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Thinking with Bergson. The Last Problem: The Planet, and What It Is to Know

Suzanne Guerlac


Peut-on penser les questions de justice sociale (en rapport avec les histoires de colonialisme et de racialisation) en même temps que l'urgence de la crise climatique, qui menace l'habitabilité du globe ? Ou bien le second impératif l'emporte-t-il sur le premier ? William E. Connolly et Dipesh Chakrabarty, qui théorisent le planétaire du point de vue des sciences planétaires, tout en l’isolant des préoccupations « sociocentriques, » notent une tension entre l'urgence de la crise climatique et les préoccupations de justice sociale des études postcoloniales. Ils donnent la priorité à la première. En remettant en question ce discours du «  planetary » dans la perspective de la critique de l’intelligence de Bergson (L’Evolution créatrice) qui soutient un déplacement de priorité aujourd'hui vers les questions de colonialité/décolonialité (Quijano ; Mignolo ; Mbembe), je constate que les deux urgences vont de pair, que toutes deux nous obligent à penser autrement, et que la pratique philosophique singulière de Bergson – et surtout son recours aux « concepts fluides » — peut nous montrer la voie.

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Introduction: The Global and the Planetary, Two Urgencies

1Global Bergsonism. The adjective moves in many directions: toward the global economy, global technology, global development, the Global South, global coloniality, the “global paradigm of blackness” (Jackson 2020, 19) — or global warming. William Connolly and Dipesh Chakrabarty have theorized another term, the planetary, to focus our attention on the last of these and to signal that it operates on another level altogether, one that requires us to think outside the global framework and beyond the social. The planetary concerns “nonhuman forces” (Connolly 2017, 61) that threaten the habitability of the planet. As Chakrabarty suggests in The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, the Anthropocene Age (a geological periodization of the history of the planet) has exposed the predicament (Chakrabarty 2021, 35) in which we find ourselves: current planetary conditions are anthropogenic in nature, yet potentially catastrophic for life; human actions have put the geo-physical forces associated with it into play from within historical time but the impact of those forces plays out in geological time, which is incommensurable with human thought and action. When Chakrabarty sets the problem up in this way, as a dissonance between time registers — human-centered historical time and planet-centered geological time — we get caught in a sort of antinomy of reason. We are held in the pincers of the sublime, only without transcendental shelter.

  • 1 Eugene Thacker addresses correlationism in connection with Quentin Meillassoux, who “speaks of self (...)
  • 2 “Sociocentrism […] diverts our critical gaze from the planetary” (Connolly 2017, 13).
  • 3 Connolly notes that “environmentalism and postcolonial studies” have “tended to head in different d (...)

2Horizon of geophysical threat, then, the planetary also poses a problem to thought. What does “planet-centered” (Chakrabarty 2021, 171) thinking look like when the planetary is not in correlation with us?1 The asymmetry is acutely felt when it comes to what to do about the climate crisis. To mitigate its impact (to avert catastrophe) requires political action. A planet-centered politics, however, is inconceivable (it would imply nonhuman forces and geological time). And so political considerations inevitably draw us back into the social framework of historical time, which, however, ostensibly inhibits us from “facing the planetary.”2 Connolly and Chakrabarty agree that if our political thinking remains attached to the global register of post-colonial critique, this will block us from attending to the unhuman physical forces on their way to producing irreversible effects of catastrophic magnitude.3 Chakrabarty suggests that the struggle for equal rights to freedom and happiness across the globe (including equitable and proportionate emissions standards for developing nations) translates into increased use of fossil fuel and more damage to the biosphere; he speaks of “third-world desire for energy intensive, mostly fossil-fuel-driven modernization” as “spiritual and idealistic” (Chakrabarty 2021, 106). The discourse of the planetary, then, seems to pit two urgencies against one another: the urgency of the Earth crisis against the urgency of social justice.

  • 4 Mignolo explains the distinction between decolonization and decoloniality this way: “decolonizing k (...)
  • 5 This includes a variety of contrasting voices: William Connolly and Dipesh Chakrabarty from the pla (...)

3This picture assumes that post-colonial politics can be reduced to a struggle for more equitable participation in the modern global system. Contemporary theorists of coloniality, however, prefer to mount a fundamental challenge to this system through critical evaluation of its epistemological foundations. “The fundamental task of decoloniality,” writes Walter D. Mignolo, “is […] decolonizing knowledge.” He adds: “you cannot decolonize knowledge, if you do not question the very foundation of Western epistemology” (Mignolo and Walsh 2018, 136).4 Today many quite different voices call upon us to “think differently” (Connolly 2016, 63), outside the framework of the global modern system.5 But there are different ways of doing this. Perhaps it is not inevitable to pit the urgent need for social justice and “dignified life” (Red Nation, 2021) against the urgency of planetary survival. Perhaps there is another way to think, and another way to see the planetary.

4Sliding “global bergsonism” toward the question of the planet — toward a planetary Bergson — I would like to examine what Bergson might contribute to this conversation. If Bergson is a particularly welcome interlocutor in this context, it is because in Creative Evolution he not only proposes a notion of the planetary quite different from the one Connolly and Chakrabarty theorize today, but he also does this from within an epistemological critique that, we could say, questions “the very foundation of Western epistemology” (Mignolo and Walsh 2018, 136).

Epistemology and Life

  • 6 All translations of this work are mine (page references are to the French edition).
  • 7 In Creative Evolution Bergson writes “the theory of knowledge and the theory of life seem to us to (...)

5“It is as if [tout se passe comme si] the last problem of Bergsonism were also the first of our problems today” (Worms 2004, 339) Frédéric Worms wrote in 2004.6 I will take Bergson’s “last” problem (which one might argue was also his first) to be the inseparability of questions of epistemology and questions of life, and consider it in relation to our greatest problems: the climate/Earth crisis we now face and coloniality, as it includes racialization.7

6In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson does not wait to radically reframe the question of human knowledge or intelligence in relation to questions of life. Here is the very first sentence of his introduction to that work:

The history of the evolution of life, as incomplete as it still might be [si incomplète qu’elle soit encore] already lets us discern [nous laisse entrevoir] how intelligence was constituted by an uninterrupted progress, along a line that rises, through the series of the Vertebrates, to man (Bergson 1959, 489 my emphasis).

  • 8 Frédéric Worms comments upon it (Worms 2004,182).

7This sinuous, and seemingly innocuous, sentence is explosive.8 It imposes an evolutionary perspective that requires us to situate human intelligence itself in relation to pre-human time. It denies human intelligence its pride of place — outside nature, transcendent to it, and so able to take it as an object of its knowledge — and embeds it within the long, deep, history of natural processes.

  • 9 In Bergson “life must not be confused with the forms by which life actualizes itself” (Deleuze and (...)
  • 10 Keith Ansell-Pearson substantiates this view when he writes that for Bergson “the human is neither (...)

