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Who said: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, ... finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell ... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
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Thumbnail of John Burroughs (source)
John Burroughs
(3 Apr 1837 - 29 Mar 1921)

American naturalist and author whose many writings and books, by celebrating nature in highly readable essays, significantly nurtured the conservation movement in the United States.


“A PROPHET OF THE SOUL”

I

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John Burroughs
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[p.197] IN taking this line from Emerson for the title of an essay on Henri Bergson, I would indicate at once the aspect of his philosophy that most appeals to me. The overarching conception in his writings is the immanence and the potency of spirit or consciousness in matter, and his “Creative Evolution” is the unfolding of the drama, as he conceives it, of the struggles of this spirit with the opposition which it encounters in the material world, and its triumphs over it. Arnold said that Emerson was the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit; we may say of Bergson that he is the friend and aider of those who would see with the spirit and enter into the mystery of creation through intellectual sympathy or intuition, instead of making the vain attempt to do so through the logical and scientific understanding. The true inwardness of living things, or of the creative movement, cannot be reached through the practical intellect, available as it is only for our action upon concrete bodies and forces.

I am not familiar with all of Professor Bergson’s published works. I have read the essay on the [p.198] “Philosophy of Laughter,” the “Introduction to Metaphysics,” and the “Creative Evolution,” his masterpiece. It was also my privilege to hear some of his lectures at Columbia University in the winter of 1912, and to meet him personally.

A view of the man always seems to bring one nearer to an understanding of his work. In person Bergson is a small, slender, rather shy man, with a wonderfully beautiful and symmetrical head — a large brain, filled out and rounded on all sides; face smooth and thin, with a close-cropped mustache; prominent, finely chiseled aquiline nose; small, expressive eyes in deep sockets overhung by heavy, mobile eyebrows — an Emersonian type of face with more than the Emersonian size and beauty of brain, lacking only the powerful Emersonian mouth.

His lectures in French were delivered without notes, in an animated conversational style, his hands, within a narrow circle, being as active as his mind. Not an imposing figure on the platform or off, nor an aggressive and dominating personality, but a gentle, winsome man, the significant beauty of whose head one cannot easily forget. Those who were fortunate enough to hear him may well have felt that they were seeing and hearing a modern Plato or Kant or Hegel, for surely his work is destined to make as distinct an epoch in the history of philosophy as did theirs.

[p.199] His essay on laughter is undoubtedly the most convincing and satisfactory exposition of the subject that has yet been made. One phase of its central idea, — namely, that we laugh at inanimate objects when they behave like human beings and vice versa, — I saw illustrated at a farmhouse in the Catskills last summer. The water from a spring on the hill was brought to the house in a pipe which discharged into a half-barrel near the kitchen door. Into the end of a pipe a plug had been driven with a good sized gimlet-hole in the end of it. Out of this hole a jet of water came with great force, striking the water in the tub a few inches from the rim, at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and driving deeply into it. One day I was washing some apples in the tub, and while they were floating about I noticed that they all tended to line up on the west side of the barrel and then move up in a slow, hesitating manner to a point just behind the jet of water. I became an interested spectator. Slowly the apples in procession in close line turned toward the little vortex made by the jet. The one in the lead seemed to hesitate just on the edge of the danger-line, as if it would fain draw back; then, while you were looking, it would so suddenly disappear beneath the plunging jet that the eye could not trace its movements; its hesitation was followed by such a lightning-like plunge that it astonished one. One fancied [p.200] he could almost see tiny heels flash in the air as the apple went down. Then it came bobbing up in the boiling water on the other side of the tub in a very hilarious manner, and slowly took its place at the rear end of the line, while the apple next in the ranks approached the jet in the same coy, doubtful manner, and made the instantaneous plunge. Then the next and the next, till an endless procession of apparently demure, but fun-loving apples was established that kept up the circus day and night.

I was wont to take my callers out to the tub, without any explanation, to let them see my apple performers. Invariably every one of them, after they had gazed a moment, broke out into a hearty laugh. “What are you laughing at?” I would inquire. “Why, it is so funny; see how those apples behave, like little people.” If I looked at them every hour in the day I was bound to laugh. My little granddaughter, seven years old, “a moody child, but wildly wise,” spent hours watching the antics of those apples. She would replace them with others to see if they would all behave in the same way, and then would take them all out and lay them in the sun as if to rest and warm them. After some days the apples began to have a bruised and overworked look, and one felt instinctively like taking them out. On the whole it was one of the most human performances I ever saw inanimate objects engage in, and confirmed Bergson’s philosophy of laughter completely.

