move from state to state.  Our intellect cannot know uninterrupted change and so notices a change of state only when the change is sufficient.  In reality, our mental state is more like a snowball rolling upon itself in the snow, “continually swelling with the duration it accumulates.”  As the past continuously swells, our consciousness can never be in the same state twice.

In order to reunite the separate states, the intellect suggests an unchanging essence upon which can be threaded the psychic states, like “beads on a necklace.”  However, coloured by the beads that cover it, it is as if this thread does not itself exist, and indeed this is the case.  If we are composed of different states side-by-side, then we are something entirely different from state to state.  If we are the unchanging thread, then we cannot change.  The idea we have of our mental state is “a static equivalent which will lend itself better to the requirements of logic and language,” stripped of duration.

A finished portrait can be explained by the features of the model, the nature of the artist, the colours of the palette etc. but it is impossible for the piece to have been foreseen in its entirety, for to predict it would be to produce it before it was produced, “an absurd hypothesis with its own refutation.” And so with every moment of our lives.

Our intellect can only make sense of the ends of intervals, not the intervals themselves.  Our perception cuts out objects from the cloth of reality.  The “distinct outlines which we see in an object, and which give it its individuality, are only the design of a certain kind of influence that we might exert on a certain point of space: it is the plan of our eventual actions that is sent back to our eyes.”

Mechanical explanations regard the past and the future as calculable functions of the present and therefore to claim that all is (or can be) given.  This does away with real duration (experience).  The abstract time of mathematical calculations has no efficacy “and if it does nothing, it is nothing.”  Duration is “a stream against which we cannot go.”

In order to act, an end is proposed and then a plan to reach the end is formulated.  In order for there to be a plan, there must be something of the future that can be reliably predicted (repeated).  Both radical mechanism (causality) and radical finalism (teleology) are reluctant to see in the course of things, an unforeseeable creation.  “Real duration is that duration which gnaws on things, and leaves on them the mark of its tooth.”  Repetition is only possible in the abstract (isolable systems).  It is impossible to think real duration, only to live it, as life transcends the ability of the intellect to grasp it.  The same concrete reality can never recur.

Our intellect is presumptuous in the assumption it is capable of knowing the truth of something outside of itself.  When presented with something new, it is natural for the intellect to fit it to a pre-existing category.  The history of philosophy “shows us the eternal conflict of systems, the impossibility of satisfactorily getting the real into the ready-made garments of our ready-made concepts.”

“Of course, when once the road has been travelled, we can glance over it, mark its direction, note this in psychological terms and speak as if there had been pursuit of an end. Thus shall we speak ourselves. But, of the road which was going to be travelled, the human mind could have nothing to say, for the road has been created pari passu (side-by-side) with the act of traveling over it, being nothing but the direction of this act itself.”

Chapter II: The Divergent Directions of the Evolution of Life / Torpor, Intelligence, Instinct

If life were the realisation of a plan, it ought to become more harmonious the more it advances, like a building shows more the architect’s plan as it nears completion.  On the contrary, the harmony of life is not in front (in a plan) but behind (in the vital impulse), that which pushes creation.

It seems unquestionable that a condition of evolution is adaptation to environment, but it is another thing entirely to say that these adaptations are directing causes of evolution.  “The [path] that leads to the town is obliged to follow the ups and downs of the hills; it adapts itself to the accidents of the ground; but the accidents of the ground are not the cause of the road, nor have they given it its direction. At every moment they furnish it with what is indispensable, namely, the soil on which it lies; but if we consider the whole of the road, instead of each of its parts, the accidents of the ground appear only as impediments or causes of delay, for the road aims simply at the town and would fain be a straight line. Just so as regards the evolution of life and the circumstances through which it passes—with this difference, that evolution does not mark out a solitary route, that it takes directions without aiming at ends, and that it remains inventive even in its adaptations.”

All manifestations of life contain, in some rudimentary way, either latently or potentially, the essential character of most other manifestations.  The difference is in the proportions of these manifestations and it is this difference that can be said to define groups, not by the possession of properties, but by an emphasis of tendency.  In this way we can say that vegetables and animals correspond to two divergent developments of life.

