Open Virtue, Closed Propriety: Considerations on Daoism and Bergsonism

The real import of history is the moral communication with the great, the unique, and the irreplaceable. Everything in learning contributes to the appreciation of the Exception, in thought, in intent, in action, and in attitude. The comprehension or penetration of a text is to reveal, ask, and answer the questions of a concrete individual. Every sentence and every nuance manifests this individual. All other considerations, such as the “causes” or effects of greatness, are secondary. Each person must devise his own standard as to what constitutes spiritual achievement. Every person must judge according to his own experience and reflection. Education can only remove external obstructions to communication with greatness. Language, custom, and geography often prevent an appreciation by representatives of the west of the thinkers of China and of India. Even in the immense structure of European culture there have been and are many blind spots.

Richard M. Owsley The Moral Philosophy of Karl Jaspers (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, 1960), 217. Dissertation. 


No consideration of parallels between Daoism and Bergsonism has been accomplished. Yet there is a profitable comparison to be made between the ancient Chinese philosophy of the Dào Dé Jing and the more contemporary work of French philosopher Henri Bergson. Each philosophy concerns a creative force that flows through the material world. Furthermore, both philosophies arose during a bellicose period of ancient Chinese and modern European history. Finally, each understands the limits of language to say what is most important about reality. However, neither shrinks from sharing what can be shared in language to uncover a philosophical examination of life. This paper hopes to spur other thinkers toward engaging in a sustained dialog between Daoism and Bergsonism.

Keywords: Daoism, Henri Bergson, Dào, élan vital, wú-wěi, intuition

The Nameless Man said, “Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are, and make no room for personal views—then the world will be governed.”[1]

Bergson’s difficulty—how can the intellect conceive of life, given that it is an emanation of life?—is solved through the fact that this retrospectiveness, this understanding of itself, is the essence of living consciousness.[2]

Comparing and contrasting ancient philosophers with their contemporary counterparts yields a great many positive contributions to how we philosophize today. Of course, it also runs the danger of anachronistically situating almost prehistoric wisdom as a pre-expression to well-documented modern scholarship. Or, along the same lines, such an endeavor may become the scholastic gerrymandering of a newer thinker into the districts of an older sage. This author believes that such an exercise is worth the effort, however, if it opens up a creative line of comparison between the past and the present. At issue for this undertaking will be the disclosure of profitable connections between Daoism and Bergsonism. To lay out the way, we will look at the historic conditions that gave rise to the works attributed to Laozi and the published works of Henri Bergson. Walking on the edge, presuming what may come from such an effort, this author takes the risk of making the bold claim:  Henri Bergson was a kind of 20th century French Daoist.

1. Daoism

Recent archeological discoveries in China change our interpretation of the origin and historical development of Daoism.[3] The collection of 81 poems ascribed to Laozi—the o Dé Jing[4]—once were considered coeval with the time of Confucius (551–479 BC) and his school. However, archeological discoveries made in the 20th century now allow us to situate the these newly found texts at around 300 BCE, over two hundred years after Confucius.[5] The most important dig occurred in August of 1993 with the opening of a tomb in the region of the southern Chu culture at Guodian, Hubei Province, in Central China. Here an archaeological team unearthed 804 bamboo slips containing roughly 16,000 characters.[6] The materials contained on the bamboo slips come from a diverse collection of five ancient philosophical works, including some fragments of Confucian and other texts. Scattered among them are thirty-three passages that match up to thirty-one chapters of the o Dé Jing.[7] Phrases are moved around and offer some variation from what will become the standard, transmitted edition. These fragments are concerned with self-cultivation and its application to questions of kingship and keeping peace within the political order.[8] This so-called “Bamboo Laozi” reveals that a text existed as a rudimentary collection of ethical proverbs and sayings not yet edited into a coherent presentation. 

As time goes by, the use of the sayings are redacted into the basic text of Daoism, the 5000 characters that make up the well known 81 poems. While a variance of some two centuries changes how we view the historical trends giving rise to the o Dé Jing, it does not change the philosophic core of the poems: that is, for Daoism there is an encompassing natural process (Dào) from which all things arise, through which all things flow, and to which all things return. This earliest text also establishes the other fundamental tenets of the Daoist worldview: yin-yang, simplicity, forgetting, the sage, non-action, the eschewing of glory in war, and a distrust of language.[9] Among these teachings, two of the most important in our current comparison besides Dào will be  , the energy flowing through all things giving them the power to actualize, and wú-wěi, spontaneous action done without forethought of outcome (lit. doing-without-doing).

