Philosophy Henri Bergson
Wahida Khandker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0259


Henri Bergson was one of the last philosophers belonging to the school of thinkers known as the French Spiritualists. His philosophy was hugely influential, both positively and negatively, on many prominent mid- to late-20th century French philosophers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Gilles Deleuze. The majority of scholarship on this philosopher tends to focus on four key texts, and the citations in this article are organized according to a number of the most significant themes that emerge from these texts. The first is Time and Free Will (Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience, 1889). This work was Bergson’s doctoral dissertation (with a companion piece, in Latin, on Aristotle’s concept of space) and puts forward an analysis of two levels of experience: one temporal (or duration, which is the most “immediate”) and the other spatial, which is often mistaken for immediacy. The text examines our tendency to (mistakenly) ascribe spatial properties to a range of processes that we perceive, even to time itself. Bergson calls this “spatialized time.” In Matter and Memory (Matière et mémoire, 1896) Bergson sets out his theory of the continuity of memory, perception, and action, against traditional philosophical accounts of the nature of mind and body. He also refers to developments (in his own time) in psychology and neurophysiology, using a number of examples from cases of neurological disorders (aphasia, most significantly). Creative Evolution (L’Évolution créatrice, 1907) further develops Bergson’s theory of duration as the basis of all other processes and considers its relation to theories of organic evolution after Darwin. The fourth of Bergson’s most significant works is The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion, 1932) in which he explores a sociobiological explanation for the most potent forces in the development of human social existence. Other significant works include Bergson’s response to Einsteinian relativity, Duration and Simultaneity (Durée et simultanéité, 1922), his short book on Laughter (Le Rire, 1900), and the collection of essays entitled The Creative Mind (Le pensée et le mouvant, 1934), which includes his essay “An Introduction to Metaphysics.”

Introductory Works

For accessible introductions to the most significant texts and concepts the following texts are lucidly written and feature close readings of a selection of Bergson’s works. Le Roy 1913 and Vieillard-Baron 1993 are ideal as concise introductions for undergraduate students. Lacey 1998 and Lawlor and Moulard-Leonard 2021 introduce Bergson’s philosophy with quite distinct emphases, but both work comprehensively through Bergson’s major works and offer some insightful connections between them. The methodological focus of Moore 1996 works particularly well as an introduction to Bergson’s most important claims and concepts, and sets each concept against recurring themes and problems in the history of philosophy. Mullarkey 1999 is also notable for its clarity, and avoids the conflation of the ideas of Bergson and Deleuze. Worms 1997 is more specifically focused on Matter and Memory, tracing in detail the implications of this work for the broader philosophical problems of consciousness, memory, and the relation between philosophy, psychology, and neurophysiology. Stephen 1922 offers a counterpoint to Bertrand Russell’s critique of Bergson while also providing an accessible introduction to Bergson’s main philosophical claims.

  • Lacey, Alan R. “Bergson, Henri-Louis.” In A Posteriori to Bradwardine. Vol. 1 of Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

    A good resource for undergraduate students interested in a thematic overview of Bergson’s thought, commencing with his interest in the concept of time, and culminating in his biological and sociobiological reflections. Available online by subscription.

  • Lawlor, Leonard, and Valentine Moulard-Leonard. “Henri Bergson.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2021.

    An introduction to Bergson’s philosophy framed in terms of the phenomenological and Deleuzian readings of his work that, arguably, dominate Bergson scholarship in the 20th century. This resource functions both as an overview of Bergson’s writings for students and as a critical examination of some of his key concepts.

  • Le Roy, Edouard. A New Philosophy: Henri Bergson. Translated by Vincent Benson. New York: Henry Holt, 1913.

    An early introductory work, covering the main concepts and problems in Bergson’s writings, including perception, language, evolution, and the problem of intuition.

  • Moore, F. C. T. Bergson: Thinking Backwards. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139172509

    A lucid introduction to Bergson’s philosophy that places special emphasis on methodology, the theories of perception, the nature of consciousness, and the distinctions between the intellect and intuition.

  • Mullarkey, John. Bergson and Philosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

    A comprehensive introduction to the works and key ideas of Henri Bergson. The first four chapters are organized into surveys of four main texts, including Matter and Memory and The Two Sources. It then explores a number of Bergson’s key problems, organized thematically to cover ethics, ontology, methodology, and metaphilosophy.

  • Stephen, Karin. The Misuse of Mind: A Study of Bergson’s Attack on Intellectualism. London: Kegan Paul, 1922.

    An excellent introductory text to Bergson’s main ideas. Responding to her uncle, Bertrand Russell, in his famous critique of Bergson as an “anti-intellectual” thinker, Stephen comments that Bergson’s work does indeed appear, on initial reading, vague and “too persuasive.” Then, however, the author’s accessible prose illuminates and defends the workings of the fact/explanation (concrete/abstract) division in Bergson’s philosophy in a way that may appeal to scholars within either the analytic or continental traditions.

  • Vieillard-Baron, Jean-Louis. Bergson. No. 2596. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993.

    A short introduction to Bergson’s main works and themes, reflecting on both the positive and negative influences of Bergson’s philosophy on 20th-century French thought.

  • Worms, Frédéric. Introduction à Matière et Mémoire, de Bergson. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1997.

    A detailed chapter-by-chapter commentary on one of Bergson’s most important and influential works.

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