8The evolution of lifedoes not refer to a history of forms one might parade before the mind’s eye, but to life itself as a force of invention that affects real becoming, and within which we must situate our human selves.9 When Bergson characterizes this evolution with the words si incomplète qu’elle soit encore” (Bergson 1959, 489), his adroit use of the subjunctive challenges the assumption (supported by Herbert Spencer among others) that the emergence of European civilized man marks the end of the evolution of life and the fulfillment of its promise.10 When he addresses what the evolution of life “nous laisse entrevoir” his choice of words engages us, from the start, with operations of discernment, insight or intuition, instead of yoking us to a conceptual logic of intelligence. This opening sentence, we could say, sets the terms for a sympathetic reading of Creative Evolution: it will be necessary to accept both the premise that human intelligence is not a given, but engendered within the concrete becoming of life, and its corollary (which Bergson will announce without delay) namely that intelligence cannot know life.

9“What the study of life reveals to Bergson,” Frédéric Worms writes, “is that life, in its evolution, at one and the same time engenders and exceeds [tout à la fois engendre et dépasse] our habitual form of knowledge, that is, the intelligence that defines humanity” (Worms 2004, 168). Worms emphasizes the need to consider this problem from within the terms of Bergson’s philosophy. But it is also helpful to recall that the question of life has always been problematic in Western philosophy, leading to a “basic incommensurability” (Thacker 2010, 22) between logic and life. The problems Aristotle encountered in De Anima — the circular relation between the terms life and the living — return in Kant’s Third Critique when the idea of purposiveness becomes necessary for “a concept of life or nature to be thought at all” and, at the same time, it remains “inaccessible to us” (Thacker 2010, 248). In other words, as Eugene Thacker concludes, “life is not only a problem of philosophy it is a problem for philosophy” (Thacker 2010, x). In our era of the Anthropocene the tension between life and knowledge has become an urgent problem: as conditions of life on our planet become dangerously (and perhaps irreversibly) compromised we become painfully aware that, with all our technical savoir faire, we can’t figure out what to do about it. If, as Chakrabarty notes the “climate crisis has brought the planet into view,” (Chakrabarty 2021, 215) the planetary has come to signify, as Bruno Latour remarks, the “impossible to solve question” (Chakrabarty 2021, 214).

  • 11 In addition to Worms and Deleuze, who I discuss briefly here, many others have taken up this questi (...)

10This situation invites us to take Bergson’s critique of intelligence seriously, as a practical problem. It has, of course, received philosophical attention.11 Gilles Deleuze attends to it in his Bergsonism, which analyses Bergsonian intuition as a philosophical method that dispels false philosophical problems. But he is not concerned with the critique of intelligence as such. Casting Bergson as an anti-philosopher, he reads Bergsonian duration as “the metaphysical correlate of modern science” (Deleuze 1991, 116). If readers sympathetic to Bergson have historically found themselves in a defensive position (given the charges of irrationality Bertrand Russell and others levelled against Bergson) Deleuze brilliantly succeeds in making Bergson’s thought as sturdy as a steel trap. But he does so at the cost of obscuring the radicality of Bergson’s critique of knowledge (which, as we will see, pertains as much to science as to philosophy) when he transposes it into modern scientific terms.

11If Deleuze gives us a decidedly scientific Bergson, Frédéric Worms offers us a rigorously philosophical (or metaphysical) one. In Bergson ou les deux sens de la vie he discusses Bergson’s critique of intelligence at length. He maintains that the question of life, for Bergson, is “at once ontological and epistemological” (Worms 2004, 200-201) and even declares the “dépassement of our intelligence to be “the essential stakes [l’enjeu essentiel]” of Creative Evolution (Worms 2004, 201). Because of the specific goals of his own ambitious study, however, which demonstrates the rigorous nature of Bergson’s philosophy as a whole, Worms is more interested in the internal effects of Bergson’s critique of intelligence — the way its elaboration contributes to the coherence of the philosopher’s thought — than in its consequences for what he calls practical and historical problems. If we can now consider Bergson’s critique of intelligence in relation to our most pressing problems (the Earth crisis, say, and coloniality) it is thanks to Worms and Deleuze who have demonstrated, in quite different ways, the undeniable rigor of Bergson’s thought.

The Critique of Intelligence

12As Bergson tells it in Creative Evolution, intelligence emerges within the history of life because of the evolutionary requirement that the “consciousness of living beings (he does not say human beings) adapt to its “conditions of existence” (Bergson, 1959, 489) in the physical world, which is to say its material milieu. Deleuze cites Bergson to the effect that “properly human experience take[s] […] a bias in the direction of our utility” (Deleuze 1991, 27). Bergson argues that human beings had to develop a capacity to “think matter” (Bergson 1959, 489) in order to achieve mastery over inert things and to be able to thrive. This leads to the development of a kind of intelligence that specializes in the investigation of the material world according to logics of geometry and calculation. And so there emerges what Bergson calls a parenté [kinship] (Bergson 1959, 489) between our logical thought — quantitative or conceptual — and inert matter.

13“Created by life in determinate circumstances in order to act on determinate things,” Bergson asks in his introduction to Creative Evolution, “how could … [intelligence] embrace life, of which it is only an emanation or an aspect?” (Bergson 1959, 489-90). There is another reason why intelligence cannot know life, one that specifically concerns the kinship between intelligence and matter. It has to do with time. As Bergson explains in Matter and Memory, matter exists in a regime of repetition; the time of brute matter is “a present that is always beginning again” (Bergson 1959, 281). To accommodate this temporal regime, intelligence imposes static frameworks — iterative linguistic structures, abstract logics and systems of measurement — on the everchanging world of concrete becoming in order to know it and make profitable use of it. Instead of a transcendental esthetic governing the construction of a knowable world (as in Kantian epistemology) Bergson affirms that evolutionary processes engender the conformation of mental operations to the way matter is. Their kinship evolves over time. If intelligence cannot know life, it is because living beings do not exist in this time of repetition, they exist durationally. As he explains in Matter and Memory, living beings absorb time through memory, thanks to which the past remains virtually active in the present and voluntary action becomes possible. And so we might rephrase the question of relations between epistemology and life this way: attuned to the temporal regime of repetition, which is the time of matter, how could intelligence know living beings for whom a moment never presents itself twice, or, as Bergson writes in Time and Free Will, for whom “the same feeling [sentiment], simply by virtue of repeating itself, is a new feeling” (Bergson 1959, 131)?

  • 12 “La philosophie,” Bergson writes in La pensée et le mouvant “is a puzzle [est un jeu de puzzle]” (B (...)

