Reflections on Reality and its Reflection, by E. Alan Meece (Eric A. Meece), M.A.

This paper or thesis is presented here in 2009, only slightly revised and edited from the 1979 original. It is the basis for the later article Philosophy on a Circle and for the philosophy questionnaire
Please update URL if needed.

copyright 1979 by E. Alan Meece




A. Statement of Purpose
B. Plan of the Paper


A. Existentialism
B. Essentialism
C. Summary of the Debate
D. Contrast to Materialism
E. The Opposition is Fundamental
F. Clarification of Terms



A. Plato on the Changing
B. Plato on the Forms
C. Bergson on the Forms
D. Bergson on the Changing
E. Summary of the Debate on Metaphysics


A. Plato on Reason and Opinion
B. Bergson on Intuition and Reason
C. Can Plato's Reason Also Be Entitled "Intuition?"
D. Different Visions of the One
E. The Absolute
F. Comparing Plato and Bergson on Intuition, Reason and Opinion


A. The Priority of Soul over Matter
B. Two Kinds of Order
C. Recognizing the Two Views of Spirit
D. Plato on the Soul
E. Bergson on the Soul; Comparison to Plato's View
F. Plato's View of Matter
G. Bergson's View of Matter
H. Things in Space
I. The Receptacle: Space
J. Diagram and Explanation

OR: which is prior: essence, or existence?


A. Argument Against Bergson
B. Argument Against Plato
C. Are Forms Real?
D. A Dialectical Method
E. An Empirical Method


A. Forms as Human Utensils and the Human Body
B. Forms of the Soul
C. Forms As Creativity
D. Forms as Colors and Sounds
E. Forms as Weights
F. Forms as Geometrical Forms
G. Forms as Mathematical Laws of Nature
H. The Form of the Good
I. Summary of Which Forms Exist


A. Forms as Numbers
B. Forms as Time
C. Conclusion





Are there such things as essences? If so, are they the original source of things, or are they merely the intellect's thin abstractions from the lived concrete reality? This is the question to which most philosophical searches return. It is the great argument in philosophy between those who believe existence is prior to essence and those who believe the opposite. It could be stated as the interest by a philosopher that something is, as opposed to what something is. In other words, proponents of existence are interested in exploring the concrete, living, fluid existence of everyday reality, while proponents of essences are interested in exploring the general nature of various phenomena, beyond its appearance in particular concrete examples. To reason, or just to be; that seems to be the question.

A. Statement of Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to examine the case for each side and determine the merits of each, at least on some issues. As philosophical "lawyers" and advocates I have called on the venerable Plato to represent the proponents of essences, and the great modern philosopher Henri Bergson to represent the proponents of existence. It being generally recognized that Plato is the chief proponent of the view that the phenomenal, changing, visible world is the image and shadow of the eternal, unchanging essences or forms, and this being nothing else but essentialism; and since existentialism is the opposite view, I propose to compare Plato's philosophy, as illustrating essentialism, to that of an existentialist philosopher. If Plato represents essentialism, and existentialism is the opposite, then the opposite view should be best represented by the opposite to Plato's view, which would propose that the phenomenal, changing, visible world is the original, while the unchanging and eternal forms are the shadows and images. This I take to be the view of Henri Bergson, generally recognized as the chief proponent of the view that the changing, concrete reality, which he called duration, is the original of which the forms are the faint shadows and images in our intellect; this view here defined as existentialism.

I shall present the two philosophers as opposites, best representing the two philosophies, essentialism and existentialism, which will shortly be thoroughly defined. This is not the only way in which Plato and Bergson could be represented, but by so representing them, I hope to clarify the question whether the forms are the shadows in our minds of the concrete reality, which we do best to pay better attention to, or whether the forms hold the key to understanding that concrete reality. The goal is to try to reconcile the two sides. But this cannot be done if one side is buried in the other as its mere reflection, so we can pretend it does not exist. The opposition must first be presented clearly and forcefully.

It will be my contention that Plato and Bergson are archetypes of this great debate, especially in their two major works, Plato's Republic and Bergson's Creative Evolution. Nevertheless, the main purpose of the paper is not to show that Plato and Bergson are archetypes of the argument between essentialists and existentialists, but to use them as examples and support in outlining the argument itself and its possible resolution.

B. Plan of the Paper

In pursuing this aim, I have organized the paper into three sections. In the first section I define each side of the debate, and in the process say how each side argues against the other and attempts to criticize and debunk their assertions. In the second section, Plato and Bergson are presented as examples of each position. In the third section I will again evaluate and investigate the question of the debate itself, and this time I will attempt to at least begin to see where the truth lies among the conflicting points of view.

The first section includes this introduction and statement of purpose, followed by the definition of each philosophy and the terms existentialism and essentialism. In my definitions, I will also outline the main lines of the argument itself as I frequently see and hear it presented in readings and in discussions, as well as in my own mind. I will show the way each side handles not only those issues to be dealt with in this paper, but also some other issues that will not be dealt with. This will give the reader an over-all, comprehensive picture of the scope of the debate, and show why the proponents of each side believe it so important to take the position they do, and what motivates them in doing so. I will also clarify why I have used the terms I have used, such as "existence" and "existentialism," instead of others that are possible.

In the section comparing Plato and Bergson, I will zero in on three closely related areas of disagreement upon which all the others depend. The most basic of these three questions will be covered first. It is the fundamental question we must ask, and what the debate is all about: what is real, and what is the reflection? Do forms exist, and are they the essences of which concrete, changing things are imperfect and fleeting images, examples, copies, reflections and shadows? Or is concrete existence real instead, and the forms merely concepts and categories that represent imperfectly the fluid reality that forever escapes them? I will show how Plato and Bergson represent perfectly the contending sides of this question, and in presenting their arguments I will have effectively presented both sides of the debate.

This is what I call the metaphysical question. But there is another aspect of the debate so closely related to it that I cannot omit discussing it altogether without omitting important arguments which each side needs. This is the epistemological question, or the question of which is the best way of approaching reality: reason or intuition. It is clear that the answer to the question of how we know reality is tied to the question of what reality is. In discussing what is real, we cannot really omit discussing how it is that we ourselves contact that reality, and which faculty it is that gets us in touch with it. In fact, both Plato and Bergson frequently use epistemological terms to describe the metaphysical reality; as for example when Plato describes the two realms as "the visible" and "the intellectual," or as "the realm of knowledge" and "the realm of opinion." I have simply separated this aspect of what is really a single question from the metaphysical for purposes of clarity and organization. 1

Then there is a third aspect that we cannot ignore if we are to do justice to each side. For each philosopher claims his approach not only upholds essence on the one hand and concrete existence on the other, but that by doing so he exalts spirit over matter. Each claims as the prime motive for his ideas the liberation of the soul from the pollutions of the material world, with its necessary and mechanical movements. Each claims that matter has not the indubitable reality the materialist claims for it, but instead is a fall from true being and dependent on it. No comparison of two opposing philosophers can ignore their main thesis, especially when it is one they happen to agree on!

How is it that Bergson and Plato are so diametrically opposed and yet agree on their central thesis? It is clear we must clarify where they agree and where they differ. We must clarify how each philosopher relates the debate over form versus existence to that over spirit versus matter, and show how in arguing for form on the one hand and existential becoming on the other, each is therefore arguing for the spirit. Indeed each philosopher and his followers claims that the exponents of the other side in the existence versus essence debate are really materialists, and see little or no difference between their two opponents. It is though each philosopher were fighting a two-front war; that they see their two opponents as close allies who, unknown to themselves, are practically indistinguishable from one another. For Bergson, matter and mathematics are so close that one is the mere extrapolation of the other. For Plato, matter and the changing, concrete world are just about the same. In reality, however, the debate is not over spirit and matter, or mind and body, but over essence and existence, whether each side realizes it or not. We must not confuse one debate with the other. Thereby Plato and Bergson do not get accused of being something they are not-- materialists-- which to them is like being called in error.

In a sense, what I am doing is extending the epistemological aspect of the question to include how each side believes our whole soul relates to metaphysical reality, instead of just one of its faculties, that of knowledge. This latter faculty gets called different names depending on which we regard as real, essence or existence; while for our purposes the terms "soul" and "spirit" are equivalent. The question also becomes which philosophy is really the spiritual one, which can bring us salvation from the pollution and degradation of the material world. Later I also call this topic "cosmology," or how in each philosophy God or the world's soul or spirit creates the world.

After I have established the opposition between Plato and Bergson, as well as the conflict between the two philosophies in general, and in the process have shown where the two sides agree, I will follow with the third and final section. There I will evaluate the central thesis of the two sides, showing there is some validity and some inadequacy in each. The main part of the third section will be the examination of forms themselves to see if they really exist. That forms exist will be found difficult to prove, yet evidence will be offered to show that they are at least possible. What will emerge clearly, however, is that if they exist, we can only prove them to do so by seeking their manifestation within the realm of concrete becoming itself. It will also be found, provisionally at least, that the true view of reality lies somewhere between the diametrically-opposed views of Plato and Bergson; and that in some ways formal essence and concrete, changing existence interpenetrate. My thesis will be that both of these philosophies are true, and that each deserves to be taken seriously. Therefore both are wrong in seeing the other's point of view as wrong, and lost in mere reflections of reality. The truth is that neither essences nor existence is true alone; that essences, if they exist, are to be found within the realm of concrete becoming, or existence, and that existence contains these forms within it. I do not say that both philosophers are really saying the same thing, because they are not. They are die-hard opposites. What I say is that the truth lies in the attempt to reconcile them.


Let us define the two philosophies which Plato and Bergson exemplify.

A. Existentialism

First let us define existentialism. It is a movement embracing many different views and philosophers, include many who disclaim the label. But it is all based on a central idea; that existence is prior to essence. Existence is the concrete reality of being as it is immediately encountered, while essence is the general nature or set of traits that characterize what exists. Those who believe existence is prior to essence say that life cannot be enclosed in any category, because it is too fluid and interpenetrating. It must always elude the concepts, formulas, and definitions that are meant to confine it within a definite nature that limits and determines what it is and what it can do.2 Those whom I shall call existentialists believe our primary attention should be on existence in the concrete and flowing. Rather than define or conceive what you (or things) are, existentialists are interested in the bare but mysterious fact that you (or things) are.3 The closer one remains to the concrete, flowing, living reality, they say, the richer your experience, and the greater your energy, because you are in closer contact with, and thus have access to, yourself and your faculties. But you have more philosophical knowledge too, because you are in contact with reality in its fullness rather than its component parts, which are isolated for purposes of definition. These components are the static and unchanging concepts and categories of the intellect into which we group the fluid reality of being. But these concepts, forms, and essences are actually only remnants of reality, not reality itself. The existentialist says that dependence on them lessens consciousness, because they cause reality to appear ever and always the same as before, just as you had calculated beforehand in your mind.

For existentialists, there is no difference between Plato's idea of forms and our usual idea of "concepts" or "categories." At root, they are both the same, and the word "forms" has no other meaning. These concepts, such as "justice" or "beauty" or "two" or "bed," etc., are only the exterior bounds of reality. They are the shell rather than the contents; the shadow rather than the substance. In addition, these concepts and thin, pre-formed categories are only symbols, labels and models of reality, not reality itself.4 This means intellectual, conceptual knowledge is relative, too, because it stands outside the object, and thereby takes a particular and incomplete view towards it. However many names, symbols, or concepts we use to describe an object, says the existentialist, we can never duplicate the simple and complete act of experiencing the object itself.5 The existentialist believes these empty, fragmentary concepts of the intellect, mistaken by essentialists as the essences and eternal forms of things, threaten to take us away from the rich, fluid reality of life and lock us up into our own heads. Existentialism considers the intellectual approach opposite to its own to be aimed toward manipulation and control for the purposes of security and safety, rather than for true knowledge, because these aims require predictability, in which you already know how life will turn out. It aims, in Bergson's words, to make us "masters of matter."6 But life is not like this, it is insisted, because the situation one is trying to enclose in utilizable concepts is always changing and escapes the intellectual net. It recommends, instead of intellectual calculation, openness to change and willingness to take risks. In knowing, this means "intuition," a less well-defined but more immediate way of knowing in which, through feeling and sympathy, one resonates and communes with the object itself and becomes aware of its aliveness, without trying to define and categorize it. This way one knows, for example, that all life is interrelated and always fluid, or what it is that a living person really needs and wants in their innermost being. It means the ability to know facts through feelings and psychic abilities that a logical investigation might have found by a much more lengthy and tedious process. It means contact with the fluid reality which can then lead to better interpretations in science.7

This point of view has vital implications extending beyond the questions of what exists and how we know it, which are the questions this paper deals with. In conduct and personal affairs, for example, it means to maximize freedom and voluntary action instead of action that is the result of a prior plan. This is the only alternative, say existentialists, to following the predictable result of the intellect's planning, which imitates, and thereby succumbs to, the predictable mechanical movement of the very material processes which it seeks to master. Here we see the contemporary protest of humanity to remain human and not become a machine. Insecurity and personal responsibility are stressed, and it is denied that a human being is something in particular, or has an essence or character (beyond our history and current condition); we can and must make ourselves whatever we choose to be.8 Not only freedom, action, and responsibility, but heightened consciousness is an existentialist goal, and this heightening comes through greater and greater movement and willingness to change, so that one is open and not closed to experience and growth.

B. Essentialism

Those who believe essences to be the primary reality I shall call essentialists. Their case runs as follows.

Their opponents who state that concepts are only the thin contractions of fluid reality imply there are no distinctions to be discerned in our experience. They thereby reduce reality to an amorphous, unitary mass of which nothing can be identified, characterized, or talked about, leaving us in chaos and confusion.9 The essentialist grants that nothing can be separated exactly from anything else in the phenomenal world, and that categories may rigidify reality. And yet, they ask, who can deny that there are distinctions in our experience? If the world is not as sharply-defined as the concepts we use to describe it, that does not mean they are not valid at all. Cats may not be all that different from dogs, yet most animals of those two kinds do fall rather nicely under those two categories.

What is it that accounts for the evident distinctions and different qualities in our experience? The essentialist believes it is the essences of things, or the "forms." This means he believes the real essence of the things we see are not the particular examples, which are too fluid and changeable, but the form or first principle, known by reason, which is the general idea which includes and explains all such examples, and which is known only by the intellect.10 According to him, the fluidity of the world does not measure up to the clarity and precision of the forms. But if essentialists believe in precision, they say it is their opponents who overdo it. For existentialists demand that general concepts fit exactly the experience they represent, or they dismiss them. On the other hand, it takes sensitivity to see the generalities around which the fluid world clusters.

It is foolish, therefore, to seek truth and reality by simply paying attention to the immediate, concrete flow of being. One is not able that way to discern the categories and essences around which reality gathers, such as cat, or red, or justice, beauty and goodness. Nor can one discern mathematical structures in the world that way. For nature, including human nature, is not simply a fluid continuity; there is an order, which must be discerned by reason.11 How can we know this order, the essentialist asks, without the formulas, symbols, categories, and definitions that allow us to chart its structure and to see it clearly? How can you know mathematical theorems, or Newton's laws, or Einstein's equations, by paying attention to the flow of reality, and ignoring its form and structure?

Consciousness is hardly lessened by reason, as existentialists claim, when without it we are hardly conscious in any normal sense. For we require the concepts of the mind to make any sense of the world and to see more than a chaotic and confused hodgepodge. And it is the existential view which is relative and superficial, because it merely pays attention to immediate reality and does not seek out its relation to what is not immediately known. Through thinking we are able, by making logical leaps and connections, to understand and imagine other possibilities which can later be verified.12 Existentialism is relative because it deals with the unique and contingent, which may be true today and here, but false tommorrow and elsewhere.13 For existential objects are always changing and particular, while essences are necessary, universal and eternal. The latter one can know; the former only opine about.14

The placing of essence prior to existence leads to a drastically different stand on the question of conduct and personal affairs. What about freedom and action? They are empty goals, in the way existentialists pursue them. The essentialist says we cannot act freely without the planning that the so-called already-known, pre-formed concepts enable us to do. According to Glenn Morrow, a Platonic scholar, thought helps us to understand and master our situation, and only thus can we be free.15 It is a measure of our freedom that we have been able to master matter and nature, as well as to comprehend the cosmos; these, and not attention to our own subjective and personal "vital flow." If we are merely open and attentive, and do not think, we jettison important tools. Adventure, taking risks, action for action's sake are denounced by essentialists as blind action.16 Unless we grasp out certain elements and have a clear picture of alternatives readily useable, we will not make the right choices. It is folly to dispense with all knowledge known beforehand, especially when we need the guidance of tradition, which the existentialist so fears.17

Making knowledge into "feeling and sympathy" is also highly dangerous, says the proponent of essences. Feelings are unreliable, and can lead us astray by arousing us to satisfy and tittilate them, regardless of what reason tells us is the right thing to do. We must control our feelings by reason, which can give us an objective view free from our own wants and desires. Only through reason can we know a system of unchanging principles and values which guide one toward the wisdom and morality that is beyond compromise to the changing needs and impulses of the existential situation. This is true moral responsibility; the genuine kind of "freedom" jeopardized by the so-called liberating existentialist destruction of rational standards.

Eternal essences are the key to an invisible order, or "intelligible world," underlying the apparent chaos; an order that gives purpose and sure direction leading beyond the existential abyss. So freedom and responsibility are claimed on the essentialist side, too, along with purpose. And essentialists say theirs is also the way to a higher consciousness. For it can transcend mere analysis, which breaks down experience into pieces, to reach a vision of how everything participates in a universal order. This might be found through the great systems of philosophy, whether it be Plato's theory of forms, Leibniz' monadology, the Great Chain of Being, or Hegel's dialectic. Or it could be the rational coherence necessary to put together a theoretical study of any subject at all.

C. Summary of the Debate

Let us, then, summarize the terms of this epic debate of essence versus existence, between vitality and intellect.