2. Bergsonism

The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century saw the emergence of two new developments in science: biological evolution and relativity physics. At this time, philosophy also took a turn toward thinking life and time as processes. A significant contributor for interpreting these newly unfolding scientific movements was the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson’s thinking—sometimes called Bergsonism[10]–was picked up and proved influential in many circles beyond philosophy and science, such as Proust’s magnum opus À la recherche du temps perdu as well as the Cubist art movement.[11] In 1927/28, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented.[12]

Bergsonism justly can be called a process philosophy. Bergson discloses again and again the prominence of such fundamental processes as creativity (whereby the new has no real predictability) and freedom (wherein all action has a kind of unconditional purity).[13] He does this by way of exploring a wide range of material and human phenomena. In his essays, he builds up both an understanding of the inherent particular—perception, memory, identity and free will—as well as a comprehension of the coherent general—time, language, consciousness, and the limits of reason. Among these important contributions, his major works seek to demonstrate at least two crucial concepts: durée and élan vital. The first expresses the notion that the flow of time as personally experienced is free, having no impediments, and should not be confused with discretely defined measurements of clock time.[14] Along with this notion of the durée or duration, Bergson contends that all living forms arise from the impetus of a persisting natural force, the élan vital or vital impulse.[15] Such a force can rightly be described as the demand for creativity in order to flourish.[16]

3. Comparative Expression

            For the purposes of this paper, we will be looking at one crucial socio-historic factor that is shared by Daoism and Bergsonism alike: a period of violent struggle in their respective eras such that war acts as a common background to the philosophizing evident in these two ways of thinking. After that, we will look at the ways in which both thinkers are suspicious of the power of language, which both believe to be inadequate to express the process of life. Yet, paradoxically, each philosophy struggles through language to do just that: Laozi via poetic philosophizing and Bergson through a philosophic circumscription of intuition. But for now, it is critical to look at concepts key to each way of thinking.

            The ancient Chinese and the modern French are situated as distinct historic civilizations. Any comparison between Daoism and Bergsonism must thus begin with admitting two difficulties. With our first problematic vector, we are dealing with changes over time: nearly every corner of the globe, for good or ill, has adopted the universal problem solving offered by techno-science, even the contemporary Chinese. That empirical viewpoint for examining the world in order to control what can be controlled puts us at a great distance to the metaphysical naturalism of the ancient Qin. Bergson, for all of his cogent critiques of how scientists do science, wants to correct but not abandon science. Our second challenging vector speaks to a difference in life: both Daoism and Bergsonism arise as distinct sociocultural expressions which respond to historic conditions framing both what and how thinkers responded as investigators of their world situation. Certainly what we have of the Laozi is more a hagiography than a biography. Bergson, on the other hand, has a well documented life growing up in Catholic France as the descendant of Hassidic Jews.[17] So our comparison should not presuppose a one to one correspondence between the ideas of Laozi and Bergson. Nonetheless, this author hazards three fruitful parallels: the Dào of the collated verses likens to Bergson’s God; the idea of Qì[18] shows many parallels with the élan vital, or vital impulse, first put forward by Bergson in Creative Evolution; and finally, the spontaneous character of wú-wěi has many parallels to how the French thinker understands intuition. 

 First, the Dào. The key concept for the collected poems of the Laozi is Dào, the term for “avenue,” “path,” or “way.” According to the verses, Dào is not expressible in words and is independent, unchangeable, and endures forever. Dào is the originating cosmic process as well as background to all things contained within the cosmos; simultaneously, this origin guides everything as the first principle or universal law that ensures the evolution and development of the whole and its parts.[19] Dào works as the path that all things should follow—encompassing and inexpressible.

Parallel to this notion, Bergson’s conception of God acts as the creative process by which reality comes to be.[20] This creative power for Bergson flows throughout the cosmos giving form to matter and, more importantly, giving rise to more creators who bring about novelty by the exercise of their own freedom. Creation arises in the tension of consciousness between the ability to retain the before (memory) and to act toward the future (imagination).[21] In this way, creative consciousness discloses its working resistance with matter, a resistance that “defines life itself as the insertion of freedom into material necessity.”[22]

Bergson thinks that philosophers throughout history have mistakenly reduced God to a Being among beings or as the origin of all entities. It is important in both thinkers that neither Dào nor God become synonymous with static things since then, as Bergson notes, opposite processes become synonymous things: yin ultimately reduces to yang or vice versa, mind ultimately to matter or vice versa.[23] For Bergson, it is the structure of matter to be divisible and lead to a plethora of organic beings as the momentum of life pushes onward.[24] Yet this same impulse interconnects all variations with each other, however much they may appear as singular entities or as collected arrangements.[25]

