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The Early Reception of Bergson’s Philosophy in the Netherlands (1890-1909)

Ties van Gemert

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The Dutch Philosophical Landscape of the Fin de Siècle

1Around the turn of the twentieth century, Bergson was a critically acclaimed philosopher, who held an important chair at the Collège de France and had published two major works, On Time and Free Will (1889) and Matter and Memory (1896). In less than a decade, however, a metamorphosis would take place at the end of which Bergson would be an internationally renowned thinker: a true celebrity, drawing huge, mesmerized audiences to his lectures and causing the first traffic jam on Broadway. With breath-taking momentum, his ideas spread over Europe and eventually, all around the world, with translations and (critical) assessments appearing everywhere from Germany to Turkey and from Russia to China (Zanfi 2013; Irem 2011; Nethercott 1995; Deng 2021). In a time characterized by a sudden mushrooming of artistic and intellectual movements and a constant craving for new ideas, Bergson’s philosophy or rather, Bergsonism as a global, cultural phenomenon, was able to proliferate in a remarkable, if not astonishing fashion.

2One of the causes of this massive uptake of Bergson’s philosophy seems to be that his ideas, on a superficial reading, harmonized perfectly with other modernist movements, such as pragmatism, Futurism, psychoanalysis, and Expressionism (Stebbing 1914; Petrie 1974; Fink 2012). Its emphasis on lived experience, its opposition to scientific reductionism, and its development of new forms of spiritualism, all added to interests and concerns that were already distinctly present in the cultural expressions of the fin de siècle. Studies on the reception of Bergson’s philosophy have mapped this reverberation and have specified how his work was read and assessed by figures of such a wide range of intellectual orientations as Neo-Kantianism, Neo-Thomism, and Hegelianism — as well as scientific specializations, including biology, physics, and psychical research (Čapek 1971; Sausman 2013; Posteraro 2022). Even if in most cases, these thinkers and scientists did not uncritically adopt Bergson’s views, they still saw ample reason to engage with his philosophy, sometimes due to perceived intellectual worth, sometimes because of his popularity among a more general public. Philosophers were among the first to interact with Bergson’s ideas, with artists, novelists, and psychologists following swiftly.

3A similar yet distinctive story can be told for the Netherlands. Among Dutch philosophers, there had always been a tendency to look over the borders for new ideas: they steadfastly developed their philosophical position through a sustained dialogue with contemporaneous German and French thought. Many wrote their dissertations under supervision of German philosophers, wrote articles for French journals, and participated in international conferences. Nonetheless, the Dutch philosophical landscape of the fin de siècle was – especially when compared to its neighboring countries Germany and France – rather poor (Krop 1996; Thissen 2000). Before the foundation of the journal Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte in 1907, there was no academic journal devoted solely to philosophy and there were only three professorships of which the appointment included the teaching of philosophy. In 1901, the three chairs at the University of Amsterdam, Groningen, and Leiden were occupied by the physician-philosopher Marinus Anthonie van Melle (1872-1906), the experimental psychologist and philosopher Gerard Heymans (1857-1930), and the largely autodidact, idiosyncratic Hegelian Gerard Bolland (1854-1922). Of course, there were other academics who wrote on philosophy, among them Privatdocenten, theologians, and natural scientists, but overall, Dutch academic philosophy was a small-scale affair.

4Among this group of academics engaged in philosophy, the eminent historian of Dutch philosophy, Ferdinand Sassen (1894-1971) distinguishes four orientations (Sassen 1941). The first is marked by Kant’s philosophy in its classical form, and in its Neo-Kantian and Hegelian configuration. From the turn of the century onwards, Bolland was its most important representative. The second centered around the work of Heymans, a scientific naturalist known for his psychologistic views. He and his students used experimental and empirical methodology to answer what were previously conceived to be philosophical questions concerning the nature of the mind. The third orientation is distinguished by its devotion to Spinoza’s philosophy and builds upon the revival of Spinozism that began in the second half of the nineteenth century, and which in the first two decades of the twentieth century was still gaining ground. The last orientation is set apart by its fondness for realism. Sassen distinguishes four such realisms in Dutch philosophy: a transcendental realism inspired by Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950), a personalism inaugurated by the psychologist William Stern (1871-1938), a neo-Thomism that was developing worldwide, and a philosophy of law advanced by the Dutch neo-Calvinists.

