Jul 312016

Alexandre Lefebvre, Human Rights as a Way of Life: On Bergson’s Political Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013; 216 pages. ISBN: 9780804785792

Reviewed by P. A. Y. Gunter, University of North Texas

Much has been written recently to revive interest in Bergson’s philosophy. Little, however, has been written on his social and political thought, particularly as it relates to religion. Alexandre Lefebvre fills this vacuum in a very interesting way: that is, by relating Bergsonian mysticism to the concept of civil rights, taken to be the center of Bergson’s concept of mysticism. Two closely related books by the author precede the present study: The Image of Law: Deleuze, Bergson, Spinoza (Stanford, 2009) and Bergson, Politics, and Religion (Duke, 2012) edited with Melanie White.

The author depicts a stripped-down Bergson, reducing the rich panorama of his thought to its most fundamental arguments. Given the tendency (certainly in English-speaking philosophy) to view Bergson as a “mystic” who shuns consecutive thought, this is an excellent starting-point. Also, by outlining the French intuitionist’s core arguments, Lefebvre is able to show how they remain pertinent to contemporary issues and to the present world situation: often more pertinent than we wish.

Fundamental to Bergson is his distinction between the closed and the open society, an idea popularized (and somewhat deformed) by Karl Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies. Popper rightly describes the strenuously intolerant and self-centered worlds of Nazism and Stalinism as representing closed societies. This is obvious. But what is less obvious on Bergson’s terms is that societies less closed and more open than these are nonetheless confined by a still subtler logic of closure. The acid test of this unpleasant fact is war. Why, if our societies proclaim such a deep concern for all humanity, do they perform such a sudden volte face in time of war, an evaporation of the openness which was presumed everywhere before the conflict? For Bergson this evaporation reveals what underlines the relatively open society from the beginning: an ethic not rational but biological. In a nutshell: in the real world closure runs deep.

A realist might object that this is nothing new. Noble protestations aside, our societies have always, at base, been primitive and tribal. Why make such a big thing about it now? Bergson gives two answers to this question. The first is to counsel that it is dangerous to ignore this fundamental fact, under any circumstances. The second lies in the transformation of war itself, a transformation which Bergson warns us of. Not only does war now endanger civilians directly, in a way that traditional war did not: military technology has created means of potential devastation that are almost unimaginable. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932) he is speaking of nuclear weapons. A new situation, whether we like it or not, calls for a new response. To make that response and opt for a truly open society requires a quantum jump which can free us from our ingrained social context and its (now darker) imperatives.

What could such a jump consist of? Bergson’s answer is a new appropriation of religion: more specifically of mysticism. At this point many readers will probably recoil. One needs only watch the evening news to conclude that in the present world mysticism is not the solution; it is the problem. How many religious spokesmen want to write scripture in blood, not in forgiveness or concern? But this for Bergson is pseudo-mysticism or, more precisely, the regnant posture of the closed society, clothed in emotion. Bergson will insist that if we look more deeply we will find the mysticism of the open society: a very different thing.

Lefebvre does a good job of exploring this different mysticism. As a form of love it necessarily involves a concern for the sanctity of human personality, and therefore for the centrality of human rights. Such notions (human personality, human rights) are rather broad, like the sort of love which is said to engender them. But by their nature they can be developed in more specific terms. To do so Lefebvre formulates an “art of living” or personal discipline which can focus and sustain the outgoing emotion involved in open religion and translate it into specific acts.

It will be helpful here to bring into the discussion two thinkers with whom Lefebvre is engaged throughout but who he does not often mention: Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. The problem with Deleuze (as Lefebvre demonstrates in The Image of Law) is his angry denunciation of phrases like “human rights” and “the rights of man,” phrases which he attempts to banish from philosophy. In taking the position that he does, Lefebvre outflanks Deleuze’s objections. Such phrases (human rights) are not always blindly or sophistically used. Rather, Lefebvre insists, they are central to our understanding of ethics and our treatment of human beings and cannot be simply thrown overboard. If Lefebvre’s stance overcomes Deleuze’s objections, it also embraces a proposal by Michel Foucault in The Care of the Self: that is, the possibility of an ethics of self-care which cultivates and sustains “tolerance, impartiality and a universal perspective.” (141) Thus the fundamental and boundless love of which Bergson speaks can find a vehicle for its expression.

What, then, becomes of Bergson’s open mysticism? First, it is personal and active. It cultivates and sustains “a kind of love and attachment that is without exclusion or hatred.” (139) Second, its role is to crystallize (or better, actualize) this love in a more or less systematic set of rules, doctrines, and stories. Third, it (then) attempts to introduce everyone into a mysticism they would otherwise be unlikely to encounter. These three features, Lefebvre concludes, constitute what is truly religious in religion.

I would like to end with two points. First, if Lefebvre’s account is long on analysis and short on account of the passionate intensity, particularly of early Christianity, it succeeds in giving an account of Bergson’s religious thought which is intelligible and accurate. Bergson meant by religious intuition or mysticism an inspiration which avoided exclusion, prejudice, thoughtlessness. If so, we at least do not have to approach his thought through a prior exclusion of his conclusions, whether or not in the end we accept them. Then, second, the author suggests three interesting projects which derive from his research. First it opens up, he states, new readings of key thinkers in the history of human rights. Lefebvre mentions Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, and Rawls, connecting their contributions to the notion of self-care. Second, Bergson’s approach provides a means for understanding the subjective or spiritual orientation presupposed by human rights discourse. Third, this approach provides an opportunity for seeing how practices of self-care are reinvented through contact with contemporary problems.

Because of its clarity and accessibility, this study would make a good textbook. Any course on mysticism which makes a claim to completeness should include Lefebvre’s book. So should a course which attempts to study Bergson’s later thought or the relations between process philosophy and religion.