Culture Machine, Reviews


Gregory Dale Adamson (2002) Philosophy in the Age of Science and Capital.

London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-6032-1.

Stephen Dougherty

The fate of the philosopher Henri Bergson seemed sealed by the closing decades of the twentieth century. Bergson, who in the early decades enjoyed immense international fame, had become passé by the end of World War II; and Bergsonism, whose widespread influence had revolutionized the literary, musical, and visual arts, psychology, and even political philosophy during the era of high modernism, was soon to become a byword for muddled and imprecise philosophical thinking. In his 1985 book on Bergson, Leszek Kolakowski wrote that 'Bergson has survived only as a dead classic . . . To be sure, sometimes, somewhere, someone writes a doctoral thesis on "Bergsonism," yet it may be fairly said that today's philosophers, both in their research and in their teaching, are almost entirely indifferent to his legacy' (1985: 1-2).&

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, this estimation demands revision; for Bergson studies are now enjoying something of a renaissance. This is due in no small part to the growing influence of Gilles Deleuze, who was deeply sympathetic with Bergson's philosophical project. But it has more to do with Bergson's own merits, and his prescience as well. In retrospect, Bergson was one of the first systems philosophers, and his understanding of the nature of living systems in Creative Evolution (his emphasis on organisms as perpetually failed efforts to constitute closed systems, or as 'dissipative structures,' as Ilya Prigogine would later put it) looks forward to contemporary complexity theory. Likewise, his insistence in Matter and Memory on seeing perception not in representational terms but as intimately bound up with the life of the body and its actions and movements accords with new research in the philosophy of mind. Despite the fact that he still typically fails to get the credit, Bergson, in other words, is an important predecessor for some of the most forward-looking science going on today.&

At the same time, Bergson's unorthodox methods and modes of philosophical inquiry provide tools for those who wish to get 'outside' of science altogether. Such is the case with Gregory Dale Adamson, who turns to Bergson in order to rededicate philosophy to the task of seeing the world in ways other than those conditioned by scientific rationalism and mathematical logic. 'Rather than a commentary on Bergson,' Adamson writes in his introduction, 'what follows is an attempt to continue his project and reveal the "nature" of science and capitalism' (2002: 4). That is a daunting task, indeed, and one would rightly assume much more complex and historically comprehensive than Adamson's slim book could reasonably accomplish. Thus, the fact that Adamson promises too much from the start is a problem. He doesn't have anything new to say about the 'nature' of capital, and surely not enough to say about its imbrication with science culture. In other words, his projected synthesis of Bergson and Marx is not satisfying. Nevertheless, the book is a worthy primer on Bergsonism, and it admirably situates Bergson within the context of both contemporary and historical debates about the limits of classical science. What is more, it cogently argues for the relevance of a reinvigorated and metaphysically oriented philosophy in the pursuit of a richer understanding of human experience.

From the time of Descartes, philosophy has been forced to cast a critical eye on science. Once it became obvious that science and the empirical method delivers superior knowledge of the material world, philosophy had to stake out its territory over and against science's expansive and increasingly imperial claims. Descartes' dualism was an early and influential response to the problem, but as Gary Gutting writes in French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, 'one of the most persistently attractive has been the claim that philosophy can and should root itself in an experience with an immediacy or concreteness that escapes the abstractions required for successful empirical science' (2001: 50). This was of course Bergson's path. While science could provide us with utterly convincing snapshots of reality, and utterly practical analyses of isolate phenomena, it could teach us nothing about continuity and duration--nothing, that is, about the essential nature of lived experience. And while modern science has progressed far beyond classical atomic theory, it nevertheless continues to understand the world in terms of the discrete. Such emphasis on the discrete and the isolate continues to inform our understanding of virtually all phenomena and their transformations, up to and including mental phenomena. Adamson sums up the situation from the Bergsonian point of view: '. . . the real is represented by science not in its duration but as pure "actuality." Since determination is predicated on the negation of continuity and science as a whole is conditioned by the instantaneous, the real is stripped of the duration of movement and change as well as the continuity traversing and linking all processes' (23). In other words, science doesn't know the real, or knows it only in an impoverished manner, precisely because duration always slips through the cracks of any algorithmic series or any distribution of elements on a grid.