5Needless to say, there were many intellectuals and philosophers who were not academics or who simply did not fit these categories. In the Netherlands, this was even more the case than abroad: highly idiosyncratic thinkers – often using literary tropes as a form of argumentation – occupied important places in the Dutch philosophical landscape. Their work appeared in literary magazines and scientific journals, such as De Gids or Wetenschappelijk Bladen, the freethought magazine De Dageraad, and Catholic journals, including De Spectator and Studia Catholica. Philosophical work was also being done in countless other (popular) magazines that moved in and out of print. In other words, much, if not most, of the philosophical activity in the Netherlands of the fin de siècle took place outside of the doors of the universities. Consequently, the lion’s share of Dutch philosophy came not from the pen of a handful of academic philosophers, but from novelists, layman psychologists, feminists, small-town preachers, amateur scientists, and everyone else who felt qualified. Unsurprisingly, Bergson’s work would turn out to be far more attractive to these kinds of thinkers, especially when compared to the established academics, who would sometimes show a tempered enthusiasm, but mostly disdain.

6The reason why these established academics were not passionate about Bergson's philosophy is easy to explain. Most established academics already had a painstakingly developed philosophical position and many of them from the beginning of their career endorsed a philosophical system such as Hegelianism or Neo-Thomism. For these figures, Bergson’s philosophy was just another competing worldview that was to be assessed by the extent to which it aligned with their own philosophical system. At this late stage of their career, there was little imperative for them to engage with a competing philosophical system if it did not extensively impugn their own views or was not tremendously popular among the public. Besides, many academics had a philosophical position that was closely tied to their religious and political affiliations. Their views on a new philosophical system were often dictated by how the leaders of the Church assessed it, or how much a new view affirmed their liberalist or socialist political agenda. For these reasons, it would take until the appointment of another generation of academic philosophers – educated in a climate less hostile to Bergsonism – before Bergson’s philosophy was to be seriously discussed.

7In contrast, to those thinkers outside of the academy, Bergson’s new philosophy was to become an ideal weapon for their battle against the academic guard. It presented an alternative that they could use to further and strengthen their cause: it gave them arguments they could use to combat the dominating worldviews. Feminists, for example, would embrace Bergson’s concept of intuition to argue for the autonomy of woman, of whom it had always been said that they were guided more by intuition than by reason (van O. 1913). Furthermore, educational reformers with a Calvinist religious background used Bergson’s anti-intellectualism to attack the dominant pedagogical views of Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) (Bavinck 1914). Most of these developments and discussions, however, would take place only in the second decade of the twentieth century. Before that time, there were hardly any outsiders familiar with Bergson’s work. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that all this parley, this pushing and pulling, this see-sawing, was in place long before Bergson’s philosophy was properly introduced to the Dutch public by T.J. de Boer (1866-1942) in 1909.

Bergson comes to the Netherlands

8Set side by side to the reception of Bergson’s philosophy in other countries, the academic discussion of Bergson’s work in the Low Countries was slow to come, while the coverage of his early writings is extensive and exceptional. In 1875, there was a short remark in a Jewish-Dutch newspaper about his reception of the grand prix d’honneur for an essay on rhetoric, but after this first mention, it took fifteen years for the next appearance of Bergson’s name (Anonymous 1875). That year, a magazine for bookstores takes note of the appearance of Time and Free Will, but no one felt compelled to write a review (Anonymous 1890). Five years later, an article in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf mentions Bergson and his speech on Good Sense and the Classical Studies during the award ceremony for the concours général, but nothing is said about the content of the speech (Anonymous 1895). Another five years pass with little to no mention of Bergson’s work – although advertisements for concerts of his father’s compositions abound. In 1901, there are a few newspapers that translate a report of his lecture on dreams from the French newspapers (Anonymous 1901). Bergson, however, is not properly introduced and the interest in this lecture mainly seems to derive from the appeal of the topic.

9In a few articles on comedy after the turn of the century, we find the first references to his published work. All of them simply include him in their discussion of recent explanations of the source of laughter and do not expand upon his views (Van Hamel 1900a, 1900b; Hamélius 1901). In 1903, Bergson’s name appears in a magazine in which he will be glorified in the coming decade: Het Toekomstig Leven (The Future Life). This Dutch magazine was devoted to the experimental study of supernatural phenomena and ran between 1897 and 1942. In a translation of an article by the psychical researcher Cesar de Vesme (1862-1938), we find his name among many other Frenchmen involved in psychical research (de Vesme 1903). Although he is only mentioned, his affiliation with psychical research will help shape his image as an anti-intellectualist in the years to come. The next year, the physiologist Willem Koster (1834-1907) also drew on the supposed spiritism of Bergson’s work and refers to his speculations about the independence of the soul in Matter and Memory (Koster 1904). He aligns Bergson with his anti-positivist project by noting that he affirms that not all conscious states and acts are caused by changes in the brain.

10In the following years, while Bergson was coming to a position of prominence in France, there are a few Dutch intellectuals with strong connections in Paris that become aware of his growing reputation in France. While they do not yet write about his philosophy, his position begins to deserve mentioning and some, upon recommendation by foreign friends, begin to read his works. For example, in 1906, the Flemish writer Lodewijk Dosfel (1881-1925) in a review of Robert d'Adhémar (1874-1941) book Le triple conflit (1905) recommends his work to the Catholics and praises his revival of metaphysics (Dosfel 1906). Between 1902 and 1906, Dosfel had submitted a number of reviews of French books, and was considered by its editors to be an expert on French literature (Persyn 1963, 221). As a reader of the French literary magazines, Dosfel had probably stumbled upon Bergson’s name more than once.

11In a 1908 letter, the German symbolist poet Stefan George (1868-1933) recommends the work of Bergson to the Movement of Eighties poet Albert Verwey (1865-1937) (de Keizer, 2017, 416). Although it was only after de Boer’s introduction to Bergson that Verwey took the effort to read Creative Evolution, we know from this letter that he was certainly aware of the work of the French philosopher before that time. It is only much later, in the 1910’s, that Verwey starts to appreciate the significance of Bergson’s work and begins to discuss it in detail in his essays (Verwey 1911, 1916, 1919). Taken together, these examples show that while there were ample opportunities for Dutch intellectuals to learn about Bergson’s philosophy before his fame and some probably had already read his work before the 1910’s, being intellectually esteemed in France was seemingly not enough reason for a philosopher to be extensively studied or critically discussed in the Low Countries.

12Nevertheless, there were a few thinkers who were sufficiently acquainted with the developments in philosophy in France and as a consequence were knowledgeable of the importance of Bergson’s contributions to the philosophical debate. Some of these figures, therefore, felt compelled to include him in their overviews of the contemporary philosophical landscape. One example of such an insider to the French debates is the Catholic philosopher and pedagogist J.Th. Beysens (1864-1945). In the second volume of his Algemeene Zielkunde (General Psychology) (1905), Beysens classifies Émile Boutroux (1845-1921) and Bergson as “contingentists” (Beysens 1905, 253). They are “idealistic-voluntarists” who deny the deterministic laws of nature, generalize the freedom of the self and will to outer appearances, and affirm the existence of a metaphysical freedom that unifies will and judgment (Beysens 1905, 253). Consequently, Boutroux and Bergson fundamentally misunderstand freedom, and ultimately, their monism results in subjectivism.

13Beysens’ reading of the work of the two French philosophers is rudimentary. Rather than providing an evenhanded representation of Bergson’s philosophical position, these remarks reveal his limited understanding of Bergson’s philosophy. He simply conflates his work with that of Boutroux and misses the innovations that it brings into French spiritualism. Remarks by other Dutch intellectuals at that time disclose a similar lack of attentive study. Bergson is regarded as another representative of pragmatism, a follower of Charles Renouvier (1815-1903), or named in one breath with the philosophers Richard Avenarius (1843-1896), Ernst Mach (1838-1916), Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), and Édouard Le Roy (1870-1954) (Geelkerken 1909; Aengenent 1908; van der Kulk 1906). In sum, even though there were commentators who were aware of the intellectual esteem Bergson was receiving in France and knowledgeable of his growing fame, it would still take until the advent of a massive publicity in France and abroad before Dutch intellectuals began to seriously study his work.

