Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Russell on Bergson

Writing in the Monist on Bergson
Bertrand Russell employs all his rhetorical skill to put his subject in the Continental box. It might even be considered early analytic scorning of the elegant nonsense put out by system builders or the instauration of the great divide. Obviously Bergson was not going to please the great rationalist.

Though Russell does not deal with The Two Sources in his piece there is a tangential reference to the bifurcation of instinct and intellect which is crucial to Bergson’s thinking on morality.
 But among animals, at a later stage, a new bifurcation appeared: instinct and intellect became more or less separated. They are never wholly without each other, but in the main intellect is the misfortune of man, while instinct is seen at its best in ants, bees, and Bergson.

Russell does not quite pardon Bergson for writing well:
In the above outline, I have in the main endeavored merely to state Bergson’s views, without giving the reasons adduced by him in favor of their truth. This is easier than it would be with most philosophers, since as a rule he does not give reasons for his opinions, but relies on their inherent attractiveness, and on the charm of an excellent style. Like the advertisers of Oxo, he relies upon picturesque and varied statement, and an apparent explanation of many obscure facts. Analogies and similes, especially form a very large part of the whole process by which he recommends his views to the reader. The number of similes for life to be found in his works exceeds the number in any poet known to me.
In the second part of his critique of Bergson’s philosophy he settles on specific issues which are substantive and fall within his own area of interest. Bergson has got a wrong notion of the genesis of our concept of number, he says, but it seems to me that Bergson is describing its acquisition by the non-mathematician. It may be that the specialist builds on this primitive foundation. In any case it is Bergson’s core thesis that the division of time into sequential units is drawn from the mathematization of space and though useful is not adequate to the metaphysical reality which is duration.

This second part of the discussion is interesting and perhaps if the reader went to it first they might get more out of the paper. The initial donnish persiflage may diminish the later acute examination of key concepts such as Duration, Images, and Memory. These are terms which have a special meaning in Bergson’s work and so examination from their conventional acceptation is perhaps missing the point. Certainly worth a read.

No comments: