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The Modern Schoolman. 45, n.
BERGSON'S INTUITIONAL APPROACH
TO FREE WILL
In the preface of his first book, Time and Free Will,
Bergson admirably and concisely sets out his metaphysical program. He is not
merely dipping his feet into philosophical waters, publishing some insights
on the will before setting down to deeper, metaphysical problems. Rather,
I. BERGSON'S HISTORICAL DIALECTIC
In the sweeping fourth chapter of Creative Evolution,
the first philosopher
In modern times Descartes reintroduced the Greeks' error into philosophy. Within that great mind metaphysics hesitated between spatialized time and a true intuition of time. The first, Descartes clearly saw, if carried to its logical conclusions, would deny free will; the second, his conception of divine providence. His attempt to solve the problem by grasping both horns of the dilemma led to the Cartesian soul-body split in which the soul was in duration but the body was in homogeneous space. In trying to resolve Descartes's dichotomy, the rest of modern philosophy chose the concept of time-length rather than time-duration, a choice which continually brought their philosophical barks hard upon the shoals of determinism. There were two reasons for the choice: the "mind's tendency to follow the cinematographical method" and the influence of the Greeks, "artists forever admirable." The deterministic effects are seen clearly in the rationalists Leibniz and Spinoza, the Plato and Aristotle respectively of the modern world, who "present to us a systematization of the new physics, constructed on the model of the ancient metaphysics." In spatializing temporal decisions, both men committed themselves to an "all is given" philosophy. Leibniz tried to salvage freedom by a realm of possible choices which are "already preexisting and exercising efficient causality upon our will"; Spinoza by "an acquiescence in the unwinding of the divinely necessitated causal series."
It took the genius of Kant to see that Leibniz and Spinoza
were involved in a hopeless project and that anything acting within a
homogeneous medium is necessitated. Moreover, anything outside such a medium
is for Kant scientifically (limited to the method of Newtonian physics)
unknowable, and so if there is to be free will it must be posited outside of space
and time. But Kant's error was precisely his acceptance of the Newtonian
account of time as a homogeneous medium similar to space. If he had looked
within himself he would have found in experience the precious freedom
he was forced to cut off from scientific knowledge. Thus, the significance of
Bergson is that in the midst of metaphysical skepticism following upon Kant,
he refused to spin a metaphysics out of his head and dared to point to actual
experience as a source of metaphysical insight, the experience of free will.
It is advantageous also to state the problem epistemologically, because unless we understand Bergson's reaction to Kant we too readily interpret him as an irrationalist, and thus, with regard to free will, a voluntarist. Kant was faced with "three alternatives, and three only, among which to choose a theory of knowledge: either the mind is determined by things, or things are determined by the mind, or between mind and things we must suppose a mysterious agreement. But, as we have seen just above, Kant failed to see all the possibilities. For there is a fourth alternative, which consists, first of all, in regarding the intellect as a special function of the mind, essentially turned toward mere matter; then in saying that neither does matter determine the form of the intellect, nor does the intellect impose itself on matter nor have matter and intellect been regulated in regard to one another by we know not what preestablished harmony, but that intellect and matter have progressively adapted themselves one to the other in order to attain at last a common form. This adaptation has, moreover, been brought about quite naturally, because it is the same inversion of the same movement which creates at once the intellectuality of mind and the materiality of things.
Actually, this alternative was contained within Kant's own
philosophy, but Kant did not follow his own hints. For his own positing of
the noumena should have suggested some kind of extraintellectual knowledge. Kant did not go in that
direction because he had already set for himself a task which was obliquely
related to it. Given Newtonian science as justified, what are the conditions
which make it possible? Thus he never questioned precisely what he should
have in order for his other insights to lead to an authentic metaphysics. He
allowed time to be reduced to space. In doing so he missed the fact that
there are two ways of scientifically knowing reality, intellect's knowledge
of matter and intuition's knowledge of duration.