The main divergence is the way in which nourishment is taken.  Vegetables derive food directly from the air, water and soil in mineral form.  Animals cannot take in these elements unless they have already been ‘fixed’ in organic substances (by plants or in animals that have eaten plants) and they must be able to seek them, so they must be able to move.  Mobility and fixity exist in both kingdoms, but it can be said that animal life can be characterised by a tendency to locomotion, and vegetable by a tendency to torpor.

There is an obvious relationship between consciousness and mobility.  The more a nervous system develops, the more numerous and precise the movements from which it can choose.  It can be said that the evolution of the animal kingdom has culminated in two divergent paths:  in the arthropods (insects) and the vertebrates (humans).  It can also be said that these paths correspond with an evolved tendency towards instinct (insects) and intelligence (humans).  The elements of the vital impulse common to plants and animals are therefore vegetative torpor, instinct and intelligence.  It is wrong to see these as successive degrees of the development of one and the same tendency, rather they are divergent directions of an activity that split up as it grew.

In the same way that we have seen how animal and vegetable life are mutually complementary and antagonistic, so intelligence and instinct are opposite and complementary.  There is no intelligence that does not involve an element of instinct and no instinct without a fringe of intelligence.

Intelligent acts can be explained by imitation or automatic association, but the foremost expression of intelligence must be in the manufacture (invention) of artificial objects.  Instinct is necessarily specialised, being the utilisation of a specific instrument for a specific object.  Intelligence constructs imperfect instruments that cost effort, but, as they are made of unorganised matter they can take any form, serve any purpose, free the living from difficulties and bestow upon them an unlimited number of powers.  In the same way, however, there are created an endless number of needs.

Intelligence needs instinct more than instinct needs intelligence.  “There are things that intelligence alone is able to seek, but which, by itself, it will never find. These things instinct alone could find; but it will never seek them.”

Consciousness can be described as “the light that plays around the zone of possible actions,” signifying hesitation or choice.  It is intense when there are many options to deliberate.  When the action performed is the only possible action (instinct), consciousness is reduced to nothing.  It could be said that consciousness “measures the interval between representation and action.”

If instinct is the faculty of using an organised and natural instrument, then intelligence is the faculty of constructing an unorganised instrument according to circumstance.  In this way, it is essentially a tendency to establish a relation between a given situation and the means of utilising it.  Intelligence is therefore a formal knowledge (of form) and instinct a material knowledge.  A form (category), as it is empty, can be filled with any number of things (even things which are of no use) and so “an intelligent being bears within himself the means to transcend his own nature.”  To our intellect, the world is made to appear as an immense piece of cloth from which we can cut out what we will and sew back together again as we please.

The human intellect is involved with other intellects and societies communicate by means of signs.  This language must make it possible to move from what is known to what is yet to be known and so there must be a finite number of signs, extensible to an infinity of things.  Signs can transfer themselves from one object to another.  The mobility of words (signs) has allowed for them to extend from things to ideas (of things).  In this way, language has liberated intelligence, revealing to it the spectacle of its own workings.  “From the moment that the intellect, reflecting upon its own doings, perceives itself as a creator of ideas, as a faculty of representation in general, there is no object of which it may not wish to have the idea, even though that object be without direct relation to practical action. That is why we said there are things that intellect alone can seek. Intellect alone, indeed, troubles itself about theory; and its theory would fain embrace everything—not only inanimate matter, over which it has a natural hold, but even life and thought.”

Whilst the intellect proceeds mechanically, instinct proceeds organically.  Some instincts may admit of a ‘scientific’ explanation, however, that which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence.  “Though instinct is not within the domain of intelligence, it is not situated beyond the limits of mind. In the phenomena of feeling, in unreflecting sympathy and antipathy, we experience in ourselves—though under a much vaguer form, and one too much penetrated with intelligence—something of what must happen in the consciousness of an insect acting by instinct.”

