Posted by: Johan Normark | September 1, 2009

Bergsonian consciousness – instinct, intelligence and intuition

Archaeologists deal with past human activities. There are plenty of assumptions concerning what these ancient people’s consciousnesses were like (there are evolutionary, “cultural” and geographical differences). The problem is complex to the extreme since we cannot even know how our own present consciousness works in all its aspects. In a late comment to my debate with Calleman, it was proposed that we should give up our mind and focus on intuition. We should feel instead of analyzing. This, it is argued, would be a new way of apprehending the world. No, it is not a new way of understanding the world, it has been with us for quite some time. You cannot accomplish much with only “feeling.” However, I am not against intuition as such. We tend to use it every time we encounter an artefact. In an instant we classify it as a certain kind. If our intuitive classification turns out to be wrong through more detailed analyzes we tend to have problems believing this analysis. First impression lasts. Let us take a look what Bergson had to say about consciousness in his books Creative Evolution and The Creative Mind.

Bergson does not reify the important role the nervous system is generally believed to have for the consciousness. For him, consciousness has to do with mobility. According to him, neither mobility nor consciousness needs a nerve system. Even the simplest animal is conscious in proportion to its mobility. The nervous system does not create this function but makes it more intense and precise (Ansell Pearson 1999:47-48).

For Bergson, consciousness consists of two tendencies; instinct and intelligence. Bergson argues that “the cardinal error which, from Aristotle onwards, has vitiated most of the philosophies of nature, is to see in vegetative, instinctive and rational life, three successive degrees of the development of one and the same tendency, whereas they are three divergent directions of an activity that has split up as it grew” (Bergson 1998:135, original emphasis). Bergson sees these forms of life as differences in kind and not of degree. The problem for us in understanding this is that we do not transcend our intellect since it is with the intellect we understand other forms of consciousness (ibid:xii).

Instinct and intelligence are not self-contained and mutually exclusive. Both intelligence and instinct were once interpenetrating and still retain parts of their common origin. They can never be found in a pure state since they are tendencies and not things (ibid:135). These tendencies are both rooted in duration that makes all life, all change and all becomings. Instinct and intelligence are two solutions to the same problem of confronting and manipulating matter. Knowledge exists in both instinct and intelligence. It is acted and is unconscious in instinct and thought, and it is conscious in intelligence. Intelligence reaches a true self-possession in human beings but it exists in other animals as well (ibid:142-145).

Our knowledge is dependent on the form and structure of intelligence. Intelligence has an analytic, external, practical and spatialized approach (ibid:189, 206). Bergson argues that “the human intellect feels at home among inanimate objects, more especially among solids, where our action finds its fulcrum and our industry its tools […] our concepts have been formed on the model of solids” (ibid:ix). The intellect concentrates on repetitions, linking the same to the same, and in this process it is distancing itself from duration. It dislikes what is fluid and solidifies it (ibid:46).

The relationship between consciousness and matter has been formed as instinct for most animals. Instinct does not represent its knowledge, it acts it. Its instruments are part of the body and are adapted to their objects since the instruments have evolved in conjunction with the objects. Therefore, the insect has a highly particular knowledge of a narrow category (Grosz 2004:226). Animals that possess tools have them as part of the body that uses it, such as a bee sucking nectar. There is an instinct that knows how to use this tool (Bergson 1998:139). Thus, instinct uses and constructs organized (internal) instruments (eye, nose, trunk, wing), and intelligence uses and constructs unorganized (external) instruments (artefacts, buildings, writing) (Grosz 2004:233). Instinct is specialized, and it is the utilisation of a particular instrument for a particular object. Intelligence is not specialized, and its instruments are imperfect and external to the body. However, since it has been made from unorganized matter, it can be made into any form there is. It can serve many purposes and free the living being from obstacles (Bergson 1998:140-141).

For Bergson, intelligence is pragmatic orientation. The analytic and quantitative orientation of intelligence makes it impossible to obtain immediate access to life. Humans have developed intelligence to survive, to be able to make external tools and language. Thus, the mechanical invention has been the most important feature of human intelligence. Inventions are not just the result of intelligence, they have also directed intelligence since the intelligence produces objects to make other objects (ibid:138-139).

