Henri Bergson

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Henri Bergson, 1927

Henri-Louis Bergson (born October 18, 1859 in Paris ; † January 4, 1941 there ) was a French philosopher and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927. Alongside Friedrich Nietzsche and Wilhelm Dilthey, he is considered the most important exponent of the philosophy of life .

life and career

Henri Bergson (as he called himself as an author) was born in Paris. He was a son of the Polish-born Jewish composer Michał Bergson and an English mother who came from an Irish Jewish family. He spent most of his early childhood in London before he returned to Paris when he was eight, more Anglophone than Francophone.


Here he attended the Lycée Fontanes from 1868 to 1878 , where he received the school prize for mathematics in 1877, with a problem solution that he was then even allowed to publish in a mathematical journal. Nevertheless, after completing his baccalaureate , he decided to study literature and philosophy and successfully applied for a place at the École normal supérieure (ENS), the Parisian elite university for teaching subjects.

After the final exam ( license ) in literature, he successfully passed the recruitment test ( agrégation ) for the post of grammar school professor in philosophy and was assigned a position at a grammar school in Angers . In 1883 he was transferred to Clermont-Ferrand . In addition to his teaching activities, like many of his professional colleagues, he found time to work scientifically. In 1884 he published an edition of selected passages from the works of Lucretius , to which he added a text-critical study and explanations of the author's philosophy and which was reprinted several times in the following period. At the same time, he was working on his first larger work, which he submitted in 1889 as a dissertation ("thèse d'État") to the Sorbonne in Paris under the title Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience ( Eng . Time and Freedom , 1911). With this he was awarded a doctorate to docteur des lettres (which roughly corresponded to a German habilitation ) after successfully completing the examination procedure, which also included the submission of a short “thèse supplémentaire” written in Latin .

After his doctorate and the publication of his thèse , which he dedicated to the Minister of Education as his employer, who had also been his professor of philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, Bergson was entitled to change to a high school in Paris. After a short stop at the Collège Rollin there, he received a position at the renowned Lycée Henri IV in 1890 . After marrying in 1892, he had a daughter.

Professor and philosopher

In 1896 he published his second major work, Matière et mémoire (Eng. Matter and Memory, 1908), in which he also considered the latest brain research . In 1897 he was entrusted as maître de conférences with lectures at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was appointed professor shortly afterwards.

Henri Bergson taught at the
Collège de France from 1900

In 1900 the Revue de Paris printed the essay Le Rire (Eng. The Laughter, 1914), which was also published very successfully in book form in 1901. Here Bergson tries to develop a theory of the comic, but above all he also intones the song of praise of artistic creativity and thus became the prophet of an entire generation of symbolist writers and artists.

In the same year 1900 he was appointed to the chair of Greek Philosophy at the Collège de France , the most prestigious of all French educational institutions. In 1901 the Académie des sciences morales et politiques elected him a member.

In the meantime he has also found recognition outside of France: He gave a lecture at the first international philosophers' congress in Paris in August 1900. Its title Sur les origines psychologiques de notre croyance à la loi de causalité (On the Psychological Origins of Our Belief in the Law of Causality) expresses Bergson's non-rationalist tendency well.

In 1903 he published the programmatic longer essay Introduction à la métaphysique (Eng. Introduction to Metaphysics, 1909). In spite of the title, he mainly introduces himself to his own thinking. In 1904 he gave the lecture Le Cerveau et la pensée: une illusion philosophique (The brain and thought: a philosophical illusion) at the second international philosophers' congress in Geneva .

In the same year he switched to the chair of modern philosophy at the Collège de France. At the age of 45, he reached the climax of his professional career.

In 1907 his third major font appeared: L'Évolution créatrice (Eng. The creative development, 1912). Conceived as a critical contribution to the theory of evolution , which Bergson considered too deterministic, it was also disseminated through the professional world. With 21 editions in ten years, it became his best-known and most-read work and gave him a firm place among the philosophical writers who were frequent and respected in France. Next to Le Rire , L'Évolution was the most important reason to propose Bergson later for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Encounters, lectures, honors from 1908 to 1921

In 1908 he met the US philosopher William James in London , with whom he had already been in correspondence. James was taken with his 17 years younger French colleague and his ideas and made him known in the Anglophone world. Bergson wrote a foreword for a translation by James into French that does not hide his skepticism about the philosophy of pragmatism .

