Henri Bergson is a name that has become synonymous with breakthroughs in philosophy and cognitive science. This French philosopher and Nobel laureate (awarded in 1927) paved the way for a new understanding of human consciousness and creativity. In this blog post, we will explore the life and work of this extraordinary thinker, and how his ideas continue to shape the way we perceive reality and our place within it.
Early Life and Education
Born in Paris in 1859, Henri Bergson was the second child of Michał Bergson, a Polish musician and composer, and Katherine Levison, a London-born woman of Irish-Jewish descent. Bergson’s upbringing was marked by his parents’ cosmopolitan and artistic backgrounds, fostering a curiosity and inquisitiveness that would stay with him throughout his life.
Bergson’s education began at the Lycée Condorcet, where he displayed an aptitude for mathematics and natural sciences. However, it was at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure that Bergson would develop his keen interest in philosophy. Under the tutelage of renowned French philosophers such as Charles Renouvier and Félix Ravaisson, Bergson would begin to develop his unique philosophical perspective, combining elements from both empirical and metaphysical traditions.
The Concept of Time and Consciousness
Bergson’s philosophical breakthrough came with the publication of his doctoral thesis, Time and Free Will (1889). In this work, Bergson challenged the predominant view of time as a series of discrete, measurable units — a view deeply rooted in the scientific and mathematical traditions. Instead, he proposed the concept of “duration” as a subjective experience of time, akin to a continuous flow rather than a sequence of distinct moments.
This radical reexamination of time brought with it new insights into human consciousness. Bergson argued that our thought process is not a series of static snapshots, but rather a dynamic, ever-evolving flow of ideas and emotions. This fluid nature of consciousness, he argued, was the source of our capacity for creativity, intuition, and free will.
Creative Evolution and Elan Vital
In 1907, Henri Bergson published Creative Evolution, a groundbreaking work that further developed his ideas on time, consciousness, and the nature of life itself. Here, he introduced the concept of an “élan vital” or “vital impulse,” a creative force driving evolution and growth within living organisms.
Bergson rejected the mechanistic and deterministic view of evolution, which saw life as a series of predetermined stages governed by immutable natural laws. Instead, he argued that the élan vital was responsible for the spontaneous generation of novel characteristics and behaviors, allowing living organisms to adapt, evolve, and create in response to their environment.
Later Life and Influence
Although Bergson’s ideas were met with skepticism and resistance from some quarters of the scientific establishment, his influence within the philosophical community was profound. His work inspired a new generation of thinkers, including William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who sought to expand upon his insights into the nature of consciousness and human existence.
Henri Bergson received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927, in recognition of his contributions to philosophical thought. He continued to teach and write throughout the late 1920s and 1930s, cementing his status as one of the leading figures in contemporary philosophy. Bergson passed away in 1941, but his legacy lives on through the countless thinkers and writers who continue to engage with and build upon his revolutionary ideas.
In conclusion, Henri Bergson’s life and work represents a watershed moment in the development of modern philosophy. His revolutionary ideas about time, consciousness, and the nature of life itself have shaped the way we think about ourselves and the world around us, and they continue to inspire new generations of philosophers and cognitive scientists to pursue a deeper understanding of the human experience. For further exploration of time in philosophy, check out our post on unraveling the mystery of time and the philosophy of history.