March 5, 2009

Bergson: Creative Evolution

Filed under: Metaphysical, Philosophy, Romanticism, Spiritual, Theory — Graham Coulter-Smith

[click image to enlarge]
Bergson develops Nietzsche’s key concept of evolution as a creative process and follows Nietzsche in postulating a vital force of nature. For Nietzsche the latter was a ‘tremendous shaping, form-creating force’ (ungeheure gestaltende herformschaffende Gewalt), for Bergson it is élan vital, a vital impulse. For Nietzsche the forces that produce phenomena are considered in terms of “dynamic quanta, in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta” (Colli 1967:; Schacht 1992:). Bergson continues this process-oriented trajectory by proposing that phenomena are fundamentally dynamic and interconnected.

Unlike Nietzsche Bergson demonstrates a very sound understanding of Darwinian evolution for someone writing in 1907. Bergson even accepts the practical functional value of the mechanistic approach adopted by science. But, crucially, he does not accept it as the final answer. What mechanistic evolutionary theory fails to grasp, for Bergson, is the true fundament of life which he believes is “psychological”, which is to say life is equated with psyche or soul. In this sense, like Nietzsche, he is a neoromantic philosopher. And like Nietzsche Bergson is also affirmative in the face of the “death of God” by seeking metaphysical alternatives to Christianity in the tradition of romantic and idealist philosophy. Behind the romantic reaction against scientific mechanism lies the typically modern perception that mechanistic thinking reduces people and life in general to things. We see this in Marx and Weber, but their sociological perspectives are fundamentally humanist whereas both Nietzsche and Bergson posit a something else beyond the human: a vital, dynamic and creative process which they uncover behind Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Bergson begins Creative Evolution with the statement “The existence of which we are most assured and which we know best is unquestionably our own” (Bergson 1913: ) and goes on to assert: “the more we fix our attention on … [the] continuity of life, the more we see that organic evolution resembles the evolution of a consciousness” (Bergson 1913: ). From such statements we can assume that Bergson’s approach to evolution is in accord with what contemporary cosmology refers to as the “anthropic principle” which suggests that any examination of nature should take consideration of the fact that nature created intelligent observers. Philosophy does consider this fact but science does not as John D. Barrow notes:

even materialistic philosophers consider the innate properties of matter to be such as to allow–or even require–the existence of intelligence to contemplate it; that is, these properties are necessary or sufficient for life. Thus the existence of Mind is taken as one of the basic postulates of a philosophical system. Physicists, on the other hand, are loath to admit any consideration of Mind into their theories. Even quantum mechanics, which supposedly brought the observer into physics, makes no use of intellectual properties; a photographic plate would serve equally well as an ‘observer’. (Barrow 1988:)

Bergson’s anthropic approach to evolution, evident in his claim that it possesses a “psychological” dimension, provides one key to understanding the difference between his approach and the scientific method adopted by Darwin and his followers. Bergson wrote prior to the development of the anthropic principle by physicist Brandon Carter but his philosophy takes this principle to its logical conclusion which is that the evolution of life on Earth should be understood from the point of view of a theory of mind and being (as becoming) rather than from the point of view of analytical reductionist exercises such as Darwin’s famous “tree of life” which maps the development of species. In Bergsonian terms the Darwinian tree of life is merely a diagram: it says nothing about the inner nature of life: the nature of being as becoming and process. Instead Bergson examines his own consciousness and discovers its ontological essence in duration: a non-mechanistic conception of time.

For Bergson both science and Western philosophy have misunderstood the nature of time which for him is essential to a modern understanding of consciousness. He claims that Western philosophy has consistently spatialised consciousness, from Zeno through to Kant. Thus, although Kant posited space and time as the fundamental psychological substrate whereby mind organises the manifold of sense data in perception, he spatialised time. Kant’s was a vision of consciousness inspired by Newtonian physics and accordingly his concept of time is mathematical and geometrical. Science and mathematics is quantitative, analytically reductive and mechanistic, the curve of time is spatialised into points and lines. Science slices the holistic flux of nature into static snapshots, closed systems, which can be examined. But in so doing it creates an artificial, mechanistic picture of nature: a manifold series of still photograph-like images that Bergson claims cannot be interconnected to give a proper, organic, account of living reality. Bergson has a point, even today’s (2009) most powerful supercomputers can only simulate fluid turbulence with a reasonable degree of realism at the level of a teacup. But contra Bergson it has to be admitted that such simulation, although limited, does capture the richness of highly complex, interconnected and self organising phenomena. And we can also note that even the human brain, which is the most complex structure in the known universe, has its limitations especially in the sphere of rational analysis, as Bergson so succinctly explains.

Nevertheless, rational analysis appears to be the only way in which science, mathematics and common sense can grasp the flux of the real. Indeed, Bergson tells us that this way of addressing reality was created by evolution itself. He accepts the scientific premise that evolution created the human brain on the basis of practical functionality: “the intellectual tendencies innate to-day, which life must have created in the course of its evolution, are not at all meant to supply us with an explanation of life: they have something else to do” (Bergson 1913:), and that something else is to survive in the practical world; in this sense Bergson is a good Darwinian. Thus, our faculty of common sense is, for Bergson, akin to scientific method in that it too is “occupied with detached objects” (Bergson 1913: ). But Bergson’s philosophy strives to transgress this limitation and go beyond the human in a manner comparable to Nietzsche’s striving for the overhuman (Übermensch). Bergson tells us that it is possible for consciousness to be expanded beyond its habitual, practical-functional constraints and the basis for such an expanded consciousness lies in cultivating an awareness of duration, a mode of consciousness capable of experiencing the flux and multiplicity of phenomena and thereby catching a glimpse of an interconnected dynamic totality.

