Monday, July 8, 2019

An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

A foggy on-ramp to Bergson’s thought
Henri Bergson
French philosopher Henri Bergson won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was looking for the easiest way to get a handle on his philosophy, and it seemed An Introduction to Metaphysics would be a good place to start. This book is really just a single essay, originally published in a 1903 issue of the French philosophy journal Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale, but it has been published as a stand-alone volume of 80 to 100 pages in at least a couple of English translations. The edition I read was translated by T. E. Hulme. Though the title may sound like a textbook, this is not so much an introduction to metaphysics as it is an introduction to Bergson’s own philosophical thought, and it really has more to do with epistemology than metaphysics. Though Bergson may have intended this as an introduction to his philosophy, it is certainly no primer, and can make for tough going for the general reader.

Bergson begins by asserting that there are only two ways in which we can say that we know a thing. The first is analytical, in which we experience something either directly or indirectly through sense experience. This knowledge is relative according to our perspective at a given moment in time. The second way of knowing something is intuitive, by experiencing it from within, in the absolute. Bergson’s example of this is the way we each experience our own self or personality. Bergson considers the analytical method to be the domain of science, which measures and analyzes phenomena from various perspectives and then draws conclusions from the parts to the whole. He argues that intuition, on the other hand, should be the domain of philosophy. One must first ponder the absolute, then applicable conclusions can be drawn from the whole to the parts.

The fundamental difference between analysis and intuition is duration. Science and mathematics reduce reality to symbols that describe conditions at a precise moment or multiple moments in time. Intuition, however, takes into consideration the inherent movement in all things. The universe is in a constant state of flux; everything is in a state of becoming, not being. We cannot really know a thing by studying isolated instances of its existence, no matter how numerous or varied the perspectives, but only by experiencing its inward mobility as a fluid spectrum rather than as a series of sequential states. Bergson insists that this intuitional mode of thought is necessary to productively practice metaphysical philosophy, and he cites it as the impetus for moments of genius throughout the history of science and philosophy. The example of experiencing one’s own consciousness, however, is really the only tangible example he offers of this method of experience, and he doesn’t really provide any guidance on how to reach this desired state of thought. Presumably he will make that the subject of later and longer works.

By propounding an absolute world beyond the reach of empiricism, Bergson’s philosophy, as described here, sounds like a modern updating of Plato’s idealism, with perhaps a dash of Chinese Taoism thrown in. While both of those traditions may have some merit, Bergson’s updated take is off-putting. Over the course of this brief book, he takes many digs at rationalism, empiricism, and science, which doesn’t sit well with my own personal philosophical views. His writing is often vague and obscure, to the point where at times it seems deliberately so. Though An Introduction to Metaphysics may amount to under a hundred pages in length, it feels like a thousand. I think I’ll stick with Bertrand Russell.
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