A Dialogue on Bergson

he following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 339-345, Vol. 28, Number 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1999. 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.


The author presents a dialogue with Bergson involving Gunter and Hausman with occasional comments by Auxier and Stark. The dialogue shows how their minds have been changed.

The following dialogue took place on April 22, 1993 at the meeting of The Society for the Philosophy of Creativity (SPC) mentioned in the introduction to this focus section. As is usual for an SPC meeting, the dialogue was taped for the SPC archive at the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. The full proceedings were later transcribed by the late John Broyer of Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, who was then chair of the Central Division of the SPC. I have edited the dialogue for inclusion in this focus section, courtesy of the Foundation for the Philosophy of Creativity.

While the preceding articles have been completely rewritten and greatly refined in the intervening time, the dialogue retains its relevance. It will be clear from an examination of the following how Professor Hausman has modified his view of Bergson and now has greater sympathy for him than before, largely if not entirely due to the persuasiveness of Gunter’s case. At the time of the dialogue itself. Hausman had taken a more standard line on Bergson, although in the dialogue below it will be clear that Hausman is pondering in a preliminary way the very questions he has answered above.1 It must be clear to anyone who has read Hausman’s paper above that his view regarding Bergson has now changed, and I think greatly to his credit, and to Gunter’s. And indeed, my article above also reflects a shift in my interpretation of Bergson in the direction Gunter argued. Where I would previously have been inclined to agree with Whitehead’s characterization of Bergson that the intellect cart only grasp by spatializing, I now think (and have argued above) that I had failed to recognize fully the implications of the claim I had argued for in 1993 -- that if there can be no intuition without intellect, and if intuition can grasp intelligible things without spatializing, then there is a sense in which the intellect, insofar as it is manifest in intuitive operations of consciousness, can grasp experience without spatializing it. Hence, my own remarks in the dialogue below represent a viewpoint I no longer defend. Much of the value of this dialogue for process philosophers lies in following along precisely the sorts of things that Hausman and I said, for these are the sorts of things nearly all process philosophers say about Bergson, even those such as Hausman and I, who are very sympathetic to Bergson and try to study him closely (although admittedly, Hausman is really more a Peircean and I am more a Whiteheadian, and Gunter is really Bergson’s true apologist). Yet, I hope readers of this journal may hear themselves in the remarks Hausman and I made prior to devoting more thought to the issues, and to Gunter’s arguments. If you do hear yourself in our words, I urge you to re-examine the articles in this focus section, and to reconsider your view of Bergson.

In editing the dialogue for publication I have changed spoken English into written English, including the normal things (like: excising partial sentences, false starts, irrelevant asides, and things that needlessly impede the flow of reading the dialogue; filling in nouns for indefinite pronoun references; removing some colloquial language and contractions; and adjusting the grammar). I have not felt the need to make note of these changes as they occurred, since this is hardly an historically significant conversation, but I have tried not to be overly free. What follows is pretty much what was said, verbatim, with minimal changes to convert it into readable English. The session itself was chaired by Stephen Bickam, Mannsfield University Pennsylvania, and the dialogue was also enhanced towards the end by the contributions of Tom Stark.

Gunter: I have three responses to Randall Auxier. One of them is that there is a great deal of information on Bergson’s relationship to H. Wildon Carr, and H. Wildon Carr’s relationship to Whitehead. Whitehead and Carr worked together on the Aristotelian Society. Carr, who was a good businessman, besides being a capable philosopher, really was the person who kept that society alive economically. And Carr and Whitehead spent a great deal of time with each other for about a year. And since Carr was reading papers about Bergson to the Aristotelian Society, there is all kinds of evidence that he passed along a great deal of information about Bergson to Whitehead. Whitehead, through Carr’s papers and conversation, was presented with the essential Bergson.