At the simplest level Bergson’s concept of duration can be understood in terms of what came to be known in literary modernism (e.g. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson) as the “stream of consciousness” as is evident when he observes:
our psychic life is full of the unforeseen. A thousand incidents arise, which seem to be cut off from those which precede them, and to be disconnected from those which follow. Discontinuous though they appear, however, in point of fact they stand out against the continuity of a background on which they are designed (Bergson 1913: )

The apparent disconnectedness of phenomena and our inability to predict what will happen in the future stems from the limitations of rational consciousness. Disconnectedness is merely an artefact of the limitation imposed by the narrow window of consciousness. Time as duration becomes the “background”, the holistic substrate of such discontinuity. And the background is vast because time as duration is not only the substrate of consciousness but also that of phenomena in general: the world and the universe. The substrate of the dynamic totality of time becomes equivalent to what Kant referred to as noumenon–the thing in itself—which Kant claimed was inaccessible to consciousness. From the Bergsonian standpoint the reason why Kant proclaimed the noumenon as inaccessible is because he remained trapped in the proclivity of rational consciousness to chop the flux of the real into static fragments. The way out of this limitation is to take a distinctly Nietzschean step and understand the conscious, rational ego as an illusion:

this substratum [ego] has no reality; it is merely a symbol intended to recall unceasingly to our consciousness the artificial character of the process by which the attention places clean-cut states side by side, where actually there is a continuity which unfolds. If our existence were composed of separate states with an impassive ego to unite them, for us there would be no duration. For an ego which does not change does not endure (Bergson 1913: )

In place of the rational ego Bergson imagines consciousness as a creative process that is continually growing and being reconstructed through the passage of time and the impact of time upon both mind and body. For Bergson the integrated identity of the rational ego

is an artificial imitation of the internal life, a static equivalent which will lend itself better to the requirements of logic and language, just because we have eliminated from it the element of real time. But, as regards the psychical life unfolding beneath the symbols which conceal it, we readily perceive that time is just the stuff it is made of. (Bergson 1913: )

Time/duration is “the stuff” the essential substance of being-as-becoming and he goes on to say that there is “no stuff …more substantial”:

For our duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never be anything but the present — no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration. Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. (Bergson 1913: )

This stuff becomes like an endless, metaphysical scroll upon which all events are written thereby enriching the accumulating creative productions of the impulse of time. Against the background of the epic, and we might say anthropic, story of evolution Bergson is unimpressed by the mechanism of personal memory noting that:

The cerebral mechanism is arranged just so as to drive back into the unconscious almost the whole of this past, and to admit beyond the threshold only that which can cast light on the present situation or further the action now being prepared — in short, only that which can give useful work. (Bergson 1913: )

Again we find that evolution, considered in Bergsonian terms as generated by a harmonious germinal life impulse, has organised consciousness in such a manner as to hide the richness of life, which is extremely curious unless we consider ourselves in a post-Hegelian manner to be in a transitional phase of the evolution, open only to the barest glimmer of what life is and awaiting the greater enlightenment afforded by the next step in the evolution of consciousness.

Time considered as duration transcends consciousness and its limited passageway into the unconscious mind. It goes far beyond the stream of consciousness into the history of the universe as a whole. In the Mitchell translation Bergson states that “The universe endures.” It might be better to transpose the noun into a verb and suggest that “The universe durates.” Which is to say the essential, psychic, substance of the universe is duration which is akin to a constantly accumulating capacity for creation: “The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.” (Bergson 1913: ).

Bergson points to certain critical features of the process of duration such as holistic interconnection and unpredictability; the latter being intrinsic to the Bergsonian concept of duration as inherently creative. The spatialisation of evolution by reductionistic science misses the entire point of evolution which is life. Science kills this essence of evolution through reductive analysis and calculation. For Bergson scientific calculation–the reduction of the curves of nature to the straight lines of geometry—is “organic destruction”, “Organic creation, on the contrary, the evolutionary phenomena which properly constitute life, we cannot in any way subject to a mathematical treatment.” (Bergson 1913: ). Even a “superhuman calculator” (ibid.) could not understand life. Of course today we do have superhuman calculators and we might note that for Bergson even supercomputers modelling complex holistic systems cannot touch the essence of life because that essence, in Bergsonian terms, can only be apprehended by mind. It is in this sense that he refers to the “psychological” dimension of evolution: a highly anthropic perspective. His concept of mind is also an evocation of the spiritual, which is especially prominent in Matter and Memory–where he makes the extraordinary assertion that memories in the domain of the unconscious are not recorded in the brain. Such a contention places Bergson in firmly in the romantic philosophical tradition.