The existentialist insists that existence, or the concrete reality of the immediately lived, is the primary reality and proper object of philosophy. The essentialist insists instead that the primary reality and object of philosophy is essence, or the world of ideas, concepts and general laws of the mind.

The existentialist believes the changing flow of becoming is more real than the static and unchanging forms extracted from it. The essentialist believes eternal and unchanging forms are more real than the changing and perishing world which is their reflection.

The existentialist promotes intuition, or contact and communion with the inward life of the object, as the best method of approaching reality. The essentialist promotes reason, or knowledge of the general concept or structure which explains the object, as the best method of approaching reality.

The existentialist believes categories and concepts are superficial and relative; the essentialist says immediate perceptions are superficial and relative. The existentialist believes the intellect only rearranges what is already known; the essentialist believes it can help us discover unknown realms through speculative imagination.

Existentialists eschew prediction and planning as deadening to freedom and creativity; essentialists say you are not free or creative unless you can plan and predict. Existentialists believe risk and openness to changing reality is the competent way to live; essentialists believe this existential way is merely acting blindly.

The existentialist believes feelings are closer to reality than reason, which is only their outward shell. The essentialist believes the feelings and passions are unreliable and subjective and distort knowledge by urging us to confuse reality with the way we want things to be. Existentialists believe the door to reality is through attention to the vital flow of the self; essentialists say that knowing one's own consciousness is only a partial and uncertain view of the truth.

An excellent summation of the problem, admittedly from an existentialist view, is provided by Rollo May in his book Existence. We can do no better than to quote it:

    ..... traditionally in Western thought "existence" has been set over against "essence." Essence refers to the greenness of this stick of wood, let us say, and its density, weight, and other characteristics ..... By and large Western thought has been concerned with essences. Traditional science seeks to discover such essences or substances; it assumes an essentialist metaphysics, as Professor Wild of Harvard puts it. The search for essences may indeed produce highly significant universal laws in science or brilliant abstract conceptualizations in logic or philosophy. But it can do this only by abstraction. The existence of the given individual thing has to be left out of the picture. For example, we can demonstrate that three apples added to three makes six. But this would be just as true if we substituted unicorns for apples; it makes no difference to the mathematical truth of the proposition whether apples or unicorns really exist or not. That is to say, a proposition can be true without being real. Perhaps just because this approach has worked so magnificently in certain areas of science, we tend to forget that it necessarily involves a detached viewpoint and that the living individual must be omitted. There remains the chasm between truth and reality .....18

I could have used an essentialist spokesman (such as Morrow) for this summary. But it would make no difference, for the essence of the conflict would remain the same, and May has captured it beautifully here. Essentialists want to know the general nature which all apples share; existentialists want to contemplate the individual apple itself, and insists especially that the concrete individual human being not be forgotten in any picture of reality.

D. Contrast to Materialism

Yet in spite of all this disagreement, my acquaintance with each side of the argument convinces me they have at least one point in common: they both put themselves on the side of spirit as against matter. In other words, both philosophies are spiritualist and anti-materialist, and we will see that this is true of both Plato and Bergson. I should define what these two philosophies are. Materialism states that matter, the inert, lifeless stuff of the universe, is not only real but the primary basis of things into which everything resolves, and that its necessary and lawful movement, rather than an invisible vital force, is the cause of all actions. Spiritualism, on the contrary, states that the spirit or soul is primary; that consciousness, however defined, and however indefineable and invisible, underlies whatever lifeless, unconscious stuff there may be in the universe, and is the source, at least for humankind, of its movement and action.

As examples of this spiritualism on both sides of the current discussion, we need only cite Sartre's Existentialism as Humanism and Bergson's Creative Evolution19 on the existentialist side, and Plato's Phaedrus 245, Timaeus 34 and 46 and Laws 896, and Leibniz's Monadology on the essentialist side. When Plato in the Phaedrus speaks of the "soul" as having its source of movement within, he differs little with Sartre's declaration in Existentialism as Humanism that "a human being is not a stone," but has subjective life through which he makes himself and "propells himself toward a future."20 Heidegger can also be considered a spiritualist because he analyzes all of being in terms of its human mode, or Dasein, and characterizes it as "care" or "its own disclosure to itself."21 These are modes of consciousness,22 and yet he uses them in describing not only human beings, but being or reality itself.

The really fascinating thing about this agreement on this one issue is that if one resolves, as I have, that spiritualism is to be preferred, then one has two alternatives still confronting you. Your position has not been resolved after all; your philosophy not determined, for you still have to decide which version of spiritualism to adopt. The battleground has shifted, as it were, to higher ground. Spirit could be reason, the eternal harmony of forms; or it could be will, action, and the flowing movement of sheer existence. Each side tends to see the other as closer to materialism than its own position is.

Existentialists are regarded by their opponents are still too close to the material world because they adhere too closely to the immediately existing. They resemble sense empiricists (who are generally materialistic) who refuse to consider what cannot be immediately seen. Since spirit lies beyond the visible, concrete world in an invisible, abstract mode of being, to seek the spirit in the concrete is to miss the spirit. Furthermore, the existential emphasis on the contingent and the mortal is dangerously close to leaving one in Plato's world of the perishing, and it is only material objects that perish. Many people, essentialists or not, notice that this obsession and over-emphasis on the mortal, human world closes off many existentialists to many spiritual realities and possible realities, such as reincarnation or a divine direction to the universe. Existentialists counter that the contingent, the changing, or the flowing are just where spirit is, because spirit cannot be pinned down by the static and fixed abstractions of the mind. To be contingent is to be uncertain and unnecessary, which perhaps means unknowable and even perishable, but also means indeterminate and free. And freedom (or as Plato says, self-moving) is an essential characteristic of spirit, a characteristic jeopardized by the essentialist emphasis on order, law, and design in the universe, and by their pre-formed concepts into which reality must be fit in a pre-determined and predictable way. The abstract concepts of our minds, says the existentialist, are what is closer to matter, since ideas are fixed, unmoving, rigid, necessary and external to one another like material objects are.

I believe that there are probably two true philosophies, and one false one. The false one is materialism, while the true ones are essentialism and existentialism, which each cover half the truth. There may be some truth in materialism too, but in this paper I am agreeing with Plato and Bergson that there is little truth in that view. Indeed, in the third section it will often occur that to question or disprove the existence of forms will be to show they are merely an aspect of matter and necessity, which for both philosophers and philosophies would be to prove them to be reflection, as mentioned above. It is a contention that Bergson asserts and Plato strenuously denies. Bear in mind that when I say Plato and Bergson are not materialists, I do not mean to say they are idealists, in the sense that they deny the existence of the external world. They only say that matter as atomists and evolutionists describe it is not the first cause of all things, as materialists assert; that matter is an appearance or deficit of which spirit is the reality.

The agreement of Plato and Bergson (and many of their colleagues on each side) on the priority of spirit is probably the common ground of the opposition between them. It is an ancient wisdom and observable reality that opposites always have something in common. For example, hot and cold have temperature in common, while up and down have direction. Plato and Bergson have a spiritual approach to understanding reality and its reflection in common. One is the near-exact counterpart of the other. They may or may not be perfectly opposite, but by highlighting their opposition I bring out the opposition of form and becoming more clearly.

E. The Opposition is Fundamental

This opposition I believe to be fundamental, far beyond a restricted problem or question raised by two philosophers. It offers a key to what is real. That this is true is shown by the fact that in one form or another, the debate over essence and existence has dominated Western philosophy down through the ages. We can see it in the conflict of Parmenides and Heracleitus, and even in Plato and Aristotle; although Aristotle was also an essentialist. We see it in the debate of realism versus nominalism, and it surfaces again as the debate of rationalism and empiricism. Even in the arts it appears as the constant tension between classic and romantic.

More evidence that this opposition is fundamental is provided by modern physics. The principle of Indeterminacy, developed by Heisenberg and others, is the basic law of quantum theory. It states that the position and motion of a particle cannot be measured at the same time aaccurately. The opposition of "position" and "motion" is roughly the same as that of form and becoming; especially since "position" also means the ability to observe and know any atomic particle. Bergson at least identifies forms as "successive positions," as we will see. What is most amazing about this principle is that the opposing terms are linked to each other in an exact relationship that remains constant. Bohr called this "the principle of complementarity." Here is independent evidence that the opposition of essence and existence is not only fundamental, but that each of its terms depends on the other and is its reflection and counterpart.23

Whenever an opposition appears to be stubborn and constantly persisting, we have reason to suspect that the two sides are necessary to each other to their own existence. We realize they are two, and yet really one.24 This is a basic principle of Eastern thought; it is the same contention that I am making here in saying that both forms and concrete becoming are true and are found each in the other. Reality acts as its own reflection.

F. Clarification of Terms

One may ask why I have chosen the term "existentialism" to represent the view that the lived world, whose characteristics are that it is concrete and flowing, is more real than the essences of the intellect. I use it because the chief trait of the lived world is that we confront it existentially, in the concrete experience of everyday life. I use it instead of "experiential," "empirical," or "phenomenal" because such terms denote a passive, a posteriori attitude, or even a materialistic one. While empiricism is similar to existentialism, the two are not identical (although Plato would not hesitate to call "the changing world" "empirical"). For existentialists believe that the concrete, flowing world is primary and fundamental; thus, a priori. And existentialism is not a passive philosophy, but an active one. Most of all, receptivity to external ideas outside the self is sggested by the terms "experience" and "empirical," whereas "existential" means the totality of the lived world in which the self, which is active, creative, and self-subsisting, and its experiences are included.

Similarly, the term "essentialism" may be thought confusing, because Plato defines the essences as what "really exists." The term essentialism, however, simply means that essences are what is held to be fundamental reality and a priori.

Existentialism includes not only belief in the priority of "bare existence," described with such words as "concrete," "immediate," and "lived," but also includes the ideas of "becoming," "movement," "flowing," and "fluid." Proponents of existence believe in the central importance of time, the basis of change and opposite of "eternal." In other words, Plato's "changing and perishing world" is their fundamental reality. The "existential" is "the temporal" and is the opposite of Plato's "essential" or "eternal." Heidegger, for example, went so far as to entitle his masterwork Being and Time, and in it he declared that "being is temporality" and that Dasein "always finds itself in history."25

Actually, existentialism is not so much declaring the positive fact that "being is becoming," but more that concepts and essences, themslves fixed and unmoving, do not describe it, whether these concepts be "being" or "becoming" or whatever. To say that existentialists believe "being flows," means they believe it escapes the conceptual net. Plato's description of "the changing" is no different, for he says it never exhibits a form constantly and consistently. Only Plato, unlike the existentialists, says this means the changing is a shadow of the real.

In using the term "existentialism," I do not wish to suggest that the philosophical position it refers to is limited to those philosophers commonly thought of as existentialists; still less to those who entitle themselves such. I could have used another term; however, since it seems to me that the placing of concrete, flowing existence prior to essences is exactly what recognized existentialists as well as others not labelled as such maintain, I might as well use the term. Why use another term since there is already a term in existence for what I am in fact speaking about, and that most people who read philosophy understand?26

Finally, since this paper deals with the conflict of two definitions of "reality," I should clarify what I mean by "reality" in case there is any question. There is doubt, for example, whether this is a proper word to use in translations of Plato.

When I, in this paper, say something is real, I mean that it exists. But I also mean that it is genuine. In other words, something is more real that is just what it seems to be, and is not confused with an image or copy of it. Any image, whether in a mirror or in our minds, is real, since it exists. But if we mistake the image for the original, then it is clear we are not in touch with reality, but are deluded. When, in this paper, I ask what is real, therefore, I am only asking which is the original, and which the image. I believe both Bergson AND Plato speak of being or reality in these terms.

Back to Top of Reflections on Reality and its Reflection (almost)



And now to further analyze the debate over essence and existence I call upon the two chief advocates for each position in the philosophical debate. Plato will represent essentialism, and Bergson will stand for existentialism. I trust that the appropriateness of these choices will be demonstrated by how well what they advocate corresponds to the definitions given above, and how remarkably and completely they are opposed to each other at least on the basic issues. I can find no better contrast between essence and existence.


The metaphysical question is the most basic issue of the debate, and the issue upon which all the others turn. This is the question of what is fundamentally real. On this question Plato and Bergson take opposite stands. Plato believes the forms are more real than becoming, while Bergson believes becoming is more real than the forms.

A. Plato on the Changing

Let us begin by describing Plato's view of becoming, or "the changing."27 First, he says it evades all attempts to categorize it under the forms and concepts of knowledge, such as beauty, justice, light and heavy, and so on. The changing can appear one way, and appear as the opposite at the same time or from another point of view. In other words, the changing is changeable because it can never be described the same way twice. In this sense, it is not fundamental reality. It is never entirely heavy, just, or beautiful.

In Book Five of the Republic, Plato explains this basic characteristic of "the changing" (or "becoming")

    My good sir (Socrates asks), of all these beautiful things, is there one which may not appear ugly? Of all these just things, is there one that may not appear unjust? Or of these holy things, one which may not appear unholy?
    No, answered Glaucon, they must inevitably appear in a certain sense both fair and foul, both just and unjust.
    In the same way, have the things which we describe as great, small, heavy, light, any better claim to these titles than to their opposites?
    No, they will always be equally entitled to either....
    Can you tell then, said I, what to do with them, or where they may be better put than in the interspace between being and non-being? For I presume they will not appear either darker than the non-existent, and so more non-existent, or more luminous than the existent, and therefore more existent.
    You are perfectly right.28

Second, Plato says the changing becomes and perishes. It is not immortal, but is subject to birth and death. It does not stay the same forever, but comes into being and then perishes. An example of Plato's statement on this appears in Book Seven of the Republic, where he speaks of the study of arithmetic and geometry by the future guardians of the state. There he describes the changing world as "the perishing world" and contrasts the study of it to the study of "the real world."29

Third, the changing is visible. It is known through the senses, especially sight. Our senses reveal the qualities of hard and soft, colors and sights and sounds; trees, animals and bodies. Since the same object may appear in many ways as part of the changing world, none of these qualities are always given to the senses in a clear and distinct way, but often in a confused way. When they appear to us confused, reflection is able to sort out the true categories of being, such as hard and soft, one and many.30 Sometimes this visible world is called "the world of appearance."

Fourthly, the changing is multiform. The senses reveal many hard and soft things, but never hard and soft as the one essence. Many just actions, good people, and beautiful things are seen, but the real qualities of justice, goodness, or beauty as unified beings are not to be found in the changing world, which only exhibits a collection of particulars.31

Fifth, and most important: the changing is less real than real existence. It is something less than being, and more than non-being. His notion of Becoming is related to that of time, which in the Timaeus is described as "the moving image of eternity." (Timaeus 37D)32 The changing is considered to be the image and reflection of real existence. In the myth of the cave, Book Seven, he uses the terms "images," "copies," and "shadows" to describe the changing world of many things. For example, he says that the philosopher who returns to the cave "will recognize what each image is, and what is its original, because you will have seen the realities of which beautiful and just and good things are copies."33

B. Plato on the Forms

We will now briefly indicate what, in contrast to the changing, is Plato's view of what "really exists."

In a word, what really exists are the "Forms" or "Ideas." The Forms or Ideas are the essences or real natures of which the concrete things of appearance are the imperfect reflections and images. These essences are known by reason. Forms are permanent and unchanging, and are furthermore unique and singular. Thus, the form of bed, beauty, justice, or hardness never changes, nor can it be confused with another form. We see these traits of the forms explained in Book Six of the Republic:

    In the course of the discussion we have distinctly maintained the existence of a multiplicity of things that are beautiful, and good, and so on.
    True, we have.
    And also the existence of an essential beauty, and an essential good, and so on; reducing all those which before we regarded as manifold, to a single form and a signle entity in each case, and addressing each as an independent being.
    Just so.
    And we assert that the former address themselves to the eye, and not to the pure reason; whereas the forms address themselves to the reason, and not to the eye.

This theory of forms is explained further in Book Five:

    Since beauty is the opposite of deformity, they are two things.
    Of course they are.
    Then since they are two, each of them taken separately is one thing.
    That is also true.
    The same thing may be said likewise of justice and injustice, good and evil, and all general conceptions. Each of them in itself is one thing, but by the intermixture of actions and bodies and with one another, through which they are everywhere made visible, each appears to be many things.
    You are right.35

Here in this passage we see that all forms are separate, even those opposite to each other. Forms are identical with themselves, and only appear to be many things through the agency of action and physical things, which are part of what he means by "the changing."

At the end of Book Five, we find the clearest statement in the Republic that forms are eternal and unchanging. There he says that "those who contemplate things as they are in themselves, and as they exist ever permanent and immutable" can be spoken of "as knowing, not opining."36 This means they are dealing with what really exists; in other words, with the forms, which are eternal and unchanging. 37

Admittedly, the Republic does not contain the clearest of all statements of Plato's theory of forms. This is to be found in the Symposium, in the speech of Diotina, dealing with the form of Beauty:

    He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils)-- a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven, or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the evergrowing and perishing beauties of all other things.38

Let us summarize Plato's position on form and becoming. The forms are real; becoming consists only of mere shadows, copies, and images of the forms. The forms are single, unique, separate, and distinct from one another, and are known only to reason. They are static and unchanging, and appear in the visible realm as confused and vague facsimiles. In this visible mixture of becoming are found many things, which may resemble one or another of the single, eternal forms, and are called after them, but which are not forms, because no visible (and bodily) thing can copy forms exactly. Instead, such visible and changing things are constantly exhibiting many different and conflicting forms; yet never fully exhibiting any of them.

There is a genuine moral and spiritual message to be drawn from Plato's philosophy. It is that our desire for beauty and longing for truth can never be satisfied by the perishable things or the tempting goals of the ever-changing bodily realm; that only something lasting and essential, which we need only rediscover, can satisfy our true needs.

But there are other messages to learn, and other ways of expressing the same message, and if Henri Bergson is right, he not only has such a way, but builds it from an opposite view to Plato's, whose philosophy may in many ways actually take us away from what is true and genuine.

