Correlationism and Vitalism: Comments on Henri Bergson

Immanuel Critique

(Section from an article on Bergson)


At this initial juncture it is important to underscore how Bergson’s philosophy cannot be equated with the phenomenological tradition, at least in any straightforward sense, despite his profound influence on many of those thinkers; at least starting from Heidegger and up through Levinas, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. The reason for classifying Bergsonian philosophy as distinctly non-phenomenological has to do, primarily, with his own understanding of the relationship between subject and object; between thought and being; between what is given in my experience of the world and the world itself. That is to say, unlike Kant who has provided a systematic argument for why it is the case that our experience of the world is barred access from the thing-itself (noumena), it is important to see that Bergson’s own characterization of the relationship between thought and being is one which posits not a difference in kind between phenomenal experience and the noumena. Rather, for Bergson, there is only a difference in degree between my experience of reality and reality as it is in-itself. Now, this is not to say that Bergson cannot be said to share a lot of arguments with the phenomenological tradition. Rather, this section aims to show how, even if we want to include Bergson’s arguments and method within the tradition of phenomenology, the conclusions and aims of his project place him squarely outside of any phenomenology that perpetuates and/or modifies the initial assertion made by Kant regarding phenomenal experience. That is to say, any version of phenomenology that perpetuates the relationship of the transcendental subject and the world as one where the former is barred access from the fundamental nature of the latter cannot be attributed to Bergson, nor to legacy of Bergson’s influence on the history of philosophy.

Now, Heideggerian phenomenology stands in here as the chief example of such a contrast to Bergsonism. Whereas for someone like Heidegger, and Derrida after him, the inquiry into the meaning of Being; whether approached against the backdrop of western metaphysics or from within language itself;  only shows us that our access to Being is always stymied by the ineluctable nature of these conditions of doing philosophy. Now, the reason why Bergson cannot be said to belong to this lineage, or any other lineage which asserts a difference-in-kind between phenomenal experience and the noumena is due to one of the main tasks Bergson gives himself: namely, to show how these approaches to the nature of Being – whether through science, metaphysics, mathematics, or language – are in fact doomed at the outset but are not ineluctable features of human consciousness. Rather, what gives each of these schemas the appearance of being absolutely intractable features of experience is their adaptive, evolutionary, and biological history. Thus, for Bergson, and Deleuze after him, the obstacles which present themselves to our understanding of the structure of reality are no longer rendered as absolute limits of human consciousness. Rather, the obstacles which stand between consciousness and the world itself are merely the bad habits of thought which have served useful and important functions in the evolution of the human species but come back to haunt, and plague, how we approach the question of determining Being itself. So, here we see how the Heideggerian problems that arise from Heideggerian phenomenology are not so much absolute problems from the Bergsonian perspective: we can give an account as to why those mechanisms of consciousness, language, etc., have been useful in giving us the world as it accords to our specific interest, while not having to sacrifice the initial aspiration of determining fundamental features of the world-itself. From the Bergsonian perspective, one could say, the ineluctable features of our pursuit for the meaning of Being are not so much a priori inevitable, as they are merely the bad habits of thought that we have evolutionarily acquired.

However, before getting into the crucial aspects of Bergson’s argument, it is important to note certain historical relations between Bergson’s project and Hegel – if only to show how the Bergsonian project shares certain commitments to Hegel’s objective idealism and yet attempts to find other means of moving beyond any reliance on a transcendental subject as the guarantor of objective truth. That is, bringing Bergson and Hegel into conversation with one another will help us clarify how Bergson approaches the problems addressed by Kant and how Bergson himself differs from the traditional of German Idealism itself. Here it is useful to quote Ray Brassier’s commentary on this shift at length since it gets right to the heart of the dispute: “So…famously, in Hegel’s objective idealism, the relational synthesis which Kant takes to be constitutive of objectivity is simply transplanted from its localization in the subject and construed rather as the relation between subject and object, which Hegel recodes as the ‘self-relating negativity’ that yields the structure of reality” (Brassier, et. al., ‘Speculative Realism’). Now, the following question arises from the Hegelian transformation of Kant’s insight: “if you refuse to say that synthesis…is anchored in a subject, does this mean that you have to idealize the real by attributing to it this capacity for self-relation? A capacity for self-synthesis whereby a continuum of relation itself yields the type of discontinuity that gives rise to discrete objects? In other words, is there a principle of intelligibility encoded in physical reality?” (Brassier, Speculative Realism).