For Bergson only durational consciousness, which Bergson calls “intution”, that can apprehend evolution as a creative life force, mechanistic rational consciousness cannot. Rational consciousness reduces the cosmic impulse towards life into inanimate forces but intuition defined as consciousness of duration perceives life in everything. Bergson continues his critique of rational consciousness by noting that any “attempt to distinguish between an artificial and a natural system, between the dead and the living” (Bergson 1913: ) runs into the tendency of rational consciousness to exclude an intuition of life. Thus we find it “difficult to imagine that the organized has duration and that the unorganized has not” (Bergson 1913: ). By “unorganized” Bergson means inanimate matter. We have to remember that Ernest Rutherford was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908, one year after the publication of Creative Evolution. Apparently prior to Rutherford’s discovery that atoms possess a nucleus the general consensus was that matter was “unorganised”. But modern science teaches us that inanimate matter is far from unorganised, if we think of the complex structures that make up the molecular, atomic and subatomic levels. In spite of his apparent lack of awareness that matter is in fact highly organised Bergson does appear to acknowledge a continuity between animate and inanimate matter when he states:

we do not question the fundamental identity of inert matter and organized matter. The only question is whether the natural systems which we call living beings must be assimilated to the artificial systems that science cuts out within inert matter, or whether they must not rather be compared to that natural system which is the whole of the universe. (Bergson 1913: )

“The whole of the universe” certainly suggests an intersection of animate and inanimate matter. Yet, even in the above passage there is an equivocation in the sense that he establishes a dichotomy between “organised matter” and “inert matter” which suggests that he defines “organised matter” exclusively as living organisms. It is apparent that there is a prejudice in Bergson towards living “organised” matter in contrast to “inert matter”. Only “organised” animate matter can possess a “psychological” dimension. In the above passage Bergson also seems to suggest that the inanimate does not possess duration—which is intrinsically psychological in the sense that duration, for Bergson, is the essence of mind. If this is the case then his concept of creative evolution is seriously compromised by the discovery, after Bergson’s passing, of the crucial evolutionary role played by DNA, which is inanimate matter.

Writing in the first years of the twentieth century Bergson believed that evolution began with August Weismann’s “germ-plasm” (Bergson 1913: ). The germ-plasm is a gamete such as egg or sperm cells. But the discovery of DNA reveals that evolution begins prior to the protoplasmic gamete with an inanimate molecule that considerably enlarges the story of evolution because the ladder now stretches down from human consciousness to animals, to plants and simplest cells to DNA, then the primal soup of the RNA world that produced DNA, through to simpler molecules, the atomic structures created by the stars, then those created out of the soup of quarks after the Big Bang. DNA supports the scientific thesis that materiality underlies all phenomena including that of life. And it is this thesis that is unacceptable to Bergson because his anthropic perspective on evolution sees things from the other direction wherein the “psychological” and “life” become the essential substrates, not inanimate matter. At this point we can consider the fact that the stress on materiality in science is not simply methodological it is also ontological. For science the substrate of being is matter whereas for Bergson it is psyche or soul.

For Bergson evolution is the “very essence of life” (1913:) that can only be apprehended when time is considered as duration. The language of science which is mathematics cannot grasp life as duration because when the mathematician confronts time “he is always speaking of a given moment — a static moment, that is — and not of flowing time. In short, the world the mathematician deals with is a world that dies and is reborn at every instant” (Bergson 1913: ), Bergson continues:

in time thus conceived, how could evolution, which is the very essence of life, ever take place? 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? (Bergson 1913: )

There are several points in this passage: firstly, evolution for Bergson is the “very essence of life”; secondly, this essence of life implies a “preservation of the past in the present” which is a definition of duration; and thirdly, we have the contention that intuitive duration consciousness, which is a creative as opposed to a rational mode of consciousness, is able to understand the essence of life because only it is coextensive with the living evolutionary process.

It can be noted that at this stage of Bergson’s argument that there is an element of contradiction or elision in his discussion of consciousness. On the one hand he is suggesting that the life impulse of evolution (élan vital) has created a mode of consciousness that spatialises duration in a manner that objectifies and reduces life to nonlife, and on the other hand he appears to be suggesting that there is another mode of consciousness—duration consciousness or intuition—that is coextensive with the creative force of nature. This is problematic because if evolution created rational consciousness then is not rational modality also coextensive with evolution? Rather than perceiving an interconnectedness between rational and durational consciousness Bergson establishes a dichotomy: rational consciousness which is cognate with inanimate matter and durational consciousness which is cognate with life. This dualism is continued in Ansell-Pearson’s sympathetic analysis of Deleuze’s Bergsonism where he notes:

Matter itself presents a point of view or perspective on states of things that prevents the experience of differences in kind [qualitative as opposed to quantitative differences]. The illusion, therefore, is not merely the expression of a deficiency in our nature but arises from the actual world that we inhabit. This explains why for Deleuze the task of Bergsonism is not simply one of coming up with a new psychology of time but must, instead, be one of articulating a complex ontology or an ontology of the complex. We are not simply caught in subject-object relations that are the result of the limitations of our knowledge; rather, reifications arise from out of the tendency of the real itself, in the very terms of its evolution, to proceed via differences of degree. For Bergson philosophy, as the vocation of the overhuman, must assume a violent form, doing violence to both scientific practice and to the habits of the mind. (Ansell-Pearson 1999:) [emphases added]

But surely we are not simply dealing with “habits of the mind” if evolution created rational consciousness as Bergson claims? In other words rational consciousness must also be creative if the evolution that created it is creative. And this contention is supported by the fact that science is not reducible to mechanism as Bergson seeks to prove. Mechanism is merely a methodology and science possess an extremely creative dimension as Feyerabend has demonstrated (1975).

