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The Belief in Intuition

The Belief in Intuition shows that intuition, as Henri Bergson and Max Scheler understood it, leads to a conception of freedom grounded in a sense of individuality that remains true to its "inner multiplicity," thus providing a distinct contrast to and critique of the liberal notion of the self.

The Belief in Intuition
Individuality and Authority in Henri Bergson and Max Scheler

Adriana Alfaro Altamirano

2021 | 264 pages | Cloth $75.00
Political Science / Philosophy
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Individuality and Diversity in Bergson and Scheler
Chapter 2. Attempts at Free Choice: Bergson and Scheler on Agency and Freedom
Chapter 3. Bergson and the Morality of Uncertainty
Chapter 4. Varieties of Sympathy: Max Scheler's Critique of Sentimentalism
Chapter 5. Personal Authority and Political Theology in Bergson and Scheler

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 1973, Hannah Arendt wrote that Henri Bergson was "the last philosopher to believe firmly in 'intuition.'" Two years later, in 1975, a reviewer writing for The Review of Metaphysics said of a book on Max Scheler that the contribution that its author intends to make in ethics "can be made only if there is a prior acceptance of Scheler's philosophical belief in intuition. That, however," the reviewer adds, "is a belief which few English and American philosophers share." As these quotations indicate, Bergson and Scheler pertain to a time or a context in which it was a sensible thing for a philosopher to believe in intuition; their tone suggests, moreover, that the disappearance of such a belief entails some kind of loss. Today, more than four decades after these passages were written, the belief in intuition that Arendt and the reviewer ascribe to Bergson and Scheler, respectively, has admittedly gained some ground. However, it continues to be challenged from a number of fronts, both in philosophy and in the social sciences. The original motivation behind this book is to understand what it means—ontologically, ethically, and politically—to entertain such a belief and what is lost in these respects if we neglect it. It is an exploration of the implications of the belief in intuition in relation to the self, human agency, and authority.

What does intuition mean for Bergson and Scheler? In order to see its distinctiveness, it might be useful to distinguish "intuition" in their sense from at least two other ways in which the term is regularly used in moral and political philosophy. The first one is the conception of "moral intuitions" as used in Rawlsian debates, which refers to our considered convictions and judgments about particular instances or cases, originally made intuitively and later revised, in reflective equilibrium, in light of the principles and rules that we believe to ground them. The second one is used by so-called ethical intuitionists, according to whom intuitions are basic, self-evident moral propositions, such that they can be known without the need of argument.

Neither of these corresponds to "intuition" in either Bergson's or Scheler's sense. Convictions and judgments about the morality of particular actions (i.e., intuitions in Rawls), as well as self-evident moral propositions (i.e., intuitions in ethical intuitionism), are objects of thought or understanding. Instead, for Scheler and Bergson, intuition is, first of all, a human ability or, perhaps we could say, a human power. It is distinct from both reason and sensibility because it addresses something that is neither rational nor sensuous. In Bergson's words, intuition aims at something that, being ineffable and immaterial, "slips away" (s'envole) at the philosopher's attempt to see it and grasp it.

Against idealism (both ancient and modern), as well as against the empiricism and materialism of the Enlightenment, Bergson and Scheler see intuition as the key to something that is both deeper and more complex than matter but still empirical, that is, something given in experience but not only through the senses—hence, the title of Bergson's first book, Les données immédiates de la conscience (in English, The Immediate Data of Consciousness), and Scheler's designation of what is given in intuition as "das materiale Apriori" (something simultaneously material and a priori). Their appeal to intuition is an invitation to turn to "the things themselves" as they are given in experience; for that reason, both authors are usually identified with, or at least related to, what is known in philosophy as phenomenology.

