Book Review: Penser l’évolution Nietzsche, Bergson, Dewey (Thinking Evolution. Nietzsche, Bergson, Dewey), Antoine Daratos and Paul Walter (eds), 2020

Bruno Rates, University of São Paulo-USP, Brazil / Société des Amis de Bergson

Penser l’Évolution. Nietzsche, Bergson, Dewey (Thinking Evolution. Nietzsche, Bergson, Dewey), released in December 2019 by the prestigious publisher Vrin, is one of the latest contributions in French about the impact of evolutionism on philosophy. In addition to the extensive bibliography on the subject, the book, coordinated by Antoine Daratos and Paul Walter (both from Université Libre de Bruxelles), consists of nine articles and is divided into three sections, each dedicated to the thinkers present in the title. A short introduction is also offered to the readers, operating as a guide that aims, in addition to presenting the chapters, to demonstrate the novelty and pertinence in putting together names as distinct as Nietzsche, Bergson and Dewey vis-à-vis the multiple issues raised by evolutionism. According to Daratos and Walter, “the three authors, far from limiting themselves with importing the results of biology to philosophy, consider the question of evolution as a major strategic challenge for philosophy, as a trampoline that allows them to rethink both the object of philosophy as well as its concepts and methods” (p.9). It is from this thesis that we move to a bigger problem, since, from a broader point of view, the book intends to participate in the debate about the relation between philosophy and science, that, at the passage from the 19th to the 20th century, oscillates more or less between two poles (and what follows is on my behalf): philosophy as a rational justification or appendix of science (from philosophia ancilla theologiae to philosophia ancilla scientiae), or as an irreducible domain (whether ontological, metaphysical, logical, axiological, « experienced/lived », etc.) immune to the discoveries that come from positive data. Recognizing the essential condition of the hypothesis of the evolution of life, Nietzsche, Bergson and Dewey, each in their own way, overcame such an oscillation by showing that it is “possible for philosophy to fully consider the results of the positive sciences while preserving its independence and speculative character” (p. 9). In this review, I will first describe the nine articles of the book and then concentrate on an overall critical analysis. It goes without saying that, despite my critiques, the book represents an important contribution to the topic it aims to explore.

The first three essays are dedicated to the relation between Nietzsche’s thought and evolutionism, focusing almost exclusively on Darwinism. This is partly justified by the numerous passages in which Nietzsche mentions the author of The Origin of Species as well as the early introduction and intense spread of Darwinism in Germany (perhaps more intense than in England itself). But here we miss at least one text that could deal more specifically with the theoretical confrontation operated by Nietzsche with other figures of evolutionism, especially those he quoted, such as Spencer, Haeckel, Lamarck or others representatives of the biological current that we could generally designate as Neo-Lamarckism.

This problem is partially mitigated in the well-informed essay by Christian J. Emden (Rice University), « Nietzsche, Darwin and ‘Darwinism », whose intention, following the book of John Richardson, Nietzsche’s new darwinism (Oxford University Press, 2004), is to combine two apparently contradictory statements: the harsh criticism of Nietzsche regarding Darwin and his alignment to a “globally Darwinian perspective » (p 26). Relying on deep bibliographic research, Emden leads us through Nietzsche’s erratic reception of the themes from Darwin’s doctrine, since the days of his youth, when there was an attempt to reformulate the idea of ​​teleology that could be immune to the possible criticisms of Darwinian mechanism (mechanism that, in turn, must be nuanced), to the writings from the period of intellectual maturity, in which the “will to power in the organic process” consists in an appropriation and incorporation of the world, that must exceed simple conservation (p. 40) (an idea which already announces a distance from the “conservation” that characterizes Darwin’s selection mechanism). But it is in the intermediate period of Nietzsche’s intellectual journey that there seems to be a greater concern with the moral consequences of Darwinism, which, in turn, will accompany the philosopher until his later writings. This is when Nietzsche formulates a biological theory of knowledge, whose goal is to understand how metaphysical claims are settled in vital dispositions, especially when we have in mind « moral judgments », as, for example, when we employ the term « utility », omnipresent in the Darwinian vulgata. This leads us to the controversial topic of social Darwinism, about which Nietzsche’s criticisms are much more directed against Spencer’s « survival of the fittest » than against Darwin’s « struggle for existence”, since the first one is impregnated with “optimism” as well as “accommodation” – life, according to Nietzsche, is “overcoming”. It is interesting to note the importance given by Emden to figures such as the post-Kantian Friedrich Albert Lange, the Swiss botanist Carl von Nägeli and the philosopher Otto Caspari on Nietzsche’s appropriation of the conceptual universe of evolutionism and, in particular, Darwinism. Regarding these influences, I wonder how Emden interprets the possibility (or impossibility) of reconciling a transcendental approach coming from Lange, that conceives scientific doctrines as mere “fictions”, with a more realistic view adopted by the scientists themselves.

