Bergson — Philosophy as Attention
The relevance of philosophy might be obvious to its proponents; but considering that it is precisely the evident that philosophy prides itself to question, it might be prudent not to dismiss this question prematurely. If we ask ourselves, why philosophy is not merely interesting, but also needed, we implicitly touch on the questions of value, but also of utility; its relation to the social sphere and the world. Now, philosophy is famously reproached for its tendencies towards seclusion and dissociation, tendencies that are generally condensed in the term contemplation. Philosophical tradition does not lack criticism of said term and it does not lack suggestions for alternative notions. One such notion was outlined and, more importantly, truly performed by Henri Bergson. It is here that we find an understanding of philosophy that is deeply rooted in its own relevance.
Let us first get rid of the prejudices against Bergson’s ‘Vitalism’, which, coincidentally, cuts right to the core of the problematic. His famous élan vital is generally portrayed as an abstract force that is somehow assumed to be the driving impetus of life, resulting in a solemn apotheosis of the latter. The exact opposite is the case. The main point of Bergson’s criticism against the preceding tradition of philosophy lies in the realization that it dissipated into the abstract instead of actually remaining attentive towards the ‘real world’. For example, the determinists observed that the universe follows certain general laws, and considering that these laws cannot be broken — voilà, everything is determined, freedom is an illusion. But had the determinists been more attentive, they would see that instead of being a repeated instantiation of the same natural laws, our life is a flow that spans from birth to death, a course of constant aging where things rarely repeat. Once we pay attention, we will realize that all repetition is but an abstraction, a simplification.
“We need to live, and life demands that we grasp things in their relations to our own needs. Life is action. Life implies the acceptance only of the utilitarian side of things in order to respond to them by appropriate reactions: all other impressions must be dimmed or else reach us vague and blurred. […] My senses and my consciousness, therefore, give me no more than a practical simplification of reality” (Laughter, 47a).
Despite what we’ve traced above, Bergson doesn’t underestimate the practical side of simplification — without it, we simply couldn’t survive. If a wild animal attacks me, I don’t care, if it’s a bear, a lion, or a tiger; what I perceive is ‘a dangerous thing’ and any additional reflection wastes time I urgently require to react. Instinct justly takes the reins. But let us consider the opposite situation: I am trying to recognise a friend in a crowd. To attain this goal, I need to set her apart, which means that I need to individuate her, and I do so by identifying traits. ‘A person’ thus becomes ‘this particular individual’. Yet, in both situations the dynamics between individuation (concretization) and generalization (abstraction) remain a function of utility, i.e. the means to an end: In the second example, it’s simply more useful to apply individuation to the crowd, while in the first example, it’s more useful to generalize the attacking thing. And even when it comes to recognizing our friend, we are still, as Bergson himself notes, using traits, i.e. general characteristics of said person that we add up until recognition takes place (how often do we ‘almost’ recognize someone in a crowd because they share some traits with the one we’re looking for!). In short, we still find ourselves on the terrain of utility.
The Lessons of Art
“[A]rt always aims at what is individual. What the artist fixes on his canvas is something he has seen at a certain spot, on a certain day, at a certain hour, with a colouring that will never be seen again. What the poet sings of is a certain mood which was his, and his alone, and which will never return. What the dramatist unfolds before us is the life-history of a soul, a living tissue of feelings and events — something, in short, which has once happened and can never be repeated. We may, indeed, give general names to these feelings, but they cannot be the same thing in another soul. They are individualized” (49b).
If the pragmatic is all there is, then the individual is always relative to utility, a function of the general. But there is a subject-matter that is traditionally considered as standing beyond the useful, and this is art. The classicist claim of the autonomy of art is exactly its refusal to be useful — ornamental or entertaining alike. Bergson stands in this line of tradition, following one of his predecessors, Maine de Biran, who also considered art as a means to break habitual ways of seeing (in the 20th century, this view was reaffirmed by Russian Formalists and later on by Adorno). Most importantly though, Bergson understands this as an authentic way of perception, where the “veil” of the pragmatic is pierced. Actually every sunrise is unique and he is a great artist, who is able to capture it in its nuanced way. The artist who probably illustrates this idea the best, is Cézanne, whose repeated depictions of the landscapes of Aix-en-Provence deal with exactly this struggle, namely of capturing the unique way the landscape presents itself at the moment of depiction. To do so, the artist needs to detach himself from the urgencies and necessities of life — in contrast, for example, to someone who’s witnessing a sunrise while driving a car — and hence manages to relativize the seemingly absolute utility, which now itself becomes a function — namely a function of Life.
Individuation Beyond Utility
“Mostly, however, we perceive nothing but the outward display of our mental state. We catch only the impersonal aspect of our feelings, that aspect which speech has set down once for all because it is almost the same, in the same conditions, for all men. Thus, even in our own individual, individuality escapes our ken” (47b).