C. Bergson on the Forms

Bergson does not disagree substantially with Plato's description of the nature of forms and the changing. Here we may discern only disagreements in detail. What he disagrees about is WHICH IS REAL, AND WHICH IS THE REFLECTION.

He states his position in no uncertain terms:

    We said there is MORE in a movement than in the successive positions attributed to the moving object, MORE in a becoming than the forms passed through in turn, MORE in evolution of form than the forms assumed one after another. Philosophy can therefore derive terms of the second kind from those of the first, but not the first from the second. But the intellect reverses the order of the two groups, and on this point, ancient philosophy proceeds as the intellect does. It installs itself in the immutable . . . . yet becoming exists . . . How then, having posited immutability alone, shall we make change come forth from it? Not by the addition of anything, for by the hypothesis nothing exists outside positive ideas. It must therefore be by a diminution.39

In other words, forms are not independent realities, of which changing things are copies, but are mere extractions, "copies" if you will, from the movement of change itself. Yet to posit the forms as real existence, becoming must be reduced to a mere shadow of the forms, a "diminution" containing no more than the forms themselves. And is this not what Plato declared in the Republic when he placed becoming in the interspace between being and non-being? Or in the Symposium where he says that the form beauty "without increase" imparts beauty to all beautiful things? According to Bergson, becoming is effectively eliminated by this approach. But it is the reverse that is true, for Plato's categories of light and heavy, fair and foul, etc., are successive positions of the moving reality between them.

"Ancient philosophy," explains Bergson, "expresses the natural tendency of the intellect," which is to resolve the moving into fixed and stationary immobilities. Thus, the "contingent must always be regarded as inferior to the eternal."40

    Whence it followed that action was an enfeebled contemplation, duration a deceptive and shifting image of immobile eternity, the Soul a fall from the Idea. The whole of the philosophy which begins with Plato and culminates in Plotinus is the development of a principle which may be formulated thus: There is more in the immutable than in the moving, and we pass from the stable to the unstable by a mere diminution. Now it is the contrary which is true.41

In another reference to Plato, he gives his own definition of "forms" as a framework of presupposed categories into which everything is fitted:

    Plato was the first to set up the theory that to know the real consists in finding its Idea, that is to say, in forcing it into a pre-existing frame already at our disposal-- as if we implicitly possessed universal knowledge. But this belief is natural to the human intellect, always engaged as it is in determining under what former heading it shall catalogue any new object; and it may be said that, in a certain sense, we are all born Platonists.42

According to Bergson, things are not imperfect and multiple copies of the forms, but the forms are imperfect and multiple copies of the things. Bergson insists that the characteristics of the forms as "separate, simple and everlasting" reveals their true nature as mere concepts framed by our intellect. For concepts are simple and separate from each other, always the same and identical with themselves and isolated from other concepts. And they are static and unchanging; immobile and easier to grasp and take hold of, so that reality can be manipulated in a predictable manner.

Concepts, which Plato believes to be self-subsisting, objective realities called forms, have the very characteristics attributed by Plato himself to the many manifestations of the form which he called their copies. The forms are simple, unique, unchanging within themselves. Now that is just the nature of a copy or picture; it is fixed, unmoving, unmixed with anything else. You cannot even think of two snapshots as interpenetrating each other, or as exhibiting any movement. No wonder Bergson actually calls the forms "snapshots;" a direct contradiction to Plato.43

These snapshots are the reflection of becoming, which essentialists try to make the reflection of the snapshots. They are instantaneous "clicks" of the intellectual mind, which Bergson likens to a camera, calling it "cinematographical."44 It is just their lack of becoming and change, therefore, that makes them what they are. Time does not, in Bergson's words, "bite into them" and cause them to change.45

We see then that Bergson objects to the static, fixed quality of Plato's forms because this quality shows them up as mere concepts or pictures of the true reality, so that becoming must be the true reality instead, of which the forms are the picture. Another of Plato's characterizations of the forms that Bergson disputes is closely related to the previous one: that the unique and self-identical forms represent what is essential among many concrete (or bodily) things which resemble them. In other words, the forms are the essence of the many things in the world of action (Republic 476). They reduce the many into one "independent being." Bergson contends that here lies not only an illusion but "a very serious danger,"46 which lies in their misleading us about the objects we know, giving us only the most impersonal and unessential abstract aspects of them:

    For the concept generalizes at the same time it abstracts. The concept can only symbolize a particular property by making it common to an infinity of things. It therefore always more or less deforms the property by the extension it gives to it . . .47

Thus, uniting objects under a form leaves only their shell; their shadow, as it were. Here we see the argument with the essentialist mentioned before under our definition, who claims knowledge is the general structure or law that accounts for the particulars. We also hear the contemporary cry of people not to be "reduced to a mere statistic" or "a number."

D. Bergson on the Changing

We saw that Plato represented the changing as eluding the characteristics of fair and foul, hot and cold, light and heavy, etc. We saw also that it was multiform, exhibiting a mixture of many particular things of which the forms are the unmixed essence. It also perishes rather than endures, and is visible rather than invisible. Finally, the changing, and its mode of being, time, is "a moving image of eternity;" that is, reflection, not reality. We shall show Bergson's answers point by point and, in doing so, represent his own picture of "the changing" which he calls "duration."

First, Bergson believes the movement between forms such as fair and foul, or hot and cold, is real, while the forms are its reflection. He contends that to explain change by static forms is to say movement is made of immobilities, which is absurd. We saw before that the forms are defined by Bergson as only the "successive positions" of this movement. He gives us many illustrations of this point throughout his works.

For example, says Bergson, when I move my hand, it is a simple act, but it appears to our mind as the curve A-B containing successive positions, instead of the progress of the movement itself.48 Plato saw as reality the general conceptions, such as hard and soft, fair and foul, between which the object passed. Bergson agrees with Plato that the objects known to the senses or intuition (concrete reality) cannot be resolved into the concepts they exhibit, first one and then another. But for Plato the forms are therefore real, while for Bergson this same fact demonstrates they are shadows.

Another illustration runs as follows: By multiplying photographs of an object in two thousand different aspects you will not reproduce the object itself.49 Nor could many colored mosaics imitate an artist's painting produced in a simple, undivided act.50 So a person who has really seen Paris as a whole can make a series of sketches and attach to them the name "Paris." But the observer of the sketches and the name could not gain an intuition of what Paris is really like.51

According to Bergson, these forms and images arise from our tendency to notice the separation between our states of consciousness, instead of their interpenetration.

    I speak of each of my states as if it formed a block . . . I am apt to think that it remains the same . . . Nevertheless, a slight effort of attention would reveal to me that there is no feeling, no idea, no volition which is not undergoing change every moment: if a mental state ceased to vary, its duration would cease to flow.52

Bergson's position, in contrast to Plato, is that all reality is "actions", "flux" or "movement."53 Furthermore, our own consciousness is our best access to this flux, and the "model of which we must represent other realities."54 But the instantaneous cuts (snapshots) the intellect takes, and science uses, make reality out to be a succession of static presents.55 There is then no change and no growth, because there is no time, with its past, present and future. Plato says time is an image; others say it is an illusion of the mind, and that concrete reality is an eternal now (Zen and the Esalen movement, for example). Even Existentialism itself, in upholding the lived and the concrete, is often mistaken for a philosophy of the "here and now." But this is emphatically not Bergson's view. Time is the basic reality of lived, concrete consciousness, because for him life and consciousness occur only in becoming and time. Without time there would be no memory, and thus no continuity of consciousness. The alternative is identical present moments replacing one another, which would result in death or unconsciousness. For Bergson, "whatever lives has a register open somewhere in which time is being inscribed."56 A tree, with its rings, is an obvious example.

As we might think, our awareness of time, which makes us alive for Bergson, requires memory. But Bergson says memory is not the conscious recollection of specific incidents which we store in our brains, as we usually think. It is not primarily the conscious recollection of something. Instead, all of our past is "preserved by itself, automatically." "It follows us at every instant"57 and is involved in everything we do. We may "think with only a small part of our past, but it is with our entire past, including the original bent of our soul, that we desire, will, and act."58 And the fact that the past is always there makes it impossible ever to live it over again.59 Therefore, because what lives has a history, it experiences each moment as new; in fact, as unpredictable. Memory then implies (paradoxically) novelty, because the next moment must be different from the one before, if only because the first moment is now remembered.60

This means our consciousness is always entering the present, which is always new.61 Nothing ever remains the same, because life is constantly joined to its entire past, so that repetition is impossible.62 The intellect, however, seeks to represent the moving by rearranging what is already known, according to its principles "like is like" and "all is given."63 Change is then explained as simply the rearrangement of the unchanging fragments extracted by the mind, and everything which changes is identified as the expression of something static which can be known in advance. But as we saw, our consciousness is fluid, not a series of successive instants, presents, or solids, which remain the same within themselves or which can be foretold in any way.

The temporal, the alive, the real, the changing, and the new are thus bound together in Bergson's characterization of duration, or the changing. Time, therefore, is not the moving image of eternity. Eternity, as the Forms, is the static image of time. In a sense, eternity for Bergson exists as the continual and unceasing creative activity as the changing itself.

Plato also said that the changing is multiform, exhibiting a mixture of many particular things of which the Forms are the unmixed essence. Bergson says the grouping of examples under a form is forcing them into a pre-existing frame already at our disposal. And it is this pre-existing frame, composed of concepts, which make the world appear to be a multiform group of examples. Concepts, not things themselves, make the world appear as "many things." It is not the eye alone, as Plato thought, that causes this false appearance, but the intellect assisted by the eye.64 It is the general concepts, singular and external to one another, which create the idea of "things" such as a bed or just acts. The many things are produced by the categories which divide up the world. Of course, Plato could point out that there are many more things than categories; many beds, but just one form of bed. But this is to be expected since, because reality is really fluid anyway, all things grouped under "bed" are likely to appear different.

Plato also saw the changing as "becoming and perishing." But while Bergson would agree that it becomes, he basically disagrees that it perishes. As we saw, in real time (duration) the past is preserved forever. Therefore it continually accumulates:

    My mental states, as it advances on the road of time, is continually swelling with the duration which it accumulates: it goes on increasing-- rolling upon itself as a snowball in the snow.65

Furthermore, only that which changes endures:

    For an ego which does not change does not endure, and a psychic state which remains the same so long as it is not replaced by the following state does not endure either.66

We see again that, for Bergson, permanance and "eternity" are in the changing. By contrast, the unchanging psychic states, from which the forms arise, are not permanent. It would seem, then, as a moral consequence, that if Bergson is right, we do not develop the eternal and divine in us by concentrating on the Ideas, as Plato suggests. We do so by concentrating on the changing. However, Bergson says this does involve a sort of "reason," as we will discuss toward the end of the epistemological section of the comparison of Plato and Bergson.

In summary, we have seen that Bergson describes duration in terms of flux of consciousness, which only appears as a series of states; and as time, which assures novelty. Bergson agrees with Plato that the flux eludes the forms which it exhibits, but differs in saying flux is real. He also differs in saying this flux only appears multiform when we see it in terms of forms, which are our own concepts. And the eye is the servant of reason, so that the forms are in the realm of the visible, contrary to what Plato said, because reason and sensation together isolate visible, separate objects.67 And finally, eternity is in the changing.

E. Summary of the Debate on Metaphysics

Let us summarize the opposition between essence and existence exhibited in the opposition between Plato and Bergson on form and becoming. Plato believed that the forms were real, because they are the unchanging essences by which everything else is described and known. What is meant by beauty or justice if it is simply many beautiful objects or just acts? These do not exhibit the full nature of the form, for they are always liable to change into their opposite. Bergson, on the other hand, said these forms are only "snapshots" of the changing reality taken by the intellect, born of separate acts of attention. Beauty cannot be resolved into one of these snapshots; it consists in the pure, undivided act which is creating something new that the intellect, with its static, immutable forms could not have conceived.

A play on words illustrates the argument. Bergson thought forms were only instants isolated from the flow of becoming. Plato thought the many sights and sounds were only instances of the eternal, single and unique forms.


The second question in this debate between Plato and Bergson on essence versus existence is the epistemologicalo question. Is reason the best way of approaching reality, or is the best way through a faculty which Plato calls "opinion" and Bergson calls "intuition?"

A. Plato on Reason and Opinion

Plato defines reason as the faculty which knows the forms. Since the forms are real existence, it follows that reason is the way to reality. In Republic, Book Five, "knowledge" is defined as the faculty that knows things in themselves, or the forms-- such as beauty and justice. On the other hand "opinion" is defined as the faculty which acquaints us with many beautiful things and just acts without discerning their essence. It is defined in Book Five (478) as the faculty between intermediate knowledge and ignorance.68 The objects of "opinion" can both be and not be, since they wander between the forms, and are therefore placed "in the interspace between being and non-being" (Republic 479C), or as Bergson said, considered a "mere diminution" of the forms.39 In Plato's view, intelligence or "intellection" knows the real, while opinion knows the changing.69 Thus, since Plato believes forms are prior to the changing, reason which knows the forms is prior to the faculty which knows the changing (becoming), which must therefore be called mere "opinion."

B. Bergson on Intuition and Reason

Bergson, naturally, takes the opposite stand. Since the changing is prior to forms, the faculty that knows the changing must be prior to reason, the faculty that knows the forms. And it cannot be called opinion, but must be entitled "intuition."

Harod Larabee speaks of Bergson as "one of the pioneer figures of the revolt against reason."70 The following remark in Creative Evolution makes this very apparent:

    Our reason, incorrigibly presumptuous, imagines itself possessed, by right or by conquest, innate or acquired, of all the essential elements of the knowledge of truth. Even where it confesses that it does not know the object presented to it, to believes that its ignorance consists only in not knowing which one of its time-honored categories suits the new object. In what drawer, ready to open, shall we put it? In what garment, already cut out, shall we clothe it? Is it this, that, or the other thing?71

On other words, reason falsely believes it knows the absolute, because it has taken hold of reality as though it is likely to remain always the same. It deals "with the old which can be repeated"72 and resolves the real into static categories known in advance:

    . . . the intellect represents becoming as a series of states, each of which is homogeneous with itself and consequently does not change . . . Here again, thinking consists in reconstituting, and, naturally, it is with given elements, and consequently with stable elements, that we reconstitute.73

What does Bergson put in place of reason? Something roughly equal to Plato's opinion. Bergson calls it "intuition." Many philosophers, such as Kant, define intuition as the direct perception of an object, usually through the senses.74 This is exactly what Plato meant by opinion. It is very close to what Bergson means by intuition, too. But Bergson puts a bit more into his view of intuition than Plato puts into his view of opinion. Of course, as we will see, we could also say that Plato put more into the concept of reason than Bergson did.

Bergson defines intuition as "following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things."75 In other words, it is the most direct and intensive perception of a changing object. It is the "intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible."76 "Philosophy," says Bergson, "consists precisely in this, that by an effort of intuition one places oneself within concrete reality . . ."77

The real, the absolute, is the concrete reality that we know directly. Does this make Bergson an empiricist? In a sense, yes; he believes that we must look to the facts of experience.78 But Heidegger has pointed out, in developing his own notion of contact with concrete reality, that direct experience is not always "immediate" because reality (or as he calls it, being) is not easy to know. It is subtle, elusive; and thus requires careful attention.79 So this is a very sensitive type of empiricism. It is "sympathetic" as Bergson says. It aims to "tune in" on reality as we experience it, almost like a telepathic communication; not merely noting the existence of this or that concrete fact (the less-sensitive empirical approach which closely resembles Bergson's incorrigible intellect that identifies everything as "this or that" and always asks what category already in mind it is to fit things observed; which is, in fact, the way "empirical" scientific method usually works, as I see it).

The main thing Bergson adds to Plato's opinion is self-introspection. For Bergson, the more deeply we go into our inner selves, the more truth and reality we discover.80 We saw that essentialists tend to shy away from introspection as too subjective. Although Plato certainly does not shy away from the soul, he discusses its "parts" and reveals its structure,81 rather than directing the reader to tune in on its concrete existential flow. We must emphasize that this self-reflection is the essence of Bergson's intuition (as knowledge is, for most existentialists). It is not primarily sense perception. That is why I have referred to "concrete existence" rather than to "the visible" as Plato usually does. This is precisely because existentialists view the concrete as spiritual, not merely physical and known through the senses alone. For Bergson, intuition could result from observation through the senses, for we see the flow of reality there, too. But the most intimate contact is found through observation of the soul. Reason even plays a part in this intuitive process. It plays a subordinate and illustrative role as the construction of fluid images and the use of science to foster the intuitive vision.82

C. Can Plato's Reason Also Be Entitled "Intuition"?

But this raises a question. Does Plato have a conception of intuition? Is it part of his conception of reason, which would confirm that it is more than a process designed to master matter, and thus merely conceptual and logical, putting together static parts external to each other, as Bergson claims? There are hints that this is so. In the Myth of the Cave, at for example 518E, he repeatedly speaks of the faculty of reason as "seeing" and also speaks of the eye of the whole soul.83 This seems to be a higher kind of vision of a direct and intuitive kind. But this "eye" may be just a metaphor, and we must remember he also speaks of reason as "a strict process of thought,"84 and as "calculation" (Book Ten).85 What "seeing" could mean, is that the forms themselves are not known in the conclusion of an argument, as indeed he states in Book Six (that they are not).86 Instead we apprehend them without knowing exactly how. We go beyond the "mere reasoning process" to use hypotheses as "stepping stones whereby it may force its way up to something that is not hypothetical, and arrive at the first principle of every thing, and seize it in its grasp" (Davies/Vaughn translation)87 (or "rising to that which requires no assumption and is the starting-point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it"-- Shorey). We may not realize exactly what dialectical, logical processes led us to this realization. We could say that this is a more sensitive rationalism, just as we said Bergson's was a more sensitive empiricism. At one point, as suggested above, Bergson seems to describe intuition in much the same say: as a sudden, unreasoned vision of the wholoe that follows the study of many separate facts or ideas.88 But unlike Plato, Bergson does not reach first principloes or eternal laws, which he conceives as mere concepts abstracted from reality. Bergson's intuition is not of principles; it is contact with reality as flux.

