Childhood & Early Years
Henri-Louis Bergson was born in Paris on October 18, 1859, in a famous Jewish entrepreneur family. Originally known as Berekson, they were of Polish descent. Henri’s father, Michal Bergson was Warsaw born composer and pianist of considerable repute.
His mother, Katherine Levison, had an Irish Jewish background. She was the daughter of a Jewish doctor from Yorkshire. Young Henri learned English from her. He also had a sister named Mina, who later married the English occult author Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers.
After his birth, the family moved to England; but returned to France when he was nine years old. In 1868, he was admitted to Lycée Condorcet in Paris and studied there till 1878. At school he was much appreciated for his knowledge of science and mathematics and won several prizes.
After graduating from school in 1878, he enrolled at École Normale Supérieure in Paris and to his teachers’ dismay opted for humanities. During this period, he came under the influence of philosophers like Spencer, Mill and Darwin. In addition, he also learned to appreciate Latin and Greek literature.
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Henri Bergson passed out from École Normale Supérieure in 1881. In the same year he was appointed as a teacher at the lycée in Angers. Two years later, he joined Lycée Blaise-Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand and taught there for five years.
Along with teaching, he continued with his studies and research work. His first work, ‘On Unconscious Simulation in States of Hypnosis’ was published in the Revue Philosophique in 1886. In this article, he had put down his observations at hypnosis session.
For his doctoral degree, he submitted a thesis on ‘Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience‘ (Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness) along with another short thesis on Aristotle, ‘Quid Aristoteles de loco senserit’ (On the Concept of Place in Aristotle), in Latin.
In 1888, he went back to Paris and for few months and taught at College Rollin. Later he joined Lycée Henri-IV as a teacher and taught there for eight years. In 1889, he was awarded his doctoral degree by University of Paris. His thesis ‘Time and Will’ was first published as a book in the same year.
His second major work, ‘Matière et mémoire’ (Matter and Memory) was published in 1896. The book was the result of a detailed research undertaken over a period of time.
In 1898, he joined his alma mater, École Normale Supérieure, as Maître de conférences (associate professor). Very shortly, he was promoted to the post of Professeur des universities and became a full professor.
In 1900, he was recruited as a Professor at Collège de France, a renowned educational and research center in Paris. Very soon, he was appointed to the Chair of Greek and Latin Philosophy of the college.
In 1900, he attended first International Congress of Philosophy held in Paris and read a short but important paper titled ‘Psychological Origins of the Belief in the Law of Causality’. This was also the year when his well-known book ‘Le rire, Essai sur la signification du comique’ was published.
In 1901, he was elected as a member of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, one of the five academies of Institut de France.
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In 1904, he held the Chair of Modern Philosophy. Meanwhile he continued publishing many papers, out of which ‘Introduction à la Métaphysique’ (1903) is most important.
In 1907, he published his third major work, titled, ‘L'Évolution créatrice’ (Creative Evolution). The book, which provides a different explanation for Darwin’s theory, became so popular that within 10 years it sold 21 editions.
In 1908, Bergson travelled to England. There he met William James, an American philosopher and psychologist. The two became good friends. It was James who introduced Bergson to the English as well as American public.
He next went to Italy to attend International Congress of Philosophy. He also made several visits to England. His lectures offered new perspective and were generally short and lucid, which propelled the audience to go through his more detailed works.
In early 1913, he went to America on the invitation of the University of Columbia. There he visited number of cities and at each place his lectures were well received. In May 1913, he went back to England and accepted the post of the President of British Society for Psychical Research.
In 1914, he retired from the active duty from Collège de France so that he could concentrate on his academic works. At the same time, he continued to give lectures on various issues and did not stop even when the World War I erupted.
Later in 1919, he published a collection of these lecture in a book form. Titled 'L'Énergie spirituelle’, the book became highly popular. Later it was translated into English as ‘Mind Energy’.
Meanwhile, all his major works had started being translated into various European languages such as English, German, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, Polish and Russian. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church banned three of his books on the charge of pantheism.
In 1932, Bergson published his next major work, ‘Les Deux Sources de la morale et de la religion’ (The Two Sources of Morality and Religion). In this book, however, Bergson had come closer to the conventional notion of God as propagated by the Roman Catholic Church.
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By 1937 he began toying with the idea of converting to the Catholic faith. In the same year, his last book, 'La Pensée et le mouvant' (The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics) was published.
Although his works were later criticized by some philosophers, many more have praised his theories as novel and thought provoking. His influence is especially apparent on the works of notable writers like William James, George Santayana and Alfred North Whitehead.
‘L'Évolution créatrice’ (Creative Evolution), published in 1907, is the most popular among Bergson’s four major works. Through this book, Bergson proposed that the evolution is not a mechanical, but a creative process and it should be seen as a continued existence that constantly develop and generate new forms.
’Le rire’, Essai sur la signification du comique’ (Laughter, an essay on the meaning of the comic), published in 1900, is a collection of three essays through which he tried to determine the process of comic, not its effects. Though considered one of his minor works, it gives an insight into Bergson’s view about life.
In 1891, Henri Bergson married Louise Neuberger, a cousin of French novelist Marcel Proust. They had a daughter named Jeanne. Unfortunately she was born deaf.
Although born a Jewish he later thought of converting to Roman Catholic faith because in it he saw ‘complete fulfillment of Judaism’. However, he had an inkling about ‘a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world’. Since he wanted to be on the side of the persecuted he did not change his faith.
Moreover to make his point, he queued up to register as a Jew when the Vichy government made it mandatory. Although he was exempted from such enrolment he refused to take it.
By then, his health had broken down. In spite of that he rose from his sick bed and stood in the queue. It is said that, while waiting in the line, Bergson caught cold. He ultimately died from it on January 4, 1941.