James and Bergson: Fighting the Beast Intellectualism with Metaphors

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This essay focuses on the philosophical affinity between James and Bergson. Instead of aspiring to a complete summing up of the relation between the two thinkers in an exhaustive “all-form,” it tries to evoke the élan vital of their friendship through “living sympathy,” using Jamesian and Bergsonian metaphors that place the reader at the center of the philosophers’s shared visions. Allowing these metaphors to set the tone and indicate the direction, we avoid the intellectualist pitfall of becoming “myopic ants,” crawling over James’s and Bergson’s philosophies as over a building, “tumbling into every microscopic crack or fissure, finding nothing but inconsistencies, and never suspecting that a centre exists.” James experienced Bergson’s work not as a series of cracks and fissures but as a flow of a “rich river.” In his characteristically generous style he writes to Bergson: “You may be amused at the comparison, but in finishing it I found the same after-taste remaining as after finishing Madame Bovary, such a flavor of persistent euphony, as of a rich river that never foamed or ran thin, but steadily and firmly proceeded with its banks full to the brim.” James and Bergson both invite us to dive into their works rather than “crawl over” them like myopic ants. This means that we have to resist another intellectualist temptation to clean up “the litter with which the world apparently is filled” (PU, 26). In fancying ourselves architects with a vision of things from above, we miss out on the “euphony” of the flux and, if James’s response to Bergson’s Creative Evolution is any indication, the chance to be “rejuvenated.”
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnderstanding James, Understanding Modernism
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


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