The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 16: Henri Bergson

Bergson, the philosopher of intuitionism and of creative evolution, conceives Reality as a vital impetus, an élan vital, whose essence is evolution and development. The élan vital is a growing and flowing process, not a static existence which admits of no change whatsoever. Logic and science, intellect and mechanism cannot fathom the depths of the vital impetus which is the basis of all life. There is change and evolution everywhere, nothing merely is. All existence is a flux of becoming, moving and growing, a succession of states which never rest where they are. The intellect works mechanistically and constructs rigid rules and systems which cannot accommodate the rolling evolution of Reality. There can be no enduring substance in the river of life. Everything is changing, goes beyond itself. We can never get immutable things anywhere in the universe. Even consciousness is not unchangeable. It is a living, moving, growing and evolving process. Consciousness is the essence of the élan vital which is the great Reality. It is impossible to know Reality through logic and science. It is known only in intuition which is a direct vision and experience transcending intellectual processes and scientific observations and reasonings. The élan vital is a creative spirit which defies the attempts of the mathematical manner of approaches to it, and demands a deeper sympathy and feeling which will enter into its very essence. In intuition we comprehend the truth of things as a whole, as a complete process of the dynamic life of the spiritual consciousness. Instinct is nearer to intuition than is intellect. Intuition is instinct evolved, ennobled and become disinterested and self-conscious. Instinct, when not directed to action, but centred in knowledge, becomes intuition. Intuition has nothing of the mechanistic and static operations of the logical and the scientific intellect. Intellect is the action of consciousness on dead matter, and so it cannot enter the spirit of life. Any true philosophy should, therefore, energise and transform the conclusion of the intellect with the immediate apprehensions of intuition. Reality has to be lived, not merely understood.

Bergson distinguishes between matter and consciousness. While matter is mechanical, consciousness is creative, organising newer and newer situations in the onward march of evolution which constructs wider fields of consciousness from the situations of the past. The creative consciousness is at every moment in a newer condition, and does not repeat its experiences unless, of course, there is a regression. Though it evolves thus, it does not consist of differentiated parts; it always retains its indivisible character. Consciousness is free and is not determined by any necessity, either of mechanism or of finalism. It is unrestricted in its evolutionary march. We see in Bergson a touch of the Sankhya when he makes matter an instrument for the evolutionary activities of consciousness, though consciousness in the Sankhya never changes or evolves in itself. Bergson’s consciousness and matter ought really to be conceived as expressions of a deeper impulse in which both have their common ground. But he generally maintains a dualism of matter and consciousness, though very rarely he gives a hint to this monism. Consciousness, he says, grows by drawing material from within itself and not from outside. Matter acts as a resisting force as well as an instrument in rousing the activities of the evolving consciousness. Matter thus provides an opportunity to put to proof the force of consciousness and stimulate its efforts towards further enrichment of itself in self-evolution. Every succeeding stage in evolution is a transcendence of the past, and not a loss of it. Consciousness remains undivided in spite of its change and growth. Bergson conceives Reality as consciousness which is endless duration, time, becoming and change. God and life are one.