While instincts are great at preserving us from wild animals and simplifying our day-to-day life, they are not only hindering us from seeing the others, the things, and the world ‘as they are’ but they also hinder us from seeing ourselves. A baby learns that its stomach ache is not a harmful pain, but hunger and learns to communicate it accordingly. It learns to generalize said feeling as to be part of a communicative community. At the same time, though, the baby detaches itself from its own internal condition and from now on only recognizes it as the general state of hunger. And indeed, we grown-ups can (usually) differentiate the feeling of hunger from stomach ache easily, and don’t even perceive it as the latter anymore. The more something becomes useful, the more it becomes depersonalized. We can clearly see that it is a trade-off, where the useful is inversely proportional to the personal; a total communicability of our self seems to amount to its total loss. So is the answer to individualization to become ‘secretive’ and ‘taciturn’ (here, we can witness an interesting point of contact with Kierkegaard, for whom the aesthetic and the demonic consist in the incommunicability by choice, instead of by necessity, as it is for the religious paradox)?
“Nothing could be more unique than the character of Hamlet. Though he may resemble other men in some respects, it is clearly not on that account that he interests us most. But he is universally accepted and regarded as a living character. In this sense only is he universally true. The same holds good of all the other products of art. Each of them is unique, and yet, if it bears the stamp of genius, it will come to be accepted by everybody. Why will it be accepted? And if it is unique of its kind, by what sign do we know it to be genuine? Evidently, by the very effort [!] it forces us to make against our predispositions in order to see sincerely. Sincerity is contagious. What the artist has seen we shall probably never see again, or at least never see in exactly the same way; but if he has actually seen it, the attempt he has made to lift the veil compels our imitation. His work is an example which we take as a lesson. And the efficacy of the lesson is the exact standard of the genuineness of the work. Consequently, truth bears within itself a power of conviction, nay, of conversion, which is the sign that enables us to recognise it” (50a).
Hamlet, as Bergson says, is both unique and true. Or, more precisely, Hamlet is true because he is unique. Without explicitly stating so, he is breaking away from the philosophical tradition that claims otherwise, namely that truth is that which can be formulated in general terms and reconstructed by argument. An argument convinces by consistency, but Hamlet converts by sincerity — and this is not an aesthetic insight, as it is the sincerity of any subject that makes it become truthful. But sincerity is attained by individuation, while individuation is only possible through sincerity. For the artist, it means that only a canvas that sincerely portrays — or at least tries to portray — the unique colours and forms of a particular instance can become a real artwork; for the individual it means that only by being sincere towards itself and towards others, it can really become a real individual. But as sincerity is here inherently connected with authenticity, it also needs to break away from the “veil” of utility that blurs its relation towards the other and towards itself. It means loving the other for what he is and loving oneself for what one is, just as the painter “loves colour for colour and form for form, since he perceives them for their sake and not for his own” (48a).
The Efforts of Introspection
But Hamlet’s truth doesn’t lie in his facticity — after all, he’s a fictional character — but in his “power of conviction”. This, then, also concerns subject formation, but maybe more importantly, philosophy. Of course, philosophy needs to work with arguments, to have a certain structure, but it only becomes truly convincing where it makes us see the world ‘with different eyes’. But such a veracity does not come from generalizable arguments — who will be surprised that Socrates is both a man and mortal? — but where it touches the concrete, namely the life that we actually live. A philosophical argument becomes convincing, and hence truthful, when it can be actually observed because it made us pay attention to a certain part of our life or surrounding that we’ve previously ignored. With this, we return to a central concept that we touched on in the beginning of this essay: attention. The following question arises: If Hamlet is unique, how did Shakespeare manage to create such a notable character, or even many such characters as Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and others?
“If the characters created by a poet give us the impression of life, it is only because they are the poet himself, — multiplication or division of the poet, — the poet plumbing the depths of his own nature in so powerful an effort of inner observation that he lays hold of the potential in the real, and takes up what nature has left as a mere outline or sketch in his soul in order to make of it a finished work of art” (51b, my emphasis).
We have already seen that individuation is essentially an effort; but it is not only outward individuation that is to be considered here, but also, and maybe primarily, the inner observation of introspection. Attention toward the outer world allows us to perceive people, landscapes, colours, and situations in their singularity; inward attention allows us to reclaim the inner motions and emotions from the clutches of the communicative general without becoming closed-up in secrecy — that it is possible, is proven by the poets who manage to communicate something that cannot be generalized. In contrast to the artist, though, who is gifted this ability for a “virginal” perception by nature, ‘ordinary’ human beings need to apply constant effort to do so. This is not the return to the immediacy of the baby’s stomach ache, but a conscious application of reflection that Bergson calls “systematical detachment”. In short, philosophy.