The second essay, “Nietzsche’s evolutionary thought” by Werner Stegmaier (Univesität Greifswald) takes a different methodological path and, in spite of introducing the text with an excerpt on the meaning of the “Nietzschean sources”, is assertive when affirms that “what matters to Nietzsche are the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution to philosophy and, in particular, to his own thinking”. And continues, offering an alternative interpretation to that stated by Emden’s text: « The Darwinian theory in its pure form never matters to Nietzsche » (p. 47). But what would the “pure form” of a theory and, more specifically of Darwin’s theory look like? The author – one of the pioneers, after Oskar Ewald, Claire Richter, Ludwig Haas, Alwin Mittasch and Pieter Mostert, in the study of the relation between Nietzsche and Darwin – develops his argument in the passage that says that Nietzsche intended to “revolutionize philosophy changing its course towards the thought of Darwinian evolution » (p. 48). Such a revolution would consist of the dissolution of the concept of species and generalization, caused, respectively, by Darwin and Nietzsche. The first one, with the introduction of the idea of population (the “species” is, therefore, nothing more than a transitional group that shares the same “variations” in a given environment), the latter, through the notion of “type” and, even more, of “nuance” (the concept is, from now on, temporalized). It is the insistence on the transience of the variations of life by Darwin and the « deviations » of the concept by Nietzsche that allows Stegmaier to establish, so to speak, a philosophical brotherhood between the two authors. The text then ends with considerations on the alleged novelty brought by the conceptual fluidity advocated by Nietzsche as opposed to the models proposed by Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, as well as with a brief suggestion about the meaning of the idea of Übermensch, that would be nothing more than an unstable notion of man, rebel to all « ultimate determination” or « rigidity ». With respect to the definition proposed by Stegmaier regarding the way that Nietzsche uses scientific data (in this case, coming from Darwin), it would be interesting to confront it with a perspective arguing that the biological sources are a constitutive part (and not a mere appendix) of the Nietzschean philosophical project, blurring, therefore, the sharp distinction between philosophy and science that Stegmaier seems to support (I’m thinking here of interpretations such as those proposed by Wolfgang Müller-Lauter, Alistair Moles, Gregory Moore and others). After all, continuing an interrogation posed some lines above, what is the meaning of a statement like “what matters to Nietzsche are the implications of the Darwinian theory for philosophy and, in particular, for his own philosophy” (p. 47)? How are we to understand such a strong assertion other than demanding that we take for granted – almost as an act of faith – the word of the philosopher?

We pass then to the third and final writing dedicated to the German philosopher, “Power as sensibility. The question of activity according to Nietzsche”, by Antoine Daratos. The text focuses on Nietzsche’s self-declared “anti-Darwinism” and claims to explain it through the reformulation of the concept of action conceived by the author of The Birth of Tragedy. To achieve his goal, Daratos attempts to interpret Nietzsche’s thought internally, that is, making tabula rasa of the historical and “external” conceptual elements that shape the way in which the philosopher receives the doctrine of Darwin. In this sense, Darwinism and its erroneous idea of ​​adaptation would only be an accessory that would allow Nietzsche to affirm the omnipresence of action without ends: “activity aims only at itself as an end” (p. 62). The novelty highlighted by the author seems, then, to focus on the idea that, the evolutionary notion of adaptation, linked to success, happiness, pleasure and self-conservation, or, more generally, to the idea of ​​progress, suggests a disposition to servitude, since it would prevent us from “commanding” and “evaluating for ourselves”. Partly subverting his initial methodological proposal of immanent reading, Daratos uses contemporary authors such as Deleuze and Guattari to extend the analysis of « servitude » and « conformism » of action to the type of « slavery » characteristic of contemporary capitalism.

