Bergson and Modern Jewish Thought

A rather simple question really. In modern Jewish thought circles is Bergson studied? And for the sake of making this worthy of a blogpost and not just twitter…

I am still reading Laruelle (despite the overwhelmingly negative reactions so far, what must I do to prove his worth to you?) and keep running across an interesting line of thought he develops about the “Jewish challenge” to philosophy found in Alterity and the Other. Now, this can seem troubling at first if one doesn’t realize that for Laruelle this is (partly) a good thing as his definition of philosophy is very Heideggerian and thus very Greek. Yet, his continual reference points for this challenge appear to be Levinas and Derrida. This doesn’t bother me too much as he isn’t really needing anything else for his particular project, but it got me thinking about what a non-philosopher of Judaism might look at if he were constructing a unified theory of philosophy and Judaism. Obviously one would need to mine the riches of the German Jewish tradition, and this seems to be what usually is studied by those who do modern Jewish thought, but what about the French tradition? I’m thinking of people like Weil and Kofman, but they seem different than their German counterparts. And it got me thinking, to what extent do these French Jewish thinkers fit this characterization of Laruelle’s. What is specifically Jewish about this challenge and is it dependent on the Jewish identity of the thinkers? In other words, is Bergson (surely a philosopher by Laruelle’s lights) an instance of a Jewish challenge to philosophy?

Of course, Jankélévitch has a nice essay on this at the end of his Henry Bergson where he argues for a strong Jewish influence on the later Bergson. Interesting because most commentators tend to downplay his Jewish roots in the light of Maritain’s reporting that Bergson wished to convert to Catholicism.

8 thoughts on “Bergson and Modern Jewish Thought

  1. Bergson is a too often neglected figure when the usual suspects of “Jewish” modern philosophy get mentioned. Levinas himself acknowledges a debt to Bergson. Let’s say that what is being characterized as Jewish in Levinas and Derrida is a different way of reflecting about time/temporality than is found in the “Greek” tradition where time is secondary to unchanging essence or form. The “Jewish” conceptuality posits the primacy of time over essence, but not in a simply Heraclitean flux way, but as the break with the given and the opening up of a demand from the future to take responsibility for its emergence, and thereby take responsibility for the future as such. Now this sort of conceptuality is found in Levinas and Derrida to be sure, and also in German Jewish thought (Ernst Bloch, Hans Jonas, Rosenzweig). But it is also found, and found with more precision and clarity, I think, in Bergson. What makes this Jewish? Let me hazard this way of putting it: the human is the site of the world’s redemption, indeed God himself needs redemption. This is a piece of Kabbalistic teaching, its legacy of ancient gnosticism. Basic to Christian theology, on the contrary, is the notion that humanity stands in radical need of God, not the other way around. But despite what I’ve said, I don’t actually think it’s right to call the other view Jewish, though it is more consonant with Judaism than Christianity (and AJ Heschel wrote a famous book called God In Search of Man). No, I would characterize it as a legacy of gnosticism (whose origin is Judaism, granted) that can also inflect Christianity and non-theistic thinking (Deleuze, and the “new” Spinoza). And in its modern “Jewish” forms as found in Bloch and Rosenzweig there is a direct line back to Schelling, hardly a Jewish thinker! (Bloch and Rosenzweig were keen readers of Schelling.) And Bergson’s teacher, the Aristotle scholar Ravaisson, was a student of Schelling, so Bergson too stands on Schelling’s shoulders.

  2. The Schelling connection is interesting because Jankélévitch, whose essay is very good, was primarily known as a Schelling scholar in France and his book (of which the essay on Judaism and Bergson is an appendix) is a very Schellingian interpretation of Bergson.

    Thanks for this though. I had suspected that Bergson somehow was neglected. I wanted to pursue this more in a book project at one point arguing for the distinctiveness of his philosophy of religion (which is, in my view, the most neglected part of his philosophy even though it is as strong as his work on time and biology), but that likely won’t happen for a few more years and may be part of a larger project on French spirtualism and its particular influence on contemporary philosophers (roughly – de Biran/Henry, Bergson/Deleuze, Laruelle/Ravaisson).

  3. I have to hope no one takes this the wrong way, but…: I have thought for some time it would be interesting if there were a list of all of the brilliant Jewish thinkers in the modern period. (There really are lots of them)

  4. I believe that Bergson was completely foreign to ideas such as ‘the human is the site of the world’s redemption, indeed God himself needs redemption’. They might sound cool, or not, depending on one’s tastes, but it’s completely foreign to Bergson. Towards the end of his earthly life, Bergson expressed, as a conclusion of his philosophical studies, his allegiance to the Roman Church and the desire to get her blessings at his funerals.
    ‘The opening up of a demand from the future to take responsibility for its emergence, and thereby take responsibility for the future as such’ also gives Bergson a smack of ethicism and moralism; or, his acknowledged moral was that of the Christian mystics.
    Finally, it would be absurd to maintain that Bergson held that … God stands in radical need of the humanity. Instead of speculating about Schelling’s shoulders, it would be more accurate to actually read Bergson’s tribute to Ravaisson; certainly no Gnosticism in that address. And generally the assertions about his … Gnosticism seem very unsubstantiated and based on guessing and free associations, if I dare say so.

  5. The report of Bergson’s desire to convert (I’ve never heard anything about wanting a Roman funeral) comes to us from a rather unreliable source – Jacques Maritain. It’s patently ridiculous to suggest that the conclusion of his philosophical studies was the allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, regardless of whatever aspects he may have found attractive therein.

    Frankly, I don’t see anything here to respond to. You’re not giving me any sources (other than an address he gave on Ravaisson) and are obviously speaking from a position that assumes the superiority of Roman Catholic thought. Furthermore, to suggest that Bergson wasn’t interested in some forms of Gnosticism is to completely misunderstand the mystics in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Which is fair enough, they usually are.

  6. The following quotation from the conclusion of Two Sources of Morality and Religion provides a pretty good idea of what I mean by Bergson’s interest in humanity as the site of the redemption of creation:

    “…Men do not sufficiently realize
    that their future is in their own hands.
    Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not.
    Theirs is the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live,
    or intend to make just the extra effort required
    for fulfilling, even on this refractory planet,
    the essential function of the universe,
    which is a machine for the making of gods.”

  7. Well, as a matter of fact Bergson not only ‘wanted’, but was also granted a Catholic funeral. On this other hand, it’s no less obviously ridiculous to suggest that Maritain was … unreliable. Why?
    And the conclusion of his ‘studies’ was the superiority of the Roman Church’s doctrine. I also believe you assume the ‘superiority’ of the Gnosticism. I do not know why the ‘Christian mystics’ should be lumped together as Gnostics.
    You’re not giving many sources either, except conclusions obtained from books’ titles (someone wrote a book about Schelling, therefore …). The fact that you ignore the facts about Bergson’s final years, his relation with Fr. Pouget, doesn’t mean that you’re assumptions are right.

  8. I’m not sure you know what a fact is, but I can tell you that it is not a fact that Bergson was given a Roman funeral. You need to give the the Soulez and Worms biography a read. He said that he would like for a priest to say prayers at his funeral, but I trust you know there is a very large difference between a funeral performed for a member of the Roman Catholic church and a priest saying prayers at the funeral of a person who was never a member. And that, quite simply, is the facts. He was never a member of the Roman church and to suggest that his final book is somehow in line with official Church dogma is insane, absolutely insane. The description one can construct of God from that book looks absolutely nothing like the orthodox understanding of God.

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