After Kant, empirically minded philosophers adopted metaphysical skepticism while metaphysically minded thinkers found the source of their inspiration in a nontemporal intuition. When Bergson first read Spencer's theories of evolution, he thought that possibly determinism was broken. But then he saw that Spencer too had succumbed to an "all is given" philosophy. "The usual device of the Spencerian method consists in reconstructing evolution with fragments of the evolved." Meanwhile, British empiricists such as John Stuart Mill were atomizing the self and concluding that man's sense of freedom is an illusion. But such argumentation left Bergson not only unconvinced of determinism but actually more convinced than ever that "the more we tend to set up the causal relation as a relation of necessary determination, the more we assert thereby that things do not endure like ourselves." In other words, the more empiricists atomized the self, the more Bergson realized that their theories did not account for experience.
II. BERGSON'S METHODOLOGY
At the end of his second essay in Mind-Energy, Bergson proposes the likely possibility of an after-life. In explaining why he can do no more than indicate a possibility, he gives us a concise glimpse at his philosophical method.
We have to choose, in philosophy, between the method of pure reasoning, which aims at a complete and decisive result, unable to be perfected since it is supposed to be perfect, and an empirical method, content with approximate results which can be endlessly corrected and enlarged.
What, then, is this empirical method of approximation, if we may so term it? We can answer this by asking why the other philosophical method cannot work for Bergson. It cannot because exact knowledge belongs only to the spatializing intellect, whereas the evidence for a metaphysics is found in duration, not in space. Consequently, intelligence and language, which works with it, cannot deal with this evidence directly. This is why
the beliefs to which we most strongly adhere are those of
which we should find it most difficult to give an account, and
For the "beliefs to which we most strongly adhere" are those which are the most vital to us and consequently those which are closely related to duration.
If intellectual concepts cannot bring us directly to the,
relevant reality, then a method must be found which can lead the mind
indirectly to an intuition of that reality. Bergson chose to lead his
By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, we shall prevent any one of them from usurping the place of the intuition it is intended to call up, since it would then be driven away at once by its rivals.
Consequently, as Maritain informs us, he wished friends to read between the lines. His purpose is to get "rid of a certain number of ready-made ideas," and to "develop the taste for introspection."
III. WILL AS THE EXPRESSION OF THE WHOLE PERSON
Essential to Bergson's approach to the experience of freedom is his distinction between the superficial and the deeper self, a distinction which parallels that between homogeneous and heterogeneous (true) duration.
Below homogeneous duration, which is the extensive symbol of true duration, a close psychological analysis distinguishes a duration whose heterogeneous moments permeate one another; below the numerical multiplicity of conscious states, a qualitative multiplicity; below the self with well-defined states, a self in which succeeding each other means melting into one another and forming an organic whole.
How can we descriptively distinguish between these two
durations? We might say that the difference is reflected in the difference
between a personal and an impersonal reaction to reality. Or we might
describe the difference in terms of ideas which have permeated our being
– or to put it another way, ideas which we have personally assimilated.
To the former there is a fairly straightforward correspondence of words in
language. But words express little of the latter.
Bergson gives five major influences which draw one's attention to surface activities and thereby disintegrate the personality. The first is the solidifying influence of external objects, the second of language, the third of analysis, the fourth of description. In the fifth case, the needs of social life are satisfied by breaking things up into discrete multiplicities.
Hence there are finally two different selves, one of which
is, as it were, the external projection of the other, its spatial and, so to
speak, social representation. We reach the former by deep introspection,
which leads us to grasp our inner states as living things, constantly becoming,
as states not amenable to measure, which permeate one another and of which
the succession in duration has nothing in common with juxtaposition in
homogeneous space. But the moments at which we thus grasp ourselves are rare,
and that is just why we are rarely free. The greater part of the time we live
outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghost,
a colourless shadow which pure duration projects
into homogeneous space.
Joseph de Finance observes that liberty today, "a la suite de Bergson," is attributed to the whole person rather than simply to the faculty of the will. Locke also preferred to predicate liberty of the man rather than of a power, but his distinction was based on problems involved in his conception of powers and also on another distinction between the self and body which he accepted from Descartes. Bergson's emphasis, on the other hand, has a highly moral tone.
