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Reviewed by:
  • Bergson by Mark Sinclair
  • Michael J. Bennett
SINCLAIR, Mark. Bergson. New York: Routledge, 2019. xxi + 303 pp. Cloth, $160.00; paper, $35.95

Part of the Routledge Philosophers series, Mark Sinclair's Bergson is a comprehensive treatment of Bergson's major ideas and arguments and offers a balanced portrait of a philosopher who has enjoyed a recent renaissance in the Anglophone academy.

Drawing deeply on scholarship in French, Sinclair aims, first of all, to restore Bergson's work to the tradition of nineteenth-century spiritualism from which English-language commentaries have tended to abstract it. Beginning in the excellent intellectual biography that comprises chapter 1, Sinclair indicates when and how Bergson's ideas develop and respond to those of Félix Ravaisson, on whom Sinclair has also written a recent monograph, and lesser-known figures such as Émile Boutroux, Jules Lachelier, and Ernest Seillière. At the same time, Sinclair also situates Bergson's positions in relation to twenty-first-century metaphysical debates for the benefit of philosophers trained in the analytic style. This he accomplishes especially in the four chapters on Bergson's first two major works, Time and Free Will and Matter and Memory. For example, in the terminology of recent philosophy of memory Bergson's view about the relation between recollection and the past represents a synthesis of "preservationist" and "generationist" positions. For those more familiar with post-Kantian continental philosophy, Sinclair underlines Bergson's centrality to this tradition, a fact sometimes obscured in the wake of [End Page 165] Heidegger's and Sartre's critiques of a predecessor from whom they nevertheless inherited much.

Sinclair's study is organized thematically, with chapters on time, free will, memory, mind–body dualism, laughter, knowledge, art, and life, followed by a synthetic penultimate chapter on ethics, religion, and politics. The order of proceeding reflects Sinclair's goal, which is "to grasp [Bergson's] thinking in its development" through time. This approach presupposes that the "true order of Bergson's thought" is not the same as the "order in which themes appear in the chapters of Bergson's major works"—a quirk that the philosopher himself often admitted. For example, the line of thinking in Time and Free Will really begins with the passages from its second and third chapters on the inability of science to grasp lived duration, not the first chapter polemicizing with associationist psychology. Sinclair expands this insight to deal with texts that might otherwise seem marginal but, on his account, actually mark inflection points on Bergson's intellectual trajectory. For example, the book on Laughter develops the metaphysical framework of Matter and Memory in ways that anticipate the notion of élan vital in Creative Evolution and the morality of the closed society in Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Similarly, on the controversial "war writings" that mobilized Bergsonian metaphysics in the service of French nationalism, Sinclair confirms the judgment of Bergson's early Marxist critic Georges Politzer that there is an intimate connection between them and the philosophy of life in Bergson's greatest work, Creative Evolution.

Sinclair treats Creative Evolution in a nonlinear way as well, starting with the epistemological distinctions between intellect and instinct and the notion of "intuition" and then proceeding to Bergson's treatment of rival evolutionary theories and his account of matter and life, which Sinclair calls a "monist philosophy characterised by a dualism of tendencies." Between his chapter on knowledge and his chapter on life, however, Sinclair inserts a discussion of Bergson's views about artistic creation, which is the key to his overall interpretation. Although Bergson never wrote a sustained treatment of aesthetics or philosophy of art, Sinclair points out that he often appeals to the experience of the artist to support his metaphysical and epistemological claims—about freedom and intuition, for example. The somewhat implicit conception of the artistic genius that emerges from these scattered remarks, Sinclair argues, "becomes the basis of a philosophy of life as a whole in Creative Evolution." That is, Bergson extends the creative power of the genius to living nature, noting that life itself is a continual work of " génialité."

Creative Evolution also describes the principle of life and creation...