Bergson at the University of Edinburgh 100 years ago

In 1914, the Scottish universities arranged for Bergson to give the famous Gifford Lectures, planning one course for the spring and another for the autumn. Bergson delivered the first course, consisting of eleven lectures, under the title of The Problem of Personality, at the University of Edinburgh in the spring of that year.​ The War then interrupted the lectures.


Born in Paris in 1859 of Jewish parents, Henri Bergson received his education there and subsequently taught at Angers and Clermont-Ferraud before returning to Paris. He was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the College de France in 1900 and elected a member of the French Academy in 1914. Bergson developed his philosophy by stressing the biological and evolutionary elements involved in thinking, reasoning and creating. He saw the vitalistic dimension of the human species as being of the greatest importance.

Bergson’s writings were acclaimed not only in France, but throughout the learned world. In 1927 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In defiance of the Nazis after their conquest of France, Bergson insisted on wearing a yellow star to show his solidarity with other French Jews.

Shortly before his death in 1941, Bergson gave up all his positions and renounced his many honours in protest against the discrimination against Jews by the Nazis and the Vichy French regime.

According to various typescript lists that accompany the Gifford Committee minute books, Bergson gave the Gifford Lecture in 1913, titled “Creative Evolution”. It would appear to have been published in 1911 (by Macmillan) so was not republished as a Gifford Lecture. He also seems to have delivered “The problems of personality” in 1914. First course delivered 21 Apr-21 May 1914, Second course not delivered.

According to the minutes themselves,, Bergson was recommended at the meeting of 4 Dec 1911 to give lectures in 1913/14 and 1914/15. The next reference is in the minutes of the meeting of 23 Nov 1915 where it is recorded that a letter had been received from Bergson stating that he agreed the second series should be given in 1916 or later.

Senate minutes add to the story:

4 Feb 1915: Due to the special circumstances of the war, the second series was to be postponed until the Autumn of 1915/16
4 Nov 1915: Further postponement at the request of Bergson, until May. Senatus actually decided to postpone until October, subject to Bergson’s approval.
2 Dec 1915 It was reported that Bergson had agreed to postponement until October 1916 or even later, should that be required.

The minute book covers up to 1917 and there is no further reference to Bergson.

professor Henri Bergson


Lecture I

The problem of personality may be regarded as the central problem of philosophy. This is so, not only on account of the interest which we have in knowing what we are – the question which is to be the special subject of this year’s course – and not only on account of the interest, perhaps still greater, which there would be in knowing what is our task in the world, whence we come, and whither we go – questions which we hope to deal with in next year’s course. It is so because all philosophical problems are found to converge upon this supreme problem, which appears thus as the centre round which all philosophy gravitates or ought to gravitate.
The principal aim of philosophy has always been, in short, to embrace in a single vision the totality of things: to philosophise has usually meant to unify. It is true that this unification may take place in two different fashions. The first, that practiced by the Greek philosophers, consists in reducing the indefinite multiplicity of individual things to a certain number of concepts, and these in turn to a single idea, which includes everything.
The second, which is the method of science and of modern philosophy, consists in establishing between things, or rather between facts, relations of reciprocal dependence, expressed by laws, and in supposing that, step by step, it is possible to reach laws more and more general until we arrive at a single principle to which everything can be reduced. In both cases alike, we end by representing the whole of reality to ourselves as a coherent system, which gives complete satisfaction to our understanding. For it is in perfect unity that the understanding finds rest.
But in both cases we are faced by the difficulty of finding a place for personality, that is to say, of admitting real individualities possessing an effective independence, each of which would constitute a little world in the bosom of the great world. That is why a philosophical doctrine, in proportion as it becomes more systematic, tends more and more to absorb the human person in the All.
But all the while that philosophy thus develops itself for the greatest satisfaction of our understanding, there is a dull protest on the part of the will. Time after time in the history of doctrines this protest is raised. It assumes dialectical forms: it calls itself skepticism, critical idealism, etc., but at the root of all these attacks directed against metaphysical dogmatism there is in reality a revolt of the will, which affirms its independence.
Now, should not the future belong to a philosophy which seeks to reconcile with one another these two requirements, that of the will and that of the understanding? Common sense believes in the possibility of this reconciliation. And it is in accordance with the tradition of Scottish philosophy, as well as the tradition of French philosophy, to appeal to common sense.
But it would be a mistake to suppose that the reconciliation can be effected by concessions made by these two opposed theses to one another. This method, working simply with concepts, adds nothing to our knowledge of reality. We must interrogate reality directly; and, in order to do so, it is necessary to come to close quarters with the consciousness which we have of our own personality.
Let us take a first glance at the “elements” of which it is composed, or rather of which it appears to be composed. In the first place, think of the consciousness which we have of our body with its organic sensations. Then there is memory with all the past. Then comes the anticipation of the future.
But none of this is the personality, although the personality has a certain relation to them all. What is this relation? That is the question which we shall ask ourselves in the first lectures of this course. But it is necessary, as we shall see, to examine first some of the most remarkable conceptions of personality that have been put forward by philosophers.

Lecture II

In the present lecture and in the two following we are going to take a glance at the history of the problem of personality, not exactly, however, in a historical interest. Our object in making this rapid examination is a double one. In the first place, there is the desire to utilize whatever true observation is to be found in the traditional doctrine of personality; in the second place and more particularly, there is the desire to inquire how this doctrine has involved itself in an impasse, and what is the explanation of the insurmountable difficulties in which it ends.
There is, as a matter of fact, a traditional doctrine on this point. It has changed its form, or rather its garment, throughout the ages, but it has remained the same; and indeed up to the present time it may be said that there has been but a single systematic philosophy of personality. This metaphysic was elaborated throughout the whole of Greek antiquity. It traversed the middle ages, and proceeded to super-impose itself, successfully or unsuccessfully, on modern knowledge, until the day when Kant showed on what conditions – conditions, as it seems to us, inadmissible – it could be reconciled with scientific mechanism.
The man who gave this metaphysic its finished form was Plotinus, a philosopher who has been too little appreciated. Continuator of Aristotle as well as of Plato, related also to the Stoics (although he combats them), Plotinus resumes in himself the whole of Greek philosophy. But as he is a powerful and original thinker, he has placed his own mark on the philosophy which he transmits to us. One must not forget, in short, that the Aristotelianism whose influence was predominant in the middle ages, and even (in spite of appearances) in modern times – this Aristotelianism which still penetrates our modes of thinking and of speaking – is an Aristotelianism entirely impregnated by Neo-Platonism, an Aristotelianism which Plotinus has fused so well with Platonism, that it is very difficult to disentangle in it what belongs to Plato, what belongs to Aristotle, and what belongs to Plotinus himself.
In remounting to the source of a doctrine, one finds it in its purest form; one understands it better, and, above all, one perceives the origin of the difficulties with which it was destine to come into collision in the course of its development. That is why it will be useful for us to give a short exposition of the doctrine of Plotinus. For the rest, more interest would have been felt in this doctrine if it had been seen that it is primarily a theory of personality. Of all the ancient philosophers, Plotinus was the only one who was really a psychologist. If his philosophy is a prolongation of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, it differs from them by the fact that it is the problem of the human soul that occupies the central position in it.
Now, it is plain that the question which preoccupied Plotinus here – as it was later to preoccupy all writers upon the soul – is to know how the same being can appear to itself as an indefinite multiplicity of states and nevertheless be a single and identical person. This is the problem which we indicated at the close of our last lecture.
This problem we shall try to solve by asking if the multiplicity of states of mind is a multiplicity like other multiplicities, if the unity of the mind is a unity like other unities – if the very terms unity and multiplicity can still be applied here in their usual signification – in short, if there is not reason for proceeding in this case to revise our categories and to modify certain of our intellectual habits. But the intellect does not easily resolve to change its habits and reconstitute its categories.
The problem which presented itself to Plotinus, and which remained the problem of traditional philosophy, was therefore this: How can our person be on the one hand one or single, on the other hand multiple? And Plotinus indicated at once the solution which is inevitable, if one states the problem in these terms. He supposed that each of us was multiple “in our lower nature” and single “in our higher nature.” In other words, he considered a person as a being essentially one and indivisible, which by a kind of declension or excursion beyond itself runs down into indefinite multiplicity. Each of us, according to Plotinus, may experience these two states. In the second, we lean towards division, we materialize ourselves more and more; in the first, on the contrary, we become more spiritual and tend to a higher and higher unity. That is to say, the unity of the person tends to coincide with the unity of other persons, and the person to be one with God Himself.
There is implied, in short, in this conception of human personality, a whole metaphysics, which we find in Plotinus in its purity, and of which it is indispensable for us to give some account. That will form the subject of the next lecture.

