Review of L'Évolution Créatrice by Henri Bergson

L'Évolution créatrice. Henri Bergson. Paris, Alcan, 1907. Pp 400.

M. Bergson studies the development of the eye as it appears in the invertebrate, and in a member of the family of the molluscs. Though the embryological origins of the different portions of the organs are entirely different, though the conditions under which the evolution takes place are quite as diverse, still we find essentially homologous organs, with like mechanism and correspondent parts.

Neither the explanation of the Darwinians who appeal to chance variations chosen by natural selection, nor the operation of the external cause of light itself, nor the inheritance of acquired characteristics which have arisen out of the effects of the form itself, can satisfactorily account for the appearance of so complex an organism in so divergent forms under so diverse conditions.

The purely mechanical explanation and that of radical finalism, of teleology, cannot be depended upon in the presence of these problems. "The vigorous application of the principle of finality as that of the principle of mechanical causality leads to the conclusion that ' all is given.; The two principles say the same thing in their different tongues, because they answer to the same need" (p. 49). But it is just this assumption that all is given, which the author refuses to accept. Neither is the eye, as an eye, given as the result of mechanical causes nor as an idea, an end. The fact that it arises under such diverse conditions from such diverse elements makes its appearance a creation - a new form, - which cannot be mechanically accounted for -considered mechanically the eye is all there in the elements out of which it arises. As an event it is something more than these elements which they therefore cannot explain. But the idea or plan of the eye could only explain it by the use of the mechanical means which achieve the end in view, and in the world of mechanical means implied, the eye before its appearance does not exist. The idea of it cannot be present until the eye itself has arisen. The idea of the eye presupposes vision. Each method demands an explanation in terms of reflection, which moves in a given world, where rearrangements may take place, but nothing essentially novel can possibly appear. Mechanics cannot

(380) state even the new form that arises. Teleology, if it is radical, must assume the form already in existence.

In the work, however, of the Neo-Darwinians and the Neo-Lamarckians M. Bergson recognizes two points of view which supplement each other and suggest his own doctrine of the 'vital impulse' (I'élan vital). The dependence of evolution upon variations arising out of elements in the geminal cells can be regarded as most probable, especially when one assumes with de Vries that these variations tend to appear in successive periods. On the other hand the influence of a force within the organism pushing on and in some sense directing its development, such as the Neo-Lamarckians find in the psychical element in evolution, is rendered quite unavoidable when one faces the appearance of such corresponding structures as the vertebrate and moIluscan eye. Psychical, however, in the sense of our own effort, or even in that of conceivably conscious animals, this influence cannot be, for the field of its operation would then be too confined. What is implied in evolution is an impulse with a direction indicated in the homologous functions and organs of living forms, an impulse which is instinctively conscious in animal life, and intelligently conscious in man. An impulse which is identified with life on the one hand and consciousness on the other (pp. 92 ff.).

All who have taken a philosophic interest in the theories of evolution will recognize the pertinence of M. Bergson's considerations. The result of nearly three quarters of a century's observation and speculation has been to leave all who are acquainted with the problem, the hypotheses, and the conditions of their acceptance, evolutionists. We all believe that species have arisen. On the other hand, the doctrines of evolution have been specialized to meet particular phases and types of developmental problems. When one rises above these specific problems, he feels one general defect which has been but imperfectly met where it has been appreciated, e. g., by the orthogenesists. This defect is that the uniformity of what we may call onward movement, along diverging paths, in diverse organisms, the common direction which becomes evident amid a thousand conflicting directions in growth, gets no scientific formulation nor explanation. Mechanically there is. no meaning in a direction. There exist simply readjustments, and Spencer's criteria of increasing heterogeneity and complexity are a petitio principii, for complete physical and chemical analysis would show these characteristics to be entirely due to the false perspective of human cognition. In a word-- to use M. Bergson's expression --where everything is conceivably reversible nothing can assume a new

(381) form. The forms are purely phenomenal devices for convenience in stating things. And in a completely mechanical world every series is conceivably reversible.

The teleologist on the other hand has proved himself as helpless in meeting the problem as the mechanical biologist. Mechanically we can explain various specific evolutions, we cannot explain evolution. Teleologically we find that consciousness has too narrow a field to be called upon to account for general direction, for onward movement; and when we leave the field of conscious effort, teleology becomes a misnomer or a mere restatement of the problem of evolution.

When, therefore, we read in l'Évolution Créatrice that development is to be accounted for by a cosmic vital impulse we feel at first that a name is to be pushed forward to cover up an inexplicable or unexplained situation. A vital force -for the author parts company early in his work with the vitalists - is not a scientific conception. It is frankly metaphysical. The author insists (pp. 212) that the problem is essentially philosophic rather than scientific, though he suggests the possibility that a later science may succeed in using the philosophic point of view to translate the phenomena of physico-chemistry as Descartes used algebra to translate geometry.

