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Linguistic Naturalism and Anti-Naturalism in Bergson’s Course L’Idée de Temps: Language, Society, and Life

Bruno B. Rates


Depuis le début de son parcours intellectuel, Bergson a toujours manifesté une énorme méfiance par rapport au langage. Lié à l'espace, à la communication, à la vie sociale et à la pensée conceptuelle, le langage était considéré, sauf dans sa dimension artistique, comme un obstacle, et non un véhicule, à l'expression de la durée. Cependant, malgré la vraisemblance de cette lecture générale, si l'on compare les affirmations sur le langage faites en 1889, dans L’Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, à celles faites dans L’Évolution créatrice, dix-huit ans plus tard, on remarquera un changement de position significatif qui passe de la considération du langage comme élément de « dissimulation » à un « instrument de libération ». À partir du cours, récemment publié, « L'idée de temps », donné au Collège de France dans les années 1901-1902, et ayant pour fil conducteur le rapport entre langue, société et vie, j'ai l’intention de démontrer que les causes qui ont motivé cette transformation de position proviennent de l'abandon, par Bergson, d'une certaine conception antinaturaliste du langage et, par conséquent, de l'assimilation (et de la formulation) progressive par le philosophe de ce que l'on pourrait appeler le naturalisme linguistique.

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  • 1 This essay was supported by the grant 2020/15114-5, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). All tra (...)

1The notion of language does not have a systematic and clear treatment, nor does it occupy a conceptual centrality in Bergson’s philosophy.1 However, and despite this more general observation, this notion is present throughout almost all his works. More specifically, it is possible to establish at least three ways in which language is approached in a more comprehensive way. These tendencies are also found in the Bergsonian studies that have focused on the problem. Transposing the conclusion of a study that analyzes the status of language in 20th-century French philosophy, it can be said that the bond that unites these approaches is a certain distrust towards language (Cimatti 2018, 162). Either through the inflexible assertion of this suspicion, or through the investigation of the means that could, eventually, avoid it, in both cases the possibility of “overcoming it” is not admitted (Cimatti 2018, 162). Language would thus irremediably be an obstacle or, at most, a limitation, or an impoverishment of something much more complex and nuanced, that is, duration. In the next pages, I will present these three approaches and challenge them based on the lecture course “L’idée de temps,” in which Bergson develops certain theses about the structure and the origin of language.

The Three Approaches to Language: Spatialization, Signalization and Expression

2The first approach concerns the spatial character of language, evidenced since the 1889 book, Time and Free Will. Following the distinction between duration and space, language is, in this case, the translation of the externalization of temporal interiority, representing, consequently, the deformation of the latter. It is an eminently critical thesis, which Bergson maintained roughly until the publication of his last texts in the 1920s (Bergson 2009a, 73-75, 86-88), although, over the course of this long itinerary it underwent important variations, as we will have the opportunity to see in the next section of the text. A decisive complement to this thesis is the establishment of the relationship between language and what Bergson calls “social life.” It is not difficult to understand the reasons that support such link. When we speak, we communicate, that is, we share an intimate experience whose richness is incommunicable. The specifically human spatial structure, called by Bergson “empty homogeneous medium,” “homogeneous medium,” or “homogeneous space” is what allows the juxtaposition of our thoughts in distinct elements, that is, their exteriorization through words. Language however is not just a vehicle in which space expresses itself. Endowed with a certain autonomy, it exerts a “much deeper influence than is generally thought”: in addition to making us believe in the “invariability of our sensations,” it also “misleads us about the characteristic of proven sensation” (Bergson 2007, 98), shaping, in its own manner, the way we experience ourselves and the world.

3It is true that the “homogeneous space” partially attenuates the division between space and duration, since it is through it that we can apprehend some type of succession, even if falsified, allowing the “mixed of a measurable time, which is space as homogeneity and duration as succession, that is to say, at bottom, the contradictory idea of succession in simultaneity” (Bergson 2007, 171-172). Are language and society also a “mixed,” a “compound,” or “amalgam” where temporal interiority coexists with spatial exteriority? As we shall see, this question is not unimportant, but no statement in Time and Free Will seems to permit such a conclusion (Bergson 2007, 73, 95-98). One should also bear in mind the fact that space, represented by the “exterior” or “superficial” self has a “natural” or “biological” anchorage, even though Bergson considers its “artificiality” in dealing with duration and with the “interior” or “profound” self. Again, although linked to space, there is no direct application of such an idea to language and social life. In 1889, although language and society seem to be the expression of a natural tendency, they could have not existed. And if that were the case, the structure of the homogeneous space and its consequent deformation of duration would have remained the same, as Bergson makes clear in the following passage of Time and Free Will:

If each one of us lived a purely individual life, if there were neither society, nor language, would our consciousness apprehend the series of inner states in this indistinct form? Absolutely not because we would retain the idea of a homogeneous space (Bergson 2007, 102-3).

4Thus, homogeneous space is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for social life and language. It “prepares” them, although the development of both seems to have its own dynamic, interdependent of their origin.

5Could we think here of a specific domain where the history of society and languages could be conceived outside of their natural roots? This does not seem to be the case, although some indications of such interdependence can be found in some remarks made by Bergson of the “child” and “primitive peoples,” understanding them as examples of “acceptance of the idea of an unstable nature” (Bergson 2007, 159), capacity already attributed to the animals when the idea that “perceives the extension” is supported in opposition to the human species, that “conceives space” (Bergson 2007, 71-72). There would be then, so to speak, a process of learning, whether from the psychological point of view (from infancy to adulthood) or from the point of view of civilization (from primitive to civilized), that would deepen the congenital failure that follows man in the apprehension of the immediate data.

  • 2 In Creative Evolution, Bastian's book is mobilized for similar reasons, since it contributes to a d (...)

