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

Bergson thought that there could be a possible interpenetration of human consciousnesses, that two consciousnesses can be united in a single experience, into a single duration1 and that intuition possibly opens the way into consciousness in general.2

Again, he thought that an impersonal consciousness linked our conscious ‘minds’ with all nature.

‘Such a consciousness would grasp, in a single, instantaneous perception, multiple events lying at different points in space; simultaneity would be precisely the possibility of two or more events entering within a single, instantaneous perception. What is true and what illusory, in this way of seeing things?’3

The more conscious we become of our progress in pure duration, the more we press against the future and know freedom.

For Bergson, memory is not a function of the brain but is independent of matter and ‘there is not merely a difference of degree, but of kind, between perception and recollection.’4 The brain is only an intermediary between sensation and duration – ‘in no case can the brain store up recollections or images’.5

‘Memory, inseparable in practice from perception, imports the past into the present, contracts into a single intuition many moments of duration and thus by a twofold operation compels us, de facto, to perceive matter in ourselves, whereas we, de jure, perceive matter within matter.’6

Memory gives us access to pure duration which is spirit – ‘pure memory is a spiritual manifestation. With memory we are, in truth, in the domain of spirit.’7

In reference to Platonism Bergson wrote

‘an invisible current (duration) makes modern philosophy tend to lift the Soul above the Idea. In this as in modern science and even more so, it tends to move in the opposite direction from ancient thought.’8

Not only is his terminology Neoplatonic, his philosophical heritage is clear

And this double movement of memory between its two extreme limits…sketches out…the first general ideas – motor habits ascending to seek similar images, in order to extract resemblances from them, and similar images coming down toward motor habits, to fuse themselves, for instance, in the automatic utterance of the word which makes them one. (my italics)’9

Bergson’s central thesis is that ‘reality’ must be grasped by intuition. Intuition is the immediate non-intellectual knowledge not of discontinuous moments but of the indivisible flow of ‘real’ time, comprising a plurality of multiple aspects and meanings.

Bergson defined intuition as ‘the metaphysical investigation of what is essential and unique in the object’10 and as the ability to immediately discern our own inner being as well as the thoughts of others.11 In apprehending reality in its true duration, we enter into the experience or thing itself.

Bergson referred to Schelling’s and Schopenhauer’s use of the concept ‘intuition’ in their search for the eternal whereas for him, it was a question of finding true duration. Not only is his work informed by Neoplatonism and peppered with concepts such as ‘essence’, ‘absolute’, ‘truth’, ‘perfection’ and ‘God’, for example

‘Coincidence with the person or object can alone give one the absolute. It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that absolute is synonymous with perfection,’12

consider the final sentence in two of his most influential books

‘Spirit borrows from matter the perceptions on which it feeds and restores them to matter in the form of movements which it has stamped with its own freedom’13

‘The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.’14

Intuition unites science and metaphysics in ‘the absolute’. It deals with mobility, and as I have shown earlier, this mobility applies also to the motionless.

To grasp the essence of a thing is to intuit it in its becoming, its movement. We must place ourselves within this evolution. This amounts to the coincidence of consciousness with ‘the living principle’ from which it derives. So duration is the intuitive apprehension of the passage of time.

Intuition is extremely difficult, since it requires us to use our ‘minds’ in a direction and manner the opposite of which our brains are used to function in, to reach ‘the inward life of things’.15

It therefore requires not only the act of seeing (the already-made) but that this be combined with the act of willing (the being-made). Intuition enables us to grasp reality directly, not superficially but in depth, unmediated by intellectual apprehension. Through intuition we can probe the meaning and nature of life and of evolution itself.