The First Introduction to Bergson’s Philosophy

14It was the Belgian Catholic lawyer and politician, Frans van Cauwelaert (1880-1961), who was the first to write an informed introduction to Bergson’s work available to the Dutch public. In an article called Philosophische kroniek (1908), van Cauwelaert examines Bergson’s philosophy in a discussion of the question whether mankind's actions are free or determined. In the opening section of the article, van Cauwelaert expounds his views on the intellectual state of his day. According to van Cauwelaert, mechanical materialism has waned, and all attempts to naturalize our worldview have failed. Instead, we witness a new intellectual movement that progresses to a “dynamism or energetism, to a purposeful and ascending self-development, to a monistic theism” (van Cauwelaert 1908, 386). This philosophy dissolves matter into appearances, and the emerging spiritualism prioritizes the act and the will. Van Cauwelaert presents Bergson and Boutroux as the two most influential living French philosophers who have dealt with the problem of free will. Both have tried to free the ascending and authentic development of the act from the necessary laws of the mind. In two subsequent sections, he analyzes the contributions of these two thinkers.

15Van Cauwelaert introduces Bergson as a professor at the Collège de France and as a member of the Institut de France. He characterizes Bergson as a real “homme du monde”, a philosopher with whom one cannot argue, but whom one must decide to either follow or not follow (van Cauwelaert 1908, 388). Bergson is a master of style who leaves the reader “more dumbfounded than convinced; if you want to stop him to pose an objection, he shuts your mouth with an elegant gesture of wait-a-minute and his seductive speech tries to get a hold of you again” (van Cauwelaert 1908, 387-388).

16As van Cauwelaert sees it, Bergson's contribution to the philosophy of freedom lies in his distinction between duration and space. Contrary to what we tend to believe, there is no real community of time and space. Kant was right in rigorously distinguishing the two, but his conception of time still ended up as a representation of space. He simply did not grasp that time is a qualitative and heterogeneous multiplicity with all elements permeating one another. Contrary to Kant’s view, the nature of time lies in becoming, in its continuous differentiation. Its multiplicity cannot be reduced to juxtaposition and hence cannot be represented within space. In van Cauwelaert’s words, time “is the true form of our conscious life and cannot be thought of as the same” (van Cauwelaert 1908, 389). No matter how hard we try to “mummify” our psychical processes, try to cut up time on the pattern of dead space, conscious life will continue to protest that it is free — no matter what the voice of reason dictates (van Cauwelaert 1908, 389). It is the confusion of duration and space, inner and outer, or feeling and intelligence, which obscures our freedom. When we clearly distinguish the two like Bergson does, all objections to our feeling of freedom lapse. It is at this point that Bergson and Boutroux meet. Both intend to “free the act from the domination of the necessary laws of the mind” (van Cauwelaert 1908, 387).

17Throughout his exposition, van Cauwelaert mainly reviews Bergson’s early work Time and Free Will (1889) — although he does take note of subsequent publications. While he provided the Dutch public with a good introduction to Bergson’s philosophy, his contribution has gone completely unnoticed. Due to the declining popularity of the journal Dietsche Warande en Belfort in 1908, the article was probably not well-read. Moreover, the journal mainly targeted Dutch Catholic, a category of readers for whom Bergson’s philosophy was from the very beginning somewhat suspect. Shortly after the publication of this article, van Cauwelaert also turned away from philosophy towards a career in politics (Wils 1910).

