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

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