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From Liberty to Property: The Influence of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and James Mark Baldwin on Bergson’s Views on Life and Technology

Bruno B. Rates


Quand on pense au rapport de Bergson à la pensée américaine, le premier nom qui vient naturellement à l’esprit est celui de William James. Cependant, si on analyse l’impact des penseurs américains sur la philosophie de Bergson, on trouvera deux scientifiques dont les préoccupations étaient éloignées de celles cultivées par le précurseur du pragmatisme : le paléontologue Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906) et le psychologue évolutionniste James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934). Dans cet article, j’examinerai comment leur thèse sur les potentialités de la main humaine (Shaler) et les aspects sociaux de la « lutte pour la vie » (Baldwin) ont influencé les vues de Bergson sur la vie et la technique. En conséquence, j’espère montrer deux choses. Premièrement, que sans la compréhension du rôle joué par la paléontologie dans L’Évolution créatrice, nous ne pouvons pas saisir pleinement le sens de l’une de ses idées centrales, à savoir, que l’homme est le « terme » et la « fin » ou, autrement dit, la « raison d’être » de l’évolution. Enfin, je voudrais suggérer qu’après 1907 l’émergence d’un aspect moral/éthique des inventions techniques équilibrera l’enthousiasme antérieur de Bergson par rapport aux approches scientifiques sur le sujet. Cette position subira plusieurs transformations au cours de la Première Guerre Mondiale et quelques années plus tard, avec la publication de Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion, où les outils et les machines sont interprétés non seulement comme des moyens de liberté — comme ils l’étaient dans L’Évolution créatrice —, mais aussi comme « propriété », ce qui les liera à la guerre et au « luxe ».

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Evolution of Technology as Evolution of Life: Shaler and the Role of Paleontology

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

1While commenting on the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates, Bergson states, in Creative Evolution, that the body of Arthropods, formed by a more or less long series of juxtaposed rings, divides the motor activity into a variable, sometimes considerable, number of appendices in which each has its specialty; their movements, therefore, although complex, are limited, since the cohesion of the activities that are distributed by the joints of the body restricts its capacity to vary them.1 Such “fit” between function and form finds its “perfection” in the order of Hymenoptera (sawflies, bees, wasps, and ants) making them, so to speak, the “guardians” of instinct. In Vertebrates, on the other hand, the activity is concentrated on two pairs of limbs, the reason for a real liberation of the function in relation to the form. Fishes, Amphibians, Reptiles, Birds and Mammals present, each in their own way, the virtues of handling — with them, intelligence is born, “the specific attribute [“appanage”] of Vertebrates” (Bergson 1972, 793), as Bergson puts it two years later, in his review of the 1909 book La Naissance de l’intelligence, written by Georges Bohn (1868-1948), a former student of the French geologist Alfred Gaudry (1827-1908). By distinguishing instinct and intelligence in terms of motor skills, Bergson seems to be inspired by the paleontologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906), mentioned a few times in Creative Evolution. Shaler was professor of geology at Harvard and the protégé of the eminent French-Swiss biologist based in the USA, Louis Agassiz’s (who, in turn, had been a student of Georges Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt in Paris). Besides devoting various developments to the problem of man’s place in nature Shaler’s more theoretical works tried to reconcile natural history with theology from a scientific point of view. Like Bergson, Shaler understands that limbs are true “instruments of the will” (Shaler 1901, 121), a fact that assumes unimaginable dimensions with the human species, for whom “the independence becomes complete,” since its “hand is capable of any kind of work” (Bergson 2008b, 134). In The Individual. The Study of Life and Death, Shaler writes:

In the greater animal there is but one pair of instruments of progression, the legs, which give but little speed, the other pair of limbs being devoted to the special uses of the will. For the execution of his intellectual purposes the arms and hands are, except when they are provided with artificial tools, of little service save in climbing, for which purpose they have been somewhat specially modified. As for the hand itself it is, when unarmed, a very feeble instrument. It cannot strike a blow to be compared with the sting of a bee in effectiveness, size being taken into account. Much has been said in praise of the structure of the hand, but it is in itself of little value for any particular organic purpose except in cleaning the body, until the creature it serves came to the state where it began to use at first sticks and stones, and later the more elaborate utensils of the various arts. Then it came to serve, as no other appendage does, as a universal tool-holder, essentially like the chucks of lathes which are so arranged that they may clutch any form of cutting instrument and guide it in its work (Shaler 1901, 122-123).

