Bergson's philosophy of religion is not to be understood apart from the
philosophical insights and the conception of philosophic method developed in
his earlier works, written more than twenty-five years before the publication
of his book on morality and religion.
Bergson believed that the work of any philosopher springs from a single
fundamental insight, which he then repeats and develops in various ways. In
his own case this fundamental insight is the apprehension of the distinction
between time as measured and conceived and time as conscious lived duration.
This is the theme of his earliest work, Time and Free Will, where the distinction
leads Bergson to a denial that the concepts of the understanding can contain or
account for the realities of consciousness or of movement and change. Consciousness cannot be described in terms of the succession of conscious states,
and movement and change can only be apprehended by the same kind of intuition
as that by which we are aware of conscious lived duration, in which the past
is in some sense contained in the present.
This central intuition of the enduring active self of consciousness is
further developed in the study of memory and perception in Matter and Memory.
The study of memory is central to the traditional problem of the union of body
and mind, and leads to a conception of brain and body as the instruments by
which mind and memory are limited, concentrated, and made present to the world.
In various essays, and in the book Creative Evolution, the distinction
between intelligence and intuition suggested by duration is worked out. The
concepts and language of the intelligence can only apprehend a reality in terms
of universale, or general ideas, an intuition is necessary to grasp a reality as
it is in itself, by a kind of sympathy with it. All reality is continuity and
change, and while the concepts of intelligence are necessary to thought and its
expression, only intuition can grasp the real. This inability of intelligence
to represent reality is illustrated in the study of the phenomena of life in
Creative Evolution, which suggests a vision of reality as a whole as a manifestation of a vital creative impetus.
Bergson's "vitalist" cosmology is suggested rather than worked out as a
metaphysical system, and the thesis suggests that it is not necessary to interpret Bergson in a vitalist sense. The characteristics of life or the vital
impetus are indicative of the activity of the knowing mind in apprehending the
reality of life, and are a further characterization of the method of intuition.
It is in the context of following out the implications of the "discovery"
of duration and in the development of the method of intuition that the problem
of ethics and religion arose for Bergson. This study is undertaken in order
to complete his account of immediate experience by the examination of
specifically human, social, experience, but the terms in which Bergson set himself the problem determine to a large extent the nature of his answer to it.
His distinctions between closed and open morality and static and dynamic
religion are valuable in showing the social realities which underlie moral
obligation and religious rites and beliefs, and also in indicating the dynamic
role of religion in social change. Bergson is less successful in his examination of religious experience as such, in which mysticism is given a central
place. Mystical experience is interpreted as the fullest expression of the
creative intuition of life, but in such a manner as to offer no clear criteria
for distinguishing the object of religious experience from the world or life
itself. Bergson does not distinguish between metaphysical intuition and
specifically religious experience largely because of his failure to move
beyond the organic categories of Creative Evolution to an appreciation of the
nature of distinctively personal experience.
Bergson's chief value for the philosophy of religion is in his method of
description of immediate experience. His basic intuition of duration yields
an insight into the nature of life and mind as essentially creative which is of
permanent interest for epistemology and the interpretation of religion, and his
distinction between intelligence and intuition emphasizes the role of imagination in metaphysical and theological statement.