Bergson, from his garden chair to the public space

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Henri Bergson makes his entrance in the Open Commons of phenomenology. His main works : L’essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Time and free will), Le rire (Laughter), Matière et Mémoire (Matter and Memory), L’évolution créatrice (Creative Evolution), L’énergie spirituelle (Spiritual Energy)Durée et simultanéité (Duration and Simultaneity), Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (The two sources of Morality and Religion), La pensée et le mouvant (Creative Mind) are now referenced. But my own research on the relation between the First World War and Bergson revealed to me an aspect of Bergson that those works do not show. Indeed, beside the work that made him famous, Bergson has been at his time an important political actor, and this action is quite unknown, since partly secret – and in totality a little embarrassing to us, pertaining to what we nowadays regard as “war propaganda”.

The image of Bergson is usually that of an intellectual detached from the world : you can see him here in his garden, in his costume and his top hat ; you can see him as a bourgeois and corseted thinker, lost in the subtilities of inner life, harmless and without courage, a philosopher with pure hands ; for others this contemplative detachment, this wish to retrieve from the world and to defend, in a time of growing mechanization, the irreductibility of the mind, is the heart of his contribution to philosophy. But in both cases, those images rely on the same idea : Bergson was detached from his time, he was a thinker of the intimate subject, but not a political and a social thinker and actor – and although this is probably the image he himself wished to leave, it is a false one, or only a partial truth.

Admittedly revolt does not boil in his blood. His political engagement comes late, and is not exactly revolutionary. A meaningful example is that of the Dreyfus affair that launched a passionate debate at the end of the XIXth century : Bergson did not take part in it although he himself was a Jew. The trigger is 1914. When the war starts, Bergson leaves his reserve, “comes out of himself” according to his friend Xavier Léon, leaves his garden chair, and goes on the public place to encourage his compatriots to annihilate the German “barbary”. As many other intellectuals unable to go to the front, the frustration of inaction led him to mobilize in another way and to use his pen, and his philosophical concepts, as war weapons.

The Great War is therefore for Bergson the point when he decides to engage himself in the world. In that sense it marks a turn. With no exaggeration we can say that Bergson was one of the most politically active intellectual of his time : during the war he dedicated all of his time to politics, and continued after the war, until his health did not allow him to go on – politics therefore had become a real passion. Among other things, he went during the war on a secret mission to the United States in order to convince the president (Woodrow Wilson at the time) to enter the war on the French side. If this mission, as Philippe Soulez argues in Bergson politique, succeeded, and if Bergson indeed had an influence on Wilson, pulling the strings in the shadows, then the impact of this philosopher on the course of politics truly has huge consequences, with few equivalents in the history of intellectuals…

But this action does not really echo on the proper philosophical work – neither on the pre-war work obviously, dealing with the problems of time and space, of subjectivity, of biological evolution – nor on the Two Sources, published fifteen years after the war – a book in which Bergson speaks of the war, but without ever making explicit the role he himself actively played in it. To investigate the influence of the First World War on this philosopher, is therefore to investigate the presence of a sort of ghost, of an invisible principle but – according to me – entirely remodeling – and to study through Bergson’s figure, the paradoxical figure of an intellectual who gives the impression of detachment but in fact deeply cares about fulfilling his role in society and having an influence on the course of things. In Bergson’s case the relation between philosophical thought and political action has complex dynamics, of destabilization, embarrassment and contradiction, but this partly hidden side of his personality is one without which the last developments of his work cannot fully be grasped.

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