14The question of intelligence frames Bergson’s account of creative evolution. His study not only opens with it, but it also closes with it in a final chapter that examines how intelligence works. Instead of making its appearance as the signal virtue of the hero of the evolutionary story — civilized man — intelligence emerges here as a “knowledge apparatus” that Bergson compares to a recently invented mechanical apparatus that produces illusion: the cinematograph that Lumière introduced to a bedazzled public at the 1900 World Fair. This device depends upon the visual technology of chrono-photography (recently invented by Jules Marey). It produces still images of things in motion — a bird in flight for example — by cutting into this vital movement at mathematically determined intervals thanks to a clock mechanism fitted within the camera. Lumière’s cinematographe projects the series of chrono-photographic image frames onto a screen at just the speed necessary for the human eye to experience an illusion of continuous movement, composed of these still shots. Bergson takes this mechanism as a figure for the human “cognitive apparatus” (Bergson 1959, 753), which, he insists, operates the same way: it depends upon “stable views cut out from real instability [vues stables sur l’instabilité]” which it “artificially juxtaposes, retroactively, in a homogeneous field” (Bergson 1959, 750). To Bergson, Spencer’s philosophy of evolution represents a discursive version of this protocol. Claiming to present an account of real becoming — of evolution as concrete continuous change — Spencer’s method consists of “reconstituting evolution with already evolved fragments” (Bergson 1959, 802, original emphasis) as if he were putting together the pieces of a puzzle to display an already familiar image.12

15The cinematographic proposes a mechanical version of what Bergson called spatialization in Time and Free Will. This referred to any schematization of past time or movement that sequences it artificially in homogeneous space. In Time and Free Will spatialization can be read as philosophical error: the designation of this schematization as time even though it arrests concrete becoming, folding it back into static space and repressing duration as the ongoing happening of change. In Creative Evolution, however, Bergson insists that knowledge itself spatializes because this is the way the cognitive apparatus works: “the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is cinematographic in nature” (Bergson 1959, 753, original emphasis). And so it is not surprising that, by the end of this chapter, Bergson has extended his critique of intelligence to the whole history of Western philosophy, as well as to scientific inquiry. An “irresistible attraction returns intelligence to its natural movement,” Bergson writes (alluding to the kinship with matter that the history of life has engendered in it) “and the metaphysics of the moderns to the general conclusions of Greek metaphysics” (Bergson 1959, 773) that spatialized time. Bergson also writes that “modern science, like ancient science, operates according to the cinematographic mechanism” (Bergson 1959, 773). It is because of its reliance on signs that science, which depends upon measurement, substitutes an “artificial recomposition” (easy to manipulate in the service of practical knowledge) for “the mobile continuity of things” (Bergson 1959, 773). Intelligence considers events “abstractly […] outside the living whole [en dehors du tout vivant] […] in a time that happened [qui s’est déroulé ] in space” (Bergson 1959, 784).

  • 13 I borrow the term “Greek miracle” from Yala Kisdukidi (2019). Bergson does not use this term but re (...)

16We could say that the cinematographic protocol becomes the operational norm for the determination of knowledge as truth in the West. It fabricates an “abstract becoming” (Bergson 1959, 753) that, since Greek antiquity (since what some call the Greek Miracle) authorizes the ostensible universality of this regime of truth, which yields an abstract reality — “the whole of intelligible reality” (Bergson 1959, 763) — at the cost of alienating us from “reality itself” (Bergson 1959, 786).13 Bergson, we could say, questions “the very foundations of Western epistemology” (Mignolo and Walsh 2018, 136), challenging its artificiality, its instrumentality, and the ostensible universality its alienating abstraction implies, even as he exposes its inability to think change (time as flux) and therefore life (internal change).

Bergson’s Planetary. Fluid Concepts

17The philosopher’s critique is not meant to invalidate intelligence altogether, but to limit the reach of its authority. In what we recognize as a signature gesture, Bergson poses intelligence and intuition as the extreme points of two opposed tendencies of thought. He insists on “all the imaginable degrees from intelligence to intuition” and suggests that where one places oneself on this spectrum depends on what one wants to know or understand (Bergson 1959, 722). If you seek useful knowledge of inert things, you will slide toward the knowledge of intelligence. When, however, it is a question of understanding “the place we occupy in the ensemble of nature” the light of intuition will be required. “As living beings,” Bergson insists, “we depend on the planet in which we find ourselves [où nous sommes]” (Bergson 1959, 722).

  • 14 “Togethering” is a verbal form inspired by the definition the Robert Dictionary gives of “ensemble(...)

18Bergson turns to the planet, then, to show us what kind of thing intelligence cannot know. It is not an object one can know from the outside — like a stone — because the subject of knowledge (along with all other living beings) exists within it, and thanks to it. We notice that when he speaks of the planet, he passes into an expansive first person plural, a we that pertains to all living beings, as if the planet named the assembling — the togethering, one might say — in which we all take part as living beings, in interaction with one another and with material processes.14 We recall Bergson’s fundamental question: “how could [intelligence] embrace life, of which it is only an emanation or an aspect?” (Bergson 1959, 489-90).

  • 15 In Chapter three of Creative Evolution, for example, Bergson notes that a shift has recently taken (...)
  • 16 Worms stresses the critical value of analogy in Bergson (Worms 2004, 183, 188, 194). He speaks of a (...)

19The critical delimitation of intelligence gains stature and authority from the fact that Bergson himself operates within the limits he sets up. As his philosophy examines duration, life, memory, consciousness, and the planet — precisely what intelligence cannot know — he is required to think on the intuitive end of the spectrum. This involves actively breaking what he calls the “frames of knowledge” (Bergson 1959, 493), a figure Bergson elaborates through the cinematographic in Creative Evolution. Real movement (or the movement of the real) occurs between the chrono-photographic image frames that the cinematograph projects onto the screen; “there is more in the transition,” Bergson writes, “than the series of states […] more in the movement than in the series of positions” (Bergson 1959, 760, original emphasis) captured in the photographic stills. Movement, Bergson insists, “slip[s] into the interval” (Bergson 1959, 755) and we must install ourselves there if we are to know the durational real. What this means in practice is that reality, as change or transition, escapes the contours of our discrete concepts whose fixed frames demarcate self -identical and repeatable ideas or entities that immobilize “la réalité mouvante” (Bergson 1959, 784). “Fluid concepts” (Bergson 1959, 1422), Bergson insists, are required to think “the fluid continuity of the real” (Bergson 1959, 750) that phenomena such as electricity and electromagnetism reveal to us. Fluid concepts, in other words, are required for intuitive knowledge and its elaboration in language. Bergson explains that they allow for “the maturation of an idea” (Bergson 1959, 703). They evolve analogically within the movement of the philosopher’s thought, adapting over time to new contours of argument, new polemical interlocutors, new historical contexts, and new information15 As Bergson slides temporally between gestures of implicit anticipation, explicit elaboration, and recall, fluid concepts flow into one another and overlap in ever more generous (and self-altering) acts of restatement.16 It is through a manipulation of fluid concepts, for example, that Bergson opens duration up from the register of individual consciousness) to the planetary level of “duration immanent to the whole of the universe” (Bergson 1959, 503).

