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The Challenge of Bergsonism: Phenomenology, Ontology, Ethics

Leonard Lawlor


The Challenge of Bergsonism

For my parents

The Challenge of BergsonismPhenomenology, Ontology, ELthics



Continuum The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX 15 East 26th Street, New York, NY 10010 Leonard Lawlor 2003 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, prior permission in writing from the publishers. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN: 0-8264-6802-0 (hardback), 0-8264-6803-9 (paperback)

Typeset by YHT Ltd, London Printed and bound in Great Britain by Biddies Ltd, Guildford and King's Lynn


Acknowledgements Abbreviations Preface: Memory and Life Chapter One: The Concept of the Image: Phenomenology The Artifice The Threefold Differentiation in Order to Determine the Concept of the Image The Role of the Body The Theory of Pure Perception Chapter Two: The Concept of Memory: Ontology The Primacy of Memory The Two Differences in Nature that Define Memory The Central Metaphysical Problem of Existence The Image of the Cone Chapter Three: The Concept of Sense: Ethics The Bergsonian Concept of Intuition Bergson's Philosophy of Language Conclusion: Think in Terms of Duration Appendix I: The Point where Memory Turns Back into Life: An Investigation of Bergson's The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

vii viii ix 1 1 4 11 18 27 29 31 39 43 60 63 70 80


I. The Theoretical and Practical Objectives of The Two Sources of Morality and Religion 86



II. Asceticism and Sexuality III. The Trumpery of Nature IV. Mystical Experience: Emotion and Image Conclusion: The Star Appendix II: English Translation of Jean Hyppolite's 1949 'Aspects divers de la memoire chez Bergson' ('Various Aspects of Memory in Bergson'), translated by Athena V. Colman Notes Bibliography Index

91 97 99 110

112 128 136 143


I would like to thank Miguel de Beistegui who invited me to deliver three lectures on Bergson at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Citta di Costello, Italy, during July of 1999. I would also like to thank John Mullarkey, Frederic Worms, Renaud Barbaras, Keith Ansell Pearson and Marie Cariou for helping me understand Bergson's philosophy. Finally, I would like to thank the students who participated in two graduate seminars on Bergson that I taught at the University of Memphis (spring 1999 and spring 2002). In particular, I would like to thank Heath Massey, who proofread and indexed the manuscript. The writing of this book was made possible by a Faculty Research Grant from the University of Memphis (summer 2001). Note: Appendix II is an English translation by Athena V. Colman of Jean Hyppolite's 'Aspects divers de la memoire chez Bergsons', in Jean Hyppolite, Figures de la pensee philosophique, tome /, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971: 468-88. Michel Meyer of Revue International de Philosphie has granted permission for this translation. I would like to thank Athena Colman for translating this text.


The following abbreviations have been used throughout. At times the English translations have been modified. Reference is always made first to Henri Bergson, CEuvres, Edition du Centenaire, textes annotes par Andre Robinet, Introduction par Henri Gouhier, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959, then to the corresponding English translation. EC Creative Evolution, translated by Arthur Mitchell, New York: Dover, 1998 [1911].

PM The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Mabelle L. Andison, New York: The Citadel Press, 1992 [1946]; translation of La Pensee et le mouvant. R Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, translated by Cloudsley Brereton and Fred Rothwell, Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999 [1911].

MM Matter and Memory, translated by N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer, New York: Zone Books, 1994 [1910]. ES Mind-Energy, translated by H. Wildon Carr, London: Macmillan, 1920. DI Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, translated by F. L. Pogson, Mineola: Dover Publishing Company, 2001 [1913]. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, translated by R. Ashley Audra and Cloudsley Brereton, with the assistance of W. Horsfall Carter, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977 [1935].