Second, you raise an interesting question. Whitehead says that for Bergson the intellect always and inevitably spatializes and nothing can be done about it. And Whitehead says that he does not think it is inevitable that the human mind spatializes, though it often does this, and when it does, one way or another, whether through partiality or something else, it deforms the object of knowledge and of experience. . . . [But] Bergson believed that, at least to some significant degree, the spatializing tendencies of the human intellect and of human intelligence, can be overcome by a biology and a physics that is less mechanistic. That is, for both Bergson and Whitehead we can reform our abstractions. Whitehead thinks that it is easier to do than Bergson does. Bergson believes that we would almost have to stand on our heads to rethink abstractions in terms of process. But Bergson is also convinced that we can reform these abstractions, and even if we cannot get totally away from mechanism, we can get farther away from it than we were originally. The difference between Whitehead and Bergson here is a difference of degree.

I am really arguing here with Ilya Prigogine who thinks, as Whitehead expressed himself, that for Bergson the intellect is always a spatializer and can never think real time. And Prigogine considers his own accomplishment to be, in that sense, anti-Bergsonian, since Prigogine says that he has reformed the intellect. Bergson, though, was for that, and he kept puzzling about some new way to analyze the organism that would not leave out duration. . . . He leaves it up in the air, but he tried to find scientists who would look at it and do some research. That point is almost always left out by people who study Bergson.

My third comment is this: I would like to thank Professor Auxier for opening the way to a new examination of Bergson and Whitehead which I think needs to be done for a number of reasons, if for nothing else, for the sake of accuracy. That is not the only reason, but I am delighted that he should call for it and suggest ways to do it. Also I am pleased that Professor Auxier sees so clearly that without intellect or intelligence, intuition is just not possible at all for Bergson. If one lives a sort of instinctive life, then one is not reflective and cannot generalize. So there is a dialectical relationship between instinct and intellect, and the two have to work together to get intuition, which Bergson says is what lends us into new kinds of knowledge, so it is nice to hear that stressed. It is quite important.

Let me go down the list of Professor Hausman’s questions. He says that "reflection" usually means "abstraction." Well, yes, but not necessarily in terms of "clear and distinct ideas." Couldn’t there be a kind of very concrete reflection -- a kind of phenomenological reflection that tries to grasp the event in its wholeness, but is still reflecting on it? Is that not possible? Some philosophers would say it is not possible. They would say that reflection distances the mind from its object, so that if one reflects, one cannot participate in what one is reflecting upon. I am not convinced of that. It seems to me there are times when we are both inside the process and reflecting on it at the same time. At any rate that is what Bergson means by "intuition": concrete reflection, as opposed to abstract reflection.

Second point: I think I am responsible for misleading some of you. If I made it seem that, for Bergson, the rhythms of matter are absolutely discrete, I want to apologize. There are passages in various of his writings in which he makes it quite clear -- says it explicitly -- that between any two pulses of matter there is always a thread of memory . . . so that the pulsations of matter are never perfectly discrete, perfectly distinct. Whitehead, in talking about the discreteness of his epochs makes it hard to understand how prehension can occur. If the epochs are that discrete, how can they, in their early phases, grasp the characteristics of their predecessors? I have asked Charles Hartshorne that question over and over again. I have said: "Charles, either the successor reaches out to its predecessor and something out of the past is pulled into the present, or something from the past comes and sticks itself over into the present. But if neither happens, how does prehension happen?" He says "It just happens!" Well, for Bergson, there is always a thread of continuity. There is never any absolute discontinuity, whether between successive pulses of matter or between the successive pulses that make up any level of temporality. And that is true in Bergson’s concept of the pulsations of matter, which then is like the 1926-1927 quantum physics, and not like the earlier Niels Bohr model of quantum physics where the pulsations are perfectly distinct, going from one electron shell to the other without passing through the intervening space. Bergson’s theory of matter is more like what we now call classical quantum physics. Whitehead’s sounds more like early Niels Bohr quantum theory. So I am sorry if I misled people on the nature of pulsations of matter.