Intelligence is the knowledge of a form and instinct is the knowledge of matter. For this reason, intelligence is unable to understand life, and it treats everything mechanically whereas instinct proceeds organically (ibid:149, 165). The intellect can only form a clear idea from the discontinuous and the static. It works from the immobile and tries to understand temporal movement by juxtaposing immobilities. It can decompose and recompose as it likes (ibid:154-157). The intelligence that always creates something new is unable to understand its own creative evolution. Since the intellect needs stable forms and objects that can be controlled, the unforeseen and new is resolved into the old and the same (Ansell Pearson 1999:53).

Our intellect has created signs that are static and stable, so we can communicate through symbols. For this reason, Bergson is suspicious of language. For him, language divides the continuity of duration and this leads us to illusions. Bergson claims that “language is not meant to convey all the delicate shades of inner states” (Bergson 2001:160). This is because we perceive words as external to one another (ibid:163). However, there is a difference between the signs used by intellect and by instinct. The specificity of human language is that it is mobile, meaning that it can be applied to anything in space. However, the instinctive sign is adherent and in duration (Ansell Pearson 1999:55).

Instinct and intuition are not exactly the same but they are related. Neither is intuition “feeling”. It is a mode of reflection that transcends both idealism and realism. Bergson sees intuition as a philosophical method and he develops this in The Creative Mind. Intuition is a way to think in duration, the continuous flow of reality. Science is intellectual but metaphysics is intuitive. Bergson strived to unify these divergent perceptions of reality. Therefore, anyone who claims we should drop either intuition or intellect in favour of the opposite tendency is heading in the wrong direction and fails to recognize how integrated our consciousness is and therefore should be treated as such.



  1. Awesome blog, where did you get the design template?

  2. WordPress.

  3. Intuition is intelligences running in parallel at different speeds touching gears at places where we pay attention. It is the dynamic variation of memory.

    Bergson is so bloody refreshing. All throughout school I had a revulsion come over me when I heard the interpretations of archeology. I couldn’t nail it down in words, but it was the most patronizing paternalistic top down bucket of bs I had ever seen.

    By some crossing of stars in the heavens I was gifted / cursed with a holistic view on everything that would nag at me anytime I read anything. Apparently, the gods didn’t see fit to also install the appropriate vocabulary leaving me unable to defend what I knew was right.

    Just the classic notion of “from the beginning of time man has looked up at the sky and wondered why we are here” drove me up the walls.

    No he hasn’t. Most of the time he’s been watching his back and navigating by the stars. The only fascination with the sky there is is the fact that we are here in a much larger expanse and we want to play. That’s sanity. Man had to be taught by an ancient scientific priesthood which had prostituted themselves to rulers, that pretty colors in the sky spelled impending doom.

    Friended on Facebook.

    • Much of what you see in archaeological interpretations are grounded in anthropological analogies. Materials do not speak for themselves so archaeologists have tended to look at the ethnographic record for support (I am generalizing quite a lot here). Needless to say, the ethnographic data has little to say what earlier people believed in and whatever is said about people wondering where they came from reflects contemporary people’s wonderings rather than the ancients.

  4. This helps somewhat in an idea I have been trying to understand.
    I have come to view instinct as the building block for intelligence. In an evolutionary manner of speaking, as our intelligence grows, so too does our instinct.
    I include within instinct all necessary bodily functions. Our bodies take care of all the really important stuff. Our hearts beat, our lungs breathe and our digestive system works without any need for us to think about it. All this is done, thanks to our brain. We learn to ride a bike or drive a car, and then can do so without much thought. Same goes for reading and writing. The more of what we learn that can be consigned to instinct, the more proficient we become.
    Part of our problem with coming to accept the idea that instinct is the foundation of intelligence is our long standing tradition of thinking the mind is separate from the body. We do this in spite of knowing the mind is the brain and the brain is part of the body. This disconnect of the mind (brain) and body has led to the idea of soul. But here again I would suggest this is a false disconnect since even if you want to maintain we do have a soul, I would suggest the soul is the result of the culmination of the body. These are not separate things in any real sense. A wheel does not make a car. An engine does not make a car. The body of a car does not make a car. All the components need to be put together before you can say, “This is a car.”
    We trick ourselves when we only look at the parts. We say this part is more important than another part. But all of the parts are essential for the whole to be fully what it is.
    To conclude: to argue over which is more important, instinct or intelligence, is to fail to see how one depends on the other. Take away intelligence and we stop evolving and meeting the challenge of changing circumstances. Take away instinct and our intelligence will get us killed. I could site many examples of how intelligence can get us killed. Instinct will tell us when we are taking a chance. Intelligence will tell us the odds are in our favor. The odds may very well be in our favor but the odds don’t save us from getting killed. Anyone for Russian roulette?