2It is not, therefore, precisely the shape of the hand that is responsible for the complete freedom of form; it is its ability to infinitely vary the use of instruments that guarantees the humanity’s freedom or, to use Shaler’s own words in another book, also quoted by Bergson, The Interpretation of Nature, its “emancipation” (Shaler 1893, 188). In Shaler’s words, we recognize the well-known passage of Creative Evolution related to the Homo faber, that states that “intelligence, considered in what seems to be its original feature, is the faculty of manufacturing artificial objects, especially tools to make tools, and of indefinitely varying the manufacture” (Bergson 2008b, 140).

  • 2 De Perthes 1847-1864. About De Perthes: Aufrère 2018; Sackett 2014.

3Bergson's enthusiasm for the emancipatory potential of technology did not only come from the claims of this scientist. We must also look in the direction of Bergson's decisive mention of Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1869). The French archaeologist had discovered in the Moulin-Quignon quarry in northern France (more precisely, in the town of Abbeville in the region of Somme), certain materials like, for example, flint, that looked like hatchets, even though they could have such shape accidentally. Finally, these discoveries turned out to be false from the point of view of the date claimed by Boucher de Perthes, although his work as an archaeologist — which included other discoveries such as pictorial inscriptions of elephants and rhinos in Manchecourt — has earned him the title of the founder of prehistory studies. With the extension of human time much further back in the past than we had once imagined, it was not only man’s past that needed to be reinterpreted, but also his present.2

  • 3 Our use of the term “prehistory” should not be mistaken with the “prehistory” used by historians si (...)
  • 4 Lacombe emphasizes, in this process, the shape of the human hand and language. About this subject, (...)

4Through this new field of archeology, the historical discipline gained unprecedented breadth, with new chronological indicators which could no longer be ignored by those who intended to provide a temporal narrative about mankind. History was no longer a specific trait of literate civilizations. These civilizations now had to be understood in relation to pre-literate times, whose traces looked more like fossils, which, in turn, had to be understood in relation to the history of life and of the Earth3. And, most importantly: if, as Bergson writes, the “appearance of man on Earth” coincides with the manufacture of the “first weapons,” the “first tools” (Bergson 2008b, 137), human history comes to be understood as the history of the progress of technical inventions. According to Bergson in Creative Evolution, the events that would stand out in hundreds of years as having the greatest importance to the eyes of history would not be the French or the American Revolution, the battle of Austerlitz or even the Franco-Prussian War. Instead, technological advances such as the invention of the steam engine, symbol of the Industrial Revolution would come to embody the great historical event that best represented the age. It is therefore not by chance that in Creative Evolution we find a reference to Paul Lacombe (1834-1919), a historian who belonged to the intellectual circle of Henri Berr (1863-1954), Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) and the influent journal Revue de Synthèse Historique, and is considered one of the intellectual inspirations of the longue durée historical school. In his De l’histoire considérée comme science (Lacombe 1894), Lacombe is emphatic when relating “technical inventions” to human progress. And he does so precisely through the capabilities of the hand: language, fire, the domestic animal and plant, writing and register machines, like printers, all these “machineries,” according to Lacombe, act as artificial “projections” of the natural body, and these constitute the motor of civilization, history and humanity itself (Lacombe 1894, 169).4

Material Progress versus Moral Progress

5After the publication of Creative Evolution, the enthusiasm for the wonders of technology as an extension of life’s creativity gradually gave way in Bergson’s writing to the emergence of the moral dimension of the problem, attenuating the thesis that linked moral and material emancipation. The first indication of this transformation seems to be expressed in 1911, four years after the publication of Bergson’s magnum opus, in an interview with the writer Joseph Lotte (1875-1914). The malaise” of that time is expressed by Bergson as a kind of discredit of the ideal, caused by the successive attacks of materialism, both theoretical (science) and practical (industry) which, from the second half of the 19th century, gained proportions never seen. At certain point of the conversation, Bergson says to the interviewer:

What characterizes our time is obviously a depression, a weakening of the ideal. The 19th century will be the materialistic century. The enormous, exaggerated, unexpected development of the new industrial technique makes its effects felt; the effects, in such cases, are never immediate, it is today that we feel them. All of our materialism comes from there. But there are signs that make me believe that we are going out of it, and we have started going out (Bergson 1972, 882).