  • 17 “Consciousness [conscience] signifies memory” (Bergson 1959, 1397).

20Fluid concepts are thick with tensions. Memory, for example, performs temporal synthesis in Matter and Memory, yielding the continuity between past present and future required for action (including perception) and for the continuous force of real invention that the élan vital will inscribe in Creative Evolution. But to the extent that memory is tied to duration it is also associated with an “incommensurability between what precedes and what follows” (Bergson 1950, 519 note 2, my emphasis). Without this incommensurability we would not have the moment of hesitation that interrupts automaticity and makes voluntary action possible for higher living beings, or the creativity, invention or contingency that characterize duration and evolution. Consciousness attaches to, or overlaps with, memory in connection with voluntary action which is an effect of this incommensurability. And of course, there is also an overlap between this moment of suspension — this gap or hesitation — and the interval between the cinematographic frames of intelligence, where the mobility of the real eludes cognitive arrest and capture. Bergson will eventually open up the supple concept of memory even further, bringing it more fully into the richness of the interval. By the time of L’Energie spirituelle memory will have flowed into the concepts of duration and consciousness as a dual operation of “holding onto what is no longer, anticipating what is not yet” (Bergson 1959, 818). If we think in discrete concepts, this might seem like a paradoxical formulation. As fluid thinking, however, it characterizes the dynamics of transition at work in the interval, which the comma inscribes in Bergson’s sentence. As a fluid concept, then, memory (which comes to overlap with consciousness) introduces both continuity and discontinuity into duration, producing a tension that prevents it from flattening into spatialized time.17

21In Duration and Simultaneity, the concept of memory seems to flow into the concept of time, which Bergson now characterizes as “a before and an after” (Bergson 1999, 45, original emphasis). But it does so without ceasing to be memory. For there to be time, Bergson writes, this before and after must be lived, which is to say it must be registered by some sort of consciousness, or memory. Bergson explicitly admonishes his reader, however, not to read the word “consciousness,” here in “an anthropomorphic sense,” that is, in terms of the “human character of memory” (Bergson 1999, 33, my emphasis). It should be read, he clarifies, as the before and after of an impersonal memory — the “impersonal time in which all things will pass” (Bergson 1999, 32). This notion of time invites us to think “duration of the universe” (Bergson 1999, 31) ontogenetically, to borrow Gilbert Simondon’s term, that is as “the becoming of being as this becoming modifies it” (Simondon 2017, 308). This conception of time accommodates Bergson’s understanding of duration as “the very stuff of our existence and of all things” (Bergson 1999, 43) and of the real as an entanglement of the living with the inert in the “universal interaction that is no doubt reality itself” (Bergson 1959, 493).

22Matter also becomes a fluid concept. Like memory, it is virtually double to the extent that it holds the difference between brute matter and living matter. Even as Bergson insists in Matter and Memory that living beings, which absorb time, are different in kind from inert things that do not, the tendency of his thought will be toward a rapprochement of living and inert matter. In chapter three of Creative Evolution, Bergson discusses relations of isolated physical systems to “ever vaster systems up to and including the solar system in its entirety [dans son ensemble]” (Bergson 1959, 503). He indicates that his thinking about matter has evolved along with the scientific shift from classical mechanics, which construed matter as particles, to fluid mechanics (or dynamics) which considers it in terms of energy and movement. Scientists now agree, Bergson writes, that “considered as an undivided whole,” matter “must be in flux” (Bergson 1959, 652). It is “in this respect,” Bergson comments, that “we are preparing the way to a rapprochement between the inert and the living” (Bergson 1959, 655).

  • 18 Worms also stresses the critical work analogy performs in Bergson (Worms 2004, 183, 188, 194).
  • 19 Bruno Latour (2018, 36).

23“Follow […] the thread of analogy” (Bergson, 1959, 819) Bergson enjoins his readers.18 In Creative Evolution, he performs the rapprochement between inert matter and living matter analogically:If we wanted to find a term of comparison for the living organism in the inorganic world,” he writes, “we should assimilate it [the living organism] not to a determinate material object, but rather to the totality of the material universe (Bergson 1959, 507). The rapprochement of the two terms does not reduce them to the same. It brings them into relation through the integration of an individual into a dynamic whole, a relation of inclusion within the ever-changing ensemble — the “radical recasting [refonte] of the whole” (Bergson 1959, 801) — that includes it and within which it actively belongs. The planet emerges from this operation as a living being (or analogous to one) without losing its materiality. It will be on the basis of this rapprochement of brute matter and living matter that Bergson will be able to speak of a “duration immanent to the whole of the universe” (Bergson 1959, 503) in a planetary regime characterized by an inorganic ensemble that is “interwoven with living beings [entretissu d’êtres organisés]” (Bergson 2020, 62). Something quite different from the planet as our contemporary theorists of the planetary conceive it! Bergson surely qualifies as what Bruno Latour calls a Terrestrial thinker!19

24Although the explicit rapprochement of brute matter and living matter occurs in Creative Evolution, Bergson anticipates it in Matter and Memory, where we find the following sinuous rhetorical question: “Isn’t the fiction of an isolated material object somewhat absurd,” he asks,

because this object borrows its physical properties from the relations it maintains [entretient] with all the others? And owes each of its determinations, and therefore its very existence to the place it occupies in the whole of the universe” (Bergson 1959, 176, my emphasis).

25In this work Bergson also poses the same basic question from the other side, taking as his point of departure not the isolated object of knowledge, but the material seat of consciousness in the knower — the brain:

Can one consider the neurological system (the brain and its modifications) to be alive, without the organism that nourishes it, without the atmosphere where the organism breathes, without the earth that this atmosphere bathes, without the sun around which the earth gravitates (Bergson 1959, 175)?

26Can this physical part of the living being, he seems to ask here, be considered alive without the planet, as it relates to the sun? In Matter and Memory Bergson doesn’t yet explicitly tie this question to duration. But the appeal to a dynamic whole and the emphasis on the place occupied within that ensemble, anticipate the notion of the planetary as Bergson will elaborate it in Creative Evolution in terms of the duration of the universe. The practice of saying again — in a different way, at a different place, in a different moment — opens conceptual thought and carries it forward in a movement of analogical overlapping that engages with the dynamism of the interval and exceeds fixed conceptual frames.

27The movement of ever more inclusive restatement (which implies neither identity nor difference) involves a dynamic overlapping that one might think (analogically) in relation to temporal synthesis itself. Tied to the dynamism of the interval, it enables the thinking in duration that Bergson calls intuition: the mode of knowing appropriate to the planetary and to questions of life and duration generally. One could, of course, subsume the whole matter of fluid concepts under the rubric of style, but this would be to trivialize it, which is to say to override the radicality of Bergson’s thought and the magnitude of its challenge. It would also make it impossible to take Bergson’s critique of intelligence seriously, since we would find ourselves without any alternative to its logics. Just as duration is not a container for what happens in or through it, so Bergson’s way of thinking is not detachable from what he thinks.