It may be that by "seeing" Plato means to actually "see" the essence of the form. But this seems meaningless in the usual sense of "see." To see something, whether it be physical or not, there must be some kind of image seen; a particular perception of, for example, Socrates, or a beautiful object. Otherwise perceiving a form is nothing more than perceiving any concept or logical idea. But Plato said forms are beyond both images and concepts.89

D. Different Visions of the One

There is one way in which Plato and Bergson could be mistaken for being in agreement, a way in which they are in fact not. Both seem to prefer the one to the many, uniting many particulars in a vision of what is real in them. Both speak of penetrating to the essence of things. Could the realization by Bergson that many states are part of one Becoming be the same as Plato's realization that the many similar objects manifest one and the same form? No, because for Plato the essence is an unchanging universal form, different among other forms, which transcend concrete, visible reality. For Bergson, on the other hand, the "essence" is an unobstructed view of the object itself as it is before you, whence you see it is not a thing in space or a concept, but a part of moving reality.90 Unlike Plato, Bergson does not want to go beyond the object, and all the general laws or ideas he may come up with are so many paths to an intuitive vision into which they have melted. His goal is not a general structure, but intimate contact with existing, observable reality itself.

In any case, Bergson would want to "reconcile" in becoming a pair of opposites like fair and foul, or light and heavy.91 Plato would want to see the essence of a series of fair objects, or light objects only. Plato unifies many moving, concrete objects into one unchanging form or concept. Bergson unifies many static concepts or forms into one changing, concrete becoming.

E. The Absolute

There is one point on which they do agree, however. Both do believe in an absolute. Naturally, Plato and Bersgon conceive the absolute in opposite ways and in opposite realms. For Plato it is forms; for Bergson concrete becoming. We saw that Plato thought forms such as beauty were absolute. Bergsons's view of the absolute is direct contact with the changing objects.

    . . . (There are) two profoundly different ways of knowing a thing. The first implies that we move round the object; the second that we enter into it.92

Reason is relative because it depends on the translations and symbols of the observed object, rather than the object itself. But:

    . . . the absolute, which is the object and not its representation, is perfect, by being perfectly what it is.93

To the extent, therefore, that Plato's reason and Bergson's intuition are characterized by knowledge of the absolute, they both have something in common.

F. Comparing Plato and Bergson on Intuition, Reason and Opinion

Let us assume that there is a sort of intuition involved in Plato's reason. We can then size up the comparison between Plato and Bergson epistemologically this way: Plato appears to see "intuition," the knowledge of the real immediately given, in the contemplation or seeing of the true and eternal essences. Bergson sees intuition, and applies this precise term, to the contemplation of the changing. Bergson see true, intuitive grasp of the real operating in what Plato would call merely the "realm of opinion." Plato sees "intuitive seeing" as operating in the realm of what Bergson would call mere "static concepts abstracted from the real." Both see a realm of reality which casts shadows; for each the opposite realm is considered real, which is therefore the one in which their "intuition" operates.


A. The Priority of Soul over Matter

It is incontestable that both philosophers believe thay have shown that soul is prior to matter. We mentioned before that all essentialists and existentialists make the same contention, though they may describe it in different ways.

Plato makes his view crystal clear in the Laws. There he states that the self-generating motions of the soul, such as wish, reflection, and love, explain motion caused externally, such as generation and destruction.94 He proves it to my satisfaction in this quote:

    How could anything whose action is transmitted to it from something else be the first thing to effect an alteration? It's impossible. In reality, when something which has set itself moving effects an alteration in something, and that in turn effects something else, so that motion is transmitted to thousands of things one after another, the entire sequence of their movements must surely spring from some initial principle, which can hardly be anything except that change effected by self-generating motion.95

    . . . the entity which we all call 'soul' is precisely that which is defined by the expression 'self-generating motion.'96

This self-generating motion is equivalent in many ways to Bergson's "original vital impetus" which is also prior to matter. As he explains it in Creative Evolution, this original impetus is prior to matter much as a jet of steam which is "nearly all condensed into little drops which fall back, and this condensation and this fall represent simply the loss of something, an interruption, a deficit."97 God or the soul is "a reality which is making itself," while matter is simply the motion resulting when it begins to fall back and "unmake itself."98 The whole purpose of Creative Evolution is to show that "the vital is in the direction of the voluntary,"99 and that life and matter are the results of an originating impetus instead of external mechanical causes. This is exactly what Plato maintains in the Laws. But Bergson had another purpose in mind, too: to show that life and matter are also not results of a realm of forms given in advance. Which brings us to the question of the two (or actually three) kinds of "order."

B. Two Kinds of Order

One of the implications of the soul's priority over matter for both philosophers is the notion of two difference kinds of order. For Plato, mechanical necessity is opposed to purpose or design which seeks to "persuade" it.100 The first kind of "order," as Bergson calls it, is much the same in his own view, but he claims his second and higher kind, corresponding to Plato's order of purpose and design, is something more. He classifies the Platonic type of higher order as "finality" which has the defect of all intellectual conceptions, in that it seeks to arrange everything into already known categories. Order as the realization of a purpose or carrying out of a plan requires that the future be already given and known. While Bergson's higher order "has something of finality about it," he prefers to define it as something like a work of art or a creative action. For example, a Beethoven symphony is highly ordered, but its production, and its course as we listen, is original and unpredictable.101 I might add, too, it is a constant flow, whereas the forms toward which the soul persuades necessity are not. Essentialists might point out that some creativity, at least, is more like the imitation of the eternal, already-existing forms rather than the creation of new, more-fluid ones. I suspect this may be true at least of classical rather than romantic types of art. Classical art is indeed based on the essentialist point of view or attitude that the principles of true beauty and order have already been given. These two versions of higher order are in fact the results of the two competing ideas of what spirit is, essence and existence, which we will now compare.

C. Recognizing the Two Views of Spirit

It is clear that both philosophers believe in a spiritual order higher than necessary causation. But they disagree about what that higher order is, because they disagree about what is fundamentally real and spiritual. What each is forced to do by his ideas is to identify the soul with his own metaphysical reality and link matter with the corresponding shadowy reality. Each argues, therefore, that matter belongs in the realm the other considers to be real. So Plato identifies spirit with the forms and matter with becoming, while Bergson identifies spirit with becoming and matter with the forms. What is more, they do so without disagreeing substantially on the nature of matter and spirit, just as they substantially agree on the nature of form and becoming!

Plato links the spiritual life with knowledge of forms, while Bergson declares that knowledge of forms is part of the same reversal or interruption of the spirit as matter itself is. Conversely, Plato practically identifies "what becomes and perishes" with matter, while for Bergson becoming and duration are found most clearly in the soul.

If we are able to show that Plato and Bergson argue successfully their opposite views of the place of spirit and matter, and still agree that spirit is primary, it will be clear that the argument over essence and existence cannot be confused with the more obvious and familiar one of spirit versus materialism. It is not necessarily the case, although it is customary to think so, that it is the same argument. Nevertheless, both Plato and Bergson, and the two schools in general, believe it is the same argument and that their opponents are materialists without knowing it; that is, that their professed belief in the soul is inconsistent with their other views. But if both Plato and Bergson escape the charge of materialism, as I believe, then we know the dilemna is greater than either believes, for two views of spirit must be reconciled.

D. Plato on the Soul

We shall begin with the manner in which Plato's soul links up with the Ideas. We will find this somewhat-complex discussion also sheds light on such important aspects of the debate as whether Plato derives all motion from the unmoving, as Bergson claims, and whether his reason is really different from necessity.

We said that Plato believes the spiritual life involves transcending the pollutions of the material. He stated this several times in the Republic, most notably in the Myth of the Cave (Republic 519B) where the soul must be led away from physical pleasures, which he calls "leaden, earth-born weights," in order to become enlightened, which means to know the forms.102 We also know that Plato defines the soul as self-generating motion. By this he also means life.103 Here he is very close to Bergson in asserting that life is an originating principle rather than a result of necessary causes.

This Platonic soul has a higher and lower side. The higher, good side is rational and exercizes self-movement according to reason, bringing order to physical motions, while the lower side is irrational and swayed by these motions, so as to bring chaos.104 The forms are the model the soul looks to in ordering the universe and persuading necessity.105 The type of self-movement that is rational is itself said to be closely akin to the forms. That movement in the Timaeus is called the "circle of the same," motion on one's own axis to use a planetary analogy, which is, like the forms, regular, uniform and unchanging in its relation to other objects.106 So far the rational part of the soul is closely akin to the forms, its model, and true spirituality is to get to know them; but the soul itself cannot yet be identified with forms. If it were, it would be hard to account for movement, either of the soul or anything else, and Bergson would be right that Plato's system allows for no motion or change.

In Francis MacDonald Cornford's view, expressed in his Plato's Cosmology, the soul, or demiurge, is an independent element.107 But I suspect Plato actually characterizes everything as forms and diminution of forms. This may weaken Plato's case, but not destroy it; it means he fits even better into the comparison of two spiritual philosophies sharing a fundamental disagreement. The soul then would be a form itself, or at least much closer to forms than to becoming and bodies. This is in fact what he implies in the Phaedo, where the soul is proved immortal because formal essences like beauty are.108

There is strong evidence that the soul is a form in the Timaeus. There the World Soul is described as being composed of three forms: sameness, existence, and difference. The latter gives the soul an affinity with changing things, although not itself changing.109 The point is clear: the world soul is composed of forms. This applies also to the Gods and to the divine or rational part of human souls.110

If this is true, then forms remain the only really substantial and original element in the universe, except for space, the receptacle in which forms are reflected, which was added in the Timeaus to the original Republic scheme.111 The soul, therefore, cannot be a separate element. In fact, Cornford himself states that the higher, divine souls and the rational portions of human souls are built from the forms. It is only the lower mortal and irrational portions that are built from becoming.112 And the Timeaus also makes clear that becoming is only the result of the forms being reflected in the receptable.113 The lower parts of the soul built from becoming are therefore also mere reflection of forms. Furthermore, even life and consciousness seem in the Timeaus to partake of reflection as well as fundamental reality. At least, this is what Cornford implies when he says: " . . . life and intelligence can't exist without change (Sophist 248). All souls, therefore, must partake also of the lower order of existence in the realm of change and time."114 The most fundamental part of the soul is the unchanging, formal part; not life, which is in motion and change.

Cornford also agrees with Aristotle's remark that "the soul is composed of the same ultimate elements as the things it knows,"115 pointing out that its composition of Sameness, Existence, and Difference is what enables it to know both forms and changing things. In the Republic, the soul's faculties of knowledge are defined by their province (477D); in other words, by what they know.116 What the soul knows are rational forms on the one hand, and their own images on the other. Thus, the rational part of the soul is composed of forms, the irrational part from the images.

The immobile forms are left alone to account for motion, an explanation that Bergson cannot accept or comprehend. The soul cannot explain it, since it is composed of forms and images of forms. But the receptacle cannot explain it either, since it is not originally a source of motion, although the changing reflections cause it to move "like a winnowing basket" which then causes motion in turn.117 The picture of Plato's position remains of change derived from what is eternal and unchanging, as Bergson assumes. This may seem "absurd," as Bergson says, yet there is logic on Plato's side. To be immortal, and the source of integrity and all motion, the soul must in some sense be unmoving (or as Aristotle said, an unmoved mover). At any rate, it is clear there is much evidence that for Plato the soul is a form, or at least closely resembling forms.118

Yet Cornford believes the demiurge, the highest soul in the Timeaus, to be something else than a form, since without it there would be no motion possible119 (thus conceding Bergson's point). But this contradicts his earlier statement that the demiurge is really the World Soul, because he said the World Soul is itself composed of only forms. In addition, it is really Cornford's conclusion, not Plato's, that there would be no motion without a demiurge separate from the forms. But Plato does speak of the soul as following a model, which perhaps implies separation from the model. But we have already seen how closely Plato identifies the soul itself with this "model."

Bergson said Plato's soul is "a fall from the Idea." But for Plato, the highest essence of spirit is itself formal. More precisely, it is only the higher part of the soul that is explicitly identified with essence rather than with its reflections. This more-accurate account also applies to Bergson, who links his higher part of the soul, intuition, with becoming, while the lower, rational part that knows "forms" has an affinity with the static world.120

E. Bergson on the Soul; Comparison to Plato's View

Bergson's view on the realm in which soul is placed has already been indicated. We saw that he spoke of duration as the flow of consciousness, which itself can occur only in time, and that he said we must represent reality, which is flux and change, on the model of our own souls (Selections from Bergson, page 26). Thus, for Plato, the soul is closely linked to the Ideas, while for Bergson it is identified with the changing.121

Bergson's view of the soul as changing may be the more spiritual one, since the soul is placed not only prior to matter but to Ideas as well, first in his hierarchy of being. Plato must identify the soul with idea, perhaps because he knows he would have to be an existentialist otherwise; becoming and change would emerge triumphant, since these exist in the soul. Existentialism, as we saw in Rollo May, exalts the concrete living being above all. But perhaps Plato's view is the more spiritual one, if this means to submit oneself to a higher order or divine plan which each soul must follow to fulfill its purpose and be truly itself.122 Which is more spiritual depends on the question of which is the true higher order, which we discussed before: creative action versus finality and design.

But if to be spiritual is to submit to a rational plan, and to move in a strictly regular, uniform say, the spirit's freedom is limited to choosing necessity instead of having it imposed. We will see that Bergson questions whether form and necessity are really different. If not, then to be spiritual in Plato's view amounts to nothing but submitting to the necessary mechanical process-- surrender to matter. In Plato's defense we might argue that "the recognition of necessity" is often considered spiritual and leads to gains in consciousness. Plato would say that recognizing the soul's higher purpose is to know the forms. Bergson has nevertheless resolved all of reality into life and consciousness (and its interruption). In upholding life and vitality, Bergson is asserting that the soul must be freed from such a structure of forms to be fully creative. We can at least understand the need of creative people to throw off old, restrictive forms now and then. It sounds to essentialists that Bergson is advocating disorder and rebellion, but is he wrong as far as what is real is concerned? Unless forms are real, which we will shortly determine, there seems no reason why freedom rather than design should not be the ultimate spiritual value.123

Actually, existentialists "recognize necessity" too in their own way when they return to the concretely real from the cerebral fantasy world. The reality to be recognized is just the opposite. But both do help us return from a soul-less disorder back to a higher kind of freedom, and we will see in Section Three that this is one route to reconciliation.124

We have seen the place of the soul in both views, and the soul's priority to matter. Now we must consider how Bergson and Plato each define matter and thereby attribute it to the opposite realm which each considers shadowy. In other words, we will see how each manages to label the other a materialist (perhaps an antinomy of sorts, Kantian-style)

F. Plato's View of Matter

In the Republic, we get Plato's position on matter's location. He places it in the realm of the changing. At 521E, for example, he says gymnastic is not the study philosophers seek, because it deals with "the changing and perishing, for it presides over the growth and decay of the body."125 In other words, the physical body is part of the realm of the changing and perishing. In the Timaeus the location of matter is made much plainer. There the physical world is described as composed of the elements fire, earth, air and water which are always changing and can never be described as fire or air only. The elements of the physical world are not stable and never exhibit distinct qualities.126 In addition, since that which "comes to be" is visible and changeable, its existence requires fire and earth, the physical elements. In fact, the Timaeus specifically describes the changing as "that which becomes in bodies."127

The nature of matter itself for Plato we can surmise from the foregoing, since we know it has the qualities of its proper realm: the changing. It is in flux; visible, perishable, separable into things. The Timeaus spells out its manner of being, and its basic dependency. There it is described as forms reflected in the receptacle, which, as we saw, appears to move. The soul, we saw, took part of its "life and intelligence" from these reflections. They are the material world itself. The elements fire, earth, air and water are based on mathematical forms;128 the material world itself appears in these elements when the receptacle receives them.129 The receptacle is "space," yet described as like "a plastic material."130 It has no qualities of its own, so as to receive the forms without distortion, and is everlasting.131 Matter is thus not a definite substance, nor an independent reality in itself.132 It is forms reflected in a mirror as fleeting images. "Images" and "shadows" indeed are how the visible world is described in the Myth of the Cave; the visible world which is compared to statues of men and animals (in other words, the good old physical world).133 Note also Book VI, where the objects of the visible world are described as animals, nature, and the whole realm of art all around us.134

G. Bergson's View of Matter

Bergson conceives matter in much the same way Plato does. It is an undivided flux;135 visible, perishable, and separable into things. As we have seen, it is a fall from the vitality and creativity of the spirit; a movement in the opposite direction. It has these qualities because it lacks those of the spirit.

But instead of belonging to the changing realm, it belongs to the forms. For Bergson, intellect and its concepts (forms) arise by the same process as that which created matter.136 In fact, they arose mutually and at the same time. This is because, although matter is an undivided flux, it tends toward greater stability and extension than spirit. It is that aspect of the fluid, mobile world which has lost its spirit and vitality, and no longer takes hold and possession of itself. It is an interruption of the creative spirit; it is the relaxation of the inextensive into the extensive. It could be described as the expression of laziness and sloth and the direction in which they lead.137 There is a resemblance here to the "leaden weight" that pulls us down from true reality in Plato's Myth of the Cave. For both Plato and Bergson also, matter is what perishes, but for Bergson it perishes because it does not change, btu remains stable (exactly opposite reason).