Hence, throughout the whole realm of life, a balancing between individuation and association. Individuals join together into a society; but the society, as soon as formed, tends to melt the associated individuals into a new organism, so as to become itself an individual, able in its turn to be part and parcel of a new association.[26]

But even taking into account how important aspects of Dào can be connected with Bergson’s thought, there is that cultural remainder of a divine that has more personal characteristics. This conceptualization of Bergson, as carried forth in his examination of mystic expression,[27] contrasts with the fairly impersonal description of Dào in Laozi. Does this make for something insurmountable? Not necessarily when we take into consideration the ancient verses’ concern for how much humans had become off-the-Way both socially and personally, separating themselves not only from the benevolent path of Heaven but also from the best avenue for human flourishing.[28] It is crucial, if all things are connected through the same creative process, that both Daosim and Bergsonism take time to account for the variations of human organization as well as the life of the particular person. The Dào Dé Jing’s Book of  (poems 38-81) focuses on the order of the human world. It gives advice on political rule as well as ways that the Sage can escape the uncritical habits of moral decay.[29] Yet the verses of the Dào Dé Jing also intend that each particular entity has its own internal Dào—particular and expressive. The latter explorable paths demonstrate the temporal expressions of the enduring—but not fully disclosable—Dào

Thus, we can speak of two comprehensive categories: the Dào of heaven and the Dào of humankind. The Dào of heaven is natural law and determines the order of the cosmos. The Dào of humankind is social law and provides norms and principles for human behavior. This makes for an interesting parallel since Bergson’s God is the origin of creative evolution like the Dào of Heaven. And the élan vital can be seen as the will to life that struggles against constrictive moralism, the kinds of constrictions that Dào Dé Jing describes as blocking Qì. This is an expression of what happens when inert matter is infused with the impetus of life: from the Nameless First[30] to “the unforeseeable variety of forms which life, in evolving, sows along its path.”[31]

In this way, we see how the ancient verses indicate what Bergson calls the “two sources.” In his last published book, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson examines the nature of moral obligation in light of the place held by religion in human society since the dawn of history.[32] This includes considerations of the static and dynamic in relation to human intellectual response to the world. Bergson explains the former as preserving humankind from the dangers of our own intelligence (as instinct).[33] The latter illuminates the means for transcending the natural bounds of the closed society (as intuition).[34] Between lies our intelligence which provides the follow through or impetus of our response to the world. In dynamic religion, or mysticism, Bergson discerns the brotherhood of humanity as the open society which eschews getting stuck in place by following through on transitions (evolutions) through time:

Between the closed soul and the open soul there is the soul in process of opening. Between the immobility of a man seated and the motion of the same man running there is the act of getting up, the attitude he assumes when he rises. In a word, between the static and the dynamic there is to be observed, in morality too, a transition stage.[35]

This tension between the static and the dynamic, the closed and the open, speaks directly to what Laozi intends in describing the Dào of Humankind. Degeneration through stasis will lead to an obsession with moral propriety, closing off the flow of the Dào of Heaven and impeding not just virtuous relationships but the creative force itself. This happens because of making non-existent distinctions and justifying false principles of action.[36] Of all the descriptions in Dào Dé Jing, poem 38 shows this most clearly. It is telling that 38 opens up “The Book of Virtue (Dé)” by lamenting what happens when society becomes ever more closed.

Magnificent virtue (Dé):[37]
Acting without thinking of virtue:
Acting thus is authentic virtue.

            Debased virtue:
            Keeping up the
            appearance of virtue:
            Acting thus is inauthentic virtue…

…Thus, lose Dào
then comes virtue.
Lose virtue,
            then comes benevolence.

Lose benevolence,
            then comes righteousness.
Lose righteousness,
           then comes propriety.