6What are, then, those “signs” that seemed to give Bergson a certain hope? It is on January 10, 1914, on the eve of World War I, in the opening speech of the presidency of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, that Bergson enunciated the normative dimension that would, according to him, help us to face the decay brought about by the unrestrained advance of technology — it was, he stated the moment to “restore the balance.” Understanding that scientific progress materialized itself in technological inventions and that these, in turn, represented the peculiar way in which mankind handles instruments, Bergson recovers the original etymological sense of the word “outil — organ — and says that the unparalleled achievements in the field of tool-making in the previous century symbolizes a hypertrophy of the human body that, although beneficial, should be balanced. As a counterpart, it was imperative for Bergson that the other organ of man, the soul, should develop to the point of adjusting to such disproportion, and only the strengthening of the moral sciences would be up to such a duty. The creative direction of human progress, linked to the adventures of the invention of life and marked by contingency and novelty, no longer seemed to satisfy the philosopher-biologist of before. A theory of history and its attached normativity would present major theoretical challenges and, perhaps, even more importantly, would bring unthinkable consequences from a practical point of view.

7After conjecturing a fundamental link based on a “moral, and even social man,” that would bring closer “historians, economists, lawyers, moralists and philosophers,” placing them "promptly at the center, which is […] the human soul,” Bergson told his colleagues of the Academy:

Never the moral and political sciences had such need to provide mutual support; never has humanity counted on them so much. The main effort of modern science, since its origins, has been based on mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology: for three centuries there were theoretical discoveries that made us penetrate the secrets of matter. Then came the applications: inventions were added to the discoveries; in less than a hundred years mankind has walked in this direction more than it had traveled since its origins. Over the past century, its instrumental [“outillage”] has been perfected more than it had done during the last thousand years. If we consider that each new instrument [“outil”], each new machine is, for us, a new organ (an ‘organ’ is not, etymologically, also an instrument, a tool [“outil”]?), it is noted that what truly increased in this brief interval is the man’s body. But, did his soul — I speak of the individual soul and the social soul —, simultaneously acquire the supplement of strength that was needed to govern this suddenly and prodigiously enlarged body? And the extraordinary [“redoutables”] problems that we face today, were they not born, in large part, from this disproportion? Our sciences, the moral sciences, are tasked with restoring balance. The task is great and beautiful, and the future of humanity undoubtedly depends on the way in which it will be accomplished (Bergson 1972, 1036).

  • 5 “[…] material progress becomes an instrument of moral regression.” It should be mentioned that Berg (...)

8According to Bergson, not only did an automatic association between the development of science and the development of morality not exist; there was also an inverse relationship between the two: according to him in his speech, also for the Academy, in January 24, 1918 (Bergson 1972, 1289),5 the First World War, with its dangerous alliance between industrialism and militarism, showed how disproportionate technical progress had been, resulting thus in a moral regression.

9However, the insertion of the explicit axiological dimension in certain theses that were, at least by intention, devoid of valuation, creates, as expected, some problems. Surprisingly, at a certain point in another speech, addressed to the Academy on January 16, 1915, the philosopher of duration opposes the moral and the material through the opposition between eternity and becoming. The reason for this association lays in the fact that the material progress of civilization would not even be able to guarantee the intended force, since it would only aim to “assemble mechanisms, and a mechanism, no matter how powerful, eventually wears out” (Bergson 1972, 1132). Left adrift, its energy vanishes, as well as the work that engages its gears — the movement of the machine is transitory. Nothing is more distinct from moral energy, “which endures to the end and defies time” and “nourishes itself with an eternally living ideal, constantly reviving itself, and, without ceasing, it also remakes its organized instrument, as a soul that would reconstitute its body” (Bergson 1972, 1132, my italics). If, in 1907, the creation of life was conquered through the inorganic world, now, morality shows itself capable of creating an inexhaustible energy without matter, contradicting not only Creative Evolution, but also the content of a letter written at the same time to Bergson’s friend and translator, the British philosopher Herbert Wildon Carr (1857-1931), at the end of 1914. Bergson mentions the possibility that “a purely psychic energy could increase, even if, without a doubt, in an excessively restricted measure” (Bergson 2002, 607).

10But if it is true that there is a congenital inclination in man — and, ultimately, in life — to instrumentalize nature, it is worth mentioning some examples of this process throughout history. The end of the eighteenth century, initiated an era of mechanical inventions and great industry (Bergson 1972, 1289), and the nineteenth century, in which such initiatives gained an unimaginable proportion, are privileged periods in the eyes of the French philosopher, and are apparently involved in the origins of the crisis that Bergson himself experienced in his time. Shattered by the technology of war, the moment of the twentieth century had arrived to focus its efforts on what had been left in the shadows of the previous centuries. In other words, it was time to prioritize “psychological, moral, social things and, more generally, the spirit,” and leave “the things of matter” aside.