II

Photo of Henri Bergson, upper body, facing front
Henri Bergson (source)

[p.201] The reception of Bergson’s philosophy by different types of mind has, of course, been very diverse. He conquers easily the higher class of his general readers — the lovers of good literature — because of the superb literary style of his work; his philosophical readers do not succumb quite so readily, though many of these are enthusiastic, and all are interested; but he has a hard fight with many of his scientific readers. I have noted but one man of science, the eminent physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who is in accord with the main drift of his work. It is probably the philosophical, not to say theological, strain in Sir Oliver, and his love of good literature, that make him respond so cordially to Bergson, especially to his conception of life as a primordial creative impulse pervading matter. He declares that the work is “peculiarly acceptable and interesting to men of science.”

Professor Poulton disputes his doctrine of instinct as a form of sympathy, and argues forcibly and fairly against it. Sir Edwin Ray Lankester, an eminent Darwinian biologist, in introducing and endorsing H. S. R. Elliott’s attack upon “Creative Evolution,” expresses his dissent with angry and insulting epithets. Mr. Balfour and our own William James express deep sympathy and admiration for the work of the French philosopher. Most of our university [p.202] philosophers fight shy of it, I hear, probably because it discredits or limits pure intellectualism as giving us the key to the real inwardness of life; we enter into this mystery only through spirit, — real sympathy or intuition, — and not through our logical faculties. Men who attack the problem of living matter with the same tools which they use upon the problem of dead matter, — namely, our logical understanding, — will not, according to Bergson, get very far.

The flexible, sympathetic, and intuitive type of mind, the type that finds expression in art, in literature, in religion, and in all creative work, will take more naturally and kindly to Bergson than the rigidly scientific and logical mind.

In this shining stream of ideas and images that flows through Professor Bergson’s pages, or from his mouth in the lecture-room, the strictly scientific man will probably find little to interest him. He may approve of it as literature and philosophy, but he is pretty sure to feel that unwarranted liberties have been taken with scientific conclusions. He will deny the validity of the principal actor in the Bergsonian drama of evolution; the cosmic spirit, as something apart from and independent of cosmic matter, has no place in his categories; matter and the laws of matter are all-sufficient for his purpose. He must keep on the solid ground of the verifiable. Apparently, to Huxley consciousness is as strictly [p.203] a physical phenomenon as the lamp of the glowworm, or the sound of a clock when it strikes; and the tremendous psychic effort which Bergson sees in organic evolution would probably have appeared to him and to others of the mechanistic school as only a poetic dream.

It is a philosophy that goes well with living things. It is a living philosophy. In my own case it joins on to my interest in outdoor life, in bird, in flower, in tree. It is an interpretation of biology and natural history in terms of the ideal. In reading it I am in the concrete world of life, bathed in the light of the highest heaven of thought. It exhilarates me like a bath in the stream, or a walk on the hills.

Those who go to Bergson for strictly scientific conclusions will find bread where they were looking for a stone; but those who go to him in the spirit of life will find life — will see him work a change in scientific facts like that which life works in inorganic matter. His method is always that of the literary artist; and looking at the processes of organic evolution through his eyes is like looking into the mental and spiritual processes of a great creative artist. Mr. Balfour mildly objects that the vital impulse as Bergson reveals it has “no goal more definite than that of acquiring an ever fuller volume of free creative activity.” Sir Oliver Lodge replies that that is a good enough goal. “Is it not the goal of every great artist?”

III

Detail from a wood engraving showing a medieval missionary crawling through the point where heaven and Earth meet
Universum (1888)
colored by Heikenwaelder Hugo (1998) cc2.5 (source)

[p.204] To some readers “Creative Evolution” has opened a new world. To open a new world to a man is only within the power of unique and original genius. I think we may say that Bergson is a distinct species. He is sui generis. He has the quality of mind which we call genius. One cannot read far in his book without feeling that here at last is an inspired philosopher, and inspiration always carries the mind through into the poetic and the romantic.

The new world which Bergson opens to his reader is the world of organic nature seen for the first time through the creative imagination of a great literary artist and philosopher combined. Bergson recreates this world for his competent reader by showing it like a living stream issuing from the primal cosmic energy; and it is reflected in his pages with a morning freshness and promise. The novelty of his thought, the beauty and vitality of his style, and the telling picturesqueness of his imagery make the reading of his book a new experience to the student of philosophical literature.