The Planetary in the Age of the Anthropocene

28Having examined the way Bergson considers the planetary, and how he invites us to think differently, we now turn back to our contemporary discourses of the planetary. “The climate crisis has brought the planet into view,” Dipesh Chakrabarty writes, and with it the “percolation of a geological consciousness into our sense of history” (Chakrabarty 2021, 215). This planet comes into view from the outside, with the help of satellite technologies; it is then pressed into the geological framework of the Anthropocene. To “face the planetary,” as William Connolly enjoins us to do, is to keep our eye on this planet and to shift our gaze away from “socio-centric” (Connolly 2017, 10) concerns that pertain to human affairs and human histories. Chakrabarty’s discourse of the planetary (which aligns more or less with that of Connolly) implies a series of conceptual oppositions that line up something like this:

Table 1



The planetary (the planet-centric)

The global (the socio-centric)

Geological time

Historical time

The nonhuman (geophysical forces)

The human (social ideals)

Chakrabarty's discourse of the planetary conceptual oppositions

29Life has no place, to speak of, in this framework. Human life is of course presupposed by the social dimension, but Chakrabarty tends to identify this with moral or ethical imperatives; in any case he enjoins us to move beyond it in order to confront the planetary. Connolly, for his part, holds up “the new biology” (Connolly 2017, 11) as “a first step beyond sociocentrism” (Connolly 2017, 10) because it concerns itself primarily with “interacting micro agents” (Connolly 2017, 108) and quantum processes at the subatomic level of the real. We note that in the field of synthetic biology, the very definition of life has been altered to accommodate computational and other modes of artificial life: life is now defined in terms of systems that “self -sustain” (Guerlac 2015, 38). “To tell the truth,” philosopher Michel Henry observes, “modern biology no longer speaks about life,” it speaks instead of “material processes comparable to those studied by physics” (Henry 2015, 103). These are the processes that interest our theorists who approach the planet through the lens of “geologists, glaciologists, climatologists and paleontologists” (Connolly 2017, 33).

30A historian by training, Dipesh Chakrabarty, subsumes the sociocentric under the rubric of the global, which he associates with historical time. He identifies the planetary with the unfathomable reaches of geological time, a perspective that accommodates the determination of our era as the Anthropocene. This designation was first introduced casually by scientists who, in response to the crisis of global warming, wanted to bring home the extent of human impact on the planet. It was subsequently formalized as a new epoch of geological time (marking the end of the Holocene) by stratigraphers who were able to find a “material time-rock unit” that gave evidence of a geological shift, a “stratal unit on Earth” they referred to as the “Anthropocene unit” (Chakrabarty 2021, 169). As Chakrabarty concedes, from the “planet-centered” perspective of our stratigraphers “the impact on the lithosphere is what matters: the author of the impact is not important” (Chakrabarty 2021, 170).

  • 20 To say that the planetary view “sees the planet from the outside” aligns Chakrabarty with what Brun (...)

31To insist on the difference between geological time and the time of human history, then, is to align oneself with the stratigraphers. This also implies sympathy with their methods, which take “small shards” of rock as the point of departure for reading linear chronologies of geological time in layers of matter. From Bergson’s perspective, geological knowledge epitomizes the workings of the knowledge apparatus of intelligence which “ordinarily takes its point of departure in what is immobile and reconstructs […] movement [or historical sequence] with these juxtaposed immobilities” (Bergson, 2020, 83). When Chakrabarty writes that the planetary view “sees the planet from the outside […] as if through a series of time-lapse photographs” (Chakrabarty 2021, 173) that cut into geological time, he unwittingly echoes Bergson’s cinematographic figure.20 But of course, from Bergson’s perspective this geological time would amount to “ideal space” (Bergson 2020, 59) within which geological intelligence artificially inscribes abstract boundaries “geochronologically or chronostratigraphically” (Chakrabarty 2021, 170), according to spatializing procedures.

32“Life,” Michel Henry writes, “has been stubbornly absent from the Western philosophy inherited from the Greeks, which defines man through thought” (Henry 2003, 103). If Bergson pushes back against this epistemological state of affairs, our theorists of the planetary appear to embrace it. If, in order to “makes sense of the Anthropocene,” it is necessary “to speak in terms of the human species,” and if the human species is characterized as “the species driving […] technology” (Chakrabarty 2021, 88) then the scientist/technologist is the model human being – the real hero —here. Scientists “hope that reason will guide us out of the present predicament” (Chakrabarty 2021, 35) Chakrabarty writes, raising the possibility that the “engineering community,” might “guide mankind toward global, sustainable, environmental management” (Chakrabarty 2021, 34). “Logically,” he concludes, “we need the Enlightenment (i.e., reason) even more than in the past” (Chakrabarty 2021, 34).

33If man is identified with thought, here, through the rational figure of the scientist/engineer, so is the planet. For the planet that comes into view in the Anthropocene emerges from the calculations and big data analyses of planetary scientists who synthesize findings in the fields of geology, biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics” to produce “the Earth system of ESS [Earth System Science]” (Chakrabarty 2021, 76). This Earth system “is produced not simply by a physical view of the planet from the outside but by reconstituting it into an abstract figure […] with the help of the sciences” (Chakrabarty 2021, 79 my emphasis). The planet that ESS constitutes is “an entity no one ever encounters physically but that is […] (re)created by the use of big data” Chakrabarty, 2021, 79). This is a planet produced by, and encountered through, intelligent thought.

  • 21 “The climate crisis is about waking up to the rude shock of the planet’s otherness” (Chakrabarty 20 (...)

34Chakrabarty suggests that geological time differs from historical time not only in degree (as a function of scale) but also in kind, precisely because it is independent of human experience. Human, or historical, time includes an affective dimension associated with remembering and anticipating. It represents a thicker and more complex regime of time because it includes pastness and futurity, whereas geological time, as one scientist put it, is “‘simply time — albeit in very large amounts’” (Chakrabarty 2021, 156). But if geological time differs in kind from historical time, it might also be because “the principles of representation” that bring the planet into view through computer modeling “are different from those involved in evoking the global” because climate science “takes us away from an earth-human-bound imagination” (Chakrabarty 2021, 75). To borrow Bergson’s distinction, we might say that the incommensurability between socio-centric perspectives and a planet-centric one — the otherness of the planet so repeatedly evoked — has to do with the fact that, as a construct of computer modeling, the planet is intelligibly real, as Bergson might say, but not concretely real.21

35The discourse of the planetary is so committed to a planet-centered view of things that it proceeds as if the planetary scientists themselves were not concretely real either. They appear to do their knowledge work outside history, like giants, or perhaps gods, independently of all social relations, including relations of power (or of knowledge/power). Planetary scientists and the institutions that support them are fully integrated into the economic, social and political order. The education and training that geologists, geophysicists and geo-engineers receive, the work they do, and the minerals that go into the computers they use, are significant factors in the global economy. The geological knowledge that provides the discursive framework for the theory of the planetary supports “the mining sector,” which “is pivotal to the world economy. Revenues from the top 40 global mining companies, amounted to some 692 billion US dollar in 2019” (Garside 2022). Chakrabarty does mention in passing that planetary science itself has a social history with political implications. “ESS,” he writes “was a product of the Cold War and the military and civil competition that it spawned in space” (Chakrabarty 2021, 75). He reminds us that in the 1980’s NASA funded climate study with a view toward military research applications. But he does not reflect on the implications of this history, which leads us to wonder: what might be the social, economic, and political, implications of a planet managed by a community of engineers? Who would pay them for their work? Who would own what? Who would profit from what? Which zones of livability would be prioritized and for whom? And what would happen to everyone else?