By virtue of this sloth, stability and tendency towards being extended, matter is rendered spatial and much easier to conceive as broken up into things, states, and static fragments. In reality, there are no things, but only actions.138 and all things interpenetrate. But spirit, which makes itself "by a twisting of the will on itself,"139 interpenetrates more intensely, while matter tends toward a condition of being spread out as if its parts were external to one another. The intellect then takes off from this process and goes the rest of the way.140 It then sees the world in terms of states and solids, external to one another, which it represents as concepts. This, then, is how the "intelligible world" of Plato arises:

    Concepts, in fact, are outside each other, like objects in space; and they have the same stability as such objects, on which they have been modelled. Taken together, they constitute an 'intelligible world.'141

The nature of matter is mutual externality, according to Bergson. This we know as the principle that no two bodies can occupy the same space. Matter is extended; perhaps we could say it IS extension. It is static, it is slothful, and although in motion it can generate none itself.

Many of these traits are also true of the forms, just as Bergson maintains. Forms and Ideas are static and mutually external to each other. They are also immobile and stable, like matter, but even more so than matter. Bergson would list the three categories we mentioned before as follows in terms of their mobility: soul as most mobile, real and alive; matter next, and idea close behind in third.

There is truth in both Bergson's and Plato's views of matter's location. Forms are not usually identified with matter in Western thought, as Bergson proposes. Yet it is said that Democritus derived his theory of atoms from the Pythagorean theory of numbers as the basis of all things.142 One can see how; they are both separate and stable entities. On the other hand, forms cannot be exactly the same as matter, because forms are not in space. Moreover, we cannot deny that matter, unlike the forms, does indeed change, and also is perishable to the extent that the things of which it is composed perish. In these ways Plato is certainly correct. But beyond that, Bergson's view that forms are basically material is a very formidable one that also deserves serious consideration.143

H. Things in Space

By the way, both philosophers agree that the notion of "things in space" is a shadowy one. We see that, in spite of Bergson's references to preferring "things" to "concepts" as sources of truth, he believes that "there are no things. There are only actions" (Creative Evolution, p. 248), and an interpenetrating flux; and the realm of solid and stable things externally related to one another is created by the mind on the model of matter, but has no objective reality. It is a reflection created by "reflection," as we often call thinking (and as even Plato called it in Book Seven).

Plato believes things in space are imperfect examples of the forms. Bergson, however, would say that forms do not escape the character of things in space just because they are one with themselves and not actually in space, for they are still separate from each other and stable like material things. For both philosophers, however, it is their location in space, or as Diotina says in the Symposium, their place, which shows the relativity of "the many things" rather than fundamental reality.

I. The Receptacle: Space

For both philosophers, as we have seen, matter as Democritus and Newton conceived it, as solid isolated bits, does not really exist. Instead, what exists, at least metaphorically, is "space." This is what Plato called "the Receptacle."144

Bergson describes matter as the tendency, and only the tendency, to become "unrolled in space." It exhibits spatial characteristics.145 Plato agrees, when he describes matter as reflections in a Receptacle which he calls "space."146 We see that they agree that not only does matter belong to the realm of shadows and that "things in space" are illusions, but that matter is associated with space. Matter is for both men a reflection in space of what is fundamentally real. What they disagree about is which is material; forms or concrete, changing existence.

We may summarize the mutual views of spirit and matter of the two philosophers this way: Bergson sees spirit as changing, while matter is more static than spirit; Plato sees spirit as static, or at least aiming toward a static condition or ideal, while matter is more changeable than spirit. Each has given cogent arguments that spirit and matter belong to opposite realms. This is enough, I believe, to show that the real subject of debate is essence versus existence, not spirit versus matter.

J. Diagram and Explanation

Each philosopher is illustrated on a graph with the axis running up and down, representing the gradations of reality and reflection, and an axis running across, representing the three areas of comparison: metaphysics, cosmology, and epistemology. The arrows between the items represent the direction of action between them.


The diagram illustrates the following characteristics of each philosophy:


THE FORM OF THE GOOD illuminates the other Forms.
FORMS are reflected as CONCRETE BECOMING further down the scale of reality.
FORMS are reflected in SPACE, the Receptacle.
CONCRETE BECOMING is the result of these reflections, which are MATTER.
CONCRETE BECOMING is combined with FORMS to make the SOUL.
SOUL in turn looks to FORMS as its model in ordering the world.
WORLD SOUL is the greatest among many SOULS.
SOULS have faculties of REASON and OPINION.
REASON includes a higher faculty of INTUITION.
OPINION is arrived at through the use of the SENSES.
GOD (or The Good) may be the source of the WORLD SOUL and all motion.
GOD looks to the FORMS as its model.
GOD and all SOULS are prior to MATTER.


CONCRETE BECOMING is reflected as FORMS down the reality scale.
CONCRETE BECOMING is unrolled in SPACE as it loses reality.
CONCRETE BECOMING is creative activity, or GOD, which is the one WORLD SOUL.
WORLD SOUL falls back as the opposite tendency of MATTER.
MATTER is the externalized or spatial aspect of CONCRETE BECOMING
WORLD SOUL is divided into SOULS through its activities in MATTER.
GOD and all SOULS are prior to MATTER, but obtain something from MATTER.
SOULS have faculties of INTUITION and REASON.
INTUITION knows CONCRETE BECOMING by entering it directly.
REASON knows the FORMS as concepts abstracted from CONCRETE BECOMING.
INTUITION is the greater part of the mind that illuminates all life.
REASON and SENSES together isolate CONCRETE BECOMING as objects.
REASON and MATTER are parts of the same process of externalization in SPACE.

Back to Top of Reflections on Reality and its Reflection (almost)



OR: which is prior: essence, or existence?

Plato and Bergson have now been shown to be opposites, representing two opposite views of reality, the essentialist and the existentialist. If the ancient wisdom and contemporary scientific theory that opposites are mutually-dependent is correct, this means that these two views are mutually dependent and thus both true. They are two realities, neither of which can be conceived to exist without the other. There is no motion without rest, and no forms without the moving flux that shifts between them; and vice-versa.147


But it is still necessary to attempt to evaluate each philosophy, for it may turn out that one is right and one is wrong, in which case we would not have a pair of opposing but mutually-dependent realities, but merely truth opposing illusion.

I will begin this final section by pitting Plato and Bergson against each other to see which one has the stronger argument. Afterward I will concentrate on my own investigations into the issue. In Part Two of this section, I will focus on the forms, because to me the question of their existence is the more intriguing and fruitful one. But it will be impossible in any case to separate the question whether forms exist from that of whether existential becoming does.

Let us begin with the main argument against Bergson's position.

A. Argument Against Bergson

It says that Bergson's view of reality is too vague. We saw in defining essentialism that there seems to be distinction and variety in the world. Specifically, the world appears to exhibit a variety of distinct forms, such as circles and squares, red and blue, tables and beds, rainbows and sunsets, light and heavy, up and down, good and bad, justice and beauty. To the common sense eye there is no doubt that some of these forms exist. It is only when philosophers like Bergson analyze them that they may find they cannot be pin-pointed or measured exactly, or declare them to be just words. For to say there are no perfect circles or colors is not to say there are no circles or colors, even if fluid and imperfect ones.

Bergson does not account for the variation and distinction in the things we know, except to say they are abstractions from the fluid, mobile reality. This is a vague explanation that does not really explain. Probably we cannot expect intuition, whose function is to unite and enter into things rather than distinguish them, to give us such an account. Nevertheless a better account seems necessary. Bergson pretty much leaves the explanation of the various qualities of things to the materialists, and offers no alternative. Indeed the forms, Plato's explanation, are seen as part of the same process as matter. We are left with Plato's forms as the only "real" alternative that might explain the specific qualities of the things we know.

Plato's most powerful argument makes a similar point. His main challenge to his opponents is to explain how goodness or beauty or beds can exist if reality is only the things that are always changing and thus liable to become something else. The qualities of good or bed or red do not really exist if their forms do not exist, and if change and flux is their only explanation.148

B. Argument Against Plato

The Bergsonian reply is that the forms do not really explain anything either. He looks to concrete reality and finds it to be fluid and mobile. He challenges the essentialists to find an essence of anything anywhere. It is not in our minds, because there is no idea or any conscious state that is not always changing. The forms are just labels we put on things so we can manipulate them. With them we try to see things as stable qualities, and yet however many such stable views we take, we can never represent the moving and changing reality. It is thus useless to understand it with vacuous and clumsy concepts and generalizations, which are only the empty shell of the particulars uniting what they have in common. It is reason which is unable to give us true knowledge; intuition grasps living reality easily, while reason struggles in vain to reproduce it by piecing together its dead remains. We can see how closely tied the epistemological and metaphysical aspects of the debate are. What we see depends on which lens we use.149

It is clear that it is impossible to resolve the debate by bringing the arguments used by Plato and Bergson into direct confrontation. All that does, as I have said, is to show that each looks at the same reality from the opposite side. If you take concrete reality as your starting point, you get one set of answers; if you take forms you get another. So what I will do is offer some of my own ideas on the question to see if they offer a key leading inside this tightly-closed system. I will start by continuing in the Bergsonian vein, stating the reasons for my own original rejection of the whole notion of forms and rationality.

C. Are Forms Real?

It has been my first insight that in nature and the world of concrete experience, no two things can be equal (unless we mean by experience the experience of reasoning), and I am still aware of this fact. This is what Rollo May's statement eariler alluded to. It can be asserted as true that 2 + 2 = 4, but it is not therefore real. It makes no difference whether the two are unicorns or apples. The concrete existence of the individual is ignored. It not only is left out. It must be. No apple is exactly like another apples; neither is any person the same as another. In Bergson's terms, the fluidity of the concretely real cannot be enclosed in abstract concepts which remain forever the same. Consequently, it cannot be divided into units, whether units of "apple" or anything else. There is no essential "apple" to be found in the concretely real, since nowhere is there a standard apple from which to judge. Everything interpenetrates, and the concepot "apple" must be only a generalization from particulars; a generalization which gathers together what in their nature the particulars are presumed to have in common. Nothing can be divided from anything else and declared a "unit" upon which to base reason. For you can never exactly locate the boundary between the units, or between the forms. Since small is infinitely small, the effort to define the boundary must go on infinitely. There are no distinctions between things; and yet even the concept of "unity" comes no closer than any other concept to encompassing the fluid motion and becoming of the concretely real.

But, as a matter of fact, Plato and his followers would agree with just about everything said above. True, there are no forms in the concrete, fluid world. But that does not mean they do not exist. Plato maintained all along that the changing world is a copy. Perhaps if it does not exhibit the forms exactly, this is proof that the concrete world is less real than the forms!

We have now shown a bit more vividly the same dilemna we just mentioned. So far my early speculations have shown nothing more than what you see as real depends on your starting point, forms or the concrete, and the same facts demonstrate the opposite thesis depending on your taste.

This could be a sort of philosophical Uncertainty Principle. What is real is affected by the method we use to determine it. Moreover, if the forms are upheld, the concrete is denied, and vice-versa. The more we emphasize one, the less aware we are of the other.

In a sense, however, we have already proved the contention we set forth at the beginning of this section that is my main thesis. Both of these philosophers can now be considered true, if indeed both of these arguments for each side are valid, since the two points of view are opposites.

D. A Dialectical Method

But I could not be satisfied with this simple resolution. It did not seem right that the truth should be a matter of personal choice on how to interpret the same data.

So in more recent speculations I tried a more rigorous method of investigation resembling Plato's dialectic. Let us see what this very abstract approach to the question can do for us.

In this dialectic I took a specific form, the line, as an example. Do lines exist? The existentialist says no, because you cannot divide the line from everything that is not the line. The essentialist replies that since the line is not presumed to exist in nature or the experienced world, it does not border on any particular object. It is a simple, whole, and complete line, without any dimension or location. In addition, it is circular to argue that there are no divisions to divide it from what it is not. Since divisions are formed by lines, that is only to say there are no lines because there are no lines.

But the existentialist might reply that the essentialist is reasoning circularly, too, since he believes the form Line exists because it is a form, and thus has the properties of the forms; having no dimension or location; whole, complete and separate.

E. An Empirical Method

The dialectic leads us in circles, taking us right back where we were again. The two points of view remain locked in their own worlds. I said that my thesis was that essence and existence, and Plato and Bergson, are opposites that are both true. But I wanted to show more than that they are each self-justifying philosophies; I wanted to see whether one or both of them were correct. To do this I have tried a method opposite to dialectic, an empirical method that searches for evidence of forms in the concrete. It is not quite Bergson's empiricism, though, since I must do more than merely observe a form intuitively; I must use my reason to discern it. Perhaps this is what Plato meant by "seeing." Since pure reasoning does not work, this is the only alternative. A form does not exist because it is a form; it must be verified AS a form by something ELSE that exists, namely concrete becoming.150

I think I can do this in this way. If the appearance of a form is not unique in the concrete becoming world, that form exists, because it repeats itself as more or less the same in spite of the fluidity of the world of change. In other words, there must be forms if they exist in something we know to be concretely real. In a sense we are saying, in reply to the first existentialist argument above, that forms can indeed be found in concrete experience.

To prove forms to exist, however, we must do more than show them to be exhibited concretely, because a form need not be concrete at all. It is most itself, in fact, beyond the concrete. But we must also do more than show they have mathematical proportions or other formal characteristics, because then we are using the very forms we are seeking to demonstrate to demonstrate them. To be genuine, a form must both have the properties of forms and yet be exhibited in concrete experience.

But the most genuine form would also be one that cannot be explained in any other way except by what Aristotle called the "formal cause;" not by physical causes, for example.

Our dialectic did not show us whether the concrete could be demonstrated by dialectic, since it concerned only forms. But we know that if forms exist, they must by definition be prior to the concrete, which then becomes its reflection. The intuition which reveals to us the concrete becomes mere opinion. Conversely, where forms are shown not to exist, then it is they which are reflections of the concrete, existential world, which is then known to us by genuine intuition. If, as I suspect is true in some cases, both forms and becoming are each found in the other, then both will be equally real and existing.


So let us look at some of Plato's forms to see which ones are most likely to exist.

A. Forms as Human Utensils and the Human Body

Some of the forms mentioned by Plato, such as bed and table, could not be forms of themselves, I surmise, because they are merely human utensils. They are created by us for a particular use. These forms are derived from the human form; the shape of the human body and its needs, such as to sit down, to eat, etc. The question then becomes whether the human form is a Form of itself, or whether it was an adaptation to the conditions of earth, just as the utensils were adaptations to the human form. Bergson argues for the latter in Creative Evolution.151 I would like to agree with him and say the human form was not pre-figured in advance, but could have come out differently. However, if current reports of extraterrestrial beings are correct, most of them are shaped similarly to ourselves. In that case, perhaps the human form is a Platonic Form; an example of the truth, thereby proved, that Forms do indeed exist. But these space beings would have to have evolved separately, and could not be the offspring of one original race which migrated to the other planets.

B. Forms of the Soul

The qualities and virtues of the soul were also called forms by Plato. By this he meant not only that they were potentials of the soul, but that they had an independent existence as eternal values toward which the soul strives. These forms include The Good (the highest Form), Beauty, Truth, Justice, and so on. I will take one of these forms, Beauty, and see what I can find there.

I find it difficult to conceive of an abstract beauty outside the soul and its strivings, or beyond the beauty of the beautiful objects themselves. Can we know a wondrous nature of beauty without any beautiful perceptions encompassed therein? Such a form of Beauty could certainly not be a definition or law distilled from examples. It would then be less real than the particular beauties. If genuine, the form Beauty would instead have to be grasped, not by defining it, but by "seeing" it in a flash, the way Plato suggested. But can you see something that is not an image, but merely a universal abstract essence? Isn't it instead merely a concept or law that gathers many examples under one term? Beauty as a concept becomes a symbol rather than the things themselves and, with Husserl and Bergson, I prefer to return "to the things themselves."

There seems, however, that when I examine my own experiences of beauty, that there is a definite direction in which beauty lies. This is a sort of phenomenological question which I invite the reader to ask. But for me, this direction cannot be defined and delimited, or even consciously experienced. Beauty is in the movement toward the direction itself, as Bergson would say. Plato would agree that we must at least approach beauty by concrete examples. But it is an ideal limit never reached, not a wondrous nature perceived. The direction in which beauty lies is probably the same direction toward which the soul may aim in discovering itself and its own potentials. It is part of the becoming of consciousness. Bergson appears to be right when he says that, when we know something beautiful, something partaking of "the higher order" mentioned before, it is the human mind "finding itself again in things."152

C. Forms as Creativity

Another way forms could exist is in the human mind. Just because some of the forms do not exist in nature or our souls may not mean they do not exist at all. Just because they were created by humans does not mean they are unreal. Forms can be created, since we can come up with a new category or formulation. Maybe form is creativity. And perhaps beds and chairs were not inevitable results of the way our human form is shaped; in the same way, they were invented. We discerned a new way of organizing our experience; a new way of being. We invented sitting before we invented the chair.

But a new formulation is just a generalization from particulars, even though a new one. They are thus mere reflections. If they exist in the mind as created, they are not an a priori structure, as Plato said forms must be. If form is creativity, then the existentialist carries the day (although not by a shutout margin, since reasoning is still considered valuable and creative), because creativity is the existential concept of order. What is man-made cannot be a form, because it is not constant and eternal and can be changed. If forms issue from the mind, they are a part of the soul's own energy and direction, as we said the form Beauty was. In any case, the soul is then prior to the idea, as Bergson contends.

So far, the human body has been mentioned as a possible form independent of becoming, and human utensils are outcomes of the humanbody. The virtues of the soul, however, seem to be mere directions or ideals never experienced, except as the soul recognizing itself. And forms created by the human mind are dependent on it and so are not eternal and therefore not forms.

D. Forms as Colors and Sounds

One sort of form seems to be more definitely real to me than those so far examined. It is very mysterious, yet very apparent to all of us. The form is revealed by the visible world.

It seems, by the way, that the more concrete forms are easiest for me now to conceive as real, just as Plato thought that the released prisoner from the cave could see shadows and reflections outside before he could see the more essential and higher things, his eyes having been accustomed to darkness (Republic 516). These may, however, turn out to be the only kind of forms that are real.

There seems to be absolute qualities in the experience of the senses; specifically colors and tones. There is an absolute red, it seems; and an absolute C major. The strangest thing about both of them is: why they move in a circle in relation to one another. Why do musical notes arrange themselves so that they repeat themselves over and over again at higher and lower pitches (octaves)? Why is there a color wheel?

