The possible in the life and work of Henri Bergson

Brown, Steven D. and Lundy, Craig (2022) The possible in the life and work of Henri Bergson. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of the Possible. pp. 1-8.


Henri Bergson (1859–1941) contributed major philosophical works on time, consciousness, evolution, and morality. His thinking remains central to debates on fundamental issues within philosophy and social science, particular around “process ontology.” Bergson’s work was of enormous influence to early-twentieth-century social science, and has seen a resurgence in the twenty-first century. This is in part due to the reception of Gilles Deleuze’s work, which engaged extensively with Bergson. In this entry, we focus on Bergson’s treatment of the relationship between “the possible” and “the real.” Bergson inverts the Platonic organization of these terms, where the real is constituted by the selection of ideal forms of possible. Bergson argues that this makes it impossible to understand how “unforseeable novelty” might emerge in the world. The possible is instead a “mirage” retrospectively posited as prior to the real. This treatment is part of a broader project of overcoming metaphysical mistakes which consist in seeing one philosophical term as adding fullness and positivity to another. In its place, Bersgson offers an account of life as dynamic, autopoietic emergence. In the final part of the entry we describe how an engagement with Bergson can afford social science approaches to memory, imagination, and lived experience as emergent patternings of life responding to life.

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