To achieve freedom requires a good deal of effort, since freedom is not some birthright of each man's that he can lay claim to whenever he acts. Man can be free, true; but external, material forces are constantly working to limit and even to completely stifle his freedom. Freedom is not synonymous with change of character. For our character changes a little every day and our freedom would suffer if those new acquisitions were grafted on to our self and not blended with it. But, as soon as this blending takes place, it must be admitted that the change which has supervened in our character belongs to us, that we have appropriated it. In a word, if it is agreed to call every act free which springs from the self and from the self alone, the act which bears the mark of our personality is truly free, for our self alone will lay claim to its paternity. It would thus be recognized that free will is a fact, if it were agreed to look for it in a certain characteristic of the decision which is taken, in the free act itself.
Freedom is inherent to the act itself. This can be recognized by anyone who takes the effort to experience it; that is, by anyone who takes the trouble to act freely, as a real person. This is the prime experience upon which a metaphysics is to be built, and thus there is a moral character which distinguishes the labor of the metaphysician from that of the scientist. This dependence of the moral life on metaphysics stems from the fact that to recover his freedom man must turn from external activity and plunge himself into the creative depths of reality.
It is the whole soul, in fact, which gives rise to the
free decision: and the act will be so much the freer the more the dynamic
series with which it is connected tends to be the fundamental self.
What is this dynamic series to which one should be as closely connected as possible, this creative force (as Bergson speaks of it elsewhere) in which one should immerse himself? To answer this question, we must turn to Bergson's idea of duration.
Freedom is the relation of the concrete self to the act which it performs. This relation is indefinable, just because we are free. For we can analyze a thing, but not a process; we can break up extensity, but not duration.
Because words cannot properly express the reality, Bergson tries to lead us to experience the reality directly, immediately. To say that the reality led to is an individual free act is imprecise, and Bergson rapped Renouvier's knuckles for talking in that fashion.
Renouvier has already spoken of these voluntary acts which may be compared to reflex movements, and he has restricted freedom to moments of crisis. But he does not seem to have noticed that the process of our free activity goes on, as it were, unknown to ourselves, in the obscure depths of our consciousness at every moment of duration, that the very feeling of duration comes from this source, and that without this heterogeneous and continuous duration, in which our self evolves, there would be no moral crisis. The study, even the close study, of a given free action will thus not settle the problem of freedom. The whole series of our heterogeneous states of consciousness must be taken into consideration. In other words, it is in a close analysis of the idea of duration that the key to the problem must be sought.
Some commentators raise quite a fuss about Bergson's
remark that "the process of our free activity goes on, as it were,
Now it is duration and force which the scientific law cannot handle. It can handle only simultaneous instances, and duration is precisely the reality that is becoming within science's constructed intervals. It is with regard to this fact that he can say that the principle of causality approaches the principle of identity as a limit and that the principle of identity alone gives absolute necessity. That the principle of identity gives necessity is an obvious logical truth. Since both terms of an identity are identically the same, there is no difference, there is no reality that slips between them, as it were. But the principle of causality is applied to before-after events, and there is always some interval of duration where reality slips between the two terms. In other words, the principle of causality can never account for the whole reality of a given interval. However, the smaller the interval the less reality is there which is unaccounted for. Thus, as the two terms come closer and closer, the principle of causality resembles more and more the principle of identity; and since it handles the reality it is treating more and more comprehensively, it approaches absolute necessity as a limit. But only as a limit. For the homogeneous can never become heterogeneous. It is in this sense that Bergson says that quantity is the limiting case of quality.
An analysis such as the above has the paradoxical result
of showing us "the more we tend to set up the causal relation as a
relation of necessary determination, the more we assert thereby that things
do not endure like ourselves." But "the relation of inner
causality is purely dynamic, and has no analogy with the relation of two
external phenomena which condition one another." This inner causality
Bergson also calls force and notes that it escapes the scientific method. It
is most important that force be dissociated from science, since it is its association
with "the principle of causality in nature" that has given men the
idea that it is linked with necessity, whereas the very opposite is true.
