The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

January 5, 2016

January 5, 1941

The father of the philosopher, Henri Bergson (October 18, 1859 to January. 4, 1941) was a well-off musician from a Jewish family. Bergson's mother was from an English Jewish family, a background described by one source as "Anglo-Irish." Bergson was born and died in Paris. He was the recipient of most modern honors: a member of the Academie Francaise, Gifford lecturer, and in 1927, the recipient of the Nobel for literature for his philsophical works-- books, like Matter and Memory,(1896) and Creative Evolution, (1911)

Bergson situated modern man in a context informed by empirical realities, as we see in this discussion of human freedom in Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (English translation dates to 1910).

[E]very demand for explanation in regard to freedom comes back, without our suspecting it, to the following question: "Can time be adequately represented by space?" To which we answer: Yes, if you are dealing with time flown; No, if you speak of time flowing. Now, the free act takes place in time which is flowing and not in time which has already flown. Freedom is therefore a fact, and among the facts which we observe there is none clearer. All the difficulties of the problem, and the problem itself, arise from the desire to endow duration with the same attributes as extensity, to interpret a succession by a simultaneity, and to express the idea of freedom in a language into which it is obviously untranslatable.

One issue he forwards here is that time cannot be conflated with space. He might be saying that there is an edge of the present, still fluid with the future, where free will is not impossible, because it is not part of the past, the necessarily spatial, past.

Bergson brutally embraced modern science, as see in this passage from Creative Evolution: He addresses those who refuse criticism of Darwin's ideas:

It will be alleged that a change is not localized in a single point of the organism, but has its necessary recoil on other points. The examples cited by Darwin remain classic: white cats with blue eyes are generally deaf; hairless dogs have imperfect dentition, etc.—Granted; but let us not play now on the word "correlation." A collective whole of solidary changes is one thing, a system of complementary changes — changes so coordinated as to keep up and even improve the functioning of an organ under more complicated conditions—is another.

That an anomaly of the pilous
[fur] system should be accompanied by an anomaly of dentition is quite conceivable without our having to call for a special principle of explanation; for hair and teeth are similar formations, and the same chemical change or the germ that hinders the formation of hair would probably obstruct that of teeth: it may be for the same sort of reason that white cats with blue eyes are deaf. In these different examples the "correlative" changes are only solidary changes (not to mention the fact that they are really lesions, namely, diminutions or suppressions, and not additions, which makes a great difference.

But when we speak of "correlative" changes occurring suddenly in the different parts of the eye, we use the word in an entirely new sense: this time there is a whole set of changes not only simultaneous, not only bound together by community of origin, but so coordinated that the organ keeps on performing the same simple function, and even performs it better. That a change in the germ, which influences the formation of the retina, may affect at the same time also the formation of the cornea, the iris, the lens, the visual centres, etc., I admit, if necessary, although they are formations that differ much more from one another in their original nature than do probably hair and teeth. But that all these simultaneous changes should occur in such a way as to improve or even merely maintain vision, this is what, in the hypothesis of sudden variation, I cannot admit, unless a mysterious principle is to come in, whose duty it is to watch over the interest of the function. But this would be to give up the idea of "accidental" variation. In reality, these two senses of the word "correlation" are often interchanged in the mind of the biologist, just like the two senses of the word "adaptation.

Bergson here demands a critical thought must be combined with an investigation of the empirical. His point is not that Darwin is wrong, but that his explanation does not suffice to explain all the change which we now call 'evolution.' Bergson may not have been the first to point out that "accidental" change is not enough to explain evolution, since 'accidental' could as often be harmful as beneficial. But his ideas are  important to modern scientists such as Stephen Gould.  Most modern philosophy treats Bergson's arguments by ignoring them.

His dignity and honorable behavior at the end of his life is still a light to some.

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