On the other hand it certainly is the case that science is materialistic. From a philosophical perspective we would say that science is based upon a materialist ontology. And if we return to the passage from Ansell-Pearson quoted above it is interesting to note that he suggests that Bergson and Deleuze pursue an “ontology of the complex”. This is significant because in our discussion of Bergson up to this point we have seen that Bergson’s exclusion of matter from an ontology of the complex is mistaken because matter exhibits highly complex organisation and behaviour. Certainly, the contemporary scientific field of complexity studies does not make any distinction between inanimate and living systems. There is accordingly a fundamental problem in Bergson’s philosophy regarding his exclusion of materiality from complexity which rests on his anthropic insistance that evolution is a pyschological phenomenon which is to say its essence is psyche or soul which he excludes from inanimate matter.

Bergson’s philosophy is profoundly dualistic for someone who preaches continuity and interconnectedness. He sets up an opposition between animate and inanimate matter that also extends to a psychology that splits mind into rational consciousness and creative (duration) consciousness, which he calls “intuition”: a mode of consciousness related to the instinctive appreciation of the real possessed by animals. Creative consciousness is associated with life whereas rational consciousness is connected with inanimate matter. Such a dichotomy demands deconstruction. From the point of view of Bergson’s own theory of duration should not we speak instead of these two tendencies interpenetrating each other? It is certainly the case that science is not deathly and uncreative; neither is it the case that creative arts offer a mode of consciousness that could be compared to the next step in evolution.

There is something distinctly hyperbolic about the Bergsonian psychological concept of duration as transcending reason that resonates with Nietzsche’s notion of the overhuman. We can note Ansell-Pearson’s reference to the “overhuman” in the above quotation. The assumption is that life is spiritual and inanimate matter is not; and because evolution created life it must be understood in terms of life in a manner that excludes the role played by what we would now refer to as self-organising molecular processes. In short Bergson is not only anthropic he is anthropocentric as is evident when he notes that “the essential causes working along these diverse roads [of evolution] are of psychological nature” Which is to say the vital impulse is an originary psyche. Thus William Kelley Write can note that

In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion [1932], Bergson extends his philosophy of evolution … The vital impulse is God, or comes from God, is God operative in evolution. God is present in all life, and He has reached a higher level of attainment of His purposes in us than in other organisms on the earth. (Wright 1941: )

We can also note the extraordinary assertion in Matter and Memory (1896) that “pure memory” is inscribed in a mysterious spiritual substance that transcends matter and the brain: which explains Bergson’s reference to the “persistence of the past in the present” in the evolutionary process. And it is in Matter and Memory that Bergson tells us that he considers mind in dualistic terms where spirit is not only defined as distinct from the body but also the brain. Which is to say mind, or psyche, for Bergson transcends the brain which is merely a part of the material body.

There are questions to pose, for example what is matter in Bergson’s view? In Matter and Memory he provides a poetic explication: “If you abolish my consciousness … matter resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and traveling in every direction like shivers.” (Bergson 1994: ). Matter then is conceived as an interconnected flux of vibrations but, apparently, it is mind that provides the organisation. And without mind, it would appear, this remarkable interconnected flux of vibrations is beyond the spiritual. The separation of spirit from inanimate matter appears to be a prejudice based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, if we turn to Buddhism we do not find such dualism instead there is a concatenation of mind and matter and a “negative ontology” that transcends “the fundamental dichotomy of being and nonbeing” (Halbfass 1992: ).
We need to pursue the Bergsonian dualism further by addressing the point where he considers the critical evolutionary point where inanimate matter ends and life begins. Bergson speculates on August Weismann’s proposition that even the most complex organism stems from an originary germ-plasm (gamete). Weismann’s thesis is important in the history of evolutionary theory because it rejects Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristic which postulates that development of a particular organism in the course of an organism’s life can be passed on to its progeny. Weismann proposed the most reasonable thesis prior to the discovery of DNA which is that characteristics can only be transferred via germ-plasm. Bergson reflects on this notion:

An organism such as a higher vertebrate is the most individuated of all organisms; yet, if we take into account that it is only the development of an ovum forming part of the body of its mother and of a spermatozoon belonging to the body of its father … we shall realize that every individual organism, even that of a man, is merely a bud that has sprouted on the combined body of both its parents. Where, then, does the vital principle of the individual begin or end? Gradually we shall be carried further and further back, up to the individual’s remotest ancestors: we shall find him solidary with each of them, solidary with that little mass of protoplasmic jelly which is probably at the root of the genealogical tree of life. (Bergson 1913: ) [emphasis added]

According to Bergson the “vital principle” that is “the root of … the tree of life” lies in this germinal “little mass of protoplasmic jelly”. In this sense Bergson does not move much further than Nietzsche who also postulated a vital principle he described as a “form-shaping force” ultimately inhabiting the living cell. But the intellectual situation changes in the second half of the twentieth century with the discovery of the role played by DNA. It is no longer possible to posit a strict dividing line between life and nonlife. The cell or germ-plasm is no longer the starting point. Vitalism ceases to be an option unless we extend the spiritual into the realm of the inanimate.

If the simplest single cell, the prokaryote, which we now know consists of a membrane containing a strand of DNA can embody a spiritual essence according to Nietzsche and Bergson then why not the strand of DNA itself? This becomes an even more pressing question when the biophysicist Werner Loewenstein goes so far as to use the term “molecular cognition” in the context of discussing the role of DNA in evolution (Loewenstein 2003: ). In Bergsonian terms could not “molecular cognition” be classed as instinct? Not if we accept Bergson’s privileging of the animate over the inanimate.