T.J. de Boer and his Critique of Bergson’s Philosophy

18The second introduction to Bergson’s philosophy, T.J de Boer’s De Filosofie van Henri Bergson (1909), appeared the next year in the cultural magazine De Beweging and did receive much attention. De Beweging (1905-1919) had been founded by the poet Verwey to serve as a progressive alternative to the more conservative De Gids. It published not only state-of-the-art, modern poetry, but also novels, long pieces on political science, and philosophical creeds. De Boer wrote numerous articles for the journal and served as an editor between 1906 and 1912. His article on Bergson, of which an English translation is presented here more than a hundred years after its publication, presents the first attempt to critically introduce and discuss Bergson’s philosophy in the Low Countries. It was read and cited by most Dutch commentators of Bergson’s philosophy in the years following and even made it into the first bibliography of the French philosopher’s work by the University of Columbia in 1913 (Heymans 1912; Hoogveld 1917; Johnston & Mudge 1913). When reading de Boer’s critique of Bergson’s philosophy, however, it soon becomes clear that the author presupposes extensive acquaintance with his philosophical position and takes detailed knowledge of his intellectual background for granted. The scope, structure, and ramifications of his arguments are only implicitly alluded to in the article: a substantial explicative work is needed to understand his critique.

19The author of the article, Tjitze Jacobs De Boer, was born in Wirdum, a small town in Friesland, a province in the North of the Netherlands (Pos 1946). At the age of seventeen, he decided to become a pastor and began to visit the Theological School in Kampen. Here, he passed the theological state exam and subsequently began to preach throughout Friesland. A couple of years later, on advice of the Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) — the one who would later use Bergson’s philosophy to attack Herbrand’s pedagogy — he moved to Bonn to study for his doctorate in theology. After a brief stay in Bonn, where he studied with the philosopher and psychologist Theodor Lipps (1851-1914), he had a change of heart and moved to Strasbourg to study Eastern languages under the orientalist Theodor Nöldeke (1836-1930) and the Neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915). There, in 1893, he finished his dissertation called Die Ewigkeit der Welt bei Al Ghazzali und Ibn Roschd. A year later, he published an extended version of his thesis as Die Widersprüche der Philosophie nach Al Ghazzälï und ihr Ausgleich durch Ibn Roschd (1894). De Boer built the rest of his career upon these studies and his major work, Der Geschichte der Islam (1901), was for a long time the standard handbook of students of Islamic philosophy.

20In the next 13 years, de Boer took on a number of positions: he was, for a while, a librarian of the Frisian Society and later, of the Royal Library of the Netherlands, in the meantime, he was a curator of the Frisian Museum of Leeuwarden and the University of Groningen. In Groningen, de Boer came into close contact with Heymans, who was one of the early commentators of Bergson’s work in the Netherlands. Heymans had written a review of Le Rire (1900) for the prestigious German annals Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane in 1901 and would later write a sweeping critique of Bergson’s philosophy for the literary magazine De Gids (Heymans 1901, 1912). Bergson himself had cited Heymans’ study on laughter in Le Rire and would later critique Heymans’ views on déjà-vu in Le Souvenir du présent et la fausse reconnaissance (1908).

21In 1906, de Boer succeeded Heymans’ student van Melle as professor of the history of philosophy, logic, metaphysics, and psychology at the University of Amsterdam. At the time, there were no independent chairs for these diverse disciplines, which meant that de Boer had to keep up with a large body of (scientific) literature. His publication record displays the wide range of topics that de Boer studied: in addition to studies of Pilgrimages during the early Middle Ages, the life of Balthasar Bekker (1634-1698), and the history of Belgium, it contains articles on Frisian clay farmers, medical ethics, and the history of public reading rooms. In the years following his inauguration, de Boer published two articles in the leading German psychology annals Zeitschrift für Psychologie and Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane. In the next two decades, he continued to write extensively: amongst others, he wrote a short booklet and several articles on Spinoza in which he reaffirms the virtue, value, and relevance of scientia intuitiva, published a translation of Dewey’s The School and Society (1899) and at the end of his career, a book on the history of American philosophy (de Boer 1918, 1927, 1929, 1934).

