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Affect, Utility, and Self-Constitution. A Bergsonian Reading of Whitehead and Levinas

Miguel José Paley


Cet article étudie les notions d’utilité et d’affect de Bergson à la lumière de leur relation avec le processus de constitution de soi tel qu’il est développé dans L’Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience et Matière et mémoire, ainsi que la manière dont ces idées ont été reprises dans la pensée de Levinas et Whitehead. Je commence par mentionner trois critiques fondamentales de l’œuvre de Bergson, en me concentrant sur l’accusation selon laquelle sa philosophie est problématiquement impersonnelle. Dans la première partie de l’article, j’explore comment la notion d’affect peut contrer une telle accusation. Bien que Bergson développe peut la notion d’affect, elle joue un rôle fondamental et déterminant dans la notion de constitution de soi chez Bergson. Je montre ensuite comment ce point de vue peut être en contradiction avec la vision de la nature comme utilitaire chez Bergson. À la lumière de ce conflit, l’article parle de deux Bergson, l’un excessivement utilitaire et l’autre qui met un accent vague mais important sur l’affect. La deuxième partie expose la métaphysique de base de Whitehead et de Levinas afin de montrer que leurs critiques des philosophies utilitaires et vitales partagent la même attention portée à l’affect qui était déjà présente dans la philosophie de Bergson. En constatant cette similitude, l’article conclut en soutenant que, dans les moments où ils semblent le plus critiquer Bergson, il est possible de lire Whitehead et Levinas comme étant, en réalité, nettement bergsoniens.

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I would like to express my gratitude to the many participants and panelists of the 2020 Global Bergsonism Research conference at UPenn for their questions and feedback on the presentation that this paper is based on. The piece is undoubtedly much improved thanks to their thoughts. I would also like to thank my colleagues Jonathan Berk and P.J. Gorre at The New School for their constant conversations, feedback, and encouragement with these thoughts on Bergson and Phenomenology.

  • 1 The issue of Bergson’s vitalism revolves mainly around his notion of the elan vital and has been th (...)
  • 2 The idea of Bergson as a “dangerous anti-intellectualist” was first made popular by Bertrand Russel (...)

1After enjoying immense popularity during the early twentieth century, Bergson’s thought quickly fell out of fashion. Aside from the various social and political factors for this (among which one could count Bergson’s questionable war writings, his activities as a diplomat, and the rise in popularity of philosophical trends such as positivism, the philosophy of language, and phenomenology and existentialism) the decline of interest in his thought can be ascribed to three common philosophical critiques of his work. Bergson’s philosophy was deemed problematic for being vitalist,1 anti-intellectualist,2 and for providing an overly impersonal picture of subjectivity. Given the recent resurgence of interest in his work however, the time is right for a re-examination of these issues to see how things stand with such critiques and perhaps think through what Bergson’s philosophy could say about them. With this goal in mind, this paper bears on that third critique, the issue of impersonalism, by focusing on Bergson’s notions of utility and affect in light of their relationship to the process of self-constitution. In particular, it highlights the important yet somewhat underdetermined role of affect in the process of self-constitution so as to show what resources exist in Bergson’s own thought to counter such claims. We will thus only mention the critiques in passing, focusing for the rest of the paper on Bergson’s idea of self-constitution and the influence it might have had with regard to such critiques.

2The critique of impersonalism, commonly leveled by phenomenologists, takes aim at Bergson’s determination of two kinds of relationships, that between the organism and the word, and that between the individual consciousness and the elan vital. Essentially, critics agreed that Bergson’s overemphasis on the vital needs of the organism prevented him from properly accounting for a meaningful sense of disinterested action and thus that his philosophy ultimately lacked a meaningful sense of subjective individuality. For readers of Time and Free Will, with its emphasis on the irreducibility and uniqueness of the psychological experience of duration, such critique might seem shocking. And yet, this is precisely what thinkers like Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Barbaras conclude when looking at how Bergson understands these two relationships. In his Structure of Behavior, for instance, Merleau-Ponty says that,

The image of Matter and Memory is accompanied by consciousness of itself at the moment when the physical forces […] are dissipated in […] a being capable of action proper […] But the action of which Bergson is thinking is always vital action, that by which the organism maintains itself in existence. In the act of human work, in the intelligent construction of instruments, he sees only another manner of attaining the ends which instinct pursues in its way […] (Merleau-Ponty 1967, 163).

3Barbaras, in turn says something similar:

In short, by assimilating life to consciousness, Bergson […] dissolves life into a consciousness that is nothing more than a force or a positive, spiritual principle. It follows that, when it is a matter of thinking the effectivity of life within living beings, which is quite simply the vital activity, Bergson falls back onto this general conception of life that only sees an activity of conservation and reproduction in it. In short, he falls back into an ontology of death. The only difference between these similar perspectives is that this individual life, which is nothing other than survival, is at the service of the pursuit of the vital impulse, or of the development of the mind in matter. It is clear that by adopting this restrictive conception of life as conservation and reproduction instead of interrogating the proper meaning of its being, Bergson prohibits himself from giving an account of the difference of human existence as well as of the consciousness that characterizes that existence (Barbaras 2010, 270).

4As we will see below, Levinas too levelled a similar critique.

5Yet, while Bergson’s emphasis of the vital is beyond question, we can also find in his work a consistent, if underdetermined, emphasis on the centrality of affect for consciousness. By focusing on this idea and its importance for consciousness, we hope to bring attention to another side of Bergson’s thought, one whose emphasis on the experience of individual, embodied life might serve as a rejoinder to these kinds of critiques. In fact, we will argue that it was by embracing a distinctly Bergsonian idea of affect that both Levinas and Whitehead sought to counter impersonal metaphysics of the kind that Bergson was criticized for having.

6With this goal in mind then, this paper will have two parts. In the first part, we will discuss Bergson’s notion of self-constitution by focusing on a few key ideas: the notion of action, the notion of utility, and especially how this relation exists in the concept of affect. The notion of utility will lead us to Bergson’s conception of nature which will then set the stage for a discussion of the relationship between need and affect in the process of self-constitution. The claim here will be that Bergson, perhaps without realizing it, gives an account of the process of self-constitution that is based on affect. This account, however, is somewhat at odds with his determination of nature as utilitarian. Then, in in the second part, we will very briefly trace some of the basic features of the metaphysics of both Whitehead and Levinas and show how these two seemingly very different thinkers are responding to this exact same problem and provide an almost identical solution. Both thinkers critique a utilitarian concept of nature such as Bergson’s. In emphasizing the role of affect as determining for self-constitution, however, we argue that such critiques are themselves deeply Bergsonian thoughts and, as such, may reveal more about the Bergsonism of Levinas and Whitehead than about the particular faults of Bergson’s own work.

Bergson and Self-Constitution

7For Bergson, it was a reflection on the empty temporality of the scientific thinking of his day that led him to abandon Spencerian philosophy and develop the notion of duration. Among many other things, this fundamental insight means that Bergson’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of becoming, indeed of creative evolution. In Bergson’s work the human subject is not only of duration psychologically, although that is the extent to which it is first described in Time and Free Will, but it is also itself, as a living organism, in duration, it is a creature of duration, and thus in constant becoming; so much is made clear in Matter and Memory and Creative Evolution. It is in this latter sense that we talk of self-constitution. Very generally, we take self-constitution to be the process by which the various functions or elements of the self, come to be coordinated with one other. As Bergson at one-point talks of the “symphony of the body” (Bergson 2001, 35) we might here speak more generally of self-constitution as the process that attains the “symphony of the self.” Rather than provide too detailed a definition from the start, we hope to follow Bergson’s own procedure and simply begin exploring this phenomenon to see what we might learn about it in the end. (Bergson 1920, 3) The symphonic metaphor is however especially useful in discussing self-constitution for at stake is of course not the joining of separate parts, Time and Free Will makes clear that such atomism, psychological or otherwise, is out of the question. Rather, as with an orchestra, the job to be done consists in coordinating an already united multiplicity, a heterogenous multiplicity, so as to produce the music. In Time and Free Will, Bergson speaks of psychic states of varying intensity, things like the feeling of heat or an intense anger or joy. In Matter and Memory, we then find what we might call various functions of the self, things like perception, memory, the acting body, and again, affects. Here, self-constitution is the name we use for the process which coordinates this multiplicity, a coordination whose result is subjectivity or what Whitehead might call, “experiential unity” (Whitehead 1979, 113). Understood in this way, subjectivity is thus is a constant achievement, sometimes more deep and complete than others, but always successful to some minimal degree. In order to describe this process of self-constitution we will first go through Bergson’s determination of the character of each of these functions and their relationship to Bergson’s understanding of nature as such.