It is as if one were to open a gate or a door, expecting to be admitted to the closed-in air of academic halls, or the dim light of monastic aisles, and were to see before him instead a wide prospect with moving currents and growing things and changing forms of earth and sky. It is doubtless this quality[p.204] of Bergson’s work that led William James to say of it that it was “like a breath of the morning and the singing of birds.”

I think we may say that no new world can be opened to a man unless that world is already in him in embryo at least; then the poet, the seer, the inspired teacher, like Bergson, can open it for him. Wordsworth opened up a new world to John Stuart Mill, Goethe opened up a new world to Carlyle, Emerson and Whitman have been world-openers in our own land and times. The world-opening to which I here refer, is almost a sacrament; it implies a spiritual illumination and exaltation that does not and cannot come to every mind. It means the opening of a door that our logical faculties cannot open. Positive science, of course, opens its own new worlds of facts and relations, and speculative philosophy opens its new world of ideas and concepts; but only the inspired, the creative works, admit us to the high heaven of spiritual freedom itself. We do not merely admire such writers as Goethe, Carlyle, Emerson, Whitman; we experience them, and they enter into our lives. I think this is in a measure true of Bergson. With more method and system than any of the others I have named, he yet possesses the same liberating power, the same imaginative lift, and begets in one a similar spiritual exaltation. Bergson is first and foremost a great literary artist occupying himself with problems of science and [p.205] philosophy. The creative literary artist in him is always paramount. His method is essentially that of literature — the visualizing, image-forming, analogy-seeking method. He thinks in symbols and pictures drawn from the world of concrete objects and forces. Probably no system of philosophy was ever before put forth in language so steeped and dyed in the colors with which the spirit paints this world. His style illustrates his theme; it is never static or merely intellectual; it is all movement and flexibility.

Open his book anywhere and your mind is caught in a flowing stream of lucid, felicitous thoughts that seem of the very quality of life itself. He visualizes mental and emotional processes. He sees spirit and matter as two currents — two reverse currents — one up, one down. He sees life struggling with matter, stemming its tide, seeking to overcome and use it; he sees it defeated and turned aside many times, its triumph complete. Life or spirit is freedom. Matter is the seat of necessity; it proceeds mechanically; it is obdurate, unwilling, automatic. Life humbles itself, makes itself very small and very insinuating in order to enter into and overcome the resistance of inert matter. It “bends to physical and chemical forces, consenting even to go part of the way with them, like the switch that adopts for a while the direction of the rail it is endeavoring to leave.” “Life had to enter thus into the habits of [p.207] inert matter in order to draw it little by little, magnetized, as it were, to another track.” “Ages of effort and prodigies of subtlety were probably necessary for life to get past this new obstacle” — the tendency of organized matter to reach the limits of its expansion.

Thus on every page does Bergson visualize and materialize his ideas. He envisages the process of evolution of the whole organic world. He sees one tremendous effort pervading it from bottom to top. He sees thought or life caught in the net of matter.

It becomes a prisoner of the mechanism by which it has climbed. From the humblest of organic beings to the highest vertebrates which just antecede man we are watching an endeavor always missing success, always re-undertaken with an increasingly wise art. Man has triumphed — but with difficulty, and so partially that it needs only a moment of relaxation or inattention for automatism to recapture him.

The creative impulse does not itself know the next step it will take, or the next form that will arise, any more than the creative artist determines beforehand all the thoughts and forms his inventive genius will bring forth. He has the impulse or the inspiration to do a certain thing, to let himself go in a certain direction, but just the precise form his creation will take is as unknown to him as to you and me. Some stubbornness or obduracy in his material, or some accident of time or place, may make it quite [p.208] different from what he had hoped or vaguely planned. He does not know what thought or incident or character he is looking for till he has found it, till he has risen above his mental horizon. So far as he is inspired, so far as he is spontaneous, just so far is the world with which he deals plastic and fluid and indeterminate and ready to take any form his medium of expression — words, colors, tones — affords him. He may surprise himself, excel himself; he has surrendered himself to a power beyond the control of his will or knowledge.