Chapter III: On the Meaning of Life / the Order of Nature and the Form of Intelligence

An example of an isolable system is to boil water in a kettle on a stove.  It is easy to set out the objects and necessary operations for a system of implementation, but, in reality these objects and operations are bound up with a multitude of other objects and operations and so on ad infinitum.  As the case may be, we act as though the group water-kettle-stove were an independent microcosm.  We would say that this system, with an interval of time for boiling, is repeatable.  When we consider only the magnitudes (maths), we see that the isolated system is forced upon the mind as an absolute necessity.  In the same way:  “If two sides of a triangle and the contained angle are given, the third side arises of itself and the triangle completes itself automatically.  I can, it matters not where and it matters not when, trace the same two sides containing the same angle: it is evident that the new triangles so formed can be superimposed on the first, and that consequently the same third side will come to complete the system.”

In thinking that the water in the kettle will boil today as it did yesterday, our imagination is superimposing the kettle of today onto the kettle of yesterday, as in the case with the triangles, but only in geometry is this actually possible.  Qualities cannot be superimposed upon one another as magnitudes can.  As well, for the system water-kettle-stove of today to be superimposed onto the system of yesterday, time would have to stop between the two instances, in order for the two to be simultaneous.  For the geometrician, real duration cannot exist, only the abstract time of calculations.  Our intellect reduces qualities to magnitudes wherever possible, for these lend themselves to the repetition necessary to action (thought).  It is as though we perceive, behind quality, geometrical mechanism.

It can be said that these tendencies are natural to the intellect, as in them it recognises the marvel of growing order amongst growing complexity, in them it finds itself.  But the mathematics of physical laws that constitutes our scientific knowledge of things is artificial, it can only work in pure (abstract) space, outside of duration.  Measurement is a human operation, nature does not measure or count.  Our science is relative to the variables it chooses and the order in which it puts the problem, and yet it succeeds.  It could have been completely different and still succeeded.  This is because there is no system of mathematical laws at the basis of nature, rather mathematics (geometry) is how matter inclines.

“Put one of those little cork dolls with leaden feet in any posture, lay it on its back, turn it up on its head, throw it into the air: it will always stand itself up again, automatically. So likewise with matter: we can take it by any end and handle it in any way, it will always fall back into some one of our mathematical formulae, because it is weighted with geometry.”

It can be said that “reality is ordered exactly to the degree in which it satisfies our thought.”  It is the mind finding itself in things.  This is the case for whichever way the mind looks at things, whether it follows its natural direction of continuous creation or inverts itself to geometrical mechanism.  The first type of order is vital or willed, like the free action of a work of art that transcends teleology (which is only applied retrospectively).  The second type of order is inert and automatic.  Order is a particular agreement between subject and object.

We think of disorder as less than or as the absence of order.  Suppose we enter a room and unexpectedly find it in disarray.  By this we mean that we did not find what we expected to.  In this way, disorder is not less than order, but the result of expecting one type of order and finding the other.  “At bottom, all there is that is real, perceived and even conceived, in this absence of one of the two kinds of order, is the presence of the other.”

It could be said that we look for mechanism first, or at least that this is what we mostly expect to find, for the intellect looks for itself in things.  In this way, the intellect struggles to define chance, for it is neither a result of mechanism or finality.  The absence of all order can be seen as the presence of both types of order, the mind swinging between the two unable to rest.  In this way we cannot speak of an “incoherent diversity which an understanding organises.”

Chapter IV: The Cinematographical Mechanism of Thought and the Mechanistic Illusion

“Everything is obscure in the idea of creation if we think of things which are created and a thing which creates, as we habitually do, as the understanding cannot help doing. It is natural to our intellect, whose function is essentially practical, made to present to us things and states rather than changes and acts. But things and states are only views, taken by our mind, of becoming. There are no things, there are only actions.

Nature can be thought of us unforeseen and unceasing life, action and freedom.  The forms that the intellect cuts out of this can be thought of as this action unmade.  In this way, there is no mystery to Creation, “we experience it in ourselves when we act freely.”  That action increases as it goes on is what we find when we act.  Things are constituted by the cut the understanding practices on the flux of action.  The mystery produced by a comparison of these cuts vanishes when we relate them to the flux.  Life is movement and materiality its inverse.  Matter is an undivided flux and undivided also is the life that runs through it, cutting out from it living beings along its track.  The resulting organisation is perceived by our intellect as parts external to parts in space and time.  The infinite complexity we find can only be explained one of two ways: a fortuitous collection of atoms, or the incomprehensible influence of an external force.  Both the complexity and the incomprehensibility are the work of the intellect alone.