Philosophy as introspection once again draws a reference towards Maine de Biran and through him towards Descartes. But in contrast to Descartes, who considered philosophy to be a once-in-a-lifetime project, after which the eternal truths can be built upon, Bergson understands it as a continuous effort that ends only once we’re dead. But this effort is not a prerogative to a chosen few, it is rather a way of life that completes what our ordinary day-to-day life only sketches out. As we have seen, true individuation does not negate the useful, but relativizes it according to the demands of Life. Even a philosopher will duck when a wild animal jumps at him, because attention means taking each situation as it is, not as a function of an overreaching absolute utility. Hence, the effort of introspection and elasticity towards each (outward) situation are the two pillars of attention, and by that of true individuation. Philosophy therefore is an intensification of our daily lives and not some reclusive contemplation.
Distraction and Laughter
“The chief cause of rigidity is the neglect to look around — and more especially within oneself: how can a man fashion his personality after that of another if he does not first study others as well as himself?” (45b)
We can see this understanding of philosophy at work in Laughter, but also throughout Bergson’s oeuvre. Laughter, as Bergson realizes, is a social gesture that aims at correcting the mechanical tendencies of others and relaxes us due to its playful, dreamlike character. But we can only perceive that by thinking about laughter, meaning by having a close look at the situations that make us laugh. So, instead of retreating to his room to contemplate about laughter, Bergson went into the theatre, observed the comical situations of daily life, and only by paying closely attention he could perceive certain rules and regularities that permeate the phenomenon of laughter.
But let us have a closer look at what, according to Bergson, we are laughing at when something strikes us as comical. We are laughing when someone trips and falls on the street. Why? The person fell, because she didn’t pay attention, because she was distracted. Instead of adapting to the new situation — for example, there was a bump in the asphalt — she mechanically continued in her pace. Bergson subsumes this under the overreaching phenomenon of perceiving that someone acts as a thing — and we laugh to correct them by embarrassing them, so that they remain alert the next time, so that they shrug off the rigid elements that give them a machine-like demeanour. This didactic function of laughter, as malign as it sounds, aims at the perfectibility of each individual, which, as we’ve seen, amounts to the ‘individuation of the individual’. Laughter is de-reification. It is therefore evident, why for Bergson character is the central topos of the comical.
“In one sense it might be said that all character is comic, provided we mean by character the ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically. It is, if you will, that which causes us to imitate ourselves. And it is also, for that very reason, that which enables others to imitate us. Every comic character is a type. Inversely, every resemblance to a type has something comic in it” (46a).
These comments on character illuminate the way Bergson understands subject formation. We can easily find examples in our lives where we, once we pay attention and reflect on them, realize that we’ve been doing or saying things not out of our own initiative, but due to a certain trait that we’ve acquired (because an authority figure has told us so, because our social environment considers it ‘natural’); that we’re following habits that we are no longer conscious of; that there are gestures that we’re repeating unconsciously. It is one of Bergson’s strongest observation that the more we resemble a type, the more comical we appear — inversely, though, this mechanism can and is being abused by generalizing a group of people into a (stereo)type and therefore exposing them to laughter (the “redneck” and the “SJW” are equally such creations). To avoid such traps, we are in need of the continuous effort of introspection, so as to put on resistance against the equally continuous, but automatic tendency of generalization and repetition that hold sway if we ‘let ourselves go’.
This brings us back to the question of philosophy’s relevance. It has become obvious, that philosophy for Bergson is not merely a prerogative for a chosen few, but an audacious goal that is set before every one of us — not a lifelong study of the history of thought, but a studious life of self-perfectibility that shapes our relation to the world and to others. Yet, considering that distraction and relaxation are the enemies of individuation and life itself, an additional urgency seems to announce itself in a world that encourages them both. Short-term fashions, light entertainment, and an overreaching reification of humans to ‘human capital’, statistical numbers, and target audiences can now be seen as directly influencing contemporary subject formation and can be understood as a conscious or unconscious means for the infantilization of people. Yet, this is not a conservative call towards the nostalgia of the good-ol’-times, neither is it the negation of our scientific or technological achievements; much rather is it a call to uncover the invisible structures and mechanisms that predefine the routes that we follow and that reduce us to types — and to laugh about them.
It is here that we see a critical potential of the works of Bergson in relation to his concept of philosophy, even getting very close to Critical Theory that officially distanced itself from all Lebensphilosophie and to Postmodernism (for an analysis of a Deleuzian reception of Bergson, see John Brady’s contribution in the last issue). Bergson’s three essays on Laughter therefore become politically charged, or, rather, they fully develop their potential; not as a doctrine, but as a praxis.
“To remain in touch with things and men, to see nothing but what is existent and think nothing but what is consistent, demands a continuous effort of intellectual tension. This effort is common sense. And to remain sensible is, indeed, to remain at work. But to detach oneself from things and yet continue to perceive images, to break away from logic and yet continue to string together ideas, is to indulge in play or, if you prefer, in dolce far niente” (59bf.).