We must remember that man is a part of the universe — a part of the stream of life that flows through organic nature, and not something separated from it. But he alone among living beings has come to self-consciousness and is capable of the creative act. Is it not, therefore, entirely reasonable that the method of nature should be reflected in his mind—’that he should be a god, too, though a puny one? So far as he knows his own powers, so far as he knows those of the Infinite, so far as he is a creator, his method mirrors that of his Creator. The vital impulse is finite, it cannot overcome all obstacles. The movement it starts is sometimes turned aside, sometimes divided, always opposed, and the evolution of the organized world is the unrolling of this conflict. Contingency enters into the course of evolution at every point. “Contingent the arrests and set-backs; contingent, in large measure, [p.209] the adaptations.” Contingent, he thinks, the way life obtains the solar energy from the sun, namely through the carbon of carbonic acid. It might have obtained it through other chemical elements than oxygen and carbon. In this case the element characteristic of the plastic substances would probably have been other than nitrogen, and the chemistry of living bodies would have been radically different from what it is, resulting in living forms without any analogy to those we know, whose anatomy would have been different, whose physiology also would have been different.

It is therefore probable that life goes on in other planets, in other solar systems also, under forms of which we have no idea, in physical conditions to which it seems to us, from the point of view of our physiology, to be absolutely opposed. All life requires is slow accumulation of solar energy and its sudden release in action, and this accumulation may take place in other systems by a chemism quite unlike ours, in which the carbon of carbonic acid is fixed and stored up by the chlorophyllian function of plants. Life releases this energy by an act analogous to the pulling of a trigger, and the resultant explosive is the power living bodies exert. How figurative and yet concrete and seeable it all is! Though man seems to be the aim and crown of evolution, yet we cannot say that it was all for him. It is abundantly evident that nature is not solely [p.210] for the sake of man; we struggle like the other species, we have struggled against other species; moreover, if the evolution of life had encountered other accidents in its course, if thereby the current of life had been otherwise divided, we should have been physically and morally far different from what we are.

We aim to look upon a problem of science or mathematics understandingly; we try to regard a work of art — a novel, poem, painting, symphony — appreciatively, to enter into its spirit, to become one with it, to possess ourselves of its point of view, in short, to have an emotional experience with it. The understanding is less concerned than our taste, our aesthetic perceptions, our sympathy with beautiful forms, and our plasticity of mind. We do not know a work of art in the same way in which we know a work of science, or any product of analytical reasoning; we know it as we know those we love and are in sympathy with; it does not define itself to our intellect, it melts into our souls. Descriptive science is powerless to portray for me the bird or the flower or the friend I love; only art and literature can do that. Science deals with fixed concepts, art with fluid concepts.

This is Bergson’s position as I understand it. Living nature is like a work of art, and our descriptive science fails to render its true meaning, or grasp the nature of the evolutionary movement. The feelings, [p.211] the perception, and the spiritual insight that go to the making and the appreciating of a creative work are alone equal to the task.

Resolve all the processes of organic nature into their mechanical and chemical elements, and you have not got the secret of living bodies any more than you have got the secret and meaning of a fine painting by resolving it into its original pigments and oils, or of a poem by cutting up the words into the letters with which it is composed.

Bergson’s attitude of mind in “Creative Evolution” is foreshadowed in a passage in Royce’s “Spirit of Modern Philosophy.” Royce is speaking of the series of purely physical events which our descriptive science shows us in evolution: —

Look upon all these things descriptively, and you shall see nothing but matter moving instant after instant, each instant containing in its full description the necessity of passing over into the next. Nowhere will there be, for descriptive science, any genuine novelty or any discontinuity admissible. But look at the whole appreciatively, historically, synthetically, as a musician listens to a symphony, as a spectator watches a drama. Now you shall seem to have seen, in phenomenal form, a story. Passionate interests will have been realized.

Bergson reads this story of organic evolution in the creative and sympathetic way. He does not deal with it solely through his equipment as a [p.212] man of science, but primarily through his equipment as a [p.212] great creative artist and inspired seer. Not intellectual analysis, but intellectual sympathy, gives him the key to the problem of life. Intuition is his method, which he opposes to the analytical method of science.

Science sees the process of evolution from the outside, as one might a train of cars going by, and resolves it into the physical and mechanical elements, without getting any nearer the reason of its going by, or the point of its departure or destination. Intuition seeks to put itself inside the process, and to go the whole way with it, witnessing its vicissitudes and viewing the world in the light of its mobility and in determinateness.

