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Preface to Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

Jan Patočka
Traduction de Matyáš Moravec et Jan Potoček

Notes de la rédaction

Edition originale
Patočka, Jan. 1936. Preface to Henri Bergson, Dvojí pramen mravnosti a náboženství. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, v-viii. Prague: Laichter.

Texte intégral

  • 1  It appears that Patočka here makes a grammatical mistake. The relevant passage reads “[…] dal Berg (...)

1Henri Bergson is the gate to contemporary philosophy. His position in it is perhaps best defined by the place he assumes in the context of French philosophy. The latter is characterized by a dual spiritual substance, a dual spirit: that of Descartes and that of Pascal. Descartes represents direct and systematic rationalism, which projects all that is onto a single plane. For him, being is defined purely intellectually; it is, so to speak, identical with the clarity and order of the intellect. Pascal, by contrast, is a link in the chain of the mystical tradition that has absorbed all the intellectual impulses and all the problems of modernity, and he exerts all his subtlety to clearly place before his eyes the necessity of something quite different, of absolute devotion, of the “leap of faith,” as they say these days, of an active transition to a different world, of transcendence. In the French philosophical tradition, we can observe constantly renewed attempts at overcoming rationalism and at approaching the deeper, organic universe where the fate of the soul is decided; nevertheless, Pascal himself is not strictly speaking a philosopher, and the tradition we might name after him has too long sought an expression truly magnanimous, worthy of the rank of its opponent. It is only here, separated by centuries, that Bergson responds to Descartes. And his response contains all the new problems that characterize the present state of affairs not just in French, but in world philosophy, too. This undertaking is related to the revision of the image of the human being sketched by Bergson with great novelty against the background of the traditionalist conception, that is to say, to the question on which philosophical interest has most recently focused. After all, precisely because he so rigorously revised the question of philosophical rationalism, Bergson had to raise anew a problem that the entire philosophical tradition from antiquity posited and solved in always the same way: the problem of the essence of humanity, for which the Greeks found the classical formula Zoon logon echon, the being that rules by the logos. In this classical view, it is through the logos that man accesses the absolute. By contrast, Bergson’s efforts aim at presenting straightforward mathematical reason, the modern face of logos, as something fundamentally dependent, relative to human need, and providing merely a superficial view of reality. This may to a certain extent be likened to Kant’s endeavor to demonstrate that there is something deeper, more original in the human than mathematical reason, but Bergson is more daring (some might say more naive) insofar as he aims at the very genealogy of reason [as it derives] from the creative origin of life. Bergson defines creative life as concrete duration, concrete time, thereby highlighting again for modern philosophy one of its most fundamental problems. Here he encounters [the philosophies of] Husserl and Heidegger, who also consider the problem of time to be the primaeval metaphysical problem. However, by opposing immediately lived life to its intellectual projection, concrete duration to the logos as language and geometrical reason, Bergson has of course made a powerful case for a strict distinction between spirit and soul, which1 has been carried out by other thinkers influenced by him and in which the mind is considered an enemy of all pure and profound life—but such an approach has opened the door not merely to a revision but to a revolution of the Western concept of the human, to the denial of all the ideals and values elaborated by antiquity, the Middle Ages and the modern humanist-enlightenment tradition, of the ideals that may more or less be summed up by the phrase progress of reason. Nevertheless, such a revolution would be unjustified in invoking Bergson.

2Despite appearances to the contrary, Bergson’s philosophy is not a teaching of sharp oppositions. In Bergson, neither matter nor soul, neither intellect nor instinct are forms of the complete difference and non-translatability that characterize, for example, the substances in Descartes. Underneath all the oppositions, however terrifying they may appear, flows the continuity of creative life, which pulsates even in its most weakened form under the cover of geometrical regularities in matter, to emerge in the course of the creative evolution by ever-increasing degrees, to divide its ranks with the aim of more easily accomplishing the uniting goal of all creatures and to find at higher degrees its original lost unity. The form of the rediscovered unity of life’s internal functions is intuition, the synthesis of intelligence and instinct; in it the type of progress of reason takes place that characterizes the work of a creative philosopher. Therefore, Bergson’s philosophy is not, in fact, a revolution of the classical doctrine of the human but merely its correction; even here, the human is eventually defined by the light of reason, by freedom to truth, but, instead of the geometrical intellect, this fundamental task of humanity is given to a deeper, more basic function of which intelligence is an integral part. Thus, the old rigid geometrism is overcome and none of the human spiritual treasures are sacrificed; more than that, reason becomes radically justified in its proper domain. This resolves the old Pascalian problem: the esprit de finesse (intuitive mind), which sees infinity in a single glance, triumphs over the esprit de géométrie (mathematical mind), which establishes sharp divisions everywhere and, progressing in a slow march from one consequence to another, fails to capture the fullness of reality. But talking of irrationality here would certainly be a misunderstanding; Bergson’s philosophical adventure concludes with a return to tradition. This explains why Klages, for example, repudiates intuition!

3“The Two Sources of Morality and Religion” leaves no doubt regarding this abiding with tradition. In this respect it is the most characteristic of Bergson’s works—our philosopher here openly declares his allegiance to precisely what many of his false disciples rejected, to the Hellenic and Judeo-Christian tradition, to humanistic ideals and to the ideals of democracy, which alone, in his view, are able to raise humans above their captivity in the depths of a closed society and create the conditions for overcoming the dangers that threaten life today and call for new vigor and new creative powers. Through Bergson’s work, a sort of reminiscence of classical tones, which we nearly grew accustomed to not hearing, has entered today’s dreary philosophical symphony. This alleged irrationalist is one of the last philosophers able to give new expression to the great tradition of the West, the tradition of individualism and intelligibility, and to derive new values from it.

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1  It appears that Patočka here makes a grammatical mistake. The relevant passage reads “[…] dal Bergson zajisté mocný podnět k extrémnímu protikladu ducha a duše, kterou jeho vlivem provedli jiní myslitelé a v níž duch znamená […]” The problem here is with the usage of the relative pronoun “kterou.” Its grammatical gender is feminine, which would make it connected with the preceding “duše,” but this would imply the rather bizarre claim that “the soul has been carried out by other thinkers under his influence […].” We assume this is a mistake and instead read “kterou” as “který,” which would connect the pronoun with the (grammatically masculine) “protikladu.”

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Jan Patočka, « Preface to Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion »Bergsoniana [En ligne], 3 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2023, consulté le 18 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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