  • 22 The choice to speak in terms of human/nonhuman instead of organic/inorganic, or living/inert, indic (...)

36Having insisted upon the problematic nature of relations between logic and life we note that even here, in the abstractly intelligible planet, the question of life makes trouble for knowledge. In principle, Chakrabarty explains, Earth System Science involves comparative analysis; it requires data from other planets “in order to create models of how this planet works” (Chakrabarty 2021, 75). But the “necessary pluralism of the planetary appears to come somewhat undone with the question of life and habitability” (Chakrabarty 2021, 83) Chakrabarty acknowledges, because Earth is the only planet we know of (so far) that supports life (at least for now). This implies that the planet that comes into view thanks to the climate crisis is being modelled, at least in part, on the basis of lifeless data. This makes discussion of habitability awkward, even as the urgency that prompted the designation of the Anthropocene concerned precisely that issue. As our planetary theorists appreciate, there is no crisis for the planet, only for us living beings. But we seem to be structurally excluded from the conversation which requires a planet-centric (apparently lifeless) perspective. The decision not to engage with the question of life — the absence of ecological considerations, the substitution of thought for life, and the framework of a human/nonhuman opposition — leads to an emphasis on geophysical forces that, of course, could care less about habitability. This obscures the very urgency of the climate crisis that our theorists would like to bring into view.22

  • 23 On tipping points see Timothy Lenton (2013).

37In La Pensée et le mouvant Bergson challenges the underlying notion of Earth System Science when he calls into question the idea that the material universe as a whole can be studied like the specific systems examined by “astronomy, physics and chemistry” (Bergson 2021, 61-2). Intelligence, he suggests, is well suited to the “study of a part [l’étude d’une partie]” but is not adequate “for knowledge of the whole” (Bergson 2021, 89). He notes that the systems studied by specialized sciences are required to be calculable and doubts that “the material universe as a whole” is really a system of this kind. When science claims that it is, he observes, it simply “leaves aside everything in the universe that can’t be calculated” (Bergson 2020, 61-2). When it comes to questions of life (including questions of habitability or the conditions of life) scientific knowledge of the Earth System seems to encounter limits. The rate of climate change depends on effects of amplification and feedback loops that can reach tipping points, which trigger disproportionate effects. These cannot be predicted with any accuracy because they escape our tools of statistical analysis and our economic logics of risk assessment.23 There seems to be a limit to what intelligence can tell us, even bolstered by vast computing powers, when it comes to real conditions of (real) life.

  • 24 The title of his book refers to “a planetary age,” suggesting a periodization parallel to the geolo (...)

38It is not completely clear what status Chakrabarty wants to give to the distinction between the global and the planetary. On the one hand he suggests that these terms stand for two different ways of thinking that we will need to learn to pass between. On the other hand, he implies periodization. He repeatedly refers to our being “on the cusp” (Chakrabarty 2021, 3, 85) of the planetary and he announces that “the age of the global as such is ending” (Chakrabarty 2021, 85).24 With reference to the Anthropocene, he characterizes man in planetary terms as a “force of nature in a geological sense” (Chakrabarty 2021, 31). At the same time, this heroic species is repeatedly depicted in more vulnerable, even darkly comic, terms as having “stumbled” or “contingently […] fall[en] into” the “shared catastrophe” (Chakrabarty 2021,40,41) of the Anthropocene, as if into an abyss. This hesitation between the sublime and the comic grotesque occurs, perhaps, because, true to the planet-centric view of the stratigraphers who consecrated the Anthropocene and inspired our theorists, the discourse of the planetary precludes any serious engagement with the question of capitalism or other anthropogenetic aspects of the Anthropocene. These, by definition, are to be relegated to the problematic of globalization, from which the planetary is to be distinguished — and meticulously isolated.

Two Urgencies

39One might say the problem with the planetary hypothesis is its initial move: the radical separation of the physical world from the social one. Paradoxically, it renders the logic of the planetary and the logic of capital mirror images of one another. If the planetary insulates nature (the geological register) from the social (the global register), capitalist logic, as Jason Moore points out, insulates the social from nature. Another approach to the Anthropocene would be to reject the separation of these two domains and to think in terms of “socio-ecological configurations” (Moore 2011, 110). This would require us to “rethink […] capitalism as global ecology” (Moore 2011, 111). Instead of considering a unified human history cut off from the planetary realm, we would have to ask, “how modernity itself constitutes a socio-ecological project and process” (Moore 2011, 112).

  • 25 This logic corresponds both to the discourse of the planetary and to Bergson’s critique of intellig (...)
  • 26 “Capital externalizes nature through appropriation of extra-human nature as ‘free gift’” (Moore 201 (...)

40According to Moore, “the logic of capital,” which he identifies with linear time, homogenous space, and the separation of nature from human relations (features that belong to the discourse of the planetary and to the logic of intelligence that Bergson critiques) “compels it to ignore nature” (Moore 2011, 110).25 This is because capital accumulation depends upon what it presumes nature freely gives, a gift that exceeds its logic.26 But, at the same time, capital accumulation exhausts nature’s resources without replenishing them and so “the history of capitalism” is one of “recurrent frontier movements” to “overcome that exhaustion through the appropriation of nature’s free gifts hitherto beyond capitalism’s reach” (Moore 2011, 109). In other words, the logic of capitalism requires colonial expansion.

  • 27 Concerning relations between the institution of slavery and its economic impact on early industrial (...)

41From this socio-ecological perspective colonialism and coloniality become “constitutive of modernity, not derivative of it” (Mignolo 2002, 81). One can no longer speak of modern world history (the time frame of the global) without speaking of colonialism. It becomes necessary to “look at modernity and coloniality together” (Mignolo 2002, 59-60) not only with respect to specific colonial histories but also in relation to coloniality as such, which is also to say, to ongoing manifestations of a residual colonial power structure, that we discern, for example, in various “expulsions” from conditions of livability that have been precipitated by developments of the global economy, including those that result from ecological effects such as deadened land, toxic waters, storms and fires.27 Any community of engineers charged with managing the planet and controlling zones of livability would need to contend with the lure of coloniality in all its forms.

