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

While Bergson’s claim that reality can be perceived by non-intellectual intuition appears to contradict Plato’s philosophy, in which knowledge of reality (the realm of Ideas or Forms) is attained through reason, the issue depends on what exactly constitute the ‘intuition’ and ‘reason’ of both. For Bergson and Plato they amount to the same contemplation of perfection in ‘mind’.

Their philosophies are dependent on the ‘reality’ of ‘mind’ being more ‘real’ than that of the senses – the latter having a lower status than the realm of truth. The relationship Bergson drew between knowledge and the emotions is consistent with Plato’s philosophy.1

Bergson believed that intuitive knowledge could nourish and illuminate everyday life, since the world of our senses is no more than a shadow and is as cold as death.2 He wrote that a philosophy of intuition will be swept away by the ‘positive’ sciences ‘if it does not resolve to see the life of the body just where it really is, on the road that leads to the life of the spirit.’3

Intuition or ‘mind’ introduces us to the unity of spiritual life.4 Bergson’s intuition amounts to knowledge of the soul in its eternal movement.

According to Bergson there are two ways to apprehend reality – by the analysis and understanding of partial notations (the way of science) or by the metaphysical intuition of real parts (the way of creation and art).5

Analysis breaks up duration into static fragmentary concepts and is compelled to move around the object it desires to embrace.6 Intuition or ‘intellectual sympathy7 probes the flow of duration in its concreteness, by placing one within an object and giving an absolute.

Analysis reduces an object to elements common to it and other objects, intuition allows one to experience its inexpressible uniqueness. Analysis always deals with the immobile and cannot be reconstituted, intuition places itself in mobility and can be reconstituted in consciousness. It is a simple act, whereas

‘analysis multiplies without end the number of its points of view in order to complete its always incomplete representation; and ceaselessly varies its symbols that it may perfect the always imperfect translation. It goes on therefore to infinity.’8

Bergson thought that one can pass from the reality of intuition to the concepts of analysis, but never in reverse order. Even then ‘the intuition of duration, when exposed to the rays of the understanding…quickly congeals into fixed, distinct and immobile concepts.’9

Bergson applied the term ‘subjective’ to what is given in intuition (that which can be completely known) and ‘objective’ to what is given through analysis (a constantly increasing number of new impressions).

For him the intellect is bound to misunderstand motion and change, reducing such phenomena to points and instants. It is spatially orientated and unavoidably tends to separate states of ‘mind’. In duration, states of ‘mind’ flow into and interpenetrate each other.

Bergson believed that we have almost completely sacrificed intuition to intellect and wanted to develop a philosophy in which intuition subsumed intellect – ‘Intellect leaves us in the darkness of night.’10

For Bergson, there are two levels of conscious life – ‘a superficial level composed of discrete sensations and separate states and a deeper level where there is no separation but a pure continuity.’11 We constantly tend to assimilate the latter to the former through separating moments and the use of words.

Language reduces the expression and particularity of individual experience to shared conventions. This criticism is most relevant to emotional expression. To put a feeling into words conveys only the shadow of the feeling since it is inevitably bound up with a multitude of feelings. Similarly with ideas (Ideas).

‘We see that the intellect, so skilful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigour, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use…The intellect is characterised by a natural inability to comprehend life.’12

Since ‘mental’ reality does not exist in space, the intellect, which does and deals with spatiality, cannot grasp it. ‘Mental’ reality can only be intuited because it lies beyond spatial explanation.

Although the intellect can give an increasingly complete account of the material world, it can only offer a reduction of life into terms of mechanics. Intuition is the faculty of grasping the pure flow of consciousness before the intellect fragments it into separate states and parts.

Part eight/to be continued…


1. For example Plato on the imagination and divine inspiration of a poet (Ion), on the love of beauty and sexual love (Phaedrus). Plotinus developed this relation between inspiration, Form as focus for the emotions and truth. Deleuze noted that Bergson’s intuition is Platonic in inspiration, in Bergsonism, op. cit., 22.

2. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 111. Compare with the simile of the cave in The Republic, op. cit., 316-325

3. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 269

4. Ibid., 268

5. Carr suggests that perception is the revelation of matter and memory is the revelation of spirit, each being the awareness of a different reality. H. Carr, The Philosophy of Change, London 1914, 90

6. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 24. Representations taken from successive points of view belong to analysis which can never go beyond the surface of an object. A major point in my thesis will be that the application and retention of the misnomer ‘Analytic’ to the early development of Cubism by Picasso and Braque shows both how little understood is both Bergson’s philosophy and its enormous impact on Cubism and the origins of Modernism. The Cubists rejected the art of illusional appearance and I believe what they most directly built upon is expressed in Bergson’s philosophy.

7. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 4

8. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 24

9. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 228

10. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 268

11. A. Pilkington, Bergson and his Influence, A Reassessment, Cambridge, 1976, 5

12. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 88

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