6It is worth noting, as not only Time and Free Will but also the Clermont-Ferrand course given between the years 1887-1888 shows, that Bergson was familiar with the correspondence between the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre and Charles Darwin. The same can be said of the studies of the archaeologist and ethnologist John Lubbock and the physiologist and neurologist Henry Charlton Bastian, who formulated the hypothesis of a “sixth sense,” which he called a “sense of direction” (Bastian 1880, 65, 214ss). The “sense of direction” was said to be guided by vision, smell, or magnetic currents, allowing the animal and “some wild and semi-wild human races (Northern Siberian peoples and North American Indians)” (Bergson 1990, 282-293) to orient themselves like a compass.2 Therefore, if language and society, as derived from homogeneous space, should be considered natural, linked to biological life and not to the “spiritual,” “experienced” (“vécu”), “pre-social” and “pre-linguistic” life, it is important to remember that, in Time and Free Will, Bergson does not fail to express certain hesitations in this regard, suggesting the possibility, albeit remote, of living organisms behaving in the manner of consciousness (Bergson 2007, 115-116 ).

7The second perspective is more specific and was first expressed in 1896, in Matter and Memory.The context of the discussion was the problem of aphasia, that is, language disorders and, more specifically, the loss of visual and auditory recognition of the speech (blindness and verbal deafness). In other terms, the lack of understanding of the written and spoken word (Bergson emphasizes the second case, related to the spoken word). As we know, it is on this occasion that the philosopher rejects the hypothesis of the existence of brain traces of words and proposes the distinction between sound perception and its recognition (Bergson 2008b).

8Despite the apparent specificity of this perspective, it is linked to the debate between brain and language and, consequently, between brain and thought, a recurrent theme at the time (Forest, 2005; Jacyna, 2000; Hecaen and Dubois, 1969). The link is also present in Bergson’s works, as attested by several texts in Mind-Energy, published in 1919, a collection of text whose original versions date from approximately 1900-1910. Although Bergson here openly uses advances coming from the natural sciences, he also employs a spiritualist strategy: it is the spirit, or, more specifically, memory, that is responsible for the understanding of the meaning of language (Bergson 2008b, 92, 118ss, 132ss; Oliva 2011; Parisi 2000, 2012; Podoroga 2014; Médina 1985). It is true that, contrary to the localizationist hypothesis, the spiritual evocation of meaning proposed by Bergson does not exclude a continuous interrelationship between the physiological and the mental level. The “motor scheme” is precisely the mediation between the perception of a sound continuity and its meaning. Against "the straight line" proposed by the associationists, Bergson uses the “circuit” scheme, presented in the second chapter of Matter and memory. The “circuit” aims to explain how perception leads to remembrance and the way in which the latter, in turn, enriches perception itself, a process that will be analyzed in more detail with the idea of “dynamic scheme,” developed in later texts published in the Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger, “Intellectual Effort,” of 1902, and “Memory of the Present and False Recognition,” from 1908. And it is also true that, as a scholar maintains, in Matter and Memory, “language, as a 'signpost' of meanings, is not only — as it was in Time and Free Will — a spatialization incommensurable with thought, but a possible expression of its movement” (Bertolini 1991, 247; Cavalieri 1996, 1998).

  • 3 For example, if there was a difference between music, literature, poetry, dance, painting, sculptur (...)

9The third approach concerns Bergson's positive assertions in relation to language, that is, in relation to its capacity to express duration outside the regime of spatiality. In a very general way, we could say that such perspective points towards something like a Bergsonian aesthetic, since, although the incompatibility of origin between duration and language is admitted, Bergson often indicates that art is the most reliable form of expression of time. This thesis, which has a Romantic tone and is closely associated with the concept of intuition, is disseminated in almost all of the philosopher’s writings, although, as in the case of the first branch, it has important variations that should not be ignored.3

10Even though this sketch of an aesthetic of duration is, in fact, a philosophy of expression, which ultimately values the inexpressible over the expressible or, in more traditional terms, the “Spirit” over the “Letter” (Silva 1994; Paiva 2005; Cherniavsky 2008, 2009), the fact that artistic language has primacy over common language ends up giving it a certain independence from the spirit that expresses it. There is a difference in relation to the advances brought by Matter and Memory since it is not just about considering language as an index of interior duration, but taking it in its expressive specificity, endowed with a certain form and structure. From the simple act of speaking and writing, whose philological-linguistic complexity did not matter to the analysis of the relationship between sound and letter with their meaning, we move to the particular techniques of a specific art that, in turn, needs to be considered. That is the case — although not explicitly developed — of Bergson's analysis of Shakespeare and Molière's plays (Bergson 2007b) or Leonardo da Vinci's drawings (Bergson 2009a; 2018; 1972, 703). Thus, even if Bergson does not get to a point of giving full autonomy to art in relation to the creator or the act of creation, there would be something temporal, so to speak, in the “materiality” of artistic form and content, which is not exactly the same as to say that language signs the meaning and that the meaning is, in turn, pre-linguistic or not linguistic. The silhouette of the marble that gives shape to the sculpture or the artifices of narration of a novel or the order of the words that compose it, can escape the fixity of space without, however, configuring themselves as “spirit.”

Linguistic Anti-Naturalism Until 1896

  • 4 In Matter and Memory, Bergson briefly deals with verbs, common names and proper names, but from the (...)
  • 5 It is worth mentioning that the “positivity” of society (but not of language) appears, albeit in an (...)

11In 1901-1902, elements brought in by Bergson seem to disorganize the triple scheme — commonly accepted in the critical literature — that I have just presented. It was during these years that the philosopher taught, at the Collège de France, the course entitled L’idée de temps (The Idea of Time). This presented an occasion for new considerations on common language, marking a departure from previous texts and announcing several theses on the subject defended 5-6 years later, in Creative Evolution (Bergson 2008a, 148-9, 303, 314-5). For the first time, the language shared by all of us becomes a specific object of analysis, making Bergson engage in debates on philological and linguistic issues. He considers, for example, grammatical aspects (such as the formation of verbs, adjectives and nouns) and the immense diversity of languages (the particularity of Semitic and Indo-European languages).4 Furthermore, it is on this occasion that language becomes, both from the point of view of its origin, as from the point of view of its structure, an expression of space and time, that is, of the need to fix and the possibility of flowing. Language is natural, and it is precisely for this reason — and not despite it — that it has, in its very functioning, the mark of change. But the most surprising thing — compared to what I said about the books of 1889 and 1896 — is the fact that social life, understood as natural to man, is the cause that makes language have such a “dichotomous tendency” (“tendance dichotomique”) (Bergson 2019, 138-139). Society ceases to be deprivation to become promotion, and its former negative value is transfigured into something “positive.”5

