Bringing Bergson Back into the History and Philosophy of Biology

01 November 2020 → 28 February 2021
Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO)
Research disciplines
  • Humanities
    • History not elsewhere classified
    • General philosophy of science
    • Continental philosophy
Henri Bergson History of Science Philosophy of Science
Project description

In 1907, French philosopher Henri Bergson published a metaphysical interpretation of biological evolution, Creative Evolution. The book became a bestseller and propelled him to international fame. Historians of biology have mostly considered that Bergson’s ideas left little or no lasting impression on biologists. In addition, in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of biology, Bergson’s ideas are widely ignored. However, the problems Bergson addressed – for instance, the fundamental differences between life and inert matter, the role of mind in evolution, the limitations of the scientific study of life, the temporal nature of organisms – overlapped with important 20th-century biological debates, and are still relevant for current debates in the philosophy of biology. In this project, by examining the ways in which Bergson’s philosophy permeated 20th-century debates about, on the one hand the relationship between biology and physics, and, on the other hand biological evolution, I show that Bergson’s legacy within 20th-century biology is of greater importance than the historiography currently suggests. I will consider never-before-studied cases of Bergsonian biologists of different nationalities and of various theoretical backgrounds. In doing so, we will gain new insights about the relationship between biology and philosophy in the 20th-century. These historical insights will in turn provide us with conceptual insights into current debates in the philosophy of biology.