Creative Evolution Supra Consciousness (Henri Bergson)

Bergson’s philosophical method in Creative Evolution is primarily contemplative and visual: recognize reality as a flux of matter and mind, and dissolve back into it by following the course of its creative evolution (pp.191-2). The world picture is art nouveau: lush life, vegetal growth, organic, protozoa, molluscs, nebula, medullary bulbs, paleozoic forms, nervous systems, arthropods, zoophores, algae, yellow-winged sphex, worms, microbial nuclei, insects underneath an assemblage of solar systems, radiating; one world bonds with other worlds in perpetual, mutating flux in the storing and the sudden discharging of energy. Creative evolution is anti-entropic, the “inverse of materiality,” an “effort” in life “to re-mount the incline that matter declines” (pp.245; cf. 240-5, 253, 369). Philosophy for Bergson is always on the border of the occult sciences; a supra-consciousness figures into the open mesh of this hyper-creative design.

What follows are reading notes with emphasis on the metaphysical (occult) turn and on the evolution of consciousness as one emergent line.

Introduction: An opening argument that the concepts that intellect seeks to impose on life are inadequate; they need to be transcended. Intellect and instinct are behind this attempt to reconstruct the main lines of the evolution of life. For all the emphasis placed upon instinct or intuition, the epistemology in Creative Evolution is not anti-intellectual. Rather, Bergson wants to bring intellect “back to its generating cause.” Already announced in the introduction, it will turn out later (in chapter 3) that this origin is a supra-consciousness, or maybe, arguably, supra-consciousness itself (p.xiv). That is why Bergson says that theory of knowledge and theory of life are inseparable (p.xiii; emphases in original). Intellect is a “luminous nucleus” around which hangs a “vague nebulosity” wherein “reside certain powers” that complement the understanding (pp.xii-xiii).

Chapter 1: Bergson posits a common originary impetus (élan vital) as the driving force of this creative universe in order to account for the evolution of common biological structures across very different evolutionary lines (primitive and advanced biological forms) (plants and animal) (pp.54, 87). Life is the very opposite of association and the addition of elements. Life is splitting lines of dissociation and division (pp.26, 53, 89). That is why mechanism and teleology cannot account for what is unforeseen and radically new (which Bergson says we accept, being artists) (p.45). What matters to Bergson is duration, growth, change, the enduringness of living, organized bodies, and the inscription of time in relation to those bodies (pp.14-16). Anti-materialist is the notion that life is not reducible to physical and chemical phenomena. “Vitality” is “tangent” to these forces, the real whole of life being an indivisible continuity, the individual being or individual line “united with the totality of living being by invisible bonds.” This vitality is full of “gaps and incoherences,” but configures, nonetheless, as “a single whole” (pp.31, 43; cf.35 on the irreducibility of elementary life forms with physical and chemical forces). What makes Bergson a monist is the claim that life follows one impetus through all divergent evolutionary paths “spread over thousands of ages” (p.53)?

Chapter 2: Bergson traces lines, i.e. the original impetus and divergent series and evolutionary lines. The original life-impetus (élan vital) splits into 2 tendencies (plant: animal:: fixed: mobile :: insensate: sensate). Animal life splits into 2 tendencies (instinct and intellect). This chapter is especially lush in its botanical-biological detail.

Chapter 3: Bergson gets metaphysical, even loopy: physics turns out to be psychic (pp.202, cf.257). Representing to distinct but not inseparable lines, the evolution of organic life is bound up with the evolution of consciousness (p.27). Consciousness, which attends motion, pervades the creative universe. There is sleeping expression of vegetable consciousness; but plants are “not so sound asleep that they cannot awaken when circumstances permit or demand it (pp.111-12, 113, 119). And there is the super-human consciousness that was anticipated in the introduction: the line of evolution ending in “man” is not the only one; there are other divergent ones, other forms of consciousness. These other forms of consciousness divergent from the human would, when amalgamated with intelligence, result in a consciousness “as wide as life itself.” Such a consciousness would be a super consciousness, “turning around suddenly against the push of life which it feels behind would have a vision of life complete,” no matter how fleeting (p.xii). How do we know this? Bergson assumes that around intelligence there is a “vague nebulosity” in which reside “certain powers.” Separate from fluid reality of flux, it is also true that the nucleus of intellect is not radically different than that “fluid” that surrounds it (p.192-3). In this world picture, the initial impetus of life accumulates energy into a reservoir and gushes out (pp.241, 246-7, 251). This flow is pushed by a supra consciousness at the origin of life whose fragments fall back as matter, “passing through the fragments and lighting them up into organisms.” But clearly there is, as Bergson understands it, that supra consciousness at the origin of life (p. 261). Consciousness does not stem from the animal brain, but is coextensive with choice and possible (virtual?) action that surrounds real action (pp.251, 261-71). At the highest intensity of creative evolution, only supra consciousness can explain the constant creation of new life against the second law of thermodynamics, against death (pp.242, 271, cf. p.246-7n.1). Bergson never quite says that this supra consciousness is divine or God, understood not as a being, but in terms of unceasing life, action, freedom, or perhaps force (p. 248). Like something out of Debussy, this high pitch of life is the flow of time against death, like the sound of the sea, marking the crescendo of creative evolution, the crescendo of Bergson’s text.

Chapter 4 is a philosophical diminuendo, some of it very interesting, first against the notion of nothingness, the idea of which Bergson cannot seem to stand. Nothingness is a mental illusion triggered by the transition from and to or substitution of one thing or state for another. In the conclusion, Bergson returns to epistemology. Surveyed is the difference between ancient Greek physics-metaphysics and modern science, in order to address the coupling of modern science and metaphysics. Bergson wants to see in time not the ready-made world of the Greek cosmos, but “a progressive growth of the absolute” in “continual invention of forms ever new,” (pp.342-4), “the concrete in phenomena,” i.e. “the qualities perceived, the perceptions themselves (p.349). With Kant, of all people, Bergson comes back to the problem of supra human intelligence. Intelligence for Kant, Bergson says, is impersonal. Intelligence does not lie “exactly” within the human person; the human person lies with intelligence, in “an atmosphere of intellectuality” which individual human consciousness “breathes.” In Kant, this is a “formal God,” not a “substantial God, not yet fully divine for Kant as it will become for Fichte (p.357). What Kant did not consider is that science becomes less objective and more symbolic, moving in two directions between the physical and the psychic in its passage through the vital. For Bergson, sensuous intuition is more than a phantom of the thing-itself, is in “continuity” with supra-intellectual intuition (pp.359-60). Matter is weighted; it descends, whereas the couple of life and consciousness ascend. It is in this metaphysical respect that philosophy goes further than science (p.369).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Creative Evolution Supra Consciousness (Henri Bergson)

  1. dmf says:

    migrants in the profane?

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