12What are the reasons that motivated these changes? What led Bergson to take a new attitude not only towards language, but also towards society, which he considers the foundation of language? The hypothesis I propose is that such a change of position has an intimate connection with Bergson's gradual adherence to a certain naturalism, expressed in the very particular formulation — or reformulation — of an evolutionism in non-mechanist terms, that begins to appear at the Collège de France lectures of 1901-1902. It is evident that this movement of thought is not entirely clear. The relation between Bergson, naturalism and evolutionism has important nuances, since Bergson does not simply become a “naturalist” or an “evolutionist.” On this subject, it is needless to remember not only his own confessions about Spencer's omnipresence in his philosophical education (Bergson 2002, 145-146), but also the fact that natural sciences have always been inseparable from his philosophy, and, particularly, from 1900, the biological sciences, as Bergson states in some letters and discussions of the period (Bergson 2002, 36, 74-75, 90-91). Additionally, given the lack of precision of the term “naturalism,” it is not without hesitation that I refer to it. The basic definition that I propose for the moment is the one that understands that “there is nothing outside of nature” or that there is no “imperium in imperio,” to use the expression employed by Spinoza in the “Introduction” to “Part III” of Ethics (Spinoza 2018, 93), and used by Bergson on two occasions: (1). In Time and Free Will (Bergson 2007, 103), as a risk that could be pointed out by possible critics of the idea of “two self,” deep and superficial; and (2). in Matter and Memory, as a risk of understanding the living body and the nervous system as a “separated being” (Bergson 2008b, 43), and as a problem that would have been avoided by the conception of nature as “neutralized consciousness and, consequently, latent” (Bergson 2008b, 279).

13In short, by adhering to “naturalism” and, more specifically, to “evolutionism,” Bergson ends up, if not abolishing, at least attenuating the opposition between consciousness and nature, between freedom and nature and everything that follows (primacy of the logical over the chronological, of the transcendental over the empirical, a very sharp distinction between man and animal, being and ought-to-be, fact and value, etc.). I admit that it is a strong thesis, which leads us to much more complicated discussions (panpsychism, vitalism, realism/idealism, monism/dualism/pluralism, etc.), which are undoubtedly important, but that would distance us too far from the topic I would like to address in this article, that is, language.

  • 6 In linguistic studies, this position also coincides with those defended by Wilhelm von Humboldt, at (...)

14In an illuminating essay, which investigates Bergson's position prior to 1896 in relation to the debates carried out by linguistics thinkers at the time, De Palo argues that, despite the differences, Time and Free Will and Matter and Memory form a block in dealing with language (De Palo 2001, 250). Both books could be inserted, along with the work of prominent linguists, such as the inventor of semantics, a longtime student and translator of Franz Bopp and a leading figure against the organic conception of language (Klippi 2010; Blanckaert 2011a), the professor at the Collège de France, Michel Bréal (1832-1915) — who quotes and is quoted by Bergson (Bréal 1897, 273; Bergson 2019, 121-122) —, as belonging to a tradition that goes back to the spiritualism of Maine de Biran, for whom “human subjectivity” is the source and destination of language (De Palo 2001, 249).6

15In a true “antidote against naturalism,” writes De Palo, the perspective of the human subject, endowed with creative and meaning-bearing instances, such as will and memory, “frees the language from determinism, returning it to the freedom of consciousness and history” (De Palo 2001, 251). Thus, “the true nature of linguistic phenomena […] is not found in the materiality of their facts, but in the psychic value they have in the consciousness of the speaking subject” (De Palo 2001, 253). Based on a passage from Bergson's speech “Le bon sens et les études classiques,” written a year before the publication of Matter and Memory, in which the philosopher struggles against the “serious error” of “thinking of society as we think about nature and discover whatever the mechanism of irreducible laws, ignoring, finally, the effectiveness of will and the creative force of freedom” (Bergson 2011, 162), the article concludes that it is due to “will,” the “theoretical foundation of semantics,” that it is possible to separate linguistics, as a historical science, from the natural sciences. It is precisely this “anti-naturalist” position that will be challenged in L’idée de temps, which I will analyze in the next pages.

L’Idée de Temps (1901-1902) and Linguistic Naturalism

16The first element to consider is that language is not the main subject of the course. More specifically, it is in the lectures of April 25 and May 2, 1902 (and, to a lesser extent, the lesson of May 9 of the same year) that Bergson directly addresses the problem, although it must be understood through the lens of a prior analysis about conceptual thinking. Since language is the ordinary and normal expression of thought, its investigation must “verify and confirm” the results of the analysis of thought. But this does not minimize the importance of linguistic studies since, despite its derivative status in relation to thought (in opposition to the tradition of Locke continued by Hippolyte Taine), language is capable of influencing it and molding it to its own needs (as it was the case, as we have seen, in Time and Free Will).

  • 7 Bergson seems to follow here the various comments made in Matter and Memory about recognition, perc (...)

17Bergson starts from two theses: (1) the concept has a practical origin and destination, and it is far from being neutral (“for pleasure”); (2) contrary to what is commonly thought, the concept does not generalize reality, but fixes it, immobilizing its process of becoming. This second thesis presupposes the fact — physiologically and psychologically attested, according to Bergson — that the primordial operation of knowledge is made through similarity, whether of the object with itself (concept of individual), or of the object with other objects (concept of genre).7 From a methodological point of view, Bergson curiously proceeds within what he calls the scientific, etymological and positive method, “the only one possible” (Bergson 2019, 117), in which there is a purification, through decomposition, of the essential elements of language. The lectures of April 25 and May 2 are, therefore, intended to find, so to speak, the linguistic “atom,” or, as we shall see latter, the linguistic “cell,” that is, the simplest and most elementary component of language, through the elimination of its accessory parts.

18This method of investigation, very common among comparative philologists that embraced the naturalistic tone that took over part of the linguistic research at the time, will allow Bergson to compare different languages tracing them to a “common ancestor,” a kind of an elementary language where all languages came from. As a scholar puts it, the merely “genetic” approach is substituted by a “genealogical” one, promoting a distinctive kind of historical vision, based on the idea of a “branching descent from a common ancestor” (Alter 1999, 2). In Bergson’s case, as we shall see, the intention is only to reduce language to a fundamental root, as was the case for several approaches that intended to establish linguistics as a positive science (some of them even considered that actual idioms are degenerated forms of this original language, the opposite of Bergson’s opinion), but also to establish the origin of language, a task that is linked partially to a genetic and, mainly, to a speculative view of the problem.