Lecture III

The philosophy of Plotinus may be taken as the very type of the Metaphysics which we are eventually led to when we look upon internal time as pulverised into separate moments, and yet believe in the reality and unity of the Person. In that case each of us must be considered to have two different existences, one de jure and the other de facto. De jure we are outside Time; de facto we evolve in Time. De jure we are pure Ideas, in the semi-Platonic sense of that term – we are eternal essences – we are “pure contemplation.” De facto our life is in the sensible world, and we act.
The de facto is, moreover, a diminution or a degradation of the de jure. To act is to wish or to desire a thing, to have need of it; to act is consequently to be incomplete, to set out in quest of self. To evolve in Time is to add unceasingly to what is; it is consequently to be unfinished and to lack the possession of existence in its fullness. More generally, the second mode of existence is, as it were, a distension or a dilution of the first, since unity has thus been broken up into multiplicity, or, rather, has let fall from itself a dispersed multiplicity which is indefinitely striving to produce an imitation of unity in Time.
That, then, is the starting-point, and that also is the essence of Plotinus’ philosophy. In the centre of all this metaphysic is the concept of λόγος. Logos, which is untranslatable in our modern tongues, means both speech and reasoning, and also denotes the role of an actor. Speech is the multiple (and inadequate) equivalent of a single thought; reasoning is the multiple equivalent of a single intuition; speech and reasoning unroll something which is, as it were, rolled up; and in like manner the actor unrolls his scroll, so to speak, while he is playing his part. Thus the human mind is a λόγος, because it unrolls an eternal Idea.
But it is part of the essence of a metaphysical doctrine to follow out to the end the application of its principles, and, in mathematical parlance, to proceed to the limiting case. If once we think of eternal essence as lowering itself into psychological life in time, there must be a push which propels unity forth from itself, as (sic) least on one of its sides. The philosopher then supposes that this push continues in its effect, and that what has become multiple proceeds further and ever further in the direction of multiplicity. The result of this “procession” will be Body. Mind forms Body, and it is wrong to say that the mind is in the body: the body is in the mind.
On the other hand, it is not sufficient that the Intelligible Essence is One; the fact remains that there are here as many distinct unities as there are different persons and even different beings. These unities constitute a multiplicity outside Time. Now, if once we make unity the original element, we cannot stop at this “multiplicity which is One”; we shall have to go further back to a Unity which is unity only.
Such is the theory of the three hypostases – God, the Intelligibles, Minds with bodies. If you posit God, you posit thereby all the possible views of God; these are the Intelligibles or Eternal Essences. It would be just possible to stop at that point, but matter, i.e., the possibility of dividing and of unrolling, causes the Intelligible to let fall from itself a multiple image which resembles it – namely, Body in space and time; and, as we have seen, it is Mind that (before body) proceeds in the direction of Body.
This doctrine of Plotinus founds upon a sort of inward experience. Man can, in fact, according to Plotinus, retrace inwardly the course which is the inverse of that which we have just described. If the Intelligibles proceed from the One, and if Minds with bodies proceed from the Intelligibles, so, inversely, Mind in body can return towards the Intelligible, re-enter it, and so place itself again in eternity; that is the first stage. But there is a second stage to be covered before a final unity can be reached, namely, what is arrived at by Mind when it has re-entered the Intelligible – its identification of itself with the One by a saltus which takes it out of itself. For such is the etymological sense of the word “ecstasy.”
Even for us moderns there is undoubtedly much to be drawn from this doctrine, which is the work of a profound psychologist. We must extract from it its pure psychological elements. As for the edifice which Plotinus has reared on that basis, it is fragile, or at least part of it is, but it is instructive for us because it brings our clearly and formulates explicitly the idea which is contained implicitly in the majority of later metaphysical systems – the idea that action is less than contemplation, that movement is less than immobility, that duration (la dureé) is divided indefinitely, and that, to find substantiality, we must place ourselves outside Time. I believe that this is the opposite of the truth and that, while giving full weight to certain elements of Plotinus’ doctrine, we must invert his point of view. But if we once accept that point of view, we cannot improve upon what he has done. We shall see that metaphysic properly so-called has, with the moderns, done little more than repeat Plotinus, often in a weaker form.

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