The Bergsonian concept of duration was, quite literally, nonsense from the perspective of scientific orthodoxy, and as Adamson recounts, Bertrand Russell won his early reputation by taking on Bergson in defense of the discrete. Insisting on the existence of a mathematical continuum over and against Bergson's duration, Russell concluded that there is no such thing as a continuous state of change. Rather, what we logically and reasonably learn through science is that change is a continuous series of states. Bergson countered that that is all science could possibly teach us about material phenomena, precisely because that is all the rational intellect, conditioned by the structure of reflective thought, can ever know of the world. But as Bergson consistently argued throughout his oeuvre, the intellect occupies only part of the bandwidth of human perception. While scientific method is commensurate with the intellect and its dual operations of holding the world at arm's length and cutting it into pieces, we must turn to metaphysics to understand time and change. Here is Adamson:

Metaphysics begins, Bergson argues, at the limits of science. From Newtonian dynamics to fractal geometry and chaos theory, matter is regarded as atomistic and change is conceived outside the subject. Although quantum mechanics, for example, suggests an indivisible continuity coexists the atomistic model, the wave function serves merely to bring 'unpredictability' into the 'discrete' realm of atomic positions. It is the external subject who renders continuity radically ulterior and all attempts to bring time into science, from Einstein to Prigogine, manage only to edge closer to the infinitive of experience. The metaphysics of time and change must begin from experience in order to determine that which can only be experienced. It is only within time that the duration of thought itself can be apprehended as well as expressed. (45)&

Bergson was perhaps the greatest philosopher of time in the Western tradition (though he is still marginalized within it), and his insistence that science knows only time without change, or rather, time as space, was fundamental to his entire philosophical project. But why does science spatialize time? Why does it reject that the continuity of lived time has any relevance for its own methods and procedures? For Bergson, it is because the scientific pursuit is based on the principle of mechanism. From the scientific perspective the universe is a machine whose operations can be defined, quantified, and predicted. Thus science provides human beings a degree of control over the material world that pre-scientific societies could only dream of. However, for Bergson this doesn't change the fact that the universe is not a mechanism, and that time is not space. And if the tremendous success of science culture has always been contingent on a willful refusal to acknowledge the unpredictable and unquantifiable force of time, that doesn't mean that philosophy should play along, or that human beings insofar as we are born philosophers, creators and interrogators of concepts, should cede to science the exclusive claim of knowing the world.&

The danger that Bergson recognized from Time and Free Will onwards is that science, in the name of instrumental control, possesses the power to strip human beings of their freedom as it strips life of the duration that invariably marks its persistence in the world. Thus Bergson warned of the dangers of any psychology that spatializes intensive states and quantifies sensations: 'The very mechanism by which we only meant at first to explain our conduct will end also by controlling it . . . little by little . . . automatism will cover our freedom' (1910: 237). And as Bergson famously argued in Creative Evolution, science's failure to understand the irreducibility of time and process has similarly deleterious effects in the study of evolution. If anything, those ill effects have become more pronounced as evolutionary theory has become increasingly gene-centered--increasingly wedded to the notion that 'life itself' inheres in DNA, and that the range of possible genetic configurations represents the field of life's possible forms.&