The God of Bergson is a finite, limited movement, ignorant of its future, not omniscient, not omnipotent, always hampered by the presence of matter, struggling against odds, finding with difficulty its next step in the darkness of what is yet to come to it as experience. Bergson’s God is not yet born; he is trying to create himself. Who created his future fields of experience, who gives him the impetus to move forward, and from where does he acquire knowledge and consciousness in the future? Where is freedom for consciousness if it is its necessary impulse to act, incapable of check, and dragging everything forward by its impetuous pull? Is not consciousness, then, the tool of an irresistible urge? What is this pull, this urge? Why should it be there at all? How can we say that Bergson is wiser than the great Spinoza who said that even a piece of stone, if it were endowed with a mind, would think that it is freely moving upward when it is really thrown by us into space? What does freedom mean if it is the nature of evolution not to cease and to struggle and again struggle, knowing not where to move? Freedom is always directed by a conscious desirable end, and when such an end is absent, freedom becomes a myth; there remains merely a groping of the impulse to urge itself forward to a destination which is not known. No one knows the purpose of Bergson’s evolution. It has no purpose; that is all. The God of Bergson does not appear to be very different from the individuals on earth, who too struggle but know not for what, who too are not omniscient, not omnipotent, and are obstructed from all sides by external forces, who too are suffering through an inevitable strife throughout their life. A God who is constantly dying in the process of becoming is no God. And yet this seems to be Bergson’s conception of God. Bergson does not notice that even the concept of change is impossible without an unchanging Reality underlying all change. Who is it that knows that there is change? How does Bergson know that there is ceaseless change, if he himself is moving on, never existing at any moment but only passing away incessantly? How can there be movement alone without something that moves? Who is it that evolves? Certainly, it cannot be evolution itself that evolves, nor is it change that undergoes change. Something ever-enduring, some pure being different from the process of change ought to be admitted in order that we may accept the validity of change and be aware of its existence. Consciousness cannot change or evolve; for it is consciousness that knows the fact of change and evolution. Consciousness is not created, but only unveiled; it is eternal being, not becoming. Becoming is the outer crust and the relative object of being. We cannot say that there is an evolution of consciousness as such, for this contradicts the glaring fact that there cannot be a consciousness of evolution without a consciousness that does not evolve. What evolves is mind, not consciousness which is above and behind the mind. God does not create himself, for he is eternal existence. The fields of experience that are open to consciousness in the future stages of evolution are comprehended in this eternal, unchanging experience of God-Being; else there could be no evolution. How can a forward or upward motion of ours be possible if there is nothing ahead of us or above us? All evolution is within God who is at once omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. It is not God that evolves, but the individual and the phenomenal Nature. The Reality behind the élan vital is God whose essence is consciousness. The élan vital itself cannot be God, for it never is, it ever becomes.

There is change and evolution on account of a longing inherent in all individuals to attain their perfection in God. God is the Absolute in relation to the universe. Evolution has an end, a final aim, an eternal purpose towards which everything moves systematically and not blindly or gropingly, and by which it is directed with omniscience. This aim is the Absolute. There is universal evolution because the Absolute is universal being. It has to be realised universally, infinitely, eternally in the consciousness of pure being. The Absolute impels all individuals to evolve, internally as well as externally, for it is inside as well as outside. This impulsion is an inward necessity and not an outward compulsion in the sense that even the outside is an inside in the Absolute, for it is infinite being. What we call an outward universe is really an inward being in eternal consciousness.

Knowledge and consciousness are acquired in the future through evolution on account of the presence of omniscience and eternal wisdom in the deep recesses of our own being, which we are only unfolding in the process of evolution. Knowledge is not created or acquired in the future; it is an eternal presence in us, which merely gets realised in the course of time. The vital impetus of Bergson is only the external phenomenon of the process of the return of the individual to the Absolute. The inward meaning of it is the necessity of an immutable consciousness which transcends even the élan vital. The élan vital is only the biological impulse of growth and the psychological phenomenon of mind which Bergson confuses with Reality. It is true that there is evolution in body and mind, and in Nature as observed by the evolving individual; so far we have to pay credit to Bergson. But it contradicts all sense to say that Reality is moving, changing and evolving. Bergson’s evolution is an open march of the life force without an end or a purpose, which shows signs of a wild running amuck, as it were, of the hungry consciousness which does not know what food it is in need of. Bergson is wrongly identifying the unchanging Reality with phenomenal life force and mind which are subject to change and evolution in time. It is this false view that makes him think that the aim of evolution is in every immediately succeeding stage, and not in any eternally fixed being. It is not true that even God cannot preordain the goal of evolution. There is a purpose which determines the kinds of organisation which a living being is to put on in the different stages of its evolution. Else, why should a particular organisation follow from the present one? All urge, all movement, the élan vital itself, is a yearning to realise God who is absolute consciousness in essence. This is the final directing goal of evolution. Here evolution stops. Bergson needs to be corrected.