Life is of the psychological order in that its essence is to “enfold a confused plurality of interpenetrating terms.”  Life (nature) does not perfectly fit a category of our understanding.  It is neither unity nor multiplicity, both of which are determinations of space, that is, abstract categories of the intellect.  Neither can we say of ourselves that we are either a multiplicity or a unity, nor both simultaneously, although “both, united, may give a fair imitation of the mutual interpenetration and continuity that I find at the base of my own self.”

When it comes into contact with matter, life is comparable to an impetus or an impulsion.  When regarded alone it is an immensity of potentiality.  Upon its contact with matter, this potential dissociates into an infinity of tendencies, that is, becomes spatialized.  “Matter divides actually what was but potentially manifold; and, in this sense, individuation is in part the work of matter, in part the result of life’s own inclination.”  Everywhere, the tendency to individualise is both opposed and completed by the tendency to associate, like individuals joining together to form a society which tends to melt the associated individuals into a new organism, itself an individual, and so on ad infinitum.  It is this process we express when saying that unity and multiplicity are categories of inert matter and the vital impetus of life that which invigorates the process.  “The evolution of life in the double direction of individuality and association has therefore nothing accidental about it: it is due to the very nature of life.”

The awakening of consciousness (which otherwise lays everywhere dormant) is more complete the greater choice allowed it and the greater the extent of action bestowed upon it.  In this way it is clear that the development of consciousness appears dependent on that of nervous centres.  This would seem to suggest that conscious activity sprung from the brain.  Rather, “brain and consciousness correspond because equally they measure, the one by the complexity of its structure and the other by the intensity of its awareness, the quantity of choice that the living being has at its disposal.”

The consciousness of a living being is inseparable from its brain in the same way a sharp knife is inseparable from its edge.  The brain being the sharp edge by which consciousness cuts into the fabric of events.  But the brain is no more coextensive with consciousness than the edge is with the knife.  In this way we can say that similar brains, such as that of man and ape, can have comparably different consciousness.  Imagine two knives, a large and a small, but equally sharp.  The sharpness is the nervous centre, the brain, and consciousness is the size of the knife.  A larger knife acting with the same sharpness as a smaller knife will cut differently.  In this way we can say that the consciousness of man is more awake than that of the ape as a result of the expansion (from language, symbols) to unlimited choice (of thought).  “From the limited to the unlimited there is all the distance between the closed and the open. It is not a difference of degree, but of kind.”

The consciousness of other animals momentarily succeeds in varying routine, but “by pulling at its chain it succeeds only in stretching it.”  Everywhere except man, consciousness has remained captive of the mechanisms it has set up.  In man, consciousness has broken the chain.  We owe this to language, which sets up an infinity of choice by furnishing consciousness with an immaterial body in which to incarnate itself, exempting it from dwelling exclusively in the material.  As well, we owe this to culture which “stores and preserves” the efforts of language, setting a bar which prevents men from slumbering beneath and also drives others to climb higher.

Whilst we can see man as in some way singled out of evolution, we are not the realisation of any plan, nor is nature for our sake.  If evolution had encountered “other accidents in its course, if, thereby, the current of life had been otherwise divided, we should have been, physically and morally, far different from what we are.”

Intellect and intuition represent the two opposite directions of the consciousness.  Intuition is in the direction of life, intellect in the direction of matter.  Consciousness in man is predominantly intellect but it seems as though it should also have been intuition.  This is but an accident of evolution.  The conquest of intellect over instinct is almost complete but a small flame still glimmers when moments of vital interest are at stake, at times of intellect’s inability to function: “On our personality, on our liberty, on the place we occupy in the whole of nature, on our origin and perhaps also on our destiny.”