22Although his oeuvre is diffuse and his written work explores a medley of topics, there is, nevertheless, an encompassing philosophical perspective present in de Boer’s writings. More than anything else, his work aims to explicate a conceptual contrast between a philosophy modeled on science and a philosophy shaped by the arts and religion. The first is practiced by employing the methodology of the natural sciences, that is, observation and experimentation, the second is conceived through intuition and guided by fantasy and imagination. According to Verwey, de Boer himself combines these two conceptions in his work and occupies an intermediate position between science and serious scholarship, on the one hand, and poetic reflection and religious prophecy, on the other. In a review of de Boer’s inaugural lecture, Nietzsche and Science, he calls de Boer a “scientific artist”, whose methodology is “to make the results of dissection serve as material for the imagination” (Verwey 1907, 195). As he explains: “De Boer is an artist because of his imagery, and because of his style, which is based on quick and striking expression. He is scientific in the highest degree because of the sharpness of his dissection and the versatility of his differentiation” (Verwey 1907, 195).

23Despite Verwey’s captivating characterization of de Boer as a scientific artist, a closer inspection of his oeuvre reveals a more complicated conceptualization of the relation between science and art and a less evenhanded appraisal of these two conceptions of philosophy. For de Boer, the methodology of the sciences and those of the arts do not and cannot exist in harmony: intuition does not have the same force, scope, or validity as the methodology of the natural sciences. Repeatedly, he insists on the importance of the use of the scientific method. With reference to the German debate on the distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, de Boer settles for a position of the supremacy of the former in regard to the latter. For him, not only physics, physiology, and psychology, but also sociology and metaphysics, should be practiced using observation and experiments. In one of his articles, he even goes so far as to plead for “the creation of cultural-scientific workshops, where normal and more than normal consciousness will be examined” (de Boer 1912, 119). Reflecting on the development of science in the nineteenth century, he draws the conclusion that “it has been good for the humanities that it has started to test the assumptions and research methods of natural science in its own field” (de Boer 1912, 119).

24Educated in the Neo-Kantian tradition of Windelband, de Boer advocated all his life for the importance of developing a scientific philosophy. In his view, philosophy can no longer claim a subject, a phenomenon, or a kind of knowledge of its own, as in the time of Aristotle, Newton, or Descartes, it must restrict itself to asking questions of justification, of what constitutes knowledge and exemplifies science. Philosophy, in his sense, is first and foremost philosophy of science (Wissenschaftslehre). In his oeuvre, de Boer always appears skeptical of philosophers who disregard science or demand that philosophy discovers the world of substance behind the appearances surveyed by science. Instead, philosophy is characterized by a search for truth. Following Kant, he views judgment — not intuition, will, action or imagination — as the primary faculty of the human being. As he puts it in his early article Philosophy as Science (1893), philosophy “has to investigate in what cases, under what conditions, under what laws these phenomena occur; how they work, how far they reach; what place they occupy in the system of our experience” (de Boer 1893, 349).

25This conception of scientific philosophy would guide de Boer throughout his career. In almost every single one of his articles, whether it was on the psychology of work, pedagogy, or the evolution of Esperanto, this view regulated his assessment of the topic. As to be expected, he was a fierce critic of what he considered to be quackery and pseudo-scientific practices. He was an early critic of Freud’s psychoanalytic views on the interpretation of dreams and fiercely rejected the practice of magnetism and spiritism. He was dismissive of Hegel’s speculative insights and promoted Heymans’ project of using the methodology of the natural sciences for the study of the mind. Interestingly, de Boer was less critical of graphology. Although he saw Ludwig Klages’ (1872-1952) instruction for graphologists to merge with the written work — a methodology inspired by Wilhelm Dilthey’s (1833-1911) Verstehen — as fraudulent and romantic, he still considered it likely that one day graphology might become scientific.

26In his attempts to explain these startling results of this rather unscientific practice, de Boer takes recourse to the methodology of his second conception of philosophy: intuition. In his paper Graphology (1910), he argues that Klages’ results can be explained by the fact that some psychologists, but also artists, philosophers, and religious leaders, possess an exceptional sense of intuition which enables them to foresee developments in science that can only in due course be confirmed by the scientific method. Philosophers guided by this intuition have a profound desire to give form and expression to what is already “foaming-in-us” (de Boer 1894, 350). This kind of philosophy aspires to higher ideals, which we can only feel, and tries to imagine the unperceivable, in analogy to what we can perceive. No matter how hard we try to rid philosophy of this unscientific impulse, nothing will do: this aspiration will continue to exist. As de Boer explains: “[f]antasy, that lifeblood of our mind, works in all our thinking” (de Boer 1894, 350).

