Henri Bergson on Intuition

In my experience, Henri Bergson, one of the most influential philosophers of his age, is hardly remembered much less studied in the current period. I became interested in Bergson in light of my studies on Maritain’s theory of poetic intuition, which I believe has significant relevance for ethics. Maritain attended Bergson’s lectures and his own theory of intuition was influenced by Bergson.

Bergson outlines his theory of intuition in The Creative Mind. His main opponent in providing a theory of intuition is Immanuel Kant who held that absolute knowledge, and subsequently metaphysics, is impossible. According to Kant, the kind of knowledge metaphysics requires depends on the ability to perceive the transcendent. It requires a faculty which can grasp the essence of a thing. As Bergson notes,

And precisely because he disputed the existence of these transcendent faculties, Kant believed metaphysics to be impossible. One of the most profound and important ideas in the Critique of Pure Reason is this: if metaphysics is possible, it is through a vision and not through a dialectic. Dialectics leads to contrary philosophies; it demonstrates the thesis as well as the antithesis of antinomies. Only a superior intuition (which Kant calls an ‘intellectual’ intuition), that is, a perception of metaphysical reality, would enable metaphysics to be constituted (The Creative Mind 164).

The “dialectic” Bergson refers to is the ordinary process of human knowing, what Aquinas calls “discursion”:

the human, intellects obtain their perfection in the knowledge of truth by a kind of movement and discursive intellectual operation; that is to say, as they advance from one known thing to another. But, if from the knowledge of a known principle they were straightway to perceive as known all its consequent conclusions, then there would be no discursive process at all (I.58.3).

Take, for example, the mug in front of me holding my steaming cup of hot coffee. I can see certain parts of the mug, and when I turn it or lift it (carefully, since it is holding hot coffee!) I can see some of the parts I couldn’t previously see. But I can’t see the mug in one pure vision, and even less so does it seem that I can penetrate to what the mug is. I see its properties and I piece together the idea of the mug in front of me. This is discursion, which is contrasted with pure knowledge in which all things that can be known about an object are grasped at once (the knowledge Aquinas claims the angels and God have). This is the knowledge Kant held to be impossible.

This pure or absolute knowledge is precisely what Bergson wants to restore in his theory of intuition. He calls this intuition sympathy “by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what there is unique and consequently inexpressible in it” (The Creative Mind 190). He uses the example of an artist (200-2) who makes a series of sketches of Notre Dame in Paris.

Now at the bottom of all the sketches made in Paris, the stranger will probably write ‘Paris’ by way of reminder. And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, by descending from the original intuition of the whole, to place his sketches in it and thus arrange them in relation to one another. But there is no way of performing the opposite operation; even with an infinity of sketches as exact as you like, even with the word ‘Paris’ to indicate that they must bear close connection, it is impossible to travel back to an intuition one has not had, and gain the impression of Paris if one has never seen Paris (201).

Intuition according to Bergson is a method, a method of ridding the mind of the utilitarian habits it has acquired, that reduce an object only to its immediate usefulness. He holds that according to act on the world, our mind has to assume immobility. His concept of motion is integral to his theory of intuition but is too much to go into at length here. Briefly, Bergson differentiates between space and time. Time contains no juxtaposition of events, but is rather a duration. In time, we have a qualitative rather than qualitative heterogeneity, in which there is difference (hence heterogeneity) but no juxtaposition. In time, there is continuity and interpenetration as opposed to space (in which exists quantitative heterogeneity whereby we can assign a number). Qualitative multiplicity, that is duration, is inexpressible but is not unknowable, and it is the knowledge of duration which Bergson calls intuition. Intuition is the perception, the vision, of duration.

The reason intuition is also a method is that it requires the casting off of the habits of the mind which turn the duration into space. Bergson uses the example of a melody. When we hear a melody, we hear the whole, not a series of notes juxtaposed against one another. When we analyze the melody, we may indeed break it into a number of notes, but we are then analyzing the notes, not the melody. The melody, to be known, must be grasped as a whole. In other words, it must be intuited. It is through intuition that we really experience the world:

In this regard, the philosopher’s sole aim should be to start up a certain effort which the utilitarian habits of mind of everyday life tend, in most men, to discourage. Now the image has at least the advantage of keeping us in the concrete. No image will replace the intuition of duration, but many different images, taken from quite different orders of things, will be able, through the convergence of their action, to direct the consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to seize on. By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, any one of them will be prevented from usurping the place of the intuition it is instructed to call forth, since it would then be driven out immediately by its rivals. By seeing that in spite of their differences in aspect they all demand of our mind the same kind of attention and, as it were, the same degree of tension, one will gradually accustom the consciousness to a particular and definitely determined disposition, precisely the one it will have to adopt in order to appear unveiled to itself (195).

Thus, the method of intuition is at essence the task of metaphysics. Metaphysics is not a synthesis of knowledge, a sort of piecing together of the notes to form a melody, nor is it analysis, the breaking down of a melody into its component notes. Metaphysics is the experience of the melody. Thus concludes Bergson in his “Introduction to Metaphysics”:

metaphysics has nothing in common with a generalization of experience, and yet it could e defined as the whole of experience (l’experience integrale).


4 comments so far

  1. Kevin on


    I love Bergson and intuition and find it so important for my own work. Have you read Pierre Rouselot who focused on intuition in Aquinas and was important for the transcendental Thomists?

    I have noticed some of your blogs on Aquinas’ passions and this focus on intuition – seems to have strong parallels and connections with contemporary phenomenology.

    I thank you for your exploration of these topics as I find them fascinating and important for contemporary people to consider as many do not realize the importance of these things in the journey of knowing and loving God.


  2. Bob MacDonald on

    Such analytical prose desperately requires examples – Paris is a good one – encompassing everything from the enforced artist on Montmartre to the suburban Formule-un motel. But in music – the notes will not do without the spaces between them as Debussy noted. So for the holistic appreciation of mug – I give you this one from the last Miktam – to the tune: do not destroy – Psalm 75
    כִּי כוֹס בְּיַד יְהוָה
    וְיַיִן חָמַר
    for there is a cup in the hand of יְהוָה
    and the wine is red
    It is the same cup (mug) that overflows for David in Psalm 23 – a slightly off word which might also mean owl. (Psalm 102:7)

    • everydaythomist on

      I agree that Bergson is desperately in need of examples. Perhaps Kevin, our resident Bergsonian, can provide a few better ones than he does! One of the difficulties for Bergson is that intuition (and metaphysics) is anti-symbolic, meaning that it is also incapable of being expressed in those most common of symbols, language. Though the Psalmist does a pretty good job of rendering linguistic the God who is beyond all words!

  3. Karen on

    I don’t understand the general parallel you are making between Bergson and theology without believing you are taking him out of context. Further study of his other works indicate he denounced organized religion as a means of closing one’s morality in light of human need for social cohesion (as to better obtain physical resources). The unity you find in church is, according to him, a display of uniting “your society” based on your needs. The human intuition, or even elan vital, was not defined as coming through Christ, but from mysterious source which cannot be found through he, or his gift of intuition to human or animal. Bergson alludes only to transcendence, indicating an unexplainable “rise” but never what is being risen to. So while you may intuitively eliminate energy and matter from your mind, which does indicate transcendence, you are at the same time bound by the limitations of your religious code-and because of this, Bergson would not adequately help prove any theological beliefs. Intuition makes the moral codes; they do not come from Christ.

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