Propriety results
from insufficient
loyalty and faith
and results in the
first step to disorder…

Here the Dào Dé Jing recommends that sages discipline themselves in how to set aside degenerating habits in order to get back on track.[38] There is a need for open relationship to the Dào to ensure the flow of vitalizing energy. Bergson sees such a getting-back-on-the-path as the open mystic whose dynamic creativity reawakens love or creative energy: 

We are dealing with mystic experience. I mean mystic experience taken in its immediacy, apart from all interpretation. True mystics simply open their souls to the oncoming wave. Sure of themselves, because they feel within them something better than themselves, they prove to be great men of action, to the surprise of those for whom mysticism is nothing but visions, and raptures and ecstasies.[39]

What is being corrected? What is being opened up? For Laozi and Bergson, there is the attempt to correct leaders so that society itself will find some correction. Yet too often, just as with Plato, there comes the recognition that leaders are not adopting these changes and society continues to suffer. At this point, the teaching also addresses how the person might be better. Now the concept of  and that of élan vitalbecome profoundly important for persons themselves who would get back-on-the-path. The sage must learn to replace purposeful accomplishment (yǒu-wěi) with a kind of spontaneous response (wú-wěi) to not waste energy in mere busyness.[40] The creator must learn to be open to new directions (freedom) rather than running around in dissipating circles to exhaustion (entropy).[41] Not-doing and opening-up are how the vital energy flows toward flourishing, as in poem 10:[42]

Body and soul integrated as one.

Concentrate Qì to be supple.

Wash and cleanse the 
profound mirror.[43]
           Never blemish?

Love the people and 
govern a country.
            Do doing-without-doing?

The door of heaven
Opens and closes.

Brilliantly perceive
The four directions.
            Without ignorance?

This idea of without-doing, wú-wěi, appears as two related characters in Chinese:  (non, nothing, without) and wěi (action, working, doing). Many translations bring this notion over literally into English as non-action or doing-nothing.[45] Nonetheless, when it appears in the Dào Dé Jing, the concept denotes a kind of action: It normally appears as wěi-wú-wěi, as above, doing-without-doing.[46]

            Bergson, in Creative Mind, takes up a similar viewpoint concerning the suppleness that occurs when the body (matter) flows in conjunction with the unifying impetus. This is philosophizing life where both reflective and imaginative awareness gives everything a depth that it would not have otherwise; it allows what has occurred to be experienced through the present happening in an intuitive glimpse of how things may unfold next.[47] This keeps the world from being in a “static state” while allowing for life to “affirm itself dynamically” as a variable continuum.[48] By polishing the heart of the thinker—the intuitive capacity of the “profound mirror”—reflection, action, and imagination are kept in processional tension, thus “everything is revivified in us.”[49] It is in this philosophical intuition that we can discover our own everyday duration in the enduring reality of life:[50]

…we accustom ourselves to think and to perceive all things sub specie durationis [under the aspect of duration][51], the more we plunge into real duration. And the more we immerse ourselves in it, the more we set ourselves back in the direction of the principle, though it be transcendent, in which we participate and whose eternity is not to be an eternity of immutability, but an eternity of life: how, otherwise, could we live and move in it?[52]

4. Violent Struggle

Laozi and his immediate successors were addressing the world nearly two and a half millennia ago in Warring State China. Bergson lived a century ago in Europe during an acceleration of techno-scientific discovery that added to the destructiveness of war. These are comparable historical situations. Nonetheless, if there is a serious contrast to be explored between Daoism and Bergsonism, it is in the response to war. Neither expresses a purely pacifist position. But Daoism recognizes belligerence as off-the-way or a degeneration of the Dào of humankind; Bergsonism sees war arising from a natural instinct within the human condition.

We know now that Dào Dé Jing was composed during an era of ancient Chinese history called the Warring State period (479 – 221 BCE). The Zhou dynasty ruled China for over eight hundred years (1028 to 221 BCE). As a dynasty, the Zhou was not in complete control; rather, the regime underwent various changes and transformations, including having to move its capital in 771 BCE because of attacks by Central Asian tribesmen. But the greatest changes began during the early fifth century and lasted until the end of the dynasty. By 479 BCE, the kings of Zhou lost all but the most elementary ritual powers. A number of nominally subordinate states—actually quite independent principalities and dukedoms–emerged to reconfigure the political landscape of the area. This phase of Zhou rule is what historians refer to when speaking of the Warring States period. The various independent states were not satisfied with the land and populace they controlled, so each strove to enlarge a sphere of influence and made war with its neighbors with ever greater frequency.[53]

This period of political strife also abounded in thoughtful debates between different schools of thought with writings surviving that demonstrate  how ministers and sages of the era put forward improvements to leadership that might overcome inter- and/or intra-state instability.[54] Other records show how philosophical disputations between adherents of diverse ways of thinking offered up contending solutions to the dangerous situations being faced by the principalities and their people.[55] A common thread shared by a few schools—including the Daoists and the Mozists—was the practical concern that defensive wars may be necessary, but war in general should be avoided whenever possible:[56]

