Friday, May 8, 2020

Bergson and twentieth-century Asia

Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson is something of an underappreciated philosophical figure in Western thought. As a theorist of duration, of intuition and vitalism, he was something of a celebrity and a touchstone for an entire generation of thinkers around the world, but for various reasons he was later overshadowed. His Jewishness may have had something to do with this, but it seems the case that his reputation in France suffered unjustly on account of his heavily-female audience. He was influential on process philosophy and theology in America and Britain: Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne in particular. He captivated the French personalists Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier. He also inspired idiosyncratic socialists like Charles Péguy, György Lukács and Georges Sorel. Souleymane Bachir Diagne discusses Bergson’s influence on Muhammad Iqbal in South Asia and Léopold Sédar Senghor in West Africa. But this piece is concerned largely with the impact Bergson had on three other radical thinkers of twentieth-century Asia: Liang Shuming in China, and Michel ’Aflaq and Zakî al-’Arsûzî in Syria.

For reasons similar and parallel to the earlier popularity of Slavophilia in Russia – which vaunted the native religious traditions and the integral knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy over Western rationalism and Enlightenment thought – Henri Bergson’s thinking was particularly popular in Asian, Latin American and African post-colonial thought. Bergson’s emphasis on intuition offered a grammar for articulating the independent and intrinsic value of indigenous knowledge. In China, Bergson’s philosophy was introduced by John Dewey, and it immediately attracted a number of disciples – high in importance among them being Liang Shuming.

Liang Shuming

Liang Shuming 梁漱溟, the Buddhist and (later) Confucian populist who was heavily involved with the Mass Education Movement and the China Democratic League in the interwar period, was particularly drawn toward the Bergsonian reverence for intuition, a term which he translated into Chinese as zhijue直覺. As my former professor of Chinese philosophy, Dr Yanming An, has demonstrated, as Liang Shuming moved more and more toward traditional neo-Confucian ideas, he began to abandon the terminology of zhijue even though he kept the Bergsonian understanding of intuition and folded it into the better-attested Chinese philosophical terminology of lixing 理性. Liang Shuming’s political philosophy, which naturally oriented itself toward the rural agrarian working class and the petit-intelligentsia (schoolteachers in particular) of inland China rather than toward the urban intellectual class of the Chinese coast, tended to frame the distinction and relationship between zhijue and lizhi 理智 (or ‘intellect’) in a similar way. Zhijue, and later lixing, in Liang Shuming’s work Eastern and Western Cultures, was the basis of the innate love of peace and harmony which characterised Chinese culture in the grassroots, and which Confucius himself recognised as the basis of morality which the rational lizhi-intellect (by itself an amoral and potentially dangerous tool) could hone and refine.

For Liang, Bergson’s respect for zhijue-intuition marked a certain parallel movement in Western philosophy, away from the Enlightenment worship of the disembodied ratiocinating mind, and toward a harmonious balance between reason and sympathy in real duration. As Guy Alitto’s book discusses, within the œconomic sphere Liang Shuming saw similar tendencies in the guild socialism of William Morris and GDH Cole. (This connexion, between Bergson and the guild socialists in Liang’s understanding, would make for a most interesting comparison and contrast with Georges Sorel’s use of Bergson’s philosophy to support the revolutionary syndicalist movement in France. For obvious reasons, though, it’s outside the scope of this current meditation.) Liang Shuming saw in the guild socialists of the Anglosphere: a desire for quality over quantity; a desire for harmonious order; and a tendency to seek equilibrium with nature rather than control and mastery over it. All of these things he linked to the Bergsonian intuition.

Liang Shuming’s career in China would largely be one of a philosopher-activist. Along with Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 and Jimmy Yen 晏阳初 he was one of the leaders of the first movement for rural reconstruction under the (markedly unenthusiastic) Nationalist government in China. He was close to the modernist poet Wen Yiduo 闻一多, and even investigated and denounced his assassination at the hands of Nationalist agents. As mentioned before, Liang Shuming was a member of the China Democratic League – but like most members of the Democratic League, including Tao Xingzhi, he had profound reservations about the theory and practice of democracy.

Liang Shuming had, like many contemporary Chinese intellectuals who were drawn to Bergsonian philosophy, taken his theory of knowledge – intuition being contraposed to intellect and related to time-as-real-duration under his epistemological theories in Creative Evolution – and transmuted it into a system of ethics. This was long before Bergson himself took his own stab at moral philosophy in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. As it turns out, however, Bergson has similar misgivings about democracy to those of his Asian students. Bergson sees in democracy a laudable, but primarily sentimental impulse – a negation of the abuses and the sufferings of the premodern world, rather than any coherent and positive moral system in its own right. Bergson acutely assesses, and then criticises, democracy’s evangelistic tendencies and imperial orientation, and also grasps the connexion between the rise of democracy and the rise of ‘mechanism’ in politics, which is as destructive there as it is in epistemology. And yet, student and teacher alike are unwilling to do away with democracy tout court.