Regarding the point Hausman makes about Bergson’s critics -- for example, Bertrand Russell, Jacques Maritain, George Santayana, A. O. Lovejoy -- I have responded to these in various places, and I did not want to write another paper restating those criticisms. I will, however, add a footnote stating some of the responses. But let me give one example. Benedetto Croce said this: "Bergson will ask me to give up thinking in vain." This is really absurd. Bergson did not want anybody to give up thinking in any sense -- certainly not the critical, analytic kind of thinking that gives us discreta, because they are very useful and because we have to have them in order to give us the impetus to reflect. Nor did he ask anybody to give up reflecting concretely because intuition is a kind of reflection. But I would agree that responses to various critics would be helpful, and I will try to do that in a little appendix to my talk and deal with some of these things. . . .2

Then, Professor Hausman has said that to be intelligible is to be lawful. Do you mean by a "law" something like Boyle’s Law that always happens, or Galileo’s laws of falling bodies, or other laws that are based on repetition? Is that what you mean by "law" -- just the ordinary notion of scientific law?

Hausman: That would be included in what I mean by "law" but a more generic notion of it -- not a precise repetition, necessarily, but regularity. So there would have to be similarities from moment to moment that are regular.

Gunter: I think Bergson thought that there was a kind of regularity in evolution, for all its fireworks.

Hausman: Yes, obviously. I wouldn’t deny that.

Gunter: And that would be a certain element of intelligibility he was looking for.

Hausman: But that is a conceptual opinion. That is, that what is lawful, in that sense, is something for which one could provide a concept and articulate it in language.

Gunter: Yes, but there are intuitive concepts, and then there is their projection in the realm of quantity.

Hausman: That is the thing that just occurred to me as you were talking about fluid concepts. It would be another way to try to link the notion of intuition, and one could understand what intuitive reflection is.

Gunter: So I need to talk more about fluid concepts and how they relate to other concepts. O.K., I agree, I need to do something with that. But to continue with the notion of lawlike regularity, if creativity in evolution requires a long gestation period, followed by a rather rapid period of speciation, that would be a kind of rupture, granting that we are talking in time-scales that are just mind-boggling to us. But the suddenness of the rupture depends on summing everything up that went before. So, one has to have that continuity and repetition in order to have that transformation going on.

Hausman: We wouldn’t recognize it if we did not know what went before. But when you say "depends on," do you mean that it can be traced to something, so that it would have been predictable prior to the occurrence of the rupture? Or do you mean that the past is a necessary condition for what happens when there is a rupture or a creative moment?

Gunter: Well, it seems, as Bergson says about the artist, that if someone had taken a longer or shorter time to do a painting, it would have been a different painting. So, if it had taken a longer or shorter time to produce a new organism, it would have been a rather different organism. So there is some kind of overall "law-like-ness," but that is not all there is.

Hausman: That is a necessary condition for Bergson, I will grant you, but there is something more than what we find in a necessary condition. Otherwise creativity would be predictable, and Bergson would not have that.

Gunter: Oh no, he is not going to have that. But, somehow, the new creativity sums up the past, perhaps by rearranging it.

Hausman: There is more than rearranging. There is something added. There is an increment that Whitehead adds to the many.

Auxier: It is actually the same transcendence. Whitehead and Bergson have that in common, whether they got it from one another or not. The question is: What is the nature of this novelty? What is its status? What is transcendence for Bergson? And how?

Gunter: One meaning of it is this: We look at the world around us, and if we want to start getting into it, we start getting into its durations. Galileo did this. Instead of thinking in terms of high and low as Aristotle did, Galileo did it by following bodies down the inclined plane at each moment to see if he could find out something new about motion. So, Bergson was a great appreciator of Galileo in this respect. We transcend ourselves, first of all, by discovering new things about matter. Galileo transcended himself by finding something out about the laws of nature we had not known before. If Bergson is correct, then we transcend ourselves every time we get to know ourselves better. And he would also say that we transcend ourselves insofar as we try to grasp the nature of a being greater than we are -- God, for example. So in the sense that we get outside of ourselves -- are "ec-static" as Sartre says -- we transcend ourselves. I think that Berkeley probably would have said we can only transcend ourselves "towards" God, that we cannot get outside ourselves "towards" matter. But for Bergson we can -- and "towards" evolution, and "towards" all our new discoveries. Bergson said that Einstein made more discoveries farther from the ordinary run of human experience than any other man who ever lived. So one meaning of transcendence is: exploration of a world outside and distinct from our ordinary selves. That is not enough, is it? What else do you want to know?

