Proust's style guru

Bergson
January 30, 1998

Despite some comparatively recent books on him in English, including the clear and informative surveys by philosophical writers such as Leszek Kolakowski and Alan Lacey, Henri Bergson remains largely unread and unregarded by English-speaking analytical philosophers. He is thought of, if at all, as being at best a wonderfully lucid, elegant, persuasive expositor, both of his own ideas and, in his lecture courses, those of other philosophers in the western tradition. Yet his brilliant prose style (among the most versatile in the French philosophical canon), with its apparently spontaneous gift for capturing the most evanescent and elusive movements of the mind in the nets of arresting metaphor, was, alas, placed at the service of a mystical, obfuscatory, anti-positivistic metaphysics which, though it may possess intrinsic literary merit, could only play havoc with the carefully tended gardens of scientific rationalism. Thus, though Bergson is generally credited with having had an immense impact on the beau monde of late 19th and 20th-century Parisian letters, above all on Marcel Proust, whose oceanic novel, A la recherche du temps perdu, has been described as "la poesie du bergsonisme", and on Charles Peguy and other French literary luminaries, his work is usually written down by most Anglo-American commentators today as just one more depressing strand in the great rope of modern obscurantism and irrationalism. This is a tendency which was set by Bertrand Russell as long ago as 1914 in his The Philosophy of Bergson and, despite the adulation of William James and some of his disciples ("O my Bergson, you are a magician", James once wrote to him on reading one of his books), and despite the not dissimilar philosophical avocations of Whitehead with his "process philosophy", Bergson has remained largely neglected in the Anglo-Saxon world ever since.

Nor has his reputation in France done much to counteract this trend. Where his memory has not been totally effaced from academe by the successive tidal waves of existentialism, Marxism, structuralism, phenomenology, the German invasions of Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and their French progeny, Jacques Derrida and the postmodern deconstructionists, he has usually been pigeonholed either as a primitive or an antinomian mystic or some hybrid of the two. Thus the normally solemn and erudite Thomist, Etienne Gilson, once spoke of him ecstatically as "this prophet gushing with divine tongues!" While for a structuralist anthropologist such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Bergson's philosophy "irresistibly recalls that of the Sioux Indians" and so has more to do with totemism than with modern logic or epistemology.

Clearly, the auguries are not too favourable for Bergson's admission to the modern Anglo-American fleet of hard-nosed philosophical icebreakers.

Yet something remarkably like such a plea is ably made by this often acute and densely argued little book. It seeks to show that, despite appearances, there is enough common ground between Bergson's philosophising and some of the preoccupations of analytical philosophers today for a meaningful exchange to occur; and that, if certain of his arguments can be successfully restated and developed in terms intelligible to them, they may be persuaded that some problems they consider real and fundamental are in truth largely apparent and comparatively shallow. This is not, therefore, a comprehensive scholarly introduction to Bergson's thought, but concentrates rather on selected features of Bergson's thinking which tend to identify certain philosophical problems as factitious and hence dissoluble by the appropriate analysis; and with this aim in view, the author directs attention particularly to the earlier work, taking much less notice of the later and more famous books, Creative Evolution and The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Moreover, there is a frank admission that the plan and perspective of the book involve reconstructing Bergson's positions under the pressure of philosophical questions and interests some of which would have been alien to him. And generally, this free, pragmatic approach is entailed by the author's scepticism of claims that Bergson's writings, taken together, can be made to form a watertight "system". In short, we are modestly offered no more than "a challenge, an invitation to read, and a confession".

In chapters two and six, which are perhaps the most densely philosophical, entitled "Philosophy and knowledge: uses and misuses of 'representation"' and "Aporetic philosophy" respectively, Bergsonian insights into the intimate interconnection between action and conceptual knowledge are made to shed light on problems of perception, recognition and memory, distinctive types or forms of knowledge, holistic views of knowledge and experience, and the question of intensive magnitudes, in ways which will be thoroughly intelligible and thought-provoking to the analytical philosopher. An especially intriguing treatment is offered of the Sorites problem, of the issue of weakness of the will, and of the dilemma of Buridan's ass. And there are some sharp observations on the role of laughter and the comic in the overall economy of the mind, as well as on the ineradicable character of magic and religion in the social life of "primitives" and "moderns" alike.

This book, which places familiar problems in an unfamiliar light, has a most fruitful capacity to startle. It convincingly presents Bergson's writings as a quarry of unexpected insights, and may, perhaps, even signal a new, more piecemeal, more constructive phase in their reception by philosophers in Britain and America.

Roger Hausheer is lecturer in German, University of Bradford.

Bergson: Thinking Backwards

Author - F. C. T. Moore
ISBN - 0 521 41340 0 and 42402 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £10.95
Pages - 152

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