Laozi wanted his king to be virtuous, but not like a Confucian sage, who was endlessly trying to do things for his people. Instead, a prince who practiced the self-effacement and total impartiality of wú-wěi would bring the violence of the Warring States period to an end.[57]

If the Dào Dé Jing puts forward a secret to overcoming the debilitating impact of violent struggle on a state, it “was to act counterintuitively.”[58] Political life slipped into a frenetic busyness—yǒu-wěi, or purposeful accomplishment gone off the rails—where just reacting to a situation is mistaken for doing something useful. The Laozi suggested not only that leaders should prefer a kind of weakness to strength, but accept that they do not know everything by adopting a posture of ignorance that would encourage a swifter return to harmony among all parties.[59]

Bergson lived himself through periods of war and colonial conquest. He was a boy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian war and 1871 Paris Commune. From then until World War I, he grew to adulthood in a society that was simultaneously progressing techno-scientifically while always on the verge of regressing to socio-political violence. World War I as the continuation of belligerent affairs with the German Empire saw Bergson—who had by 1917 grown to imminence in France as a public intellectual—travel to the United States and plead with President Woodrow Wilson to bring America into the conflict.[60] During this time, he also began working with Wilson on what would become “The League of Nations.”[61] In the 1930’s, Bergson wrote against the rise of the National Socialists in Germany, including a presentation to a preparatory meeting of the World Jewish Congress. When the Nazi’s seized power, he worked with Max Horkheimer to find a temporary home in Paris for the Institut fur Sozialforschung (Frankfurtschule) until they made their final move to New York.[62] By his death in 1941, he had grasped how even more the world was falling into a violent struggle—one from which it might not recover. 

Given the particular amount of horrific violence that infused the world around him, the Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932) seeks to uncover through its explorations not only the tension between the closed and the open society but how this tension is magnified by the instinct for war.[63] Bergson’s work on the static and the dynamic process of religion/morality must then touch on the political forces at work in spawning the conditions for violent struggle. Such an examination, he believed, would assist in narrowing—if not in out right preventing—the worst outcomes of war. 

He attempts to answer a number of important questions:

  1. How, if there is this brotherhood of humanity, can war be possible?
  2. How, if we resonate outward from our family to our nation to our common humanity, can morality or religion allow for the outbreak of war? 
  3. Do we really accept that there are obligations and duties each of us have to all others? 

As an instinct, the development of societies and social norms are themselves a direct evolutionary response to this drive for violent struggle. Over the course of the text, Bergson examines how the shrinking away from curiosity, the derailment of critical progress, generates the kind of enclosures that can only be called tyrannical if not dystopian. In his “Final Remarks,” he puts forward a kind of Utopian possibility for an “open society.”[64] He is particularly concerned, given the human genius for mechanical invention, that a great deal of work must be done to keep minds and societies open less the power of mechanization—and its abuse by industrialism—should lead to further atrocities.[65] Bergson is convinced that a healthy democracy is the best kind of state but the health of that organization comes from recognizing the need for “…reserves of potential energy—moral energy…”[66]Surely this “moral energy” is like unto the flow of Qì as excellent virtue in Daoism.[67]

5. Saying, Unsaying, and Intuition

The softest
under heaven gallops
through the hardest.

The intangible
Penetrates the solid.

Therefore, I know the 
the benefit of doing-without-doing (wěi-wú-wěi)

The teaching without words.

The benefit of doing-without-doing (wěi-wú-wěi):
Few under-heaven
Keep pace with this.[68]

Moving beyond the shared historic facticity of violent struggle for both Daoism and Bergsonism, we find ourselves in what Karl Jaspers might call the “loving struggle”:[69] the attempt to communicate through language adequate descriptions and inspirational ciphers that keep us thinking as the dynamic process of critically challenging rather than merely accepting static doctrines. 

When the Laozi tells us about Dào, he admits to naming the Nameless.[70] Words capture a vital impulse by providing a confined meaning. The meaning itself can endure but should not persist merely in the identity of the word. Keeping to the distinctly nameable shows the preference of intellect toward static domination, as Bergson teaches us: Intellect is the settling of consciousness onto/into matter, and such intellectual effort provides habits of bending the free flow of consciousness into bounded material concepts.[71]

