Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution

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Robert Kleinman:

The French philosopher Bergson offered a theory of creative evolution based on the idea of a cosmic life force, or vital impulse (élan vital), which is driving the universe forward in an ever-growing complexity of forms.6 It reveals itself dynamically in living things, spurring the evolution of instinct and intelligence in them. Contrary to Darwinism, he sees evolution as a creative process continually producing new forms in a spontaneous and unpredictable way. Life improvises as it goes, its action being comparable to a rocket bursting into numerous sparks whose spent cinders fall back as dead matter. In this way, matter is a product of the life force, counteracting its upward thrust with a downward inertial tendency. For Bergson, the universe is a continuous, nonrepetitive movement of life without any static background or ultimate purpose. Life is identified with pure duration and can only be known through intuitive feeling. Intuition is opposed to intellect, which cuts reality into pieces and is unable to grasp the world as a continuous whole. Only intuition, a kind of intellectual sympathy, can enter into the inexpressible heart of things and identify with the pure flow of duration.

Bergson rejects teleology as well as mechanism, because he interprets the former in a finalistic sense: the end determines the direction of evolution. Since both teleology and mechanism are deterministic for him, determination by the future (finalism) is just as restrictive as determination by the past (mechanism). If mechanism and teleology are both deterministic, then no scope would remain for freedom and novelty in the world. Bergson dismisses them both in favor of his idea of creative evolution. In his view, evolution is a continuous march toward novel creations which are not determined by either the past or the future. But, again, finalism is only one way of interpreting teleology. An end or purpose need not be something imposed on the universe from outside. Even an internal purpose does not imply absolute necessity; on the contrary, it can suggest that some orderly nonmechanical process of development is at work in the world. Change without any ordering principle is nothing more than an indiscriminate display of energy that leads nowhere. Thus, Bergson’s attempt to introduce pure freedom and spontaneity into the evolutionary process fails to offer a reasonable alternative to Darwinian mechanistic ideas. But his theory stresses that evolution is a cumulative process inherent in time itself. He sees reality as the steady advance of the élan vital involving perpetual novelty rather than mechanical repetition. While his universe lacks a universal purpose to guide it, ample room remains for the attainment of lesser goals in Life’s blind, unquenchable thirst for fulfillment.

More information: Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution. Tr. Arthur Mitchell (New York, 1911).