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Ontological Hermeneutics: An Overlooked Bergsonian Perspective

by Richard L. Brougham

Richard L. Brougham is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San Antonio College, 1300 San Pedro Avenue, San Antonio, Texas, 78212. His interests are the metaphysics of time, the history of ideas, and the conceptual foundations of biological evolution. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 37-41, Vol. 22, Number 1, Spring, 1993. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Henri Bergson is credited with a pertinent critique of the mechanistic determinism usually associated with nineteenth- century classical physics. However, his depiction of the nature of things has come to be considered too unsystematic and "loose," even by later philosophers sympathetic to his thought. He laid the foundations of what has come to be called "process philosophy." But his ontological formulations supposedly failed to establish a clear modus for the coming-to-be of "novelty" in the scheme of things. Samuel Alexander and Alfred North Whitehead both built upon his inchoate insights and presented more coherent arrangements. Or, so current wisdom has it.

However, one seminal notion has been buried in Bergson’s writings. This notion, if Bergson has pursued it, might have led to a more effective Bergsonian metaphysics. I will call this unexplored vein of Bergsonian thought "ontological hermeneutics."

Hermeneutics is a method of inquiry or interpretation attracting much attention in the last few decades. Beginning as a means of scriptural investigation, it is now considered a major interpretative approach in epistemology, literary criticism, and the social sciences. To briefly encapsulate, we can say that hermeneutics is concerned with the "tension" or perceived dissonance between the general understanding of some area of discourse, and the components of that discourse. The general "sense" of a prolonged passage, a text, or even an entire culture is contrasted with the (distinguishable) sentences, statements, or sub-assertions that comprise the whole text, etc. Hermeneutics is the "adjusting" process between the sub-units and their more general meaning. Hans-George Gadamer, following the lead of Martin Heidegger and the earlier Wilhelm Dilthey, has developed hermeneutics far beyond its humble origins. Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionists have made extensive use of hermeneutical techniques. But Bergson not only anticipated hermeneutics as a means of interpretation; he also saw the hermeneutic circle as a fundamental modus of being, an ontological structure operant in the world.

First, however, a few words concerning the 1902 article which first presents Bergson’s ontological hermeneutics. Entitled "Intellectual Effort,"1 the article starts as a fairly pedestrian scrutiny of the then-current notion of the association of ideas, and more "active" methods of cognition, such as "invention." Bergson uses the term "image" to indicate an immediate, direct "finding" which is more "mental" than raw sensation, but less than an "act" of cognitive apprehension.2 Roughly, "images" are the "raw material" of "intellectual effort." Being "raw material," the incipient "parts," the images need to be shaped, organized. To be "fitted" and "placed," the images require a "scheme," or an abstract framework. Bergson’s article appears to grant a quasi-Kantian preeminence to the scheme -- at least, at first. But as the article proceeds, he veers toward the realization that both "poles" of the "effort" -- the concrete content of the images and the initial framing concept -- must reciprocally adjust to each other. Bergson seemingly walked into the middle of the hermeneutic circle.

If Bergson had merely presaged contemporary hermeneutics, then the 1902 article might be considered merely worthy of a historical footnote. But Bergson’s ruminations extend the now-familiar part-whole reciprocity beyond its current usage. He clearly implies that the sustained "inventive" effort is a direct disclosure of the "way things work," a mediation of unitive pattern and "material" components. The circle, he suggests, may be at the heart of being.

The segment of his paper specifically focussed on "invention" scrutinizes the amorphous, "loose play of ideas" (ME 122) usually noted in such endeavor. The creation or discovery is not a simple detection of similarity or commonality in diverse mental fragments (images); it is not an association of ideas, Instead, the "play of ideas" is an adjusting in two dimensions: (1) a "horizontal" adjusting among the component fragments; and (2) a "vertical" adjusting of the possible "scheme" and the (sometimes) recalcitrant images. The essential elucidating term here is "reciprocity;" all components are passively or actively mutually adjusting to each other; each component is reciprocating with the emerging pattern; and the emerging whole is generated by, and is generating, major alterations -- or, at least, "fine tunings" -- of each element.

