Brain Pickings

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

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“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.

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