8As Matter and Memory clearly states, perception, affect, memory, and the body in general must be understood in terms of action. Our being in the world is first and foremost practical. Beginning with perception, Bergson tells us that it does not add anything to the world but rather subtracts all those things which nowise alter the organism’s capacity to act. Our perception thus in one way delimits what Bergson calls the “zone of indetermination” that defines the organism in the universe (Bergson 1991, 32). Perception is in this way intimately tied to our freedom, it is the reflection from the world of our possible action upon it.

9Perception however would be nothing without the body. If perception reduces the world according to our possible action upon it, it does so by relying on the specific measure of action or functional capacity of the body. For this is the sole office of the body, it does not create representations nor does it store memories. As Bergson says, this is the crucial teaching of Matter and Memory: “The body is a tool of action and action alone” (Bergson 1991, 225). This applies to the brain in particular, which Bergson says is simply concerned with the transmission of movement (Bergson 1991, 30). Like perception, the brain is an organ of freedom. Like perception as well then, the extent of the freedom marked by the brain is measured by the body’s functional capacity. As we can see from these two examples already, there is a constant relation in Bergson’s thought between organs of freedom and the body’s functional capacity.

10Moving on to memory, we find a similar, albeit more complicated, link between it and the body. On the one hand, Bergson’s describes two kinds of memories, habit memory and what is sometimes called episodic or pure memory. Habit memory is evidently about practical engagement with the world. Pure memory, however, also holds a strong relation to the body which is described through the figure of an inverted cone on a plane. Here, the relation is dialectical but nevertheless, again, it is a relation determined by the sensori-motor capabilities of the organism. Bergson says:

On the one hand, the memory of the past offers to the sensori-motor mechanisms all the recollections capable of guiding them in their task and of giving to the motor reaction the direction suggested by the lessons of experience [] But, on the other hand, the sensori-motor apparatus furnish to unconscious, memories, the means of taking on a body. For a recollection to appear in consciousness, it must descend from the heights of memory down to the point where action is taking place. It is from the present that the appeal to which memory responds comes, and it is from the sensori-motor elements of present action that a memory borrows the warmth which gives it life (Bergson 1991, 152).

11Turning finally to our main point of interest, affect, we find once again this deep connection to action and the body. This connection is perhaps seen here above all, almost to the point of coincidence. In Matter and Memory Bergson defines affect as follows:

Our perception of an object distinct from our body, separated from our body by an interval, never expresses anything but virtual action. But the more distance decreases between this object and our body, the more does virtual action tend to pass into real action. Suppose the distance reduced to zero, that is to say, that the object perceived is our body. Then it is no longer virtual but real action that this specialized perception will express, and that is exactly what affection is (Bergson 1991, 57).

12Interestingly however, this definition is in a sense the opposite of that given in Time and Free Will. Whereas here affect is defined in opposition to the virtual, in Time and Free Will affect as a function of the organic body is defined according to the virtual. Affect is implicated in virtuality to the extent that what affect is, is the body’s report on what is tending to happen. While discussing pleasure and pain in Time and Free Will, Bergson says that affect:

[I]nstead of expressing only what has just occurred, or what is actually occurring in the organism [] points out what is going to or tending to take place […] The affective state must then correspond not merely to physical disturbances, movement, or phenomena which have taken place, but also, and especially, to those which are in preparation, those which are getting ready to be (Bergson 2001, 33).

13With this briefest of sketches of some of the elements of subjectivity that Bergson considers, we can see how every single aspect of Bergson’s subject is deeply implicated with action. This is the main lesson of Matter and Memory, but it was also already somewhat described in Time and Free Will, where Bergson explains that our conceptions of space, time, and even language all result from our need to act in the world. As Worms says, Bergson’s philosophy is thus “both a practical and theoretical pragmatism” (Worms 2000, 9).