Bergson finds this hermeneutic dynamism even in prosiac mental effort:

Thus, when I want to remember a proper name, I turn first to the general impression which I have kept of it; this is what will act as the "dynamic scheme." At once different elementary images certain letters of the alphabet, present themselves to my mind. These letters seek either to form a whole together, or to substitute themselves according to the indications of the scheme. But often...there is revealed the impossibility of reaching any form of living organization. Hence a gradual modification of the scheme -- a modification required by the very images which the scheme has aroused and which may yet indeed have to be transformed or disappear in their turn. But whether the images simply manage it between themselves, or whether scheme and images have to make reciprocal concessions to one another, the effort of recall always implies an interval, gradually filled in or diminished, between the scheme and the images, The more this bringing together needs goings and comings, struggles and negotiation, the more the feeling of effort is accentuated, (ME 220)3

Whatever the merits of Bergson’s depiction of the process of remembering a name, he is describing a dynamism of interplay which may be familiar to some readers. But something more significant is disclosed here. Bergson is saying that in all but the most "automatic" cognitive processes, (including the "mechanical" application of a precise algorithm) a "feedback" occurs between the initial guesstimate (Gadamer’s "prejudice"4) and the frequently sprawling diversity of facts, material, contents, etc., which will eventually (hopefully) be "brought into line" (grasped, comprehended, "organized").

And, it can be inferred that the "starting-point" of the "circle" is open: the "intellectual effort" can begin anywhere on the circle. It may begin with the "scheme" (motivating initial "idea," anticipation, "prejudice"), or somewhere among the "pieces" Or, it may originate in the "interval" -- anywhere in between the "buzzing confusion" and the tentative encapsulation. The mutual modification or reciprocal adjusting may be "sideways," or "up-and-down," or both. Once the "dynamism" begins, an adjusting interplay between all components and the general pattern takes place, involving "concession," "negotiation," and "struggle."

It is clear that Bergson does not simply mean an empirical "welling up" (emergence) from the contents or fragments (such as Aristotle considered at the end of Posterior Analytics5), nor does he imply a Kantian "top-down" imposition of form. We have here a hermenuetic circulation which continues until an adequate "fit" is achieved.6 What Bergson adds to all this is his audacious ontological claim: at least some "real" development is analogous to the hermeneutic reciprocity between the emerging organizing pattern and the (potential) "segments."

Before we scrutinize Bergson’s specific ontological claim, let us examine what he says concerning the sophisticated example of intellectual effort, "invention":

Nowhere is this work so visible as in the effort of invention. Here we have the distinct feeling of a form of organization, variable no doubt, but anterior to the elements which must be organized, then of a competition between the elements themselves, and lastly, if we succeed in inventing, of an equilibrium which is a reciprocal adaptation of the form and of the matter.... It is just as though we had to stretch a piece of India rubber in different directions at the same time in order to bring it to the geometrical form of a particular polygon. It shrinks at some points, according as it is lengthened at others. We have to begin over and over again, each time fixing the partial result obtained; we may even modify the form first assigned to the polygon. (ME 220-1)

We have here a process closely akin to what some would call the "ferment" of creativity -- what Whitehead called the "state of imaginative muddled suspense" (SMW 14). A major adjusting is often required: up and down, and laterally among the (possible) components. Nothing is categorically "fixed" until the final adjustment is achieved. Bergson’s "invention" closely resembles White-head’s "concrescence." All the elements of concrescence may mutually adjust themselves, including the "formative" subjective aim (PR 224/342). The culmination of concrescence is the "satisfaction" of the final adjustment, when the dynamism of all the components, which is in some ways passive and in other ways active, ends in a decided "something," the superject" (PR 45fl1).

The connection between Whitehead’s concrescence and Bergson’s "effort" of inventing is not merely faintly analogical. Bergson’s hermeneutics of invention was not meant to be limited to human endeavors. At the close of his article, Bergson points to a concrescive form of development. The reciprocal "interplay" described in the article is more than a human artificing: it is the possible reconciliation of two apparently incompatible features of the ongoing world -- efficient causation and final causation:

It is futile to object that there is difficulty in conceiving the action of the scheme on the images. Is the action of image on image any clearer?... Besides, the development of the mind on one single plane...there is the movement of the mind which goes from one plane to another, deeper down...As to knowing how they work, this is a question which does not only concern psychology; it is part of the general and metaphysical problem of causality. Between impulsion and attraction, between the efficient cause and the final cause, there is, I hold, something intermediate, a form of activity from which philosophers have drawn, by way of impoverishment and dissociation, in passing to the two opposite and extreme limits, the idea of the efficient cause on the one hand and of final cause on the other. This operation, which is the very operation of life, consists in the gradual passage from the less realized to the more realized, from the intensive to the extensive, from a reciprocal implication of parts to their juxtaposition. (ME 229-230)

The ontological "operation" disclosed here, does resonate with earlier and later Bergsonian statements. In Matter and Memory (1896), he speaks of the "states" of a duration "melting into each other" (MM244). In Creative Evolution (1907), he refers to the "mutual penetration" of parts (CE 281). In Creative Mind, he writes of a "real evolution" which is "entirely modified within" an "internal modification" (CM 20). What is clearly obvious is that the "interplay operation" of Bergson presaged "concrescive" activity, the linch-pin of Whitehead’s metaphysics. The "microscopic process" of concrescence is a "negotiating" interplay among all past achievements. The "subjective aim" in its initial stage is closely analogous to Bergson’s "scheme." Concrescence is the adjusting process of the diverse elements among themselves, and with the subjective aim. All elements, including the subjective aim, undergo reciprocal modification in the concrescive activity.