  • 8 In the book of 1907, Kant and Christoph Sigwart (1830-1904) are the main references when the negati (...)

19Without providing the sources that inspire him, Bergson suggests the first decomposition, anticipating some points developed in the fourth chapter of Creative Evolution8: language has three fundamental directions, that is, negation, interrogation, and affirmation. While fascinating, there is no time to elaborate this point of Bergson’s argument in detail. It suffices for our purposes just to point out that negation and interrogation are subsequent — and therefore derived from — affirmation. Negation is conceived as the implicit affirmation of the “other” that one denies. It is language itself, as a medium of communication and information between men to prevent them from possible errors, that explains the genesis of the negative proposition. “To deny is to rectify a real or possible mistake,” Bergson states, “is to deviate from a possible affirmation.” And it is precisely for this reason that it has a “corrective, preventive, prophylactic” value (Bergson 2019, 115).

  • 9 The term that appears in the edition of the course is “aristmas” (p.116), apparently non-existent i (...)

20The same occurs with interrogation, which is nothing more than an incomplete, indeterminate affirmation: “to interrogate is to affirm, with the desire and hope of being interrupted or completed.” Bergson reminds us at this point of his argument how Greek and Latin had specific words to interrogate (unlike most modern languages of Indo-European origin, where you simply change the order of words in a sentence to indicate the interrogation), and that such terms express an undefined plurality: the “qui ” in Latin, which means “some,” “certain” as the Greek “τίς,” “τῐνές” and “πον,” which means “when,” “somewhere,” the “ποτέ” as “sometime” and “̓́ρᾰ” as “what,” “which” (whose root is the same as “arithmos,” which means number, quantity).9

  • 10 Bergson alludes to Homer and the problem of connectives that, in the course's edition, is written a (...)

21But once affirmation takes precedence over negation and interrogation, how can it be further refined? Given the complexity of the affirmative form, Bergson once again relies on the etymological science and, although he does not reveal the scholars who support his analysis, he finds it necessary to direct his attention to the connectives, to find the essence of the affirmation, that is, the “simple affirmation.”10 It is at this moment that an open affiliation to linguistic naturalism occurs, and an analogy between language and life is made through the identification of the “complex affirmation” to societies and organisms.

  • 11 Bergson mentions the “artificial concepts” of the theory of “embranchement,” possibly in an allusio (...)
  • 12 “The real difficulties begin in the second half of the nineteenth century when the organic metaphor (...)

22Linguistic naturalism as it is usually understood was opposed, as we have seen, by Bréal, and it was represented in France by figures such as Honoré Chauvée (1815-1877), Abel Hovelacque (1843-1896), among others (Desmet, 1994), and, in Germany, by August Schleicher (1821-1868), known for his linguistic Darwinism, although such label has to be used with reservations (Alter 1999, 73-79; Richards 2002). However, it does not follow from this affiliation that there is a complete identification of Bergson with this linguistic school. In Bergson's case, “linguistic naturalism” does not mean to conceive a “taxonomy” of language through the comparative study of tongues. That was an ambition of some linguists who desired, in the manner of classical naturalists, an abstract classification that goes from the particular to the general. This theoretical attitude, moreover, having been analyzed and criticized by Bergson in the April 18, 1902, lesson of the course in question (Bergson 2019, 92-93).11 Furthermore, according to Bergson, language has a partial independence in relation to the speakers (as we have seen, its influence on thought is asserted since the 1889 book), not total, as wanted, for example, by Schleicher and Hovelacque. And although the Bergsonian “organic analogy” is literal (as it was for Schleicher and other naturalists) and not merely “allusive,” — as it was the case for Humboldt, Schlegel, Bopp and Grimm (Cassirer 2021, 91-93, 102; Schlanger 1995, 125-131) —, language for Bergson cannot be understood, under any circumstances, as a separate organism, static and independent of the speaker or the vital movement that generated it.12 As we will see later, language is a partial expression of thought that, in turn, is indeed a manifestation of the evolution of life.

23This conception will put Bergson in a particular position regarding naturalist linguistics, since, in Bergson’s understanding, the concept of “life” that is at stake is neither the romantic “organic form” stated by the classic German philologists — which coincides with Goethe’s and Schelling’s views of nature — nor the mechanistic idea of linguistic naturalism, whose reduction of language to organism was chiefly guided by the view of “phonetic laws,” inspired by the idea of “natural laws,” which ultimately reduced life to inner matter (Cassirer 2021, 91-93, 101-109). Bergson’s naturalism, as we saw, sought to conciliate the oppositions stated by Kantian philosophy, such as Nature and Liberty, an intention also shared by the romantic comparatists. But it was through a dialogue with science and positive data that he aimed to build his conception of life.

  • 13 Bergson does not reveal the biologists who would have made such a challenge, but it is possible tha (...)

24That attitude aligns him with the linguistic naturalism supported by the scientists of language, except that, according to them, nature had to be conceived mechanistically. This was incompatible with the dynamic conception defended by Bergson (as will be clear in the next few pages) even if it only became possible to grasp the full meaning of Bergson’s conception of evolution and life six or seven years later with the publication of Creative Evolution. It is in this sense that L’idée de temps employs the analogy in question, understanding that the constitutive elements (men in the case of societies and cells in the case of organisms) are juxtaposed, organized and in a process of division of work, although, in the case of organisms, warns the philosopher, anticipating some important elements, “this has been contested” (Bergson 2019, 118).13

25And in the case of language? In the most studied languages in that period (Indo-European and Semitic), there were two types of simple affirmations: (1) those that express an action, that go from a subject to a complement formed by a subject, a verb and a direct complement (for example, “the man wears black clothes”), which Bergson called “dramatic,” since they express a certain spectacle that unfolds under the eyes of the listener or reader; and (2) the “attributive” phrase, in which there is a subject, the copula “is” and the attribute (for example, “the clothes are black”).

  • 14 The edition of the course contains, without any note, the name of the famous writer Stendhal (Bergs (...)