All the engineering and architectural and mechanical features of the railway and its train of coaches do not throw any light upon the real significance of railways. This significance must be looked for in the brains of the people inside the coaches and in the push of the civilization of which they are some of the expressions. In like manner when we have reduced biological processes to their mechanical and chemical equivalents, we are as far as ever from the true nature and significance of biology.

Organic evolution is something more than an illustration of the working of the laws of dead matter. A living body is the sum of its physicochemical factors, plus something else. The dead automatic [p.213] forces of the earth went their round of ceaseless change for untold ages without escaping from the grip of mechanical necessity in which they were held; then there came a time when the spell was broken and the current of life arose. We have to speak of the event in this anthropomorphic way, as if it were an event, as if there were discontinuity somewhere, as if the creative spirit began its work as we begin ours. But evidently life did not begin in our human, practical sense, any more than the line we call a circle begins, or any more than the sphere has ends and boundaries. Our logical faculties, cast in the moulds of our experience, fail to grasp these problems. Life is, and, in some inscrutable way, always has been, and always will be, because it is one with the cosmic spirit.

IV

Photo of stream lit by red sunset
Photo: Andy Fox (source)

One phase of this new world which Bergson’s “Creative Evolution” opens to us is this play and interplay of spirit and matter, or this struggle for the mastery, or shall I say for the union between them, of which organic evolution is the drama — a real drama unfolding throughout the biologic ages, with vicissitudes, failures, and successes. We see the current of life, spirit, consciousness, making its way through matter, struggling with it, hampered and retarded by it, as a stream wearing its channel through the soil wastes itself and is delayed, divided, [p.214] but ever onward flowing by reason of its essential mobility. The branchings and the unfoldings of life in the process of evolution have been contingent and indeterminate in the same way — inevitable, but plastic, yielding, accommodating, taking what they could get and ever reaching out for more. Life has succeeded, but its triumph has not been complete. It has been very human and fallible. Indeed, it is the complete humanization of life that makes Bergson’s conception so pleasing and stimulating. It is the taking of it out of the realm of mechanical necessity or fatality, and the surrounding of it with the atmosphere of the humanly finite and contingent, that is new in philosophy. I hardly know why we should wish to believe that what we have always called God should have its problems and difficulties and setbacks, as we do, unless it helps us the better to understand the failures and imperfections in the world — the condition of struggle and unrealized ideals that is the common lot of mankind, and, in a measure, of all that lives. The soul dreams of perfection, but it is hampered and defeated by the body it animates; so did, or does, the Cosmic Spirit, but the obduracy of the matter through which it works makes it fall short of the perfection at which it aims.

There are two short sentences in Bergson which hold the key to his philosophy. “Living nature,” he says, “is more and better than a plan in course of realization”; and again, “Everything is obscure [p.215] in the idea of creation if we think of things that are created, and a thing that creates.” Such views are the work of our practical intellect. When we see a house we think of the builder, when we see a watch we infer the maker, and this attribute of mind is necessary to our successful dealing with concrete things; but in organic nature the house and the watch are always being made, and every day is a day of creation; the forms of life are like the clouds in the summer sky, ever and never the same; the vital currents flow forever, and we rise to the surface like changing, iridescent bubbles that dance and play for a moment, and are succeeded by others, and ever others. The vital impulse absorbs Bergson’s attention, “not things made, but things in the making; not self-maintaining states, but only changing states. Rest is never more than apparent, or, rather, relative.” This is the way Bergson gets rid of the old conception of design and finalism in nature. He thinks of the creative impulse or tendency in terms of the mobile, the incalculable, the ever-changing.

Life hovers forever between the stable and the unstable. We cannot describe it in terms of the fixed, the geometric. Motion is not in place, it is in transition — neither here nor there, but forever between the two. Our bodies are like the clouds, ever and never the same. Hence our conception of life seems a contradiction, or two contraries united, which seems one absurdity; an ascending and a [p.216] descending current balanced, a perpetual explosion, integration and disintegration going hand in hand.

The effort of matter and force in the inorganic world is to find a stable equilibrium; their effort in the organic world is to find an unstable equilibrium, to hang forever, as it were, on the pitch of the torrent, suspended between mobility and immobility, constantly passing from one to the other. Life is an interchange of the two, the perpetual translation and transformation of the immobile into the mobile. The effort of the inorganic forces to find a stable equilibrium gives us all the forms of mechanical energy and shapes the surface of the globe; the efforts of the organic to find and hold a state of unstable equilibrium give us all the forms of life. Gravity rules in one. What rules in and determines the other?

