Boutroux after Bergson on freedom and contingency

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Henri Bergson seldom refers to Emile Boutroux directly, and for this reason his relation to his immediate predecessor in the French spiritualist tradition has been neglected. Based on some of Bergson’s remarks about contingency in his recently published 1904-05 lecture course on the Evolution of the Problem of Freedom, this essay shows how his whole philosophical career develops the ideas of Boutroux’s 1874 On the Contingency of Laws of Nature. Apprehend this is crucial for understanding Bergson’s philosophical project and for appreciating the resources it offers to us today. The first part of the essay concentrates on how Bergson’s notion of free will in the third chapter of his primary doctoral dissertation develops Boutroux’s ideas about contingency in the psychological domain. It shows that Bergson restates these ideas within the framework of an idea of time as ‘real duration’ that On the Contingency of the Laws of Nature had, in fact, seemed to call for and presuppose. The second part focuses on Boutroux’s account of contingency in the natural world and shows that Bergson is more reluctant than his teacher to reject mechanistic philosophy and to adopt entirely a philosophy of contingency. In this way, the essay argues that in a psychological sense, Bergson extends the school of contingency in nineteenth-century French philosophy, but in another, more broadly metaphysical sense, he is reluctant to endorse it.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford handbook of modern French philosophy
EditorsMark Sinclair, Daniel Whistler
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198841869
Publication statusAccepted - 10 Apr 2023


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