Auxier: The problem is that your account sounds a lot like spatialization.

Gunter: No, because we transcend by grasping processes that are very real.

Auxier: By spatializing the processes.

Gunter: No, the processes are not spatialized. Explaining this requires a long answer. For example, Milic Capek wrote an essay describing Bergson as an enemy, a critic of the Cartesian notion of unextended mind. Mind is not purely non-spatial, but it is "out in the world." But mind is still dynamic and not purely spatial -- that is, not geometrical.

Hausman: Of all this -- and I think Professor Auxier could grant this too -- there is always something dynamic there, and the process is not itself static. And another thing is to say what that is, what happens. And once we do that we start to spatialize and segment. It seems to me that Bergson falls into the same trap. But it is not a trap if he would recognize it and say that we cannot help doing it. One cannot help intellectualizing and conceptualizing what we try to articulate and communicate to one another. The only way out is to use fluid concepts and to use metaphors. But when we do that, the metaphor itself, or the fluid concept itself will depend on some understanding of conceptualization that is at work with another concept in the metaphor and that pushes us on to what we are trying to say; but cannot say other than by constantly reiterating it with new metaphors and concepts that clash with each other.

Tom Stark: Can’t a metaphor be a hyperbole as well as some sort of a concept?

Hausman: I think this is right -- that the past has to be there, that the conceptualization is there, and hence the lawfulness is there. Otherwise we would not recognize the advance beyond the previous moment. But there is an advance. That, itself, is a departure from the conceptualization that lies in the past which enables us to see that there is a departure. And that is what I think every metaphor exhibits. So those who have recognized a transcendence are right that there is an activity that advances and gets beyond concepts. But without those concepts it could not happen, and the way we try to understand the activity that goes beyond the concepts is to develop more metaphors.

Stark: I was thinking also about artistic metaphors.

Hausman: I am too.

Stark: Metaphors an the sense of the stuff we heard about in high school, such as "smell metaphors," and "touch metaphors," and so on. I think of them as points of contact, as we are, ways of making contact m initially through the experience of sensation. But then we might say we are "drawn in," and I am not sure. Part of this process is conceptual. But, in addition, metaphors will link up, one with the other as part of the set-up of the storyteller. He gets a number of sequences going at the same time, some based on meaning, some based on a progression of metaphors as we move along. But the idea that metaphors are ineluctably conceptual I will have to give some thought.



1. For example, in 1984, Hausman said in print that he holds something like the very view that Gunter is seeking to revise or eradicate. See Carl Hausman, A Discourse on Novelty and Creation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984); this is a reprint of the book issued under the same title in 1976 by Martinus Nijhoff, but Hausman (more or less) affirms in 1984 what he said in 1976. While acknowledging certain deep affinities between his own thought and Bergson’s, Hausman still claims that Bergson does not give sufficient importance to the role of conceptualization to the recognition of Form and structure in the identification of radical newness (82). Hausman later says:

Bergsonian intuition alone cannot discern these identities as Forms as they are presented in tension, nor can intuition alone discriminate the discontinuities of radical change, since these erupt within definite boundaries. . . . Bergson, then, does not give as significant a role as I do to conceptual thinking, and he does nor emphasize the discontinuous character of finite consciousness a discontinuity given to an agency that demands continuity and identity as well as change in duration. . . . Bergson’s view does not call for this intimate connection between conceptual structure and intuitively apprehended meaning (140n-141n.).

2. Many of these criticisms have been answered in the revised versions of the papers published here (RA).