One may think of Bergson’s conception of a living body under various images. I am reminded of it when I see at the fountain a little ball dancing in the air at the top of a slender column of water — the upward push just balancing the downward pull of gravity, and the ball playing and hovering perpetually. It is mobility and stability equalized. Diminish the force of the upward current and the ball sinks and sinks till it lies motionless at the bottom. So, when the pressure of life goes down, the living body fails and fails, overcome by the opposite tendency, till death ensues.

[p.217]One may think of it under the image of the bow in the clouds, so frail and fugitive, yet apparently so permanent. It is not involved in the fate of the raindrops through which it is manifested. They fall but it does not. It is ceaselessly renewed; it hangs forever on the verge of dissolution. If the sun is veiled it is gone; if the rain ceases it is gone. Its source is not in the rain, but is inseparable from it. So matter is only the seat of life, not its source. Its final source is in the élan vital, as the source of the rainbow is in the sun. The sunbeams still pour through space whether they encounter raindrops or not.

Bergson thinks that consciousness, or the soul, is not involved in the fate of the brain, though momentarily dependent upon it. The true way in which to regard the life of the body is to postulate that it is on the road which leads to the life of the spirit. Souls, he says, are continually being created, which nevertheless, in a certain sense, preexisted in the cosmic spirits as the bow preexisted in the sun.

V

Editorial cartoon of Charles Darwin, with long white beard, depicted with the body of an ape
Charles Darwin Caricature from The Hornet (1871) (source)

In a limited sense Darwin was a creative evolutionist also; in his view nothing in animal life was fixed or stereotyped; ceaseless change, ceaseless development marked its whole course through the geologic ages; his animal series is as mobile, or as much a flowing current, as Bergson’s; species give [p.218] rise to other species through the accumulation of insensible variations, but Darwin looked upon the whole process as mechanical and fortuitous. He did not hit upon any adequate reason for variation itself.

It has been aptly said that while natural selection may account for the survival of the fittest, it does not account for the arrival of the fittest. In Darwin’s scheme, Nature was always blindly experimenting and then profiting by her lucky strokes, but why she should experiment, why she should try to improve upon her old models, what it was and is in the evolutionary process that struggles and aspires and pushes on and on, did not enter into Darwin’s scheme. He did not share the Bergsonian conception of life as a primordial creative impulse flowing through matter. This were to transcend the sphere of legitimate scientific inquiry to which he applied himself. As living forms had to begin somewhere, somehow, Darwin starts with the act of the Creator breathing the breath of life into one or into a few forms, and then through the operation of the laws which the same Creator impressed upon matter, the whole drama of organic evolution follows. Secondary causes, by which he seems to mean the laws of matter and force, complete the work begun by the Creator.

After all, the differences between Darwin’s and Bergson’s views of evolution are not fundamental. They conceive of the creative energy under different [p.219] symbols, and as working in different ways, but it is finally, in both cases, the same energy. Whether living beings are evolved as the result of laws impressed upon matter at the first, or whether they arise by the ceaseless activity of a psychic principle launched into matter, at a definite time and place, as Bergson teaches, is mainly a difference in the use of terms. Both theories start from the same centre; they diverge only as they are worked out toward the periphery. Darwin conceives of primary and secondary causes, Bergson conceives of an original creative spirit, ceaselessly struggling to evolve living forms out of inert matter. Creation as a special event is a past history with Darwin; it is an ever-present event with Bergson. New species are accidental with Darwin, they are contingent and unforeseeable with Bergson; the creative impulse, like the genius of the creative artist, does not know the form it is looking for till it has found it; on other planets, amid other conditions, evolution may result in quite other forms.

When I try to conceive of Darwin’s laws impressed upon matter, I can see only the creative energy immanent in matter. I see the élan vital of Bergson framed in another concept. When I recall the famous utterance of Tyndall in his Belfast address of over thirty years ago, — namely, that in matter itself he saw the promise and the potency of all terrestrial life, — I see, in another guise,

