Brain Pickings

Author Archive

07 AUGUST, 2012

Creative Evolution: French Philosopher Henri Bergson on Intuition vs. the Intellect, 1907


“That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.”

“The intellect by itself is the seat of trouble,” wrote Anaïs Nin in her diary in 1942.

A recent passing mention in a chapter on the origin of “nothing” in Jim Holt’s excellent new book on why the universe exists reminded me of Creative Evolution (public library; public domain) by French philosopher and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Henri Bergson (1859-1941) — an alternative account of the mechanisms underpinning Darwin’s evolution, originally published in 1907, which went on to become an enormously influential work in the philosophy of science.

In this particular excerpt, Bergson takes something we’ve previously explored in the context of the individual’s creative process — the role of intuition and its supremacy over rationality — and uses it as the lens on science and nature as a whole:

We see that the intellect, so skillful in dealing with the inert, is awkward the moment it touches the living. Whether it wants to treat the life of the body or the life of the mind, it proceeds with the rigor, the stiffness and the brutality of an instrument not designed for such use.


The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life.

Instinct, on the contrary, is molded on the very form of life. While intelligence treats everything mechanically, instinct proceeds, so to speak, organically. If the consciousness that slumbers in it should awake, if it were wound up into knowledge instead of being wound off into action, if we could ask and it could reply, it would give up to us the most intimate secrets of life. For it only carries out further the work by which life organizes matter–so that we cannot say, as has often been shown, where organization ends and where instinct begins. When the little chick is breaking its shell with a peck of its beak, it is acting by instinct, and yet it does but carry on the movement which has borne it through embryonic life. Inversely, in the course of embryonic life itself (especially when the embryo lives freely in the form of a larva), many of the acts accomplished must be referred to instinct. The most essential of the primary instincts are really, therefore, vital processes. The potential consciousness that accompanies them is generally actualized only at the outset of the act, and leaves the rest of the process to go on by itself. It would only have to expand more widely, and then dive into its own depth completely, to be one with the generative force of life.


[I]t is impossible for intelligence to reabsorb instinct. That which is instinctive in instinct cannot be expressed in terms of intelligence, nor, consequently, can it be analyzed.

A man born blind, who had lived among others born blind, could not be made to believe in the possibility of perceiving a distant object without first perceiving all the objects in between. Yet vision performs this miracle. In a certain sense the blind man is right, since vision, having its origin in the stimulation of the retina, by the vibrations of the light, is nothing else, in fact, but a retinal touch. Such is indeed the scientific explanation, for the function of science is just to
express all perceptions in terms of touch. But we have shown elsewhere that the philosophical explanation of perception (if it may still be called an explanation) must be of another kind. Now instinct also is a knowledge at a distance. It has the same relation to intelligence that vision has to touch. Science cannot do otherwise than express it in terms of intelligence; but in so doing it constructs an imitation of instinct rather than penetrates within it.

“Real science,” as Stuart Firestein keenly observed, “is a revision in progress, always” — as is real life itself. How frequently we forget — rationalize away — the role of instinct in that ceaseless revision.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 AUGUST, 2012

The Histories of the Universe: 29-Year-Old Patti Smith’s Poetic and Irreverent Monologue, 1975


“If you’re not into transforming stuff into art / Don’t worry about it / Just keep doing it and keep doing…”

On New Year’s Day 1975, the inimitable Patti Smith took the stage at St. Mark’s Church in New York in one of John Giorno’s experimental poetry happenings, and delivered a kind of free-flow monologue titled The Histories of the Universe. It begins with a description of the mummification process (“they made this mixture up of opium and salad oil and henna”) and unfolds into an ambling meditation on sexuality (“I was always jealous I wasn’t a homosexual.”), creativity (“If you’re not into transforming stuff into art, don’t worry about it. Just keep doing it and keep doing it…”), and an unspeakable wealth in between. With her fresh 29-year-old voice and her timeless irreverence, Smith pits her tongue-in-cheek delivery against her portrayal as pretentious by the era’s music critics. What emerges is cultural treasure.

The piece can be found on the 1993 compilation Cash Cow: The Best of Giorno Poetry Systems. Enjoy in full below.

The histories of the universe
lie in the sleeping sex of a woman

Now back in Egypt,
the Egyptian Book of the Dead was written because they got these women who were like, you know, that were before the time after 1852.
So, like
They got these women and they
Like put them in these tomb shapes
Like mummy shapes
Only they didn’t mummyize them
What they do is
They made this mixture up
Of opium and salad oil and henna
And they put it all over them
(first they’d knock ‘em out with a sledgehammer)
then they’d lay them in there and they’d wipe them all over
with this opiate henna oil
(maybe throw a little merc in, anything they could get in there)
and she’d be laid out
and then she’d start, like,
feeling all this stuff getting in her pores
and it would get deeper in her pores
and deeper in her pores
and into her veins,
and you know how, like,
the filaments are inside a
when you turn it on?
The next thing you know,
Her fingers are moving Egyptian style
Very rigid, very hieroglyphic
Anyway, she’d do this and the scribes would be standing around with their papyrus,
or papyrus or peanut butter bag wrappers-
forget that one.
They’re sitting around with their scrolls and anyway,
She’d start babbling…
…and she’d start babbling…
They’d write this stuff…
And then the other girl would start babbling
And she’d get to this point…
‘cause the thing about men
they do get Mayan
but they only do it once.
But only, you know, like, for a little while.
Then, but girls, I mean, it’s just an extra thing we got
You know, you just
Keep doing it, and keep doing it, and keep doing it and keep doing it.
And it’s really great if you’re next to a typewriter
Because, like, you start,
The first one you’re doin’
And you can’t quite write it yet,
But you got the plot.
And then you take the, and you wait,
And you only go so far,

You mustn’t pee your pants.