Now, such an appeal to intuition has been often identified with irrational, essentialist, or romantic perspectives, turning it into the likely seed of potentially violent positions—especially when transferred into ethical or political debates. It cannot be denied that the connections between intuition in politics, on the one hand, and violence, on the other, are plausible and, indeed, historically true. However, at a time when the moral psychology of liberalism—with its double emphasis on both reason and will—has, once more, been found wanting in terms of its resources to articulate a meaningful and strong enough conception of freedom, collectivity, and authority, it might not be unwise to turn back and scrutinize our tradition in pursuit of different perspectives, even if they strike us today as a bit foreign or obscure.

Through a hermeneutical approach to Bergson and Scheler's texts, I offer a politicophilosophical reading of them intended to show that intuition, in their sense, has three main implications. First, it translates into a conception of freedom that—compared to the modern view focused on the sovereignty of the will—becomes more capable of coping and coexisting with things such as hierarchy, uncertainty, and alterity.

Second, as we will see, such a conception of freedom can only be predicated of a self that remains true to its constitutive "inner multiplicity." In a distinct critique of the liberal notion of the self—which, however, rejected several assumptions that were present at the time in both Romanticism and socialism—they put forward a "deep" or "dense" conception of the person, whose uniqueness turns it into the eminent site of experience and whose prominent way of access to reality resides, again, not in reason or in sensibility but in intuition.

Notice, however, that the acknowledgment of individuality as multiple does not mean for Scheler and Bergson that the person is "illusory," as perhaps later some poststructuralist currents would eventually have. Rather, in their common battle against what they saw as "depersonalizing currents"—namely, first, a formalistic philosophical background dominated by Enlightenment rationalism and Hegelian idealism; second, a religious environment dominated by pantheism; and, finally, an emerging materialist social science dominated by associationist psychology and evolutionary biology—they both tried to keep a first-personal perspective, without therefore renouncing the reference to truth, reality, or objectivity. These, according to Scheler and Bergson, are given uniquely to a person through intuition. Hence, their theoretical approach is sometimes described as "personalism."

Accordingly—and this is the third politicophilosophical implication I want to draw from their texts—the kind of authority best suited to address the individual in their sense will not be that of the law but of another person. (This does not mean, though, that the law cannot properly address us; in fact, the way it can do so will be part of the focus of Chapter 2.) This yields a conception of personal authority that, compared to Weberian rational authority or, perhaps more recently, to Raz's epistemic authority, is allegedly better at speaking to us meaningfully—that is, both persuasively and compellingly—as an authority. The conception of authority that corresponds to their personalist outlook is known as "exemplarity."

What do we learn from these implications? As I will try to argue, focusing on the complex inner lives that drive human action, as Bergson and Scheler did, leads us to appreciate the moral and empirical limits of liberal devices that mean to regulate our actions "from the outside." These devices, such as law and rights, may not only carry pernicious side effects for freedom but also, more troublingly, oftentimes "erase their traces," concealing the very ways in which they are detrimental for a richer notion and experience of subjectivity. This is especially true, as I will delve further into in the conclusion of the book, at a time when the behavioral sciences, backed by the power of both neuroscience and big data, are being used to affect—or, as a commentator puts it, plainly manipulate—human action, both for commercial and political purposes. Today, as back in the 1940s, it remains an unsettling concern that perhaps "the peculiarity of the self is a socially conditioned . . . commodity misrepresented as natural." In this scenario, Bergson and Scheler provide important resources, so to speak, to decommodify the self and thus can help us navigate contemporary worries in that respect.

Now, to be sure, political concerns related to the phenomenon of personal authority are long-standing. Such concerns have found a preeminent place in Western political thought under diverse labels, such as tyranny, dictatorship, the problem of false prophets, Bonapartism, Caesarism, charismatic leadership, and finally, today, populism. In many of these discussions, the accent is put on the dangers associated to the "rule of men," in contrast to "the rule of law." Such dangers gain relevance in light of contemporary discussions about populism, and therefore, the political stakes of whether it is possible at all to find a legitimate conception of personal authority are high. As I will try to show, Bergson and Scheler's conception of exemplarity constitutes a relevant alternative to previous treatments about the "rule of men" and therefore puts populism in a different light: it shows that liberalism would only at its own peril deny the anthropological, moral, and political importance of those figures that, in the words of Rousseau, can "compel without violence, and persuade without convincing."