14Returning now to the idea of self-constitution, we can see how affect is an especially important phenomenon in such a process. For if, as was briefly shown, everything is to some degree coordinated around the body and its action, and affect is nothing else than the feeling of this body in action, whether or not we define it in terms of the virtual or solely in terms of the real, then we might assume that it is through affect and affective feelings that these various elements that Bergson describes are unified. Bergson indeed says as much in Matter and Memory, where he explicitly describes the “centripetal” process where the otherwise disjuncted and scattered perceptions are centralized around “my body,” thereby creating “my personality.” While this process is decidedly not intellectual, it isn’t strictly guided by utility either. It is affective:

[O]ur representation is at first impersonal. Only little by little, and as a result of experience, does it adopt our body as center and become our representation. The mechanism of this process is easy to understand. As my body moves in space, all other images vary, while that image, my body, remains invariable. I must, therefore, make it a center, to which I refer all other images […] I can see clearly how my body comes to occupy, within this aggregate, a privileged position. And I understand whence also arises the notion of interiority and exteriority, which is, to begin with, merely the distinction between my body and other bodies […] My body is that which stands out as the center of these perceptions; my personality is the being to which these actions must be referred. The whole subject becomes clear if we travel thus from the periphery to the center, as the child does, and as we ourselves are invited to do so from immediate experience (Bergson 1991, 46 my emphasis).

15We thus have a very general characterization of the process of self-constitution. It is a process of involution, as Levinas will say, a process of coordinating various elements into a center. Having said this, Bergson further elaborates on how this happens.

My perception […] does not go from my body to other bodies; it is, to begin with, in the aggregate of bodies, then gradually limits itself and adopts my body as center. And it is led to do so precisely by the experience of the double faculty, which this body possesses, of performing actions and feeling affections; in a word, it is led to do so by the experience of the sensory-motor power of a certain image, privileged among other images. For, on the one hand, this image always occupies the center of representation, so that the other images range themselves round it […] on the other hand, I know it from within, by sensations which I term affective, instead of knowing only, as in the case of other images, its outer skin. There is, then, in, a privileged image, perceived in its depths and no longer only on the surface — the seat of affection and the source of action: it is this particular image which I adopt as the center of my universe and as the physical basis for my personality (Bergson 1991, 61 my emphasis).

16Beyond the simple feeling of the body in action then, affect is the fundamental event which serves to establish a living center for the organism in the world. Bergson speaks of this process as guided by “the experience of a ‘double-faculty,’ of performing actions and feeling affections” (Bergson 1991, 61), but if affect is the feeling of the body in action then aren’t the two experiences in some sense one and the same? Isn’t the experience of action not the precise definition of affect quoted above? In this sense we might thus say that Bergson develops an affect-based, centripetal theory of self-constitution. This is somewhat unusual to say because, compared to other things like perception and memory, affect receives limited attention in his work. And yet, whenever affect is spoken about, statements like these always appear.

17Perhaps the most surprising of all these moments comes in Time and Free Will, when Bergson first uses the symphonic metaphor in his description of the role of affect. There, he says:

[I]it must noticed that we rise by imperceptible stages from automatic to free movements, and that the latter differ from the former principally in introducing an affective sensation between the external action which occasions them and the volitional reaction which ensues. Indeed, all our actions might have been automatic, and we can surmise that there are many organized beings in whose case an external stimulus causes a definite reaction without calling up consciousness as an intermediary agent (Bergson 2001, 33).

  • 3 “Il faut remarquer en outre qu’on s’élève par degrés insensibles des mouvements automatiques aux mo (...)

18Notice the substitution at play here. In the first sentence, Bergson describes affect as what makes a difference for free beings. In the second sentence however, the intermediary agent is not just affect, it is consciousness itself. What was affect in one sentence is simply consciousness in the second.3 How to explain this leap, this seeming equivalence here between affect and consciousness? Presumably, Bergson isn’t simply saying that affect is equivalent to consciousness. For, of course, the whole of Time and Free Will is dedicated to discussing consciousness in detail while affect is only mentioned here and there. Rather, we might see this as a kind of Freudian slip, one which reveals precisely what is then shown in Matter and Memory: in Bergson’s picture of subjectivity, affect plays a crucial, guiding role for the process of self-constitution. The switch here between affect and consciousness makes sense if we understand the process of self-constitution as guided by affect.

19Having established this link between these two notions, we move on to show how Bergson’s philosophy of nature complicates this picture.

20In Bergson’s thought, nature is entirely utilitarian. This is emphasized throughout his work, in almost every description of the natural world and of its relation with the organism. For every one of the elements of the subject which were mentioned above, we find a corresponding description of its relation with the natural world framed in terms of utility. Bergson’s first description of nature as utilitarian occurs in Time and Free Will, in the same section where he discusses affect. Affect, Bergson says, cannot be a simple scientific report of what’s happening in the organism, because nature, “so profoundly utilitarian,” has no space for useless scientific reports (Bergson 2001, 33). Utility also accounts for our distorted understanding of space and time. We see the world in this way because we need to, in order to act.

