- Bergson by Mark Sinclair
Mark Sinclair’s book is the first attempt at a comprehensive introduction to Bergson to be published in English in the last decade. Bergson begins with an intellectual biography, intended as “the most extensive . . . available in English” (5). It is. It is also among the most accomplished chapters of the book. Chapter 2, on time, initiates the book’s overview of the main topics of Bergson’s thinking and introduces its methodology. Sinclair systematically reconstructs Bergson’s positions instead of following the way they unfold in Bergson’s works themselves. The summary of Time and Free Will begins, for instance, with the second and third chapters of the book (36–37). The author situates each of the themes he studies with respect to Bergson’s biography (49–50). Later texts are taken into account in order to highlight the way in which Bergson’s early positions developed over the course of his career (42, 45). Bergson’s views are occasionally clarified with the terminology of analytic metaphysics (45–47). They are also situated by Sinclair with respect to the relevant historical influences as often as possible. Each presentation concludes with a brief consideration of the shortcomings of Bergson’s claims.
The chapters on time, freedom, memory, mind, knowledge, and life should sound familiar to even casual readers of Bergson. Occasionally, one may be surprised by the author’s insistence on the debt Bergson owes to Ravaisson or Boutroux when it comes to the core features of some of these topics. Sinclair too often has recourse to biographical details alone to justify these insights (42, 90, 92–93, 70–71, 99). Newcomers to Bergson will have to take Sinclair at his word, while Bergsonists will be left wanting for further argumentation as well as wondering whether received conceptions are to be modified in light of these historical observations.
Most distinctive are the chapters on laughter and art. Sinclair argues for the preeminence of these themes in Bergson’s work. The study of laughter is supposed to represent “a transitional, pivotal moment in Bergson’s philosophy as a whole” (134). This is because laughter displays most clearly the tension between life and matter (138). As for art, [End Page 161] understanding Bergson’s views on this topic is supposed to allow us “to understand not just a particular aspect of his thinking but his philosophy as a whole” (178). Artistic production is unforeseeable, which means that artworks should not be regarded as possible before they are actual (187). Instead, the creation of an artwork, though not possible in advance, will have been possible after the fact, retrospectively (191–96). Bergson develops this idea in the direction of a largely novel Bergsonian philosophy of history.
Though he signals its possibility, Sinclair is not optimistic about the prospects of such a philosophy of history. This is because he takes Bergson to be committed to the view that the will, “a self-propelling and self-constituting power” (246), is free in principle from the causal constraints of history. This so-called “voluntaristic” (246) notion of the will is supposed to underlie all of Bergson’s ideas, from what authentic freedom and artistic creation are to the social function of great individuals, the destiny of humanity, and even the evolution of life in general (197–98, 245–51). If Sinclair is right, Bergson’s conception of the will may well be the key to his entire philosophical project.
Sinclair suggests that if it is on the basis of voluntarism that Bergson’s philosophy is to be understood, then it is on the same basis that Bergson’s philosophy is to be critically evaluated (250–51). This is meant as a challenge to those who are interested in Bergson’s view of life but are concerned by the shape it took in the wartime writings (to which Sinclair pays close attention), as well as to those who are interested in Bergson’s philosophy of nature but are put off by the idea that humanity ought to assume dominion over the earth (which Sinclair mentions only...