Henri Bergson was a French winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. An important philosopher, Bergson’s philosophical and psychological insights into the nature of time and evolution have also affected the discipline of anthropology.
Bergson was educated in France at the Lycée Condorcet and the École Normale Supérieure, where he studied philosophy. He taught philosophy in secondary schools until he was appointed chair of philosophy at the Collège de France, where his popular lectures drew large crowds. Devoted to politics outside of the academy, Bergson resigned in 1921 to write and work for the League of Nations, and he would spend the years immediately preceding his death in 1941 opposing the Vichy government.
Bergson was primarily interested in the psychological and philosophical nature of intuition, but this interest lead to the examination of time and evolution—topics of great interest to anthropologists. He did not favor, in general, sociocultural explanations of phenomena. Even so, Bergson’s influence on anthropology can be traced to two texts in particular: Essai sur les donnes immédiates de la conscience in 1889 (Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness) and devolution créatice in 1907 (Creative Evolution). Bergson’s understanding of psychic states, their intensity, their duration, and the use of intuition as the proper method of studying such states had a general influence not just on anthropology, but psychology, literature, and philosophy as well.
Bergson’s critique of the concept of empty, homogenous time, what he called “objective time,” was part of a general questioning of the nature of time that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For anthropologists, Bergson’s notion that inner, or subjective, time is experienced as a flow, or durée (“duration”), and is only broken up by higher orders of rationalization is a tremendous insight. However, whereas Bergson privileged the individual as the locus of the codification of pure duration, anthropologists tend to see social categories at the root of such rationalization. Ultimately, the Bergsonian and anthropological views are compatible if one accepts that individuals are populated by inherently social concepts.
Whereas Bergson’s thinking on time had a more diffuse effect on anthropology, Bergson’s work on evolution touches directly on anthropological concerns. In Creative Evolution, Bergson returned to his thinking on time and intuition to argue against a notion of mechanistic evolution (as he would characterize Darwin’s view). Instead, Bergson posited a creative evolution based on élan vital (“creative urge”) that took the place of material selection. The creative urge, according to Bergson, accounted for the greater complexity of organisms over time. By placing intuition at the heart of the evolutionary process, Bergson offered a third way for anthropologists to understand evolution, as opposed to Darwin and Spencer. Although today Darwin’s view, modified by Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould, is more widely accepted, the effect of Bergson’s thinking can be seen in the works of others, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Bergson died of bronchitis on January 3,1941.
- Bergson, H. (1928). Time and free will: An essay on theimmediate data of consciousness (R. L. Pogson,). New York: Macmillan.
- Bergson, H. (1983). Creative evolution (A. Mitchell,). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.(Original work published 1911)
- Birx, H. J. (1984). Theories of evolution. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.