Bergson has shown well that science cannot be extended into the realm of metaphysics and that scientific determinists therefore have no argument. But has he answered the question of determinism if it is posed by a metaphysician? Can he, for instance, gainsay de Finance's remark that, "L'élan vital, même si on réalise la métaphore, est 'lancé' plutôt que 'lançant"'? We have to say that he never faced this question explicitly, but he does give us a hint as to how he might have done so. We have already noted his appeal to directly confront free acts (with the reservation with respect to Renouvier kept in mind) and to recognize their inherent characteristics. If Bergson's language does hedge him in toward the position of determinism, it has, after all, done only what he says language always does. But if we let him be our guide, whose directions we are willing to follow out ourselves, and if we look where he points, then we should come to experience our freedom.
Really, however, Bergson has a much greater difficulty to
overcome. He has so closely associated freedom with duration that at first
glance it would seem that anything which endures is free. If all of the
universe endures, then man is not unique. Is the only alternative to make
nature a whirlwind of Kantian phenomena and thus commit oneself to a
durational solipsism? Bergson sets up this problem himself when he suggests
that there are two contradictory theories of duration: (1) both psychological
and physical phenomena are free, or (2) the psychological is free but the
physical is not. Previous philosophers have made the mistake of holding them
both at once. A major part of his subsequent philosophical work after Time
and Free Will, especially Creative Evolution, will be involved
with working out this dilemma. He will do so in terms of choice and
V. CHOICE AND INDETERMINATION
In the very beginning of Creative Evolution, Bergson poses the problem above. He states that for conscious beings to exist is to change and then asks if the same can be said for all beings. Or to put it another way, do all things endure? Yes, he answers, and cites the fact that sugar takes time to melt as showing that there is duration even for material objects. Therefore Bergson has definitely chosen to put the root of freedom even in physical phenomena. For him, nature will not be a Humean flux. But does this necessarily imply that even matter is free or even conscious? We can say immediately that Bergson does not want to hold this. He unequivocally states in many places that man is unique in evolution and that only man has completely broken the bonds of determinism. But is his theory consistent with his convictions? To answer this question we will have to reflect more closely on the life force of evolution.
It would not be too far off to say that Bergson's philosophy is simply a cosmic plea for contingency. To deny contingency is to embrace an "all is given" philosophy in which evolution is a mere rearrangement rather than a growth or progress which involves radical novelty. We must realize that Bergson is arguing against dogmatic or rationalistic finalism. He rightly feels that "if there is nothing unforeseen, no invention or creation in the universe, time is useless." Unfortunately, the only theory of finality with which he seems to be familiar does not allow for unforeseeability. He remarks that internal finality implies that all is given since any sort of finality, after all is said and done, is an eternal view of our conduct. The irony is that:
The philosopher, who begins by laying down as a principle that each detail is connected with some general plan of the whole, goes from one disappointment to another as soon as he comes to examine the facts; and, as he had put everything in the same rank, he finds that, as the result of not allowing for accident, he must regard everything as accidental.
Consequently, allowance for contingency must be made. But how account for it?
It is the creative force, the impetus of life, which
But it seizes upon this matter, which is necessity itself and strives to introduce into it the largest possible amount of indetermination and liberty.
The part played by contingency in evolution is therefore great. Contingent, generally, are the forms adopted or rather invented. Contingent, relative to the obstacles encountered in a given place and at a given moment, is the dissociation of the primordial tendency into such and such complementary tendencies which create divergent lines of evolution. Contingent the arrests and setbacks; contingent, in large measure, the adaptations. Two things only are necessary: (1) a gradual accumulation of energy; (2) an elastic canalization of this energy in variable and indeterminable directions, at the end of which are free acts.
It is contingency therefore which will lead to free acts by way of indetermination within matter. Note that free acts are at the end of the process.
Since indetermination and choice go hand in hand and since
the brain is the seat of choice, the brain structures along the evolutionary
path will be one way of distinguishing between man and animals. We should
first recall that the body is ordered to action, not to knowledge. The brain
is like a telephone exchange, and the degree of consciousness is
proportionate to the time interval between the reception of a stimulus and
the response to it. In very
It seems clear enough from the above that our worry is not that Bergson has given freedom to all material beings. His method has cut off that possibility from the beginning. But it has the disadvantage of making man look as though he were nothing more than a more complicated organism. Nothing, of course, could be further from Bergson's intentions, but does his theory support them? A thorough answer would require an entire article. However, two remarks should suffice for our present purposes. The first is that the brain does not cause freedom, but the force which erupts into freedom causes the complexity of the brain. The second is that Bergson's argument to the specific difference between man and animals is not really grounded upon the difference between their brains – this only explains partially, from the side of matter, how there can be such a difference – but on the difference of activities. Two activities which are most significant are language and society, which man alone enjoys.