The following three texts, dedicated to Bergson, focus their analysis on the book in which the Frenchman develops his interpretation of biological evolution, Creative Evolution. The absence of at least one essay that investigate how other works of the philosopher conceive the notion of evolution – given its omnipresence in Bergson’s thought – is felt. But although such homogeneity prevents a more diverse approach on the subject, the thematic cohesion of the three texts compensates for this problem, by focusing their analysis on the difficult concept of creation, central for Bergson’s idea of evolution.

“The élan is finite. Bergson’s philosophy of life”, by Paul-Antoine Miquel (Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès) is an original contribution to the classic debate on the relation between life and matter. Its novelty lies in the fact that the author initially bases his hypothesis, not directly on the analysis of the concept of materiality in its relation to life, but on the difference between life and living beings, which in other terms means that Bergson’s philosophy of life cannot be conceived as a philosophy of organism. Therefore, Creative Evolution doesn’t attempt to develop a theory of individuation or organization, so important to countless theoreticians of biology (Miquel cites the case of Francisco Varela, but we could easily extend the list). Following some clues present from the beginning of the first chapter of Bergson’s 1907 book, Miquel thinks that it is necessary to distinguish evolution from adaptation, in the sense that the former must be understood “at the level of reproduction and heredity than at the level of individuation, even if that last level also exists” (p. 86). The primacy of “genetic” evolution must not suppress the concession made to “individuation of the living being”, and the idea that it occurs to a lesser extent is, in some way, the key to understand one of the “great mysteries of life” (p. 100), underlined, but not fully developed by Bergson: the relation between “life in general” (the élan vital) and individual life ( the organism). The living being, therefore, would represent the stage, the shared ground of the two tendencies that composes the world, that is, life and matter. In an openly speculative reading of Bergson, Miquel, for methodological reasons, initially seeks to apprehend life in its “purity”, to finally conceive it as finitude, that is to say, as “internalization of otherness”, since it permanently recomposes itself (p. 96). At the end of the text, the author points to the need to develop the positive attributes of matter, a task left open by Bergson, but that could be realized if we understood it as “chance”.  

The second article dedicated to the philosopher of durée, “God needs us. About the ideal genesis of matter in Creative Evolution (and in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion) » is written by Leonard Lawlor (Penn State University), and, despite its clear merits, appears slightly off topic in the context of the main theme of the book. Approaching the well-known controversy among Bergsonians concerning the status of God and its relation to cosmological creation (matter and life), the essay analyzes the third chapter of Creative Evolution, concluding that the “extra-spatial” posited by Bergson as the source of mutability of the universe must be identified with God. But what God? Would we be here facing the Aristotelian “prime mover” or the “transcendent God of Christians”, defended by Father Tonquédec in his review of Creative Evolution? According to Lawlor, this does not seem to be the case, at least not in the sense of a transcendent God who creates the world in a simple gesture (where “everything is given”), since He is “non-omniscient” (p.104). In other words: God is gradual creation of reality. Here we are dealing with the problem that has haunted many Bergsonian interpreters since the beginning, also pointed out in the previous essay, but, as we have seen, from a different perspective (life in general and its connection with individual life). In the case of Lawler such problem is stated in theological terms: if God is unceasing creation – and the idea of « free will » happens to be discarded – what is the relation between human creativity and divine creativity? This would be one of the meanings of the obscure idea of “the ideal genesis of matter”, which, henceforth, must be understood as “an idealization that goes from the human creation of works of art (or inventions) to the divine creation of the universe” (p. 113).  Reading this profound text, it is unclear why one needs to accept the idea of a transcendent God, given the immanentist tone of Lawlor’s interpretation (p. 115). I understand the reasons that make the author say that God is not identical to the worlds the He creates. But if He creates these worlds continually, how could He be separate from his own creations, especially considering that He Himself is openness, gradual creation? (It would have been useful if the essay had analyzed, in this context, the passage of Creative Evolution in which Bergson points towards the “oscillation” of Descartes between a creation continuée or continue). What’s more, is it still possible to use in this case the concept of “transcendent”? If one of the greater impacts (if not the greatest) of evolutionism is the passage from a world created by God in its present form to a world that changes through time (a world that was essentially different before and will be different in a way that we cannot predict in the future), how could we maintain an evolutionary view based on a conception of a transcendent creation?