26The conclusion about the precedence of the latter (also called “impressionist”) over the “dramatic” one, takes place again in the field of philology and linguistics: according to the research undertaken by Michel Bréal in his Essai de Sémantique, “the active verb was formed relatively late,” and the “dramatic” form is “artificial,” “non-primitive,” which makes us conclude that the neuter verb is older (Bréal 1897, 209-210; Bergson 2019, 122-123). In the same study, he concludes that the verb itself is posterior both to the subject/noun and to the adjective/attribute. There are even “savages from Borneo” (an island located in Southeast Asia) who, in addition to communicating merely by impression, didn’t use the verbal form in some of their linguistic constructions. Relying on ethno-linguistic research of his time, probably by the philologist Heymann Steinthal (1823-1899),14 Bergson argues that the “sophisticated” phrase, “the man wears black clothes,” “proper to higher and more developed languages,” becomes, in the case of the people of Borneo, “this man, with black, with clothes,” indicating that the active verb and the dramatic form represent more evolved stages of the language (Bergson 2019, 121). Even in Greek, the conjugation of “φέρω,” “φέρως” (“to use”), “I use,” “you use,” “he uses” is the result of the union of a noun and a pronoun, and from an etymological point of view such conjugation means: “I-user,” “you-user,” “he-user” (Bergson 2019, 123). Bergson thus arrives at the fundamental elements of language, and in the lecture of May 2, 1902 he gives himself the task of defining which is more elementary, the name or the attribute, the noun or the adjective, and therefore offer an answer to the old problem of the origin of language (Révész 1946).

27Although prohibited in France by the Société Linguistique de Paris and later discredited by the Philological Society of London (Auroux 1989; Aarsleff 1967, 227-230) for posing insoluble questions from a scientific standpoint, the problem of the origin of language was never abandoned by philosophers (nor by some philologists and linguists), or by Bergson. In fact, as we will see, it was one of his main preoccupations regarding language.

28In his lectures on language Bergson advances his well-known thesis that there is a “reality that endures, but in which the preceding moment continues in the succeeding moment” (Bergson 2019, 128-129). Language, at first, would fix, “along this continuity of changes, a certain number of moments, of successive states” (Bergson 2019, 128-129). However, such fixation does not represent a pure and simple refraction of reality in motion, since both name and attribute simultaneously express immutability and mutability, the stable and the mobile. In the case of the noun, Bergson thinks that it expresses the concrete and the individual when we attach one or more different qualifiers to it, and, at the same time, the immutable and the immobile, when we consider it in itself, devoid of qualifiers. The same happens with the adjective: parallel to the expression of the general (through, for example, the adjective “black” of “the table is black”), it expresses the mobile and the change, since it is only possible to generalize the “black” after having gone through several other colors: “you can't think about the quality without thinking about the opposite quality and all the intermediate qualities” (Bergson 2019, 128).

29The apprehension, for example, of the phenomenon “solar spectrum” would then be translated into language as it follows: “the violet, blue, red, etc., sun.” Thus, it is plausible to infer that the name (“sun”) and the attribute (“violet,” “blue,” “red,” etc.) express both immutability (the “sun” without qualifiers in the case of the noun, and the attribute “violet” in the case of the adjective) and mutability (in the case of the noun, the “sun” as what continues throughout the attributions, but a continuity that changes, connecting the states that attribute something to it; and, in the case of the adjective, the states themselves that change into “violet,” “blue,” “red,” etc.). It is such expressive duplicity that constitutes what Bergson calls the “essential artifice of language.” “Being incapable of performing a simple and elementary act, this is how language expresses, as far as possible, the continuity of reality” (Bergson 2019, 132). And it is precisely for this reason that the first words, that is, the inaugural language, originally emanating from human intelligence, were probably a single term, semi-noun, and semi-adjective, expressing the solidity (continuity) of the noun and the mobility and fluidity of the term it qualifies.

  • 15 The term “impetus” (“élan”) had already been used by Bergson in Time and Free Will, but without thi (...)

30However, Bergson goes even deeper and wonders about the reasons that would motivate the “irresistible” dichotomous tendency of language, coincident with the essence of conceptual thinking, that takes immediate knowledge (which, as we have seen, is the knowledge of a similarity) and distinguishes it, on the one hand, as something stable and individual and, on the other, as mobile and general, forming the double form of the concept. The answer must be sought in “deep” and “natural” tendencies (Bergson 2019, 133) or, as Bergson also puts it, in an “impulsion,” in an “impetus” (“élan”) that impels us to social life, “demanding that we became sociable” (Bergson 2019, 135).15 In short, it is the “general evolution of life” (“évolution générale de la vie”) — understood in an openly finalist fashion, beyond mere “chance” — that makes man's psychological faculties directed to practice and, consequently, that language has come out of human intelligence in a dichotomous way. However, if the goal of “the general evolution of life” is social life — a strong and extravagant thesis, enunciated without any context by Bergson, but that will be developed in later essays — it is with the support of ethology and comparative psychology that our philosopher will make an essential distinction between social life as a means and social life as an end.

  • 16 In the course, Bergson does not openly inform the sources used in both books. In Creative Evolution(...)

31Anticipating considerations on Animal and Human Societies that will be made in Creative Evolution and in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion,16 Bergson states that the societies of certain categories of insects are part of a progress of life for society, to arrive at the social form. Once reached, such social configurations are fixed and immobilized — it is the perfect society, characterized by a completely finished social discipline where “everyone obeys and no one commands.” In contrast, in human society, there is a kind of progress within progress, since social life is not an end in itself but a means to individual progress, a thesis that will be developed through the difficult problem of individuality in Creative Evolution (although the third chapter ends with an elliptical mention of “the whole of humanity” (Bergson 2008a, 271), in the essay “Life and Consciousness” (especially at the end of the definitive version, from 1919) and in the 1932 book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.

  • 17 But not “a goat from a sheep,” as Bergson tells us in Laughter. “The wolf is unlikely to make a dif (...)
  • 18 In “History of Animals” (Aristotle, 504b) and “Parts of Animals” (Aristotle, 660a30-660b1) Aristotl (...)

