Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Deleuze Special Issue

Vol. 5 No. 35, November 2001



Jinhee Choi

Bergson: Before the Deleuze




_The New Bergson_

Edited by John Mullarkey

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1999

ISBN 0719053803 hb; 0719055539 pb

235 pp.


Henri Bergson, who had a great influence on intellectuals and artists in Europe at the turn of the century, has regained our attention during past decades. This should be credited to Gilles Deleuze, who resuscitates Bergson's philosophy within the humanities, and especially film studies. However, we should admit that Bergson's work has been more prominent in other disciplines than in philosophy. _The New Bergson_, edited by John Mullarkey, provides us with a new look at Bergson in light of the relevance of his philosophy and ideas to contemporary philosophy. The collection consists of five sections, that include 13 essays on Bergson's methodology, ontology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, and, lastly, philosophy of art -- essays that share the common goal of making us aware of the importance of Bergson's philosophy. They argue that it has been neglected, and for the need to separate out what Bergson's philosophy really is, from what Bergson's philosophy has given rise to in other fields. The 'new' Bergson refers to a Bergson whose philosophy deserves to be re-examined in its own right.


Mullarkey, in his Introduction, not only recapitulates the key concepts in Bergson's philosophy, including mobility, intuition, and intellect, but also rectifies some of the dominant misconceptions of Bergson's philosophy. One of the criticisms often addressed against Bergson is that his philosophical method is non-systematic and thus lacks theoretical rigor. Mullarkey points out that such a criticism fails to tease out the metaphysical implications of the method of Bergson's philosophy. For Bergson's methodology reflects his philosophy of mobility and duration. In other words, for Bergson, 'conceptualizing' is itself a constant process of thinking, rather than simply the process of fixation of concepts and categories to the phenomenon in question.


However, despite the goal of this collection, some of the essays fail to situate Bergson's philosophy within contemporary philosophy. Richard A. Cohen, in his essay entitled 'Philo, Spinoza, Bergson: The Rise of an Ecological Age', points out that Bergson marks a turning point in Western intellectual history. He adopts historian Harry Austryn Wolfson's periodization of Western history, who divides it into three periods: the ancient, the medieval, and the modern. As Cohen notes, according to Wolfson each epoch can be characterized as 'separation of reason and revelation', 'harmony of reason and revelation', and 'domination of reason over revelation' (20-21), the turning points of which are marked by Philo and Spinoza, respectively. Cohen, however, disagrees with Wolfson's claim that the medieval age is the period when reason and revelation were harmonized. He adds a fourth, contemporary period, and argues that it is during this period that the true harmonization of reason and revelation is finally reached. Furthermore he claims that this period was launched with Bergson's ecological view of the world. However, one might naturally wonder why we need to accept this revisionist history over the standard one. That is, what is the advantage of accepting the revisionist history? Why do the philosophies of Philo, Spinoza, and Bergson bear more significance than those of Aquinas or Augustine, or Descartes or Hegel, on understanding the intellectual history? Unless we are provided with answers for these questions, it is hard to recognize the significance of Bergson within the standard history of philosophy, as well as in the revisionist one. As far as I can see, Cohen provides no such answers.


The second essay on Bergson's methodology is written by Garrett Barden, in which he examines Bergson's notion of duration in relation to consciousness. Barden interprets 'duration' as the attention to consciousness itself, namely, attention to oneself as consciously enquiring. He argues that for Bergson attention to consciousness is not equivalent to understanding; the former is only a pre-requisite for the latter. Such interpretation of duration, especially due to Barden's wording -- such as 'I endure', or 'I am a being that endures' (34) -- reminds us of the Cartesian cogito. I wish that Barden had developed this view further and had shown how the notion of duration, when it is applied to consciousness, is similar to or dissimilar from Descartes's notion of self. Obviously Bergson rejects Cartesian 'clear' and 'distinct' ideas, upon which knowledge of the world should be founded. However, it seems that given Barden's reading, for both Bergson and Descartes the thinking or enquiring self is necessary for the pursuit of further understanding of the world as well as the self. If so, in my view, the difference should rather be found in the nature of self. For Bergson, as Barden suggests, the self is not a metaphysical 'I', a substance that persists through changes, but rather a subject in the process of changing.