Science is the manifestation of the intellect finding itself whereas it is the job of philosophy to seize upon the moments of intuition and sustain them.  Intuition is life itself and we realise this ourselves only when “we place ourselves in intuition in order to go from intuition to the intellect, for from the intellect we shall never pass to intuition.”

“Philosophy introduces us thus into the spiritual life. And it shows us at the same time the relation of the life of the spirit to that of the body. The great error of the doctrines on the spirit has been the idea that by isolating the spiritual life from all the rest, by suspending it in space as high as possible above the earth, they were placing it beyond attack, as if they were not thereby simply exposing it to be taken as an effect of mirage.”

A philosophy of intuition will see life as a wave which rises and is opposed by a descending movement of matter.  This is the flux.  Only the matter that is born along with the vital impulse can divide it into distinct individualities, but this does not separate the flow, instead they are the streams into which the great river of life divides itself.  “The movement of the stream is distinct from the river bed, although it must adopt its winding course. Consciousness is distinct from the organism it animates, although it must undergo its vicissitudes.”

Consciousness is not just free, it is freedom itself, but in coming into contact with matter it cannot help but adapt itself to it.  We can call this adaptation, intellectuality.  The intellect, in turning itself back to look at consciousness, forces it into the conceptual forms into which it is accustomed to putting matter.  In this way it will malign true freedom with an approximation obtained by compounding like with like.  A philosophy that aims to reabsorb intellect in intuition strives to vanish these difficulties, allowing for real freedom that no longer isolates humanity from nature.

As consciousness is formed on the intellect (choice of action), of the inner life it sees what is already made and is confused by the making.  In this way, we pluck from real duration those moments that are of interest to us.  This is natural with regards to action.  “But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming.”  We perceive only states and instants and even when we speak of duration and becoming it is not real duration or real becoming of which we have an idea.  This is a striking illusion as we think we can know the moving by means of the immobile.

Another striking illusion that results from our procedures for action imported into speculation is the idea of moving from an absence to a presence.  Action is aimed at getting something, at filling a void.  If the present reality is not what we sought, we speak of the absence of that reality when in fact we find the presence of another.  Again, this is legitimate in the sphere of action, but not when speculating upon the nature of things independently of their interest for us.

No sooner do we begin to philosophise than we ask ourselves why we exist, or why anything exists rather than nothing.  Even with our own theory here being developed, where “matter has been defined as a kind of descent, this descent as the interruption of a rise, this rise itself as a growth, when finally a Principle of creation has been put at the base of things, the same question springs up: How—why does this principle exist rather than nothing?”

Behind this thinking is that existence appears to be a conquest over nought, or that nothing existed prior to something and serves as its vessel.  “I cannot get rid of the idea that the full is an embroidery on the canvas of the void, and that in the idea of “nothing” there is less than in that of “something.” Hence all the mystery.”

In order to clear this matter up, we are inclined to “endow true being with a logical, and not a psychological nor a physical existence.”  A purely logical existence is self-sufficient.  A=A.  For example, a physical circle drawn on a chalkboard requires explanation, but the “logical essence” of a circle, the law according to which it can be drawn, can be eternal.  A logical principle or axiom can triumph over the nought throughout eternity.  However, there comes with this idea a heavy sacrifice, as, if all things come forth from a logical (mathematical) principle, then there can be no “efficient causality understood in the sense of a free choice.”  But, if we can show that the idea of nothing is a pseudo-idea then the problems surrounding the idea that nothing must exist prior to something, will disappear.

To represent nothing we must imagine or conceive it.  In this way, however at odds with our thought it may seem, there is more and not less than something, to the idea of nothing.  The idea of something not existing, is the idea of its existing, plus the idea of it not existing.  “An affirmative proposition expresses a judgment on an object; a negative proposition expresses a judgment on a judgment.”

We endow affirmations and negations with objectivity without pausing to realise both are expressions of propositions formed of words, symbolising concepts that are relative to the human mind and (or) society.

