Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic: Part Three

Bergson distinguished between the ‘everyday’, ‘positive’ sciences which are characteristic of the intellect, remain ‘external’ to the object with the use of symbols, are restricted to separate moments, giving us a relative, convenient knowledge, and ‘true’ science which is obtained by the ascension to Ideas. This science is metaphysics which supposedly dispenses with symbols, is ‘preformulated’ in nature and is capable of attaining the absolute.

‘Science is not then, a human construction. It is prior to our intellect, independent of it, veritably the generator of Things.’1

Bergson acknowledged his profound obligation to Plotinus2 and gave a course of lectures on him at the College de France in 1897-98. The metaphysical vision of Creative Evolution has been compared with that of Plotinus.3 In this book Bergson suggested the possibility of applying the term ‘God’ to the source from which all things flow. In ‘The Two Sources of Morality and Religion’, the primal energy at the heart of the universe is stated to be love.

Creative Evolution is based on élan vital which for Bergson is the actualisation of memory in duration. This élan vital drives life to ‘overcome’ matter. Bergson believed there is a ‘tremendous push’ in nature which unites all nature and carries it along.4

‘As the smallest grain of dust is bound up with our entire solar system, drawn along with it in that undivided movement of descent which is materiality itself, so all organised beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion, the inverse of the movement of matter, and in itself indivisible.’5

As in his theorising about science, Bergson’s dualism is again evident in his treatment of the concepts ‘time’ and ‘duration’ (durée) which are fundamental to his philosophy. There is ‘intellectual’ time – that which can be subject to analysis, and ‘real’ time – the time of psychological experience. There is ‘mere’ duration – the general flow in time of all things (‘the phantom of duration’6) and ‘pure’ duration, the non-material basis and origin of all things. It is dynamic, creative and irreversible – ‘Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’.7

Knowledge of duration can only be obtained by intuition – a direct, non-conceptual perception in which the act of knowing coincides with the person, experience or object in duration. Duration cannot be ‘spatialised’ i.e. divided into units. According to Bergson we do break movement and change it into simultaneous moments (‘simultaneity’) in order to act upon change. It is in our ‘inner’ life that the reality of change is revealed as indivisible, and it is this indivisible continuity of change which constitutes true duration. ‘Real’ time and ‘true’ duration are the same.

Bergson criticised Plato and Plotinus for turning away from practical life, for ‘escaping’ change and raising themselves above time, but this is precisely what Bergson did when he distinguished between time of the intellect and time of the immaterial ‘mind’. This ‘succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines’ (my emphasis)8 is the site of Platonic (i.e. Neoplatonic) reality.

Bergson wrote ’(Plato) in his magnificent language…says that God, unable to make the world eternal, gave it Time, “a moving image of eternity.”’9 The Time referred to here is ‘intellectual’ time (that of Plotinus’ second hypostasis, Intellect), the ‘eternity’ is Bergson’s ‘pure’ duration. He regarded duration and consciousness as inseparable. Inner duration is perceived by consciousness and ‘is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another.’ (my emphasis) 10

‘these distinct states of the external world give rise to states of consciousness which permeate one another, imperceptibly organise themselves into a whole, and bind the past to the present by this very process of connection.’11

Part three/to be continued…


1. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 321.

2. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., xiii.

3. ‘And, faithful to the spirit of Plato, he (Plotinus) thought that the discovery of truth demanded a conversion of the mind, which breaks away from the appearances here below and attaches itself to the realities above: “Let us flee to our beloved homeland!” ’, H. Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans., M. Andison, New York, 1946, 163.

4. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 270. Bergson’s vitalism was popular in literary circles, but was not accepted by many philosophers and scientists. Antliff quoted R. Grogin in noting that the greatest intellectual assault on the rationalist bases of French democracy before World War One came from Bergsonian vitalism. Antliff argued that Bergson’s theories bore comparison with precepts underpinning fascism. Inventing Bergson op. cit., 11.

5. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 270.

6. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 34.

7. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 4.

8. H. Bergson, Time and Free Will, An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans., F. Pogson, London, 1910, reprint., 1950, 104.

9. In G. Beck, ‘Movement and Reality: Bergson and Cubism’, The Structurist, 15/16, 1975/1976, 112. Cf. Plotinus – he also quoted Plato on this.

10. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 107.

11. Ibid., 121.

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