"If I had not read Bergson," William James wrote in A Pluralistic Universe, "I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately." James had been engaged in a very long philosophical debate with the leading Idealists of his day, F.H. Bradley and Josiah Royce, when Bergson came to the rescue. James thought that Bergson supplied him with the concepts he needed to finally win "The Battle of the Absolute," as his debates with Royce came to be called. For his purposes, James explains, "the essential contribution of Bergson to philosophy is his criticism of intellectualism. In my opinion he has killed intellectualism definitively and without hope of recovery. I don't see how it can ever revive again in its ancient platonizing role of claiming to be the most authentic, intimate, and exhaustive definer of the nature of reality."
What's wrong with intellectualism, you may be wondering, and why would any philosopher want to celebrate its death? The ability to deal with abstractions gives us a tremendous advantage, James admits. "Both theoretically and practically this power of framing abstract concepts is one of the sublimest of our human prerogatives," James says. It supplies us with "an increase both of vision and of power." The problem, oddly, is that intellectualism is a bit too good. As any heroin addict will tell you, it's so damn good that it will ruin your life.
It is no wonder that earlier thinkers, forgetting that concepts are only man-made extracts from the temporal flux, should have ended up treating them as a superior type of being, bright, changeless, true, divine, and utterly opposed in nature to the turbid, restless lower world. The latter then appears as but their corruption and falsification.
There is nothing wrong with using concepts properly but James thought they had been misused for a very long time. The problem arises when abstractionism or intellectualism becomes "vicious". Intellectualism in this vicious sense began with the birth of philosophy so it was already as mean as a junkyard dog when Socrates and Plato arrived on the scene. "This is Hegel's regular method of establishing his system," James said, and as he saw it, Bradley and Royce were caught up in this same vicious system.
Lecture VI of A Pluralistic Universe is titled "Bergson and his Critique of Intellectualism" and it begins by heaping praise on the French philosopher. Originality is not a rare thing but, unfortunately, most of the time originality is so odd as to be unintelligible or it's just a "violently peculiar" way of looking at thing. Crazy people and incompetent people are original in this sense.
The rarity is when great peculiarity of vision is allied with great lucidity and unusual command of all the classic expository apparatus. Bergson's resources in the way of erudition are remarkable, and in the way of expression they are simply phenomenal. This is why in France, he has immediately taken so eminent a place in public esteem. Old-fashioned professors, whom his ideas quite fail to satisfy, nevertheless speak of his talent almost with bated breath, while the youngsters flock to him as to a master. If anything can make hard things easy to follow, it is a style like Bergson's. A 'straightforward' style, an american reviewer lately called it; failing to see that such straightforwardness means a flexibility of verbal resource that follows the thought without a crease or wrinkle, as elastic silk underclothing follows the movements of one's body. The lucidity of Bergson's way of putting things is what all readers are first struck by. It seduces you and bribes you in advance to become his disciple. It is a miracle, and he a real magician.
James uses Zeno's most famous paradox of Achilles and the tortoise to illustrate the basic nature of vicious intellectualism. As children, most of us were exposed to a strange version of this paradox wherein the footrace was between a tortoise and a hare. As a ten-year-old boy, I took "tortoise" as a pretentious way to say "turtle" and the "hare" sure looked like a rabbit to me. It also seemed totally implausible that a turtle could ever win such a race. The moral of the story, the teacher told us, is that "slow and steady wins the race." No, I thought, the fastest one wins the race. Duh! Zeno's paradox isn't much more plausible.
Some think that the paradox only shows that ancient Greek math was very bad at dealing with motion. Some will tell you that the paradox was eliminated by the invention of calculus, which amounts to the same criticism of Greek math. Another common response is to point out that the remaining fractions of the race course become so infinitely small that they don't matter. But what if Zeno was trying to show that motion is an illusion, that any kind of change is an illusion? If he was trying to prove that Parmenides was right and Heraclitus was wrong, then the paradox is a defense of a static universe, a defense of reality as fixed and eternal, despite all appearances to the contrary. In that case, this paradox is not a math problem. It's metaphysics. It's not just a co-incidence that Zeno "exposes" the illusion of motion by converting the motion of racers and arrows into a series of fixed points in space and time. Zeno "fixes only a few results, he dots a curve and then interpolates, he substitutes a tracing for a reality." The problem with this form of analysis is that the phenomenon in question - motion - has been eliminated altogether and replaced with motionless points. "Zeno, using nothing but [fixed points] in his discussion, has no alternative but to say that our intellect repudiates motion as a non-reality," James writes. "Intellectualism here does what I said it does -- it makes experience less instead of more intelligible."
