Recension: Getting Bergson Straight. The Contributions of Intuition – P. A. Y. Gunter

Clara Zimmermann

Getting Bergson Straight (2023, Vernon Press), the last book published by Pete. A. Y. Gunter (who sadly passed away in March 2024), intends to dismantle the most pervasive misinterpretations of Bergson’s thought. The image of Bergson as an “anti-intellectual”, or even an “anti-scientific” thinker, who attacked both intelligence and science while reducing rational thinking to mere feeling and instinct, relies on the miscomprehension of one of the most difficult but yet central concepts within Bergson’s philosophy, namely, intuition. If Bergson often criticized a particular use of our intellect, it does not follow —as Gunter rightly points out— that he condemned reason or intellect itself. Furthermore, intuition cannot do without the use of intellect, since the latter is a necessary condition of the former: “both of attaining it and, once attaining it, of expressing it” (p. 15). Intuition also reveals the “profound tension” at the center of Bergson’s thought, between the flux of duration, the dynamic side of reality—that which science cannot grasp—and the less dynamic side, which can only be apprehended by intellect: i.e., space. Since intuition participates in duration, it introduces creativity into its contrary, by giving birth to new possibilities and modes of thought; conversely, creativity is only able to express itself through the resistance and the limits imposed by matter and space (p. 16).

Moreover, by studying the influence and parallelisms of Bergson’s philosophy on science—not only in the 19th and 20th centuries but also on current scientific research— Gunter shows that what could have been a product of a philosopher’s fancy may be reinterpreted as a source of new and more precise concepts within the sciences. This is precisely what Gunter carefully analyzes and makes evident in his book. To get Bergson straight, we should ask ourselves: how is that a philosopher that has contributed to modern psychology, to theories of biological time, as well as to physical theories regarding the nature of matter, can still today be considered an irrationalist thinker? (p. 16).

The starting point, “A Discovery and Its Discontents: Time and Free Will”, centers on Bergson’s first and most important contribution: duration. With the intention of improving Spencer’s concepts of space and time, Bergson realizes that time, as measured and conceived by physics, must be distinguished from psychological time (i.e., time of consciousness). Therefore, if the former is conceived as a succession of instants or moments which are external from one another, the latter presents a pure succession without mutual externality between its parts. It is precisely with Bergson’s first discovery that the reader encounters a first obstacle in order to get Bergson straight: the world seems divided in two, between time (as inner duration), and time in the outer world (which resembles more to space than to real time). What is, then, the relation between the flux of inner duration and time as we may observe it through changes in nature?

Chapter II (“Rethinking Duration: Matter and Memory”) continues with another of Bergson’s contributions to the sciences as well as the arts, namely, the distinction between two types of memory. Gunter not only recalls Bergson’s influence on Marcel Proust’s exploration of personal memory in À la recherche du temps perdu, but also emphasizes Bergson’s impact in modern psychology. According to the French philosopher, we all have, on the one hand, habit memory, one we acquire through effortless repetition when learning something new (say, the letters of the alphabet). On the other hand, we have a personal-spontaneous memory, which preserves all of our personal memories in their absolute richness and detail. After reading Bergson in 1973, psychologists Endel Tulving and Daniel Schachter introduced the concept of “epochal memory” into the field, enlarging and enriching the already existing distinction between long- and short-term memory.  

Chapter III is, in my view, one of the most important chapters in the book. In it, Gunter introduces not only one of the central notions within Bergson’s philosophy but also within the present book, namely, the “rhythms of duration”—which he exemplifies through the different themes and notes which overlap in an orchestral music. The imbrication of different rhythms of time ranges from higher levels of duration (human consciousness) to lower ones, which are the ones that compose matter. This explains Bergson’s reconsideration of his initial dualism between inner and outer duration, or between time and space (as mentioned in my analysis of chapter I). After L’évolution créatrice (1907), we know that the “durational cogito” already participates in different rhythms of biological time.

The following chapters explore different applications of the ideas developed in the first three chapters in different scientific disciplines. Chapter IV explores the practical applications of Bergson’s notion in the field of biology, namely in Pierre Lecomte du Noüy and Alexis Carrel’s temporal conception of the organism. Cells are no longer seen as “construction bricks” of an organ, but as enduring fundamental rhythms of duration. Chapter V analyzes Bergson’s cosmology: while Einstein, as well as the majority of the physicists of the time, viewed the universe as unchanged and constant, Bergson defended the idea of an original act of creation of the universe, an act that produced increasingly briefer pulses of duration. Despite these differences, later on in chapter XIV Gunter offers a new perspective on the relation between the philosopher and the scientist. 

Chapters VI and VII are dedicated to the similarities between Bergson’s notion of creativity and fractal geometry. Similarly, chapter VIII explores the implications of Bergson’s concepts of nature and duration in three interrelated sciences: chronotherapy, chrononeurology, and chronobiology.

Chapter IX Gunter provides a detail analysis of Bergson’s influence on diverse psychological theories, specifically those of Jung, Blondel, Janet, and Minkowski. First, the author displays the influence of the “élan vital” in Carl Jung and his subsequent transformation of Freud’s libido. Second, he shows the impact of Bergson’s Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889) in Charles Blondel’s dualist psychology of an inner isolated-self and its “social milieu”. According to the latter, purely subjective states–as expressed by mentally ill patients— cannot possibly be communicated by a socially constructed language. Third, the author introduces Eugene Minkowski, a founder of phenomenological psychiatry and a declared follower of Bergson. According to the psychiatrist, psychological disorders can be explained by basic disorders in temporality. During depression, for example, “the future is blocked” (p. 58), and thus the patient’s “inability to act” is in direct relation with his inability to perceive the future. Finally, Gunter considers the importance of Bergson’s thought in Pierre Janet’s theory of “social behaviorism” as well as in Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology. Besides the numerous critiques that Piaget had towards Bergson, he seems to share one of the central aspects of his philosophy: that of the continuity between life and knowledge, or conversely the idea that knowledge is always the result of “a constant interaction of the organism and the world” (p. 63).

