The philoso­pher who went where sci­ence and logic don’t reach

John Shand wel­comes a timely sur­vey of the work of a newly fash­ion­able philoso­pher

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John Shand is as­so­ciate lec­turer in phi­los­o­phy at the Open Univer­sity.

Berg­son: Think­ing beyond the Hu­man Con­di­tion

By Keith Ansell-Pear­son Blooms­bury Aca­demic 208pp, £65.00 and £21.99 ISBN 9781350043947 and 3954 Pub­lished 22 Fe­bru­ary 2018

Few philoso­phers’ for­tunes have changed as dra­mat­i­cally as those of Henri Berg­son (1859-1941). He was fa­mous in his life­time and a public in­tel­lec­tual com­pa­ra­ble to Ber­trand Rus­sell. His fall from favour af­ter his death was mainly owing to the as­cen­dancy of an­a­lyt­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and ex­is­ten­tial­ism, both un­sym­pa­thetic to the mode and con­tent of his phi­los­o­phy.

But fash­ions change, and Berg­son is back, his con­sid­er­able worth be­ing newly ap­pre­ci­ated, chim­ing with cur­rent ap­proaches and con­cerns. In­deed, William James, who be­came a great friend of Berg­son’s, prophet­i­cally said: “So mod­est and un­pre­tend­ing a man but such a ge­nius in­tel­lec­tu­ally! I have the strong­est sus­pi­cions that the ten­dency which he has brought to a fo­cus, will end by pre­vail­ing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turn­ing point in the his­tory of phi­los­o­phy.”

If thinkers di­vide into foxes (who know lots of things) and hedge­hogs (who know one big thing), then Berg­son was a hedge­hog: a man with a big idea that may be ap­plied al­most ev­ery­where.

In essence, Berg­son presents a cri­tique of the at­tempt to un­der­stand the ul­ti­mate na­ture of re­al­ity purely in­tel­lec­tu­ally. In this, he op­posed sci­en­tism and in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism, but not sci­ence or rea­son. Sci­ence, in­tel­lec­tual un­der­stand­ing, is a use­ful ab­strac­tion, which is fine if that is as far as it goes. But it should not be seen as a means of cap­tur­ing the ul­ti­mate na­ture of re­al­ity, which is what sci­en­tism wants us to be­lieve. This is be­cause the in­tel­lec­tual deals in in­dif­fer­ent uni­ver­sals, whereas the in­tu­ited world (the world as ex­pe­ri­enced) is one of non- in­dif­fer­ent par­tic­u­lars. This makes the in­tel­lect nec­es­sar­ily un­able to cap­ture the lived world of in­tu­itions; they sim­ply slip through the in­tel­lec­tual net un­reg­is­tered.

The in­tel­lect can­not, as Berg­son says, fol­low “the sin­u­ous and mo­bile con­tours” of re­al­ity. Nor is the in­tu­ited world re­duc­ible to the in­tel­lec­tual world. Berg­son is fa­mous for con­trast­ing the mis­taken anal­ogy of time as a spa­tial pro­gres­sion along a line with “real time” as it is in our in­tu­ition of du­ra­tion, which at any given mo­ment spreads out in all direc­tions, per­me­ated by mem­ory, and is un­re­peat­able.

The fruits of Keith Ansel­lPear­son’s years of labour to bring Berg­son the philo­soph­i­cal at­ten­tion he de­serves reach an apogee in this book. And the re­sults are bril­liant. One can only hope that it will in­deed mark a ma­jor change in how Berg­son is stud­ied in phi­los­o­phy de­part­ments across the world.

A light gaze is di­rected to­wards our cur­rent eco­log­i­cal con­cerns, with the ar­gu­ment that Berg­son has lessons to teach our over-in­tel­lec­tu­alised pre­vi­ous selves about a life that is truly sus­tain­able. Cer­tainly, Berg­son em­pha­sises our ca­pac­ity for free, cre­ative, spon­ta­neous thought, and life push­ing beyond our hu­man con­di­tion of present habits and con­ven­tions. But the nec­es­sary un­known­ness of the fu­ture sup­ports a mod­esty about con­trol and pre­dictabil­ity, and a warn­ing against the hubris and ra­tio­nal con­ceit of grand plans.

This book cov­ers all that is im­por­tant in Berg­son’s wide and deep thought. Af­ter a fine in­tro­duc­tion, there are chap­ters on the self, mem­ory, time, free­dom, ethics, re­li­gion, ed­u­ca­tion and life. Along with Henri Berg­son: Key Writ­ings (2002), edited by Ansel­lPear­son and John Mullarkey, it pro­vides a fine ba­sis for univer­sity cour­ses on Berg­son.

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