Mystical thinking employs something called apophasis “speaking away.”[72] . This is where an author or poet will say and then immediately “unsay.” The relation of the thinker to the idea might be better thought as capture-for-release. We detain the vital impulse in order to retain a memory of an experience. But we should strive to refrain from maintaining the words as the experience. Once confined in measured verbal space—reified, concretized, caged—the meaning or judgment disconnects from the experience. This is the important place that the Nought or the Nothing occupies for thinking.[73]Negation does not destroy something real by the act of placing “not” in front of a thing. Nor does it at the end of a radical meditation reveal a beingless void. Rather, negation acts in two ways to remind us what has importance: 

  1. Noting that a concept may be false and–through obfuscation—hiding something true.  
  2. Opening up the possibility of something else that reveals more about what is happening.[74]

A common use of nothingness by Daoists actually relies on revealing how the most practical things work by making good use of nothing or emptiness. For instance, the space within a vase or a cup is what allows the cup to fulfill the process of containing something other.[75] Similarly, in thinking,  concept that reveals the flow of consciousness does so by being empty not by being full. Concrete to the point of fullness, a notion allows no change or movement. Surely, this is when the negation is called for: to uncover the vital freedom that has been forgotten in the confining notion. And this possibility for remembrance comes through the activity of denial.[76] The denial comes from disappointment with what we are seeing or thinking. It comes from remembrance of what was good or imagination of what might be better. This leads to a great deal of busyness, of ceaseless activity to make-do with something until something better comes along.[77] As Bergson puts it, 

We must strive to see in order to see, and no longer to see in order to act. Then the Absolute is revealed very near us and, in a certain measure in us. It is of psychological and not of mathematical nor logical essence. It lives with us. Like us, but in certain aspects infinitely more concentrated and more gathered up in itself, it endures.[78]

Here is the heart of the matter: embracing the nothing in this way actually reveals the many abuses of nihilistic materialism. It is an unexamined fable to purpose progress from the Creatio ex nihilo. It is a building on sand to pragmatize the world from the mathematical fancy of a pre-existing Void of non-existence. Creativity needs a medium. This is the fate of being in a material world. But creativity sustains us in “seeing in order to see”[79] by letting go of action for the sake of action. The Daoists wěi-wú-wěi,[80]doing-without-doing, stands as an performative exercise in such active negation .

6. Further Dialog

This study of two philosophies—one ancient, one more contemporary—took a bifurcated route. The first fork is to compare Daoism and Bergsonism to show how the latter can discover useful parallels in the former. But the other path has been to demonstrate how thinkers so far apart in time and culture can agree that all thinking must find inspiration from the world as dynamic process and not as static object. The exploration of this second fork showed some contrast based on historical circumstances but also parallels in expression based on techniques of apophasis. There are many other ways that a comparative study might go: e.g. the understanding of evolutionary development in each tradition, the existential tension between possibility and necessity, the importance of utopian ideas to pragmatic political organization, etc et al. Hopefully, this short overview is sufficient to show the fruitful connections to be explored and, therfore, encourage future dialogs between Daoist and Bergsonist scholars.


[1][1] Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. Trans. B. Watson (New York: Columbia Univ Press, 2013), Kindle edition. 

[2] G. Simmel, “Journal Aphorisms, #17,” The View of life: Four metaphysical essays with journal aphorisms, Trans. J. A. Y. Andrews and D. N. Levine (Chicago: Univ of Chicago, 2010 [1918]), 162. 

[3] For an informative review of the more newly discovered bamboo writings see LIU Xiaogan. “From Bamboo slips to received versions: Common features in the transformation of the Laozi.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 63 (2): 337-382.

[4] Among newer attempts to re-situate these poems, we find R. Ames and D. Hall, Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation, English and Mandarin Chinese Edition edition (Ballantine Books, 2003). Taking full advantage of the latest discoveries in 1993, Ames and Hall provide a translation informed by advances in 20th century process philosophy. Where they make use of Alfred North Whitehead, this paper explores the process philosophy of Henri Bergson. My own co-translation with LU Wenlong makes use of process and existential philosophy to understand Laozi’s insights. LU Wenlong & K. Brown, Dào Dé Jing (Denton, TX: Sparrowhawk, 2022).

[5] For further explorations of a very late authorship in the 3rd century BCE see Hongkyung Kim, “The Original compilation of the Laozi: A Contending theory on its Qin origin,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34 (4): 613-30.

[6] Ibid, 613.

[7] LIU, “From Bamboo…,” 345f

[8] Ibid.

[9] Considering this last, it is ironic how much the text has played in understanding ancient Chinese composition as well as being the object of over 300 translations into English alone.In fact, the only work in world literature that has been translated more times than the Dào Dé Jing is the Christian Bible. This claim is made often and indeed appears as part of the advertising for the updated Tao Te Ching, Trans. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English with Toinette Lippe (New York: Vintage Books, 1989). 

