Science in Christian Perspective
Robert D. Knudsen, Th.M.
In the previous columns I have mentioned several movements of European origin which will exert pressure on the dominant naturalistic and positivistic thought in American philosophy. First, 1 referred to an attack from the Christian side, the new critique of theoretical thought by Herman Dooyeweerd, aided by other Neo-Calvinistic thinkers. Then I mentioned the existentialist movement, which is familiar to us mainly in theological circles. Finally, I wrote about the epoch-making work of Edmund Husserl.
In this issue I shall make a few remarks about another movement, which in some of its phases is very congenial to American thought, but which in other phases is again an adversary to be reckoned with. I refer to the Lebens-philosophie, spoken of in English as the philosophy of life or life-philosophy. This is a very broad classification, bundling together a group of modern philosophers who break with the rationalistic tradition and who place life at the center of thought. Of these Bergson is a thinker who challenges American thought. On the other hand, our own William James and John Dewey are also classed as life-philosophers.
Henri Bergson (1859-1941) has been called the most original and most significant exponent of the life-philosophy. He was a French philosopher, a member of the Royal Academy, who wielded a tremendous influence. This influence was due in no small measure to the beauty of his style of writing, as well as to the depth and acuity of his thought. He is regarded as a pioneer of the spirit of our times.
Bergson's main works are four, of which I give the French titles: 1) Essai sur les donnees immediates de la conscience (1889) ; 2) Matiere et memoire (1896) ; 3) L'evolution creatrice (1907) 4) Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (1932).
Bergson is like Husserl in that he opposed the positivism inherited from the last century. He is much different, on the other hand, because he also sought to overcome idealism. He gave a push to the current reaction against idealistic thought.
Bergson's thought was activistic, dynamic. He claimed that there are no things; there are only acts. Being is becoming. The real is not static being; it is a living impulse. Bergson's thought was characteristic of the turn in philosophy away from rationalism, which emphasizes the mathematical understanding, to a biological thinking, which emphasizes life. Hence the name, life-philosophy. This activistic, biological type of thinking received a great boost from evolutionary ideas.
Life-philosophy has taken the direction of irrationalism. In this it is similar to existentialism. Bergson claimed that the really real was not approachable through the forms of understanding. The understanding spatializes; it sees things as static, measurable, definable. It is capable of grasping the essence of matter; but it is quite incapable of penetrating to the core of reality, which is life. The impulse of life escapes the understanding, which can see it only at the cost of killing and dissecting it. Life can be seen as it truly is only through intuition.
Bergson held, therefore, that the most profound level of reality is not clear, distinct, and analyzable. It is not seen in the clear light of understanding, and knowledge of it cannot be communicated to others directly. It is seen darkly in intuition, and one can only help another come to the place were he can gain a similar intuition of it.
The idea that the forms of the mathematical understanding must be transcended is characteristic not only of Bergson's thought, but also of existentialism and some phenomenology. It is quite foreign to the main stream of American thought, which is naturalistic and scientistic,
In this connection it might seem surprising that another branch of life-philosophy has a great affinity with naturalism and positivism. I refer to pragmatism. Pragmatic ideas were first presented by Peirce. They were modified and brought to public attention by James. Modified again, they have profoundly influenced American thought through John Dewey.
It is amazing how the strands of thought intertwine. Both Bergson and Husserl opposed positivism. They both had a doctrine of intuition. On the other hand, Husserl was a strong rationalist, while Bergson was an irrationalist. Both Bergson and the pragmatists are activistic; they are biological thinkers; they can in one way or another both be classed as irrationalistic. However, the pragmatist differs from Bergson. The latter thinks of the real as a vital stream, which is seen theoretically through intuition. At the center of the pragmatist thinking'is the idea of the biological adjustment of the organism to its environment. They see the intellect in the practical role as the instrument in this adjustment. The intellect has a much more central role in pragmatism than in the thought of Bergson. Further, life is thought of not so much as a vital stream, but as the life of the organism in its adjustment to the environment in which it lives * The pragmatist sees intellectual concepts merely as conventional tools used in this biological adjustment, and he denies any other faculty by which one could penetrate to a more fundamental stratum than the intellect can probe.
Life-philosophy is thus a broad term, covering movements that are congenial to American thought and movements which are not. Bergson has had influence in this country, though I understand that it has been more indirect that direct. There is a school of Bergsonians in France; if there is one here, I am not aware of it. Bergson's thought is worthy of attention, however, because of its clarity, its incisiveness, and its beauty of expression. His general influence, moreover, has been great. Though it is an older influence than the others I have mentioned, Bergson's thought has nevertheless played its part in moving philosophy toward activism and irrationalism.