In April 1911 Bergson attended the international philosophers' congress in Bologna. There he gave the lecture L'Intuition philosophique (The philosophical intuition) in order to highlight intuition - understood as a precise philosophical method. In the same year he was invited to England, including Oxford, where he spoke on the subject of La Perception du changement (The Perception of Change). There he received his first honorary doctorate. Further stations led him to Birmingham and London, where he lectured on Vie et conscience (life and consciousness) and La Nature de l'âme (The nature of the soul). In 1911 he was elected a corresponding member of the British Academy .

In 1913 he accepted an invitation from Columbia University in New York and read there about Spiritualité et liberté (spirituality and freedom). Lectures in other American cities followed. In autumn he was offered the chairmanship of the British Society for Psychical Research , where he introduced himself with the lecture Phantoms of Life and Psychic Research .

1914 was a particularly successful year for Bergson. As an important French author, whose writings have meanwhile also been translated into numerous other languages, he was accepted into the Académie française , furthermore elected chairman of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques as well as "officer" of the Legion of Honor and "officer of popular education" ( officier de l'Éducation nationale ) appointed.

When in the same year (similar to what some socialist politicians and trade unionists had done before) a movement of liberal “neo-Catholics” tried to support their ideas with Bergson's ideas, Rome put his three main works on the index .

With the beginning of the First World War in August 1914, Bergson became involved with patriotic articles and lectures to strengthen the morale of the French troops, to transfigure the position of France and to accuse the German Reich of imperialism. After the USA entered the war in 1917, he traveled there as a member of a diplomatic delegation and promoted the French cause on a lecture tour.

In 1919 his friends published a two-volume collection of shorter texts that had been planned before the war, revolving around the central concept of "force mental" (spiritual / mental power), under the title L'Énergie spirituelle (Eng. The soul energy, 1928) .

In 1920 Bergson received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University . In autumn he was allowed to delegate his compulsory lectures at the Collège de France to a representative ( Édouard Le Roy ) just to write. In 1921 he gave up his chair at the Collège de France.

Activities from 1921

In 1921 he was a founding member and first president of the Commission Internationale de la Coopération Intellectuelle , a forerunner institution of UNESCO , which was active in Geneva within the framework of the League of Nations .

In 1927 Bergson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he could not accept it in Stockholm. Since 1925 he was plagued by rheumatic pains that paralyzed and deformed his body. French Minister Armand Bernard read his acceptance speech on his behalf.

Living more and more withdrawn due to illness, he completed his last major work Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion in 1932 (The two sources of morality and religion, 1933). His considerations on the connection between society, morality and religion received due respect, but were rarely discussed.

Memorial plaque in the Panthéon

With the Deux sources at the latest , he approached Christian and mystical ideas and was thinking of becoming Catholic. But in view of the growing anti-Semitism in France, too , he did not want to deny his Jewish roots. Accordingly, in 1940 he demonstratively renounced all his awards, titles and memberships and was registered as a Jew when the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain began to legally discriminate against them .

According to his wishes, a Catholic priest said the funeral prayer at his grave.


élan vital

Bergson's most distinctive philosophem is the concept of " élan vital ", which he develops in his Philosophy of the Living ( Die Schöpferische Entwicklung , French first 1907, German 1912) with precise knowledge of the life sciences of his time. Another major work is the book Matter and Memory , published in 1896 , in which he unfolds a theory of perception and the relationship between body and mind that is neither idealistic nor empirical . Here Bergson reacts to contemporary psychology . He continues to deal with the physics of his time ( Durée et Simultanité , 1922) as well as with ethnology and sociology ( The two sources of morality and religion , 1932). In doing so, he develops a continuous thought: to see the new as new , to replace the classical philosophy of representation and identity and its effect on the individual sciences with a new philosophy that is appropriate to becoming as a characteristic of (social) life. Bergson was a philosopher of science, more precisely a "thinker of the knowledge of the living", as Georges Canguilhem put it.

