Henri Bergson: the philosopher damned for his female fans


EXCERPT: . . . Henri Bergson’s philosophy could be summarised in four words: time is not space. Time as treated in mathematics and physics – represented as a succession of discrete and identical units (minutes on a clock, points on a line) – did not endure, said Bergson. It was merely a juxtaposition of ever-renewed presents.

Bergsonian time, or ‘duration’, on the other hand, was time uncontaminated by space, the continuous flow of interpenetrating moments. Bergson subverted the dominant view in Western thought that held that the immutable – think Platonic forms – was more real than the changeable (understood as corruptible). Au contraire, according to Bergson, ‘reality is mobility’, change is an essential feature of the human conscious experience, and the very condition of free will – in other words: ‘To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.’

In Creative Evolution, Bergson applied his ideas about time to one of the pressing issues of the day, biological evolution. He developed these ideas in his lectures, alongside erudite accounts of the history of philosophical thought. These lectures were open to the public, and Bergson attracted hundreds of native and foreign philosophy students, fashionable writers and wealthy Parisian socialites. As Bergson’s renown expanded, commentators became increasingly fascinated with a remarkable feature of his audience: it consisted mostly of women.

The literary critic and politician Gaston Deschamps noted that a new trend could be observed in Paris: every day, around five o’clock, ‘We hear the most beautiful women of our century deliciously conversing around small tables about M Henri Bergson, they salute Creative Evolution in their reedy voices, they coo over the wonders of emotional intuition and gloss over the “vital impetus”.’ Journalists and writers often skimmed over the philosophical content of Bergson’s lectures, to concentrate on what they viewed as the more practical problems that came with a female crowd.

[...] In France, Bergson’s female followers were given derogatory nicknames such as caillettes, which designated a type of pâté, a kind of small bird, and in this context, a frivolous babbling woman, and snobinettes, which conveyed the common assumption that these women were ignorant socialites more interested in being seen at a fashionable event than in learning about philosophy. In 1912, Bergson was preparing to leave on an eagerly anticipated tour of the United States that would take place the following year. A writer for the magazine La vie Parisienne – known for its literary critiques, erotic illustrations, satirical takes on art, culture, politics and the indiscretions of the Parisian elite – scoffed: ‘How will our snobinettes quench their thirst for metaphysics?’ Which professor, the reporter wondered, would these ‘anxious women’ choose to replace Bergson? Surely, their decision would be based on the convenience of the time slot of the lectures rather than on their content.

The female audience was depicted as a crowd of posers, too frivolous to develop any profound interest in philosophical matters, and thus undeserving of the precious seats at the Collège de France. [...] The associations between femininity, irrationality and Bergsonism often overlapped with anti-Semitic attacks against the philosopher. In France, such attacks were coordinated by a group of thinkers affiliated with the Right-wing anti-Dreyfusard political movement Action Française. Between 1910 and 1911, Pierre Lasserre, the main literary critic for the movement’s newspaper (also Action Française), published a series of anti-Bergsonian articles. He painted Bergson’s philosophy as excessively sentimental and vague and, in his final article, asserted that Bergson would never reach the level of an Aristotle or a Leibniz because he was Jewish.

[...] Attacks against the supposed femininity of Bergsonism were eventually redirected, in a circular movement, against the Bergsoniennes. The fact that so many women seemed naturally drawn to a philosophy deemed as unrigorous as that of Bergson constituted incontestable proof that women could not be trusted with intellectual matters. [...] In 1913, Bergson was asked about his views on the ‘feministic movement in Europe and America’. While he made a point of stating that he had ‘not found any difference of level between the male and female mind’, and that in the days when he taught both young men and women he would have been incapable of distinguishing the essays written by female students from those by male students, Bergson nevertheless expressed some reservations about giving the vote to all women...

[...] In the years after the First World War, Bergson retired from his post at the Collège de France, and although the 1920s brought their share of publicity (his public debate with Einstein in 1922 was reported internationally, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927), he slowly and deliberately stepped out of the spotlight. Bergson had never enjoyed fame and, as he removed himself from the public eye, he seemingly disappeared from people’s minds.

Why, when Bergson was popular, was he so popular, and especially with women? A combination of factors, including the public nature of his lectures and the clarity of his lecturing style no doubt contributed to his fame. Women in particular would have benefitted from the fact that Bergson’s lectures, which were held outside the stuffy confines of the exclusive Sorbonne, presented complex and subtle ideas in a way that was digestible to those who had perhaps not benefitted from a formal philosophical education. More importantly, Bergson’s philosophy was a philosophy of change, creativity and freedom that many, in the years leading up to the First World War, used as a way of channelling their own political hopes. Perhaps the women of the late Belle Époque were so drawn to Bergson because his philosophy was then a rallying point for those who believed radical change was possible... (MORE - details)
I think women found Bergson's philosophy attractive because it allowed for a core creative element to the universe, that of time itself. Women are attracted to creativity, and often express a fundamental intuitive grasp of its necessity in our lives. The power to make something wonderful out of nothing. Much like giving birth.

"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly."--Henri Bergson

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