27And yet, there is a tendency within our culture to expel fantasy, imagination, and intuition. De Boer perceives it in a wide range of fields: “[a]s the priest has reduced religion to theology, the craftsman art to imitation, so under the influence of the school, philosophy has sunk to a doctrine. And therefore, it is wrong that the religious man should become a church priest, the artist a schoolteacher, or the philosopher a professor of state. One thinks of Jesus, of Rembrandt, of Spinoza” (de Boer 1894, 350). Throughout his entire career, de Boer would remain critical of all attempts to depreciate the vitality of thought; he always positioned himself squarely against intellectualism: “notwithstanding all rationalists, we are sentient and willing beings, who have, in the first place, practical intentions with our words” (de Boer 1909, 17). Disregard for the practical leads to a mechanical application of scientific or moral laws, without regard for the lived experience of the concrete individual.

28It is this aversion to intellectualism and rationalism that attracted de Boer to the philosophy of Nietzsche and the work of the pragmatists, mainly James and Dewey. For him, Nietzsche’s work represents a new style of thinking and writing that counters the excessive rationalism of the nineteenth century and gives a new place to feeling and intuition. To appreciate his “saltatory thinking”, we must not assess it as we evaluate scientific reports but try to become sensitive to the “consonants and contrasts of [its] sound” (de Boer 1906, 42). As he himself puts it: “whoever wants to see Nietzsche, must hear him” (de Boer 1906, 41). It is this Nietzsche, the artist, the creator of a new language, the prophetic thinker, whom he admires the most. Much more so than Nietzsche the scientist. Although he refrains from extensive critique, de Boer does point out the shortcomings of Nietzsche’s more speculative philological work, his inadequate knowledge of the natural sciences, and his poorly developed political views. While he contends that Zarathustra’s highly mystical reflections or the concept of the eternal return might someday generate scientific hypotheses, the virtue of Nietzsche’s philosophy is to be found in his developments in literary style and his reflections on values rather than in his scientific or philological contributions.

29The same goes for the philosophy of James. While de Boer praises the American philosopher for his naturalism, his emphasis on practice rather than theoretical reflection, his critique of rationalism, and his insistence on the significance of ideals, he is highly critical of James’ theory of truth (de Boer 1908). The idea that truth is “the expedient in our way of thinking” stands in almost square opposition to the Neo-Kantian tradition in which de Boer was trained and to whose ideals he remained committed (de Boer 1908, 134). He shares with James a rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, but whereas James takes recourse to the imagination and the will to build a new theory of truth, de Boer argues that our faculty of judgment enables us to attain truth and understanding. James simply does not give the will for truth its proper place or due. By instrumentalizing the notion of truth, by conceiving of truth as a means rather than an end in itself, James misses the significance of having an ideal conception of truth: a desire to find truth and a striving to be consistent in thought as well as action. It is this questioning of the normative nature of our means, the principals involved in practice and action, a quest for justification, that for de Boer is exemplified in philosophy as a desire for truth. In the end, he views pragmatism as “a form of impressionism in philosophy” (de Boer 1908, 142). As an artwork it is beautiful, touching, and lively, but as a philosophy it is found lacking.

30According to de Boer, intellectualism and rationalism will eventually run short because they are blind to the psychology of epistemology. What pragmatism has shown is that the quest for knowledge must not be seen as a purely intellectual affair, it has, in the first place, a practical nature, it serves us in fulfilling our desires. What Nietzsche reveals is that, regardless of our lofty ideals, our knowledge still has a definite psychological nature. Even in his almost doctrinaire reflections on Wissenschaftslehre, de Boer would always give psychology a special place and emphasize the importance of incorporating psychological findings in epistemological reflections. For him, the existence of an absolute science, fully independent of all psychology, is illusory. Philosophy of science is, in a way, “a psychology of thinking” and thus “a science like any other science” (de Boer 1894, 135).

