Book Review: Mark Sinclair, Bergson, 2019

Miguel Paley, New School for Social Research, New York City

After a long period of relative obscurity, Bergson’s thought and philosophy have once again piqued the interest of the academic community. The current ‘boom’ in Bergson studies has been particularly dramatic in the English-speaking world, where a number of works treating varied aspects of Bergson’s thought have recently been published. In the past few years alone, we’ve seen the publication of Keith Ansell Pearson’s Bergson: Thinking Beyond the Human Condition, a translation of Jankelevich’s classic Henri Bergson, Jimena Canales’ study of Bergson’s engagement with Einstein: The Physicist and the Philosopher, as well various collected volumes such as Beyond Bergson (ed by Andrea Pitts and Mark W. Westmoreland) which treats the relations between Bergson’s thought, colonialism, and race. The most recent contribution to this Bergsonian renaissance is Mark Sinclair’s Bergson.

As part of the Routledge Philosophers series, this book is primarily meant as an introduction to Bergson’s philosophy. The book however does much more. From the beginning, Sinclair claims to deliver the most extensive intellectual biography of Bergson available in English. Further, the book aims to liberate Bergson’s thought from any particular philosophical school by noting Bergson’s relevance to both the ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ traditions. Finally, in Sinclair’s own words, the book hopes to show both, “what Bergson was doing” as well as “what to do with Bergson”(4). In this review, we will provide an overview of some of the main ideas in the book, including some brief commentary throughout, before then ending with general assessment of the work. It is worth noting from the beginning, however, that with Bergson, Sinclair has provided an excellent book that should prove an invaluable resource to English readers of Bergson.

The book is broken up into eleven chapters, each of which roughly deals with one or two important aspects of Bergson’s thought rather than with specific works in isolation. In this sense, the book is similar to Jankelevitch’s in that they both avoid the error of splitting up Bergson’s philosophy, a philosophy of continuity and organic life, into discrete segments.[1] Beginning with an extensive intellectual biography in chapter one, the following chapters then explain key ideas both directly as well as in relation to Bergson’s intellectual development. Each chapter then concludes with a clear, paragraph-long summary. In line with the Routledge Philosophers series, the book ends with a handy glossary of key Bergsonian ideas.

Right from the beginning, chapter one is the jewel of the book. As Sinclair claims, this is his most significant contribution to English language discussions on Bergson. The chapter serves to dispel the misleading view that some have of Bergson as being a “solitary thinker whose ideas arrive without precedent in the tradition… a kind of ‘genius’”(3) Sinclair does this by taking the reader through a reconstruction of the French Spiritualist tradition, noting the similarities and influences of thinkers like Maine de Biran, Ravaisson, and Boutroux to Bergson’s thought. This historical reconstruction also serves to frame the goal of Bergson’s work as a whole: Following Ravaisson’s program, Sinclair sees Bergson philosophy as an attempt to provide a ‘spiritual realist’ interpretation of science and the world (9). Having traced Bergson’s influences, the chapter then briefly mentions how Bergson’s ideas were received throughout his lifetime, showing both the tremendous influence he had at his peak in popularity as well as how they eventually gave way to other more popular philosophical trends: Hegelian, Marxist, and Phenomenological. Finally, Sinclair studies Bergson’s effort as a statesman, something which is almost entirely absent from other works on Bergson. Bergson’s ‘war writings’ and his nationalistic stance during WWI are discussed both in the context of his broader philosophical works as well as with the vicissitudes of Bergson’s public image.

Chapters two and three then deal with the ideas of time and freedom. Here the book transitions to more traditional philosophical analysis and discusses Bergson’s views on time in relation to Spencer, Kant, Ravaisson, and Lachelier among others. Chapter two first reconstructs the basic arguments of Time and Free Will and explains what Bergson means when he describes duration as a qualitative, heterogenous multiplicity. Chapter three then explains how these ideas were brought to bear on the issue of human freedom. Throughout his exposition, Sinclair relates Bergson’s philosophical positions to contemporary views in analytic philosophy. Bergson’s duration is here explained and contrasted with reference to the positions of retentionalism, presentism, and extentionalism. Such references to current philosophical approaches continue throughout Bergson. Finally, setting the tone for the rest of the book, these two chapters conclude with a discussion of the problems that remained unresolved at this stage of Bergson’s thought and how it is that his subsequent works would seek to clarify them. As Sinclair sees it, Time & Free Will remains problematic for Bergson because of the overly psychological determination given to duration. This early understanding of duration separates time from the physical world to such a degree that there is no way to account for how the subject can instantiate his freedom in the world. This discussion serves as a transition to the presentation of Matter and Memory, a book which is presented as rectifying these issues in a few ways.

