Henri Bergson

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Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.

Henri-Louis Bergson (18 October 18594 January 1941) was a major French philosopher, influential in the first half of the 20th century. He was awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature.


  • I cannot escape the objection that there is no state of mind, however simple, that does not change every moment.
    • An Introduction to Metaphysics (1903), translated by T. E. Hulme. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1912, p. 44
  • The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause.
    • Creative Evolution (1907), Chapter I, as translated by Arthur Mitchell (1911), p. 14.; italicized in the original.
  • All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death.
    • Creative Evolution (1907), Chapter III. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911, p. 271
  • Un philosophe digne de ce nom n'a jamais dit qu'une seule chose : encore a-t-il plutôt cherché à la dire qu'il ne l'a dite véritablement. Et il n'a dit qu'une seule chose parce qu'il n'a su qu'un seul point : encore fut-ce moins une vision qu'un contact...
    • A philosopher worthy of the name has never said more than a single thing: and even then it is something he has tried to say, rather than actually said. And he has said only one thing because he has seen only one point: and at that it was not so much a vision as a contact...
  • The prestige of the Nobel Prize is due to many causes, but in particular to its twofold idealistic and international character: idealistic in that it has been designed for works of lofty inspiration; international in that it is awarded after the production of different countries has been minutely studied and the intellectual balance sheet of the whole world has been drawn up. Free from all other considerations and ignoring any but intellectual values, the judges have deliberately taken their place in what the philosophers have called a community of the mind.
  • Je dirais qu'il faut agir en homme de pensée et penser en homme d'action.
    • I would say act like a man of thought and think like a man of action.
    • Quoted in The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life (1950), p. 442, as "Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought."
  • Intuition is a method of feeling one's way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it.
    • Quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887-1986 : Flowers in the Desert (2000) by Britta Benke, p. 28

The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932)

Deux sources de la morale et de la religion

(full text)

  • The remembrance of forbidden fruit is the earliest thing in the memory of each of us, as it is in that of mankind.
    • Chapter I: Moral Obligation
  • Why did we obey? The question hardly occurred to us. We had formed the habit of deferring to our parents and teachers. All the same we knew very well that it was because they were our parents, because they were our teachers. Therefore, in our eyes, their authority came less from themselves than from their status in relation to us
    • Chapter I: Moral Obligation
  • The spectacle of what religions have been in the past, of what certain religions still are to-day, is indeed humiliating for human intelligence. What a farrago of error and folly!'
    • Chapter II : Static Religion
  • People talk, indeed, of a "primitive mentality", as, for example, to-day that of the inferior races, and in days gone by that of humanity in general, at whose door the responsibility for superstition should be laid.
    • Chapter II : Static Religion
  • Religion is to mysticism what popularization is to science. What the mystic finds waiting for him, then, is a humanity which has been prepared to listen to his message by other mystics invisible and present in the religion which is actually taught. Indeed his mysticism itself is imbued with this religion, for such was its starting point. His theology will generally conform to that of the theologians. His intelligence and his imagination will use the teachings of the theologians to express in words what he experiences, and in material images what he sees spiritually. And this he can do easily, since theology has tapped that very current whose source is the mystical. Thus his mysticism is served by religion, against the day when religion becomes enriched by his mysticism. This explains the primary mission which he feels to be entrusted to him, that of an intensifier of religious faith.
    • Chapter III : Dynamic Religion
  • La société ouverte est celle qui embrasserait en principe l’humanité entière.
    • The open society is one that is deemed in principle to embrace all humanity.
      • Chapter IV
  • Toute notre civilisation est aphrodisiaque
    • Sex-appeal is the keynote of our whole civilization.
      • Chapter IV
  • Men do not sufficiently realise that their future is in their own hands. Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not. Theirs is the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on their refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods (la fonction essentielle de l'universe, qui est une machine à faire des dieux).
    • Concluding sentences  ; often just the last part of the last sentence is quoted, in the form: "The universe is a machine for making gods."


  • The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.
    • Robertson Davies as quoted in The White Bedouin‎ (2007) by George Potter, p. 241

Quotes about Bergson

  • The clock... is a piece of power-machinery whose "product" is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. ...while human life has regularities of its own... time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. ...if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time—what Bergson calls duration—is cumulative in its effects. ...organic time moves only in one direction—through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death—and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.
  • One of the bad effects of an anti-intellectual philosophy, such as that of Bergson, is that it thrives upon the errors and confusions of the intellect. Hence it is led to prefer bad thinking to good, to declare every momentary difficulty insoluble, and to regard every foolish mistake as revealing the bankruptcy of intellect and the triumph of intuition. There are in Bergson’s works many allusions to mathematics and science, and to a careless reader these allusions may seem to strengthen his philosophy greatly. As regards science, especially biology and physiology, I am not competent to criticize his interpretations. But as regards mathematics, he has deliberately preferred traditional errors in interpretation to the more modern views which have prevailed among mathematicians for the last eighty years. In this matter, he has followed the example of most philosophers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the infinitesimal calculus, though well developed as a method, was supported, as regards its foundations, by many fallacies and much confused thinking. Hegel and his followers seized upon these fallacies and confusions, to support them in their attempt to prove all mathematics self-contradictory. Thence the Hegelian account of these matters passed into the current thought of philosophers, where it has remained long after the mathematicians have removed all the difficulties upon which the philosophers rely. And so long as the main object of philosophers is to show that nothing can be learned by patience and detailed thinking, but that we ought rather to worship the prejudices of the ignorant under the title of ‘reason’ if we are Hegelians, or of ‘intuition’ if we are Bergsonians, so long philosophers will take care to remain ignorant of what mathematicians have done to remove the errors by which Hegel profited.
  • The philosophy of Bergson, which is a spiritualist restoration, essentially mystical, medieval, Quixotesque, has been called a demi-mondaine philosophy. Leave out the demi; call it mondaine, mundane. Mundane — yes, a philosophy for the world and not for philosophers, just as chemistry ought to be not for chemists alone. The world desires illusion (mundus vult decipi) — either the illusion antecedent to reason, which is poetry, or the illusion subsequent to reason, which is religion.
  • As the [nineteenth] century progressed, we find that truth itself tended to be regarded no longer as eternal and changeless but as time-dependent. ...This radically new point of view received its extreme formulation in the philosophy of the 'modern Heraclitus', Henri Bergson... for whom ultimate reality was neither 'being' nor 'being changed' but the continual process of 'change' itself, which he called la durée. An authoritative critical account of Bergson's eloquently expressed philosophy... has been given by... Leszek Kolakowski... Bergson achieved the unique distinction of being both scathingly criticized by Bertrand Russel (in 1912) and having his books placed on the Index Prohibitorum by the Holy Office in 1914—the year he was elected a member of the Académie Française! A more scientifically oriented philosophy of change than Bergon's was developed between the wars by... A. N. Whitehead... particularly in his book Process and Reality...