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Henri Bergson: Tendency and Time

Lecturer: Tano Posteraro

Originally Taught: Evening School Semester 1 2021

We are in the midst of what some have been calling the Bergson renaissance. Long read as one of the central influences on Deleuze, Bergson’s work is now the subject of increasing study in its own right. Bergson’s insights into the reality of time, the unforeseeability of the future, the virtuality of memory, the biology of action, and the creativity of art and life have been taken up across a number of fields and movements in and outside the philosophical humanities.

There are a number of ways to read Bergson. This seminar focuses on his theory of time, or duration, as a means by which to develop a systematic conception of Bergson’s metaphysics. We proceed through his three landmark texts in chronological order. From Time and Free Will, through Matter and Memory and into Creative Evolution, we will watch what we might call Bergson’s ‘system’ come together by tracing the movement of the theory of time from the psychological domain in the first text to the evolutionary register in the last.

According to the interpretation that this seminar will explore, Bergson elaborates a philosophical understanding of the evolution of life in general by employing a set of concepts that are derived first from psychology. Those concepts are time and tendency. The way time is lived as duration and felt in the form of tendency to act become images or analogies for the nature and structure of life. Among other issues, the seminar will interrogate the philosophical method that secures this basic move. The goal is to come away with a rigorous understanding of Bergson’s philosophy as well as a renewed sensitivity for how its key concepts are developed in the unfolding of Bergson’s own thinking. Students of this seminar will be better able to appreciate and evaluate Bergson’s inheritors, such as Deleuze, as a result.

Course Schedule

Week 1. Introduction – Context and Method. Reading: “Introduction to Metaphysics,” Creative Mind, pp. 133-169

We begin by briefly situating Bergson’s philosophical project in terms of its basic metaphysical aspirations and the method of intuition by which Bergson proposes to be able to realize them. This seminar will serve as an introduction to and overview of the defining features of Bergson’s system, as well as an induction into his distinctive style of writing and thinking.

Week 2. Time and Free Will, Ch. 1 – Intensity and Psychic State

The first chapter of Time and Free Will introduces us to Bergson’s critique of intensity and his qualitative conception of interior psychic states. These ideas set the stage for much of the argumentation of the rest of the book. We will pay particular attention to the way the critique of intensity underwrites Bergson’s provisional mind/body dualism, as well as how it is developed and modified later on. The idea of a purely qualitative psychic state without intensity or extensity is a kind of linchpin for a number of Bergsonian positions.

Week 3. Time and Free Will, Ch. 2 – Duration as Psychological Time

The second chapter formulates Bergson’s first conception of duration as time lived through heterogeneous qualitative change. In addition to parsing it out according to its various dimensions, will compare this conception against some other phenomenological models for lived time in order to grasp what is novel about Bergson’s view. We will pay particular attention to the implications the psychological conception of time has for a theory of memory, as well as for the possibility of an ontological understanding of impersonal duration.

Week 4. Time and Free Will, Ch. 3 – Freedom and Tendency

The last chapter of the text deploys the ideas of qualitative psychic state and psychological duration as a theory of action. Bergson brings his earlier arguments to bear against the binary alternative between determinism and indeterminism regarding the human agency. He signals the beginning of a theory of tendency that his later texts will work out. It is presented at first as an alternative to a causal understanding of determined action on the one hand and a spontaneous understanding of random or uncaused action on the other. The idea is that all actions express tendencies and are free to the extent that they contract and embody tendencies at a level deep enough to define a psychological profile.

Week 5. Matter and Memory, Ch. 1 – Images and Perception as Action

The first chapter of Matter and Memory introduces us to Bergson’s theory of images, one of the singular contributions of his philosophy. We will evaluate the ability of this theory to split the difference between realist and idealist views of matter and mind. Then we will discuss Bergson’s view of the body, a topic missing from Time and Free Will. We will conclude this session by parsing the details of Bergson’s conception of perception as virtual action, and assess its promise for a philosophy of embodiment.

Week 6. Matter and Memory, Ch. 2 – The First Kind of Memory

In this session we will focus on Bergson’s intervention into theories of attention and recognition. We will discuss how he leverages these topics in the direction of a virtual theory of memory as image and a motor mechanism theory of memory as habit. We will evaluate the mechanistic status of embodied memory and begin to formulate a robust understanding of the category of virtuality concerning the past as it exists in itself.

