Monday, 19 March 2012 07:50

Henri Bergson: Men of Ideas

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Henri Bergson (1859-1941) was a French philosopher. Like many European philosophers, he had his say on abstract subjects like ontology, epistemology, ethics and metaphysics.  More importantly, he grappled with the logic of empiricism, especially the consequences of its atheistic propensities. Somehow, he understood William James conclusion that though pure reasoning would seem to suggest a world without God hence the need for atheistic and empirical approach to phenomena that such an approach is filled with problems for real human beings.

Real human beings are afraid of finitude; people do not want to die; people want to live forever. If they could, people would live forever in their bodies but reason tells them that body is composed of matter and must decompose, must die. They reluctantly accept the reality of their physical death but posit the survival of their essence, what they call their soul, the spirit in them.

Indeed, some people would like to believe that their human personalities survive death. The problem with that belief is that the human personality was shaped by the individual’s biological constitution and social experience.  If the individual dies and no longer has his body and no longer live in the society that shaped his personality, there is no way that he is going to have his earthly personality.

Personality dies with the death of the human body. So what is it that survives human death, or is death the end of it al?

Science would seem to suggest that death is the end of our existence, but that thought is unacceptable to many folk.

People would be depressed and lose the will to live if they accepted death as the end of their lives. People would be so despondent that they would not have the will to live and practice that science which fascinates empiricists. So what do you do?

William James says that for as long as belief in god and life after death serves a useful purpose for people, such as enable them not to be despondent, let them have it; what is useful and doesn’t do any harm should not be dispensed with.  This is pragmatism, a philosophical approach to phenomena that does not concern itself with elaborate efforts to ascertain truth that cannot be ascertained but instead does what works in the world of the here and now.

But pragmatism is not enough for the European mind. The European philosopher seeks abstract truth. Is there a way that we can rationally entertain a force that remotely resembles what religious folk call God operating in the world to justify believing in it pragmatically?

Henri Bergson posits what he called élan vital, a life force operating in people’s lives. This life force is equivalent to Spinoza’s substance.

Bergson did not give his life force human attributes and call it god but instead makes an argument that there seems a rational, creative force in the universe.

There is no doubt that what Bergson was trying to do is say that materialism isn’t enough and that there is a force in the universe that is intelligent and responsible for human uniqueness.

There is intelligence in man and in the world. That intelligence enables human beings to survive the vagaries of their changing world. The forces of evolution work with the combination of an intelligent force in people. That intelligence cannot be explained by evolution, by matter, by epiphenomenalism alone. That intelligence transcends the material world yet operates in it; this seems to be the thrust of Bergson’s thinking

Human beings have an intelligence force operating in them; that force does not seem solely the product of evolution. By the way, how did evolution write the complex information in the human gene? It would seem to take conscious intelligence operating in matter to write the information in the DNA.

Moreover, human beings often have intuition and through it can sometimes predict what is going to happens to them. People often have a hunch of what is going to happen in the future and it happen; they do not always succeed but sometimes they do.

Why are people able to have hunches, intuitions? It would seem that there is a force in people that cannot be explained by evolution alone. But what is that force?

Bergson would like to think that that seeming intelligent force in people is his élan vital. Obviously, he is substituting élan vital for good old fashioned idea of spirit.

Bergson went through lots of gyrations trying to seem scientific in his offerings but what he was really saying is that there is an unknown aspect of man, an aspect that is rational and enables him to understand his world, an aspect that seems more than the phenomena it is trying to understand.

Ancient folk called the unknown aspect of us spirit; modern so-called rational man does not know what to call it but Bergson called it élan vital. And, on that note, we shall leave Bergson.


Henri Bergson. Creative Evolution (1910)

Henri Bergson. Mind Energy. (1920)

Henri Bergson.  The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (1946)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176