The ruling tradition in philosophy has always been the platonic and aristotelian belief that fixity is a nobler and worthier thing than change. Reality must be one and unalterable. Concepts, being themselves fixities, agree best with this fixed nature of truth, so that for any knowledge of ours to be quite true it must be knowledge by universal concepts rather than by particular experiences, for these notoriously are mutable and corruptible. This is the tradition known as rationalism in philosophy, and what I have called intellectualism is only the extreme application of it.
Wonderful. Fascinating. Thank you for this essay David. Re the last quote: it seems to me the fixity of philosophy as asserted in the aristotelian and platonic traditions, is so very necessary. Within the tornadoes of change where we live, change which is primary, unstoppable, of existence not without it–humanity needs a force, an oak to hold onto in the chaos, so it doesn’t disappear.
Hans Smah says
Did anyone read B. Russels critique of Bergson (the text is online)? He makes a complete asshole of Bergson and I really am not able to judge if it is justified. At the end of the episode the PEL guys mentioned Bergson’s attack on Einstein’s theory and deemed it misguided. Bergson himself had to admit that he could’t understand modern physics and that he was not up to it.
I’m also not sure how to understand intuition – i can only get it intuitively (not empirically) 🙂 does the word even mean anything?
HS, see what you make of:
Hans Smah says
looks interesting, i come back to this if i get through it.
cool, she isn’t at all new-agey which is always a plus
David Buchanan says
It seems that “Intuition” was Bergson’s method and prioritized experience over analysis. From the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Bergson, section 3, “The method of intuition”.
“Intuition therefore is a kind of experience, and indeed Bergson himself calls his thought “the true empiricism” (The Creative Mind, p. 175). What sort of experience? In the opening pages of “Introduction to Metaphysics,” he calls intuition sympathy (The Creative Mind, p. 159).”
Wow, a *new* new atheist, who is also a Jewish goddess? Tell the PEL guys to forget Luci, go get Rebecca!
Or, well, she sounds pretty interesting to me (also only part way through the linked talk.) She has a good grasp on intuitions, does she address Bergson? Any one read any of her books?
she does some interesting work, including fiction, and has a new book on Plato that might make for a good show if the guys aren’t burnt out on having guests.
David Buchanan says
Goldstein doesn’t mention Bergson or his method of intuition. It’s not directly relevant to Bergson or vicious intellectualism but it’s a nice general overview of the role intuition has played in philosophy.
Bruce Adam says
I love James’s choice of words. Vice in most of our usages conveys a sense of a valuable instinct or intuition overindulged to the point where it creates its own volition. Perhaps Buddha, for instance,(or James or Hofstadter) might suggest that the self/mind/ego/consciousness is similar trait
Wayne Schroeder says
David–excellent post, don’t know how I missed this one.
‘If you abolish my consciousness … matter resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and traveling in every direction like shivers. In short, try first to connect together the discontinuous objects of daily experience; then, resolve the motionless continuity of these qualities into vibrations, which are moving in place; finally, attach yourself to these movements, by freeing yourself from the divisible space that underlies them in order to consider only their mobility – this undivided act that your consciousness grasps in the movement that you yourself execute. You will obtain a vision of matter that is perhaps fatiguing for your imagination, but pure and stripped of what the requirements of life make you add to it in external perception. Reestablish now my consciousness, and with it, the requirements of life: farther and farther, and by crossing over each time enormous periods of the internal history of things, quasi-instantaneous views are going to be taken, views this time pictorial, of which the most vivid colors condense an infinity of repetitions and elementary changes. In just the same way the thousands of successive positions of a runner are contracted into one sole symbolic attitude, which our eye perceives, which art reproduces, and which becomes for everyone the image of a man who runs’ (Matter and Memory, pp.208–209).”
Bruce Adam says
Stunning quote, Wayne. A gem.
David Buchanan says
“With logic and math I can prove to you that Cupid’s arrow will never reach my heart,” Zeno said, as he laughed and smothered his lover with kisses.
Wayne Schroeder says
Hugh Cramer says
The second comment, from Hans Smah, states that B. Russell made Bergson look like an asshole. But in the latter half of his career, Russell grudgingly admitted that the demolition of any supposed superiority of rational thought had been very effectively accomplished by Hume (Whom Popper reincarnated), and that he could not see any path to how Hume’s arguments could be refuted.
Hugh C. Wyland