21Similarly, Matter and Memory often describes the relation between human beings and the world in terms of need. The reduction that perception performs on the real for instance is not simply that allowed by potential action. Rather, the real is cut up according to the needs of the organism, needs now understood as that which will conserve the individual or the species. As Bergson says:

In the humblest living being nutrition demands research, then contact, in short, a series of efforts which converge toward a center: this center is just what is made into an object the object which will serve as food. Whatever the nature of matter, it may be said that life will at once establish in it a primary discontinuity, expressing the duality of the need and of that which must serve to satisfy it […] To establish these special relations among portions thus carved out from sensible reality is just what we call living (Bergson 1991, 198).

22Like perception, memory too is often but not always defined in terms of utility. Bergson says for instance that:

[T]he interest of a living being lies in discovering in the present situation that which resembles a former situation, and then placing alongside of that present situation what preceded and followed the previous one, in order to profit by past experience. Of all the associations which can be imagined, those of resemblance and contiguity are therefore at first the only associations that have a vital utility (Bergson 1991, 242).

23As his various readers have noted, we see in these two examples a theme that runs throughout Bergson’s thought. In all of his work, there is a constant, double emphasis on need and utility when discussing the relation between the organism and nature. Wherever one looks in Bergson’s writing, nature is always understood as utilitarian and the organism is said to primarily relate to it in terms of its needs. The perceived world is what it is because of the biological needs of the human organism.

24The crucial point in all of this however is that the functional, sensori-motor capacity of the organism which was mentioned above is far greater in scope than the scope of the action required by an organism to fulfill its needs. In his recent book on Bergson, Sinclair notes this same fact when he says, “Bergson moves from the claim that bodily activity is involved in perception to the claim that perception itself is always a function of practical, biological need. The first claim does not entail the second one, and Bergson does little to show that it does” (Sinclair 2019, 116).

  • 4 For a detailed discussion of the relationship between Bergson and Levinas cf. Vieillard-Baron (2010 (...)

25This is all bears upon the issue of self-constitution because if the process of constitution is dealing with a multiplicity always concerned with action, and if that multiplicity is coordinated by affect, then differing views of the nature of affect, its nature vis-à-vis action and biological need, would provide very different pictures of the self. If, for instance, affect is understood to be about utility, as Time and Free Will states, then we would have a picture of the subject as a creature of utility. The problem with this, as Levinas will point out, is that too much focus on utility renders too impersonal a subject, one devoid of true individuality and any meaningful sense of interiority.4 This would of course clash with the main purpose and insight of Time and Free Will, which is the description of the essentially free being of duration. If, on the other hand, affect is not about utility, as Matter and Memory sometimes suggests, then we have a very different picture of the self, one which, however, comes with its own problem. In this case, there would be an incongruity between the description of nature, as utilitarian, and the description of self-constitution. For, if self-constitution really is guided by a notion of affect devoid of the limits of biological need, the process of constitution would be less about procuring nutrients and cutting up the world according to this or that need and more about simply attaining higher intensity of affect as such. In this latter scenario, and here we already anticipate Levinas and Whitehead, we find a picture of the world that is less an index of material needs and more a playground of sorts. For this view of self-constitution to work, our picture of nature would have to go beyond the limits or injunctions of utility and biological need and move towards something else. Such is what we claim Levinas and Whitehead develop, as a direct response to these issues in Bergson.

Whitehead and Levinas

26In order to see how these themes appear in and are developed by the work of Whitehead and Levinas, we will very briefly outline the main features of their metaphysics. Although they are quite different from one another, we can claim that they are both “Bergsonians” in the sense that they both see the process of self-constitution as affective and, importantly, emphasize the immediate enjoyment of affect as what motivates this process. That is to say, in both Whitehead and Levinas, the organism’s intercourse with the world is at bottom not one of utility but one of enjoyment.


27In the baroque metaphysics of Process and Reality, Whitehead has two goals. He hopes to avoid what he calls bifurcation theories of nature while also answering the basic question: how is it that novelty comes about? His answer, essentially, is that novelty happens through an affective process. For Whitehead, “actual entities” are the ultimate constituents of reality. These entities are, at their core, what he calls “drops of experience.” And experience, in this sense, means the feeling of other actual entities (Whitehead 1979, 18). With Whitehead we thus get a metaphysical picture similar to something like Leibnizian monads, with the difference that instead of having no windows, Whitehead’s actual entities are all windows.