Let us take the propositions “the ground is damp” and “the ground is not damp” of which ground and damp are essentially artificial concepts created by the mind and formulated with words.  Suppose a world with no language, intellectual initiative or self-reflection:  the dampness of the ground will subsist, capable of an automatically inscribed sensation.  “The intellect will still affirm, in implicit terms.”  But this affirmation will be passive, keeping step with experience but not anticipating nor following a sense of the real and therefore have no wish to deny.  That which exists may be recorded but the non-existence of the non-existent cannot be.  “For such an intellect to reach the point of denying, it must awake from its torpor, formulate the disappointment of a real or possible expectation [and] correct an actual or possible error.”

In truth, the idea of nothing is not the absence of a thing, but an absence of a utility.  Suppose you bring a visitor to an unfurnished room, you would say there is nothing in it, even though it is full of air.  You mean there is nothing in it of use (to sit on, for example).  This is because the work of our intellect consists in creating utility and our lives are spent moving from a void to the full, the direction our action takes.

“We must accustom ourselves to think being directly, without making a detour, without first appealing to the phantom of the nought which interposes itself between it and us. We must strive to see in order to see, and no longer to see in order to act. Then the Absolute is revealed very near us and, in a certain measure, in us. It is of psychological and not of mathematical nor logical essence. It lives with us. Like us, but in certain aspects infinitely more concentrated and more gathered up in itself, it endures.”

The function of the intellect is to preside over actions and with regards to action it is only the result that is of real interest to the intellect as it cannot know real movement.  Consider the action raise your arm.  Of course, the intellect does not consider the contractions of muscles and flow of blood etc. involved in the operation, that is, unless an obstacle to the action appears in which case a new action will be formulated: overcome the obstacle and again the intellect will consider the ends but not the intricacy of all the means.  In this way, we can say that “consciousness is turned away as much as possible from the movement going on, to regard only the anticipated image of the movement accomplished.”

The intellect must perceive the ends it wishes to achieve as unmoveable and thus also the surroundings in which the result is framed.  If all we perceived was a perpetual flow it would be impossible to fix an end to achieve.  In this way our intellect finds itself in the fixity of immobile matter.

Our intellect, via sensory qualities, cuts out the boundaries of bodies of matter when in reality these bodies change at every moment.  We may regard the qualities of a body as stable but the reality is that the qualities change without ceasing.  Life is evolution and we concentrate a section of this evolution into a stable form, when the change from evolution has become sufficient to “overcome the fortunate inertia of our perception” we say that the body has changed its form.  In reality, there is no form, as form is immobile and the body is constantly changing, it could also be said that the reality is the constant change of form.

Try to concentrate your mind solely on the transition between two states and you will find it impossible.  At best, the mind will insert another state between the two, and so ad infinitum.  A certain giddiness may result from the concentrated effort but this giddiness is an illusion of mobility.  In this way, we are like a child, clapping to try and crush the smoke.

“Philosophy perceived this as soon as it opened its eyes. The arguments of Zeno of Elea, although formulated with a very different intention, have no other meaning.”  Much of our way of life, the way that we think about the world, has its roots in the first stirrings of Philosophy in Greek antiquity.  The Philosophy of the Pre-Socratic Eleatic School trusted language’s ability to externalise thought and as “becoming shocks the habits of thought [it] fits ill into the molds of language, they declared it unreal.”  Thus was born the Philosophy of ideas.  Forms and essences (ideas) do not change and must be sought by the mind.  The ancient Greek word is ειδος (eidos) which Bergson translates as idea.  This is the stable view taken of the instability of reality.  This is the philosophical doctrine that was developed through Plato and Aristotle and forms the basis of ‘Western’ thought.  Bergson does not make any mention (in this text) of Heraclitus who it would appear is the only philosopher from antiquity to develop a philosophy of flow different to the philosophy of ideas.