Week 7. Matter and Memory, Ch. 3 – True Memory and the Virtual

This session will be dedicated to a careful discussion of memory in itself, or the past as it exists independently of its recollection in the form of images. We will interrogate Bergson’s conception of virtuality and explore the role it plays in his metaphysics more generally. This session will be pivotal for the rest of the seminar, as we will pay particular attention from here on to the way virtuality is used alongside the idea of tendency to ground Bergson’s philosophy of life as such.

Week 8. Matter and Memory, Ch. 4 – Overcoming Dualism

This chapter promises to overcome the mind/body dualism that the first three chapters of the book provisionally assumes. We will reconstruct Bergson’s argument for a tendency and time-based reconciliation between matter and memory as two forms or directions of movement, and evaluate the realist ontology it delivers. We will also look back over the text as a whole and discuss its relevance for contemporary thinking.  

Week 9. Creative Evolution, Introduction + Ch. 1 – The Theory of Mind is a Theory of Life

In this session we find ourselves in a position from which to discern the movement of Bergson’s initially psychological conception of duration and memory in the direction of a philosophy of evolution. Our focus will be trained on the way introspection into the nature of mind reveals a small-scale contraction of the larger natural dynamics that formed it. We will discuss Bergson’s mature view of the biological body, the need for a philosophy of true evolution as the ontological correlate of psychological duration, and parse the shortcomings in the theories of evolution available at the time. 

Week 10. Creative Evolution, Ch. 2 – Élan Vital and the Tendency to Differentiation

 This chapter formulates a tendency-based conception of evolution and introduces us to the infamous élan vital. Bergson proposes that the essence of vital tendency is divergent development, producing animals and plants in two contrary directions, and then instinct and intelligence in another diverging set. We will evaluate the nature and status of the élan vital as an image for the tendency to act in the evolutionary domain. Then we will discuss the place occupied by the human being in this understanding of evolution and consider the charge of anthropomorphism.

Week 11. Creative Evolution, Ch. 3 – The Ideal Genesis of Matter

Chapter 3 is Creative Evolution’s most difficult. Though this chapter is known in part for the criticism of the idea of disorder, we will spend most of our time taking apart and reconstructing its claims regarding the “ideal genesis” of matter. This ideal genesis, sometimes called the “double genesis of matter and intelligence,” represents the conceptual culmination of Bergson attempt to overcome dualism. It also puts the theories of tendency and time to work, at an ontological level, in accounting for the production of matter, space, or body from out of the evolution of intelligence in life, mind, spirit, consciousness, duration, memory, or freedom. Matter, mind, and life are each tendencies, not existent things. Each tendency has its genesis in the extensification, or becoming-extensive, of an originally intensive multiplicity. The latter is, finally, what duration looks like as an ontological category. The “ideal genesis” doctrine is the subject of a number of influential commentaries on Creative Evolution by Canguilhem and Deleuze, among others. We conclude the session by considering what it was in this chapter that excited later thinkers.

Week 12. Creative Evolution, Ch. 4 –False Problems and How to Think Anew

We will conclude the seminar by reflecting on the implications of Bergson’s philosophy of evolution for the practice of philosophy itself. We will pay particular attention here to Bergson’s critique of spatialization and spatial thinking, as well as his critique of false problems, such as the question of why there is something rather than nothing. If Bergson’s views regarding the reality of time are taken seriously, then it is supposed to follow that philosophy as it has been carried out is constitutively incapable of grasping the dynamic nature of life, consciousness, and matter without spatializing them. A series of bold consequences are supposed to follow, not only for how to make sense of freedom (as in Time and Free Will), memory (as in Matter and Memory), or life (as in Creative Evolution), but for how to think in a philosophical register at all.

Primary texts

Henri Bergson. 1998. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. Mineola: Dover Publications.

———. 2001. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Trans. F. L. Pogson. New York: Dover Publications.

———. 2004. Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. Mineola: Dover Publications.

———. 2007. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Mabelle L. Andison. Mineola: Dover Publications.

Supplementary readings

Keith Ansell-Pearson. 2002. Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life. London: Routledge.

Gilles Deleuze. 2006. Bergsonism. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone Books.

Alex Lefebvre and Nils F. Schott. Eds. Interpreting Bergson: Critical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Leonard Lawlor. 2003. The Challenge of Bergsonism: Phenomenology, Ontology, Ethics. London: Continuum.

Mark Sinclair. 2020. Bergson. New York: Routledge.

Frédéric Worms, Anne Fagot-Largeault, and Jean-Luc Marion. Eds. 2008. Annales bergsoniennes IV: L’Évolution Créatrice 1907-2007: épistémologie et métaphysique. Paris: PUF.