28Fundamentally, the experience of these actual entities, and thus the most fundamental experience of all life, is affective. As Whitehead says it, “the basis of experience is emotional […] the basic fact is the rise of an affective tone originating from things whose relevance is given” (Whitehead 1967, 176). Novelty then results from the process of an actual entity feeling its world, what whitehead calls “prehending,” and thus changing from this experience. By changing, an actual entity creates a new disjunction in the world, and now becomes itself the subject for prehension by other entities and so on. In this way, the possibility for transcendence is immanent in the world because of the very make-up and the experience of actual entities.

29It is from this basis of the experience of actual entities that, eventually, something as complex as subjectivity can arise. And for this reason, Whitehead refers to the project of Process and Reality as a “critique of pure feeling” (Whitehead 1979, 113), i.e., a philosophical exploration that, like Kant’s, seeks to describe the constitutive elements of subjectivity. The difference to the Kantian project being, of course, that what is to be critiqued is feeling rather than reason, that from feeling itself something like consciousness and mental life can arise. There is thus an important reversal at play in Whitehead’s thought. As he says, “For Kant, the world emerges from the subject; for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world” (Whitehead 1979, 88). Similar to Bergson then, Whitehead describes subjectivity as a process whose achievement takes place through an intimate, affect based relation with the world. Further, Whitehead is also adamant that such a process in not intellectual. The subject doesn’t think herself into the world, she is rather the result of complex emotional or affective relationship with it.

30In our discussion of Bergson, we presented a theory of self-constitution that is based on affect but that doesn’t necessarily cohere with, or at least doesn’t require, an understanding of the relation between the subject and the world in terms of utility. If affect escapes relations of biological need however, then how can we take affect, in itself, to lead to subjectivity? What is it about affect that gives rise to something like mental life? In answering this question, Whitehead’s Bergsonism becomes clear.

31For Whitehead, an actual entity becomes more complex because the pleasure inherent in the affective relation to the world grows in proportion to the complexity of the world that is available to be felt by that entity. In other words, the more we can perceive of the world, the more we can feel, and thus, the more intense our enjoyment. The process of self-constitution is itself pleasurable for this reason, with the growth of complexity there follows deeper intensity of feeling. As Whitehead says:

[T]he characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment, creative activity, aim […] the enjoyment belongs to the process and is not a characteristic of any static result. The aim is at the enjoyment belonging to the process […]The individual enjoyment is what I am in my role of a natural activity, as I shape the activities of the environment into a new creation, which is myself at this moment […] the aim at the future is an enjoyment in the present. It thus effectively conditions the immediate self-creation of the new creature (Whitehead 1968, 152).

32Hans Jonas, who often wrote about Whitehead, explains it thus:

Intensification of feeling is a goal, for it is intensification of enjoyment, which is itself rewarding. If there is an actual entity called electron, it has to have self-feeling. We have to distinguish what its function in the extensive continuum is: Its presence for the future and coordinated environment means something to be expressed in an equation. But there has to be also something pointing to what it means to be an electron. The external relations have to be supported by a being possessed by the entity, and this cannot be the vacuous inertia, but a performance, a process of realization whose object and product is the entity in question. Thus, the theory of the actuality is a theory of actualization connected with enjoying its own being. This is the conative role of reality, it makes vacuous realty non vacuous (Jonas 1970, 52 my emphasis).

33In this very brief sketch, we can see one way in which Whitehead embraces Bergson’s conception of affect. His thought follows some of the basic contours of Bergson’s thinking in that it understands the process of self-constitution as resulting from a non-intellectual, perceptual, and affective relation to the world, while also going beyond it, leaving behind the focus on utility and maximally emphasizing the determining role of affect.


34Turning to Levinas, we find a very similar idea presented in an entirely different context. In his thought, affect is discussed as part of a phenomenology of “the elemental.” Developed as part of a rebuke of Heideggerian ontology, the elemental in Levinas is what sets up the ethical moment of the encounter with the Other. For the Heidegger of Being and Time, the being of Dasein is Care (Sorge) (Heidegger, 2010, 177). Among other things this means that Dasein exists in a world where things are primarily encountered not as objects of concern in themselves but as parts of a broader referential totality that lends itself to Dasein’s general concerns. Dasein, that is, is a being that, in its being, is always concerned for its being. For Levinas however, this is a tragic utilitarian schematism that destroys any meaningful sense of subjectivity as it sacrifices all individuality and individual desire to such a general concern for being. Hence Levinas’ famous line that, “in Heidegger, Dasein is never Hungry!” (Lévinas 2013, 134).

