‘Bergson’s Radical Challenge to Philosophy and the Life Sciences’ – 27th February 2019, Trinity College, Oxford – Report by Yaron Wolf

Almost a 100 years after Bergson delivered ‘The Possible and the Real’ as a talk at Oxford (1920; published in 1934’s La Pensée et le Mouvant/The Creative Mind). Bergson’s conception of time, his influence upon 20th century biology, and his views on art were at the center of the seminar ‘Bergson’s Radical Challenge to Philosophy and the Life Sciences‘, which took place in Trinity College, Oxford, 27th of February 2019. Part of a recent re-introduction of Bergson’s thought into the Anglophone theoretical landscape, the event was organized in the context of the interdisciplinary TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) network ‘Life Itself in Theory and Practice’, which examines contemporary resonances of the concept of life in philosophy, culture, and the sciences.

The three talks in the event invited seminar participants to engage in a discussion of new interpretative proposals concerning Bergson’s ideas, and to explore their relevance for contemporary debates. It was a pleasure to have well-attended, lively, and interested discussion with Oxford faculty and students from across the humanities and sciences.

Yaron Wolf The Challenges of Duration

The talk provided an introduction to Bergson’s works and biography, and developed a sketch of Bergsonian duration in its experiential and metaphysical ramifications, in relation to recent work in the philosophy of mind. The opening introduced the trajectory of Bergson’s key works, from the Essai/Time and Free Will to The Creative Mind, as well as key biographical details, focusing on the first two decades of the 20th century. A discussion of a number of aspects related to the concept of duration followed. The first part surveyed Bergson’s critique of the application of spatial categories to temporal experience, presenting Bergson’s thought experiments and influential experiential examples from Time and Free Will. The second part proceeded to outline Bergson’s progression towards an account of the reality of time, an effort commencing in Matter and Memory. Several contemporary challenges towards the development of such a view were underlined. These include, in particular, recent discussions of temporal experience in scholarship defending the ‘B-theory’, or ‘block-universe’ view of time. The talk concluded by suggesting ways in which Bergson’s view can potentially address these challenges.

Emily Herring How Bergson Helped 20th-Century Biologists Get Creative About Evolution

In the first decades of the 20th century, Henri Bergson was an international celebrity. Among Bergson’s wide readership were many biologists including zoologist Julian Huxley (the grandson of Thomas Huxley, who was also known as “Darwin’s bulldog”), geneticist Arthur Darbishire, and animal behavior scientist Conwy Lloyd Morgan.

What can a philosopher like Bergson teach us about the history of biology? The fact that many 20th-century biologists admired Bergson, and integrated his philosophical reflections about life into their scientific theories about life, clashes with the traditional representation of the 20th century as the era of extreme scientific specialization and of the definitive separation between science and philosophy. The talk proposed to use the little-studied case of Bergson’s reception among the biologists of his time to think about the relationship between science and philosophy, both in the history of 20th-century biology, and, more generally, in our current state of affairs in which the humanities are often devalued. Bergson will help us think about how scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge can be viewed as complementary.

Mark Sinclair Bergson on Art, Possibility, and Retroactivity

In a number of occasions, Bergson appeals to experience of the arts, to what is traditionally called ‘fine art’, in order to support his metaphysical and epistemological claims. Time and Free Will compares the unity of temporal experience, of real duration to that of a ‘phrase in a melody’. Bergson thinks about freedom by analogy with artistic creation: our acts are free when they “spring from our own personality, when they express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it that one sometimes finds between the artist and his work”. Bergson also reflects on intuition as a philosophical method against the background of a certain idea of artistic intuition and of truth in art. Some of the motivation and justification for Bergson’s claim that intuition can deliver truths to us—that conceptual thought, if left to its own devices, can never attain—derived from ideas about the operation of intuition and genius in fine art.

Bergson did not develop these appeals to art with a book devoted solely to aesthetics or the philosophy of art. Instead of treating art as an issue apart, Bergson appeals to experience of the arts in order to support metaphysical claims, and to ground truths that resist and transcend conceptual thought. Hence, if Bergson offers a ‘philosophy of art’, this phrase is to be understood both as an objective genitive, whereby philosophy takes art for its object and clarifies it by its own lights, and as a subjective genitive, according to which the philosophy, as an ‘artistic philosophy’, belongs to the art and is an expression of it. Art, for Bergson, is as much an answer as a question, as much a solution as a problem in its own right.

To understand what Bergson says about art, therefore, is to understand not just a particular aspect of his thinking but his philosophy as a whole. The talk discussed first his account of the ‘object’ or purpose of art in Time and Free Will and Laughter, while the second section turned to the idea of creation and genius in the Creative Evolution. On this basis, we explored two other aspects of Bergson’s mature metaphysics that derive from his reflection on artistic creation: the critique of the modal category of possibility and his associated account of retroactivity, the prima facie strange idea of a certain kind of backwards causation, in history.


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