          The third and final article on Bergson, by Tano Posteraro (Penn State University), is entitled “The possible in Evolution. The pertinence of Bergsonian critique of the retrospective illusion”, and intends to discuss the philosopher’s criticism of finalism (notably external finalism). In addition, the essay analyzes how Bergson’s proposal for a renewed finalism, anchored in the concept of the virtual, can be fruitful in more recent discussions in the field of biology. The interesting point here is that the author bases his claims not only on Creative Evolution and the virtuality of the élan vital, but also on the 1930’s essay (initially conceived in 1920), “The possible and the real”. The criticism of « possibilism » and the notion of « retrospective illusion » that accompanies it, serves as a tool to dismantle the argumentative misconceptions of certain contemporary notions of evolution, such as the one proposed by Daniel Dennett, as well as the theoretical matrix of « possibilism”, identified by the author in Leibniz’s philosophy. The association between such thinkers may at first come as a surprise, since Dennett’s project is openly mechanistic, which would position him against any type of Leibnizianism. However, such distrust can be dissipated if we remember that Posteraro is faithful at this point to the diagnosis presented by Bergson in the first chapter of Creative Evolution, when he equates mechanism and finalism, since both views eliminate the evolutionary process by considering that “everything is given”. Once it is acknowledged that evolution in nature creates novelty, it is no longer possible, according to the author, to sustain the position that understands evolution in terms of “realization of possible”, being necessary to adopt the idea of ​​virtual.

We finally arrive to the last group of texts, arguably the most original of the book, if we consider the recent reappraisal of the French translations of John Dewey’s writings by Gallimard (after the pioneering efforts of Gérard Deledalle in the past) and the scarce bibliographic production about the American in gallic lands, especially in the field of philosophy. Although the anthology of essays from 1910, « The influence of Darwin on Philosophy « , is the most obvious source of analysis, it is important to remember that this work was not constituted as a unique study of the doctrine of natural selection, as it is clearly suggested in its subtitle, “And other Essays in Contemporary Thought”. Aware of this fact, the authors also seek to base their essays on other texts, making a good summary of the opinions that one of the co-founders of pragmatism (alongside Charles Sanders Peirce and William James) had, not only about Darwin, but also about other authors who are more or less attached to Darwinian doctrine, or even on thinkers in the Anglo-American world who defended a processual conception of reality, such as William James and Alfred Whitehead.

The first essay, “Dewey, Darwinism and directed variation”, by Trevor Pearce (University of North Caroline – Charlotte) successfully explores the intricacies of a central discussion in evolutionary circles, for whom Darwin’s answer seemed insufficient: complex variations strongly suggested the presence of a certain directionality, an idea that would weaken the absolute primacy conferred on natural selection. Here Pearce is categorical: Dewey should not be considered a Darwinian because “the directed variation represents a fundamental dimension” not only of evolution, but, notably, of “social evolution” (p. 142), a crucial dimension of his philosophy. However, the demonstration of such a thesis requires that we go through a tortuous historico-conceptual labyrinth, a path through which the author leads us with accuracy and clarity. In brief and at risk of leaving aside the nuances, Dewey’s position is  situated somewhere between those of Spencer and Weismann, that is, between the defense of the environment, on the one hand, and the organism, on the other, as a guiding principle of evolution. “Organism and environment co-evolve” (p.152), that’s why it is necessary to consider heredity not only at the level of the organism, but also at the environmental level, or, in other words, the social level,. Special attention must be given to the important incursion in the highly interesting and now obscure figure of Benjamin Kidd and his attempt, in Social Evolution, to develop a kind of « social Weismannism” as well as the analysis of the positions of the evolutionary psychologists James Mark Baldwin and Conwy Loyd Morgan, in addition to those offered by Henry Fairfield Osborn and Thomas Henry Huxley.

