Bill Long 2/13/08
Well, now that I have that off my chest, I can go much more quickly here. The elan vital of Bergson was first mentioned in his 1907 book L'Evolution creatrice (translated into English a few years later as Creative Evolution--"CE"), and is "a vital impulse or life force, of which we are aware intuitively; spec. an original impetus of life supposed to have brought about the variations which during the course of evolution produced new species." The elan vital, then, is a creative principle found in all living things.
If Kant was mired in tired debates between rationalists and anti-rationalist philosophers of the 18th century, Bergson was caught up by the evolutionary craze at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century. The question "in the air" at the time was how the world in its wonderful, pullulating complexity came to be. Darwin might have argued for the theory of natural selection, but even that explanation seemed a bit too mechanical to Bergson's lithe mind. Behind it all, he felt, must be some kind of force or energy, some kind of internal drive that led to the multifloral reality before us.
In fact, in CE he begins by critizing what he calls mechanism as it applies to the concepts of life and evolution. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:
"The mechanistic approach would preclude the possibility of any real change or creativity, as each development would be potentially contained in the preceding ones. However, Bergson continues, the teleological approach of traditional finalism equally makes genuine creation of the new impossible, since it entails, just as mechanism, that the “whole is given.” Therefore, neither mechanism nor strict finalism can give a satisfying account of the phenomenon of change that characterizes life."
How, then, do you characterize this change? If teleology and mechanism are alike unhelpful for you, you must have another principle. This is the origin of Bergson's "vital principle" or "elan vital." It is the concept which accounts for evolution in the diversity of its products.
Criticism and Reflection
We see that just as Kant's concept of elanguescence was more of a verbal felicity than actual reality, so Bergson's elan vital bears more relation to rhetoric than to fact. He posits this power, this force, this energy because it seems to capture the perceived need for the universe to have a term to capture its dynamism. Perhaps this is funatmentally why he didn't like Kant--Kant's categories and language was all so dry, so systematized, so Germanic. Bergson needed something that captured his relative youth as well as the sprightly possiblities of each new spring.
Again, from the Stanford Encyclopedia, we have:
"Throughout CE, Bergson's crucial point is that life must be equated with creation, as creativity alone can adequately account for both the continuity of life and the discontinuity of the products of evolution."
But if you begin to think about "elan vital" for just a moment, you begin to see it disappear into a fog of meaninglessness. William James, a friend of Bergson until he (James) died in 1910, had this to say upon the publication of CE in 1907: "The elan vital, all contentless and vague as you are obliged to leave it, will be an easy substitute to make fun of..." And, one of the people who made fun of it was the biologist Julian Huxley. In 1926 he wrote:
"Bergson..ascribes it [sc. biological progress] to his elan vital.. But to say that biological progress is explained by the elan vital is to say that the movement of a train is 'explained' by an elan locomotif of the engine."
In other words, the concept is more of a rallying cry or banner under which to run than a useful idea that actually aids in investigating or understanding the world.
Yet, it is this notion of an elan vital, squishy as it is, that has fired human imagination. For example, Elan Vital is now the name of a charitable organization that promotes the message of Prem Rawat, widely known as Maharaji. This is a movement, its pages say, that "promotes inner peace." Who could be against that? It has divorced itself from its Hindu and Sikh origins in order to make itself more attractive to Westerners. Ok...
Then, we have the Elan Vital Design group--the "Creative Force" as it calls itself--which calls itself the "gateway to some of the most original, creative, and professional designwork worldwide." Oh, I also found a website for "Elan Vital Medical Center and Spa," which provides comprehensive, safe and effective treatments in the field of personalized and alternative medicine, integrating them with the best of traditional medical therapies."
Because the concept of "elan vital" is such a slippery one, I could imagine that someone could come out with a cookbook so named, or some preacher could characterize his ministry as preaching the "elan vital." It sounds so cool, and it appeals to the notion of life and desire for dynamism that is in us all. I think it is so "out of the box," don't you? Call things what you will; I think ultimately what people are looking for in life is quality in work, love in their personal lives, some meaning in their daily life and some enjoyment along the way. Whether the soul will ultimately elanguesce is not on the front burner of many people. Whether there is an elan vital somewhere along the line is also not the most pressing concern.
Yet, it is helpful to know these words, if only to convince ourselves that the brightest intellectual stars in our Western firmament were themselves groping along a dark corridor for some kind of insight into life....
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long