While for Kant space and time are still forms of our perception with equal rights, Bergson differentiates them more strongly: for him, space is a homogeneous sum of points that can be occupied by objects. According to Bergson, natural science, which proceeds rationally and analytically, only considers this space or parts of it. If it pretends to measure time, it actually only measures movement in space, i.e. the successive changes in the spatial position of the objects. Such a physically understood time is "fragmented". The time , especially that of living things, however, is not divisible into sections for Bergson; but the indivisible movement itself, the constant, unpredictable and irreversible becoming different or “duration” (la durée). Inorganic matter also has its duration: it is subject to entropy . Above all, however, in the area of ​​the living - with which the main work Evolution créatrice deals - it is true that the development cannot be divided into sections and virtually juxtaposed, but consists in the uninterrupted creation of something new.

Bergson does not make an absolute separation of matter and life: life needs inorganic matter, the energy of which it makes use of; in addition, both participate in the duration. On the other hand, both are opposites: Inorganic matter is energy decay, life is an upswing. Different forms of knowledge are assigned to these two spheres of being: space or inorganic matter is grasped by the analytical mind, duration by the philosophical method of intuition, in other words by the attempt to understand things sub specie durationis , by process terms , that cling to the movement. The sciences of inorganic nature, technology and everyday forms of knowledge rightly use the analytical method: provided that they are there to 'master matter'. Philosophy, on the other hand, and perhaps the life sciences too, need a different method if they want to understand life adequately.

Bergson uses the term élan vital (which is only poorly translated as 'life force', since Bergson does not assume any 'force') to characterize the development of living things: which for him stands in opposition to the entropy tendency of inorganic matter. The "élan vital" describes the 'upswing' as the common movement of living things (of species, genera, individuals), which is accompanied by increasing explosiveness, energetic potential and mobility as well as corresponding cognitive activity. Bergson deals here very closely with Darwinism ; he describes it - like neo-Darwinism , neolamarckism and neofinalism - as 'mechanistic': These theories do not understand how to think the new, for them chance is always only a proxy for causal processes; they take 'everything for granted'. Instead of the evolutionary idea adopted from Herbert Spencer and instead of Darwin's theory of descent and other evolutionary biologies, Bergson proposes the theory of 'creative development' and with it another view of the same empirical phenomena. Incidentally, Bergson always emphasizes that he is 'absolutely' based on evolutionary biology .


Bergsonism, Bergson's early reception especially in France, developed its own dynamic, ignoring the differentiation of Bergson's argumentation and his precise knowledge of contemporary science. According to his student Jean Guitton, for example, Bergson contributed significantly to reopening modern thinking to phenomena of religion . Also to this day - due to this early reception - Bergson's philosophy is misunderstood as 'anti-intellectualism', 'anti-rationalism', as the 'destruction of reason'.

But Guitton also says: “ More than anyone else, Bergson had foreseen the great conceptual changes that quantum theory would bring with it. In his eyes, as in quantum physics, reality is neither causal nor local: space and time are abstractions, pure illusions ”. Mathematical time is a form of space. Bergson calls the time that belongs to the essence of life - as mentioned above - duration. This term is fundamental and is mentioned again and again throughout his work, first in his dissertation Essai sur les donnés immédiates de la conscience , published in 1889 ( Eng . Time and Freedom , 1911). Bergson, incidentally, once remarked that anyone who is truly a philosopher pursues one single thought in his entire life: that he always tries to rephrase. This thought - to think the time appropriately - runs through all of Bergson's work.

In "Matter and Memory" the relationship between spirit and matter is redefined, and that means, neither idealistic nor realistic : through the analysis of memory (the time lived), which is "the exact intersection of spirit and matter".

There are monographs on Bergson in particular by Frédéric Worms ; the Annales bergsoniennes as well as the extensive afterwords and readings in the Édition critique, which was published by PUF. Likewise an interpretation by Gilles Deleuze ( Bergson for introduction ). The short article Bergson in Becoming by Maurice Merleau-Ponty also shows Bergson's importance.

After the Second World War, Bergson was initially forgotten. For a long time he was considered a worthwhile study object by philosophical historians, even if the high level of his thinking is still undisputed. Recently - strengthened u. a. Due to the reinterpretation of Gilles Deleuze and the centenary of the main work - there is a worldwide renaissance of Bergson's philosophy, which seems to many like no other suitable to enable a philosophy of the biological age: the age that it began at the beginning of the 21st century. Century. In addition, thanks to Bergson, Deleuze has developed a whole new philosophy, the international response of which is considerable: a 'new vitalism', as he puts it, or a 'philosophy of difference'.



  • 1889: Essai sur les donées immédiates de la conscience. Alcan, Paris OCLC 409378290 (Thèse lettres Université Paris 1889) Online
  • 1896: Matière et mémoire. Essai on the relation du corps à l'esprit . Alcan, Paris Online
    • Matter and memory. A treatise on the relationship between mind and body. Translated by Julius Frankenberger . Diederichs, Jena 1908, reprint of this translation with an introduction by Erik Oger, Felix Meiner Verlag , Hamburg 1991
  • 1900: Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique. Alcan, Paris Online by Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
    • The laugh. Translated by Julius Frankenberger, Walter Fränzel . Diederichs, Jena 1921
    • The laugh. An essai on the importance of the comic. Translated by Roswitha Plancherel-Walter. Arche, Zurich 1972; again Luchterhand, Darmstadt 1988; again Meiner, Hamburg 2011
  • 1907: L'Evolution créatrice. Alcan, Paris Online
  • 1919: L'Energie spirituelle. Essais et conférences. Alcan, Paris Online
    • The mental energy. Articles and lectures. Übers. Eugen Lerch . Diederichs, Jena 1928
  • 1922: Durée et simultanéité. Speaking of the theory of Einstein . Alcan, Paris Online
  • 1932: Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion. Alcan, Paris Online
    • The two sources of morality. Übers. Eugen Lerch. Diederichs, Jena 1932; again Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1992 a. ö.
  • 1934: La pensée et le mouvant. Essais et conférences. Alcan, Paris Online
    • Thinking and creating. Articles and lectures. Translated from Leonore Kottje; Einl. Friedrich Kottje, Hain, Meisenheim am Glan 1948; Reprints: Signet, Frankfurt 1985; European Publishing House , Hamburg 1993
  • 1959: oeuvres. Note by André Robinet, introduction by Henri Gouhier. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris (contains all texts published in book form during his lifetime except "Durée et simultanéité")
  • 1972: Mélanges. Comments by André Robinet, in collaboration with Rose-Marie Mossé-Bastide, Martine Robitnet and Michel Gauthier; Foreword by Henri Gouhier. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris (contains "Durée et simultanéité" and numerous texts that were not published in book form by Bergson)