In the Arab world, the Bergsonian philosophy was introduced largely through the pages of the literary and scientific journal al-Muqtataf (‘The Digest’), in the form of a debating series of essays between three of the journal’s left-wing Arab Christian contributors: the materialist and supporter of Charles Darwin Shiblî Shumayyil on the one side, and two sæcular but non-materialist critics Ya‘qûb Sarrûf and Faris Nimr Pasha on the other. At issue was the topic of the First World War, and al-Muqtataf had published an essay of Bergson’s on the nature of war, with Sarrûf and Nimr taking the position aligned with Bergson’s that human evolution naturally implied some form of moral, spiritual force. Sarrûf in particular argued passionately that this moral force was indispensable if human beings were able to rise above the level of brutes and overcome the tendencies to racial violence and the predation of the strong against the weak:
In April 1916, Al-Muqtataf published a summary of the speech Henri Bergson had delivered in the first winter of the war in which he attributed German aggression to materialism itself. Sarrûf had already made a similar argument to Shumayyil. The war was the outcome of materialism, Sarrûf argued, and he advised Shumayyil to read Bergson’s speech. How could Shumayyil now deny the importance of a divine force in securing a cosmic order and overcoming the pursuit of individual self-interest? ‘What would prevent a man from killing anybody who hinders his interests,’ Sarrûf wrote to Shumayyil, ‘exactly as he kills lions, wolves and flies? Why should not a man from Paris or Berlin then kill blacks who prevent him from hunting in Africa? Is not the deterrent that keeps strong people from having a free hand with weak people a moral and not a materialist one?
In Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s telling in Postcolonial Bergson, quoting Damian Howard, ‘Bergson decoupled the idea of progress from the fashionable worldview of reductionist materialism’, and made ‘it possible to be at once religious and progressive’. It was precisely this moral orientation to Bergson’s epistemology – once again, in parallel to that which formed in China and was popularised by Liang Shuming. This influence, even ‘at a distance’, had a profound influence on the intellectuals of the Arab world, particularly those belonging to the religious minorities. Prominent among these was the heir of these early Arab socialists: the father of Ba‘athism, Michel ’Aflaq, who imbibed the teachings of Henri Bergson at the same time as he was reading Sâti‘ al-Husrî.

Michel ’Aflaq

To be sure, ’Aflaq was not the only one whose philosophical and political orientation was influenced by Bergsonian thinking, nor was Bergson the only or even most prominent among his European influences: his biographers in English, particularly Norma Salem-Babikian, note that he was fascinated by André Gide, and influenced to a lesser extent by Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Mohandas Gandhi. Bergson was philosophically much more prominent in the thinking of ’Aflaq’s fellow Ba‘ath pioneer and sometime rival, Zakî al-’Arsûzî. Al-’Arsûzî set forth a careful synthesis of Platonic hyper-realist metaphysics with a Bergsonian vitalist understanding of the philosophy of language, in order to justify the Arabist idea of the Arabic language being uniquely close to nature, and uniquely suited to expressing subtle ideas in an exact and succinct way.

’Aflaq’s philosophical indebtedness to Bergson is a bit fuzzier than al-’Arsûzî’s, but he used Bergsonian philosophy in a similar way to al-’Arsûzî, to articulate the organic and intuitive unity of the Arab people. In this, he was travelling a road that was well-trodden. He had not only to look to the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his spiritual faith in the all-common Russian soul, or to the Enlightenment-sceptical psychology of Nietzsche. He had at hand also a number of Middle Eastern theorists who had been saying many of the same things. Both ’Aflaq and al-’Arsûzî were undoubtedly acquainted with the political writings of the early-modern Muslim neo-Platonist political philosopher Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn al-’Asadâbâdî, and their thoughts on organic unity (wahda) – bolstered by Bergsonian vitalism – took the same path as his.

The middle-class, reformist-minded, intellectual ’Aflaq had to be essentially goaded and educated into taking up left-wing positions by one of his fellow Ba‘ath Party members, Wahib al-Ġanim. Al-Ġanim was an itinerant doctor of the Alawite faith, who had intimate contact with the wretched conditions under which the fallahîn laboured. Like Liang Shuming and Jimmy Yen in China, al-Ġanim had direct experience with organising rural coöperatives, and he brought that skill with him when he entered the party. (One of al-Ġanim’s first recruits, as it turns out, was a certain young man named Hâfiz al-’Asad.) It was Ġanim, along with the Arab Socialist Party’s ’Akram al-Hûrânî with which the Ba‘ath Party merged, who put forward the vital planks of the Arab Ba‘ath Party – worker coöperatives, nationalisation of infrastructure, state ownership of heavy industry and public utilities – that placed it firmly on the political left. ’Aflaq’s Bergsonism was until that time concentrated on an idealistic programme of persuading the Damascene professional classes of the need for the Arab world’s political unity. But once ’Aflaq was led to understand the plight of the rural poor, he embraced their cause with a sincere fervour.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s discourse on Bergson points out how his thought was carefully observed and adopted by postcolonial pan-African and Indian philosophers as well. Bergson’s concepts which explore creativity, organicism, vitality in the process of evolution, the durée réelle: all of these things were themselves creatively adopted by the intellectual classes throughout the Third World. It seems a natural inflection that these largely epistemological concerns on Bergson’s part would take on a heavy ethical inflection as they were applied to colonial and postcolonial politics: an inflection along which Bergson himself would find himself following in the footsteps of his own pupils.

So what is Bergson’s relationship to Eurasia? We have seen his influence at work among pivotal Chinese and Arabic thinkers who preceded revolution on either end of the Silk Road. But within Russia proper, on the Northern Route, Bergson was as often as not the subject of as much critique (Nikolai Lossky’s, for example) as of admiration, the two meeting in more or less proportional admixture. Russia had, after all, its own native tradition of defenders of intuition and integral knowing – the Slavophils Khomyakov and Kireevsky writing a good seven decades before Bergson – as well as its own postcolonial prophet in the person of the exile Prince Trubetskoi, and in the left-Eurasianists who followed him. Understanding Bergson is still useful, however, for the purposes of developing a common grammar of Eurasianism in the same way al-’Arsûzî and ’Aflaq tried to develop a grammar for a uniquely Arabic political philosophy.

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