Human and Squid Camera-Eye

Although Bergson accepts Weismann’s germ-plasm theory he identifies a very significant problem in Darwinian evolutionary theory which is now referred to as the phenomena of parallel and convergent evolution where two different species independently develop similar traits. Parallel evolution is less problematic because there is a common ancestor; convergent evolution is more remarkable because there is no evidence of a common ancestor that could explain the duplication of the particular trait. The classic instance is the convergent evolution of the eye in cephalopods (e.g. squid) and vertebrates such as mammals.

The camera eye of cephalopods such as the squid and vertebrates is similar in that in both cases there is a lens and a retina, the principal difference being that in the cephalopod eye blood and nerve vessels enter from the back of the retina rather than from the front as is the case in vertebrate eyes. Bergson notes that the last common ancestor of both species is belongs to Infusoria (Bergson 1913: ), now called Protista, which are microorganisms some of which merely possess a rudimentary photosensitive spot. Such common ancestry provides no explanation of how the complex eye developed in both vertebrates and cephalopods. One can appreciate therefore why Bergson continually returns to the problem of the convergent evolution of the camera-eye in Creative Evolution.

Contemporary evolutionary theory explains this instance of convergent evolution via natural selection although it is also possible to cite the limitations imposed by the DNA code. Nevertheless, the coincidence is remarkable and has not been explained in detail by current evolutionary theory. What we can say, however, as Neil A. Manson notes, is that “the camera-eye has evolved independently several other times, notably in the alciopid polychaetes (Hermans and Eakin 1974), as well as in at least three groups of snails: heteropods, littoriniids (Hamilton et al. 1983), and strombids (Gillary and Gillary 1979).” (Manson 2003: ). Manson also notes that the principle building blocks of the eye notably lens proteins (crystallins) and the sensor protein rhodopsin “evolved long before the first eye and have been co-opted from previous functions” (Manson 2003: ). Here we see the phenomenon of exaptation that we referred to previously in the discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophical response to evolution.

What we encounter in the case of Bergson’s contemplation of the convergent evolution of the camera-eye is his absolute refusal to accept the role of accident in Darwin’s materialistic explanation of evolution. This resistance to accident is somewhat curious given his notion of the fundamental unpredictability of the creative process of evolution. But perhaps Bergson was ahead of his time because today we have chaos and complexity theory which reveal that what once appeared to be mere accident in fact has a complex structure: and it is certainly the case that evolution is a highly complex system. In contrast to Bergson Nietzsche was much more positive with regard to chance and we have noted the influence that this had on the aesthetics of chance in Dada and Surrealism which had a major impact on the arts in the second half of the twentieth century. If Nietzsche had addressed the role of chance in evolutionary theory he would probably have been positive towards it based upon his affirmation of the divine dice throw: God as the dice player. But Bergson is not so inclined probably due to his notions of an original harmony in the life impulse and the “unorganised” character of matter in contrast to the “organised” nature of life and mind considered as spirit or soul. Indeed, his reference to the “unorganised” not possessing duration, which is the preserve of mind as spirit, appears to entail an opposition between duration and chance. Thus Bergson notes:

The Darwinian idea of adaptation by automatic elimination of the unadapted is a simple and clear idea. But, just because it attributes to the outer cause which controls evolution a merely negative influence, it has great difficulty in accounting for the progressive and, so to say, rectilinear development of complex apparatus such as we are about to examine. How much greater will this difficulty be in the case of the similar structure of two extremely complex organs on two entirely different lines of evolution! An accidental variation, however minute, implies the working of a great number of small physical and chemical causes. An accumulation of accidental variations, such as would be necessary to produce a complex structure, requires therefore the concurrence of an almost infinite number of infinitesimal causes. Why should these causes, entirely accidental, recur the same, and in the same order, at different points of space and time? (Bergson 1913: )

Later Bergson notes “convergence does not appear possible in the Darwinian, and especially the neo-Darwinian, theory of insensible accidental variations” (Bergson 1913: ). In this last quotation we have Bergson’s psychologism or mentalism writ large. Accidental variations cannot play a role in the evolution because they are “insensible”. Accordingly Bergson’s originary life impulse is defined as “sensible” which is to say it is a psyche or soul. We might recall here Moore citing Nietzsche “Sensation is not the result of the cell; rather, the cell is the result of sensation … That which is real [Das Substantielle] is sensation” (in Moore 2002: ). Like Bergson Nietzsche conceives of his form shaping force as a psyche or soul of nature, hence he notes that “we must appeal to some inner directing principle in order to account for this convergence of effects” (Bergson 1913: ). Bergson’s recourse to a soul of nature places him in the romantic tradition, like Nietzsche.