Throughout, Sinclair’s extensive research is brought to bear on a wealth of issues regarding Bergson’s thought and reception. It for instance clarifies how Russell’s misunderstanding of Bergson’s notion of space probably comes from a lack of familiarity with the concept’s origin in Ravaisson’s Of Habit, an important book in France at the time that was probably not known by Russell. Sinclair also defends ‘Time and Free Will’ as an appropriate title for the translation of Bergson’s work (a translation which other commentators have taken issue with) by citing some comments in Bergson’s dissertation which seem to point out that his concern was, indeed, specifically with the debate around freedom and determinism. In fact, the chapter also includes the first English translation of a short entry on freedom that Bergson wrote for Lalande’s philosophical dictionary.

Chapters four and five then deal with Matter and Memory by treating Bergson’s concepts of memory, mind, and world and showing how they purportedly solve the problems left open by Time and Free Will. The problem of dualism, that is, is solved through a consideration of memory. These chapters stand out from the rest of the work for two reasons. First, in what is perhaps the most idiosyncratic moment of the book, Sinclair decides to present Matter and Memory by following the order in which the chapters were written, not that in which they were later organized and published. Noting the difficulties of this book—perhaps the most challenging of his writings—Bergson would himself later recommend reading it in this way. More importantly, this chapter introduces maybe the most fundamental, recurring critiques of Bergson’s thought in the whole book: Bergson’s development of motor-habit as a mechanical phenomenon and his emphasis on ‘pure images’ and ‘pure memory’. For Sinclair, these two issues present the greatest hurdle in understanding how Bergson could claim to overcome the difficulties of dualism for they will remain, each in their own way, unassimilable to their dualist counterpart.

Nevertheless, Sinclair goes on to explain how Bergson sought to overcome dualism through an extension of the concept of duration as one allowing for different rhythms, “a thought whose difficulty Bergson recognizes”. It was by expanding the idea of duration to include the possibility of different rhythms that Bergson managed to claim to have reunited quality and quantity. In line with the spiritualist realist interpretation that Ravaisson had sought, this was meant to thus both ground science while also affirming the reality of spirit.  These difficult chapters then conclude their discussion of Matter and Memory by describing Bergson’s determination of matter itself as “a degree of mind and consciousness” (131).

Chapters six through eight move somewhat further away from a consideration of specific books and treat the subjects of laughter, knowledge, and art. Although Bergson did write a book on laughter, it is sometimes dismissed as an unimportant part of his work. Sinclair, however, presents the insights developed there as exemplifying how Bergson was reworking the ontology developed in Matter and Memory. Laughter, Bergson says, results from seeing a living body behave merely mechanistically. For Sinclair, Laughter is thus an implicit critique of one of the fundamental notions that Bergson had described in his former book. Laughter also shows a new side of Bergson; it is a social phenomenon, and in this way Bergson’s writing on the comic are said to also prefigure some of the ideas later developed in Two Sources of Morality and Religion.

Chapter seven then focuses on Bergson’s epistemology and method by tackling the problem of intuition, an issue which has attracted much attention in Bergson scholarship. Most interestingly, this chapter also begins to treat Bergson’s increased focus on biology, which would be the topic of his next book, Creative Evolution.

The following chapter, on the subject of art, is perhaps the most original part of Sinclair’s book. Bergson never wrote a treatise on aesthetics, once saying that by the time he might’ve done so he was already too old. Thus, absent a systematic treatise, Sinclair pieces together the various mentions of aesthetic themes throughout Bergson’s writings and attempts to provide what we might assume would have been Bergson’s aesthetic theory and how it developed over time. Sinclair calls Bergson’s early, would-be theory ‘an aesthetics of suggestion,’ by which he means a theory which understands art as that which “reveals nature to us” (198). As Bergson’s thought evolved his discussions of aesthetic phenomena changed focus and turned more to considerations of creation and genius. In this context, Sinclair weaves together some of Bergson’s thinking on art, biology, and temporality so as to show what a Bergsonian philosophy of history might look like. For Bergson, the thinker of novelty, freedom and duration are inescapable facts. This means that when considering an event or creation of any kind, one is only allowed to speak retroactively of it having been possible. Before an event took place, to speak of its possibility would be meaningless. Once something has occurred however, it retroactively lodges itself as possible in the past. As Sinclair explains, “This account of retroactivity points to a hermeneutic account of history and temporality that would move beyond Bergson’s previous reflections on time” (199).