31At the same time, this does not mean that the desire for knowledge can be reduced to practical intentions. It is in this gesture that de Boer perceives the danger and one-sidedness of “the American culture of Pragmatism”: “[n]o less than our knowledge, our willing and working have their relativity: it is that of means to end” (de Boer 1912, 122). It is to the extent that Nietzsche transcends science, that he also parts ways with him. In the end, de Boer can be seen to be constantly zigzagging between transcendental philosophy and pragmatism, intuition and empiricism, Neo-Kantianism and psychologism. As his friend, the philosopher and linguist Hendrik Josephus Pos (1898-1955), would summarize his views:

Knowing is a real, not transcendent affair, in which the psychological and the transcendental logical aspect must be distinguished, but not separated. Surely, in all truth, there is a relation to action. But there is also a desire for truth, which cannot be explained transcendentally nor pragmatically (Pos 1946, 218-219).

32In his own words: “[w]e must shed this intellectual timidity, spread the wings of the imagination, not kneel before the facts, but believe in the power of ideas. That is practical idealism” (de Boer 1934, 220).

33All this conceptual work comes to bear upon de Boer’s critique of Bergson. As becomes clear when reading his article, The Philosophy of Henri Bergson, he appreciates Bergson, like Nietzsche, for his artistic innovations. Although he judges Nietzsche more heroic and profound for his attempt to invent a new language — which, in his view, Bergson never did — he sees both figures as trying to express intuitions that cannot be communicated by the language we currently have. As de Boer remarks, using expressions that he will repurpose in his article on Bergson, Nietzsche “express[es] his own thoughts” in a “musical-lyrical presentation” with imagery that is “metaphorical-symbolical” (de Boer 1906, 41). It is in this sense that both are Romantics, the two are artistic philosophers. The limits of Nietzsche’s philosophy coincide with the limits of his understanding of science, and much the same can be said of Bergson’s philosophy. Although these philosophers try to stay away from science, attempt to develop a philosophy independent of science, all their judgements and conclusions are still parasitic upon it. Yet, this realization does not impede their philosophy, but enriches it by deepening, strengthening, and rectifying it.

34Compellingly, de Boer’s critique of James also resembles, even in words, that of Bergson: “James advances his work not as fantasy but as science. And then we should ask not only whether it is beautiful and witty, but also whether what he says is true” (de Boer 1908, 142). Both are praised for coming up against the hubris of science and conceptualizing a notion of meaning that is independent of truth, and which can be found in the arts and religion. De Boer’s critique of these two philosophers focuses not on the arguments that the two set forth against science and truth, he thinks these are more or less valid, but on the effect they will have on their followers. The danger of their philosophy lies in its potential influence: it might corrupt the youth by providing a one-sided picture of science and philosophy. As a pluralist, de Boer pleads for the importance of a multiplicity of philosophical systems in education as much as in academic debates. He is convinced that fostering an admiration for science and knowledge is the key to educating true philosophers and the disregard for science that Bergson and James nurture among their students, might be detrimental to the future state of philosophy.

35It is for this reason that when Bergson’s influence spreads even further, de Boer becomes much more critical and even somewhat cynical of Bergson’s contribution to philosophy. He is afraid that the developing currents of Platonism and Romanticism with their contempt for science will hamper the blossoming of philosophy. Two years after the publication of his article, he discusses Bergson’s work once more in a review of a Fourth International Congress of Philosophy in Bologna (de Boer 1911). After noting that Bergson is the “hero of the congress”, who was able to charm the delighted audience with his soft voice, his half-closed eyes, and his “words coming up as dreams from his soul”, de Boer remarks: “'Träume der Metaphysik' is what Kant would have said with a fine, ironic laugh. And when I breathed in the fresh spring air again with a combative friend, we soon agreed that the philosophy of our time needs nothing more than the spirit of a Lessing” (de Boer 1911, 191-192).

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Ties van Gemert, « The Early Reception of Bergson’s Philosophy in the Netherlands (1890-1909) »Bergsoniana [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ties van Gemert

Ties van Gemert is a PhD-student at the Department of Philosophy of Tilburg University. His project ‘Who is Afraid of Psychology? Reconstructing and Reconsidering the Psychologism Debate’ is funded by the Dutch Research Council (PGW.20.021). His main research interests are epistemology, philosophy of science, and history of psychology.

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