- Bergson: Thinking Beyond the Human Condition by Keither Ansell-Pearson
Why Bergson now, again? Keith Ansell-Pearson offers a renewed account of Bergson's relevance almost two decades after the publication of his last book on Bergson, Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual, in 2002. His earlier work was significant for the primacy it accorded to the philosophy of evolution in Bergson's thought. Thinking Beyond the Human Condition, a collection of essays written over the last two decades, introduces another dimension: the aim of overcoming the human condition through thought. This aim is what provides Ansell-Pearson with his most recent answer to the question, why Bergson now?
Thinking Beyond the Human Condition is distinctive in part for its objects: for while it does include chapters on familiar Bergsonian themes—such as time (chapter 3), memory (chapter 4), and freedom (chapter 3)—it also uncovers and attends to a number of still underappreciated areas of Bergson's thought. These include the commentary on Lucretius (chapter 2), the affinities that Bergson shares with Nietzsche regarding the critique of established religion (chapter 7), and perhaps most uniquely the possibility of a nascent philosophy of education as well (chapter 8). The theme that unifies these topics is the practical orientation that Ansell-Pearson discovers in each of them. He argues that Bergson ought to be understood in line with the ancient Greek conception of philosophy as a way of life that is grounded in a way of seeing the world anew. For Ansell-Pearson's Bergson, any new way of seeing the world is the concomitant of a critique of habitual ways of perceiving and acting within it. Thus, the critique of closed society, static religion, the spatial conception of time, and the deterministic understanding of the self, are all means to the end of freeing ourselves from a set of inherited constraints (social, biological, and epistemological) and opening ourselves to the possibility of seeing, thinking, and acting in novel forms.
The human condition is defined by spatialized thinking. This is a form of thinking through spatial concepts, which owes its genesis to adaptive interaction with inanimate material objects and the fabrication of tools from out of them. Spatial thinking decomposes wholes into isolable parts and regards organization on the model of built artifacts. It separates form from function, isolates bodies and systems from their relations, and reduces time to movement across fixed positions. Its basic deficiency is an inability to think the reality of duration, which consists for Bergson in the ongoing retention of a past opened onto an unforeseeable future.
Spatial thinking is a form of intelligence. But intelligence is not exhaustive of thought. It is an evolved faculty, and so can be refined, enlarged, and even functionally displaced, like a spandrel. Beyond it lays what Bergson calls intuition. Intuition is a mode through which to think time. It purports to grant access to the inner reality of its objects without filtering them through the forms and frames of preexisting concepts. It is grounded in the immediate apprehension of the self by the self as an enduring or durational reality. The knowledge one has of oneself in time [End Page 129] is apparently nonconceptual. This is the core of intuition. There are several facets to Bergson's theory of this faculty: the critique of the false problems of spatial thinking, the articulation of differences in kind where intelligence sees only degree, and the comprehension of real time. Intuition culminates in the last. Its ultimate aim is to be able to transpose the immediate apprehension of the self onto other objects as well, and so grasp them in their absolute temporal reality as well, in duration.
If the human condition is defined by spatialization, then it is intuition through which the means for moving beyond it can be made available to thought. Each chapter of Thinking Beyond the Human Condition treats one domain—the self, evolution, society, and so on—in which intuition can be deployed in order to escape the constraints of spatialized thought. The...