Two essays are devoted to Bergson's ontology. I must say that Deleuze's essay, 'Bergson's Conception of Difference', is just as confusing as Bergson's own writing. However, Deleuze tries to tease out how the notion of difference in Bergson's philosophy underlies other concepts, such as matter, duration, elan vital, and memory. Deleuze emphasizes the fact that difference is not a purely relational property that is created by the difference among objects or events. That is, difference is itself an entity or tendency, as Deleuze calls it, that enables an object or an event to diverge from others (49). The key notions in Bergson's philosophy, then, can be recapitulated in relation to 'difference'; matter is what does not differ from itself; duration is what differs from itself; elan vital is the differentiation of difference; memory is the coexistence of degrees of difference. If I understand these definitions correctly, matter refers to a substance that stays constant; duration refers to the process of changing itself; elan vital is the force that enables things to differentiate themselves from others. However, it seems that the relation between memory and difference is murky. Deleuze contends that for Bergson difference is itself a tendency, not a difference between two tendencies, and thus all apparent external differences are in fact reduced to internal ones. However, if memory presupposes the coexistence of degrees of difference, we must postulate something, which enables us to distinguish these (presumably) internal differences; if so, there must exist external differences that differentiate internal differences. Otherwise, his theory will fall into an infinite regress. Moreover, this network of concepts gets murkier when Deleuze introduces the notion of 'virtuality'. Deleuze quotes Bergson, who says, 'the virtual is pure recollection and pure recollection is difference' (55). However, the former involves a contradiction. Virtuality is, by definition, something that has not been actualized or realized. If so, how can virtuality be recollection, the main object of which is the past?


Timothy S. Murphy makes an interesting observation that Bergson's philosophy is parallel to the conclusion drawn from the debate between Bohr and Einstein/Podolsky/Rosen (EPR) on quantum mechanics. Murphy first examines EPR's thought experiment on whether the angular momentum of two-particle molecules can be determined and preserved after they split, but before any signal passes between the two. Their conclusion was that if the two particles' momenta can be measured before they send a signal to each other, then, unlike the claim made by quantum mechanics, according to which their momenta are indeterminate, the momenta of the two particles are already predetermined right after they split. Bohr's response to this thought experiment was that they neglected to consider the fact that the measuring device itself consists of molecules and particles, which are also governed by quantum mechanics. Despite the complicated nature of this debate, what Murphy draws out is that what quantum mechanics implies is quite similar to Bergson's philosophy; it is impossible to divide a process of movement or a process of change into abstract time. However, the similarity pointed out by Murphy seems to be merely superficial. Firstly, Murphy fails to establish any direct correlation between Bohr's and Bergson's intellectual projects. He openly admits that when Einstein jumped into the re-heated debate on relativity and quantum theory, the influence of Bergson's philosophy had already been in decline. And secondly, if Murphy's goal is to illuminate Bergson's philosophy through quantum mechanics, his essay also fails in this respect. Most of the essay is dedicated to the debate between Bohr and EPR, and only briefly mentions at the end what kind of similarities there might be, in terms of what quantum mechanics implies, with Bergson's view.


The section on Bergson's philosophy of mind is the biggest section within the collection. There are four essays, plus a correspondence between Bergson and John Dewy. However, the main focus of this section is definitely on Bergson's _Matter and Memory_, since three of the essays, written by Frederic Worms, Marie Cariou and Eric Mathew, place emphasis on the significance of the book for the philosophy of mind. Although they differ from one another in terms of range and focus, we can draw a general conclusion from these essays. They argue that Bergson's philosophy of mind goes beyond Cartesian dualism, and reconciles materialism and idealism. According to Worms, what is intriguing about Bergson's method is that he shifts the dualist dichotomy between body and mind to the opposition between the external world (matter) and consciousness (memory). Cariou reaches a similar conclusion when she argues that Bergson starts the enquiry into the mind/body problem by asking, first, what is the role of action in connecting the two, and thus marks a breakthrough within philosophy of mind in terms of its methodology. Mathew claims that Bergson's dualism makes the interaction between the mind and the body truly united, rather than a mere coincidence or a predetermined harmony. Given the explanations above, Bergson's dualism can be said to belong to property dualism -- that is, mind and body are two properties of the same substance -- rather than to substance dualism, in that matter and memory are two modes of a single entity, i.e. duration.


However, a question still remains: how does Bergson's philosophy of action enable him to go beyond idealism and materialism? Worms and Cariou take similar lines of arguments when they claim that action presupposes the *exteriority of the mind* (93). That is, if I understand the metaphor correctly, action necessarily partakes of the world. Mathew pays more attention to Bergson's evolutionary account, that is, the primary function of human body is action, and, to initiate an action, we need to consult both the perception and memory, the latter of which belongs to the realm of consciousness (127). However, these characteristics still do not move Bergson's philosophy beyond idealism, since they do not provide conclusive reasons for how we are able to grasp reality. For idealism does not necessarily deny the existence of the external world; it only denies that we have direct access to the world since we perceive the world only through ideas. Mathew answers this question with an appeal to Bergson's notion of intuition (128-9). That is, there exists a faculty that enables us to experience ourselves as active beings and makes the world immediately related to us. In other words, intuition makes us coincide with the world. However, two things come to mind immediately. First, if such faculty exists, then it is true that we have the access to the world. However, Bergson seems to beg the question here; you cannot assume that such faculty exists without showing the necessity of and the evidence for the existence of such faculty. Second, it is also not clear how Bergson's emphasis on action bears importance in resolving the problems faced with idealism, if intuition is what leads us to experience the world directly. We need to recall that, for Bergson, what guides actions is intellect not intuition.