But our brain, our society, and our language are only the
external and various signs of one and the same internal superiority. They
tell, each after its manner, the unique, exceptional success which life has
won at a given moment of its evolution. They express the difference of
degree, and not only of degree, which separates man from the rest of the
animal world. They let us guess that, while at the end of the vast spring
board from which life has taken its leap, all the others have stepped down,
finding the cord stretched too high, man alone has cleared the obstacle.
We may, then, avoid the difficulty of his discussion about the brain and point to language and society as evidence for man's being specifically different from animals.
What, then, is it about language and society that leads Bergson to conclude to such a difference? To answer briefly, language, which we have because of our unique intuition of the homogeneous, enables us to communicate with others and thus leads to social life. The two together make us capable of building our lives along varying patterns, which capacity is the key to the difference. Animals are born with the ability to function in specific ways. The possibilities of variation are slim, and this is why they do not break the chain of determinism. However, there are some possibilities, and this is why Bergson at least allows that they stretch the chain. But man's possibilities are unlimited. For his intelligence cuts out from the flux symbols to which he can attach words, which he can apply to an indefinite number of objects. This is something quite different from animals. For example, ants may have some sort of language, but if so, each symbol corresponds to a single object. Bergson insists that there is here a difference not just in degree, but in kind, a difference between the definite and individual, and the indefinite and general.
There remains the question: Is the evolutionary force within man really any different from the evolutionary force within an animal or even within inert matter? It is true, as we have seen, that the body of man does not cause (at least primarily) his ability to have general ideas and to use language. On the other hand, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that man's admitted superiority to lesser forms of life is merely that he has an instrument which allows him to operate to a fuller capacity. That such a problem is inherent in Bergson's philosophy is shown by Bergson himself in a figure he uses at the end of his third chapter.
It is as if a vague and formless being, whom we may call, as we will, man or superman, had sought to realize himself, and had succeeded only by abandoning a part of himself on the way.
Bergson evidently intends a metaphor, but the problem is that his philosophy strongly suggests that the statement has literal truth. This is a metaphysical question which we will not attempt to answer in this paper because it consists in reconciling his theory of man with his theory of the universe. What we need do here is indicate where he found his evidence for freedom and how he related it to the rest of his philosophy. Without concerning ourselves with reconciling the two, we can say that Bergson pointed to significant evidence for distinguishing man from animals – namely, language and social life – even though his philosophy of evolution seems, at least at the surface level that we have seen it, to lead in the opposite direction. However, with regard to freedom itself, there still remains one more problem, Bergson's alleged voluntarism.
VI. IS BERGSON A VOLUNTARIST?
We showed above how Bergson's philosophy might be described
as a cosmic plea for contingency against rationalistic finalism. This
orientation forced Bergson to express himself in a manner amenable to the
interpretation that he was a voluntarist, an irrationalist. This is the interpretation of F. P. Cronan, who shows that Bergson cannot avoid identifying
freedom with pure spontaneity and vital determinism as long as he fails to
ground freedom in reason. We agree
That Bergson's intention is to avoid a doctrine of pure spontaneity is quite clear. This is precisely what he considers to be one of the false conclusions into which dogmatism is forced. He sets up his own solution by noting that empiricism can lead only to determinism but that dogmatism as an alternative can only lead to the result that "the free decision would be an arbitrary fiat, a true creation ex nihilo." He then appeals to duration as a third alternative which will solve the problem. Early in Creative Evolution he gives his account of the relationship between intellect and will.
