Henri Bergson (1859 - 1941) was born the same year as the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, to father of Polish Jewish ancestry, an accomplished musician, and a mother of English and Irish Jewish ancestry. The family immigrated to France when Bergson was a child.
Brought up with a religious education, as a teenager Bergson experienced a moral dilmena tied to his discovery of the theory of evolution positing that man had descended from the ape, totally at variance with his schooling.
As a student Bergson was adept in both science and mathematics, and published his first mathematical work before he was 20 - a solution to a mathematical problem which Pascal claimed to have solved, but left unpublished.
Bergson opted for a career in the humanities, and settled into the quiet life of professor But he was to become a major force in 20th century philosophy as it attempted to come to grips with a lava flow of new scientific discoveries.
Bergson’s first major work, Time and Free Will, argued that misconceptions about freedom and will had arisen from the erroneous tendency to describe them in spatial terms. Bergson posited that real life is not experienced as a succession of demarcated conscious states traveling along an imaginary path, but as a continuous flow. There was a difference between the concept of time, and the actual experience of time. While the physicist could observe objects and events in succession, time presents itself to consciousness as duration – an endless flow, which cannot be simply represented as mathematics. Time in reality was experienced as duration and apprehended through intuition, a continuous flow, not something perceived through separate operations of sensory instinct and intellect.
An Introduction to Metaphysics took this a step further, positing that it was not analysis, but intuition – the direct apprehension of process – which revealed the real world.
Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution attempted to integrate biology with a theory of consciousness. Bergson posited that intuition was deeper and more fundamental than intellect, and his work become the spearhead of challenges to the mechanistic view of the universe. Features of the theory of relativity, and theories of the mind posited by modern science have been seen as foreshadowed in Bergson’s work.
"In reality, the past is preserved by itself automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside."
(from Creative Evolution)
In Creative Evolution Bergson elaborated his concept of élan vital, “creative impulse” or “living energy”, an immaterial force, whose existence cannot be verified scientifically, but which provides the “vital impulse” that continuously shapes all life.
Bergson’s work, in particular Creative Evolution, earned him a place on the list of books banned by the Catholic Church.
Bergson’s final major work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, was not only a finalized setting out of his philosophy, but also reflected concerns about emergent nationalist racist policies, and the changed nature of warfare.
Although Bergson's scientific and philosophical investigations had prompted him to abandon the practices of his religion, after the German occupation of France Bergson, a Jew, chose to stand with the persecuted and register himself as a Jew. He declined the Vichy government’s offer to exempt him from their anti-Semitic laws, renounced the many honors and posts accorded to him, and reaffirmed his core values. Bergson died in 1941.