  5. I agree with what you are saying. To what degree is a vampire’s behaviour instinctive and intelligent in fictional literatue and movies? Are there any vegetative vampires?

  6. Johan,
    It’s interesting you should ask since I have written two vampire novels and am nearing completion on the third.
    My reason for writing my version of vampires was the result of becoming sick of all the vampires who seem to regret being vampires. I also asked the question one is not supposed to ask. Why is it okay for humans to kill vampires but not okay for vampires to kill humans.
    In my stories, vampires are natural creatures (not demons) who appear to be human but are not bound by human morality. In a way, they are just another major predator but one that requires from time to time the taking of the blood from other predators and this taking comes up the fangs and is sprayed upon their brain.
    They do eat regular food, including fruits and vegetables, so in a sense are omnivorous.
    As to your question, I am not aware of any vampires in fiction who any vegetarians.
    One other critical point on the nature of my vampires. In their myth system, they believe there was a time when they openly associated with humans and only took blood from lions, tigers, wolves and other major predators. But because humans drastically lowered the populations of the major predators whose blood was essential to vampires, the vampires switched to taking blood from humans since they had become the most numerous predator available.

    • Hi, nice to meet another fiction writer w/ interest in Mayanism.

      As for vegetarian vampires, vampires who prey upon the Wooden People would fit that description. In the Popol Vuh, the Wooden People were the race of early humans or pre-humans who lived in the Third World-Age, prior to the Great Flood. The “good” god, Hurucan Heart-of-Sky, wiped them out of existence because he deemed them too imperfect to live

      The Wooden People are the culture in which my story is set. The main character, the bird-man Seven Macaw, is portrayed as a villain in the PV. But, from the Wooden People’s perspective, he was their hero. He provided them with a Sun and tried to save them from the flood.

      Eventually, however, he was defeated when he allowed himself to be stripped of his means of perception & communication — symbolically, his eyes & teeth (in a really gruesome human sacrifice scene).

      He then descended into the Underworld in an attempt to regain his power and resurrect the Wooden People, which in my story is supposed to happen this Dec. 21. One sign of which will be that the mannequins will start coming to life in department stores.

      Please note: this is *fiction*. I don’t believe that is literally going to happen. Although, I think it would be a lot cooler than what Jenkins, Calleman & the other 2012 folks have predicted.

      My story has shapeshifters, ghosts, & demons in it, but no vampires — unless you count the gods like ol’ Tohil who demand blood sacrifice from their followers.

  7. I did not mean vegetarian vampires. I was referring to Bergson’s distinction between vegetative, instinct and intelligence (three different consciousnesses). To be in a vegatitive state would be to like the term usually implies, to be quite incapable of moving but still able to perceive surroundings. Bergson saw consciousness in relation to movement. A plant has a limited form of consciousness but it is not instinctive, etc. Perhaps when the vampire sleeps it is in a vegatitive mode? I am no expert on vampires so I an probably just relying on the stereotypical view. The last thing I have seen about vampire is “Let the right one in”:

    • Johan,
      Sorry for misunderstanding.
      I think one could argue what constitutes movement. If one could agree that all forms of vegetation display some movement, such as sending down roots in search of water and reaching for sunlight, Then the argument would ask, is this activity instinct or intelligence.
      Looking at this from a long term evolutionary view point, one could then suggest it is instinct on the road to intelligence because we do know plant life came before animal life.
      It seems to me that all life endeavors to remain alive and evolution is part of this effort. If this is true, then the only argument to remaining is attempting to decide what is instinct and what is intelligence. I would argue intelligence is instinct adapting to changing circumstances.

  8. Bergson sees the vegatitve as a third tendency of consciousness (and most basic perhaps). All three (including instinct and intelligence) coexist in all organisms but to various degrees, in relation to movement. Technology, an aspect of intelligence, has the effect that we get less active. Becoming slaves to the machine or the computer does not make us smarter in some ways. An all too lazy life sets us toward a vegatitive state.