From the Bergsonian perspective, the failure of neo-Darwinism is coincident with the failure of Russell's mathematical continuum. In both cases, becoming is reduced to a series of states, and since these states are discrete there is always a gap in between where cause breaks down. As Adamson stages the debate in what is surely the most accomplished chapter in his book, titled 'Evolution Past and Present,' the neo-Darwinist philosopher Daniel Dennett takes over Russell's role as the defender of the discrete and spokesperson for the scientific worldview over and against Bergsonism. In keeping with Bergson's insistence that lived time escapes mathematical-rational understanding, Adamson argues that Dennett's neo-Darwinism gets the trajectory of evolution right, but fails completely in understanding evolution as a living process. In modeling evolution as a series of naturally selected genetic states which always already exist in potentia, neo-Darwinism reduces living process to a mere mechanism, or an algorithm, according to which the future is always potentially calculable because it is never anything but the present reconstituted. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea Dennett borrows from Borges' story of a 'universal library' of books made up of all possible combinations of the letters of the alphabet to illustrate how evolution operates. He thus imagines a 'Library of Mendel,' the analogue of Borges' 'Library of Babel,' containing all possible combinations of genetic codes. Within this miraculous structure, all possible phenotypes corresponding to their underlying genetic configurations subsist as that which could be. In other words, all possible future species already lie in the waiting, as if they were preordained by some higher being.

Adamson's response follows Bergson's critique in his essay 'The Possible and the Real' (published in The Creative Mind). Adamson therefore argues that 'the domain of possibilities will always constitute a closed system, for possibility can only designate variations of what already is' (75). In reality, organisms are open systems that interact with other organisms and their environments. Indeed, such interaction, as opposed to the self-referentiality that the gene-centered, combinatorial view of evolution presupposes, is the very hallmark of life. Something, then, must give. Science can continue to model evolutionary theory in the absence of life, or it can borrow concepts from the domain of philosophy in order to achieve a suppler and more faithful understanding of life and its transformations.&

Adamson's polemic thus bears on the value of philosophy per se in a culture that denies it any relevance, precisely because we are so likely to attribute omnipotence to scientism. But Adamson advises that Bergsonian philosophy helps to correct science's myopia: 'Given that an investigation into evolutionary processes must begin with the analysis of discrete data, Bergson contends that the interpretation of scientific data must be complemented by a philosophical account of process' (63). This doesn't mean that neo-Darwinist science almost gets evolution right without the philosophical illumination of process, and thus is to be only mildly criticized for its single-minded emphasis on the algorithm. Rather, it means that neo-Darwinism leaves so much out of the picture in its dual obsession with genetic mutation and natural selection that its account of evolution is fatally impoverished from the start.&

As a growing number of theorists insist today, we cannot just talk about genes in evolution, because the genes and the organism function together as a relational whole. Adamson's fascinating analysis of new research on the causal relation between somatic transformations and genetic transformations underscores this point. Neither can we usefully talk about the organism isolated from its environment. Instead, Adamson insists, we must consider relations in 'component systems' (the fox and the rabbit, for example, have co-evolved); and then we must consider how component systems are themselves interconnected in order to form still more comprehensive and complex systems. Only by proceeding in such a manner can we bring life into proper focus.&

Yet Adamson is not optimistic that we shall do so, for scientism is not the only problem. More broadly, the problem is the liberal, laissez-faire worldview, underpinned by both science and capital, which sees the world in terms of exploitable resources. As far as evolution is concerned, Adamson suggests that any theory built on the foundations of liberalism is misguided from the start because it leaves human beings out of the process. He explains: 'The very subject position of new-Darwinism is, in this respect, conceived to be outside of evolution: the emancipation from nature is inscribed in its point of view' (105). This matter of subject position is extremely important, and Adamson puts a memorable flourish on it with the observation that 'Dennett's entire book is aimed at sending "evolution" to the zoo (105). Nevertheless, his desire in the closing chapters to establish the underlying psychological basis for our alienation from the world only weakens the critical force of his previous line of argument. Up to this point (and here I shall quote at length) Adamson displays an admirable combination of analytical and polemical skills:

In sum, the three fundamental capacities attributable to the intellect, namely conception of order, the fabrication of matter and a command over action, each contribute to our ability to govern the environment. Although distinct, the three facets are united by the common desire to transcend the immanent forces of evolution and change. Broadly speaking, we distance ourselves from nature by making our environment conform to the structures of objective thought and habit. Rather than proceeding dialectically or in relation to any given forms of thought or human need, our conception, fabrication, and adaptation of the world unfold simultaneously. In other words, we adapt ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves at the same time. Despite there being no particular form of human existence, our desire to exert more and more control over the environment, together with the universal conditions for objectivity, give direction to human development in general. Conditioned by the tenets of objectivity, on the one hand, and motivated by our increasing governance of the environment, on the other, the manipulation of the objective world unfolds in the manner of what Bergson terms a 'tendency.' (114)

It is one thing to point out that our desire to manipulate the world springs from our unique ability to objectify, or to re-present the world to ourselves. Surely, such critical-philosophical awareness functions as an important point of reference whenever we discuss the question of our unique responsibilities as creatures of intellect. However, it is another thing altogether to insist that our dangerous propensity for exploitation is merely the logical product of reflective thought, as if the very structure of reflective thought was not itself conditioned by continuously changing historical circumstances.&

Just as the ideologies seeking to establish the proper relation between techno-scientific man and the natural world have changed over the course of the last four centuries, so too have the historical relations between science and capital. It is true that '[w]hile science and capitalism share numerous economic and technological affinities, their ultimate foundation lies in the form of representation' (119); and likewise it is true that the form of representation conditions both science and the unit of the commodity. But in his chapter titled 'Capitalist Tendencies' the obsessive focus on these deep structural affinities leads Adamson only to the blandest of historical observations: 'By increasing our knowledge of the structure and composition of natural forms and processes . . . science aids the expansion of capitalist modes of production' (118-119). More disturbingly, it sometimes leads him to gross distortions of fact: 'Quite simply, scientific enquiry is not in itself predicated on economic returns. In order to increase our knowledge beyond the known, science must be free from the demands of profitability' (118). This banality overlooks a great deal of important historical research on the changing relations between scientific investigation and entrepreneurialism. Within the relatively narrow (but crucial) context of the American university system in the twentieth century, for example, books like Henry Etzkowitz's MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science and Derek Bok's Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education suggest that modern science is indeed 'predicated' on economic returns, even if profitability is not the prime mover for individuals working in research labs. Such institutional histories can teach us much more about 'the nature of capitalism' than can ahistorical investigations about the role of consciousness in determining material order.

Philosophy in the Age of Science and Capital is far more convincing when its aspirations to unlock the mysteries of capital are kept in the background; for it ends up relying too heavily on well-worn critiques of commodity fetishism and alienated labor in order to make arguments that are themselves not altogether fresh. One feels as if Adamson is trying hard to articulate something new and productive in the book's final chapters, but in the end the promised synthesis of Bergson and Marx fizzles. It is to Adamson's credit, however, that this failure is even more striking in comparison to the success he achieves earlier.


Bergson, H. (1983) [1907] Creative Evolution. Trans. A. Mitchell. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

Bergson, H. (1965) [1934] The Creative Mind. Trans. M.L. Andison. Totowa: Littlefield, Adams & Co.

Bergson, H. (1991) [1896] Matter and Memory. Trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer. New York: Zone Books.

Bergson, H. (1910) [1889] Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Trans. F. L. Pogson. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Bok, D. (2002) Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.&

Dennett, D. C. (1995) Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.&

Etzkowitz, H. (2002) MIT and the Rise of Entrepreneurial Science. London: Routldege.

Gutting, G. (2001) French Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kolakowski, L. (1985) Bergson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. &

Stephen Dougherty teaches at Elizabethtown Community College in Elizabethtown, KY, USA. His essays have appeared in diacritics, Cultural Critique, Arizona Quarterly, and elsewhere.