[p.220] Bergson’s principle of creative evolution. How matter came to have this power, Tyndall says he never ventures to inquire. Elsewhere he speaks of the primeval union between spirit and matter. The scientific mind, like Tyndall’s, so conversant, with the protean forms hidden in matter, and so moulded by the method of verification, hesitates to take the step which the more philosophical and imaginative mind, like Bergson’s, takes readily and boldly. But whether we conceive of the final mystery of life as hidden in the molecular mechanics of Tyndall and Huxley, or in the entelechy of Driesch, or in the élan vital of Bergson, it seems to me makes little difference. Life is a species of activity set up by something in inert substance, as unique and individual as that set up by heat or electricity, or chemical affinity, and far less amenable to our analysis. As so many of its phenomena, such as metabolism, reproduction, assimilation, adaptation, elude all interpretation in terms of exact science, we can only appeal to philosophy or to teleology — to the light that never was on sea or land — for an explanation. And when we invoke the light that never was on sea or land, positive science turns its back and will have none of it. Things not on sea or land have no place in its categories. But Bergson is full of this light, it radiates from nearly every page, and this is one great source of his charm, and of his power to quicken the spirit. It is his art, his vision, the [p.221] witchery of his style, the freedom and elasticity of his thought, and not the net result of his philosophical speculations, that carry him, as a prophet and an interpreter of nature, so much beyond the sphere of Darwin and Spencer and Tyndall.

Thus at the centre of their conceptions, at the point from which they start, our natural philosophers do not seem to differ radically. They all begin with life in some form, hidden somewhere in matter.There is no dead matter.

All our philosophers look to the sun as the source of the energy which the organism uses and manifests. But M. Bergson fixes his attention upon life as something working in the organism and releasing at will the energy which the organism has stored up. There is always in his scheme this free agent or being, called Life or Consciousness, which works its will upon matter, while with Tyndall and Huxley and Haeckel attention is fixed upon this mysterious force which they conceive of as potential in the ultimate particles of matter itself. Out of this force comes life; vitality is in some way identified with molecular physics, matter has no forward impulse or current as Bergson conceives it, but the phenomena of life appear when the atoms and corpuscles are compounded in certain proportions and in a certain order. One sees a psychic principle launched into matter where the other sees mechanical and chemical principles; one humanizes a force, and [p.222] makes it of the order “willed”; the other dehumanizes it, and makes it of the order “automatic.” Both deal with mysteries, but one is a human or spiritual mystery, the other a scientific mystery; one puts a Creator behind nature, the other finds a creator in nature, but calls it molecular attraction and repulsion. Tyndall pays homage to the mystery that lies back of all, M. Bergson pays homage to the freedom and plasticity, the creative activity of all. A mechanical movement is translation, a vital movement is transformation. In Bergson’s scheme every living thing is creating itself continually; this creation of self by self for self is what separates living matter from the non-living by a gulf. The lifeprocess is indivisible, it is whole every moment. It is symbolized by the curve, which returns forever into itself, and a curve is no more made up of straight lines than life is made of physicochemical elements. The intellect working through science can only explain the genesis of life in terms of physics and chemistry. “Analysis will undoubtedly resolve the process of organic creation into an ever-growing number of physicochemical phenomena, and chemists and physicists will have to do, of course, with nothing but these. But it does not follow that chemistry and physics will ever give us the key of life.” To get a correct notion of life we must break with scientific habits of thought, we must “go counter to the natural bent of the intellect.”

[p.223] Is one’s own apprehension of the truth of these distinctions of M. Bergson’s intuitional or logical? In my own case I feel that it would be hard to give logical reasons why I believe that we are nearer the truth when we think of life under the image of a curve, than under the image of a right line; or why I see that nature’s method is an all-round method, like the circle, while man’s is a direct method like a straight line. We seem driven to the conclusion that all transcendental truth — truth that transcends our reason and experience — comes by way of the intuitions. The daring affirmations of a writer like Emerson — the very electricity of thought — are intuitional. The great truths in Whitman, shining like beacon lights all through his rugged lines, cosmic truths of the moral nature, — one may call them glimpses into the depths profound of the moral universe, — he never came at by any logical or ratiocinative process. “Logic and sermons never convince,” he says. “The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.” They are truths of the intuitions. M. Bergson’s conceptions of life seem to transcend logic and reason in the same way.

VI

Probably never before was there so successful an attempt to reconcile contradictions, to make the difficult, not to say the impossible, the easier way. It is so easy to prove determinism, fatalism; so [p.224] difficult to see the road to free will, liberty, and the ascendancy of the spirit. The weight of the whole material world is on the side of determinism. All our intellectual and logical faculties are trained in this school; we can act successfully upon matter only when we regard it as held in the leash of irrefragable law; through the conceptions of geometry and mechanics we conquer and use the material world. Our civilization is the product of these conceptions. Any indeterminism, any inexactness, in measurements and calculations, any of the freedom of life admitted into our dealings with matter and force, and we come or may come to grief. If we built our houses as we often build our arguments, they would fall upon our heads. But Bergson’s philosophy does not fall upon our heads, because it is buoyant with spirit; it is not a mere framework of logical concepts; it is a living and not a dead philosophy; it is more like a tree rooted in the soil, not a framework of inert ideas. It is Gothic rather than classic; its symbols and suggestions are in living things.