42Mignolo holds that “Western expansion was not only economic and political but fundamentally epistemological” (Mignolo and Walsh 2018, 137, my emphasis). This means Western epistemology is not above coloniality, empowered to consider it from the outside — it belongs to it. What is at stake in the question of epistemology is the visibility or invisibility of colonial difference as such. Kantian epistemology, Mignolo asserts, renders colonial difference invisible because of its authoritative claims to universality in a regime of truth. “The limit of Western philosophy,” he writes, “is the border where colonial difference emerges” (Mignolo 2002, 66). To the extent that one discerns this limit, the claim to universality that attaches to Western knowledge (making it difficult to think any other way but through it) gives way.

43I have been arguing that Bergson’s critique of intelligence (which is of a piece with what we could call his durational ontology) exposes the limits of Western philosophy: its inability to know life, the planet or the time of concrete becoming. We could say his critique makes visible the border necessary for the discernment of colonial difference. The border he inscribes (or exposes) when he insists that questions of epistemology are inseparable from questions of life, reveals that the (Western) knowledge apparatus ties the thinker to the abstractions of an ostensibly universal regime of intelligible truth and, implicitly, to frameworks of repetition appropriate to inert things. It aims to know the given from the outside through logic and calculation because this is what technologies of measurement make it possible to know. This is how they give power. In simplest terms, the limit to Western epistemology, for Bergson, is time — the time of invention which is also the time of life and the durational stuff of the real.

44Achille Mbembe puts it this way: “Western epistemic traditions” posit a “knowing subject” that “know[s] the world without being part of that world” and imposes a “hegemonic notion of knowledge production [that] […] make[s] it difficult to think outside of […] its frames” ( Mbembe 2015, np). Without mentioning Bergson, Mbembe attributes to Franz Fanon a conception of colonization as “a fundamental negation of time” (Mbembe 2015). Mbembe is not referring to clock time here, but to what Bergson calls concrete becoming — time as invention. “If there is something we could call a Fanonian theory of decolonization,” Mbembe concludes, “it is [to be found] in the dialectic of time, life and creation” (Mbembe 2015). Bergson helps us recognize that this implies an epistemological issue. For these are precisely the forces Bergson appeals to as he challenges the presumed universality of intelligent reason and exposes what it cannot know. Instead of a knowing subject that knows the world without being a part of it, Bergson reminds us that we depend on the planet where we are, along with all other living beings. He places the knowing subject — and intelligence itself — within the planet and its history of life. He calls for “a new kind of knowledge [une connaissance d’un nouveau genre]” (Bergson 1959, 1364), one that would be able to think beyond the limits of what Western epistemology can know. The lesson of Bergson is that contrary to what our theorists of the planetary maintain, we do not know the planet where we are most effectively by striving for a “planet-centered” perspective derived from simulations fashioned cinematographically by sophisticated technologies of measurement. We do not know it most effectively as a world we are not part of, that is to say from a perspective that brackets social concerns as if these were not intimately and concretely tied up with the crisis of the planet where we live. Nor do we have to place ourselves, as humans, at the center of this planet because, from an ecological perspective, living beings exist in relation to one another. The planet does not belong to humans; we belong to it, were engendered by it, and depend on it.

  • 28 By “new” I am referring to global pandemics and the disparities of their effects, as well as enviro (...)

45There is a felt need to think differently today. Perhaps this is because the global economy has relied on a myth of unlimited growth which now faces unsurmountable challenges. Capitalist accumulation is encountering limits with respect to the resources available for extraction. These are exacerbated by the climate crisis. Tipping points in planetary processes confront our knowledge technologies with limits to their powers. Systematic racism intensifies, taking on new social and environmental forms where life and death are at stake.28 Democratic institutions of the Global North appear fragile, as the fantastical promise of infinite growth no longer supports them. In the United States, whiteness becomes exposed as an identity that attaches to an electoral minority, instead of ruling from an unquestioned and inevitable position of domination, with the result that white supremacy becomes ever more virulent and politically powerful in the US. In this country voter suppression is driving democratic institutions to the breaking point. Internationally the global refugee crisis exposes the shallowness of human rights rhetoric when it is not supported by policy that pertains to all. Our inability to respond to the climate crisis has exposed complicity of the forces at work in the global economy in the threat to survival of life on Earth. This is the context for the interest in the epistemological foundations of the global system and increasingly explicit calls for thinking otherwise.

  • 29 On this point see the recently released After the Fall. Being American in a World We Have Made, by (...)

46When we consider the post-colonial from perspectives of coloniality (including settler coloniality), slavery, and antiblackness, epistemological issues take on new importance. It is no longer the case, as some might still think, that every living soul on earth is banging at the door to be admitted into the individualist, consumerist, and ecologically devastating life-style of the global north, which, in any case, appears to be faltering as democratic dreams are increasingly giving way to autocratic impulses.29 “I no longer feel like enrolling (or requesting membership) in a[n] […] abstract universal project that claims a fundamental European legacy” writes Walter D. Mignolo (Mignolo 2002, 90). “I do not propose the extension of human recognition as a solution to the bestialization of blackness,” writes Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, who emphasizes the “burden of inclusion into a racially hierarchized universal humanity” (Jackson 2020, 18). She notes that “key texts in black cultural production move beyond a demand for recognition and inclusion in the very normative humanity that theorists like Franz Fanon [and she names twelve other major thinkers] […] have shown is fundamentally antiblack” (Jackson 2020, 19). Jackson is not interested in staking a claim for membership within “humanity” or the global system, she is interested, along with Mignolo, Mbembe and many other theorists today, in “disrupting […] epistemological presuppositions,” in “producing not only disruptive conceptions of blackness but also of ontology and epistemology more generally” (Jackson 2020, 18). Not everyone is clambering to enter into the global scramble for wealth — devoting themselves to what Bergson referred to in The Two Sources as a frenetic search for “comfort and luxury” (Bergson 1950, 1237). The ideal of “luxury for everybody” (Bergson 1950, 1237) that Bergson alludes to disparagingly — a slogan meant to lure consumers into ever expanding markets under cover of a universal democratic ideal that is no longer convincing — is beginning to give way to what Bergson invokes sympathetically as “a return to simplicity” (Bergson 1959, 1237). What many seek today in the face of environmental threat and an unprecedently level of inequality is livability — a “dignified life” in the words of Red Nation, or as Bergson wrote in 1932, “dignity in security” (Bergson 1959, 1237). This requires care for the planet. The threat of global warming is not in competition with post-colonial concerns. It is not a matter of prioritizing one over the other. The planetary crisis is also a global crisis and, quite obviously, a social one. The two urgencies go hand in hand.