32In the April 2 lecture, Bergson concludes that the exclusively human double tendency, formed by social discipline and individual initiative is, therefore the root of the dichotomous trend of language and concepts. Thus, there are two directions produced by the evolution of life that would take shape in man. A “conservative” tendency, linked to stability and immobility, and whose founding expression would be found in human society through social discipline, which would then be transmitted to the conceptual thought of the general. In the domain of language, this tendency expresses itself as a name (noun). The other direction, “revolutionary” and “progressive,” is allied to mobility and has the individual’s initiative as its social form. It manifests itself in thought through the form of an individual concept, whose linguistic expression is the attribute, the adjective, the qualifier. “Such a split is what allows man to speak.” Although capable of producing general ideas (which enables it to distinguish a hare from a partridge), an animal has a “linear existence.”17 Humans, on the contrary, live a “dichotomous existence,” which will even allow the possibility of reflection and metaphysics. The organs of speech are, therefore, necessary but not sufficient for language development, fact that is attested, for example, by vocally “admirably gifted birds,” even more so than men (Bergson 2019, 138).18

33The constraints of life will not determine completely man’s will or agency. Language, despite such directions given by nature, was “invented by men to serve them in order to fight against hunger, disease, and enemies” (Bergson 2019, 136-137). Much can be said here, but from the point of view of linguistic studies, the thesis that language is social is old. According to some historians, it dates back to Letter to Herodotus of Epicurus and Book V of De Rerum Natura of Lucretius (Reinhardt 2008; Cole 1967; Lifschitz 2012), passing through the Darwinian studies on language present in The Origin of Species and, above all, in The Descent of Man (Darwin 1896, 84-92; Alter 1999; Richards 2002; Blanckaert 2011b). In the Modern Age, it can be tracked in Locke’s An Essay concerning human understanding and several French and British Enlightenment philosophers and Idéologues (Lifschitz 2012; Aarsleff 1974; Busse and Trabant 1986; Chervel 1979). Ludwig Noiré (1829-1889), one of the most radical partisans of the social roots of language also deserves mention (Cassirer 2021, 217, 256-258; D’Alonzo 2017).

34The reference I make of these thinkers does not represent a mere exposure of a historical mapping. It reveals a long tradition that sought to disentangle itself from the natural language presented in the dialogue “Cratylus” by Plato, without, however, refusing the naturalist hypothesis This strategy was extremely important for the debate between linguistic naturalism and anti-naturalism that I intended to emphasize in the case of Bergson. In the well-known Platonic dialogue, Socrates arbitrates the dispute between Hermogenes and Cratylus, siding, albeit with important reservations (separation between real and ideal language), with the claim made by the latter. Against the hypothesis of Hermogenes, for whom signs are arbitrary, Cratylus states that there is a natural relationship between language and things. The problem is that this natural relationship is actually ideal, that is, outside the corruption of nature and concrete man. It is for this reason that Aristotle's criticism of Plato in the second part of “On Interpretation,” in which the Stagirite argues that there is no meaning directly linking words and things, is insufficient to Epicurus and Lucretius. They seek to overcome both the incongruity of the Platonic answer and the unsatisfactory Aristotelian response, a solution that will be refined throughout the tradition I have just mentioned. For some scholars, though, the thesis of Cratylus is related to the idea stated in the book Genesis 2: 19-20. In this passage, the Bible asserts the existence of a divine and original language of Adam (later called the Adamic language), since “he [Adam] called the animals according to their nature.”

35The originality of Epicurus and Lucretius lies in the idea that the first sounds had, in fact, a relation with things, being, therefore, natural. Nevertheless, these sounds were “bestial” like “grunting”. Thus, the subsequent development of language would have been made by human artifice, a thesis interpreted by some scholars as the first attempt to consider language as an “emotional sign of feelings”. This thesis stands against the views that conceive language through theoretical lens, where its value is exclusively analyzed based on the place it occupies regarding knowledge (position shared by various empirical and rationalist theories of language) (Cassirer 2021, 84-85). The importance of this conception can be found in the developments of the many subsequent “theories of the natural sounds” that could be traced at least until evolutionary theories of language such as Darwin’s, based on the fact that:

[S]ounds […] for the purpose of simplification and mutual understanding, were only gradually contracted into more-general types of words and languages […] Language develops as a particular domain of the general drive for sensible-mimic expression, which is innate in and indigenous to humans, which is not a work of reflection but unconsciously and unintentionally inherent (Cassirer 2021, 85).

36Bergson, a translator of Lucretius (Bergson 1972, 265-311) seems to have taken some lessons from the old Roman poet.

37However, Bergson does not consider language as something completely emotional, separated from knowledge. For him, knowledge itself is rooted in vital and evolutionary tendencies, linked, therefore, with the survival aspects that I mentioned above. Language is a human creation. But, at the same time, because of its social roots – which, as we saw, is eminently natural, in an evolutionary and biological sense – language is also conditioned by forces that exceed men in many ways. Bergson seems thus to assimilate, in his own fashion, theoretical strategies close to those stated by linguistic naturalism, and, above all, different from his previous thoughts on the subject. These new assertions will pave the way and make more intelligible the idea presented in Creative Evolution of language as an instrument of “liberation” of consciousness (Bergson 2008a, 160). Yet, the incommensurability between instinct and intelligence proposed in this work — that can also be attested, as we saw, in an incipient way in L’idée de temps, in the radical difference between human species and a certain kind of insects — implies particularities regarding the most current versions of naturalism and evolutionary linguistics, since these versions state a complete continuity between animal, pre-human and human language.

38To conclude, it should be noted that many years later, in 1923, Bergson objected to the promotion of the artificial language “Esperanto” for reasons very similar to those I have just presented. At that time, Bergson was the president of the cultural division of the “League of Nations,” established amidst the ruins of World War I, the “International Commission for Intellectual Cooperation” (which would later become the “UNESCO,” the cultural division of the United Nations and built after World War II). According to Bergson, “Esperanto” would distance, and not, as its supporters believed, bring nations closer. In order to know and have empathy for a different culture, it is necessary:

[T]o move to the country and live for a certain time the life of those who inhabit it, or rather, then, from afar, learn their language and study their literature — strictly speaking, language would suffice, because it is impregnated with the spirit of the people who speak it (Bergson 1972, 1416).