What is important for us to realize is that Bergson (and, later, Whitehead) has disclosed a feature of the nature of things which has been neglected by nearly all investigators. Metaphysicians who have taken "development" seriously have either assumed an imposing "form" (the "scheme") as wholly dominant; or they have assumed a "welling up," an inductive summation of the given Concrete elements. To over simplify, they have acquiesced on one side or the other of the rationalist/empiricist (or, realist/nominalist) split. Bergson was one of the first to propose a quasi-hermeneutic adjusting between the form and its contents.

This adjusting "interval" is consonant with Bergson’s own frequently stated stress on the "hesitation," the "delay" of the developmental "unit" (CM 109). As well, it accords with the period of indetermination implicit in Whitehead’s "concrescence": the interplay between a potentially unifying proposal (the subjective aim) and the diversity of antecedent "brute fact" (PR 42/67, 224/343).

Concrescence ("growing together" [AI 236]) is the very process of mutual accommodation of which Bergson writes. The key to ontological hermeneutics is the "working out" of this accommodation through the reshaping of both the initial proposal (the scheme) and the set of elements which will "flesh out" the scheme. Bergson, the "father" of process philosophy, may have uncovered an ontological structure at the heart of any viable process stance. This structure may be more central than such amorphous phrases as Whitehead’s "creative advance" (PR 28/42), Bergson’s "creative evolution," or Samuel Alexander’s "restlessness" of spatio-temporal "configuration" and reconfiguration" (PR 28/43). Excluding Whitehead and Bergson, apparently only Ervin Lazlo has pursued the possibility of a pandemic reciprocal "interplay."8

It might be worthwhile for students of process ontology to scrutinize this neglected Bergsonian paper. We need to reconsider the diversity of the world -- possibly, on all "levels," as with Lazlo -- not as overridden material, passively "synthesized," but as active agents, recalcitrantly "negotiating," adjusting, and as altering even the most pervasive and imperative patterns of existence.



Works of Bergson

CE -- Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Modern library, 1907.

CM -- The Creative Mind. Trans. Mabelle Andison. New York: Philosophical Library, 1934.

ME -- L’Energie_Spirituelle, translated as Mind-Energy. Trans. H. Wildon Can. Henry Holt & Co., 1919.

MM -- Matter and Memory. Trans. Nancy M. Paul & W. Scott Palmer. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1896.



1. Le Revue Philosophique, Jan. 1902 (Paris) -- included in Bergson’s Mind-Energy (ME 186-230) (see above).

2. Bergson’s clearest definition of "image" is given in MM:

Matter, in our view, is an aggregate of ‘images’. And by ‘image’ we mean a certain existence, which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing -- an existence placed half-way between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation’. (stress is Bergson’s) xi-xiii.

3. The "interval" that Bergson mentions brings to mind his stress on "hesitation" that he takes to be the sine qua non of real duration (CM 109; see also CE 340).

4. Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer -- transl. by G. Barden & J. Gumming, pp. 238-45, New York, Crossroad Publishing Co.

"Prejudice" is probably an unfortunate usage – "anticipation" or even Gadamer’s alternate term "fore-meaning" (p. 238) might have been more appropriate. Gadamer may have employed the stronger, more emotion-laden "prejudice" as a stark contrast with the Enlightenment’s "prejudice against prejudice" (pp. 239-40).

5. The Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon, pp. 184-86 (Book II, Chapter 19), New York, Random House, 1941.

6. What is an "adequate fit," and what are its criteria? This is a central question, beyond the scope of this paper. This appears to have been a problem for Bergson, who (generally) denigrated finite "completions." Only Whitehead, it seems, has attempted an ontological resolution to this problem -- the "interplay" of concrescence ends with the concrete superjective "brute fact" of a finite "decision" (in the sense of "cutting off" (PR 43/68)).

7. Samuel Alexander, "Artistic Creation and Cosmic Creation," Proceedings of the British Academy, v. xiii (1927).

8. Ervin Lazlo, Introduction to Systems Philosophy, pp. 45-6, New York, Breach Science Publishers, 1972.

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