Personal authority in our authors' sense relies on a dense but primarily elusive notion of personality, which, as I will try to show, makes room for a way in which personal authority can not only be consistent with freedom but also even contribute to it, as it fosters the development of our personality. Interestingly, such a conception of authority will require that we take distance not only from the rational ideal of autonomy—the freedom that pertains to the "sovereign self"—but also from the ideal of authenticity and the ethics that corresponds to it (as in, for instance, Charles Taylor). This shall be done for the sake of a more humble "ethics of emulation," which goes, however, beyond prescribing the mere copying of an exemplar. For that reason, as we will see, such an ethics prescribes humility to the exemplar as well.

The centrality of intuition in Bergson and Scheler's respective works must not suggest that it exhausts the philosophical resources that both Bergson and Scheler make use of. A further feature of their works, one that I hope to capitalize on here, is what we would call today the "interdisciplinarity" of their approach: writing at a time when disciplinary boundaries did not yet exist as we know them today, They were engaged in an intellectual and spiritual enterprise that would now find its place in the overlap of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, theology, and natural science. In view of today's academic landscape, this feature offers, I think, the possibility of connecting several spheres of knowledge in different and refreshing ways. Still, this book is written from the perspective of political philosophy. It forms part of a series of ongoing efforts to rehabilitate these authors within the intellectual history of political ideas, in the hope of illuminating some of the most pressing ethicopolitical debates of our time.

Even if, perhaps, Scheler and Bergson have now receded from the more mainstream politicophilosophical canon, it is important to remember that both were widely influential in the philosophical, sociological, cultural, and political debates of the first half of the twentieth century. The poet Paul Valéry referred to Bergson as "the last great name of the history of European intelligence." His influence, moreover, was not confined to Europe: at the beginning of the twentieth century, he had far-reaching impact in philosophy and the arts in other continents as well. His fame was not limited to intellectual and artistic circles: he became "the mundane hit of Parisian high life" and presumably caused one of the first traffic jams on Broadway in New York, as "well-dressed auditors" wanted to arrive at his lectures at Columbia University.

Bergson served as a French diplomat after World War I, but his influence in politics was widespread much earlier. Despite his personal democratic and liberal convictions, Bergson's ideas had plenty of contemporary illiberal sympathizers on both sides of the political spectrum (and, as I said before, many of them markedly violent). He was an inspiration for anarchists, syndicalists, and communists—most famously George Sorel in France but also others in Italy and Britain—as well as for Catholics such as Charles Péguy, Emmanuel Mounier, and Jacques Maritain, through whom he became an important figure behind the Christian Democratic Movement. Prominent anticolonialists were also among his followers: Léopold Sédar Senghor, first president of Senegal (and, more generally, the Négritude movement in its resistance to French colonialism and racism), as well as Muhammad Iqbal, the main intellectual and spiritual figure behind the creation of Pakistan from the British Indian Empire, acknowledged him as one of their guides. Nationalists, such as José Vasconcelos in Mexico and Charles de Gaulle in France, recognized his influence—the latter was a great reader of Bergson and explicitly interpreted his leadership in a Bergsonian light. Finally, he also exerted fascination among fascists, an example of which is Mussolini's cultural politics.