Keith Ansell Pearson and P. A. Y. Gunter touch on Bergson's philosophy of biology. Pearson tries to situate Bergson's notion of creative evolution within contemporary philosophy of biology, whereas Gunter applies Bergson's ecological view to other subjects, such as the mind/body problem, life, and society. I'll focus on Pearson's essay, since it examines Bergson's view on evolution in some depth.


According to Pearson, the major difference between Bergson's view and neo-Darwinism or neo-Lamarckism is that Bergson defies the linear, deterministic view of evolution. Firstly, Bergson's view departs from the deterministic model in that for him evolution is not 'a realization of the possible' but rather 'an actualization of the virtual' (150). The difference between the two becomes intelligible only when we grasp the nuances between possibility and virtuality. According to Pearson, possibility implies the predetermined options, whereas virtuality allows the possibility of going beyond the fixed options. Thus, for Bergson the process of evolution is an unpredictable process of invention rather than determination (154). Secondly, Bergson differentiates his view from finalism. Although Bergson acknowledges the fact that evolution involves the process of complexification, the trajectory of evolution does not necessarily lead to an end. For the force that pushes the evolution forward should not be found without but within, namely, in the elan vital. Although this type of vitalism lost its footing in contemporary philosophy of biology, Pearson is good at portraying Bergson's contrast with Darwinism and Lamarckism, and how his thought has left its traces in the work of contemporary philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari.


If we were to pick one area in which the influence of Bergson had been most prominent, there is no doubt it would be art. For instance, t is a well-known fact that Bergson's philosophy had inspired French avant-garde artists in the early 20th century. In their essays, Mark Antliff and Paul Douglass examine the significance that Bergson's philosophy bears on art; the former focuses on Matisse, while the latter deals with cinema. Antliff claims that Matisse was introduced to Bergson's philosophy by Stewart Prichard, who interpreted Matisse's work through a Bergsonian perspective. What interests me more, however, is the latter essay, in which Bergson's criticisms of the cinema are re-examined. Bergson's critique of cinematographic method originated from his critique of spatialization in conceptual schemes. Bergson compared the way intellect comprehends mobility with the technique of cinema. When a film is projected, at 24 frames per second, we see a movement projected on the screen. According to Bergson, the intellect grasps mobility in a similar manner. The intellect divides the mobile object passing through distinct moments and apprehends mobility only through synthesizing them. This merely reflects how the intellect falls short of encompassing mobility as a concrete duration. Deleuze, in his book _Cinema_, redeemed the status of film from Bergson's criticism. However, he did so only by replacing 'frame' with 'shot'. That is, according to Deleuze, what Bergson meant by 'cutting' was shot, rather than frame. If so, there is a way in which film can challenge the fixated pattern of perception. That is, through editing, film can represent multiple viewpoints through which a single event is observed. However, Douglass is correct in pointing out that Bergson was never ambiguous about the word 'cut'; it refers to the frame, not a shot. Douglass, however, finds a way to redeem cinema. Cinema can rescue itself from the condemnation of Bergson through self-reflexivity. In this respect, cinema does not need to be privileged over other art forms.


It seems to me that the debate over Bergson's critique of cinema has been misguided so far. The focus should not be on whether cinematographic technique can be interpreted differently from the way Bergson views it. Rather, it should have been focused on how cinema can overcome the limitation of human perception and intellect. I agree with Douglass that cinema, by challenging normal perception and foregrounding the artificiality of the process of film-making, enables us to see the gap between the way the world is presented to us by the intellect, and reality itself.


Looking at Bergson's philosophy in a new light is necessary to realize how severely Bergson's ideas have been smeared in various disciplines. Although, due to the enormous purview of Bergson's philosophy, it is hard to handle all of his ideas under a single, simple motto, the essays collected under this volume -- some of whose analysis I agree with, and some I don't -- offer us the opportunity to be exposed again to Bergson's intriguing philosophy.


University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Jinhee Choi, 'Bergson: Before the Deleuze', _Film-Philosophy_, Deleuze Special Issue, vol. 5 no. 35, November 2001 <>.



Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle


Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here


Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage