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  • The Eleatic Bergson
  • Donna Jones (bio)


In her Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson Suzanne Guerlac reminds her readers that the metaphysician has indeed been the subject of many hatreds, as the Bergsonist Gilles Deleuze once noted. But from this taut philosophical study one cannot easily make out any possible grounds for enmity; nor were any expressed in the special Bergson issue of Modern Literary Notes edited by Guerlac. In this short review essay I shall voice some of that historic criticism, especially in regard to the social and political implications of his thought. Guerlac’s study may also win its own opponents for its sharp criticisms of Deleuze’s interpretations of Bergson and (in her reading) comically machinic view of life [TT 176–87]. This alone makes the book worth reading; it is also exhaustively researched, and I cannot remember learning as much from the footnotes of any other book.

Bergson is presented here as a great metaphysician on the nature of time and space, the philosophical father of nonlinear science, and a theorist of concrete and affective individuality. Rejecting implicitly Leszek Kolakowski’s reading of two Bergsons, Guerlac presents him as neither a cosmologist who opposes life and matter nor an existentialist who retrieves consciousness by opposing time to space. Nor does he emerge as a systematic thinker in this study. In the last chapter Guerlac offers a dizzying defense of Bergson for providing the philosophical basis for cultural studies of the qualitative irreducibility of affectual states, the metaphysics of chaos theory, the critique of artificial intelligence, and the rudiments of an aesthetic theory of digital art and virtual reality.

All of this follows from the epochal significance of Bergson’s metaphysical distinction between time and space as carefully grounded in the most advanced physics of his time. Guerlac does not discuss in any detail Bergson’s vitalist critiques of Darwinian biology in Creative Evolution, the work through which the metaphysical arsonist fired the modernist imagination in diverse, contradictory, and at times violent ways.1 Nor does she explore the occult and mystical themes that run throughout Bergson’s work and informed his personal and professional associations.

In fact, Guerlac writes: “An explicit appeal to the social values of mystical experience in this study [The Two Sources of Morality and Religion] appeared to vindicate those who had criticized Bergson all along for being simply a mystic. And yet the title of the work, and the basis for the notion of closed and open societies, derive from scientific, not mystical discourse. They refer us to an opposition between closed and open systems in Sadi Carnot’s theories of thermodynamics” [TT 9]. Yet Bergson bases the opposition [End Page 21] between closed and open societies not in thermodynamics but in sociobiology. Having sociobiological reasons to believe in the power of the myths of closed morality on the human mind—groups that had instilled loyalty through myth and ritual had been more successful in the course of evolutionary history; that is, humans susceptible to myth have been successful in a positivist Darwinian sense—he called for the cooptation of such susceptibility by those myths and rituals that instilled loyalty to humanity as such. Humanity could dynamically extend the scope of sociability rather than follow the roles and customs that maintained a closed society in static equilibrium. Though Bergson would later courageously risk pneumonia to stand as an old man in the cold rain to register as a Jew in Vichy France, he claimed in this last book from 1932 that the only complete inspiration for universal openness could be found in Christian mysticism and mythology [Two Sources 227]. He explicitly criticized the insularity of the Judaic religion (and caricatured Eastern forms of mysticism). In other words, Bergson put his faith in Christian mystics alone and thus invited the charge of having laid the foundation for mystical and intolerant leadership.

Bergson’s universal humanism also crashed on the limits of colonial racism. In considering closed primitive societies, Bergson called attention to missionary stories full of detailed accounts of childish and monstrous deeds. He implored his...