The difference between duration and abstract time can be illustrated thus:  when one plays at putting a picture puzzle together, the picture is given beforehand, on the box, and it is a case of reconstructing the image piece by piece.  This operation can theoretically be infinitely sped up or slowed down, or even imagined instantaneous, without altering the outcome.  This is the abstract time of calculations.  On the other hand, for an artist who creates a picture, drawn from their own ‘soul’, the time taken is not an accessory that can be sped up or slowed down, it is one with the creation.  “To contract or to dilate it would be to modify both the psychical evolution that fills it and the invention which is its goal. The time taken up by the invention, is one with the invention itself. It is the progress of a thought which is changing in the degree and measure that it is taking form. It is a vital process, something like the ripening of an idea.”  And so should be the true work of philosophy.  And so with the works of nature, their novelty arises from an internal, vital impetus.  In this way, it is absurd to think that the future of living forms can be known from the present state of the material universe.  Whilst this seems obvious it is a difficult conclusion to come to, and this is due to our memory.  Our memory works by representing a past succession, placing the terms of its perception side by side, juxtaposed in an ideal space.  It does this, quite naturally, as the past belongs to that which has already happened and not to creation and life.  We then convince ourselves that the duration to come admits to the same treatment as the duration past, “that it is, even now, unrollable, that the future is there, rolled up, already painted on the canvas. An illusion, no doubt, but an illusion that is natural, ineradicable, and that will last as long as the human mind!”

It would seem that alongside the knowledge from science ought to be an appreciation of flux and duration, of becoming.  The knowledge from science, from the intellect enables us to ‘foresee’ the future and bestows a degree of power over nature upon us.  “The other knowledge, if it is possible, is practically useless, it will not extend our empire over nature, it will even go against certain natural aspirations of the intellect; but, if it succeeds, it is reality itself that it will hold in a firm and final embrace. Not only may we thus complete the intellect and its knowledge of matter by accustoming it to install itself within the moving, but by developing also another faculty, complementary to the intellect, we may open a perspective on the other half of the real. For, as soon as we are confronted with true duration, we see that it means creation, and that if that which is being unmade endures, it can only be because it is inseparably bound to what is making itself. Thus will appear the necessity of a continual growth of the universe, I should say of a life of the real. And thus will be seen in a new light the life which we find on the surface of our planet, a life directed the same way as that of the universe, and inverse of materiality. To intellect, in short, there will be added intuition.”

“The philosopher must go further than the scientist. Making a clean sweep of everything that is only an imaginative symbol, he will see the material world melt back into a simple flux, a continuity of flowing, a becoming. And he will thus be prepared to discover real duration there where it is still more useful to find it, in the realm of life and of consciousness. For, so far as inert matter is concerned, we may neglect the flowing without committing a serious error: matter, we have said, is weighted with geometry; and matter, the reality which descends, endures only by its connection with that which ascends. But life and consciousness are this very ascension. When once we have grasped them in their essence by adopting their movement, we understand how the rest of reality is derived from them. Evolution appears and, within this evolution, the progressive determination of materiality and intellectuality by the gradual consolidation of the one and of the other. But, then, it is within the evolutionary movement that we place ourselves, in order to follow it to its present results, instead of recomposing these results artificially with fragments of themselves. Such seems to us to be the true function of philosophy. So understood, philosophy is not only the turning of the mind homeward, the coincidence of human consciousness with the living principle whence it emanates, a contact with the creative effort: it is the study of becoming in general, it is true evolutionism and consequently the true continuation of science—provided that we understand by this word a set of truths either experienced or demonstrated, and not a certain new scholasticism that has grown up during the latter half of the nineteenth century around the physics of Galileo, as the old scholasticism grew up around Aristotle.”


  1. Many thanks for all your work on this. Your summary of Bergson’s ideas is impressive. Philosophy is not my strong point but the position I think he is taking, in two respects at least, conflicts somewhat with my own, unless I have misunderstood some of what you wrote. Firstly, he seems to be conflating instinct with intuition, whereas I think they are distinctly different as I explain at tedious length in my sequence triggered by reading Kahneman’s excellent book ‘Thinking Fast: Thinking Slow’ (see links for part of that – ). Secondly, he seems to basically accept that consciously in integral with and reducible to the brain, a view I think there is considerable evidence to dispute, much of it collated and discussed in Edward Kelly et al’s mega-volume ‘Irreducible Mind’ (for a taster see links – , , and ). I readily admit I could have misunderstood Bergson’s position, but I feel you might still find these books worth a look, even though I am not in entire agreement with Kahneman, though I learnt a lot from his approach.


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