Book Summaries

Bergson (A History of Western Philosophy)

There are generally three types of philosophies. There are philosophies of feeling, inspired by the love of happiness; theoretical philosophies, inspired by the love of knowledge; and practical philosophies, inspired by the love of action. Among philosophies of feeling, there are those that are optimistic and those that are pessimistic, those that offer salvation and those that try to prove that salvation is impossible. This class includes most religious philosophies.

Among theoretical philosophies, we have the great systems, where the rare but valuable desire for knowledge is present.

Finally, practical philosophies, will be those which regard action as the supreme good, considering happiness an effect and knowledge a mere instrument of successful activity.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

These philosophies would have been common among Western Europeans if philosophers were average men, but they have been rare until recently. Their representatives are only the pragmatists and Bergson. In the rise of this school of thought, we see the revolt of the modern man of action against the authority of Greece (Plato). And we may connect it with imperialism and the motor car. The modern world requires such a philosophy, so it is not surprising that it has achieved success.

Bergson’s philosophy is dualistic. The world is divided into life and matter (inert). The universe is the clash between the two opposite motions.

Life is one great force, one vast vital impulse, given once for all from the beginning of the world, meeting the resistance of matter, struggling to break a way through matter, learning gradually to use matter by means of organization; divided by the obstacles it encounters into diverging currents, like the wind at a street-corner; partly subdued by matter through the very adaptations which matter forces upon it; yet retaining always its capacity for free activity, struggling always to find new outlets, seeking always for greater liberty of movement amid the opposing walls of matter.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

Bergson’s views are expressed without giving reasons for the truth. Like advertisers he relies upon picturesque and varied statement, and on apparent explanation of obscure facts.

A cool critic who feels himself a spectator may think that calm and careful thought is not compatible with Bergson’s philosophy. When he is told thought is a mere means of action, the mere impulse to avoid obstacles in the field, he may feel that this view may be fitting for a soldier, but not a philosopher, whose business is with thought.

He may feel that in the passion and noise of violent motion there is no room for the fainter music of reason, no leisure for the disinterested contemplation in which greatness is sought, not by turbulence, but by the greatness of the universe which is mirrored. In that case, he may be tempted to ask whether there are any reasons for accepting such a restless view of the world. And if he asks this question, he will find, if I am not mistaken, that there is no reason whatever for accepting this view, either in the universe or in the writings of M. Bergson.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

The problem with an anti-intellectual philosophy like Bergson’s is that it thrives on error and confusion. It is led to prefer bad thinking to good and to declare each momentary difficulty insoluble. and every foolish error as revealing the incompetence of the intellect and the victory of intuition.

There is no room in this philosophy for the moment of contemplative insight when, rising above the animal life, we become conscious of the greater ends that redeem man from the life of the brutes. Those to whom activity without purpose seems a sufficient good will find in Bergson’s books a pleasing picture of the universe. But those to whom action, if it is to be of any value, must be inspired by some vision, by some imaginative foreshadowing of a world less painful, less unjust, less full of strife than the world of our everyday life, those, in a word, whose action is built on contemplation, will find in this philosophy nothing of what they seek, and will not regret that there is no reason to think it true.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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