The grounds for the assumption of a metaphysical technique to transcend the scientific, have been in part suggested. No purely mechanical nor radically teleological doctrine can logically admit of the appearance of new forms. For these points of view, everything is given in advance. The use of teleology within the field of conscious endeavor does not reach the process which transcends these comparatively late forms. But those who are familiar with the author's earlier works, [1] will recognize doctrines which prepare the ground for this injection of metaphysical concepts into a seemingly scientific problem. M. Bergson's conception of time, [2] or duration - is sharply -opposed to the Kantian treatment. This treatment placed time and space upon a common level. They were both forms of the sensibility; one of the outer and one of the inner sense. For Bergson, time in its purest form is the very stuff of our inner experience, which in this pure form is essentially the absolute or in the absolute, while geometric space is the product of the understanding whose function is that of fixing change and the conditions of conduct in the abstract forms which have their purest expression in geometry. In geometry and the scientific

(382) world which is geometrized, there is no real duration; on the contrary we find there only reversible series which may symbolize that which arises in consciousness but can never be that change. The further characteristic of this duration is that its phases are in the nature of the case irreversible and unreducible. Now what is irreversible and unreducible [3] is a creation -it is absolutely new. It cannot be anticipated, for this assumes its position in a reversible series which we construct out of a past whose elements are capable of reduction and reconstruction. The nature of conscious life as it appears unintellectualized is that of creation, for out of its flux arises the constantly new form. The anticipation of the future such as the prediction of an eclipse deals only with a scientific time which resolves itself on analysis into a series of correspondences -- a series of t's -- which represent the relations of intervals not the intervals themselves. The intervals themselves must be experienced. This prediction bears therefore only upon a present and resolves itself into a statement that conditions being such the conditioned will be such.

Not only is this duration which is the stuff of subjective experience essentially creative, it is that in which direction appears - a direction, that is, that does not belong to reversible series but is absolute. All other directions are purely relative to the demands of human conduct and appear in a spatialized world whose series are all reversible and subject to reconstruction. In the consciousness of duration we find alone that absolute impulsion which being by its own nature creative at once meets the demand of an evolution. If then we can identify this vital impulse with this absolute phase of consciousness, we shall have at least more than a term to cover up an unsolved problem.

Further analysis of this conception of consciousness and the spatialized world which stands over against it, brings to light further important distinctions.

M. Bergson's doctrine of perception [4] finds in this function a capacity only for 'canalizing' the conditions of conduct so that one may grasp what will be in the line of a possible act. The physical world is presented in the form of conditions of conduct in which the end of the act and the necessary steps to that end are embodied. Thus the perceived world and the conceived world of science which is derived from it cannot deal with motion while it is in progress. In so far as the world is spatialized, the actual course of immediate duration is lost. Not only is this the case; the two proc-

(383) -esses, that of immediate consciousness and that of mediate, reflective consciousness, are opposed to each other; the spatialized scientific world presenting the conditions of conduct and the obstacles to conduct. The free act in its immediacy opposes itself to these fixed conditions and overcomes the obstacles. It opposes itself to the fixed conditions, but it makes use of them and the obstacles become means. There appear two movements in opposed direction in our world so far as we freely act. We are introducing freedom into a determined environment, and that by means of the environment.

This is just the nature of evolution as M. Bergson conceives it. In a world in which physical forces seem to be running down -- transforming themselves into heat which dissipates -- life arises, moving in a contrary direction. It stores up energy (p. 267) where the physical mechanism is running down. If we think of the physical universe as falling, life stops that fall to a certain extent, storing up the force it uses it for its own ends-to serve its own vital impulse. But if the physical world resists thus the vital impulse, it gives it its conditions of expression and its very obstacles become means.

The analysis goes still further. The world as spatialized is the necessary inversion of the world creative, alive. The physical universe is reduced by physical science -- spatialized or geometrized -- to a whole within which different isolable systems arise -- like our solar system -- but they can have reality only as they are parts of the whole within which are no real forms or objects, only the whole. It remains for life to produce forms which are real, and these two are corresponding processes. The more the world of the physical science is disemboweled the more the forms are recognized as arising in creative evolution. In a word M. Bergson finds in the logical distinction between the objectified world of means, and the inner world of voluntary reconstruction the basis for a metaphysical distinction between the inorganic and the organic, between the dead and the living, between the world of physics and chemistry and the vital impulse which is responsible for all forms of plants and animals. "The impulse of life, of which we speak, consists in a word, in an exigence of creation. It is not able to create absolutely, because it encounters before it matter, that is to say the movement inverse to its own. But it takes possession of this matter, which is necessity itself, and tends to introduce into it the greatest sum possible of indeterminism and liberty" (p. 273).

It is impossible to do more than indicate the point of view of this very extraordinary work, with its clear analysis of voluntary theory, and its subtle but never obscure metaphysical and logical speculation.


In closing the reviewer can only express his surprise that M. Bergson has not recognized the creative power of consciousness in the construction of the very scientific world and its matter which for him stands opposed to thought and life. It seems to be only in the unconscious creations of perception and the unreflective phases of voluntary processes that he can perceive the creative fiat which is identical in consciousness and nature.

George H. Mead,
University of Chicaygo


  1. Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, Paris, 1901. Matiére et Mémoire, Paris, 1900.
  2. Données, Chap. II.
  3. Évolution créatrice, 29 ff.
  4. Matière et Mémoire, chaps. I et IV.; l'Évolution, p. 206.

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