Chapter nine returns to Bergson’s explicitly developed philosophy with a consideration of the theme of life as it appears in Creative Evolution. The chapter sets the stage by clarifying the various biological theories of Bergson’s day and explains how they are at play in his thought. Importantly, Sinclair also mentions a few of the things absent from Bergson’s biology and gestures at how things have changed since the time of its writing. Having explored the many details of Bergson’s various philosophical stances throughout the book, Sinclair is here also able to provide some of the most forceful and clear characterizations of Bergson’s metaphysics as a whole. As this chapter tells us, “Bergson is an animist, a spiritualist, and a panpsychist” (217). Further, Sinclair here clarifies that Bergson was not in any way a ‘vitalist’, a label that has been applied to his thought quite often.

Chapter ten turns to Bergson’s final work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, to present Bergson’s social and political thought. Bergson’s ethics are described as ‘anti-intellectualist’ by which is meant that the problem of ethical motivation cannot be grounded in any kind of function of reason or evaluative calculus. For Bergson rather, ethics can spring either from social-habits or from a kind of mystical, religious ‘openness’; there are ‘open’ and ‘closed’ forms of both morality and religion. Sinclair here explains and contrasts Bergson’s views by setting them up as a rebuttal to Durkheim’s thought. Against the latter, Bergson sought to emphasize the emotional source of moral behavior while also cautioning against the danger of seeing the state as a necessarily moral agent. The chapter also makes a connection between Bergson’s moral thought and the ideas developed in his war writings. Sinclair presents Bergson as a proto-vegetarian and feminist thinker who advocates for a simpler lifestyle as a response to the growing problems presented by modern technology. Against this picture however, Sinclair also expands on Bergson’s view of the will as presenting a philosophy of mastery and expansion, in the style of certain interpretations of Nietzsche. Although somewhat provocative, Sinclair always has ample evidence throughout Bergson’s writings for these types of claims.

Finally, the book ends with a consideration of the legacy of Bergson’s thinking for Western philosophy. While most of the exposition during the previous chapters of the book referred Bergson’s views to the ‘analytic’ style of philosophy, Sinclair here engages at some length with ‘continental’ thinkers like Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze. Discussion of Bergson’s relationship to Heidegger stands out as Sinclair presents some remarkable comments Heidegger wrote in his letters. In one particularly striking passage, taken from a letter of 1920, Heidegger writes to his wife, “I’m learning much in studying Bergson… problems that often Husserl considers in present conversations as amazing novelties have been clearly defined and solved by Bergson 20 years ago.” Here again, Sinclair takes up the issue of retroactivity and further develops what might have been Bergson’s philosophy of history, this time in the context of Heidegger’s critiques. Just as strongly as it began, the work thus ends by providing a highly valuable resource for those working on Bergson today.

 

Critical Assessment

In seeking to provide an introduction to Bergson, Sinclair really has accomplished a great deal. The breadth of topics treated is as remarkable as is their careful exposition. Above all, it is the wealth of background material available here that really carves out a place for this book in current Bergson scholarship. The book, however, wishes to do much more than simply introduce Bergson. As mentioned above, with Bergson Sinclair also sought to highlight Bergson’s relevance across philosophical traditions, to provide a critical commentary, and to show “what to do with Bergson.”  The one potential drawback of such a program is that its various ambitions could sometimes get in the way of each other.

To achieve the second goal for instance, the book constantly calls upon and explains contemporary approaches that might fit Bergsonian themes. To mention just a very few, the problem of time is discussed in terms of the ideas of retentionalism, presentism, and extentionalism, while Bergson’s stance on laughter brings up superiority and incongruence theories of comedy. While never technically incorrect, this recurring motif does, however, risk removing the reader from the general stream of Bergson’s thought. Bergson’s ideas, as Sinclair himself shows quite clearly, often evolve along with the text and argument being made. Thus, while according to current terminology Bergson’s views may indeed be classified in these ways, the main purpose of Bergson’s treatment of duration is meant to clarify the broader problem of freedom and determinism. Although it is really a testament to Sinclair’s depth of study the amount of issues which this book deals with, a distracted reader might here, as they say, miss the forest for the trees.

