Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 07, 2020, from

Article Summary

So far as he can be classified, Bergson would be called a ‘process philosopher’, emphasizing the primacy of process and change rather than of the conventional solid objects which undergo those changes. His central claim is that time, properly speaking and as we experience it (which he calls ‘duration’), cannot be analysed as a set of moments, but is essentially unitary. The same applies to movement, which must be distinguished from the trajectory it covers. This distinction, he claims, solves Zeno of Elea’s paradoxes of motion, and analogues of it apply elsewhere, for instance, in biology and ethics.

Bergson makes an important distinction between sensation and perception. He repudiates idealism, but claims that matter differs only in degree from our perceptions, which are always perfused by our memories. Perception free from all memory, or ‘pure’ perception, is an ideal limit and not really perception at all, but matter. Real perception is pragmatic: we perceive what is necessary for us to act, assisted by the brain which functions as a filter to ensure that we remember only what we need to remember. Humans differ from animals by developing intelligence rather than instinct, but our highest faculty is ‘intuition’, which fuses both. Bergson is not anti-intellectualist, though, for intuition (in one of its two senses) presupposes intelligence. He achieved popularity partly by developing a theory of evolution, using his élan vital, which seemed to allow a role for religion. In ethics he contrasted a ‘closed’ with a (more desirable) ‘open’ morality, and similarly contrasted ‘static’ with ‘dynamic’ religion, which culminates in mysticism.

    Citing this article:
    Lacey, A.R.. Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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