It is precisely this question – of a continuum of relation (Duration) that yields discontinuity as the condition for discrete objects (Matter) – that lies at the heart of Bergson’s project. That is, what brings Bergson into close proximity to Hegel is their shared commitment to the idea that it is not the subject which provides the transcendental guarantee between representation and the world. Rather, it is the world itself which is constituted by continuity and discontinuity; that is, it is because Nature is structured in this way, and because Nature produces Thought itself, that we can subsequently articulate why it is the case that we can posit the idea that human consciousness has something fundamental in common with the reality of Nature. The important addition here being that consciousness mirrors Nature in such a way that what guarantees the objectivity of our experience isn’t so much space, time, and the categories; rather, it is the common structure of  ‘self relating negativity’ in Hegel, or ‘real duration’ in Bergson, which Nature engenders within human consciousness that now replaces the guarantee of objectivity via the transcendental subject. This is something that we see explicitly in Bergson: “Evolution implies a real persistence of the past in the present, a duration which is, as it were, a hyphen, a connecting link. In other words, to know a living being or natural system is to get at the very interval of duration, while the knowledge of an artificial or mathematical system applies only to the extremity. Continuity of change, preservation of the past in the present, real duration – the living being seems, then, to share these attributes with consciousness. Can we go further and say that life, like conscious activity, is invention, is unceasing creation?” (CE, 22-23).

Here we see Bergson asserting a few important points that will allow us to see how he conceives of the claim that there is only a difference in degree between my lived experience of the world and the world in-itself. First, Bergson is clearly stating what he takes to be the proper object of philosophical inquiry. No longer is philosophy concerned with discrete objects as things-in-themselves. The task of philosophy, for Bergson, isn’t to come to a clear understanding of what my experience of certain objects in the world are in reality. Rather, philosophy’s task is to concern itself with how the past continuously manifests itself in the present, as the present, and influences the future. That is to say, the proper object of philosophy is duration. It is only by understanding duration as the object of philosophy that we will be able to move beyond the gridlock of any residual mathematical, and idealist, assumptions within thought.

Second, we see Bergson asserting an alliance between biology, the study of evolution, and the study of philosophy. Why? Not only is it due to their shared interest in understanding how matter, how species, individuals, etc., are the particular realizations of a historical process (evolution/duration). In addition, these three disciplines are concerned with providing us a very strong critique of what we take to be the nature of thinking and human consciousness. That is to say, and this is a theme that is heavily emphasized in someone like Deleuze, it is the nature of human intellectual activity to consider the world in accord with our biological, evolutionary, and social interests. This idea of the adaptive nature of human consciousness, then, undercuts any attempt to treat intellectual activity as being defined, in essence, as a mechanism that is predisposed to truth. In other words, it is the nature of human reason to approach the world through the lens of its interest. Or again, rational inquiry, perception, the intellect, and so forth, are not tools for acquiring eternal truths about the world but rather are evolutionary mechanisms that serve as the practical function of locating points of interest, points of indetermination where human freedom is capable of intervening, for the organism to further its own existence.

Thus, it is through this alliance of biology, evolutionary theory, and philosophy, that Bergson builds his argument that thought is not predisposed and naturally suited for a search for truth – whether this idea is guaranteed by some divine naturalism or transcendental subject. It is for this reason that Bergson will find in mathematics and in geometry, not only the highest expression of the human intellect as it functions according to its natural, instinctual, and evolutionary impulse; it is because of this image of mathematical/geometrical reasoning as the most natural habit of thought that Bergson takes it upon himself to underscore the error of equating certain scientific determinations of the world (mathematics and geometry, as well as older kinds of physics and chemistry) as being representative of the world in-itself. Thus, as Bergson writes, “The essential function of our intellect, as the evolution of life has fashioned it, is to be a light for our conduct, to make ready for our action on things, to foresee, for a given situation, the events, favorable or unfavorable, which may follow thereupon. Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known; it seeks out, in order that it may apply its principle that ‘like produces like.’ In just this does the prevision of the future by common sense consist…Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition.” (CE, 29).

Now, if the error of human consciousness is to be found in equating practical intellection with objective truth, this signals Bergson’s underlying premise regarding human consciousness and the task of philosophy: It is not the case that we are barred access from the world as it exists in-itself and for-itself; rather, it is simply the case that we will never approach the world as it exists in itself without correcting the fundamental error of equating consciousness in its natural attitude of determining what is objectively true. As Bergson writes in the opening pages of Creative Evolution regarding the relationship between my impatience at the dissolution of a sugar cube in water and the time it takes for the sugar itself to dissolve, “If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, willy nilly, wait until to the sugar melts. This little fact is big with meaning… It [the sugar cube] coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like. It is no longer something thought, it is something lived. It is no longer a relation, it is an absolute” (CE, 9-10).

That is to say, the relationship between subject and object, between Thought and Being, is not to be done away with but must be conceived under the proper schema; a schema that begins with Duration as being the true object of both philosophy, biology, evolutionary theory, and the World itself (and ultimately, Bergson hopes to show, it is actually Duration which is Being-itself and in our lived experience of Duration – of Being – we are no longer barred access from the Absolute, but are able to experience a limited portion of it. That is also to say that Bergson’s conception of the Absolute, of Duration, of Life, is one which says that the structure of reality is pure quality. In other words, any portion of the absolute expresses the absolute in its entirety. Or, if we subtract a portion of the absolute in our experience of it, we do not alter the essence of Absolute Duration – only insofar as we understand that the essence of Absolute Duration is nothing but pure difference and because every potential realization of the absolute must be qualitatively different from all other potential realizations of the Absolute, that we can be guaranteed in our limited relation of lived duration as being one of an absolute and not relative relation).