This question may be irrelevant, if colors are merely be decided subjectively by each observer. Do we decide which shade of red is absolute? I do not think this will do. Red is the same for all of us. And how can you explain away the fact that secondary colors orange, green and purple are only produced by the combination of just the right shade of the primary colors red, blue and yellow? If red were not a form, there would be no primary and secondary colors. The various shades of red are just a falling off from the exact red, which we never actually see. Have we arbitrarily chosen the position of red from the color wheel? Here again, this seems impossible if the colors move in fixed and pre-determined relationships among each other such as primary and secondary colors.

Pythagoras showed that musical tones also reveal proportional relationships. G major must appear in a certain mathematical relation to C in order to be what it is. But one could object that music is really man-made-- that before man there were no distinct sounds in nature, but only noises. Unless a sound is a distinct tone, it cannot be located on the scale and thus be a form, and there can be no octaves. But it is not true that man is the only creature that makes distinct sounds, although he may be the only one that makes music. And one can discern sounds in nature if one listens closely enough. But there it is harder to do; natural sounds at higher or lower pitches are not very distinct and become more like sounds of merely higher or lower volume. Linearity rather than circularity then becomes the characteristic of sound at the natural level; it becomes a constant continuum with an absolute soft (no sound at all) but no absolute loud. We can see that there is a similar linear aspect that applies to colors. Here black and white and the shades of gray are in a linear relationship, except that both the higher and lower side of the line ends in an absolute. When colors are not distinct, they become related by the sheer amount of color, and volume (or as artists call it, value) is related to the line rather than the circle. Interestingly, light seems able to combine as one at the highest volume (white), while sounds cannot combine but only become louder in this linear relationship.

In the case of colors, the scientist might point out to me that the primary and secondary colors are results of chemical reactions in the pigments, not the qualities of the colors themselves.153 Here we begin to see what happens because the existentialists like Bergson do not supply any alternative to explaining the qualities of things besides Plato's "invalid" forms and material causation. For the purposes of this paper, if material causes serve to explain a form, it is shown that it is not a form at all, since materialism has been rejected and disproved by both Plato and Bergson.

But the scientist who points this out must be prepared to explain why all different kinds of pigment (water colors, acrylic, oil, etc.) all produce the same chemical reactions so that red and blue make green. Science also claims that there are different color wheels for light and our sense reactions to it than that for pigment. This just puts colors in the same status as music, where the octave could be composed of any number of notes. The form of the circle still appears. what's more, red remains a primary color in all systems. And it is always found next door to orange, which is next door to yellow, and so on. The order is constant. So there is still much evidence for colors as forms. It appears to be the quality itself that explains things here, not the fluid becoming or material cause. The fixed and empty "concept" seems to account for the fluid reality.

But nothing Plato or anyone can say can erase the fact that colors are a sensuous experience, not a mathematical one. In this sense, they are preeminently part of the world of becoming. For it is clear that "red" is not a mere mathematical proportion. It is a definite sensed quality, not an abstraction. This makes it even more mysterious. There seem to be qualitative and quantitative forms; the former being easier to establish as real; that is, as more than a mere dividing up of the real into units arbitrarily, or a law that is less real than the particular examples from which it is drawn. We also notice that beauty is often expressed in terms of sound and color. The "absolute beauty" could lie in the direction of proportion qualitatively experienced in sound and color; though again, it is only a direction and ideal limit.

E. Forms as Weights

Light and heavy were another of the forms mentioned by Plato. Here, however, we observe no repeating circular pattern. It is impossible, moreover, to conceive the absolutely heavy object. We can conceive, however, that a being always experiences heavy and light in much the same way. Stationed at any point along the scale infinitely long of heavy to light, this being would experience light and heavy in relation to himself in much the same way as would a being on a much lighter or heavier portion of the continuum. There seems, then, to be a constant continuum. Heavy and light, moreover, like colors and sounds, are sensory; they are qualitative relationships that we feel directly; thus answering Bergson's definition of intuition, as well as Plato's conception of forms that over-reach particular objects. We can theorize that the same is true of colors; perhaps if the infrared or X-ray section of the spectrum of visible light were visible to us, it would also appear in the colors in which the section we do see appear. Thus forms seem to be constant relationships; and those that are felt rather than thought.

Heavy and light, then, are related to the line, since they are on a constant continuum without any circular pattern, and we can only discern their amount. In that sense, although we can feel them, they are quantitative Forms. They are like loud and soft sounds, and black and white colors.

We seem indeed to be moving in the opposite direction to Plato's prisoner in the cave; toward the sensory, and locating the highest Form in visible light; and yet we seem to be making the same discoveries.

F. Forms as Geometrical Forms

But now we must double back. For mathematical forms were indeed found in the concrete experience of colors and sounds, and even weights, and this helped demonstrate they were forms. We must examine the mathematical forms which, like the qualities of the soul, were defined as among the highest parts of the "upper world" outside the cave by Plato.

Let us begin with the geometrical forms. It is clear that most of them were created by man. If we look for them in nature, including our own souls as flow of consciousness, few indeed do we find. Our concrete souls (in other words, the flux Bergson describes) certainly do not exhibit these forms; only objects outside us do. But even here, they are mostly confined to man-made objects. They seem to issue from the human rational faculties only. These forms include the square, triangle, circle, and so on.

Yet there is at least one exception, and that on the largest scale we know: the planets and stars. There is no doubt that here the globe and circle appear over and over again, in their shapes and in their movements. One can say that the sun or earth are not perfect circles or globes. Yet globes are not unique. We cannot doubt that all celestial bodies approximate this single Form. It is significant that Plato believes the planets to be the closest thing in the phenomenal world to the intelligible.154

There is also another form that is apparent in the concrete world, and that in realms nearer to us. This is the line, our old friend from the dialectical exercise. We may say of a backbone or a tree trunk that it is linear. Here the divergence from perfection is a bit greater than in the case of the globe. But it is the second most apparent form, and it is manifest not only in sensory qualities, as we saw before, but in living forms, just as the circle is manifest both in sensory qualities and in the shapes and movements of the planets and stars.

Elsewhere, as Alan Watts says, nature "is thoroughly wiggly."155 We do not experience most mathematical forms as we do colors. We can come very close to experiencing a "copy" in nature of absolute red. But squares we never find.

One can mention that snowflakes exhibit mathematical, geometrical forms, and this is true; but they show form, not Forms, for each one is unique. They are composites of the basic forms of circle and line. We might also say this is true of squares and triangles. They are combinations of the line and angular relationships. But this does not make them forms of themselves, any more than being composite makes snowflakes or anything else a genuine copy of a form, for forms are simple and fundamental.

G. Forms as Mathematical Laws of Nature

We said that the essentialist says that our ability to comprehend nature is a measure of our freedom. Glenn Morrow suggests that another way in which Forms are exhibited in nature is in its obedience to natural law. For example, he says, living things follow a logarithmic pattern in their growth.156 But this idea is open to Bergson's criticism that mathematical laws are an expression and derivation of the dead and mechanical tendency.157

Although Plato did not know the mathematical laws of nature, the concept was part of his idea of necessity, in which natural things act predictably and in only one way according to their nature.158 In Plato's time it was not fully realized that the process could be represented mathematically. Yet we know that mathematical laws may be found in nature's workings, as Morrow shows. But this cannot be what Plato means by the forms. Plato, like Bergson, spoke of this realm of blind, mechanical necessity to which these laws apply. But this realm for Plato contrasted to the forms, which were used as a model by the soul in persuading necessity towards a true and genuine order.

The question then becomes, however, that if Plato's forms are mathematical forms, whether there really is a difference between Plato's two orders of necessity and design. If necessity is law based also on mathematics, then there is no difference. What does Plato offer in contrast to necessity? Regular motion of the planets, sameness, and uniformity. One wonders what the difference is. If Plato's design is different from necessity because it is imposed by a soul that knows mathematical forms, why do we need a soul to impose mathematics on mathematics? Perhaps Bergson is right after all in saying that such mathematical laws of the intellect are of the same nature as matter and were produced in the same way. Just as mathematical forms and laws reveal themselves in nature to the extent nature behaves mechanically, so then the one, or perhaps one of two, mathematical forms we see most clearly exhibited in nature, the circle or globe, shows itself only in the most regular, dead, and mechanical realm of nature, which Bergson, in stark contrast to Plato, believes to be the planetary motions.159

Indeed, I suspect that most of the things of nature, all of which Plato said derived their nature from forms, are indeed examples of forms being nothing more than natural laws. This would apply, for example, to the "trivial and undignified forms" like mud and dirt.160 It is not mudness that makes mud what it is, but the combination of dirt and water, and water is what it is by virtue of the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, and so on. Rollo May seems right here in suggesting that Plato's essences were the foundation of the formulas that traditional science uses to explain things today in terms of natural laws. Forms are scientific formulas.161

At this point one might object that colors too can be explained in terms of natural law. This is what is maintained, for example, when one explains colors as caused by the senses or pigments or light waves striking the eye. One may say it is not redness that makes red what it is, but the particular wavelength of the light that strikes the eye. However, this has only transferred the Forms to an earlier part of the same process. The "cause" of the color being red is still formal. Natural and necessary causation can explain that the color is there, but not what color is there. The quality of red is the cause of its being red, not the fact that a wave of light was necessary to communicate it to my eyes. The necessary movement of the wave exhibits mathematical forms, but the fact that one or another of the waves is red and another blue lies outside the process of causation.

If this argument holds, then colors, sounds, and weights and the geometric forms they demonstrate, the circle and line, can still be regarded as genuine Forms. But we must also notice that living things displayed the line too, and if Bergson and Plato are right that life is more than material necessity, then in this case the form is not a mere natural law either. In fact, the Line becomes even clearer as life forms become more advanced. Redwood trees have the longest and straightest trunks, and the highest mammals have the clearest backbones. In fact, Plato points out in Timaeus that the human being, the most advanced of living things on Earth, displays another Form, too. The head is shaped like a sphere, the same way the planets are. Plato says this is because it is the seat of reason, which is supposed to strive to imitate the regular motions of the planets.162 Of course Bergson could say it is natural, since reason imitates the dead mechanical motions of the planets, for both the head and the planets to exhibit the same mathematical form of the sphere. Still, Bergson admits that human beings are more alive than earlier life forms.163 If Forms are the sign of matter instead of life, why does life exhibit Forms more and more clearly as it advances?

There seems to be a correspondence between nature and spirit (as life), in demonstrating forms, in so far as the highest and most complex examples display the clearest Forms. Light and sound, which move at great speeds, display Forms, and so do planets, which are on the grandest scale. By contrast, snowflakes, mud, boulders, and so on, display forms very vaguely, if at all. Similarly, the most advanced life forms display Forms. What is more, in both realms the higher forms move from the line towards the circle. The more distinct forms of color and sound display the circle, while the less distinct display the line. Similarly, the more distinct and developed forms of life display the line more and more clearly, until it becomes specialized in a circular form, when the nervous system culminates in the head. The highest life form-- humans-- displays a Form in common with the most necessary and mechanical part of nature. This suggests a harmony of nature with life and consciousness rather than a priority of the latter. Perhaps the planets are vehicles of a large soul guiding them, as Plato suggests.164 We could say soul is prior to nature, or is its highest expression; and that is why both imitate the same forms.

H. The Form of the Good

On the other hand, we have still not found any forms beyond nature, of which living things still partake. To that extent it remains true that forms are an aspect of matter rather than spirit, even though the Forms displayed by the bodies of advanced life forms suggest otherwise. And if the only forms are those displayed by physical nature, we can understand why forms are constant and unchanging-- because matter is not free and creative but stable because predictable and moved from outside. The highest forms, which must be exhibited by the soul, such as goodness and beauty, are not constant and unchanging as Plato thought, but are only aspects of the soul. At least that is what we have decided so far. In this sense, the higher we go the less forms we find. As we move from matter to spirit, forms become more fluid and so become less like forms, melting into spirit itself.

When we examine what Plato really means by "the Form of the Good," it becomes clear that it is not to be distinguished from the soul at all. We asked what is really different between Plato's "reason" and the realm of necessity or mathematical law which it is supposed to "persuade" toward "what is best." Cornford concludes that the difference can be described this way:

    Fire can act only in one way; it can heat other things, but not cool them. By virtue of this necessity of the fire's own nature, its action is so far regular. But just because it acts by constraint of its nature, Plato describes such causation as aimless or 'wandering.' The action is blind and undirected by purpose. If I strike a match to light a fire . . . and warm myself, I am availing myself of the fire's power. The fire is indifferent to my purpose and has none of its own.165

This means to me that without what Plato calls "reason," the universe does not fulfill human purposes or those purposes of any spiritual entity. "The Good" is what furthers the life and development of the soul itself. A purpose in the universe means that it is not indifferent to our needs. The "reason" involved in this purposeful activity, the same "reason" which Glenn Morrow so extols in our definition of essentialism, is simply the application of our knowledge of necessity-- our knowledge that fire produces heat, for example-- for the attainment of our purposes. It is as if we must know the prison we are in to get out.

When Plato put "the Good" as his highest Form, it was as though he knew that the real meaning of forms is that spirit exists in the universe and cares about it and about itself. In this sense we can reverse what we said before; for Plato the soul is prior to matter not only because the soul is a form, but because the Form of the Good is the soul. "Care" is indeed how Martin Heidegger describes the soul, as we saw. Unknown to themselves and their followers, both are saying the same thing in different language. Plato here was on the right track when he said the Good "transcends essence" and gives life to all the forms.166 But then he contradicts this and calls the Good a "Form." This inconsistency reveals Plato's unwillingness to come to grips with the Good as the interests of the soul. The light that gives life to all the forms is the soul, and that light is the caring of the soul as it orders the universe for its own advantage.

I. Summary of Which Forms Exist

So far, we have found by our empirical method that some forms exist. Colors and tones are Forms, and they also demonstrate the circle and line. Light and heavy are less distinct and only reveal the line. The human body is a Form if it is the same on other planets without interbreeding, and it and other life forms also display the circle and line. The more distinct and advanced a Form, the more it displayed the circle rather than the line.

Some forms were not concrete (geometrical forms). Others were not genuine forms, either because they were man-made and not eternal (beds, created forms in the mind), or because they were too fluid, composite, or inconstant (snowflakes, soul values), or because they were only aspects of matter and necessity (mathematical laws, and possibly the circle as displayed by the planets, unless one accepts the argument that since the highest forms of life also display the sphere, the planets must also have some kind of spirituality). All of these were not Forms, but pseudo-forms.

Where forms exist, therefore, they are the essence of the things that partake of it, and where they do not, they are mere labels and abstractions of the fluid, concrete reality. So far, we have found evidence for the priority of both form and becoming, although at the highest point existential becoming seemed to prevail. Neither side has won a clear victory, though, so that there are still two plausible but doubtful accounts that are yet to be reconciled.


There are still two kinds of forms I have not considered which may bridge the gap between form and becoming, essence and existence.

A. Forms as Numbers

The most basic mathematical forms are numbers. Plato regarded the study of numbers as the one most likely to lead the soul toward a contemplation of reality. Numbers helped lead Plato to the whole idea of forms, since they are so clearly beyond the physical, and yet are no mere chimera, since mathematics has definite and unchanging laws.

The question is whether this lawfulness is one of necessity and matter rather than spirit. I charge the believers in numbers to show that they are not merely a method of keeping track of isolated and identical bits and pieces. Numbers are each one exactly the same, like atoms or Bergson's static present moments succeeding each other. If numbers represented reality, there would be no variety at all, but infinite rows upon rows of repeating bits and pieces each one identical to and perfectly separated from the others, and each with a number attached to keep it that way. This implies that if numbers are real, then so is atomistic materialism. If numbers are to be proven real (instead of just true, as Rollo May says) we must follow the same road we did in finding most of the other forms and consider them as qualities, not quantities. Qualities are distinctions that are felt and sensed intuitively the way colors and sounds are, instead of measured. Even this way numbers are hard to prove real. But it seems possible that numbers, especially the basic ones, each have a definite quality of their own. One, Two, Three, and Four have a quality which we find wherever they exist. The best way I know to demonstrate this is through something we have already considered: music. Only it could not be the tones that are associated with numbers. F is not the number 4, because in a 12-tone scale it is number 6. Movements in a symphony illustrate the qualities of numbers, since the first movements in most symphonies have similar traits, as do the second, and so on. But these traits are man-made and traditional, and therefore doubtful as forms. But in rhythm we may find the answer. It is at least doubtful that the different kinds of rhythm, 3/4 time and 4/4 time, for instance, are man-made contraptions. It is certainly basic to most music, and music is at least based on forms. In addition, there seems to be a rhythm in our lives, in the interplay of the seasons, of day and night, and of life and death. And rhythm demonstrates the qualities of numbers. 3/4 time demonstrates the quality of the number three as graceful and serene (the waltz), while 4/4 time demonstrates the quality of number four as stern and vigorous (the march). And rhythm is impossible without repeating beats coming in a regularly-spaced sequence, demonstrating the traits of numbers on a number line. Number and rhythm both involve proportion and repetition, which are traits of genuine forms.

But here, remarkably, Bergson's principle prevails, too. For it is only when we conceive of a number as one plus the result of all the previous numbers that qualitative traits exist in them (and therefore are not mere units or atoms). The number four, to be what it is, must contain in itself the memory of three, two and one, for it is what it is because of its relation to all the preceeding numbers. Otherwise, there is really only the number one repeated endlessly. As Bergson says, there is no accumulation going on. The whole past must be added on to the present. Immanuel Kant seems to agree when he says time is the a priori form of sensibility for mathematics because it proceeds by adding successive units in time.167 If this is converted to Bergson's time, it means that a number must be the latest quality of an accumulation, not merely successive units added together. Thus we see that numbers, the most basic of Platonic forms, are not forms at all without becoming! Alas, each finds itself in the very heart of the other.