11After the war, in 1919, the latest version of the essay “Life and Consciousness,” originally written in 1911, would resonate with such considerations. The biggest change in Bergson’s thinking is possibly the articulation between vital progress and social progress, to the point that Bergson asserts that the result of evolution is social life, “as if some original and essential aspiration of life could only find its full satisfaction in society” (Bergson, 2009b, 26).

  • 6 Andouin-Rouzeau and Becker relate this "mystification" of the French soldier with the death, premat (...)

12Such a state of affairs partially contradicts some considerations about society theorized in Creative Evolution, where Bergson posits that “there is no particular impulse to social life,” but only “a general movement of life” (Bergson 2008b, 102). The link between society and life becomes more articulated and, at the same time, more spiritualized, since its “purpose” is not only “social action” as it was themed in 1907, in the sense that “our social life revolves around the use and manufacture of artificial instruments” (Bergson 2008b, 139). Instead of technical creations, moral creations were now at stake, led by the heroism of certain men, individuals who revealed the “metaphysical truth” (Bergson 2009b, 25), which had already appeared timidly in Bergson’s April 1915 speech in the figure of French soldiers (Bergson 1972, 1154-1155).6 But, for Bergson it’s not appropriate to think individuality is an isolated phenomenon. In fact, individuation and integration, personality and community, individuality and sociability are inseparable when we think of human progress. In the final version of “Life and Consciousness,” Bergson writes:

Society, which is the community (“mise in commun”) of individual energies, benefits from the efforts of all its members and renders effort easier to all. It can only subsist by subordinating the individual, it can only progress by leaving the individual free; contradictory requirements, which have to be reconciled […] life is working both by individualization and integration to obtain the greatest quantity, the richest variety, the highest qualities, of invention and effort (Bergson 2009b, 26-27).

13Bergson presented this idea the same year, in different terms, at the “Conference on the human soul,” given in Strasbourg, in which he affirmed the “inexhaustibility of moral strength in the face of the constancy of physical strength” (Bergson 1972, 1318). During the same conference the concept of an imbalance between investigations about nature and spirit reappeared, now characterized as “the greatest fact in the history of mankind” (Bergson 1972, 1318). The consequence of the “enormous evolution of the positive sciences since the second half of the 19th century” (Bergson 1972, 1318) is again interpreted in light of the thesis of the disproportion between the two forms of progress (moral and material), although the regression is not only symbolized by the war, but by “social and political problems,” in which war would constitute the most dramatic chapter.

With the invention of numerous machines, humanity enlarged its body beyond all proportions, while the soul remained what it was, much smaller in comparison. There was a flagrant disproportion between matter and spirit, and this is where the most serious social and political problems were born. In place of societies of spiritual beings, we had mechanized peoples […] May the 20th century become the century of moral sciences (Bergson 1972, 1318).

14In the text which Bergson wrote when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1927, the thesis of the disproportion taken by the body through machines and the need for the expansion of the soul occupies almost the entire discourse. On this occasion, Bergson adds the examples of “steam” and “electricity” with a strong critical tone (Bergson 1972, 1489), contrasting with the excitement towards the steam engine in Creative Evolution (Bergson 2008b, 139, 185). The application of such discoveries, even producing a huge reduction in distances through faster means of transport (like railways, etc.) and communication, and thus providing a greater physical connection, was not able to promote a moral connection between people, as prophesized by several Victorian British thinkers and French Republicans and liberals.

15In what follows I show how Bergson, after attenuating his previous opinion, shared with Shaler, that limbs are naturally an emancipation factor for humans, found some theoretical resources in a dialogue with another American thinker, whose investigations about evolution and sociability helped him analyze technology from a different standpoint.

The “Struggle for Life” and the Birth of Property: The Dialogue with James Mark Baldwin

  • 7 Lord Haldane had sent to Bergson a copy of his The Reign of Relativity, a work inspired by the Hege (...)
  • 8 The term is also used in Laughter (Bergson 2007, 14), but with a different connotation. In Creative (...)
  • 9 “[…] alongside of the senses which inform us about things it puts common sense which bears on our i (...)