Then, you keep going, you keep going, you keep going,
And then it’s time to lie down on the couch and get out
Troky and anybody else who might be around.
And you open up to page 100
On Theolet Ledoux’s ‘Bitch’. paperback!
Then, you just keep, like,
Getting’ your fingers goin’ like graphite
Until it’s like a paintbrush and it’s making a scene.
And you go
And by the 8th or 9th one
You should be writing great stuff on the typewriter
And even if you can’t control it
Even if you’re not illuminated enough now
To know how to make a diamond…
Like, I didn’t know what to do with it for a long time.
What you do is, girls, is study Rimbaud;
Get his syntax and grammar down.
Study Burr.
Study them all, but then,
You have to get into the next step.
You know in that letter where Rimbaud says,
He writes this letter and he goes,
‘In the future when women get away from their long servitude of men, etcetera, they’re going to have the new music, new forms, new sensations, new horrors, new spurts…’
Yeah, I mean…
It’s time.
And look, that was a hundred years ago, get cookin’.
I mean, it’s a long…
He talked…
It was there a long time ago.
And who knows where the time goes?

Right now, that’s the formula.
It’s very easy.
Get the syntax down and then just record it.
For a while you might have to record it.
Just, just do it.
And you should see how better you walk.
It just does something to your walk.
If you can’t do anything with it
Don’t worry about it.
If you’re not into transforming stuff into art
Don’t worry about it.
Just keep doing it and keep doing it because by the
12th and 13th and 14th one you get into extraterrestrial stuff and they don’t let you write nothin’ down.
So you just,
you just keep goin’ through it,
you know, you just keep

what I was sayin’ is…
Mayan stuff.
Guys and guys can do that
you know
I was always jealous because I wasn’t homosexual
because they got all this Mayan stuff
and all this screen stuff
and I’d read all these books
‘Blue Jelly’
and you know how it is
and I thought
but I can’t
and you know
and I have these dreams
that I could, like,
steal boys skins at night
and put them on and pee
and stuff like that
but now that I’ve found, like,
this new toy…

I’ve got seven ways of going
I’ve got seven ways to be
I’ve got seven sweet disguises
I’ve got seven ways of being me

right here is where I usually tell this story
I usually tell this story
I usually tell this story about something that
happened to me on one of these particular voyages
but I’ll make it real fast.
I was expecting to go to my usual stuff
with all these you know like like like
girl boy Moslem Christian angel guys
that have all these machines
all these neon machines
and they put you in
this like pine tree shape

but this time,
I don’t know how it happened,
I got to 16th Century Japan
and the neat thing about it was,
it was the first time that
really got to be a boy.
I was, like, this boy.
This ninja boy.
This archer.
And he was totally in love with his sister,
who looked just like him.
And he wanted to become…
he couldn’t care for her,
he wanted her to have the best.
So he became the best archer.
And the King took him as his top archer.
And he took his sister to the palace,
and the King fell in love with his sister.
And the archer,
who had worked and worked and worked
to get his sister fine garments
didn’t mean to get her
fine garments in the King’s bed.

So when the King sent him out the next day
he was walkin’ through the fields
he had on his armor
and it was black and white squares
like a chessboard
he stood on the black square
and looked and saw how
the black square looked
like the back of his sister’s hair
he looked at the windowshape
in the palace
in the castle
he imagined
the King
over his sister
his black and white
he was so dazzled by that photograph
that he took off his armor
and laid his armor down
and took the dart
and aimed it swift
at the King’s heart
and he started walkin’
toward the castle
started walkin’
toward the palace
started walkin’
he was walkin’
he was walkin’

in this big step I am taking
seven seizures for the true
I’ve got seven ways of going
seven ways of loving you
Be free from all deception
Be safe from bodily harm
Love without exception
Be a saint in any form.

For more on Smith’s youthful adventures with Giorno Poetry Systems, see Dancing Barefoot: The Patti Smith Story.

UBU Open Culture

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 AUGUST, 2012

How Big Is Infinity? An Animated Explanation from TED


On the whimsy and limitations of mathematics.

Beloved novelist Umberto Eco believed that we use lists to make infinity comprehensible. Quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch teased apart the beginning and unboundedness of infinity. But what, exactly, is “infinity” and how big is it?

The fine folks at TED-Ed have teamed up with educator Dennis Wildfogel and animation studio Augenblick to explore the dimensions of infinity through this stimulatingly mind-bending lesson on legacies of mathematicians Georg Cantor, David Hilbet, Kurt Gödel, and Paul J. Cohen, exposing both the genius and limitations of mathematics.

For more on this fascinating subject, see George Gamow’s 1961 gem One Two Three . . . Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science, which features more than 120 pen-and-ink illustrations by the author himself, such as this:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.