Bergson, Henri-Louis (1859–1941)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 01, 2022, from

7. Science and metaphysics: the élan vital

Bergson distinguishes three cognitive faculties: intelligence, instinct and intuition. As evolution has advanced, animals and humans have diverged and developed instinct and intelligence respectively as their tools for confronting the world. These are equally suited for their tasks, intelligence being extensible but hazardous, while intuition is limited but safe. Bergson uses detailed scientific evidence to illustrate the remarkable achievements of which instinct is capable. Intuition is a development of instinct, mediated by intelligence, which occurs only in humans but takes them to their highest level, and is the faculty used by metaphysics to say what reality is really like, while science uses intelligence to study reality in a manner inevitably distorted – but essential for practical living. But ‘intuition’ is ambiguous in Bergson. In one sense it turns quantity into quality, and, for example, enables us to see trillions of vibrations as the colour red, and experience duration; metaphysics uses it to study life and spirit. But in another sense it is insight, the getting of bright ideas, which both presupposes and is essential for the development of intelligence.

On evolution, Bergson again claims that two antagonistic theories, Darwinian mechanism and finalism or teleology, share a common presupposition, that the path or trajectory of evolution is somehow already laid out. His own view involves his famous élan vital (‘vital impetus’, usually left untranslated) which drives evolution on, though not towards any pre-ordained goal. It drives rather than draws, and to that extent resembles mechanism, but it also overcomes obstacles – a puzzling idea if it has no goals. Perhaps Bergson is here taking up a stance nearer to one extreme (teleology) than to the other, evolution having intermediate goals but no overall goal.

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