Part seven/to be continued…


1. Duration and Simultaneity, op. cit., 46-47

2. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 36

3. Duration and Simultaneity, op. cit., 45

4. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 236

5. Ibid., 225

6. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 49

7. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 240

8. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 229

9. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 243

10. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 28

11. Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 40

12. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 3

13. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 249

14. From Creative Evolution in Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 105

15. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 51

2 thoughts on “Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic: Part Seven

  1. Hi Phil – I’m reading (re-reading) a book called Wittgenstein’s Vienna. It makes the case that, rather than seeing Wittgenstein as part of the Cambridge (read: Russell) school of philosophy with its emphasis on logic based in math, it’s better to see W as part of the reaction to the fin de siecle collapsing Hapsburg Dynasty. The book asserts that W’s preoccupation with cutting to the chase, streamlining the relationship between philosophy and logic is along the same lines as what Karl Kraus did in criticism, Schoenberg in music, Loos in architecture. Now it’s into the language criticism of Fritz Mauthner and its relationship to Kant’s Critique of Reason. Do you understand all of this? It’s confusing to me because I don’t really know enough about Kant. What’s your thought? I’m sorry I can’t read your blog better but you are miles and miles above my head which is ‘just’ trying to get a handle on Ludwig. Thanks for any light you can shed on this!
    your friend in Mexico


    • Hello Austin,

      I agree that (in its mysticism) Wittgenstein’s early philosophy (his Tractatus) reflected the reaction to the end of the Habsburg empire (mysticism and a perception of ‘end times’/great social change go together).

      Mysticism is in the work of other German/Austrian intellectuals of Jewish descent around that time (e.g. Hofmannsthal – his beautiful ‘fraud,’ The Lord Chandos Letter, is on my blog – and Rosenzweig).

      Mysticism is also in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron (see vol. 2 of William Franke’s highly recommended 2 vol. anthology On What Cannot Be Said). Paul Redding has noted the possibility of interpreting Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception as reflecting Neoplatonic influence.

      Not only is the Tractatus book-ended with the apophatic assertion regarding ‘the limitation of language’ – that we must pass over in silence what we cannot speak about – Russell, in the introduction, pointed to Wittgenstein’s breaching this by writing on ethics.

      He wrote ‘What causes hesitation is the fact that, after all, Mr Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said, thus suggesting to the sceptical reader that possibly there may be some loophole through a hierarchy of languages, or by some other exit. The whole subject of ethics, for example, is placed by Mr Wittgenstein in the mystical, inexpressible region. Nevertheless he is capable of conveying his ethical opinions. His defence would be that what he calls the mystical can be shown, although it cannot be said. It may be that this defence is adequate, but, for my part, I confess that it leaves me with a certain sense of intellectual discomfort.’ (these words were written by the man who never gave up on neutral monism!)

      Other minor subjects that could not be spoken about but were by Wittgenstein in his Tractatus are aesthetics, the soul, eternal life and God.

      My approach to all questions (not only in philosophy) is on the basis of my position in response to the question ‘Which is the product of the other – matter (objective reality) or consciousness?’ I hold, consistent with science, that the latter is the product of the former. My regard for and assertion of what mysticism has contributed to culture is on this basis.

      Like you, I have an appreciation for philosophy and am seeking to develop my own perspective – congratulations for doing so! In philosophy (no doubt as in all other areas) it is not simply a matter of understanding, but of seeing through.

      There is an enormous amount of time-serving in philosophy – particularly in modern philosophy which is overshadowed by the Bible-like ‘great works’ of the ‘great thinkers’ – to be studied chapter and verse.

      And this time-serving is most pronounced with regard to the influence of mysticism.

      I am currently working on the influence of mysticism on Hegel. Magee writes and defends in detail that this influence includes Hermeticism.

      Hegel was profoundly dishonest in never referring to Nicholas of Cusa (given, I will argue, his significance to Hegel), let alone acknowledging his debt to him – thereby allowing Hegel to present as the most rigorous explication of ‘Reason’ (a claim which has been parroted by later generations of career-focused academics) what is, in fact, the Reason of Plotinus and developments on it.

      I will soon begin posting from Buhle’s history what Hegel had read about Cusanus.

      There are many others in philosophy who did and do the same as Wittgenstein and Hegel with regard to their sources and influences.

      Your friend in Australia, Phil


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