Chapters X, XII, XIII and XIV offer an in-depth analysis of the relation between Bergson’s ideas and physics. Prior to entering into this issue, it is convenient to highlight the way in which, in chapter XI, Gunter aims to clarify three early Anglo-American misleading receptions of Bergson’s thought, those of three very well-known philosophers that, despite their differences, were “united in the distaste for Bergson”: George Santayana, Bertrand Russel and A. O. Lovejoy. Gunter’s analysis of Bergson’s criticisms has a double purpose: not only to help understand what Bergson effectively stated, but mostly to evidence in what ways what he said was prone to misinterpretation. Bergson’s influence on George Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, as well as his public identification with both left politics and aesthetic elitism, made it “hard to find the real Bergson amidst the chorus of interpretations and counter-interpretations” (p. 82). Because of Bergson’s alleged attacks on science and intelligence, as well as his appeal towards intuition and mysticism, he was seen more as a poet than as a real philosopher. What is remarkable about Gunter’s study is that, by focusing on each one of the different criticisms and by rectifying them through a careful examination of Bergson’s œuvre, two things become clear. Not only these (mis)interpretations have left a misleading image of Bergson, but —maybe with the exception of Lovejoy, who proposed a more extensive examination of Bergson’s durée— they were also influenced by the public image Bergson had at that time, rather than elaborated from a serious and attentive reading of his work. 

Chapter X explores the relation between Bergson’s theory of matter and quantum physics. Bergson does not oppose consciousness to matter, but rather establishes a whole continuity of durations between both of them. Nonetheless, as Gunter argues, our imagination and common sense feel more at home within the world depicted by Newtonian physics, that is, a world constituted by physical objects “with definite shapes and unproblematic locations” (p. 74). It is much more difficult to accept matter as a series of “pulses of energy” or of “centers of chemical activity spontaneously giving rise to dynamic form”, as Ilya Prigogine’s theory of thermodynamics sustains. As a matter of fact, this is not only the picture of current physics, but much more importantly, it provides an empirical confirmation to Bergson’s ideas on matter.

From a different point of view, Chapter XII returns to Bergson’s durational hierarchy by analyzing its epistemological use. Although the world presents a durational qualitative character, we still can measure it mathematically, which means that duration can be quantified and measured “with instants and points”. Moreover, the author exposes the similarities between Bergson’s approach and Whitehead’s vision of nature: if the former offers a general account of temporal hierarchy in Matter and Memory, the latter moves forward toward an extended logical analysis. Chapter XIII further deepens the examination of Bergson’s Matter and Memory by analyzing the contemporary transformations that took place in physics: the emergence of quantum and relativity, together with the fragmentation of the atom, among others. According to quantum physics, motion is no longer the “passage of a solid through an empty space” but rather a “succession of processes” (p. 113). At this point, it is not necessary to recall that this was in fact what Bergson argued in La perception du changement (1911): duration is self-subsistent, meaning time and movement exist in themselves, without the need of a substance or a solid support.

As mentioned above, Chapter XIV is devoted to Bergson’s singular and problematic encounter with Einstein and his theory of relativity. Although we know Bergson was a critic of Einstein’s conception of time, Gunter proposes a new and interesting approach of Bergson’s relation with the physicist, as sharing with him a profound affinity. The result, he states, “is a very different picture of Bergson”, not of a reactionary thinker who attacked the sciences, but as a thinker that –like Einstein—was dissatisfied with Newtonian physics and wanted to transcend it (p. 120). In fact, however different in their approach to time, both Bergson and Einstein agreed with the universe’s “constantly interacting patterns” in which “the shape of things constantly varies and yet the basic physical reality remains” (p. 130-131). There is no such thing as a physical world composed by substantial and solid entities, but rather of constant interactions in matter.

After revisiting Bergson’s influences and interactions in the history of the sciences, Gunter closes the book by introducing in chapter XV the nonlinear thermodynamics theory of Jeremy England, an American physicist. Gunter maintains that the principle of dissipative adaptation can be understood, once again, in the light of Bergson’s élan vital. The issue here is to evaluate at what point the thermodynamics theory offers empirical evidence of the philosopher’s intuition: “the notion of a life force as a source of unpredictable spontaneity and the emergence of strikingly dynamic form, finds close parallels in England’s discoveries” (p. 141). Real unpredictability and spontaneity, Gunter concludes, can now be treated as facts and not just as “mere products of some philosopher’s fancy” (pp. 143-144).

All things considered, this book successfully answers one of the more interesting and difficult questions that lie at the core of Bergson’s philosophy: how can intuition, which initially appears as something strange and difficult to apprehend, help to create and renovate scientific theories? In other words, what is the role of intuition and spontaneity within the logic of scientific discovery?

Citer ce billet
eherring (2024, 14 mars). Recension: Getting Bergson Straight. The Contributions of Intuition – P. A. Y. Gunter. Société des amis de Bergson. Consulté le 25 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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