Bersgonianism and Existentialism


Auguste Cornu

I. RATIONALISM: Ideology of the Rising Bourgeoisie  152
II. POSITIVISM: Ideology of the Bourgeoisie when Dominant  153
III. IDEALISM: Ideology of the Bourgeoisie in Decadence  153
     a. Objective Idealism  153
     b. Bergsonianism    156-161
     c. Existentialism      161
Bibliography  168]


The transition from objective idealism to subjective spiritualism was made by Bergson, who thus broke the trail for existentialism. Even more than objective idealism this spiritualism is the ideological expression of the decadent bourgeoisie, which feels that it is less and less master of the forces of production and so turns more and more from concrete practical activity, escaping from reality by turning in on itself.

To the man engaged in action which integrates him into the world, Bergson contrasts the individual considered only as such, reduced to an Ego whose activity is confined to the spiritual domain and outside of concrete reality.

Like the idealist philosophers who preceded him, Bergson is inspired by Kant’s phenomenology to reduce essential reality to the knowing subject. He divorces this subject from its object, concrete reality, and out of all reality retains only the states of consciousness and the activity of the Ego, which he makes the manifestation of a creative force, an élan vital.

Bergson separates human life from reality and concrete activity, which seem to him secondary and superficial; he replaces rational knowledge of the world by direct perception of the continuous unfolding of life, by the immediate intuition of what is lived through. The anti-intellectual and anti-scientific offensive is reinforced by a severer criticism of intelligence and science, which he regards as incapable of grasping life, which cannot be reduced to the abstractions of thought and physical mechanism. He rejects deterministic rationalism, which considers the word from a mechanical and spatial point of view.

The intelligence applies to a practical activity. It is a superficial form of the spirit, with a utilitarian character; its function is to transform the representations of objects with determinate and stable forms, located in space, into concepts which serve as tools for practical activity. It gives thought a spatial form, fixing it in things; and conceives of space and movement only as functions of space, by giving them a linear configuration which decomposes them and immobilizes them in juxtaposition. Rendered incapable thereby of seizing the living and moving reality in its fluidity and continuity, the intelligence reduces that reality to inert matter, takes up a materialistic and deterministic point of view in order to study matter and arrives, along with the science founded on it, at a universal mechanism, mutilating and deforming whatever has life.

innce intelligence and science leave nothing of reality but the quantitative, material, inert elements, Bergson opposes to them a vitalist conception of the world, which he borrows from reactionary German romanticism and which reduces the essence of reality to the life of the spirit. [2] This life is held to be a pure effusion of the élan vital, of the deeper Ego; it is located, not in space and the objective time which serve as framework for material reality and as basis for rational thought, but in subjective time, in the time which is lived through and is identical with the duration of states of consciousness.

To seize a spiritual life unfolding in its indivisible continuity, we must depart from abstract intelligence, which separates the states of consciousness, deforms them by the reduction of the qualitative to the quantitative and freezes them in stability and uniformity; we must penetrate, by a sort of inversion of consciousness, into the inmost recesses of the Ego and arrive at the immediate intuition of duration, of the unending unfolding of states of consciousness.

Retaining nothing of reality by what is experienced, Bergson seeks first of all to recover the states of consciousness in their original purity, qualitative heterogeneity and continuity, which distinguish them from homogeneous and discontinuous concrete reality. He locates these states not in space and objective time, which are composed of juxtapositions, but in duration, which is indistinguishable from the flow of spiritual life.

Duration is the living unity of the totality of states of consciousness which interpenetrate and fuse, unceasingly changing. Beneath the superficial ego, strained for action, it shows us an inner ego which constitutes the essence of the individual and gives him his personality.

Duration is preserved indefinitely in memory, whose constant connection between present and past insures the continuity of human life. Memory is not localized in the brain which, being oriented toward action, uses only recollections which are useful in active life; memory forms the infinity of the subconscious, the seat of the inner ego, which reveals itself in those moments when consciousness, losing interest in action, possesses itself and relaxes.