The errors, bunglings and apparent regressions observed in life do not prove that evolution is not directed by a final aim and that it is all new invention at every succeeding stage of evolution. The errors are the defects of the mind, potential or actual, which on account of a want of manifestation of a sufficient degree of intelligence suffers in life and learns by experience from within and without. It is not intelligence or consciousness that commits mistakes, but the psychological functions in the individual. They go wrong in their estimation of the true values of life. Discord and disharmony in Nature are the result of a partial observation of it by the individual. To know the harmonious workings of Nature, we have to partake of the universal being of Nature in our experience and not stand outside in space and time as disconnected witnesses. To know is to be, and not merely to look at and observe. The universe is a perfect harmony of forces. The ignorant evolving individuals cannot realise this fact as long as they remain individuals and do not see with the eye of spiritual intuition.

Bergson’s intuition is not so deep as the intuition of the Vedanta. His ‘sympathy’ or entering the spirit of life seems to be an introspective intuition of the flow of the psychological consciousness and not an identification of the highest consciousness with pure being. The intuition of the Vedanta is a faculty of omniscience which comprehends the Absolute. Bergson has no possibilities of omniscience, no omniscient being exists for him. Even the élan vital is not omniscient. Further, he makes a sharp distinction between intellect and intuition. If instinct become self-conscious and ennobled can be identified with intuition, intellect too can become intuition when it is divested of its space-time relations. Intellect reveals a wider Reality than instinct, though it is handicapped by attachment to mathematical and logical ways of thinking from which instinct is free. But it is to be noted that only those endowed with intelligence can endeavour to reach intuition; the instinctive animal cannot do so. Intellect is the transition from instinct to intuition, and so it cannot be rejected as totally useless in one’s spiritual advancement. The defect of instinct is that it is blind; that of intellect is that it is discursive. The value of intuition is in its integral illumination of total being, quite different from and superior to the partial views provided by the intellect. Instinct and intellect are stages in the advance of consciousness towards intuition.

Matter and consciousness are not, as Bergson supposes, different from each other metaphysically. The difficulty is that Bergson’s consciousness is the principle of the psychological functions, and naturally matter which is presented as the body of the cosmos should be independent of these functions. For no individual can create matter outside or identify his mind with it. Yet, Bergson speaks of consciousness as a metaphysical principle, the essence of the élan vital, and sets it against matter which is an obstructing as well as a helping medium in the evolution of consciousness. Under these circumstances, it is unwarranted to identify this changing and moving life-impulse with Reality. It requires a profound observation and reflection to recognise that matter and consciousness are not really hostile elements, that they appear as the external object and the internal subject respectively when the latter is confined to individual psychological functioning, and that ultimately they form the two phases in which the Absolute manifests itself as the universe. The existence of matter cannot be known unless there is a relation between matter and consciousness. The admission of such a relation would be to accept a unitary being underlying the two. Matter to Bergson appears as an entity second to consciousness because he is unwillingly identifying Reality with subjective mind, though he thinks that it is true objectively also, merely because it is seen working in everyone outside. It has been already pointed out that metaphysical Reality is not what is merely subjectively felt, though it may be felt thus by all individuals. Reality has a non-relative existence transcending subjectivity. Bergson’s consciousness evolves because it is the individual mind moving with the operations of matter in a world of space and time. Evolution is impossible without space-time relations, for evolution is causation, whether we conceive it as linear or organic. And space and time are phenomenal forms, they cannot be equated with Reality. Bergson unnecessarily emphasises the importance of time and makes it non-spatial, calling it an eternal duration which he identifies with Reality. It is impossible to conceive of time without space, and time does not cease to be a relative phenomenon merely because another word, viz., duration, is substituted for it. Space and time constitute a single continuum, and there can be no such thing as duration without time. Bergson thinks that there can be absence in space and yet there can be movement in time. This is a dogmatic assertion which cannot bear the test of experience, reason or observation. There cannot be succession or duration without space. Time cannot become Reality, for it has no existence independent of spatial and causal relations. Nor can it be said that causal change itself is Reality, for all change implies a changeless being as its ground.

Our steps in evolution are not completely free movements. We seem to have freedom because we work with our personal egos. If Reality is the Absolute, freedom can be only in a gradual approximation to it of the consciousness with which we work. Free will is not opposed to determinism; it is the eternal universal law operating through a conscious individual ego that is called free will. We are determined as individuals working independently with our personalities, but free as participators in the scheme of a cosmic consciousness. Our freedom is in proportion to our nearness to the Absolute. We are not really free until our consciousness is installed in the Absolute.