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1 Eugene Thacker addresses correlationism in connection with Quentin Meillassoux, who “speaks of self-world relationship in terms of correlation” (Thacker 2010, 251).

2 “Sociocentrism […] diverts our critical gaze from the planetary” (Connolly 2017, 13).

3 Connolly notes that “environmentalism and postcolonial studies” have “tended to head in different directions” (Connolly 2017, 151).

4 Mignolo explains the distinction between decolonization and decoloniality this way: “decolonizing knowledge […] is at this point the fundamental task of decoloniality, while ‘taking hold’ of the state was the fundamental task of decolonizing” (Mignolo and Walsh, 2018, 136). Decoloniality concerns structures of power that persist after decolonization. See also Mignolo (2002).

5 This includes a variety of contrasting voices: William Connolly and Dipesh Chakrabarty from the planetary perspective, as well as Achille Mbembe, Walter D. Mignolo, Catherine E Walsh, Sylvia Wynter, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Rupert Read, Samuel Alexander, Red Nation, Anibal Quijano, Audry Lorde, Christina Sharpe, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Ngugi wa Thiongo, among others, from what we could call a perspective of decoloniality.

6 All translations of this work are mine (page references are to the French edition).

7 In Creative Evolution Bergson writes “the theory of knowledge and the theory of life seem to us to be inseparable from one another” (Bergson 1959, 492, original emphasis). All translations from this work are mine (page references are to the French edition). I am using “coloniality” here as Mignolo theorizes it, that is, as structures of power that entail domination and persist, in various forms, after decolonization.

8 Frédéric Worms comments upon it (Worms 2004,182).

9 In Bergson “life must not be confused with the forms by which life actualizes itself” (Deleuze and Loban 2007, 84).

10 Keith Ansell-Pearson substantiates this view when he writes that for Bergson “the human is neither pre-figured in evolution nor can it be the outcome of evolution. The rest of nature does not exist for the human” (Ansell-Pearson 2015, 26). Worms suggests a shift in Bergson’s view; indeed, in La Pensée et le Mouvant we read: “The appearance of man, or of some being of the same essence, is the raison d’être of life on our planet (Bergson 2020, 121).

11 In addition to Worms and Deleuze, who I discuss briefly here, many others have taken up this question, including Jankélevitch and Ansell-Pearson.

12 “La philosophie,” Bergson writes in La pensée et le mouvant “is a puzzle [est un jeu de puzzle]” (Bergson 2020, 108), another version of the cinematographic protocol he attributes to Western philosophy generally.

13 I borrow the term “Greek miracle” from Yala Kisdukidi (2019). Bergson does not use this term but refers to the major figures of Greek philosophy by name.

14 “Togethering” is a verbal form inspired by the definition the Robert Dictionary gives of “ensemble” :“l’un avec l’autre, les uns avec les autres.” I am using “ togethering” here to evoke what I call livingness in my essay “Livingness, Information and the Really Real” (2021): “Without reference to an individual subject – stretching across singular beings and species - livingness invites us to think becoming, self-modification and integration into concrete, interactive, material systems that operate on various levels of scale to sustain and vary activities, events and conditions of being alive,” 135.

15 In Chapter three of Creative Evolution, for example, Bergson notes that a shift has recently taken place in the scientific conception of matter which, instead of being designated as static, is now viewed as dynamic in terms of energy and movement. For more on this, and specifically on the pertinence of James Clerk Maxwell’s new science of Dynamics, see Guerlac (2022) “Duration: A Fluid Concept.”

16 Worms stresses the critical value of analogy in Bergson (Worms 2004, 183, 188, 194). He speaks of a “strategy of integration [démarche d’intégration]” (Worms 2004, 209). We insist on the expansive character of this integration.

17 “Consciousness [conscience] signifies memory” (Bergson 1959, 1397).

18 Worms also stresses the critical work analogy performs in Bergson (Worms 2004, 183, 188, 194).

19 Bruno Latour (2018, 36).

20 To say that the planetary view “sees the planet from the outside” aligns Chakrabarty with what Bruno Latour calls the “thinkers from Sirius” (Latour 2018, 77) who share a mechanistic perspective. “There are those who continue to look at things from the vantage point of Sirius and simply do not see that the earth system reacts to human action … they do not believe that there is life on Earth capable of suffering and reacting. And there are those who seek, while keeping a firm grip on the sciences, to understand what is meant by distributing action, animation, the power to act, all along the causal chains in which they find themselves entangled,” 77. The former include the moderns and the climate deniers, responsible for what Latour calls “epistemological delirium” (Latour 2018, 22). He enjoins his readers to become Terrestrials, who share an ecological perspective.

21 “The climate crisis is about waking up to the rude shock of the planet’s otherness” (Chakrabarty 2021, 67).

22 The choice to speak in terms of human/nonhuman instead of organic/inorganic, or living/inert, indicates the implicit priority of the human framework as distinct from one that would emphasize all living beings, as Bergson does.

23 On tipping points see Timothy Lenton (2013).

24 The title of his book refers to “a planetary age,” suggesting a periodization parallel to the geological age of the Anthropocene.

25 This logic corresponds both to the discourse of the planetary and to Bergson’s critique of intelligent reason.

26 “Capital externalizes nature through appropriation of extra-human nature as ‘free gift’” (Moore 2011, 109). As Chakrabarty indicates, the characterization of natural resources considered as free gift, and the exhaustion of them, would be true of all discourses of civilizational progress, including Marxist ones. He prefers to read this in terms of an opposition between left and right instead of considering that Marxism and capitalism belong to the Western epistemic framework.

27 Concerning relations between the institution of slavery and its economic impact on early industrialization, (especially in Britain) see, The End of Slavery (Williams, 1994), a work initially published in 1944. Concerning expulsion from the livable see Expulsions — Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Sassen, 2014).

28 By “new” I am referring to global pandemics and the disparities of their effects, as well as environmental conditions that leave communities of color with nothing but poisoned water (as was the case in Flint Michigan) and other health afflictions due to air and land quality. Jackson speaks of racial health disparities. For information on shocking maternal health disparities for black women in the US see National Partnership for Women and Families (2018) which reports that black women are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, regardless of their social class.

29 On this point see the recently released After the Fall. Being American in a World We Have Made, by former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes (2021).

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Suzanne Guerlac, « Thinking with Bergson. The Last Problem: The Planet, and What It Is to Know »Bergsoniana [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2022, consulté le 01 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Suzanne Guerlac

Suzanne Guerlac is Distinguished Professor of French, Emerita at UC Berkeley. She is the author of four books, including Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson (2006) and, most recently, Proust, Photography and the Time of Life. Ravaisson, Bergson, Simmel (2020). She is co-editor, with Pheng Cheah, of Derrida and the Time of the Political (2009). She has published a number of essays (several on Bergson) including, recently, “Livingness, Information and the Really Real,” in Theory & Event (2021).

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