39Language — as would be the case of society and morality nine years later in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion — has a natural origin that will always accompany it, which does not prevent its fortune and history from being diverse and unpredictable. However, such unpredictability is not only due to the will or caprice of men, but also — and here lies all the difference — to the evolution of life.


40Language has been one of the main subjects in the philosophical landscape of the 20th Century, central to both analytical and continental traditions. Bergson, a philosopher whose importance cannot be denied, at least in his lifetime, could hardly be classified within either of these two directions taken by contemporary philosophy (this perhaps contributed to undermining the later influence of his thought). Among the various causes of this situation, lies the negative and apparent superficiality of Bergson’s assertions about language. With this article, I hope to have shown that Bergson was conscious of the debates on the subject that were occurring in his time, and that language was a relevant element of his philosophy. Approaching language through a naturalistic perspective, he distances himself from the reflections made by analytical philosophers, phenomenologists and hermeneuts, and perhaps this is the reason why we should return to his considerations on the topic.

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1 This essay was supported by the grant 2020/15114-5, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). All translations are mine.

2 In Creative Evolution, Bastian's book is mobilized for similar reasons, since it contributes to a discussion of the keen sense of direction of uncivilized people from the forest in relation to civilized people from the city (Bergson 2008, 213).

3 For example, if there was a difference between music, literature, poetry, dance, painting, sculpture, etc. (perhaps implying the precedence of one over the others). Or if scientific or technical creation was equivalent to artistic creation (Bergson indicates that Newton’s "theory of fluxions" "reverses the usual march of thought" in "Introduction to Metaphysics,” from 1903 (Bergson 2009a, 214)). In this case, it should also be investigated whether there is a difference between the various sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) and if mathematics would occupy a special place. The eventual primacy of ethics over aesthetics is also an important variation to be considered.

4 In Matter and Memory, Bergson briefly deals with verbs, common names and proper names, but from the “psycholinguistic” point of view, that is, within the debates with the neuropsychology of language. It was important to understand the capacity (or inability) to understand and articulate these words in the case of aphasia (Bergson 2008b, 131-134). There is also a brief mention of the subject in Laughter (Bergson 2007b, 117).

5 It is worth mentioning that the “positivity” of society (but not of language) appears, albeit in another way, in some texts written before 1896 such as “La spécialité” (1882), “La politesse” (1885) and “Le bon sens et les études classiques” (1895). One of the only studies that shows this “positiveness” of language in relation to society is the text by Argentinean philologist and critic Raimundo Lida, for whom the “positive view [of language] only happens from the level of social interests” (Lida 1933, 27). However, influenced by The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, at a certain moment in the text he holds that social progress is guaranteed exclusively by individual emotion, reserving only the social and general order to the language. As we shall see, such an idea, at least in view of the Cours of 1901-1902, does not seem to be entirely correct, since language itself contributes both to social progress and to individual progress. In addition, Lida ends up strongly adhering to a type of aestheticism at the end of the article, completely non-existent in the course in question, through the very marked distinction between the "intuition of language" and the "language of intuition,” the latter limited to poetry. Lida sent the text to Bergson, and Bergson, in a very flattering letter to Lida, says that his “pervasive study” is a “deep analysis of my work.” Lida's essay, still according to Bergson, would have “extracted everything that concerns the expression of thought in language” (Bergson 2002, 1424).

6 In linguistic studies, this position also coincides with those defended by Wilhelm von Humboldt, at least according to Bréal, since he uses Humboldt as a source of inspiration. Lida’s text mentioned above also shows such a Biranian origin (Lida 1933, 21ss) and the resemblance to Humboldt, for whom “the intensity of psychic experience” paves the way “to verbal articulation,” because “discourse is not a composite of previous words, but, on the contrary, words derive from the totality of discourse.” It is along the same lines that Lida brings Bergson closer to the psychologist and linguist Karl Bühler, who would have gone beyond Humboldt and Bergson by showing the “coming and going between part and whole of discourse” (Lida 1933, 41ss). Jürgen Trabant draws attention to this problem in Humboldt and discusses in depth the psychic origin of language (Trabant 1985).

7 Bergson seems to follow here the various comments made in Matter and Memory about recognition, perception of similarities and general idea (Bergson 2008b, 96ss, 173-182ss). However, in the lesson of April 18, 1902 on the course, he emphasizes that the fixation made by conceptual apprehension should not be understood as a “physiological accident,” and recovers the experiments on the physiology of the sense organs analyzed in Matter and Memory (although this book is not mentioned by him) and “in the course of the past year” (“L'idée de cause,” given at the Collège de France in 1900-1901), which we have only a short summary in the “Mélanges” (Bergson 1972, 440) and the handwritten notes made by Jacques Chevalier (Bergson 2019, 183-227). Such experiments, according to the course of 1901-1902 (and to the book of 1896), show that our “physiological organization” is oriented “in the direction of a kind of retardation (“ralentissement”), of concentration of external becoming” (Bergson 2019, 105-106).

8 In the book of 1907, Kant and Christoph Sigwart (1830-1904) are the main references when the negative proposition is discussed (Bergson 2008a, 287).

9 The term that appears in the edition of the course is “aristmas” (p.116), apparently non-existent in Greek. I can imagine the difficulties faced by the editor of a text based on manuscripts, but that does not justify the numerous problems of L’idée de temps, edited by Gabriel Meyer-Bisch (lack of contextualization notes in key passages and references, incomplete name index, errors in the transliteration of passages in Latin and Greek and proper names, etc.).On the problems (some similar) of Camille Riquier 's edition of Bergson's subsequent course at the Collège de France, Histoire de l'idée de temps (1902-1903), see Matton (2017), a rather harsh (and convincing) text, whose criticisms could have been used by Meyer-Bisch.

10 Bergson alludes to Homer and the problem of connectives that, in the course's edition, is written as follows: “in Greek the word os; qui ai os esé, Homer says” (p. 118). However, “qui ai os esé" does not seem to belong to ancient Greek (would it be a mixture of French with Greek?), making the excerpt unintelligible and constituting another problem of the edition of the text (was Bergson referring to the Greek adverb “ὡς” or the pronoun “ὅς”?). If we follow Cassirer’s analysis, the place of connectives in Homer’s works was a common issue among German philologists, such as Jakob Grimm and Georg Curtius (Cassirer 2021, 132).