Memory, while inserted in the present by means of recollections, reaches out toward the future by means of duration, which is an infinite development of our ego. This development appears in the form of the ebullition of the élan vital which, instead of ending up in immobility, as in the plant, or in stagnation, as in the animal, has a creative character in man, by reason of the freedom of choice peculiar to consciousness, by means of which man triumphs over the inertia of matter and frees himself from determinism, to become master of his destiny.

To be free, we must turn from the world of things, clear ourselves of the concepts created in their image which bind us to them, and merge in the élan vital which indefinitely renews our ego in an act of spontaneous creation. This implies going beyond the intelligence which is adapted to an inorganic matter made up of immobility of repetition, and hence cannot comprehend the moving, the living; it implies too a recourse to intuition which enters into the very life of the spirit and makes it possible to seize it immediately and to follow its infinite development.

This intimate contact with the experienced, with the pure welling-up of our life, enables us to attain the absolute by way of the identity established both between the knowing subject and the object known and between the Ego and the universal life. For intuition, in making us penetrate into the innermost regions of our being, does not lock us up within the narrow limits of our ego; it gives us access to the source of universal life and thus expands our ego to all creation.

It is to this totality that the élan vital tends; at the same time that it disperses into a multiplicity of individuals, it passes beyond them to merge with the creative evolution which gives rise to the world by the union of individual energies.

This passage and this union are realized at once by art, which liberates us from action and reveals to us the full life of the spirit; by morality, whose imperative becomes more and more universal in character; and by religion, whose highest form is found in the great mystics who live the experience of the divine.

By this philosophy of the experienced, which derives from the vitalist world conception of the German romantic philosophy, especially that of Schelling, Bergson completes his criticism of deterministic rationalism, which considers the world in its mechanical and spatial aspect; by this criticism he passes from objective idealism to a subjective spiritualism.

Hegelianism and Marxism had based their criticism of mechanistic rationalism on the connection between the notions of space and of time. This made it possible to consider concrete reality in its dialectical development and to adapt a new mode of thought to this conception of the world. Bergson, however, bases his criticism on the opposition which he sets up between objective time, which serves as the framework for the development of the concrete reality, and subjective time, lived-through time, duration; this opposition leads him to limit human life to the succession of states of consciousness. Preferring instinct and the immediately experienced, he belittles intelligence and reason, and denies science true knowledge of the world. This latter capacity he transfers to the intuition, an extra-rational faculty which enables us immediately to grasp the living flux. Whereas knowledge is the result of an effort of the intelligence which passes beyond the data of sense and the contradictions inherent in the real to give a rational interpretation of the world and life by raising the sensible to the intelligible, Bergson expects intuition to resolve the contradictions by making them live, and thereby he transforms knowledge into a sentimental revery.

At the same time that he criticizes intelligence and science, Bergson condemns the practical activity which turns man from his true destiny and prevents him from grasping, within himself, in the intuition of his states of consciousness, the élan vital which makes him commune with universal life.

Separating human life in this way from concrete reality and practical activity, and reducing it to the experiencing of duration, to the continual flux of states of consciousness, Bergson at the last resorts, like every idealist philosopher, to the myth which assigns mental constructs the role of reality in explaining the world.

Despite his efforts to go beyond traditional philosophy, which he censures for its abstractness, and reach a philosophy of the concrete, he does not work free from abstractions and, like classical psychology, he merely generalizes such abstractions as the qualitative, duration, the élan vital, seeking to put life into them by plunging them into the immediately experienced, and applying them uniformly to all individuals.