16In July 1921 answers seemed to appear on the horizon for Bergson. In a letter to Richard Burdon Haldane (1856-1928), a Scottish philosopher and influential politician, Bergson noted that he had always sought to emphasize the positive character of intelligence, and not, as Haldane believed, the attributes it was missing. While characterizing intelligence by what it is, and not by what it is not, he writes: “Intelligence was made by nature to help us in the struggle for life” (Bergson 1972, 943, my italics).7 Although the phrase “struggle for life” synthesized the lingua franca of evolutionary theories, and despite the intimacy of our philosopher with this line of thought, he had never used it in this way in his writings.8 Why then use it here? When employing the old evolutionary motto, Bergson seems to point beyond what would be a common correction to the interpretation of a correspondent­ to state that intelligence “struggles for life” means much more than to emphasize its “operative function” and “scientific efficiency” (Bergson 1972, 943). In fact, such declaration points to a “change of direction,” which would only be fully explored in 1932, namely, the idea that man, as a species, presents, in addition to a cognitive dimension, a moral dimension that was given to him by nature. Previously conceived to a large extent as a practical-epistemic tendency, intelligence is now questioned from its most fundamental moral aspirations — are not the “altruistic” and “selfish” affections at the basis of this struggle mentioned by Bergson? It is not by chance, therefore, that he rehabilitates the concept of “common sense” considering it once again as something that aims not at the manipulation of objects, but the promotion of interpersonal relations, with the difference that, in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, common sense is understood as a social sense innate in human species (Bergson 2008, 109-110).9

  • 10 This does not mean that Darwin doesn’t see the importance of society, even though he emphasizes the (...)

17Such questions touched on a problem faced by some of Bergson’s evolutionist colleagues, related to the insufficiency of the “struggle for life” if considered exclusively in its individual dimension: it was not rare, for example, to have cases where “communitarian” behaviors benefitted individuals, while “individualistic” actions harmed them, making it very difficult to establish a clear distinction between the individual and society.10 The exposition of this insufficiency was made by Bergson’s friend the American evolutionary psychologist , James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934), who, in his Darwin and Humanities, maintained that “the psychological unit is a ‘socius,’ a more or less socialized individual, fitted to enter into fruitful social relations” (Baldwin 1909, 43). In an enthusiastic review of Baldwin’s book written in 1913, Bergson accurately describes a second dimension of his friend’s argument, which sought to dispel the failure of Darwinian “individualism,” by explaining the idea of duty:

Every society is a set of socii which are, at the same time, spontaneously and voluntarily ruled over each other. If, therefore, we refer to vital competition in sociology, it must be said that it is between groups, and not between individuals, that the struggle of life occurs. The more the cohesion within the group, the more the group will be able to compete with others […] to be effective, the struggle must precisely group the socii into an organization of individuals dominating and governing themselves (Bergson 1972, 1022-1023).

  • 11 Also, on p. 33: “The cell lives for itself and also for the organism, imparting to it vitality and (...)

18In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, man also “is part and parcel of society; he and it are absorbed together in the same task of individual and social preservation” (Bergson 2008a, 33). More specifically, this problem reappears in a more emphasized way when Bergson discusses the idea of sociability, whose origin or “mere tendency” can be found in the cellular aggregates that make the “individual already a society” (Bergson 2008a, 121).11 Summarizing considerations postulated in Creative Evolution (Bergson 2008b, 259-261), he writes:

  • 12 “Polyzoism” is a concept in biology that states that the individual is formed by a group of more el (...)

the protozoa, formed from a single cell, it is suggested, constituted aggregates which, coming together in their turn, produced aggregates of aggregates; and thus, the most widely differentiated organisms originated in the associations of elementary organisms barely differentiated from one another. This is obviously an exaggeration; “polyzoism” is an exceptional and abnormal occurrence. But it is nonetheless a fact that things take place in a higher organism as if the cells had joined together to share the work between them. The bent towards the social form, found in so many species, is therefore evident in the very structure of any of its members [individus] (Bergson 2008a, 121) 12.

  • 13 It is in this sense that "the social underlies the vital" (Bergson 2008a, 123) or, in other words, (...)

19Hence, society is once again understood as “organization,” marked by specialization, division of labor and efficiency, that is, assuming “coordination and, generally, a subordination of the elements to each other” (Bergson 2008a, 21-22, 100), as occurs, for example, in cell constitution (Bergson 2008a, 27, 83-84, 96). However, despite the repetition of such themes, the focus in 1932, now seems to be not the distinction between the organic and the inorganic and the consequent refusal of “cellular atomism” (Bergson 2008b, 163), but on the establishment of the tension that marks the collectivity and the individuality in the level of societies already formed, as is the case of insect societies and human societies. — It is the sociability in these groups in their most complete forms that now interests Bergson: if the tendency to sociability is a fact, “it is merely a tendency; and if we wish to deal with fully complete societies, clear-cut organizations of distinct individuals, we must take the two perfect types of association represented by a society of insects and a human society” (Bergson 2008a, 121).13 In the case of human groups, the concept of society gains even greater specifications, since social associations are not elementary, such as the family or other small groups. Distancing himself from the point of view of these conglomerates, Bergson became interested in associations whose purpose is to insert themselves in an organized way in the struggle for life — he became interested in associations prepared for war:

[W]hat is the regime of a society fresh from the hands of nature? It is possible that humanity did in fact begin as scattered and isolated family groups. But these were mere embryonic societies, and the philosopher should no more seek in them the essential tendencies of social life than the naturalist should study the habits of a species by confining his attention to the embryo. We must take society when it is complete, that is to say, capable of defending itself, and consequently, however small, organized for war (Bergson 2008a, 295).