But if numbers are qualities, then they must be loosely related to the circle rather than the line. This is because they must be connected to past numbers and represent the latest result of the process, and this may not be possible on a number line that goes on forever. We have seen that the major support for the reality of numbers is rhythm, and the movements that demonstrate rhythm are certainly circular ones. Seasons do not move in a straight line, and neither does our own life cycle. Breathing and walking, if you observe them, are circular, and so is musical rhythm if you observe it carefully. But the number line does not demonstrate the form of the line, and it cannot be argued that quantitative numbers are forms because they demonstrate the line, which is a form. This is because, although numbers on a number line are indeed results of an accumulation, as Kant showed, they are not connected to each other in a continuous transition as were the other Lines we discovered.

There is one other path to follow in the investigation of forms. This one also leads straight toward a virtual identification of forms and becoming. Only this time, we start from what Bergson used as the inspiration for his ideas.

B. Forms as Time

What comes immediately to mind from my reading is Bergson's statement that in duration "there is no essential difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state."168 Becoming is a continuous transition. This is a basic aspect of time, Bergson's definition of the lived. Time seems to be continuous, and yet time contains the meaning of changing from one state to another. Past and present cannot be distinguished or delimited; they interpenetrate. Yet I am different today than I was yesterday. Time is not an abstraction. It is experienced, for the past does not die. It is thus both eternal and changing, both an "eternal now" and the motion from future to past.169

If time as a continuous transition contains forms, then it is more than merely the unifying of things and states in becoming. It would have to be more than this, since we said before that this way of unifying the many as one is not the same as the unity Plato's forms provide. If so, time may be the key to the reconciliation we are seeking, along with numbers. It may contain both forms and becoming. As before, however, it will be the qualitative, concrete, internal, or lived aspect of time that will be the real key to its formal qualities.

When we are aware of the past and future as well as the present, this internal aspect of our lives is enriched and deepened, for we do not live in a thin, ever-repeating present, empty and dead.170 Thus it is vital to the genuine existential, concrete experience of reality. But we also act in a measured and harmonious fashion when we are concious of time. We often regard time as a curse. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a fast-approaching deadline. But while truly conscious of time we move gracefully. For time is the measure of harmony, and the key element of music. One cannot discern musical meaning unless one has retained in the mind the previous notes.171 One must be conscious of the past that is there added on to the present which is always new.

Graceful movement is the key to what I am saying here. For when we move gracefully, we exhibit rational forms. Grace is also "good timing." I believe graceful movement is close to what Plato means by regular motion of the rational soul. Bergson himself said that "free actions" are not capricious actions, which are merely the arbitrary choice between two pre-known alternatives. There is no consciousness of time in arbitrary action.172

Tai Chi is a good example of how graceful movement exhibits rational forms. Circles and hemispheres abound as the practitioner moves his body. What's more, in Tai Chi it is said that one begins to forget that one is doing the motion oneself-- that the movements are happening spontaneously and yet as if guided by some being greater than oneself. One is then in a universal realm of sorts. In Tai Chi the conflict appears reconciled between the existentialist contention that freedom lies beyond planning and the essentialist contention that it consists in submitting to a higher order. However, it must be admitted that Tai Chi is a very fluid movement, and so may not exhibit forms in the strict sense.

But the planets were said by Plato to exhibit rational motion, too, and he urged us to imitate them in our thoughts. They are also the source of some of the numerical rhythms we mentioned. It is significant that one of the few geometrical forms found to exist in nature (the circle) was the one exhibited by the planets in their shapes and movements. Because here we thought that the conflict between freedom and order was not reconciled, that in fact the order was so prevalent that planetary movements might be the closest thing to dead and mechanical necessity. This is what Bergson thought, but Plato thought planets were organisms and Gods,173 and that their movements are the closest thing to the divine. My own experience with astrology suggests that Plato is right. The signs of the zodiac, by the way, are another illustration of forms, very similar to colors, music, and numbers, although one must have a belief or experience with astrology to be open to such a suggestion. But if the planetary motions are like those of Tai Chi, then perhaps order and freedom (the two higher orders) are actually reconciled in the movements of "the heavenly Gods."

How often have we seen the one form of the circle repeating itself in our investigations. We have found it in the movements and shapes of the planets, in graceful movements like Tai Chi, in the color wheel, in the musical scale, and even in numbers, since the rhythm which we found to demonstrate their formal element is circular by nature. Another form we found to be possible was the human body, but it is itself conditioned by the planetary environment, and planets are global.174 And the human body is itself topped by a sphere. Perhaps even beauty itself is distantly related to the circle, since beauty is often expressed in sound and color, which are circular.

It is interesting, then, that F. M. Cornford points out that the circle is an aspect of time, along with the line, the only other geometrical form we found to be real. In the past, the circle was linked to time because time was measured by the cycles of the planets. It is also linked to time because all things move in cyclic, rhythmic periods of time with a beginning and an end, especially living things.175 We often associate progress with the line, but progress is really circular, not linear, because the line goes on and on and never really gets anywhere. In fact, on a line one never knows where you are. But many of the circular forms we discussed, such as tones, actually show progress by arriving at the same spot, but one "octave" higher. The lesser forms are linear and quantitative, the higher forms are circular and qualitative.

C. Conclusion

One may question whether the forms demonstrated by our consciousness of time are not too fluid to be forms. For if they are really forms, they cannot actually be in the movement itself, but only exhibited by it. Forms are also not in motion, so forms cannot be identified with time.

On the other hand, forms as the qualities of numbers are not really in becoming because they do not change, but always remain the same.

We have brought form and becoming close together in these two types of Form, but not quite close enough. We said that the circle is the form of time. But, the circle is unmoving, while time is moving.

But if the only difference between forms and becoming is that one is unmoving and the other is moving, then we have already dissolved the difference. Because Bergson showed that in the flux of consciousness there is no difference between passing from one state to another and persisting in the same state. The transition is continuous; becoming and form stand as one.

We can see now why the fact that rest and motion are complementary in quantum physics is so crucial to our problem. And we see also how Plato's soul can be a form and yet be a source of motion, because form IS becoming! And if the soul's nature includes both movement and continuity which is formal, we see that the Form of the Good and other spiritual and moral forms are not necessarily disproved if they are only part of the soul's becoming. If the soul's becoming and forms are one, then the soul and the Form of the Good both exist and are one.

It is my conclusion that forms not only exist because they are exhibited by becoming, but that forms exist AS becoming. Forms are constant relationships of harmony and rhythm, but we cannot know them any other way except as felt and sensed rather than measured. Only by returning to concrete, existential reality can we rediscover the true essences. They are felt when in our progress of becoming, we have arrived at a new consciousness of how we relate to all of the stages we have been at in the past. This relationship is like being on a circle, where one can look back (or "twist on yourself") and see behind you all the locations you have been. When you return to the starting point, however, you are one octave or one revolution beyond where you started. The process thus remains open-ended and not closed, as the existentialist demands.

I cannot believe that there are two realities that cannot be reconciled. There is only one reality in this universe. There is nothing beyond the concrete reality that we know existentially, when we leave behind the prison of dead mechanical reason and get in touch with our feelings and intuition. And there is nothing completely chaotic in the world, nowhere where we cannot find some manifestation of forms. On the outside things may appear to fall short of the perfection of Plato's forms, but when we see things from the perspective of our own souls in their concrete flux, where absolute stability and absolute fluidity blend as one, we will not fail to see forms in them. There are not two suns in this universe, but only one-- The Form of the Good, for through its light we can see the formal perfection of everything that is.

If forms and concrete reality are each in the other, then reason and intuitive contact must also be each in the other. The most genuine approach to life would be one in which reason and '"feeling" are both used at the same time and even become the same thing. This may occur through the consciousness of time. To the extent this means consciousness of forms, then it is reason. But since time must be felt and sensed, it is also Bergson's intuition.

Back to Top of Reflections on Reality and its Reflection (almost)

NOTES (click on the number to return to its place in the text)

1 Another way of looking at the epistemological aspect of the debate is that we must represent mere illusion, or reflection and copy of reality, as merely epistemological; that is, merely the product of either our intellect or of empirical, concrete awareness, whichever way it turns out to be. What is real, on the other hand, will be both metaphysical and epistemological, real in itself as well as in ourselves, and not just a product of our faculties.
2 Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism as Humanism," in Morton White, ed., The Age of Analysis (New York: The New American Library, 1955), p. 123.
3 Although I did not copy my definitions of existence and essence from him, William Barrett in Irrational Man defines the whole debate in a virtually identical way to the way I define it here. See pages 102-104 and 200 (Doubleday, 1958).
4 Henri Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics", from Selections from Bergson, Harold Larabee, ed. (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1949), pp. 3-5.
5 Ibid.
6 Bergson, "Metaphysics and Science," Larabee, ed., op. cit., p. 123. Bergson also says pointedly (and memorably): "The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life." (Creative Evolution, Mitchell, trans., Holt & Co., p. 165); Larabee, ed., Selections from Bergson, p. 88
7 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, ed., op. cit., pp. 28 and 31. Admittedly my reference to "psychic abilities" was not often mentioned by existentialist philosophers, but is referred to by many people of an existentialist bent today (2009); or it might be called intuitive insight by others.
8 Sartre, "Existentialism as Humanism," White, ed., op. cit., p.124.
9 Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book IV, Bambrough, ed. J.L. Creed, translator (The New American Library, 1963), p. 61.
10 Plato, Republic, translated by John L. Davies and David J. Vaughn (London: Macmillan and Co., 1929), Book V, 476; Book VI, 511d The Davies/Vaughn translation is not available online; links are to those by Shorey and Jowett. Republic page numbers used here are from the original numbering of all the pages in his dialogues, and which are denoted in the book margin in most translations.
11 Glenn Morrow, "Reason and Commitment," in Bertocci, ed., Mid-Twentieth Century American Philosophy (New York: Humanities Press, 1974), p. 165. Morrow also gives a good definition of existence and essence from an essentialist point of view, p. 156: "Existentialism gets its name from its basic premise that existence is prior to essence. By existence we mean the here-and-now-ness of a man or a thing; by its essence we mean this being's character, its nature or structure and all the other general traits that are involved in it. Now if we start from the essence of a thing, we have already, to some extent at least, predetermined its role and limited the range of its action."
12 Frits Staal, Exploring Mysticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), pp. 55-57.
13 Ibid., p. 30.
14 Plato, Republic, Book V, pp.476-480.
15 Morrow, op. cit., p. 160. Plato also says knowledge is valuable for its own sake, when reason is pursued for the sake of what exists eternally. See Republic, Book VII, p.525.
16 Ibid., p.158.
17 Ibid., p.159.
18 Rollo May, "Origins of the Existential Movement in Psychology," in Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), p. 13.
19 Bergson, "Creative Evolution," Larabee, ed., op. cit., pp. 94-95.
20 Sartre, op. cit., p. 124.
21 Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 170-171 (H 132-133)
22 Heidegger does not specifically describe them so. However, Heidegger describes how his own idea of Being contrasts with our usual idea of matter or substance, based on that of Descartes, p.122-134 (H 89-100). He also says, with Sartre, that "the human being is not a thing, not a substance, not an object" and so is not an object of study for biology or social sciences which study him as an object (p. 73, H 48). Dasein is not to be identified with "soul" either, but only because, as I point out later, existentialists (of whom I say Heidegger is one) do not believe the fluid reality of being can be encompassed by any concepts, whether these be soul or being or whatever, nor can it be reproduced by adding these ideas together.
23 Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (Harper Torchbooks, 1958), p.49. Form may not be identical to "position" here, to the extent that Forms are not located in the changing physical universe. If this view of Plato's is correct, then Forms are not subject to Heisenberg's laws of physics.
24 Alan Watts, The Book (New York: Collier Books, 1966), p. 30ff.
25 Another example of an existentially-oriented philosopher who believes time is a basic reality is Husserl, who says so in The Phenomenology of Internal Time consciousness, among other works. I might also mention Croce, who in The Age of Analysis, edited by Morton White, makes clear his preference for the concrete over the intellectual, and yet who states that "philosophy is history." Whitehead, however, is an example of a philosopher who believes time is real and central and yet, while not an essentialist, finds many of Plato's doctrines to be valid or useful. See Adventures of Ideas.
26 One may question why I have chosen Bergson as the existentialist rather than others who are more commonly labelled as such.
First of all, since existentialism is basically spiritual, to use an atheist would expose it to the charge of being only marginally spiritual or not at all. So that eliminates Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, though not the many other religious existentialists like Kierkegaard, Marcel, Buber or Jaspers.
Second, many existentialists speak of despair, anxiety and unhappiness as the realities of existence. But although this may be a sign of greater depth of analysis, I think the more persuasive exponent of existentialism is one who claims that it rather than essentialism is the path to joy, wisdom, and liberation, not the one who offers only despair and hopelessness as an alternative. So Bergson is preferable to Sartre, Heidegger, or Kierkegaard in that respect.
Third, Sartre is liable to the charge of "nihilism" since he defines man as a "nothing." He must also "commit" himself to action to become something ("Existentialism as Humanism," White, ed., op. cit., pp. 124 and 134). But for Bergson the concrete reality of becoming is enough, so no added "commitment" is necessary beyond recovering full self-possession.
The point in using Plato and Bergson, by the way, is not that they are absolutely perfect examples and never seek the middle ground in the debate. Since each tries to give a complete and comprehensive philosophy, each will try to encompass what he opposes in his own system; so they may not appear entirely typical all the time. However, in this very effort they often reveal how what they oppose as being the fundamental reality can be explained in terms of what they favor.
To verify that the definitions I have given here are correct for all philosophers of each school is impossible and unnecessary. The philosophies are not mere collections of philosophers; they follow from the definitions of essence and existence and the assumed priority of one over the other. William Barrett, for example, says that existentialist philosophers are all agreed on the thesis that existence preceeds essence, however differently they may put it (Irrational Man, p. 102).
Additional note (2009): William Barrett in his landmark study of existentialism Irrational Man, chose Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre as the most important philosophers in the movement. He said Bergson "never came really to grips with the central subject, Man." (p. 15), while also saying existentialists are greatly indebted to him, and that his philosophy contains more than it seems to. I chose Bergson because, although he does not describe "man" in his state of "fear and trembling" (Kierkegaard) or "nausea" (Sartre), he gives the first, best and clearest metaphysical foundation for the movement, which is our concern here; granted that he does not deal as deeply and dramatically with humans as they confront the realities of modern life existentially, as some other writers do.
Another note: I used the term "believe" often to indicate what the philosophers I am discussing propose to be true, although I would not use the term "believe" today, since it implies one doesn't know but is merely speculating.