[10] G. Deleuze, Bergsonism, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Zone Books, 1991). I will not spend any time in this short paper on Deleuze’s fascinating argument concerning “virtual mutliplicity,” or the intersecting oneness of all durations as the “variable essence of things” (34). However, this would be another place that scholars could entertain a fruitful dialog between Bergsonism and Daoism. For an excellent examination of the Deleuzian Bergson, cf. K. A. Pearson, Philosophy and the adventure of the virtual: Bergson and the time of life (London: Routledge, 2002). 

[11] Pete A. Y. Gunter more than demonstrates the truth of this statement in his exhaustive efforts to compile Henri Bergson: A Bibliography now in an online 3rd edition which continues to be regularly updated to this day. An overview by Gunter of Bergson and his place as philosophic interpreter of the sciences can be found at 28 April 2018. More specifically: Concerning Proust cf. P. A. Y. Gunter, “Bergson and Proust: A Question of influence,” Understanding Bergson, understanding modernism, Eds. P. Ardoin et al (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). Regarding Cubism, cf. M. Antliff, Inventing Bergson, Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ Pres, 1993).

[12] For reasons within the Nobel committee, the 1927 award was withheld until a suitable candidate could be picked. Thus, while Bergson received the award in 1928, it was actually for the 1927 award year. Accessed 28 April 2018.

[13] H. Bergson, Creative evolution, Trans. A. Mitchell (New York: Modern Library, 1944); P. A. Y. Gunter, Temporal hierarchy in Bergson and Whitehead. Interchange (36:1, 2005), 139-57; Deleuze, Bergsonism; Pearson, Adventure of the virtual

[14] H. Bergson, Time and free will, Trans. F. L. Pogson (New York: Dover Press, 2001 [1913]), 75-139. Cf Bergson, Creative evolution, 5-16; Gunter, “Temporal hierarchy.”

[15] Bergson, Creative evolution, 94-108. 

[16] MURIKAMI Ryu, “Transmission of creativity.” Aesthetics (13): 2009, 50.

[17] Bergson’s progenitors were considered the greatest benefactors of Poland’s Hasidim. Cf. G. Dynner, “Merchant princes and Tsadikim: The Patronage of Polish Hasidism.” Jewish Social Studies 12 (1): 2005, 73f.

[18] Qì or Chi has been diversely translated into English as energy, force, spirit, breath, etc. These translations are not adequate as they reduce the notion to one aspect or profile.

[19] This is most clearly expressed in a fragment of Daoist cosmology discovered in 1993 at Guodian along with some of the verse fragments that helped us re-date the Dào Dé Jing. Cf. Ames & Hall, “The Great One gives birth to the waters,” Dao de jing, 225-231. 

[20] H. Bergson, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Trans. R. A. Audra and C. Brereton with W. H. Carter (Notre Dame, IN: Univ of Notre Dame Press, 1977 [1932]), 218. 

[21] W. Khandker, “The idea of will and organic evolution in Bergson’s philosophy of life,” Continental Philosophy Review, 46(1) (2013), 58.

[22] Bergson, Two Sources, 218.

[23] H. Bergson, Creative Mind, Trans. Mabelle L. Andison (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1946), 55.

[24] Ibid284. 

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 282.

[27] Bergson, Two sources. 

[28] K. Armstrong, The Great transformation: The Beginning of our religious traditions (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 344.

[29] Armstrong, Great transformation, 344f. 

[30] The Dao is the Nameless but certainly Bergson himself would be thinking of the One of Plotinus. Cf. P. A. Y. Gunter, “Bergson and Whitehead: Dueling Platonists,” presented at Toward an ecological civilization, (Claremont, CA; 2015; forthcoming in proceedings). Also, É. Bréhier, “Images plotiniennes, images bergsoniennes,” Les études bergsoniennes 2 (1949),105-128. 

[31] Bergson, Creative Evolution, 107. 

[32] Bergson, Two sources.

[33] Ibid, 37f; 64. 

[34] Ibid, 64. Cf. Bergson, Creative mind, 56. 

[35] Bergson, Two sources, 49f.

[36] Armstrong, Great transformation, 344.

[37] LU & Brown, Dào, Poem 38. [Citations for the verses will refer to the number of the poem rather than the page number.]

[38] Bergson, Two sources, 344.

[39] Ibid, 142.