Now the third important point will be Bergson’s question regarding creativity. If thinking and the world partake in duration; are constituted, in essence, by real duration; then is it possible to attribute certain features that we find in conscious life to Duration itself? That is to say, because there is the common structure of duration (evolution, history, etc.) in both Thought and Being, can we then determine certain features about the structure of reality on the basis of certain findings we make about human consciousness? For Bergson, it appears that we can. For instance, what was once thought to merely be psychological memory – the mental process by which past events persist, and come to bear, on our present experience – has a natural correlate in the world itself. In other words, what gives us the conditions for never having the same experience twice (psychological memory) has a natural correlate in the very individuation of species and its members (ontological memory). This latter case, of ontological memory, is what gives some clarity to Bergson’s idea that the past preserves itself automatically. As he writes, “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…” (CE, 5).

Here, the example of our experience from infancy to the present isn’t simply a further articulation of psychological memory. Rather, what this shows is how Matter is the preservation of Memory automatically. In other words, the past preserves itself in the present through the creation, instantiation, and realization of a species with its individuals, and their habits and interests. It is in this way, by understanding that Matter is Memory preserved that we can understand how there is at once a psychological and ontological conception of memory – whereby ontological memory is the preservation of a historical evolution, or historical development, in the present via the individuation of species and this species’ self-reproduction (bare repetition) through individual beings. So, while our subjective memory is preserved by way of our interests and our habits, ontological memory is preserved at the historical, biological, and evolutionary register.

It is this discrepancy between psychological memory (subject/product) and ontological memory (object/process), when not understood, that gives rise to further errors of human cognition. As Bergson writes: “It is of no use to hold up before our eyes the dazzling prospect of a universal mathematic; we cannot sacrifice experience to the requirements of a system. That is why we reject radical mechanism” (CE, 39). Thus, one of the major pitfalls Bergson finds in the mathematical understanding of the structure of reality is its failure to account for what is precisely constitutive of lived experience – time, history, evolution, duration, the persistence of the past in the future, matter as the preservation via realization of memory, etc. That is to say, any conceptual framework that wants to determine the fundamental structure of reality and fails to account for the processual development of the world considered socio-psycho-biologically, cedes any capacity for accounting for reality itself.

Now we can see why Bergson privileges lived experience and why this may seem like a regression in the history of philosophy. For Bergson, lived experience is an adequate starting point for inquiries into the nature of reality because lived experience is the product (and repetition) of this natural process of evolution. That is to say, lived experience is the very instantiation of matter as memory preserved, of the past gnawing into the present, as the most recent individuation of the process of evolution, etc. In other words, lived experience is, in a certain sense, the experience of History itself only embodied in individuals. Now, the task then, is to reflect on lived experience as the embodiment of history in order to then move outside of any kind of subjectivism or psychologism, and into the terrain of the world (as another case of memory-history materialized in the present) itself.

It is for this reason that Bergson will have no problem beginning with the subject as the locus of philosophical inquiry. But it is also for this reason, in light of the various reasons that we have just mentioned, that Bergson’s emphasis on lived experience cannot be simply placed under the rubric of a certain brand of phenomenology, or even proto-phenomenology (where phenomenology here means the study of how the world appears to us in our experience of it) – since the Bergson’s task is to show how we have to move beyond lived experience in order to get to things themselves; to show how what appeared to be settled by Kant’s transcendental subject is in fact a perpetuation of certain errors in how we conceive of our relationship to the world itself. That is to say, when Bergson begins with lived experience it is not taken to mean the way in which I experience things in the world (though this is a crucial aspect of is, if not only for the critiques of the natural inclinations of intellection). Rather, to begin with lived experience is to take ourselves as the preservation of memory in the present. Or again, lived experience de-emphasizes individual subjectivity as the being which secures the objectivity of the world, in order to emphasize individuals as instantiations of the worlds objectivity itself – reality understood as process; reality understood as descent and ascent; as divergence and convergence; as Matter and Memory.

Now, in what sense can we talk about Bergson and Correlationism in the same breathe? If for no other reason, it is because Bergsonian philosophy represents one of the chief philosophical challenges to the task Kant assigned him self; namely, determining the nature and limits of human reason. Bergson remains a correlationist insofar as he continues to affirm that there is a necessary, ineluctable, relation between subject and object, between thought and being, where knowledge of either independent of the other is barred at the outset. However, the Bergsonian take on correlationism aims to show how the relation between thought and being is our very access to things-themselves. It is through the lived experience of my duration as it coincides with the duration of other beings that renders my relationship to the world an entry point into the Absolute itself. Thus we can see how Bergson at once remains close to Hegel while at the same time remaining distant from any phenomenological tradition that perpetuates the relationship between the transcendental subject and the world.