Such considerations lead Bergson to consider the alternative theory of evolution offered in his time by neo-Lamarckism Bergson explains “Neo-Lamarckism is … of all the later forms of evolutionism, the only one capable of admitting an internal and psychological principle of development” (Bergson 1913: ). As has been noted, Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristic postulates that development of a particular organism in the course of an organism’s life can be passed on to its progeny. Neo-Lamarckism takes this notion a step further by suggesting that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is transmitted to offspring via an influence of specific developments of the body on the Weismannian germ-plasm. But for Bergson Lamarckism is as problematic as Darwinian evolution because accident still plays a crucial role. He asks the question:

How, then, shall we expect … [the inheritance of acquired characteristics] to develop an organ such as the eye? When we think of the enormous number of variations, all in the same direction, that we must suppose to be accumulated before the passage from the pigment-spot of the Infusorian to the eye of the mollusc and of the vertebrate is possible, we do not see how heredity, as we observe it, could ever have determined this piling-up of differences, even supposing that individual efforts could have produced each of them singly. That is to say that neo-Lamarckism is no more able than any other form of evolutionism to solve the problem. (Bergson 1913: )

This is quite an extraordinary passage because even though Bergson accepts that it might be possible for an individual to gradually develop the capabilities of a given organ and pass this on via the germ-plasm to offspring, even this is claimed to be insufficient to produce the camera-like eye. Such considerations suggest that Bergson is positing the vital impulse as a psyche or soul as a metaphysical variant on the theological notion there is a divine design informing evolution. But this is not the case because Bergson is critical of teleological explications of evolution which he refers to as “finalism”.

Bergson rejects teleological finalism when he states: “It would be futile to try to assign to life an end, in the human sense of the word. To speak of an end is to think of a pre-existing model which has only to be realized. It is to suppose, therefore, that all is given, and that the future can be read in the present.” (Bergson 1913: ). This appears pretty categorical, but we need to consider that his rejection of the notion of a pre-existing model is based on his description of human intellect as providing “only a motionless and fragmentary view of life, and which naturally takes its stand outside of time” (Bergson 1913: ). Life on the other hand is organised, it “progresses and endures in time” (Bergson 1913: ). The arrow of time in science has only one destination which is entropy, death: the apparently inevitable “heat death” of the universe some billions of years in the future. And Bergson comments on entropy in Creative Evolution (Bergson 1913:  ff.). But there is another arrow of time which is negative entropy the “improbable” production of increasing complexity of in matter that leads to life and consciousness. Anachronistically one might say that it is this second arrow that Bergson stresses in Creative Evolution but he was writing at a time when there was no scientific notion of this second arrow, this negentropic arrow, which makes his account simultaneously prescient and curiously incomplete. He figures rational consciousness as antithetical to what we would now call the second arrow of time, the negentropic arrow. A more coherent account would accept that the evolution of language and what Bergson frames as mechanistic intellect as being effects of the negentropic arrow of time. Indeed Bergson’s lack of emphasis on language in his philosophy is a critical symptom of the incompleteness of his thesis. Rather than posing language and reason as higher stages in the evolutionary process Bergson seems to frame them as regressions. But regression seems more evident in Bergson’s stress on intuition and instinct.

It is also the case that despite his categorical rejection of finalism he remains somewhat equivocal on the subject. On the one hand he rejects finalism on the other hand he describes his own position as in terms of a “special sense” of finalism. Bergson notes that his notion of an “inner directing principle” (Bergson 1913: ) “resembles finalism” (Bergson 1913: ) but is different:

Like radical finalism, although in a vaguer form, our philosophy represents the organized world as a harmonious whole. But this harmony is far from being as perfect as it has been claimed to be. It admits of much discord, because each species, each individual even, retains only a certain impetus from the universal vital impulsion and tends to use this energy in its own interest. In this consists adaptation. (Bergson 1913: )

On the one hand Bergson speaks of the “organised world as a harmonious whole”, where “organised world” means the world of living matter. On the other hand as evolution develops taking its multiplicity of directions it “admits of much discord”. But the originary “vital impulsion”, which is his pre-negentropic notion of the second arrow of time, is not discordant; the implication being that the “organised world as a harmonious whole” is somehow mapped in the vital impulsion, the élan vital. Although there is no telos (end) there is an arche (origin). Bergson’s theory of creative evolution appears to postulate a univocal originary creative genius which is remarkably akin to the Judeo-Christian notions of God and free will. God provides the original creative impulse but also allows free will which in Bergsonian terms becomes evident in the struggle and discord of nature and the unpredictability of the creative evolutionary process. This reading seems confirmed when Bergson asserts:

Harmony … does not exist in fact; it exists rather in principle; I mean that the original impetus is a common impetus, and the higher we ascend the stream of life the more do diverse tendencies appear complementary to each other. Thus the wind at a street-corner divides into diverging currents which are all one and the same gust. (Bergson 1913: )

With regard to the problem of convergent evolution Bergson goes on to note that “‘complementarity,’ is revealed only in the mass, in tendencies rather than in states” (Bergson 1913: ). One could argue that in this last statement Bergson effectively admits that this thesis cannot explain the convergent evolution of the eye. If complementarity in evolution is only evident in “the mass” then specific features such as the camera-eye cannot be explained by Bergson’s notion of a pre-established harmony inherent in the vital impulse. Accordingly, Bergson’s notion of a primordial harmony inherent in the vital impulse provides a much weaker explanation of how a complex organism such as the camera-eye could evolve independently along two entirely different lines of evolution than that offered by Darwinian evolution based upon the interaction of accident and natural selection. And, of course, we now have the benefit after the discovery of DNA of concrete evidence of genetic mutation wherein individual letters (GACT) of the DNA code become altered in individual genes causing changes in the organism that alter the manner in which that organism is selected by the environment. Which is to say Bergson’s thesis that accident does not play a role in evolution has been thoroughly refuted.