Coming down from these abstract generalities to particular lives, Bergson professes to explain psychic reality by means of them; but since he leaves unspecified that which is actually experienced by the individual, and considers only the way in which the psychic states are experienced, he comes finally, not to the concretely real, the individual grasped in his particular determinateness, but to abstraction, the Ego conceived in its generality. [3]

To this philosophy of the immediately experienced and the élan vital, which makes the climb to life the great law of the world, there corresponds a conception of liberty which considers it not dialectically, in its connections with determinism, represented by man’s necessary relations with his natural and social environment, but metaphysically, in isolation. [4] Liberty, identified with the welling-up of the inner Ego to Life, takes on an absolute character; it is realized totally in each individual thanks to the possibility each has of determining himself autonomously; it becomes a property of every consciousness, which to be free has only to turn from the world of things and grasp the creative drive within itself. Because Bergson considers life and liberty in this abstract way, he is unable to lay the foundations of a genuine morality, since the purpose of morality is to regulate men’s behavior and thereby to modify their way of life. His morality is established not for man but about man. It lies outside concrete action, and its object is the pure activity of the Ego, something which has nothing in common with practical activity guided by a rational will. This morality is based on an abstract and absurd liberty, set up in contrast to a rigid determinism; like life, in which the unconscious holds sway, it has an irrational character. Since its aim is no man’s effective liberation but a total and unreal autonomy of the Ego, taken absolutely, it actually comes to terms with the worst slavery to the extent that consciousness accepts it; this morality thus constitutes an indirect justification of the established order. [5]

All in all, this philosophy, which culminates in a speculative phenomenology, contemplative of reality, and in a counterfeit of life and pro gress, by transforming abstractions into realities which determine the course of human existence, this philosophy testifies on the ideological plane to the intensification of the bourgeoisie’s decadence. The bourgeoisie, confronted by the aggravation of the economic and social contradictions which had led to the first World War and ended by seriously weakening its own position, tends to escape from a reality it is less and less able to cope with, and to which it can only oppose the abstract imperative of its will.

By its passage from objective idealism to subjective spiritualism and by the basic irrationalism to which it leads both on the conceptual and the moral levels, Bergsonianism serves as a prelude to existentialism, whose coming it prepares by the substitution of the individual subject for the transcendental subject of idealism as expression of essential reality.

2. On the different aspects of the irrationalist trend in contemporary philosophy, in particular Bergson’s, cf. A. Cuvillier, Les courants irrationalistes de la philosophic contemporaine, pp. 56, 58-62, 63-70, 71-76, 78 f.; and G. Lukács, Existentialisme ou marxisme, pp. 58, 64.

3. On the abstract and mythical character of the Bergsonian pyschology, see G. Politzer, Le bergsonisme: une mystification philosophique, in particular pp. 28, 32. 4. G. Lukács, op. cit., p. 69.

5. G. Politzer, op. cit., pp. 70, 80.


Parodi, D. La philosophie contemporaine en France. Paris, Alcan, 1919.

Cuvillier, A. Les courants irrationalistes dans la philosophie contemporaine. Les cahiers rationalistes.

Politzer, G. Le bergsonisme: une mystification philosophique. Paris, Editions sociales, 1947.

Mougin, H. La sainte famille existentialiste. Paris, Editions sociales, 1947.

Lefebvre, Henri. L’existentialisme. Paris, Editions du Sagittaire, 1946.

Kanapa, J. L’existentialisme nest pas un humanisme. Paris, Editions sociales, 1947.

Lukács, G. Existentialisme ou marxisme? Paris, Nagel, 1948.

SOURCE: Cornu, Auguste. “Bergsonianism and Existentialism,” in Philosophic Thought in France and the United States: Essays Representing Major Trends in Contemporary French and American Philosophy, 2nd ed., edited by Marvin Farber (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1968); pp. 151-168.  Excerpted: Bergsonianism, pp. 156-161; Selected Bibliography, p. 168. (1st ed., 1950) For whole book see

Badiou and the Bankruptcy of Fashionable French Philosophy
by R. Dumain

Anti-Bergson: Bibliography & Links

American Philosophy Study Guide
Includes links to Marvin Farber & Roy Wood Sellars

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 11 August 2022

Site ©1999-2022 Ralph Dumain