Individual aspects
  • Heike Delitz: Bergson Effects. Aversions and attractions in French sociological thought . Velbrück, Weilerswist 2015 ISBN 978-3-95832-043-7
  • Pierre-Alexandre Fradet: Derrida-Bergson. Sur l'immédiateté . Hermann, Paris 2014 ISBN 978-2-7056-8831-8
  • Henri Gouhier: Bergson dans l'histoire de la pensée occidentale . Vrin, Paris 1989 ISBN 2-7116-1006-3
  • Henri Hude: Bergson . 2nd edition Editions Karéline, Paris 2009 ISBN 978-2-35748-037-7
  • Vladimir Jankélévitch: Henri Bergson . 3rd edition PUF, Paris 2008 ISBN 978-2-13-056875-9 (Quadrige)
  • Guy Lafrance: La philosophie sociale de Bergson. Sources et interpretation. Université d'Ottawa , 1974
  • Peter Mennicken : The Philosophy of Henri Bergson and the Spirit of Modern Art . Diss. Phil. University of Cologne 1921
  • Viola Nordsieck: Forms of Reality and Experience. Henri Bergson, Ernst Cassirer and Alfred North Whitehead. Karl Alber Verlag, Munich / Freiburg i. B. 2015. ISBN 978-3-495-48735-8
  • Emil Ott: Henri Bergson. The philosopher of modern religion . Teubner, Leipzig 1914 (From nature and the spiritual world, 480)
  • Lothar Peter : Philosophy of Life and Social Criticism. Comments on the Bergson reception by Max Horkheimer . in: "Lendemains. Études comparées sur la France. Comparative French research." Stauffenburg, Tübingen, Vol. 23, # 90, H. 2, 1998 ISSN  0170-3803 pp. 57 - 82
  • Alexis Philonenko: Bergson ou de la philosophie comme science rigoureuse . Cerf, Paris 1994 ISBN 2-204-04924-7 (Passages)
  • Marc Rölli (Ed.): Event in French. From Bergson to Deleuze . Wilhelm Fink, Munich 2004 ISBN 3-7705-3939-7
  • Dennis Sölch: Process Philosophies. Conceptions of reality with Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson and William James , Freiburg: Karl Alber 2014 ISBN 978-3-495-48690-0
  • Philippe Soulez, Frédéric Worms: Bergson. Biography . PUF, Paris 2002 ISBN 2-13-053176-8 (Quadrige; 385)
  • Peter Spateneder: Physical time. Defense of the Real with Henri Bergson . Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2007 ISBN 978-3-17-019694-0 . Zugl. Diss. Phil. University of Regensburg 2005
  • Matthias Vollet: The root of our reality. Problem and concept of the possible with Henri Bergson . Alber Verlag , Freiburg 2007 ISBN 978-3-495-48234-6 . Zugl. Diss., Phil. University of Mainz 2004
  • Mirjana Vrhunc: Image and Reality. On the philosophy of Henri Bergson . Fink, Munich 2002 ISBN 3-7705-3644-4 . Zugl. Diss. Phil. Humboldt University Berlin 1999
  • Frédéric Worms: Introduction to "Matière et Mémoire" by Bergson. Suive d'une breve introduction aux autres livres de Bergson . PUF, Paris 1998 ISBN 2-13-048955-9
  • Caterina Zanfi: Bergson and German Philosophy 1907–1932 . Alber, Freiburg 2018 ISBN 978-3-495-48962-8
  • Dietrich Heinrich Kerler: Henri Bergson and the problem of the relationship between body and soul. Critical comments on Bergson's book "Matter and Memory". Self-published, Ulm 1917 (18 pages)
  • Frank Kessler: Henri Bergson and the cinematography . In: KINtop. Yearbook for the Study of Early Film , 12, 2003, pp. 12-16
  • Rupert Sheldrake , David Lorimer: Dialogue on Henri Bergson . In: Tattva Viveka , Vol. 7, 1997

Web links

Commons : Henri Bergson  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files
Wikisource: Henri Bergson  - Sources and full texts (French)

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed May 4, 2020 .
  2. Thanks
  3. ^ Henri Bergson: L'évolution créatice, 1907, pp. 59-64.
  4. Jean Guitton: God and Science , German 1993, p. 23.
  5. ^ Henri Bergson: Thinking and creative becoming. Articles and lectures. Translated from Leonore Kottje; Introduction Friedrich Kottje, Hain, Meisenheim am Glan 1948, 131 (literally: "A philosopher who is worthy of this name has basically only ever had one thing in mind.")
  6. encyclopedia team of the publisher FABrockhaus (ed.): Nobel Prizes . Chronicle of outstanding achievements. Mannheim 2001, ISBN 3-7653-0491-3 , pp. 275 .
  7. ^ Biographical Index: Former RSE Fellows 1783–2002. Royal Society of Edinburgh, accessed October 8, 2019 .