I can fancy how like a dream or the shadow of a dream all this may seem to the rigidly scientific mind — the mind that has always dealt with the solid facts and the measurable forces of the mechanical world. And science, as such, can deal with no other. Its analysis necessarily kills living matter, and when it deals with the living animal none of its vital functions fall within the sphere of the [p.225] mechanical and chemical categories. When it tries to formulate the psychic, it finds itself dealing with the vague, the unforeseeable. What is true of the psychosis of one animal is not always true of another of the same species. As soon as we enter the sphere of life, we enter the sphere of the variable, the incalculable, the supra-mechanical; and when we enter the sphere of mind, the doors of the unstable and unpredictable are thrown still wider open.

In theory Bergson says it is a kind of absurdity to try to know otherwise than by intelligence or reason. How can intelligence go beyond intelligence? Is not all this step of setting bonds to intelligence taken by the aid of the very faculty to which we prescribe limits? By life alone is the contradiction solved. As in swimming, action, the fearless plunge, cuts the knot; and we swim by the same members we walk with. A man can lift himself over the fence if he uses the fence as a fulcrum, and life can overcome matter when it enters into it and uses it.

Our scientific faculties will carry us through the inorganic world and unfold for us the processes of inorganic evolution, the foundation of all suns and systems, and they will account for the present state of the earth on physical and chemical principles, and can with reasonable confidence forecast its state or condition in the far distant future. But when it comes to the living world, those faculties are baffled; when they pass from the astronomic and the [p.226] geologic to the biologic, their mathematics and their physics do not go very far. They can analyze many of the life-processes and unlock many secrets with their mechanical and chemical principles, but they cannot account for life itself, they cannot reduce vital functions to scientific categories; they cannot account for the mind, for consciousness, nor show us the relation of thought to matter. Here some sort of philosophy is necessary, and here arise the scientific philosophers, like Spencer and others, and offer us their guesses or interpretations. Each and all take a leap in the dark; their science fails them and their philosophy comes to their aid. Many of the physical objects of life can be dealt with by science, but its psychic aspects cannot be so dealt with; a science of psychology is impossible. Biophysics are not the same as geophysics; there is a new, unknown factor to be dealt with. Evolution is not a mere process; it is a progress; it is not a circle, but a spiral.

“Creative Evolution” is likely to live as literature even though it should be discredited as philosophy. Attacked its philosophy of course will be, and has been. But vitalized by such a style and humanized by such a spirit so in fellowship with the highest emotions and aspirations of the soul, Bergson’s philosophy, I think, stands a better chance of surviving than any other system of our time. It is a proclamation of emancipation to minds in the bondage of materialism and mechanism. It makes free as the [p.226] spirit alone can make free. Coming to his work from the dry, arid pages of Spencer, for example, is like coming from the atmosphere of a great manufacturing-plant to the air of the summer hilltops. It leavens what to many minds is the heavy world of scientific matter with the leaven of the spirit. Bergson is an inspired man, and he begets in us that inward joy and exultation which is the gift alone of “a prophet of the soul.”

Images, not in original text, from sources shown above. From John Burroughs, Under the Apple-trees (1916), 197-226. (source)


See also:
  • Science Quotes by John Burroughs.
  • 3 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Burroughs's birth.
  • John Burroughs - The Friendly Rocks - an excerpt from Under the Apple-Trees (1916), giving a naturalist's view of rocks: “The rocks are not so close akin to us as the soil ... [but they] are the final source of all.”
  • John Burroughs - Great Questions In Little: Astronomic Grandeur - an excerpt from Under the Apple-Trees (1916) - reflections on the Universe, the Why and How of science, the Limitations of Science, the Beginnings of Life, and Evolution.
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Stone brigades” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Stone brigades” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Evolution” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • John Burroughs - context of quote “Evolution” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Theodore Roosevelt - naturalist - In Memoriam by John Burroughs in Natural History magazine (1913).

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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- 90 -
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- 40 -
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