20Another aspect that we touched briefly upon above and that should be emphasized is that, now, as he was in Creative Evolution, Bergson is here interested in two social models: the one specific to insects (notably the Hymenoptera) and the human model. And for the same reason as before: these are the most finished forms of instinct and intelligence, which, in turn, are the two tendencies that were formed through the relationship of life with inanimate matter. The investigation in 1932 starts, therefore, from the evolutionary perspective developed in 1907, where “instinctive societies” are marked by cohesion and rigidity, while “intelligent societies,” are characterized by disintegration and progress. Bergson emphasizes, in the case of the former, its immutable character, due to the constitution of its individuals: the existence of each ant or each bee has in view the existence of the anthill and the hive. In the case of human societies, their changing character is related to the place that individuals occupy in the social tissue: “we cannot tell whether the organism was made for them or they for the organism.” And continues: “Of the two conditions laid down by Comte, ‘order’ and ‘progress,’ the insect chose order only, whereas the aim of at least a section of humanity is progress, sometimes exclusive of order, and always due to individual initiative” (Bergson 2008a, 121-122).

21Let us remember, however, that, more deeply, such forms of social organization were directly indebted to the relationship that each vital tendency established with the instruments, with the tools. Although he continues to be an exponent of the “projection theory,” that is, that the tools are continuations of human organs (Rates 2017), Bergson adds a new dimension, aligned with the “change of direction” to his theory that we mentioned above. It is as if the natural disposition of the human species for manufacturing instruments — or, as Creative Evolution states, “manufacturing artificial objects, especially tools to make tools, and of indefinitely varying the manufacture” (Bergson 2008b, 140) — had absorbed group competition and the “struggle for life.” When manufacturing tools, humans started to possess them, thus making them their property. And since the tools are separated from the body that makes them (distinct, as we have seen, from certain insects, whose instruments — artificial organs — coincide with the natural organs), their possession must also presuppose the possibility of their loss, that is, the possibility of being taken by someone else. Contrary to the unconditional defense of man’s creative vocation, Bergson will infer that “it is easier to take the tools ready-made than to make them,” attributing an unprecedented ambivalence in the theory of projection. If man creates, his creation, once made property, becomes the object of dispute, thus leading to a situation of conflict, that is, of war. According to Bergson in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

[The tools] are meant to act on some specific matter, meant to be used for hunting or fishing, for example; the group of which he is a member may have fixed its choice on a forest, a lake, a river; another group may find it more convenient to settle in that very same place than to look further afield. There is now nothing for it but to fight the matter out. We have taken the case of a hunting forest, or a lake for fishing; it may just as well be a matter of fields to be cultivated, women to be seized, slaves to be carried off. In the same way reasons will be brought forward to justify such dealings. But no matter the thing taken, the motive adduced: the origin of war is ownership, individual or collective, and since humanity is predestined to ownership by its structure, war is natural (Bergson 2008a, 302-303).

22Such investigations, however, should not obscure the philosopher in the pursuit of the forms that society can eventually take, that is, of its virtual forms. More specifically, it is the theme of “free society” that should then be the subject of scrutiny. As we have seen, in Creative Evolution, the emancipation of humanity was linked to the creative capacity of intelligence, that is, to the way in which it gave rise to the movement or evolution of life. Despite the theoretical gains of this position in avoiding the problem of considering, to use the Spinozist expression, “an empire within another empire,” it was excessively “descriptive,” leaving its “normativity” in the field of intuition, that is, of speculation.

  • 14 Due to its complexity and the lack of space, the concept of intuition will not be analyzed here. Be (...)

