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A very famous French philosopher of late 19th and early 20th century Henri Bergson was born in Paris on October 18th 1859 and died on 3rd January 1941 at the age of 81 years. His fame and influence reached the peak during his life-time but after the 2nd world war it started decreasing. His original training was in mathematics and he won the 1st prize in mathematics for the prestigious “Concourse General”.
His first publication was in 1886, in the ‘Revenue philosophique’, ‘On unconscious simulation in states of hypnosis’. He was also interested in working on unconscious memories within recognition. He submitted two Doctoral Thesis in Paris, Essaisurles donne’es immediates de la conscience. It was later published as a book( time and free Will) in 1889. Another thesis was in Latin ‘Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit (aristotles conception of place). His 2nd book appeared in 1896 “Matter and memory”. An essay was published ‘Laughter’ an essay on the meaning of the comic in 1900. He was appointed chairperson of ancient philosophy at the prestigious college Revne de metaphysique et de morale, Introduction to Metaphysics. It was later produced as the counter piece of the creative mind in 1934. This was the first work of Bergson that was translated in many languages; this marked the beginning of Bergsonian and Creative Evolution was translated into English.
The1919 was the year of Bergson’s “Mind Energy” a collection of essays on metaphysical psychological problems. During the same year he retired from his teaching post. In 1922 he was appointed as the President of international Commission for intellectual cooperation- the precursor to UNESCO. There he participated in a debate with Einstein. During the second half of the 20’s, he suffered from severe arthritis. His last major book was ‘The two sources of Morality and religion’. The final collection of his essays, The Creative Mind appeared in 1934. He wrote in his will that his papers should be burnt and his wife apparently followed his instructions and threw all of his papers in the fireplace. His work Time and Free will was a direct attack on Kant’s theory of Time and Space. In Creative Evolution he says that the idea of life is not very clear, it mixes together two meaning that are opposite to each other. These meanings must be differentiated to give a one unit. From his previous work we conclude that life is the total complete temporary worldly movement over a period of time; which retains in memory. On the other hand the life consists of practices that we are accountable for.
More specifically, these two ideas of life can be merged by examining the real growth of the man i.e the occurrence of change and its real causes. His arguments consist of four steps:
In first step he says that there must be a special essential common desire or wish called vital impulse (Elan Vital). Secondly, if the original desire to all living species is common; then there must be some principle of distinction to explain evolution. This is called Bergson’s tendency theory. Thirdly, the two main differences may be taken as instinct and intelligence. Human knowledge is the result of form and structure of intelligence. We have assumed from his book ‘The introduction to metaphysics’ that human intelligence is a practical approach to the world in many dimensions. The ironic situation of humanity is that it is the only species that wants to know what life actually is but it cannot do so, it is therefore important to overcome this situation. Fourth one is that it is the effort of our intuition that overcomes the obstacles that come in the way of true knowledge.
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Bergson was one of those philosophers who recognized the importance of technology. He describes human species as Homofaber rather than Homo Sapiens. He speaks very high about man’s intelligence. Human intelligence is creative and it creates tools and tools create other tools. It leads not only to the economic and social development of human life but also expands life’s affective, artistic, philosophical and religious horizons.
Nietzsche once called ‘Man the yet unfinished animal’. Here he repeated classical German philosophical idea of a man as a ‘Mangelwesen’ which means a lacking and undermined creature. This was said by Herder, Kant, Hegel and Marx.
Bergson pointed out the difference between animals and humans. Unlike animals repeating the automatism of their species; man can continuously recreates his existence. He says, animals do have highly specialized instincts and they could fulfill their particular function perfectly but they have irreversible structure. On the other hand man has made machines which are inorganic and imperfect but can fully grasped and can be changed at their will. Artificial tools allow man to establish a world of his own making. A world that can be modified and enriched indefinitely. This world then can be called as action of man’s intelligence and inventiveness. (Britannica online Encyclopedia).
Bergson’s theory is against materialism. He saw the essence and secret of the world in the movement of life. According to him, if mind was a matter of every mental act is taken as a mechanical result then what was the use of consciousness. The life would almost be as inert as matter, it must have taken a stationary form, had the vital impule been too weak to risk the adventure of motion. Therefore, in the evolution of life, just as in the evolution of human societies and of individual destinies, the greatest success have been for those who accepted the heaviest risks.
The instinct of a man is symbolized with tools of the mind and like organs that are attached and permanent; they become burdens when the environment that needed them has disappeared. Instincts are the innate abilities of mind. They do give decisive and successive responses but it does not enable man to meet the complexities of the modern life. ‘It is the vehicle of security while intellect is the organ of an adventurous liberty.
Bergson talked about Time and Space. According to him time is as essential as space. Time is actually a duration which we pass through. Time is a continuous growth that leads us to progress in future. Time is an accumulation and each coming moment is adding a new accumulation in it.