35Although Levinas doesn’t directly say this, the critique of Heidegger seems to also apply to Bergson and Bergsonian thinking. It applies most forcefully to the Bergson of Creative Evolution, which we don’t treat here in depth, but the critique also holds for Bergson of Time and Free Will and Matter and Memory, in the moments when he understands the relation of the organism to the world in terms of utility and the exigencies of the species. As Levinas says in another discussion, his problem with Bergson is that his work tends towards an “impersonal pantheism that doesn’t sufficiently note the ‘crispation of the self’” (Lévinas 2008, 92). This means that, for Levinas, a utilitarian understanding of the relation between the organism and the world can never be adequate because it has no room for the individual subject, no room for individuality proper. For Levinas, as for Merleau-Ponty and others, thinking in terms of biological utility always comes at the cost of individuality.

36Like Whitehead, Levinas redresses this problematic utilitarianism by proposing an affective theory of self-constitution centered around the notion of enjoyment (jouissance). This is perhaps the most overlooked part of Levinas’ thought but it is a part of his phenomenology that the ethics depend on. For, in order for the Other to interrupt and place me in question, in order for the ethical moment to arise, there must first be something that is interrupted, and that something is enjoyment.

37As mentioned above, Levinas speaks of the relation between the organism and the environment as a relation to what he calls “the elemental.” He understands the elemental as the basic medium or milieu of life. The milieu is grasped neither as a representation nor as a tool implicated in a series of practical finality. Rather, the elemental is experienced as “pure quality.” “One doesn’t grasp it,” Levinas says, “one is steeped in it” (Lévinas 2013, 132). The experience of pure quality is the experience of sensibility, it is affect. As was the case for Whitehead, affect and sensibility are for Levinas primary experience, they are prior to knowledge and to representation. Likewise, the intentionality that sensibility establishes with the elemental is primarily one of enjoyment (jouissance). Sensibility is ultimately nothing else. As Levinas says, “One does not know, one lives sensible qualities: the green of these leaves, the red of this sunset […] in its very gnosis sensibility is enjoyment; it is satisfied with the given, it is contented” (Lévinas 2013, 135).

38Furthermore, in the intentionality of affect and enjoyment one relates to the world corporeally. This also means that one’s primary existence, before being implicated with abstract knowledge or finality, is one marked by need.

The body naked and indigent is the very reverting, irreducible to a thought, of representation into life, of the subjectivity that represents into life which is sustained by these representations and lives from them; its indigence — its needs — affirm ‘exteriority’ as non-constituted (Lévinas 2013, 127).

39Following Levinas’ line of thought, we find with needs the reason why enjoyment is the constitutive structure of subjectivity. Our relationship to the elemental is described as a relationship to pure quality. Immersion is not something to be possessed, whether in thought or in hand, it is something simply experienced. Experience in this case is always embodied, the experience of immersion is thus one of sensitivity. The relationship to the elemental which constitutes embodiment through sensitivity is the experience of need. Need however, as a phenomenon prior to representation or finality, as the event of embodiment, is outside of any reference beyond itself. The fact of enjoyment thus instantiates the subject by virtue of the ontologically primary structure of self-reference that defines it. Steeped in the milieu of the elemental, the sensible body refers only to itself, at once positing and enjoying the satisfaction of its needs. In what sounds like a direct response to Bergson, Levinas summarizes this as follows. He says:

[T]he care for nutriments is not bound to a care for existence. The inversion of the instincts of nutrition, which have lost their biological finality, marks the very disinterestedness of man. The suspension or absence of the ultimate finality has a positive face — the disinterested joy of play. To live is to play, despite the finality and tension of instincts to live from something without this something having the sense of a goal or an ontological means — simply play or enjoyment of life. […] In enjoyment, things revert to their elemental qualities. Enjoyment is produced as a possibility of being precisely by ignoring the prolongation of hunger into the concern for self-preservation. Here lies the permanent truth of hedonistic moralities: to not seek, behind the satisfaction of need, an order relative to which alone satisfaction would acquire value; to take satisfaction, which is the very meaning of pleasure, as a term. The need for food does not have existence as its goal, but food. Biology teaches the prolongation of nourishment into existence: need is naïve (Lévinas 2013, 134).

