Despite certain connections between Bergsonian metaphysics and phenomenology, significant differences still remain between these two streams of thought even today. By concentrating on a theme that occupies a central place in both phenomenology and Bergsonian metaphysics, namely the relation between consciousness and life, this article will demonstrate why – today more than ever – phenomenology ought to re-evaluate its relation to this remarkable philosopher. By analysing the notions of “life” and “consciousness” – especially the relation between them – as they appear from Bergson’s point of view, it will become clear why phenomenology today ought to reconsider and take seriously – perhaps now in a novel and more unencumbered way – its relation to Bergson’s (previously repudiated) conception of life.
Instead of having to choose between consciousness and life, it will become clear that both notions are indispensable for our complete being and our complete experience. It has often been said that the progressiveness of Husserl’s phenomenology on the one hand does not lie in the unity he creates between consciousness and life but that it lies, instead, in the break that he sustains between our “lived experiences” and the “consciousness that intends” them. That of Bergson, on the other hand, is said to lie in the very submersion of consciousness in temporal life; a temporal life not merely in a psychological or internal sense (as was still the case in Time and free will), but a temporal life that manifests itself also at an organic and even cosmic level (as is particularly evident in Creative evolution, which is a later work). Phenomenology (or at least Husserl in particular) opts for a return to a pure consciousness, as opposed to any amalgamation or fusion with life, while Bergson seems only choose to a return to an immediate experience of life, as opposed to all conscious distance from (and intentionality directed towards) it. And this holds the danger, for phenomenology, of “reducing life to consciousness” and for Bergson, seemingly of “reducing consciousness to life”.
However, if the relation between (mostly early) phenomenology and Bergsonian metaphysics does, in fact, rest on an opposition, then it is not the narrowly construed and trivial opposition between consciousness and life. Instead, the opposition between Bergson and phenomenology is founded on two opposing ways of conceiving of the relation between consciousness and life. The twofold task which this article will address can broadly be summarised as follows: First, a distinction will be made between two acts of consciousness which bear on two senses of life; then, secondly, the duplicity which is thus distinguished, will be reconciled to reach a higher (a more intensive and heightened) plane of reality.
Some of the issues that will guide our investigation in this article can be broadly summarised as follows: “Where”, or under which conditions (at which point) in both our lives and in our consciousness do we find the rupture, not between life and consciousness, but between the two senses of the one and of the other? In other words: How and “where”, or maybe “when”, does this rupture originate and how does it express or manifest itself? Furthermore, what kind of unity or reconnection does this rupture render possible in return? What sustains this distinction, and if it is sustained by the (inevitable yet also necessary) division between time (or life in the sense of duration) and space (or spatialised time) does it really indicate two sides or poles of reality, that is, a strict dualism similar to the traditional opposition between matter and mind? How, ultimately, can this division be surmounted; how can one simultaneously think consciousness “in” life (which entails creation as the act of preservation of series of duration), and consciousness “of” life (which entails a certain kind of seeing, a phenomenological appearing or a spatialised gaze)? What would we find upon surpassing the duality between these two dimensions of consciousness and life? Could such a reconnection perhaps entail that heightened state of being (as becoming) that Bergson refers to as philosophical intuition? The article begins with the following question: Why did this distinction in Bergson’s philosophy provoke such a tremendous misinterpretation, mainly within early (Husserlian) phenomenology? Thus in the first section the article focuses on Bergson’s primary theory of consciousness; that is, on the theory which is responsible for the difference between Bergson and (particularly early) phenomenology, as well as for the misinterpretation of this difference. It is this very misinterpretation which precludes one from seeing, not only the opposition or difference between Bergson and phenomenology, but also a significant relationship or connection.
As opposed to what we automatically, and from the outset, assume regarding consciousness, and as opposed to what phenomenology (or Husserl at least) endeavours to transform into the certainty of a principle, consciousness, for Bergson, is not firstly and above all else an intention or a gaze. In fact, contrary to this pseudo-certainty according to which consciousness is always a consciousness “of …” – in both a pre-reflective and a reflective sense – as early phenomenology would have it; or before relating back to this seemingly irrefutable experience of consciousness as “consciousness of …”, consciousness, for Bergson, can be related back to “something else”, something prior to the gaze. Now how can consciousness really “be” (in the sense of a becoming and an act), anything other than a gaze or an appearing (a representation)?
In order to appreciate the real answer to this question, and also to prevent the major misconception of this answer, the heart of the misconception will first be explained. It will be demonstrated that the reality preceding consciousness as an appearing (as a gaze or an intention), itself also arises within (another type of) consciousness and experience. This act which is implicated in duration, and which is referred to by the term or concept of “duration”, by the sensible data insofar as they follow each other temporally or successively, is the very act of preserving the succession. Thus, it is an act which is inherent in the very series or succession itself, an act which in fact cannot subsist if detached. Without such an act of duration which entails this kind of memory, the sensible data would vanish interminably, such that there would no longer even be sensible data. All of this now presents the abovementioned twofold task which will be elaborated on in the second section.
To begin with, this hypothesis will be substantiated to demonstrate how duration does in fact arise within consciousness; within a kind of consciousness not degraded to a predetermined life, but rather a consciousness inherent in life, as a type of awareness (to various degrees), or a sensitivity to sensation. A kind of consciousness, that is, which is not entrenched in life as in a “thing in itself”, but that is present in it as a (continuous yet heterogeneous) creation and act. But not only is this consciousness as an act distinct from the other kind of consciousness which is an intention and which expresses itself in the form of a representation, it also does not entirely overlap (although being intimately connected) with the pure sensible data as such. To be sure, the form which the sensible data assumes requires this act of consciousness to exist at all. Thus the dyad (the dualisation and distinction between the two acts of consciousness) will, firstly, be deepened. Then, secondly – in an equally important way – the duality will be consciously surmounted. It will be overcome in order to demonstrate how the opposition, or even contradiction, between these two facets of our being and our lives can be reconnected to reach a higher state of organisation and development; a richer and more intensive plane of reality.
The overcoming of this duality is itself also twofold. First, the paradox between consciousness conceived of as an act of duration (as will or drive) on the one hand, and consciousness conceived of phenomenologically as an appearing or an intention (as a gaze or a seeing) on the other hand, must be surmounted to produce “an appearing of this act” (of duration) or “a vision of this will”. In other words, the overcoming of this duality produces an intuition which according to Bergson can be portrayed with philosophical precision. This first overcoming is nonetheless supplemented with another decisive overcoming which is proportional to the first. Effectively, the intuition that perceives duration can no longer be a seeing or a gaze “outside its object”, for there is no longer an “object”, only an act. This intuition, or this seeing of duration, must necessarily be a gaze inside a doing; it must be a seeing that is, or itself becomes, the doing. Intuition, most of all philosophical intuition, can never be merely a gaze or a description. Quite the opposite – it is a kind of “touching” that reveals itself through an action, and as a completely developed creation.
Keywords: conscious action; creation; duration; élan vital; Henri L. Bergson; in-tension; intuition; life; metaphysics; open soul; phenomenology; senses of life; sensitivity for sensations; spatialisation