27 The changing is called such at Republic 525B and 534, among other places. In the Shorey translation of Republic 534, the changing is translated as "generation". Jowett translates it as "becoming."
28 Plato, Republic, Book V, 479.
29 Ibid., Book VII, 526E, 527B, 525B-C.
30 Ibid., 524.
31 Ibid., Book V, 480; Book VI, 484.
32 Plato, Timaeus 37D, in Cornford's Plato's Cosmology, p. 98.
33 Plato, Republic, Book VII, 520C. see Shorey translation here
34 Ibid., Book VI, 507, 508.
35 Ibid., Book V, 476.
36 Ibid., 479D-E.
37 Ibid., Book VII, 534.
38 Plato, Symposium, quoted from The Wisdom and Ideas of Plato, edited by Eugene Freeman and David Appel (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1952), p. 157.
39 Bergson, Henri, Creative Evolution, chapter IV part 3, translated by Arthur Mitchell. The publication on the website linked here is Henry Holt & Co., 1911, page 316. In my original paper the reference was pp. 343-44, from the Modern Library publication, 1944. The page numbers of the two publications are different, except for early pages-- at least up to page 49 they are the same.
40 Ibid., p. 345.
41 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics", Larabee, ed., p. 31.
42 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, (see chapter 1, part 2), pp. 48-49 (scroll down to page); also in Larabee, ed., p. 64.
43 Ibid., Holt/website p. 307; 316-17(scroll down); Modern Library, p. 332.
44 Ibid., Holt/website p. 305-06.
45 Ibid, p. 11.
46 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, ed., p. 10 (original p.15).
47 Ibid., pp. 10-11 (original p. 15). Writers of General Semantics (Korzybski) and Non-violent Communication (chapter 2)    (Rosenberg); see video here are among those who said similar things later on about this "danger."
48 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, Modern Library, p. 170.
49 Ibid., p. 36.
50 Ibid., p. 100.
51 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, ed., p. 15.
52 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, pp. 3-4; also Larabee, p. 58.
53 Ibid., in Larabee, ed., pp. 95 and 97; and "Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, ed., p. 26.
54 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics", Larabee, ed., p. 26; original p. 65. According to Larabee, p. xvi, "it is Bergson's central thesis that reality must be grasped from within."
55 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, p. 22. (scroll up a page)
56 Ibid., p. 20.
57 Ibid., p. 5; also Larabee, ed., p. 61.
58 Ibid., Mitchell, p. 5. (scroll down to page 5)
59 Ibid., p. 6. (scroll down)
60 Ibid., p. 7 (scroll down); also "An Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, ed., p. 7.
61 Ibid., p. 6 (scroll down); Larabee, ed., p. 62.
62 Ibid., Mitchell, p. 20. (scroll up)
63 Ibid., p. 9, and p. 81 (Modern Library).
64 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, ed., p. 26. Also Larabee, ed., "Metaphysics and Science", p.123: "Our intelligence is the prolongation of our senses." Note that the Stanford website is wrong in saying "in Bergsonism, the immediate data of consciousness are a multiplicity." Instead, Bergson says that the immediate data lie beyond the concepts of unity and multiplicity. (p. 20)
65 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, p. 4; Larabee, p. 58.
66 Ibid., Mitchell p. 4 and p.11; Larabee, p. 60.
67 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee, p. 26.
68 Plato, Republic, Book V, 478. Plato refers to reason as knowledge of the forms at 507-508.
69 Ibid., Book VII, 534.
70 Harold Larabee, Selections from Bergson, p. xvii.
71 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, pp. 48, chapter 1 part 2, Mitchell, p. 48; Larabee, ed., pp. 63-64.
72 Ibid., Holt/website p. 163; in Larabee, p. 87.
73 Ibid., website p. 163; Larabee, p. 86-87.
74 Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (Bobbs-Merrill, 1950), pp. 29-30.
75 Bergson, "An Introduction to Metaphysics," p. 28.
76 Ibid., p. 4.
77 Ibid., p. 34.
78 Bergson, "Mind-Energy," Larabee, ed., p. 121.
79 Heidegger, Being and Time, pp. 59-61, 69 (H 35-37, 44).
80 Bergson, "Philosophical Intuition," Larabee, ed., p. 109. Bergson writes, "The matter and life which fill the world are equally within ourselves; whatever may be the inner essence of what is and what is done, we are of that essence. Let us then go down into our own inner selves: the deeper the point we touch, the stronger will be the thrust which sends us back to the surface. Philosophical intuition is this contact, philosophy is this impetus."
81 For example, see the Chariot myth in the Phaedrus 246, 253-254, and Republic Book IV.
82 Bergson, "Introduction to Metaphysics," Larabee. The reference to "fluid images" is on pp. 6-10; and the reference to the "use of science" is on p. 36.
83 Plato, Republic, Book VII, 518.
84 Ibid., 534.
85 Ibid., Book X, 603.
86 Ibid., Book VI, 510 B-C. On the other hand, Plato says at 534c that unless a person can strictly define by a process of thought the essential Form of the Good, abstracted from everything else, and can fight his way through all objections without making one false step in his train of thought, he does not know the essence of good or any good thing.
87 Ibid., Book VI, 511. In fact, with help from my Plato teacher, I have since decided that "iNtuition" as defined by Jung and MBTI is more akin to Plato's rather than Bergson's intuition. See my article on MBTI. In the West, intuition has been known classically as the direct apprehension of first principles, laws, axioms and general conceptions, as Plato defined it. It has only been since Bergson, and the more-recent popularity of Zen (in the writings of D.T. Suzuki, for example) and Oriental philosophy, that "intuition" has come to mean tuning into the flow of the deeper inner self, which is more akin to what Jung and Myers-Briggs had defined as feeling and empathy.
88 Bergson, "Introduction to Metaphysics," in Larabee, pp. 35-36.
89 Plato, Symposium, loc. cit.
90 We will see that there is a path to reconciliation, if forms are seen to be exhibited in the movement that unites. A "thing in space" here also means the homogeneous units which the intellect isolates from the flow of consciousness, but which don't actually exist as "things in space." Plato also in Republic 508e and 517c "surmises" his view of the Form of the Good, as like a greater invisible sun, which is the origin of truth and reason as well as of the visible light and all the beautiful things it reveals. In his "unwritten doctrine", this Form of Good is also the One; it is a greater One than just the many unique and separate Forms which participate in it, which are in turn the essence of the many things that participate in the Forms. This doctrine also moves closer to Bergson, and is the source of Plotinus' doctrine of the One in neo-platonism. Plato's unwritten doctrine, I think, does not necessarily say "everything is one," but that there is a One, and also another principle of duality, which is the reflection of the One.
91 Bergson, "Introduction to Metaphysics," in Larabee, p. 21.
92 Ibid., p. 1.
93 Ibid., p. 3.
94 Plato, The Laws, translated by Trevor Saunders, (Penguin Books, 1970), Book X, p. 897.
95 Ibid., 894E.
96 Ibid, 896A.
97 Bergson, "Creative Evolution," Larabee, ed., op. cit., p. 94-95; in original Mitchell edition: chapter III, part 4, Holt/website p. 247 (scroll down to page).
98 Ibid., pp. 95-96; Holt & Co. and on website, p. 247-248. "God thus defined, has nothing of the already made; He is unceasing life, action, freedom. Creation, so conceived, is not a mystery; we experience it in ourselves when we act freely." Bergson also writes, "it is consciousness, or rather supra-consciousness, that is at the origin of life. Consciousness, or supraconsciousness, is the name for the rocket whose extinguished fragments fall back as matter" (Mitchell, p. 261.) In another passage he defines spirit: "Let us try to see, no longer with the eyes of the intellect alone, which grasps only the already made and which looks from the outside, but with the spirit, I mean with that faculty of seeing which is immanent in the faculty of acting and which springs up, somehow, by the twisting of the will on itself... into movement everything will be resolved." Larabee p. 98; Holt/website p. 250.
99 Ibid., p. 94; Holt/website p. 224.
100 Plato, Timaeus 48, in Cornford, Francis MacDonald, Plato's Cosmology (Bobbs-Merrill Co. Indianapolis, New York), 1937, p. 160-176.
101 Bergson, "Creative Evolution," Larabee, pp. 89-94; (in original Mitchell edition, starting on p. 222 on website/Holt version).
102 Plato, Republic, Book VII, 519B.
103 Plato, Laws, Book X, 895C.
104 Ibid., 897; also Timaeus 43, 44, in Cornford, op. cit.
105 Plato, Timaeus, 29, 48.
106 Plato, Laws 898, and Timeaus 36C, 39C, 40; in Cornford, pp. 115, 118-121. The "circle of the Same" is described either as the motion of the whole universe which includes all the stars, or as the axial rotation of the earth (which other planets also make). Now we know these two movements are the same, but in Plato's time, they did not.
107 Cornford, op. cit., p. 197.
108 Plato, Phaedo, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1954, 1959), pp. 76, 78-80, 105.
109 Plato, Timaeus 35A, in Cornford, op. cit., pp. 59-64.
110 Ibid., 41, pp. 139-142.
111 Cornford, op. cit., p. 193.
112 Ibid., p. 63.
113 Plato, Timaeus 28-29, 50C-51; in Cornford, pp. 22-26, 178-179, 182.
114 Cornford, op. cit., pp. 63-64.
115 Ibid., pp. 64-65.
116 Plato, Republic, Book V, 477D.
117 Plato, Timaeus 52E, in Cornford, p. 198.
118 In Plato's Cosmology F. M. Cornford discusses various aspects of the nature of the soul in Plato, but when you follow what is discussed back to their origin, the soul is a form. For example, on page 205, Cornford says Becoming is the powers of sensation, which must be penetrated and animated by soul. But this is the lower part of the soul, which is a copy of the form Different. Soul "powers" such as sensation are the result of the Motion of the Different in the World Soul (p. 208), and this motion originates with the form Different reflected in the Receptacle.
119 Cornford, op. cit., p.197.
120 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Holt/website p. 267, 270 (scroll down to page); in Larabee, pp. 102, 104-105.
121 The different realms in which I claim Plato and Bergson place the soul are further revealed by differences in their views of its nature. Plato believes in individual immortal souls, while Bergson holds only for soul-in-general as definitely existing eternally (see Plato, Laws X, 896E, and Bergson, "Creative Evolution," Larabee, p. 103). For Bergson, "souls" only come into existence as soul-in-general propels itself into the nooks and crannies of matter that differentiates it. This difference of view on the soul arises naturally from the conception of the soul as Idea on the one hand and as flux on the other. Plato's essentialist metaphysics allows for individuals, not as solid material things, but as forms and individual souls. But Plato's view may be seen as more materialistic, because it preserves the atomistic "thingness" of the ego. Bergson's view may be seen as more materialistic because it eliminates personal immortality except as the passing on of life from generation to generation, on a sort of eternal wheel of life and death (Creative Evolution, Mitchell, pp. 26-27). However, in his 1919 essay "Mind-Energy" (Larabee, p. 120-21), Bergson argues that since the mind or consciousness is much larger than and independent of the brain, then though immortality can't be proved, "survival for a time" is probable.
122 In other words, if the soul is a form, as such it has a definite essence that gives it a purpose. Existentialists might say this restricts the soul's freedom.
123 The contrast between the two realms in which Plato and Bergson place the soul is evident when comparing what each author's major work (Republic and Creative Evolution is about. Each discusses the nature of reality, knowledge and the soul in the context of a different topic; Plato in the context of the ideal social arrangement, Bergson in the context of the biological struggle among evolving species. Plato's view of the soul as formal fits it best for social life, in which we must be restrained in our vital impulses for the good of everybody and live under a system of laws. Bergson's view of the soul as vital and changing fits it best for recovering its vital impulses and aspirations. Platonists might say Bergson's view returns us to the jungle, in which brute vitality overwhelms reason. Harold Larabee corroborates this interpretation when he points out that indeed Bergson's greatest influence came just before the world wars (p. ix, Selections from Bergson). But Bergson points out how lost we are when the soul is subordinated to society. In Time and Free Will (in Larabee, pp. 38-41) he shows how the intellectual view of life, which causes us to see separate external objects, directs our consciousness outward toward social life. But in this "spatial self" "we live outside ourselves, hardly perceiving anything of ourselves but our own ghost . . . we live for the external world rather than ourselves" (and isn't this how dictators are able to hypnotize the masses). "To act freely (however) is to recover possession of oneself, and to get back into pure duration."
124 In graceful motion, which is both free and guided at the same time. See Section Three, Part Two, B: Forms as Time.
125 Plato, Republic, Book VII, 521E.
126 Plato, Timaeus 49, in Cornford, p. 179.
127 Ibid., 31B, pp. 43-44. The changing is also described as "bodily" in Timaeus 28, 29.
128 Ibid., 51, 53-56; Cornford pp. 188, 198, 212-218, 222-223.
129 Ibid., 50C, 52C.
130 Ibid., 50, 52; Cornford, p. 182.
131 Ibid., 51B; Cornford, p. 186-187.
132 Ibid., 49; Cornford, pp. 178-181.
133 Plato, Republic, Book VII, 515.
134 Ibid., Book VI, 510.
135 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Holt/website p. 249 (scroll down); in Larabee, p. 97.
136 Ibid., website p. 219 (scroll up); in Larabee, pp. 89-90; also "Metaphysics and Science," Larabee, p. 123-124, and Creative Evolution, Mitchell edition, Modern Library, Introduction, p. ix.
137 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell edition, Modern Library, p. 267.
138 Ibid., Holt/website p. 248 (scroll down); Larabee, p. 95.
139 Ibid., Holt/website p. 250; Larabee, p. 98.
140 Ibid., website p. 202-206, 219, 267; Larabee, p. 89, 102. He also refers here to "intellectuality and materiality being of the same nature and having been produced in the same way."
141 Ibid., Mitchell/Modern Library, p. 177. On the website/Holt version, that's p. 160 (scroll down to page). As Alan Watts says in his lectures, "a thing is a think."
142 Cornford, Plato and Parmenides, p. 61. He refers to Aristotle as saying this in De Caelo.
143 One may wonder why I have not referred to Matter and Memory in discussing his view of matter. It is because in this earlier work (1896), he seems to locate spirit (and not matter) as being primarily in our memory. "If spirit is a reality, it is in...memory that we may come into touch with it." (Larabee, p. 50) This seems to me a different view of spirit or soul from that found in his other works.
144 If Kant is right, by the way, that space is a form supplied by our mind, then Plato's ontology is reduced to only forms and Bergson's to only concrete becoming.
145 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Holt/website p. 202. "matter is a relaxation of the inextensive into the extensive" (Holt/website p. 218). In Modern Library's publication, p. 371, he refers to the time physics generally uses to understand matter as being "unrolled in space."
146 Plato, Timaeus 52B, in Cornford, p. 192.
147 One might think this way of resolving the debate favors Bergson, since he says opposites can be reconciled in becoming. But it doesn't, because here I am suggesting the two terms of the opposition become one; yet also retain their own reality and identity. Bergson thought opposites were merely a pair of concepts, but an actual resolution would see both the forms and the fluidity between them as real. So in this resolution opposites are different, as Plato thought; and also unified, as Bergson thought.
148 Republic, Book V, 479. Materialists contend that Bergson, and perhaps Plato too, are too subjective, because what goes on in our souls is not verifiable by another observer. Spiritualists counter that any observer can look within and see what they describe as the nature of consciousness.
149 The traditional arguments against Plato's forms have not been mentioned in our comparison and debate with Bergson, so are not needed in this analysis of the debate. But FYI two of these arguments include: That things cannot participate in forms, because the form cannot be in both the forms and the things it represents at once; and that if a form is postulated to explain two or more examples, another form must be postulated to explain the essence of the form and the first two things, and so on to infinity (the Third Man argument). I will not answer them here, except to say that I do not think they are valid, and Plato answers them himself in the Parmenides anyway. In fact, he originated them. He not only answered his own critique, but went on in Sophist to define the forms Sameness and Difference; which he then used in Timaeus (which therefore came after Sophist).
I would add to Bergson's argument now, that intuition can discern differences, but they are more like different impressions or feelings among the objects we "enter into."

150 This might be similar to Kant's doctrine that the categories of reason have no validity except as applied to empirical experience. See the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, p. 30-31.
151 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Holt/website p. 265-66; and in Larabee, p. 101.
152 Ibid., Holt/website p. 223, and in Larabee, p. 93.
153 Indeed Plato himself describes the formation of colors this way in the Timaeus at 67C-68D, in Cornford, pp. 276-278.
154 Plato, Timaeus 47, and Republic, Book VII, 529D. Our scientist may try to explain this Form by gravity, which gathers matter equidistant from a center. But noone knows what gravity is. It could be love; thus vaguely similar to the soul's virtues.
155 Watts, The Book, p. 52.
156 Morrow, op. cit., p. 165.
157 Bergson, op. cit., website p. 219 (Larabee, p. 90).
158 Cornford, Plato's Cosmology, p. 174.
159 Bergson, op. cit., Holt/website p. 224 (Larabee, p. 94).
160 Plato, Parmenides 130C, in Cornford, Plato and Parmenides, p. 82.
161 May, loc. cit.
162 Plato, Timaeus 44D, in Cornford, Plato's Cosmology, p. 150.
163 Bergson, op. cit., Holt/website p. 264 (Larabee, p. 99).
164 Plato, Laws, Book X, 899; and Timaeus 40, in Cornford, op. cit., p. 118.
165 Cornford, Plato's Cosmology, p. 174. Bergson's "vital and willed order" distinguished from the automatic (Creative Evolution, p. 224, Holt/website) is also akin to Cornford's higher order of "human purpose."
166 Plato, Republic, Book VI, 509C. Another word for the Good might be Love.
167 Kant, loc. cit.
168 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell edition, p. 2; Larabee, p. 58.
169 Yes, that's right. IIRC, Heidegger and others say that time flows in this direction, from future to past, not the way we usually think. Bergson usually says the past "gnaws into" and emerges into the present, but doesn't cause it mechanically. Alan Watts says the past flows from the now.
170 Bergson, "Philosophical Intuition," Larabee, pp. 111-112. This is something I or anyone can verify through our own experience.
171 Husserl, Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, Section 3, p. 30.
172 Bergson, Creative Evolution, Mitchell, p. 47, both in Modern Library publication and in Holt publication on the website (scroll down)
173 Plato, Timaeus 40, and Laws, Book X, 899.
174 Indeed at Timaeus 42D (Cornford p. 146), Plato says the "Gods" were left to fashion the mortal body of man. Could I be saying the same thing here, since the "Gods" are the planets? See also my Summer Solstice Essay, where I show that the Earth is in our own body.
175 Cornford, op. cit., p. 103. Time must be circular, or else why do we use clocks to measure it?



Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. Modern Library, 1944.

__________. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1911.

__________. Selections from Bergson. Edited with an introduction by Harold A. Larabee, New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1949.

Plato. Republic. Translated by John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughn. London: MacMillan and Co., 1929. (First printed 1852.)

__________. Republic. Translated by Paul Shorey (1930). Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.

__________. Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1892.

__________. Timaeus. In Plato's Cosmology, the Timaeus of Plato. Translated, with a running commentary by Francis MacDonald Cornford. Bobbs-Merrill, 1937.


Aristotle. Metaphysics, In The Philosophy of Aristotle. Edited by Renford Bambrough. Translated by J. L. Creed. The New American Library, 1963.

Barrett, William. Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1958.

Cornford, Francis MacDonald. Plato and Parmenides. Bobbs-Merrill.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy. Harper Torchbooks, 1958.

Husserl, Edmund. The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness. Edited by Martin Heidegger. Translated by James S. Churchill. Indiana University Press, 1964.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Edited by Lewis White Beck. Bobbs-Merrill, 1950.

May, Rollo; Ernest Angel; and Henri F. Ellenberger, eds. Existence, A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Morrow, Glenn, "Reason and Commitment." In Mid-Twentieth Century American Philosophy. Edited by Peter A. Bertocci. New York: Humanities Press, 1974.

Plato. The Laws. Translated by Trevor Saunders. Penguin Books, 1970.

__________. Phaedo. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1954, 1959.

__________. Phaedrus. Translated by W. C. Helmbold and W. G. Rabinowitz. Bobbs-Merrill, 1956.

__________. Symposium. In The Wisdom and Ideas of Plato, by Eugene Freeman and David Appel. Translation by Benjamin Jowett. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1952.

Sartre, Jean Paul. "Existentialism as Humanism." In The Age of Analysis. Edited by Morton White. New York: The New American Library, 1955.

Staal, Frits. Exploring Mysticism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Watts, Alan. The Book. New York: Collier Books, 1966.


HOME: E. Alan Meece/Eric Meece homepage and index

Philosophy on a Circle

Take the Philosophy Questionnaire and see where you are on the Map of the Mind

Neoplatonism and Alchemy Note: I am sure this Master paper R.R.R. above is actually alchemy, in which two primary warring opposites are brought together in a divine marriage. These two forces are identical to the two philosophies.

Bach, Chakras, Tarot: Toccata in F is an image of the kundalini!

My take on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Summer Solstice Celebration and Essay

Review by Doug Renselle of "An Introduction to Metaphysics" from

Back to Top of Reflections on Reality and its Reflection (almost)