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Bergson and Our Quarterly Discussion

July 19, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson uses natural science as the basis for his arguments towards a new understanding of reality. This July, a group of us discussed two sections from Creative Evolution in order to better understand Bergson’s philosophical ideas. In this work, Bergson explains that two popular views of reality cannot fully account for the way that the world presents itself. He uses examples such as the formation of an eye to underscore the ways in which mechanism and finalism fall short. Bergson opposes the idea that the eye was constructed piece by piece like a machine (the mechanist theory). He also disagrees with the idea that the human eye evolved with an end goal in mind (like 20/20 vision, for example), which is the view of finalists. To illustrate these arguments, he writes:

“For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal has been made in another way” (93-94).

His next example introduces Bergson’s new theory (one which he would discuss for the rest of his life). He talks about the negative as defining reality, rather than the positive. Instead of positively adding elements in the way that we build a car, for example, Bergson advocates that duration and free will simultaneously influences evolution. Therefore, he offers an example of a hand moving through iron filings as a demonstration of duration and free will. The path of the hand through the filings is a matter of choice against or in its environment. He continues:

“With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coördinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions: they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion” (94-95).

Bergson explains the resulting path as a kind of “equilibrium,” a circumstance as a result of the environment, the need, the organ, etc. He claims that beings evolve, but not according to any design. While I believe that Bergson asks us to think of this third idea in tandem with mechanism and finalism, in that they are complementary ideas aimed at better understanding reality, he does seem to say that his theory is the more developed. During our discussion, someone noted that while his theory may be more holistic, it still does not clearly address the initial impetus. Using evolution as the starting point for his theory, Bergson defines the original impetus as the “passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations” (88). He does not directly address the idea of prime movers, or from where original impetus stems.

In this short section, Bergson devotes much time to the complexity of the eye, which he claims shows a specificity of purpose. It is this simple purpose which has created the path for the evolution of the eye. In other words, vision becomes a standalone purpose which drives the creation of the eye. The eye develops freely (without end goal) because the environment places demands upon it. That beings have sight seems to be a commonality among most species. Freedom of choice, then, allows the eye to develop to environmental demands in a way that allows hawks to see at a distance and humans to read texts. He also notes that these things are always in motion, always in duration, and that the current development is in no way the final development.

Published in 1911, Creative Evolution is an intriguing entrance into Bergson’s writings. His subsequent writings, such as The Creative Mind, develop many of the ideas introduced in this text and offer excellent discussions. Due to the fact that Bergson is also responding to philosophical questions which have existed for thousands of years, we must look more closely at the translators’ language. Many of his works were not translated until the 1980s and 1990s, which raises the question of translation accuracy in a field which requires such specificity.

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion. As always, I gain great benefit from hearing the ideas of others!

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