Scheler, for his part, even if less widely influential than Bergson in the English-speaking world, had a significant impact both in Germany and in other parts of Europe. Heidegger referred to him as "the strongest philosophical force in Germany, nay, in contemporary Europe, and even in contemporary philosophy as such." Scheler is considered one of the most original contributors to phenomenology in the early twentieth century, in metaphysics as well as in moral and social psychology. Additionally, in the words of one scholar, he was "the spiritual-metaphysical founder of philosophical anthropology as a philosophical approach," whose importance in twentieth-century philosophy can be shown by the fact that, according to the same commentator, "the whole argument between [Heidegger and Cassirer] before, in and after Davos raged around the status of philosophical anthropology." Moreover, such an approach remains very much alive today in critical theory circles and in debates about identity politics, collective intentionality, and joint action.

Scheler was also the main founder of the sociology of knowledge in Germany, whose later continuation by Karl Mannheim, among others, sparked an important debate between more idealist and more materialist positions within German sociology (e.g., between Alfred Weber and Max Horkheimer, respectively). He was an important interlocutor for significant cultural and political figures at the time, such as Walther Rathenau and Konrad Adenauer, as well as one of the major influences for Catholic leaders of the past century, such as Romano Guardini and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II).
Bergson and Scheler's relative absence in contemporary debates is a symptom, I think, of political philosophy having forgotten some important alternatives it did not take—and, perhaps, could not take—after the decisive wars of the twentieth century. This book is an effort to recover key elements within those alternatives and to show how doing so enriches our present discussions.


Scheler and Bergson are the protagonists of this book. However, there are other "supporting characters" in it who will keep us company as we move forward. Thus, in the first two chapters, John Stuart Mill and David Hume have a couple of lines; in Chapter 2, Kant and Dostoevsky have costarring roles; Jean-Marie Guyau and Adam Smith are supporting actors in Chapters 3 and 4, respectively; Max Weber makes an appearance in Chapter 5; and finally, there are several cameos by Hannah Arendt and members of the Frankfurt School scattered along the text. Except for Guyau, these are well-known faces in the history of ideas. My hope is that their presence in the following pages will not so much complicate the picture as provide illuminating points of contrast, so that we can better appreciate what Bergson and Scheler have to say about individuality, agency, and authority.

Chapter 1 offers an introduction to Bergson and Scheler's respective notions of individuality and inner diversity. Half a century after John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty, Bergson and Scheler also affirmed the importance of individuality and its significance for human development. In addressing that topic, Mill worried that people tend to undervalue or ignore individuality; in contrast, Bergson and Scheler worry that the latter is very easily misconceived. Individuality deserves special consideration, not on account of the risk of it becoming stifled under a despotic government or an oppressive society but rather because, in defending it, we are very prone to pervert it. In other words, they saw already what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would articulate more poignantly four decades later, namely, that the "progress of individuation [was being done] at the expense of the individuality in whose name it took place."

Why is individuality so vulnerable? Why can't it be safe even at the hands of its sponsors? Bergson and Scheler's respective answers have to do with how individuality is related to diversity. Recall that, according to Mill, social diversity is crucial for the exercise of individuality because it nourishes the intellect and reinvigorates our beliefs. In contrast, for Bergson and Scheler, individuality is fragile because diversity is its principal characteristic, and this makes individuality very difficult to grasp (what is unitary and simple is easier to understand and keep in sight). Thus, "defending individuality" becomes less a question of how to protect it against external threats of control and more a matter of being able to discern it—not throughout society but within ourselves. In Bergson, this primarily means relating to our past in a certain way and, in Scheler, discovering the inner hierarchy of value and the corresponding feelings that characterize our emotional life. This chapter evinces their interesting position in the history of ideas, as it makes clear the extent to which they anticipate important themes of postmodern thought—especially the sensibility to culture and language in the construction of the self—while maintaining some key modernist elements, such as the belief in intuition as a vehicle for knowledge and truth, as well as a substantial, even if not "solid," conception of the self.

Chapter 2 constitutes a reflection on the kind of freedom that corresponds to the conception of the self that was developed in Chapter 1. More precisely, it discusses Bergson and Scheler's respective theories of moral agency, expounding on their respective criticisms of Kant's universalistic approach. Bergson contests Kant's equation of the will with practical reason and underscores the character of the will as force. Following this understanding of the will, he contests Kant's conclusion that freedom must be given through reason. Rather, freedom is found in "the relation of the concrete self to the act which it performs," and therefore it is not necessarily related with what one does but with how it is done.