23It should be noted, however, that life “created norms,” even though such norms were based on a fundamental division between theory and practice: freedom was exercised, on the one hand, by intelligent action, and, on the other, by intuitive knowledge. In any case, as dualities occurred at the level of the articulation between life and matter, society seemed to naturally emancipate itself through intelligence, while intuition was, in turn, understood as the awareness of this advance. It is true that intuition also contributed to vital progress (absorption, by intuitive thinking, of the virtualities of life) and, consequently, to social progress, although Bergson does not make sufficiently clear in the 1907 book how this would occur (the idea, announced at the end of the third chapter of Creative Evolution, that “the whole of humanity […] as an immense army […]” (Bergson 2008b, 271), is too vague, even if we consider the undeniable universalist verve of it).14 But a historic event of unprecedented proportions forces our philosopher to review certain positions. With the discovery of the “meaning of war,” technical creations, eminently intelligent, are no longer emancipatory: freedom could only be achieved through morals and, perhaps most importantly, through morals as opposed to material. In other words, through spiritual as opposed to the natural. Now, as we have seen, in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, morality is itself “natural.” The possibility of a free society occurs, therefore, within nature, but differently from the proposal presented in Creative evolution: the freedom exercised by the technical-creative condition of the human species does not result in the eclipse of freedom exercised by its moral condition. Emancipation will take place in relation to a “comprehensive evolutionism,” where freedom is both natural and moral.

24However, a great challenge is on the horizon, since, as the title of the 1932 work says, morality has two sources: it can be open or closed, which gives rise to thinking that the passage from the former to the second would represent the passage from “nature” to “human,” or at least the indication of a certain abandonment of nature. But is that really what this is about? A first step towards overcoming this problem is to interrogate it under other terms. In the form of a question, it would be as follows: how do living beings and, notably, human beings — naturally social — survive? And what is their aspiration so that they can live better? To survival, Bergson will give the name of “closed” society or morality, linked, as we have seen, to the “struggle for life.” To Happiness, he will refer to “open” society or morality. Finally, how can humanity overcome its state of survival, of “just living,” and reach the “joy” and “love” that comes from “the simplicity of life” (Bergson 2008a, 338)?

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Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane, and Annette Becker. 2003. 14-18, retrouver la Guerre. Paris: Gallimard.

Aufère, Léon. 2018. Boucher de Perthes. Imaginer la Préhistoire. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

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Bergson, Henri. 2009a. La Pensée et le mouvant. Paris: PUF.

Bergson, Henri. 2009b. L’Énergie spirituelle. Paris: PUF.

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Darwin, Charles. 1872. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. New York: John Murray.

De Perthes, Boucher. 1847-1864. Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennes : Mémoire sur l’industrie primitive et les arts à leur origine. Paris: Treutell et Wurtz/Derache/Dumoulin/Didron.

Gruber, Howard E., and Paul H. Barret. 1974. Darwin on Man. A Psychological Study on Scientific Creativity. Together with Darwin’s Early and Unpublished Notebooks. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co.

Lacombe, Paul. 1894. De l’histoire considérée comme science. Paris: Hachette.

Mandelbaum, Maurice. 1974. History, Man, and Reason. A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Petyx, Vincenza. 2006. Bergson e le streghe di Macbeth. Dagli écrits de guerre a Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion. Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso.

Rates, Bruno B. 2017. “Vie et histoire humaine dans L’Évolution créatrice de Bergson.” In Das Leben im Menschen oder der Mensch im Leben? DeutschFranzösische Genealogien zwischen Anthropologie und AntiHumanismus, edited by Thomas Ebke and Caterina Zanfi, 369-379. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam.

Richards, Robert J. 1987. Darwin and the Emergency of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. 2005. Bursting the Limits of time: the Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Rudwick, Martin J. S. 2014. Earth’s deep history. How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

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Sackett, James. 2014. “Boucher de Perthes et la découverte de l’Antiquité de l’homme.” Anabases, 20: 293-312.

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1 This essay was supported by the grant 2020/15114-5, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). Some ideas developed here are present throughout my forthcoming book (in Portuguese).

2 De Perthes 1847-1864. About De Perthes: Aufrère 2018; Sackett 2014.

3 Our use of the term “prehistory” should not be mistaken with the “prehistory” used by historians since the late 18th century when referring to pre-literate history, because what could be known, in these cases, was equated tacitly with the history of literate cultures. Besides Boucher des Perthes, Paul Tournal — with Jules de Christal and also Philippe-Charles Schmerling — claimed a specific knowledge for the pre-literate times, based on human bones and artifacts. Archeology was no longer exclusively linked with, for exemple, the excavations of Pompeii or Ancient Egyptian and Chinese Dynasties. In this sense, the pre-history of pre-historical archeology opened, from the mid-19th century, a new conceptual domain, between pre-human history of the Earth (studied by geologists) and literate human history (studied by historians). In his illuminating studies, Martin Rudwick concludes that the intention of this new initiative was to transform the prehistorical studies in a link that could unify all three disciples. According to the same scholar, after the publication of The Origin of Species, a preoccupation with the transmutation — and the relation between Man and Apes — became prominent in this unification, even if those themes were presented before. (Rudwick 2005, 275-287; 2008, 225-236, 407-422; 2014, 181-206).