Memory and Life

Bergson himself states the challenge that his philosophy represents when he says, 'Questions relating to subject and object, to their distinction and to their union, should be put in terms of time rather than space' (MM 218/71; also MM 354/220). To put questions relating to subject and object in terms of time means that we must think in terms of duration. While Bergson defines duration in many ways - most basically, this book concerns itself with the concept of duration - it can be summarized in the following formula: duration equals memory plus the absolutely new. Giving the primary role to memory, this formula implies that Bergsonism is a 'primacy of memory', and not a 'primacy of perception', and this is why Bergsonism is, first, a challenge to phenomenology. In the Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty says, 'To perceive is not to remember'.1 Through this distinction between perception and remembering, Merleau-Ponty intends to prioritize perception over memory; for him there is no call from the present to memory without the 'immanent sense' that perception makes available. In contrast, in Matter and Memory, Bergson says, 'to imagine is not to remember' (MM 278/135). Through this distinction Bergson intends to prioritize memory over any form of imaging, including perception; for him, while perception calls for memory, perception does not make sense without memory. In fact, for Bergson, the priority of memory is so extreme that we must say that being is memory. Even though the concept of the image in Matter and Memory looks to be a new non-phenomenological concept of presence, presence becomes in Bergson derivative from memory. This identification of being and memory is why, second, the challenge of Bergsonism is a challenge to ontology. Of course, in the most famous footnote in Being and Time, Heidegger criticizes Bergson's conception of time as duration for having merely 'reversed' Aristotle's numerical definition of time.2 Indeed, Bergson's relentless denunciations of analyses that divide things according to numbers or according to quantitative differences looks to be a reversal in favour of quality. It is possible to see in Bergson's concept of memory a reversal of Platonism. Yet, Bergson, to use Heidegger's phrase, 'twists free' of Platonism. He twists free because memory in Bergson is onto-


Preface: Memory and Life

logical; it gives us a new sense of being: being in terms of the past not in terms of the present, being as the unconscious instead of consciousness. (In order to understand the connection between memory and being in Bergson, I relied heavily on Jean Hyppolite's 'Aspects divers de la memoire chez Bergson'. This is why I have included an English translation of it as Appendix II.) This new sense of being means that Bergson is not merely replacing objectivism with a kind of subjectivism. But there is more. Because Bergson compares his image of the memory cone to a telescope, we can see that he has replaced the Platonic sun (the good) with the Milky Way, with stars and planets. This means that what memory recalls are multiplicities and singularities, not identities and universals. It is clear that Bergson at least reverses Platonism since he constantly criticizes Zeno's alleged paradoxes; he does not subscribe to the Eleatic philosophy of the same. Moreover, Bergson's emphasis of the absolutely new means that his thought is not totalizing; in fact, the slogan for this book could be that 'the whole is not given'.3 In his later writings of course, Levinas acknowledges the importance of Bergson's philosophy for ethics, ethics in the sense of a discourse of alterity.4 But, Levinas also wonders whether the Bergsonian experience of duration - what Bergson calls intuition - really lets the 'alterity of the new ... explode, immaculate and untouchable as alterity or absolute newness, the absolute itself in the etymological sense of the term'.5 Levinas can say this because he believes that Bergsonian intuition is a form of representation. But this 'failure' in Bergsonism, for Levinas, may be what is most important about it: it leads us away from the discourse of intersubjectivity and the logic of alterity. When Bergson criticizes the Eleatic tradition, he in effect criticizes the entire logic of the same and other. He does this in what we could call a 'philosophy of language'. Through the concept of the dynamic schema, Bergson furnishes us with a new concept of sense (a new concept of the concept) in which there is no alterity, but, instead of representation, there is alteration, variation, movement and, therefore, life. These three challenges - to phenomenology, to ontology, to ethics - came about on the basis of a reading of Bergson's Matter and Memory (1896). The three chapters in the present volume correspond to those three challenges. Chapter Three, however, ends by taking up the idea of creative emotion from Bergson's The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). Appendix I expands the investigations of The Two Sources by attempting to think about Bergson's ethics as such (and not in relation to his so-called philosophy of language). Between