Bergson, Henri (1859-1941), French philosopher and Nobel laureate, who advanced a theory of evolution, based on the spiritual dimension of human life, that had widespread influence in a variety of disciplines.
Born in Paris, October 18, 1859, Bergson was educated at the École Normale Supérieure and the University of Paris. He taught in various secondary schools from 1881 until 1898, when he accepted a professorship at the École Normale Supérieure. Two years later he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Collège de France.
Meanwhile Bergson's doctoral dissertation, Time and Free Will (1889; trans. 1910), was published and aroused great interest among philosophers. It presents his theories on the freedom of the mind and on duration, which he regarded as the succession of conscious states, intermingling and unmeasured. This work was followed by Matter and Memory (1896; trans. 1911), emphasizing the selectivity of the human brain; Laughter (1900; trans. 1901), an essay on the mechanistic basis of comedy that is probably his most quoted work; and Creative Evolution (1907; trans. 1911), probing the entire problem of human existence and defining the mind as pure energy, the élan vital, or vital force, responsible for all organic evolution. In 1914 Bergson was elected to the French Academy.
In 1921 Bergson resigned from the Collège de France to devote his time to international affairs, politics, moral problems, and religion; he was converted to Roman Catholicism (his parents were Jewish). He published only one book during the last two decades of his life, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932; trans. 1935), in which he aligned his own philosophy with Christianity. In 1927 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He died January 4, 1941.
The influence of Bergson's earlier books, as well as his many papers and lectures, on the philosophers, artists, and writers of the 20th century is extensive. He was a master prose stylist and a brilliant lecturer, his mystical yet vital style contrasting with the formalistic materialism of his peers.
Although often associated with the intuitionalist school of philosophy, Bergsonism is too original and eclectic a philosophy to be thus categorized. Bergson did, however, emphasize the importance of intuition over intellect, as he promoted the idea of two opposing currents: inert matter in conflict with organic life as the vital urge strives toward free creative action.