40Tying all this specifically to affect, Levinas says:

The affective state is the vibrant exultation in which dawns the self. For the I is not the support of enjoyment. The ‘intentional’ structure is here wholly different; the I is the very contraction of sentiment, the pole of a spiral whose coiling and involution is drawn by enjoyment […] The upsurge of the self beginning in enjoyment is the exaltation of the existent as such (Lévinas 2013, 118).

41In this picture then, needs don’t refer to the concern for being characteristic of Heidegger’s or perhaps even Bergson’s thought. Embodied needs refer simply to their immediate satisfaction. And it is because of this that the process of self-constitution is deemed affective. Freed from a notion of utility, affect is, for Levinas as well as for Whitehead, and as we’ve tried to show, for Bergson too, what guides the process of self-constitution. As Levinas says it, “What is termed an affective state does not have the dull monotony of a state, but is a vibrant exaltation in which dawns the self” (Lévinas 2013, 118).


42The goal of this paper was to examine Bergson’s thought to see what, if anything, his philosophy could say about the charge of impersonalism. Rather than focus on the details of the critique itself, we directed our attention to Bergson’s descriptions of self-constitution and found there that affect plays an essential, determining role in this process. This understanding of Bergson, however, is in conflict with that other, traditionally understood Bergson that was criticized by Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Barbaras, and others.

43We might thus speak of two Bergsons and, in doing so, not waste time deliberating over which is the more authentic. There is no doubt that Bergson’s emphasis on the vital actions of the organism lay at the foreground of his thought. The repeated criticisms brought against these ideas have ample evidence and merit. And yet, there is also the Bergson that we found above, a Bergson that again and again highlights the centrality of affect for subjectivity. This Bergson, seemingly less concerned with utility, tends towards descriptions of things like joy, grace, and all manner of intensive emotions. By intently focusing on these sporadic treatments of affect, the question then becomes: does this Bergson really exist? And, if so, what could be learned from him?

44To answer these questions, we then looked at the philosophy of Whitehead and Levinas, two well-known but very different readers of Bergson. There, among wildly different metaphysics, we found this same theme. Both Levinas and Whitehead develop an affective theory of self-constitution as a direct rebuke of what Barbaras called the ontology of death. We thus find a somewhat surprising hermeneutic reversal at the end of these readings. By going through Bergson’s thoughts on the importance of affect for subjectivity, we find the blueprint for the very same critique that has been repeatedly leveled against his thought. In their critiques of Bergson’s impersonalism, Levinas and Whitehead are deeply Bergsonian.

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1 The issue of Bergson’s vitalism revolves mainly around his notion of the elan vital and has been the subject of many recent studies and conferences. For one example cf. DiFrisco’s Elan Vital Revisited: Bergson and the Thermodynamic Paradigm (2015).

2 The idea of Bergson as a “dangerous anti-intellectualist” was first made popular by Bertrand Russell’s reflection on Bergson’s critique of scientism in his The Philosophy of Bergson (1912). As one recent commentator noted however, “this reproach is unfair, too superficial, and frankly too stupid to even consider” (Bernet 2010, 51).

3 “Il faut remarquer en outre qu’on s’élève par degrés insensibles des mouvements automatiques aux mouvements libres, et que ces derniers diffèrent surtout des précédents en ce qu’ils nous présentent, entre l’action extérieure qui en est l’occasion et la réaction voulue qui s’ensuit, une sensation affective intercalée. On pourrait même concevoir que toutes nos actions fussent automatiques, et l’on connaît d’ailleurs une infinie variété d’êtres organisés chez qui une excitation extérieure engendre une réaction déterminée sans passer par l’intermédiaire de la conscience” (Bergson 2013, 33).

4 For a detailed discussion of the relationship between Bergson and Levinas cf. Vieillard-Baron (2010). For a specific discussion on Levinas’ critique of Bergson cf. de Warren (2010) and Paley (2017).

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Miguel José Paley, « Affect, Utility, and Self-Constitution. A Bergsonian Reading of Whitehead and Levinas »Bergsoniana [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 18 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Miguel José Paley

Miguel José Paley was born and grew up in Bogotá, Colombia. He received his BA from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, MA and MPhil degrees from the Institute of Philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and a PhD from the New School for Social Research in New York City. His work explores the notions of affect and consciousness in the philosophy of Bergson and the Phenomenological tradition.

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