          The second text, “The Darwin event. The Genesis of a New Logic According to J. Dewey” by Didier Debaise (Université Libre du Bruxelles/FNRS), shifts the discussion to a more general consequence of the impact of Darwinism in Dewey’s opinion. According to the author, Dewey would have seen in Darwin a revolutionary character far beyond the revolution he operated in considerations about life and living beings, since the English naturalist established a new logic, a new “organon”, which would coincide with the Deweyan philosophical project itself, that is, an “evolutionary empiricism whose ambition would be to broaden the spectrum of experience on a ‘genetic and experimental basis’ (p. 156). Such « experimentalism » comes from « random encounters, bricolages between inventions anchored in experimental sciences, new ways to raise aesthetic experiences, changes in collective relations based notably on social struggles » (p. 158). Darwinism would then be much more than Darwin’s doctrine, and would appear as the name for a new alliance between philosophy, the sciences and common sense. 

The last text, written by Barbara Stiegler (Université Bourdeux Montaigne/Institut Universitaire de France) is “Evolution, Adaptation and Automatisation. The Darwinian revolution according to Nietzsche and Dewey”. Stiegler advances some theses defended in her book Il faut s’adapter’. Sur un nouvel impératif politique (Gallimard, 2019), pointing out that the concept of adaptation in both Nietzsche and Dewey (and Bergson) does not mean passivity of organisms to the environmental conditions (curiously, in her aforementioned work, the author shows how Bergson is mobilized by Walter Lipmann precisely to combat Dewey regarding the relation between conservation and intelligence). Nietzsche, according to Stiegler, completely rejects the Darwinian notion of adaptation inverting the logic of its terms: it is the environment that adapts to the living being, and not the opposite. In addition to analyzing the importance of historical figures such as Wilhelm Roux, which were effectively mobilized by Nietzsche, Stiegler also makes use of contemporary discussions about the meaning of “intra-selection », or selection internal to organisms, as it is conceived by Richard Lewontin and the famous American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. It is from this discussion that we pass to the critic of the concept of utility, anchored in a passive view of adaptation, whose most notable consequence is the naive belief in vital and social progress. The analysis of the concept of “exaptation” is a precious thread at this moment of the article, in addition to the exposure of the ambiguity brought by the “Darwinian revolution”, where randomness of life can take two irreconcilable paths: “on the one hand, rough and mathematizable chance [ …], opening the way to an automated conception of living beings and, on the other hand, the affirmation of a creative freedom of the living beings, who never cease to reorganize themselves, actively reinterpreting their own history” (p. 184) – the last path including Roux, Nietzsche and Gould. In the section dedicated to Dewey, the author shows that the American philosopher, although distant from Nietzsche on crucial points, converges with the him on the centrality that the notions of « inadequacy », « rupture » and « conflict » have for the understanding of the evolutionary process, which would also place him against a certain Darwinism. In contrast, Dewey identifies the genesis of such elements in the “human animal”, while Nietzsche conceives them as the basis of all “forms of life” (p. 191). I wish to add here one last word, about the idea, stated by Stiegler, that the tribute made by Nietzsche and Dewey to the « Darwinian revolution » is part of a more general context of praising the « thought of becoming, evolution and process » that would have been prepared largely by Hegel, idea that would offer a broader meaning to the « permanent Hegelian sediment » in the work of Dewey, and a key to understand Nietzsche’s extravagant formula according to which « without Hegel, no Darwin” (p. 187). Although Stiegler does not issue a judgment about this declaration, restricting herself to merely present it (and implicitly endorse it), the problematic idea that the philosophy of Hegel has been a necessary condition for the appearance of Darwinism deserves a more detailed explanation, since it would be hardily acceptable to historians of science, and, more specifically, to researchers dedicated to the study of the history of biology and Darwinism (among philosophers, along with Nietzsche, that thesis is defended, at least according to my knowledge, only by the Hegelian Kuno Fischer and, later, albeit with reservations, by Cassirer [i]) .