Building on Bergson's theory of action, I show that, from a phenomenological standpoint, both our moral motivation to obey the law and our disposition to break it share a common source. In other words, Bergson helps us realize that temptation is not only what traps us and gets us entangled in crime but also the key to understanding how we become, as Kant says, "interested in the law." Such common source is to be found in our character as agents. The failure to integrate these two phenomena—namely, morality and temptation—leads to an "schizophrenic" division of the self, which in turn jeopardizes action. The price of setting morality and temptation apart is our own freedom or our capacity to act.

Scheler, for his part, rejects the Kantian notion of autonomy, that is, the notion of giving the law to oneself, for being overly formalistic. In his opinion, the categorical imperative as a solution to the problem of how to combine morality and freedom—or, as Rousseau says, how to "follow the law and remain as free as before"—wrongly assumes, first, that morality can be fully expressed in terms of laws and, second, that freedom is simply a matter of obeying only oneself. For him, freedom as autonomy is not about not obeying others but rather about gaining access to one's self. In other words, autonomy must be primarily about how we relate to ourselves, instead of just a certain relation to potential oppressors. It must focus on discerning, above all, the autonomous agent in question.

In this chapter, I turn to narrative in order to enrich the theoretical analysis in precisely the phenomenological spirit that animates the authors. My goal is to "go back to the action itself" and assess how Bergson and Scheler's respective principles fare when confronted with moral experience. Thus, I test their hypotheses on human action by examining two case studies: on the one hand, the Gallows Man example, which Kant provides in the Critique of Practical Reason, and, on the other, the case of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Through a close reading of the cases, I conclude that the ethical problem in both of them cannot be truly captured by the presence or lack of the clear orientation that only a categorical imperative can give but rather by their respective capacity to "calibrate" or "attune" their agency in the face of temptation, which only a "phenomenology of hesitation" can disclose. Furthermore, I propose—against more traditional readings of the two cases—that these show how moral action becomes more endangered by a failure to access what is truly individual than by a failure to see the humanity that we have in common. I see this chapter as a mise-en-scène of the principles that—as explained in Chapter 1—teach us how to observe the inner diversity that characterizes true individuality.

Chapters 3 and 4 are each devoted to one of our authors, in order to deepen our understanding of human agency and freedom in each case. Chapter 3 focuses solely on Bergson and explores the moral and political implications of our relation to the future or, to put it differently, of the role of uncertainty in human agency. Moral and political theories, as far as they take into account the fragility of human nature, usually incorporate a reflection on the role of uncertainty or contingency. The question remains, however: how exactly do we experience uncertainty? Can uncertainty have different faces, to which we then react in different ways? If so, what is the meaning of such multiplicity for the exercise of agency? Comparing Bergson's inquiry into the modern belief in chance with Jean-Marie Guyau's reflections on the love of risk, I examine the moral significance of different ways of relating to uncertainty and analyze their respective pedagogical purchase regarding the constitution of human freedom.

Here I argue that when confronted with the unknown future, agents become easily trapped in the vicious and vertiginous circle of impotence and omnipotence. From this perspective, freedom can be seen as the art of avoiding those two extremes. The contrast between Bergson and Guyau illuminates this problem, showing how our relation to uncertainty informs our inner self, our capacity for action, and our sense of obligation.