After his consideration of the varieties of evolutionary theory available in the first decade of the twentieth century Darwinism, neo-Darwinism, Lamarckism, neo-Lamarckism; and Weisman’s concept of germ-plasm, Bergson arrives at the zoologist Theodor Eimer’s now discredited theory of “orthogenesis”. “Orthogenesis is defined by Webster New International Dictionary as “Variation which in successive generations of an organism follows some particular line, resulting in the evolution of some new type irrespective of the effect of natural selection or other external factor; determinate variation or evolution”. Thomas Munro provides an interesting history of the concept noting that it originated

in the botanical researches of Carl Wilhelm Nägeli ( 1817-1891). 31 From his studies of the Hegelian philosophy, he derived the notion that a species is a summary of all similar individuals and, as such, an absolute idea. … Holding to the older beliefs in spontaneous generation and Lamarckism, he worked out a theory of descent in opposition to those of Darwin and Haeckel. Rejecting the idea of natural selection as the sole cause of evolution, he proposed, instead that of Vervollkommungskraft [power of perfection]–that evolution is an inherent force of life, not a process thrust on living beings from outside. This internal force he also called nisus formativus, and defined it as one by which the development of life is led in a certain direction; not (as Darwin thought) to variations in every possible direction. However, he insisted that it was not a special life-force, but like the inertia in inorganic nature. (Monro 1963: )

This reference to Nägeli is of interest to the present discussion because Nägeli was one of the sources for Nietzsche’s philosophical consideration of Darwinian evolution (Ansell-Pearson 1997: ). Accordingly we can establish a common intellectual background for both Nietzsche and Bergson’s critique of Darwinian evolution in the fact that both refer to the reception of Darwin in 19th-century German biological literature which was influenced, as has been noted, by romantic-idealist Naturphilosophie. Bergson does not refer to Nägeli, however, but rather to the development of Nägeli’s ideas by Eimer. Munro explains:

From Nägeli’s beginning, Theodor Eimer ( 1843-98) developed the theory which he called “orthogenesis.” 32 He also rejected Darwin’s concept of variation in all possible directions, and held that the evolution of life must depend on a force operating in a definite direction. … Selection alone, he said, can not produce anything new; the inner force is the true origin of life. (Monro 1963: )

Eimer’s concept of “a force operating in a definite direction” becomes the principle argument informing Bergson theory of creative evolution when he tells us that after his consideration of Lamarckism and neo-Lamarckism:

We … arrive at a hypothesis like Eimer’s, according to which the variations of different characters continue from generation to generation in definite directions. This hypothesis seems plausible to us, within the limits in which Eimer himself retains it. Of course, the evolution of the organic world cannot be predetermined as a whole. We claim, on the contrary, that the spontaneity of life is manifested by a continual creation of new forms succeeding others. But this indetermination cannot be complete; it must leave a certain part to determination. An organ like the eye, for example, must have been formed by just a continual changing in a definite direction. Indeed, we do not see how otherwise to explain the likeness of structure of the eye in species that have not the same history. (Bergson 1913: )

For Bergson a vital-pychological force operating in a definite direction solves the problem convergent evolution and derails the central role played by accident in Darwinian theory. But this is not the case because “‘complementarity,’ is revealed only in the mass, in tendencies rather than in states” (Bergson 1913: 51) and the camera-eye is most definitely a “state” and not a tendency. In taking on the thorny problem of convergent evolution Bergson does not undermine Darwin’s materialist theory of evolution; instead, he subverts his own vitalistic thesis.

Bergson’s thesis is revealed as incomplete and the key lacuna in his thesis regards language and information. We can cite the rise in information theory in science in the second half of the twentieth century which is contemporaneous with the discovery of the language of life in the inanimate molecules DNA and RNA. Bergson’s vitalist theory of creative evolution frames intellect, and implicitly language, as mechanistic. He valorises instead the pre-linguistic faculties of intuition and instinct in a typically romantic manner. But after the discovery of DNA and the contributions of molecular biology to the Darwinian theory of evolution we have to accept the roles of genetic “language” and accidental slips of the genetic tongue (mutations) due to the sheer weight of evidence.

Yet, in a sense Bergson’s continued emphasis upon the “psychological” aspect of evolution is confirmed in contemporary science, but not in the quasi-theological and anthropocentric manner in which he conceived it. We can now consider molecules such as DNA and RNA as “cognitive”. But from the scientific perspective this “psychological” feature of nature becomes inanimate whereas from Bergson’s anthropic perspective the essence of the “psychological” dimension of evolution is animate. Bergson is speaking fundamentally about a soul or psyche driving evolution whereas contemporary science thinks of the cognitive in the context of DNA and RNA in terms of information processing in self-organising systems.

Science proceeds, mechanistically, from the inanimate to the animate making no distinction between these two stages of evolution. Indeed, science even applies an inanimate metaphor to the highest product of evolution—consciousness—when it considers the operations of the brain in terms of “information processing”. Here the fundamental analogy is to the inanimate mechanism that is the computer, what Bergson would call a “superhuman calculator”. At this point we can become sympathetic to Bergson’s project because it certainly does appear to be the case that science is reducing the animate and the psychological to inanimate processes. Science does this due to its methodology. But it is certainly the case that from a phenomenological standpoint when we take our personal consciousness into account this reduction of life and consciousness to the inanimate is questionable. There is a qualitative difference between our sense of being alive and the character of inanimate matter.

It is also the case, however, that Bergson’s reduction of evolutionary process to life and psyche is as questionable as the scientific reduction of all phenomena to mechanistic processes. Science posits an ontology of the inanimate a monism of the inanimate, whereas Bergson posits a strict dualism between the animate and the inanimate; between mechanism and psyche or soul.