Mechanism and finalism are ... only external views of our
conduct. They extract its intellectuality. But our conduct slips between them
and extends much further. Once again this does not mean that free action
is capricious, unreasonable action. To behave according to caprice is to
oscillate mechanically between two or more ready-made alternatives and at
length to settle on one of them; it is no real maturing of an internal state,
no real evolution; it is merely – however paradoxical the assertion may
seem – bending the will to imitate the mechanism of the intellect. A
conduct that is truly our own, on the contrary, is that of a will which does not
try to counterfeit intellect, and which, remaining itself – that is to
say, evolving – ripens gradually into acts which the intellect will be
able to resolve indefinitely into intelligible elements without ever reaching
its goal. The free act is incommensurable with the idea, and its
"rationality" must be defined by this very incommensurability,
which admits the discovery of as much intelligibility within it as we will.
Such is the character of our own evolution; and such without doubt, that of
the evolution of life.
If we keep in mind precisely how Bergson has limited the notion of intellect, it is impossible to take objection to anything in the above quote. We might at most think it unfortunate that he used intellect in that sense because of all the subsequent confusion. But here we are trying to find out what Bergson is saying. And he does say that the free act is not unreasonable.
Cronan's major objection to Bergson is that he denies choice and deliberation. We have already noted that the kind of choice Bergson has denied is compatible with free will. Here we will simply recall his statements about creativity's being proportioned to the amount of reasoning done. He also differentiates man from animals by stating that it is man alone who plans his future. We noted, when discussing differences between man and animals, Bergson's statement that the intuition of the homogeneous, which is unique to man, prepares us for social life because the subsequent objectivity helps us acquire a language and shows us an external world. Moreover, "there is a close connection between the faculty of conceiving a homogeneous medium such as space, and that of thinking by means of general ideas." Consequently, both general ideas and free will are central to the difference between man and animals.
But in spite of the fact that they are both central,
Bergson was very careful to keep them apart. Why? A major reason must
certainly be due to the strong dialectic with which he opposed himself to
previous philosophers. Because of their concept of intellect he saw that it
would be disastrous to let intellect and will become associated. Another
reason is a methodological one, which he reveals to us in Creative
Evolution. Here he is speaking of the opposition of intellect and intuition,
which is the same problem as we have posed, since it is intuition which
presents to us free acts, and it is intuition which has been interpreted as
an irrational leap of some sort. Bergson's whole doctrine of evolution
centers about the opposition between matter and duration or the impetus of
life. That is the central opposition in metaphysical terms; and in
epistemological terms, it is translated to the opposition between intellect
and intuition, both of which arise out of the life force of evolution. Thus,
"by dwelling on this opposition of the two elements
Moreover, there are the many times Bergson talks of intellect
We have seen that Bergson's method of using many and
dissimilar metaphors to describe a reality is a deliberate attempt to
When Bergson tried to relate the free force within man to the life force which is the source of evolution, he got into certain metaphysical difficulties. We mentioned the question of a specific difference between man and animals. We might also have mentioned the problem of pantheism. However, neither of these affects the analysis of free acts. And we concluded that if we let Bergson's metaphors lead us to the experience that they suggest, then we need "merely" to confront directly the experience to understand that it is not determined. At this point there arises another problem, since Bergson did not think that intuition of a given free act (or even a number of them) alone would lead us to the full reality of freedom. To grasp it comprehensively we must also understand it within the context of evolution. From this point of view it looks as though the metaphysical difficulties mentioned above are relevant after all. They are, in the sense that seeing the cosmic role of freedom leads to a fuller understanding than seeing the individual role alone. In this sense the doctrine of freedom presented in Time and Free Will is completed in Creative Evolution. Nevertheless, the evidence presented in Time and Free Will is enough to establish that the will is free. The account of freedom that grew out of empiricism does not account for the reality. Consequently, we do not have to go outside of experience, as Kant thought, to posit a free will. We merely have to reflect on previously overlooked experience.
His positive exposition of this evidence left something to
be desired, but that is understandable because of his justifiable fear that
it would have been misunderstood in the philosophical climate of his day.
Thus Bergson was forced to underplay, but not deny, the relationship between
reason and freedom. Again, because of his dialectic, Bergson was caught
between the categories of necessity and contingency with regard to the will.
But again, if we take his purpose to be to lead us to experience more than to
give a positive