Chapter 4 focuses exclusively on Scheler. I examine his phenomenology of emotions, with special attention to their social and political dimensions. In particular, I explore how moral agency can be properly exercised only on condition that we fully experience inner diversity through emotions. First, I offer a close reading of Scheler and Adam Smith on sympathy, analyzing the differences between both approaches to moral psychology and underscoring the ethicopolitical concerns that animated the author in each case. In the early twentieth century, Max Scheler disputed—against Smith and other eighteenth-century philosophers—the salutary character of sympathy, dismissing it as an ultimately perverse foundation for human association. However, unlike later critics of sympathy as a political principle (e.g., Rawls, Arendt), Scheler rejected it for being ill-equipped to salvage what, in his opinion, should be the proper basis of morality, namely, moral value. I argue that, even if Scheler's objections against Smith's project prove to be ultimately mistaken, he had important reasons for calling into question its moral suitability in his own time.

Finally, in Chapter 5, I turn to questions about authority and explore what we can learn on this score from their respective insights on individuality and agency. What can authority be, in light of the personalist anthropology that they both offer? How can authority claims be laid on someone whose character is unfixed and always unique, on a self whose "innermost essence" is ineffable? Can such a being be bound to authority and free? As I said before, in both Scheler and Bergson, I find a model of authority founded on the notion of exemplarity, that is, the kind of authority that lies in a person, whose example seems to have some moral claim on other people. In this chapter, I contrast such a model with Max Weber's notion of charismatic authority and indicate the political relevance of their alternative, especially for a time such as ours, where worries about the oppressive and antidemocratic dimension of populist leaders abound.

To recall, according to Weber, the charismatic type—contrary to bureaucratic and traditional authority—is not based on either rational commands or time-honored and customary practices but relies instead on the gift and qualities of individual personalities. Like Weber, both Bergson and Scheler thought this kind of authority was of primary contemporary importance. However, Weber's relativism toward values and his Kantian metaphysical approach yield a notion of personality that, as we will see, is overly reified from a Bergsonian or Schelerian point of view. For Weber, a personality is" is characterized by being able to display rational-teleological action, consistent with a unified moral framework. Charismatic authority can be instrumental for a personality in this sense since it furnishes it with an ethical and practical horizon. In contrast, Bergson and Scheler's ideas on personal authority rely on a deep but slippery notion of personality, which, as I stated before, makes room for an alternative understanding of the relation between personal authority and freedom. Such a way is found in exemplarity—the situation in which we follow an example and thus become free.

Several late twentieth-century authors saw the importance of the Weberian notion of personal, charismatic leadership but considered, however, that the social and political conditions under which it could flourish were pathological on the whole—for example, anomie in Talcott Parsons, the deeply corrupt and unjust circumstances of postcolonialism in Immanuel Wallerstein and David Apter, or the necessary inconveniences of any transition toward political maturity, as Seymour Martin Lipset regards the case of George Washington. Unlike these thinkers, in the early twentieth century, Bergson and Scheler still considered it possible to talk positively about personal authority because they were not yet totally dissuaded by fears about ideology and mass mobilization, which certainly became preeminent after World War II. As I said before, in view of the contemporary relevance of both left- and right-wing populism in Latin America, Europe, and the United States, as well as of the (allegedly both positive and negative) roles that so-called charismatic leaders have played in recent political developments at the international level, these reflections are totally pertinent: they can help us to avoid seeing the twenty-first century exclusively through the eyes of the twentieth.

Bergson and Scheler's views on exemplarity relied on many Christian—and, in particular, Catholic—resources. As I will show, Bergson and Scheler's reflections on Christianity bring some of their key respective philosophical perspectives—in epistemology, anthropology, and psychology—together with political questions regarding power, obedience, equality, and freedom. Moreover, they drew upon Christianity in order to mount a fierce denunciation of bourgeois capitalism and to articulate an alternative to it. Both Scheler and Bergson held high hopes that Christianity could contribute with significant politicopedagogical resources to the fragile post-World War I international political and economic scene, contributing thus to early twentieth-century debates about the political and economic role of religion. It is important to keep this in mind, as it makes it even more appropriate to bring Weber to the table, who, as is well known, connected the emergence and initial development of capitalism with the Protestant way of life.

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