            In a similar vein, the goal of providing critical commentary might, to some degree, conflict with the goal of providing an introductory text. Starting with the chapters on Matter and Memory for instance, Sinclair brings up a few problems with Bergson’s thought, the main issue here being the concept of habit-memory. For Sinclair, the problem with this idea is that it remains too mechanistic. Echoing the criticisms of Merleau-Ponty and others, Sinclair shows how this mechanistic conception gets in the way of Bergson’s goal of overcoming the problems of dualism. In order to actually do this, Sinclair claims, Bergson would have to move away from his ‘intellectualist’ position, one which understands the body’s role as merely mechanical and habit-driven, and allow for the body to be involved in the process as knowing, much like Merleau-Ponty does.

            In a passage during this discussion, Sinclair quotes Merleau-Ponty to show what it might look like to escape this problem. “It is the body which ‘catches’ and ‘comprehends’ movement: the acquisition of a habit is indeed the grasping of a significance” says Merleau-Ponty. Immediately after however, we see a similar phrase from Matter and Memory, “a movement is learned,” Bergson says, “when the body is made to understand it.” Faced with this similarity, Sinclair hearkens back to his analysis and critique of Bergson’s metaphysics and says that, “to be sure, Bergson can write similar things… But it would seem that he cannot genuinely think the same thought” (93). While Sinclair is probably right and is by no means the first to criticize these ideas in Bergson, this and similar discussions do stand out from the more expository sections of the book. For someone who has never read Bergson and is seeking a basic introduction, being told that Bergson cannot think what he writes might be somewhat confusing.

            That being said, one is really hard pressed to find much to criticize in this book. If Bergson is slightly discontinuous, it is only due to the staggering amount of problems it treats. With the first chapter alone Bergson is already an important contribution to English-language scholarship. The careful attention paid to the thought of Ravaisson and Boutroux for instance firmly dispels the myth of Bergson’s lonely genius and opens up English language readers of Bergson to an entire tradition and set of ideas for investigation. The treatment of Bergson’s ‘war writings’ also deepens our understanding of his thought as well as its political consequences. Once Sinclair has made their relevance clear, one is left wondering why they hadn’t been studied this carefully before.

Further, the book is commendable in its treatment of those influenced by Bergson. Its treatment of Deleuze is nuanced and quick to point out what many today forget: Deleuze was no impartial interpreter of Bergson and his writings on the latter were never meant as a simple, faithful presentation. This same depth of insight is present in the last chapter on Bergson’s legacy, a nuanced account of Bergson’s influence on phenomenologists and various other thinkers.

In its direct treatment of Bergson’s ideas, Bergson has the further virtue of always emphasizing their continuity and development. Thus, something like duration, which is presented in the beginning of the book, is constantly brought back to illustrate how Bergson has changed positions and why. This emphasis on how Bergson’s work developed as a whole, in particular with the inclusion of his war writings, should also prove a very useful resource. Combined with the glossary and the concise summaries at the end of every chapter, Bergson thus manages to treat virtually every idea of importance in Bergson’s work, a truly remarkable achievement.

As far as an original piece of scholarship, Bergson’s treatment the themes of art, history, and technology are also highly valuable. Although Bergson never managed to write a book on these topics specifically, Sinclair’s reconstruction and development of them further expands “what we might do” with Bergson today. As a whole, Sinclair lives up to the promise of providing something for all readers of Bergson, from the absolute beginner to the expert. Bergson is nuanced, expansive, and incredibly thorough. It is a fantastic contribution to the field and those studying Bergson in English would do well to read it.

Bibliography

Sinclair, Mark. Bergson. Routledge, 2020. New York

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Henri Bergson. Edited by Alexandre Lefebvre and Nils F. Schott. Translated by Nils F. Schott, Duke University Press, 2015.

 

[1] This issue has been explored by Lefebvre in his introduction to Jankelevitch’s Henri Bergson.


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