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Nietzsche and Bergson compared


To: Robert H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nietzsche and Bergson compared
Date: 28 September 2005 14:56

Dear Bob,

Thank you for your email of 18 September, with your essay for the Associate Award, 'Nietzsche and Bergson'.

I do not feel that you have succeeded in connecting Nietzsche and Bergson in the way you wanted to do.

Let me say to start with that I agree that there are several areas where these two philosophers may be fruitfully compared/ contrasted.

One area is the influence on both philosophers of Darwin's theory of evolution. Another aspect which impresses me is their theories of time. Both of these you mention. But merely mentioning an aspect or a topic isn't enough. You need to delve more deeply into the problem and make a case.

Either topic would be sufficient for an essay.

Evolution is central to Bergson's metaphysics. Whereas, for Nietzsche, the fundamental lesson of evolution is epistemological - our way of seeing the world, the concepts which we use to classify things are the product of our evolutionary past and not timeless 'forms' as Plato believed. The contrast is quite vivid, between Bergson's metaphysical vision of the universe as a product of 'creative evolution' and Nietzsche's sceptical argument against a Platonic view of concepts.

Again, both philosophers make much of time, but the their interest is very different. Bergson is famous for his theory of 'duree', his emphatic assertion that temporal becoming and not the historical order of events is the very essence of time. This is a metaphysical claim. Nietzsche, as you mention, is famous for his theory of the eternal recurrence. This was not his original theory but derived from the Stoics. Although Nietzsche attempted to give a physical 'proof' of the eternal recurrence theory, his main concern was moral, i.e. with values. The crucial test of your existence is whether you can will that this moment should be repeated over and over again, or, whether, on the contrary the idea of the eternal recurrence would crush you and reduce you to despair.

I will pick up on another comparison you make, where you state that a 'feature shared by both is that their philosophies tend toward anti-intellectualism.' Phrased in this way, the claim is very misleading. Both philosophers are criticising a particular view of the intellect, but the aim, and the target of criticism is very different in each case.

For example, Bergson, in arguing for the reality of temporal becoming, criticizes what he terms the 'cinematographic' conception of time, the futile attempt, as he sees it, to logically analyse time into a succession of static states. The intellect is the culprit in this case, because it is being misused. The flow of time is an example of something which is real but cannot be analysed. However, it does not follow (and it did not follow for Bergson) that the intellect does not have a perfectly valid application in other areas.

Nietzsche, in developing his sceptical arguments against the Platonic model of knowledge, is concerned to show that the intellect is not a separate, spiritual force but part and parcel of our physical nature. Of all philosophers, I would say that Nietzsche had the most stringent intellectual conscience, and the highest regard for the human intellect. He is not 'anti-intellectual' but rather anti a particular false view of what the intellect is.

My general feeling from reading this essay, and your previous essays, is that you have attempted to cover too much ground in too small a space. If you enjoy Nietzsche then I recommend that you read ONE book by Nietzsche. To take one example, Genealogy of Morals, which consists of three extended essays would be a good choice because in this work Nietzsche focuses on clearly identified objectives.

Having studied the book closely (i.e. read it not one but several times, writing copiously in the margin) pick a topic and write an essay on that. Try if you can to formulate a precise question. It is also a good idea to read secondary literature, such as Kaufmann's fine book 'Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist' and also look for relevant material on the internet.

You will learn more this way, not less. For a start, you will learn how to write a philosophical essay. This is something that has to be learned (as many of my students will testify) even if you are an old hand at writing articles and essays. Students who have read and enjoyed philosophy for years still come unstuck when it comes to putting thoughts down on paper.

All the best,