Our lives grow richer every day; new memories are made and we wait for unforeseeable moment to come. If we are conscious we have to progress, we have to change and change means to mature and mature means to create oneself endlessly. Therefore, all life’s reality is time and duration i.e becoming and change. A living being is a center of action. Man is no passive machine rather he is a focus of redirected force. He is a center of creative evolution.
Free will is a consequence of our consciousness. We know that what we are doing. Every act of ours is not just automatic, it is not a result of preexistent force, but it’s a choice and choice is burdensome and effortful. It requires determination lifting up of one’s powers.
We see that duration is the accumulation of vital powers, the creativity of life and mind. It is the continuous expansion of something absolutely new. In Aristotle’s philosophy; it is called Entelechy, a vital force that directs an organism towards self-fulfillment.
Life is an ongoing process of efforts. It pushes upwards and outwards; it moves on and on.It is contradictory to inertia and the opposite to accidental.
It is directed towards growth to which it is compelled. Life is unceasing; it is an action of freedom. We experience it in ourselves when we act freely, when we consciously choose our actions and plot our lives. Our struggles and our sufferings, our ambitions and our defeats, our yearning to be better and stronger than we are, are the voice and current of the Elan Vital in us. It is that vitals’ urge that makes us grow and transforms this wandering planet into a theatre of un ending creation (Will Durant).
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“The increase in consciousness and life force is seen as the purpose of evolution what is it that makes one form of life more advanced than another. We can say that some beings are more alive than others. This aliveness is what Henri Bergson called the ‘Elan Vital”. This Elan vital has manifested itself more powerfully with such beings. The consciousness of the human beings increases as they become more energized. The process by which living beings become more conscious over a period of time which Bergson called ‘Duration ‘is called evolution. We can say that humans are the best creatures of God having the highest degree of elan vital so they are more conscious of their surroundings than the plants and animals. Animals like sheep and cows are more conscious than insects because they have more awareness of their surroundings.
The elan vital or life force is present in all creatures. As we go out about our daily lives we give out this energy and this energy is expanded when we think, work and use our senses to perceive things happening around us. We recharge our energy when we sleep and it drains out of us when we are extremely tired and overloaded our senses with external stimuli.
The Chinese word for this life energy is ‘Chi”. In sanskrit it means ‘Prana’. The exercises of Hatha Yoga are used for it. In our daily use language we call it vitality.
So, we can use Bergson’s elan vital in both the areas; evolution and in connection with our daily lives. We can connect evolutionary process as a whole and the personal evolution that takes place in our own lives. In the process of evolution the human beings become more and more vitalized and our personal spiritual development is enhanced.
There is an outward flow of vitality in our daily routine life. We are all the time busy using our senses, everywhere around including our home, workplace or even in the market. Our mind is all the time busy processing the information.
Our sensory activity, our thought process, our mental and physical activity are the channels through which our vitality is continuously drained away. But at the end of the day when this outward flow is paused we regain our vitality inside us. This is the moment of reflection or meditation where we gain the higher states of consciousness. We start feeling more vital and spiritual with in ourselves.
Sometimes we give away our vitality by attaching ourselves to some external things or a person. We become dependent on them for our sense of well-being, our possessions and comforts, our hopes and ambitions to be fulfilled by them.. We get addicted to it and when the person we depended upon leaves us, we experience a terrible sense of loss and emptiness. But with the passage of time we feel ourselves become stronger and more whole as if the part of us which we had given away to that person has been given back to us. It is like if the powers of our soul have become stronger. Now we had made ourselves detached and become self-sufficient.
We build up higher concentration of inner vitality either by blocking the channels from where the energy drains out of us or by detaching ourselves from the one we are dependent on.
Arthur J. Deikman an American scientist in 1960’s investigated that under ordinary consciousness things around us do not look beautiful or interesting. We take them for granted because our normal perception is automatic and is developed in response to the demand of survival. It means that normally we do not put our energies into perceptions. But when we meditate or are in a state of detachment we get surplus energy inside us. Now our perception are not automatic anymore. The surplus energy inside us goes into the act of perception and we start looking this world with a different eye. It becomes amazing and full of beauty and harmony.
One of the great writers on mysticism Evelyn Underhill wrote ‘No genius can afford to dissipate his energies, the mystic genius most of all and in order to prevent this the mystics made sure that they were far away from the energy draining activity and external stimuli of everyday life, living in monasteries or as hermits. There they conserve their vitality by spending hours in meditation.
For five billion years the process of evolution has been making living beings particularly humans more and more vital. We take evolution into our own hands. But it is not really ‘we’; it’s the force of evolution itself which is pushing our lives forward to a higher level of development.
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