[40] A. Graham. Disputers of the tao: Philosophical argument in ancient China (La Salle, Ill. Open Court, 1989). Cf. as well LU & Brown, Dào, “Key Concepts,” 5.

[41] Bergson, Creative evolution, 265. Cf. J. DiFrisco, Élan vital revisited: Bergson and the thermodynamic paradigm, The Southern Journal of Philosophy (53:1, 2015), 54-73. 

[42] LU & Brown, Dào, Poem 10. In so many ways, this is one of the hardest verses to translate in the Dào Dé Jing. It is a series of statements and questions. Literal translation would be almost non-sensical; however, many translators take too much liberty in attempting to convey the sense of the verses. We have done our best to stay true to the form without interpolating too much.

[43] The heart.

[44] Literally, the question is “cannot female?” My co-translator and I interpret this to refer to Yin or the feminine principle which is characterized by Laozi as that which yields.

[45] A. Graham. Disputers of the Tao, 232. Cf. also V. De Prycker. “Unself‐conscious control: Broadening the notion of control through experiences of flow and wu‐wei.” Zygon 46, no. 1 (2011): 8f.

[46] WU & Brown, poems 2, 5, 10, 38, 43. 

[47] Bergson, Creative Mind, 185.

[48] Ibid. 

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid, 184.

[51] Bergson plays here with Spinoza’s notion of sub specie aeternitatis, which describes what is true from the perspective of eternity, i.e. objectively the case. Cf. B. Spinoza, Ethics, Ed. S. Feldman, Trans.S. Shirley (Hackett Publishing, 1992). 

[52] Bergson, Creative Mind, 185.

[53] Graham, Disputers of the Tao, 1-9. Cf also C. Hucker, China to 1850: A short history (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1978); also E. Caldwell, “Promoting action in warring states political philosophy,” Early China (37, 2014) and Armstrong, The Great Transformation.

[54] Caldwell, “Promoting action…”, 270.

[55] F. Perkins, “The Mozi and the Daodejing,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 41(1-2; March–June 2014), 18. 

[56] Ibid, 20.

[57] Armstrong, The Great Transformation, 341. 

[58] Ibid, 345.

[59] LU & Brown, Dào, Poem 31 is esp. instructive but also 30, 46, 50, 69; Armstrong, The Great Transformation, 345f. 

[60] P. Soulez & F. Worms, Bergson (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002), 154. For a critique of Bergson’s position during WW I, cf. M. Sinclair, “Bergson’s Philosophy of Will and the War of 1914–1918,” Journal of the History of Ideas (77:3, 2016), 467-487. Sinclair argues that Bergson’s influence as a public intellectual waned in France precisely because of his prominent discourses as President of the Academie Francaise wherein he portrayed France as protecting civilization against German barbarism. That text appears in English after the outbreak of hostilities: H. Bergson, The Meaning of the war, Comm. H. W. Carr (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1915). 

[61] Soulez & Worms, Bergson, 154.

[62] P. Soulez, “Présentation d’un article inédit en Français de Max Horkheimer sur Henri Bergson,” L’Homme Et La Société (69-70, 1983), 3.

[63] It should be noted that this text is often set aside by many Bergsonists because they do not know exactly what to do with it in terms of Bergson’s other major works. Cf. Soulez & Worms, Bergson, 235.

[64] Bergson, Two sources, 266-317. Cf. A. Hatzenberger, “Open society and bolos: A Utopian reading of Bergson’s ‘Final Remarks’.” Culture & Organization (9:1, March 2003).

[65] Bergson, Two sources, 304-310.

[66] Ibid, 310.

[67] LU & Brown, Dào, Poem 38. 

[68] LU & Brown, Dào, Poem 43

[69] K. Jaspers, PhilosophyVol. 2: Existential elucidation, Trans. E. B. Ashton (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1970), 212-214.

[70] LU & Brown, Dào, Poems 1, 37, 41

[71] Bergson, Creative evolution, 294.

[72] M. A. Sells, Mystical languages of unsaying (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1994). Although this text concentrates on texts from the Western hermetic and the Abrahamic traditions, it is an excellent resource on apophatic discourse. 

[73] LU & Brown, Dào, Poems 11, 14; Bergson, Creative Evolution, 299.

[74] Bergson, Creative evolution, 313-316.

[75] LU & Brown, Dào, Poem 11. 

[76] Bergson, Creative evolution, 318-19.

[77] Ibid, 323-24.

[78] Bergson, Creative Evolution, 324.

[79] Ibid, 324.

[80] LU & Brown, Dào, Poems 2, 38, 43.

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