11 Bergson mentions the “artificial concepts” of the theory of “embranchement,” possibly in an allusion to the comparative anatomy of Georges Cuvier (the editor of the course does not provide us with any information about it).

12 “The real difficulties begin in the second half of the nineteenth century when the organic metaphor is taken literally and to its ultimate consequences; language now becomes a real organism, with a life independent of the speaker, and linguistics becomes a science without historical content, such is the conclusion reached by Schleicher and partially accepted and popularized (albeit with reservations) by Max Müller. Paradoxically, the same organicism that had promoted a historical approach to language [Schlegel, Grimm, Bopp, Humboldt] is now used to deny its validity” (Davies 1998, 88, Davies 1987, Percival 1987, Wells 1987). To the best of my knowledge, the only study that sees the organic analogy in Schleicher as a continuation of that proposed by the Romantic linguists of the previous generation is the book, by Yvette Conry, about the French reception of Darwin (Conry 1974, 92, 95).

13 Bergson does not reveal the biologists who would have made such a challenge, but it is possible that, in 1901, he was in the process of reading the experiments of Joseph Künstler, Adam Sedgwick, Alphonse Labbé, Paul Busquet and, above all, of Yves Delage (all inspired by August Weismann), against Edmond Perrier's “animal colonies,” which conceives the individual as an association of elements, a phenomenon he calls “polyzoism” (Bergson 2008a, 260). A critic of “cellular atomism,” Delage will maintain that it is not the cells that make up the organism through association, but rather, it is the organism that dissociates itself into cells, a fundamental idea for the conception of life defended in Creative Evolution.

14 The edition of the course contains, without any note, the name of the famous writer Stendhal (Bergson, 2019, p. 121), author of Le Rouge et le Noir, which seems an implausible reference regarding the example of the “savages of Borneo.” Therefore, I believe that, due to the proximity of the names and the subject of this lecture, it is possible that Bergson refers to the Humboldtian philologist Heymann Steinthal, a critic of Schleicher and of the naturalist approach in linguistics (although I couldn’t find any mention of Bornean people in Steinthal’s works). Steinthal wrote a book on the “Mandé” people, from West Africa (Die Mande-Negersprachen, psychologisch und phonetisch betrachtet. Berlin: Dümmler, 1867), and had a certain influence in France, having studied in Paris. The exactness of Bergson’s reference is still open, but, in any case, a note by the editor would have been really helpful. About Steinthal: Trautmann-Waller 2006.

15 The term “impetus” (“élan”) had already been used by Bergson in Time and Free Will, but without this explicit connotation, as “an ‘élan’ common to all our ideas” (Bergson 2007a, 100). However, I believe that this mention in L’idée de temps is the first occurrence in Bergson’s work of the term “élan” in the sense of “élan vital” (“vital impetus”). As we know, this notion was a source of innumerable controversies and commentaries after its appearance in Creative Evolution. It should be noted that the concept of “élan vital” was used in this sense as early as 1899 not by Bergson, but by André Lalande, in La dissolution opposée à l'évolution (book cited by Bergson in Creative Evolution) against the primacy of the “law of evolution of Spencer,” that was based on the “conservation of force” and ignorant of the facts brought by the “law of energy degradation” or "entropy” (Lalande 1899, 399). Indeed, the term has been used previously by more obscure figures and, among Bergson’s references, Alfred Fouillée, that, unlike Lalande, does not use the exact term “élan vital,” but expressions with similar meaning, such as "impetus of evolution" (“élan de l’évolution”), among others.

16 In the course, Bergson does not openly inform the sources used in both books. In Creative Evolution, his main references of the wide literature dedicated to understanding the order of Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants and symphites) as well as the nature of instinct and social instinct are the studies of Henri Fabre, George and Elizabeth Packham, Darwin, Georges Romanes. Eugène-Louis Bouvier, Albert Bethe, Auguste Forel and Hugo von Buttel-Reepen,

17 But not “a goat from a sheep,” as Bergson tells us in Laughter. “The wolf is unlikely to make a difference between a goat and a sheep” (Bergson 2007b, 116). Also, in Matter and Memory, when the declaration that it is the “grass in general that attracts the herbivore” (Bergson 2008b, 177). It should be noted, however, that in Matter and Memory and Laughter, Bergson seems to emphasize with much more emphasis the difference between memory-habit (body) and pure memory (spirit) if we compare it with the course from 1900-1901. He even gets to a point of reserving, in Matter and Memory, the “experienced recognition” (as opposed to “thought recognition”) to (1). the “animal” (see also the example of the dog that recognizes its owner. Bergson 2008b, 87), (2). the “child” and (3). the “savage” (Bergson 2008b, 172). In these cases, the habit-memory has a primacy over pure-memory. It is true that in his lecture of April 18, 1902 of the course, Bergson speaks equally of the baby (who would hardly distinguish the mother from the nanny (“nourrice), but would be able to distinguish the father from both) and the animal (whose knowledge is “lived by the body”) (Bergson 2019, 105-106). But, it is also true that Bergson makes a kind of a praise for experienced savoir-faire as opposed to thought (Bergson 2019, 110-111), also in adults, as shown in the example of the carpenter who builds the wheel of the cart. Bergson points that such an example is taken from an “English author,” but does not name him. The edition of the course does not provide the reference.

18 In “History of Animals” (Aristotle, 504b) and “Parts of Animals” (Aristotle, 660a30-660b1) Aristotle makes a very similar comment on birds and the organs of speech, and, although Bergson does not explicitly mention it, it is likely that this comment made by the Stagirite is his inspiration (the editor of L’idée de temps omits this reference and offers no clarification regarding it). The subject was recurrent in Antiquity, being also present in the Stoics and in Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Pliny, Porphyry, among others (Fögen 2014).

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Bruno B. Rates, « Linguistic Naturalism and Anti-Naturalism in Bergson’s Course L’Idée de Temps: Language, Society, and Life »Bergsoniana [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 26 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Bruno B. Rates

Bruno B. Rates is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo (USP/FAPESP), Brazil. He is the author of The expressions of life. Nature and Culture in Bergson’s philosophy (under contract). His area of research is the philosophical impact of evolutionism and the life sciences at the turn of the 20th century.

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