Finally, I would like to briefly elaborate some critical observations about the book as a whole. The first is the lack of an introduction or conclusion connecting Nietzsche, Bergson and Dewey with regards to their respective conceptions of evolution. There are innumerous points of contact, not only conceptual, but also factual, that are not even mentioned, as, for example, the exchange of letters between Bergson and Dewey, Dewey’s essay about Bergson and Spencer (translated in french[ii]), or even the intense participation of the Frenchman – through letters, reviews, etc – in debates with the American evolutionary psychologists read and discussed by Dewey, such as James Mark Baldwin and Cowy Loyd Morgan. It would be interesting if the reader had at least been made aware of the existence of such connections, which are far from fortuitous. Moreover, in the “Introduction », the editors seem to suggest a certain synonymy between Darwin and what we might generically call evolutionism (p. 10), which is not unequivocal among experts (except perhaps by part of the specialized literature produced in the English speaking world). Peter J. Bowler’s seminal book, The eclipse of Darwinism (The John Hopkins University Press, 1992) makes clear that, contrary to what Daratos and Walter would have us think, at the time when Nietzsche, Bergson and Dewey wrote their works, Darwinism suffered attacks on many fronts, in addition to the fact that it was perceived only as one among many others “evolutionary” theories. Thus, the hypothesis defended by the Englishman was far from being the center from which emanated other proposals about the evolution of life (the relation with Darwin’s work in France is a clear example of a “non-reception”, as shown by the studies of Robert E. Stebbins, Yvette Conry, and many others [iii]). In this sense, the “Introduction” also lacks – since the book, as the title indicates, is dedicated to the relation of three philosophers with evolution, and not exclusively with Darwin or Darwinism – an explanation of the different versions of biological evolution that were at stake, contemplating them in their specificities. Finally, it would be important to locate in Darwin’s own work the elements that corroborate two theses supported by the editors, which would have placed the author of The Origin of Species more in line with the concepts defended by Nietzsche, Bergson and Dewey: natural selection as “creative power” and the non-randomness of variations (p.10). Given the importance of these two points, the reader would benefit from being given the tools to identify the passages in Darwin’s writings that support such statements, which seem to challenge a more orthodox reading of his work, and which, even today, are the subject of an intense debate in Darwin studies.


[i] CASSIRER, E. The problem of knowledge. Philosophy, Science, and History since Hegel. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1950; pp. 170-175 (Kuno Fischer’s Hegels Leben, Werke und Lehren, part of his monumental history of philosophy, is discussed by Cassirer in this passage).

[ii] “Un inédit de John Dewey: Spencer et Bergson” (Édité, présenté et traduit par Gérard Deledalle). Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 70e Année, No. 3 (Juillet-Septembre 1965), pp. 325-333.

[iii] STEBBINS, R. E. French reactions to Darwin, 1859-1882. PhD – University of Minnesota, 1965. CONRY, Y. L’introduction du darwinisme en France au XIXe siècle, Paris, Vrin, 1974. FARLEY, J. “The Initial Reactions of French Biologists to Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species ». Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 275-300. CORSI, P. & WEINDLINGET, P. « Darwinism in Germany, France and Italy » in KOHN, D. (ed.) The Darwinian Heritage. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985. HARVEY, J. « Darwin in a French Dress: Translating, Publishing and Supporting Darwin in Nineteenth-Century France » in ENGELS, E.-M. & GLICK, TF (ed.) The Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe. Continuum, London, 2008. PRUM, M. « Charles Darwin’s First French Translations » in GLICK, TF & SHAFFER, E. (ed.) The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe. Bloomsbury, London, 2014.


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