4 Lacombe emphasizes, in this process, the shape of the human hand and language. About this subject, I refer to my article: Rates 2017. A more general and recent discussion about Bergson and history can be found in Zanfi 2021.

5 “[…] material progress becomes an instrument of moral regression.” It should be mentioned that Bergson was directly involved in the French diplomatic services during the First World War. He participated in three missions, one to Spain (1916) and two to the United States (1917 and 1918), where he was sent by the French government in a delegation to help convince President Wilson of the importance of the entrance of the Americans in the war (Bergson, 1972, 1554-1570). Due to its strong belligerence and pro-war tone, the group of speeches written and pronounced between August 2, 1914, until the signature of the Treaty of Versailles was called, by a classic study on the subject wrote by Philippe Soulez, the “war speeches” (Soulez 1989,127). There is a good amount of texts in specialized journals that covers the subject, and because of its complexity and lack of space, I will not analyze it here. Besides Soulez’s pioneer monograph, it is worth mentionning two other works (a book and a PhD thesis) completely dedicated to Bergson’s involvement in the war: Petyx 2006 (a deep and well-informed book that seems to be almost completely forgotten and is unfortunately not mentioned in more recent approaches on the subject) and Weill 2019. My own interpretation on the subject can be founded in detail in the “Chapter 5” of my forthcoming book, devoted to the relation between nature and culture in Bergson’s thought.

6 Andouin-Rouzeau and Becker relate this "mystification" of the French soldier with the death, premature on the front, of Péguy and Psichari (Andouin-Rouzeau and Becker 2000, 174).

7 Lord Haldane had sent to Bergson a copy of his The Reign of Relativity, a work inspired by the Hegelian philosophy and dedicated to the study of the concept of relativity, from the ancients to Einstein, and in domains distinct as the theory of knowledge, metaphysics, science and politics. Bergson met Haldane in 1911 and, after the war, the British had sent him Before the War, whose central chapter is an analysis of the “German attitude before the war,” made through the testimony of some German officials (Bergson 1972, 431, 898-899).

8 The term is also used in Laughter (Bergson 2007, 14), but with a different connotation. In Creative Evolution Bergson refers to the “numberless struggles that we behold in nature” (Bergson 2008b, 255). Needless to say, he employs the term in a critical sense when he discusses the Darwinian hypothesis in the first chapter of Creative Evolution.

9 “[…] alongside of the senses which inform us about things it puts common sense which bears on our intercourse with people. […] Common sense, then, or as it might be called, social sense, is innate in normal man, like the faculty of speech, which also implies the existence of society and which is none the less prefigured in individual organisms.”

10 This does not mean that Darwin doesn’t see the importance of society, even though he emphasizes the attributes of the individual when analyzing the moral development, and tended to look the survival of society as dependent of these attributes. On moral sense (altruism and sympathy) in Darwin’s thought: Gruber, Howard E., and Paul H. Barret 1974. On “social instincts” and their importance in Darwin see Mandelbaum (1974, 226-231) and Richards (1987, 484-486).

11 Also, on p. 33: “The cell lives for itself and also for the organism, imparting to it vitality and borrowing vitality from it; it will sacrifice itself to the whole, if need be; and it would doubtless then say, if it were conscious, that it made this sacrifice in its own interest.”

12 “Polyzoism” is a concept in biology that states that the individual is formed by a group of more elementary organisms. Bergson also uses the term in Creative Evolution as an “exceptional and abnormal fact”, making reference to the theory of “animal colonies” from his friend, the French biologist Edmond Perrier, and by the critical approaches of the term offered by another prominent French biologist at the time, Yves Delage, as well as other scientists that studied the phenomena (Bergson 2008b, 260).

13 It is in this sense that "the social underlies the vital" (Bergson 2008a, 123) or, in other words, that "nature, disposing the human species throughout evolution, wanted it to be sociable" (53).

14 Due to its complexity and the lack of space, the concept of intuition will not be analyzed here. Besides, it would take us too far from the main themes explored in this article. My intention was only to use it in order to think some of the dimensions of the idea of emancipation in relation to technology and the use of tools.

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Bruno B. Rates, « From Liberty to Property: The Influence of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and James Mark Baldwin on Bergson’s Views on Life and Technology »Bergsoniana [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. 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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