Creative evolution - PDF book (1922) by Henri Bergson

Creative evolution

Creative evolution by Henri Bergson
Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson


From the author's introduction:

The history of the evolution of life, incomplete as it yet is, already reveals to us how the intellect has been formed, by uninterrupted progress, along a line which ascends through the vertebrate series up to the man. It shows us in the faculty of understanding an appendage of the faculty of acting, a more and more precise, more and more complex and supple adaptation of the consciousness of living beings to the conditions of existence that are made for them.

 Hence should result in this consequence that our intellect, in the narrow sense of the word, is intended to secure the perfect fitting of our body to its environment, to represent the relations of external things among themselves — in short, to think matter. Such will indeed be one of the conclusions of the present essay. 


We shall see that the human intellect feels at home among inanimate objects, more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools; that our concepts have been formed on the model of solids; that our logic is, pre-eminently, the logic of solids; that, consequently, our intellect triumphs in geometry, wherein is revealed the kinship of logical thought with the unorganized matter, and where the intellect has only to follow its natural movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably. But from this, it must also follow that our thought, in its purely logical form, is incapable of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement. Created by life, indefinite circum- stances, to act on definite things, how can it embrace life, of which it is only an emanation or an aspect?

 Deposited by the evolutionary movement in the course of its way, how can it be applied to the evolutionary movement itself? As well contend that the part is equal to the whole, that the effect can reabsorb its cause, or that the pebble left on the beach displays the form of the wave that brought it there. In fact, we do indeed feel that not one of the categories of our thought — unity, multiplicity, mechanical causality, intelligent finality, etc. — applies exactly to the things of life: who can say where individuality begins and ends, whether the living being is one or many, whether it is the cells which associate themselves into the organism or the organism which dissociates itself into cells? In vain we force the living into this or that one of our moulds. 

All the moulds crack. They are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them. Our reasoning, so sure of itself among things inert, feels ill at ease on this new ground. It would be difficult to cite a biological discovery due to pure reasoning. And most often, when experience has finally shown us how life goes to work to obtain a certain result, we find its way of working is just that of which we should never have thought. 

Yet evolutionist philosophy does not hesitate to extend to the things of life the same methods of explanation that have succeeded in the case of un organized matter. It begins by showing us in the intellect a local effect of evolution, a flame, perhaps accidental, which lights up the coming and going of living beings in the narrow passage open to their action;  forgetting what it has just told us, it makes of this lantern glimmering in a tunnel a Sun which can illuminate the world. 

Boldly it proceeds, with the powers of conceptual thought alone, to the ideal reconstruction of all things, even of life. True, it hurtles in its course against such formidable difficulties, it sees its logic end in such strange contradictions, that it very speedily renounces its first ambition. " It is no longer reality itself," it says, " that it will reconstruct, but only an imitation of the real, or rather a symbolical image; the essence of things escapes us, and will escape us always; we move among relations; the absolute is not 4n our province; we are brought to a stand before the Unknowable." — But for the human intellect, after too much pride, this is really an excess of humility. If the intellectual form of the living being has been gradually modelled on the reciprocal actions and reactions of certain bodies and their material environment, how should it not reveal to us something of the very essence of which these bodies are made?


 Action cannot move in the unreal. A mind born to speculate or to dream, I admit, might remain outside reality, might deform or transform the real, perhaps even create it, — as we create the figures of men and animals that our imagination cuts out of the passing cloud. But an intellect bent upon the action to be performed and the reaction to follow, feeling its object so as to get its mobile impression at every instant, is an intellect that touches something of the absolute. Would the idea ever have occurred to us to doubt this absolute value of our knowledge if philosophy had not shown us what contradictions our speculation meets, what dead-locks it ends in? 

But these difficulties and contradictions all arise from trying to apply the usual forms of our thought to objects with which our industry has nothing to do, and for which, therefore, our moulds are not made. Intellectual knowledge, in so far as it relates to a certain aspect of inert matter, ought, on the contrary, to give us a faithful imprint of it, having been stereotyped on this particular object. It becomes relative only if it claims, such as it is, to present to us live — that is to say, the maker of the stereotype plate. Must we then give up fathoming the depths of life? 

Must we keep to that mechanistic idea of it which the understanding will always give us — an idea necessarily artificial and symbolical since it makes the total activity of life shrink to the form of a certain human activity which is only a partial and local manifestation of life, a result or by-product of the vital process? 

We should have to do so, indeed, if life had employed all the psychical potentialities it possesses in producing pure understandings — that is to say, in making geometricians. But the line of evolution that ends in man is not the only one.

  • Author: Henri Bergson
  • Translator: Arthur Mitchell
  • Publication date: 1922
  • Company: London: Macmillan

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