  9. Johan,
    I think it is a stretch to say technology causes us to become less active. At its basic meaning, it is no more than a means to an end and includes the earliest of tools, the rock and the stick.
    Many would argue that the advances in technology have forced many to work longer and harder. Think of how the office worker carries their work home and even on vacation, thanks to the Internet and portable devices.
    While it is true that for many their work has become more sedentary, sedentary does not equal lazy.
    I do see a major problem with advances in technology. Technology makes it possible for business to hire fewer workers and still produce more goods and services at a time when the population is growing faster than business has any need to hire more workers. I believe this is the main problem causing high rates of unemployment. Business will never hire people just so that they will have a job. They are not and were never meant to be charitable institutions.
    Side thought. Did the Egyptians build permits just to give people some work? Did the Jews leave Egypt or were they kicked out because their growing population was taking jobs away from Egyptians?

  10. I was mainly thinking of obesity being partially a side effect of technology. I am usually all in favour of technology but it sometimes makes us think less (it is easier to use a calculator than try to exercise one’s brain).

    By permits you mean pyramids? I am afraid I do not know the specifics about the Jews’ situation in Egypt.

  11. Sorry for the misspell.
    Yes, I would agree technology can sometimes lead to being overweight.

  12. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”
    ― Blaise Pascal
    In his book “Personal Knowledge”, Michael Polanyi elaborated the relation between instinct and intelligence in terms of implicit (personal) knowledge and explicit knowledge (positive knowledge expressed in language).
    It is interesting to note that organized religion with a creator god, and the development of philosophy in the greek world correspond to the establishment of the written language (external static support) and the creation of written formal geometry. At that time, the ancient poetic implicit mythological tradition based on analogy, feeling, and indirect way to talk about the world became transformed into explicit realistic way to describe the world.

    • Interesting. Would you say this is plausible for other areas of the world as well or is it just a Greek phenomenon?

  13. Louis, you bring up religion and its connection with logic, and this brings me to one of my favorite topics concerning human thought.
    We humans have a tendency to fill in the blanks. When we don’t know something, we come up with “I believe.” We really hate a vacuum in our knowledge. This can be a great help to advance our knowledge so long as we are willing to shed our beliefs when proven wrong. But here we have a problem when it comes to religious beliefs because all are essentially beyond the realm of proof. There really isn’t any difference between the “believer” and the “nonbeliever” because the first has a positive belief and the second has a negative belief.

  14. Most of our knowledge is filled with voids and the more we learn about a topic the more we understand that we can never learn everything. Objects are forever withdrawn. They are “strange strangers” to use a term by Timothy Morton. Only when one has superficial knowledge about something can one claim to know it all. This is to me the what religion is about, to fill those “scary” voids.

    • I think that religion, or in a more general sense spirituality, can be the response that one makes to the sense of awe and wonder at encountering that “scary void”; the sense of the numinious or what the Romantics called the “sublime”.

      When I first read the Popol Vuh, one part that really gave me the prickles was the sequence at the beginning that Tedlock translates as “now it ripples, it murmurs” — the black, primordial ocean, a parallel to Nietzsche’s Abyss, the Nordic Ginnungagap, the Buddhist sunyata, Taoist emptiness, Hesiod’s Khaos, Lacan’s lacuna, the quantum vaccuum, Lovecraft’s “spaces between the stars” — out of which everything arises & into which everything falls (as do the people who drown in the “black rain”, at the end of the last creation).

      Spiritual traditions, art & literature can help to make the Void present, which it always is, present in its absence. It’s not necessarily a matter of filling the Void — if it could be filled, it would not be the Void — but of clearing away the clutter which prevents us from experiencing the essential void-nature of reality. (Which is a paradoxical concept, of course; this is at the edge where language begins to break down).

      The fiction & poetry I’ve been writing on my “Seven Macaw” blog is essentially about this quest for transcendence, & how deadly it is, & beautiful in its deadliness; and how human life can be possible in a universe where existence is governed by forces as coldly impersonal and destructive as Heart-of-Sky (the supposed “good guy”) & the Lords of Xibalba. Seven Macaw being the character who, in Christensen’s translation, “sought only transcendence” and was damned for it (what do you expect)?

  15. Johan,
    Yes. Scary voids. No way to get around them. Must walk through them.

  16. Really helpful post. Thank you very much. I see your parenthetical citations, but where is your bibliography? I’d like to locate some snip-its in their respective original texts.


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