Both Nietzsche and Bergson’s antagonism to mechanism and materialism forced them to postulate a mysterious, fundamentally spiritual, entity which both describe in terms of a vital force. Such a notion was acceptable against the background of German idealist and romantic philosophy and the state of development of 19th-century science. But it is significantly less acceptable in the context of 20th-century science which began to examine holistic, self-organising complex systems. Rather than postulating a mysterious vital principle, attention turned in the second half of the 20th century towards the notion that life and consciousness are “emergent” effects of complex systems. In other words it is the operation of extremely complex processes that produces the phenomena we refer to as life and consciousness. Complexity theory is not mechanistic because life and consciousness are understood as qualitatively different from the inanimate in spite of the fact that they are produced by fundamentally inanimate forces. But complexity theory is materialist, and in this sense it remains scientific.

Indeed, what is especially attractive about complexity theory is that it overcomes the binary opposition between the animate and the inanimate evident in Bergson’s theory of evolution. Rather than reducing life to the condition of the inanimate complexity theory accepts that life is qualitatively different. But, crucially, life is not transcendent over material processes it is immanent in the material processes that lead to its emergence. Similarly consciousness is qualitatively different from the living cells (neurons) that produce it but emerges out of such processes. It is entirely possible, for example, that silicon based computers however powerful they become will never attain consciousness. If we think of life as a phase shift that emerges out of complex material systems and consciousness as a more sublime phase shift then we might postulate that only a living organisms such as the brain can produce consciousness. Jumping from the inanimate electronic computer to the third phase that is consciousness may not be possible. It may be necessary to pass through the second phase of life first.

Where Nietzsche and Bergson’s philosophies are most successful is in their development of poetic preludes to complexity theory, both consider phenomena in terms of interrelated dynamic complexes. Yet both vitiate this process approach to phenomena by posulating a transcendental vital-psychic force. In both cases it would appear that the illusion of the integrity of consciousness that both philosophers trenchantly critiqued nevertheless influenced their belief in an underlying spiritual force which can be understood as a metaphysical analogue of God.


  1. 2The sepeation of spirit from inaminate matter appears to be a prejudice based on the Judeo-Christian tradition…if we turn to buddhism…..

    Hmmm, is that really so?

    “God is in all things. God is within my own being, constantly creating it. The object of all prayer methods is to help us to meet God ‘closer to me than I am to myself’

    Geard Hughes God of Surprises 1996 Darton Longman and Todd


    The entire lower world is centred in man-but man is centred in Christ and Christ in God. Transposed into Teilhard’s terms, this notion may be expressed as follows: cosmogenesis eventuates through biogenesis in a noogenesis; but the noo-genesis is consumated in a Christo genesis…”The Universe” wrote Henri Bergson, “is a machine for making gods” As Teilhard envisaged it, we could say that the world is an instrument for for realising the total Christ. p139

    An introduction to Teilhad de Chardin N.M WildersCollins`1968 London

    It is most emphatically not the case that the seperation of spirit and matter is the heart of the Judeo Christian tradition of Immanence Omnipotence and Transcendence. Catholic tradition sees the eucharist as the great effectual sign of immanence and a representative of the sacramental nature of the orb we call the earth and everything upon and within it belongs to God.The buddhist view sees all things upon the same wavelength whilst the Christian worldview sees analog and digital running side by side-rather like my TV- blended yet seperate.

    Comment by Mike Horsnall — March 21, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

  2. Bergson was not influenced by Nietzsche. They belong to different traditions. Bergson is in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste Robinet, Maine de Biran, and Lamarck. This tradition is pragmatic (action first), anti reductionism, and was triyng to establish a theory of the living which is also a theory of evolution into which complexification is meaningfull. Darwinism and neo-Darwinism is purely reductionism and explain evolution of the living without taking into account the internal overall organization of the living. Determinism and reductionism is built-in the scientific method since Galileo and Descartes. By its very essence, this method geometrizes the world and spatialize time. Berson’s central idea has been to see that real time is different from the spatialized time and it why living organism are not machines. He see life evolution as not shape from the outside as any mechanisms but are shaped from the inside towards increasing power of action and movement. The whole evolutionary past of the organism that is embodied in the hierarchical organization of the organism including its nervous system is currently acting in the evolutionary direction right now. We are currently moving towards a form of collective intelligence where the same the biological processes are externalizing themself into electronic forms and where collectively we are gradually forming a super organism on this planet. Language, books, printing press, electronic communications, web, web social network, etc are all tools of collective conscousness. Since the 1960’s, we are trying to mathematically understand a how new order emerged in dynamic systems in order to create a meta theory of cosmic evolution. If Bergson was right about time and creation then these approaches will fail because there is no time in the platonic mathematical world, nothing new can really emerge from mathematics. Leibniz had understood that and that is why he tried to conceive elementary mater as living atoms. The Germain idealist tradition has developed this idea. Our scientific approach has since Descartes rejected dynamic Aristotlean model which was intrinsically biological for the mathematical method which can only deal with the efficient causes. The mind-body problem was created. We will need a neo-Aristotleism in order to understand the evolution of the Universe.

    Comment by Louis Brassard — April 28, 2012 @ 3:21 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress

Bad Behavior has blocked 10580 access attempts in the last 7 days.