Metaphysics in Henri Bergson (from Metaphysics – A Critical Survey of its Meaning, by Takatura Ando, second enlarged edition, The Hague 1974)
Being a radical dualist in the French tradition since Descartes, Bergson maintained that intelligence and intuition were quite heterogenous. The function of intelligence is analysis and interpretation by means of symbols, and this kind of knowledge constitutes positive science.The function of intuition is immediate sympathy with the object, and this is the method of metaphysics. To go from intuition to analysis is easy, but the opposite direction is impossible. For this reason metaphysical knowledge is considered to be superior to and more profound than science. Bergson says repeatedly that scientific knowledge is ruled by practical interest – and this is also the fundamental idea of William James’ pragmatism. What distinguishes Bergson from James is that he makes much of the disinterested knowledge of metaphysics whilst James sticks to pragmatic knowledge. Science is an instrument for action, but philosophy or metaphysics is pure contemplation. This is not a new idea. The idea of dividing knowledge into theoretical and practical, philosophy being theoretical, is classical, whereas that of making practical knowledge the essence of science can be traced back to Francis Bacon. What is peculiar to Bergson is only his special use of the concepts of intuition and intelligence – [in French and] best translated as ‘Understanding’. Intuition is the method of philosophy, intelligence the method of science.
French philosophers generally do not distinguish Understanding and Reason. This neglect of our heritage from ancient and mediaeval times, to say nothing of Kant and Hegel, is a great disadvantage to them. It may result in their making the notion of Understanding too wide, so as to contain Reason. But in Bergson’s case intelligence [Fr.] in general has an extremely restricted role and cannot include intellectual activities other than that of understanding. Besides understanding he admits no faculty other than intuition, so that the intellectual activities excluded from intelligence [Fr.] are forced into intuition. Bergson seems to be a little ashamed that he is forced to use the term ‘intuition’. He confesses that he hesitated for a long time to use the word, and apologizes for using it to express metaphysical activity, which is mainly the inner cognition of spirit by spirit, and secondarily the cognition of [the] essence which exists in matter. We understand what Bergson means by the word ‘intuition’: it is above all immediate consciousness. “Intuition signifies first of all consciousness, immediate consciousness, a vision which is hardly distinguished from the object seen, knowledge which is in contact and even coincidence.” But as far as it is immediate consciousness, it is not even distinguished from sensation or perception, whereas metaphysics is by no means mere sense-perception. Bergson is therefore forced to invent another kind of immediate consciousness. “This experience, when it is concerned with a material object, will be called vision, touch, or in general external perception, and when it tends to spirit it will take the name of intuition.” This is a “super-intellectual intuition”. As an example of intellectual intuition, we have Aristotle’s ‘nous’ [intellect], also immediate consciousness like sense-perception but yet concerned with intelligible objects. Does Bergson really mean that his metaphysics is a system of intellectual ‘nous’-like intuition? This is quite implausible, for he is a firm anti-Aristotelian, though in fact his thought is not so divergent from Aristotle’s as he imagined. Anyhow, the difference between Bergson’s intuition and Aristotle’s ‘nous’ is that intuition and its object, spirit, are in time and movable, while ‘nous’ is concerned with eternal forms. According to Bergson, “the intuition of which he is talking is concerned first of all with inner duration. It seizes succession, which is not juxtaposition, a growth from inside, the uninterrupted prolongation of the past into the present which encroaches upon the future. This is the direct vision of spirit by spirit”. With regard to the ordinariness of this concept of time, we only suggest reference to Heidegger’s criticism [in his Sein und Zeit]. What is most important for the moment is to see how Bergson’s spirit is situated in a lower order than is Aristotle’s ‘nous’. Instead of an eternal and universal principle, spirit is a formless entity changing and floating in time. It is a rather indefinite material principle which the Greeks called ‘hyle’ [matter, stuff]. In other words, it is nothing but consciousness as a purely psychological phenomenon. Consequently, metaphysics which is yielded by such intuition is reduced to psychology, not the psychology as an objective positive science, but psychology in the vulgar sense of the word as a description of subjective consciousness. We wonder if it is really necessary to distinguish intuition from sensation for the sake of such a kind of metaphysics. We may distinguish spirit from matter by the differentiae of time and space. But to characterize spirit by its intelligibility, as distinct from our sensible consciousness, we cannot dispense with concepts. This way is, however, closed to Bergson by his own rejection of all intellectual elements from metaphysics.