Bergson, Esprit de Corps and Fabulation

The paragraphs below are excerpted from the manuscript of my forthcoming book, The Transnational Genealogy of Esprit de Corps (Edinburgh University Press). This is a draft, especially the English translation of Bergson’s quotations, which I am working on at the moment.

Henri Bergson was a world-famous philosopher in the early decades of the twentieth century. He was known for his concepts of creation and life, but esprit de corps became a fundamental notion in his last major book, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion,[1]where it appeared closely related to the idea that one’s social self was like a ‘superior self’ [‘moi supérieur’]:’[2]

<EXT>If we accept the idea of […] a ‘primitive mentality’, in it self-respect will coincide with the feeling of such solidarity between the individual and the group that the group remains constantly present to the isolated individual, oversees him, encourages or threatens him, eventually demands to be consulted and obeyed […]. The pressure of the social self is exerted via accumulation of these individual energies. Moreover, the individual obeys not only by habit of discipline or by fear of punishment: the group to which he belongs necessarily puts itself above the others, […] and the consciousness of this superiority of force assures […] all the pleasures of pride. […] It suffices to observe what happens before our eyes in small societies that are constituted within the greater society, when men are brought closer to each other by some distinctive mark which underlines a real or apparent superiority, and who sets them apart. […] All the members of the group ‘hold’ each other; we observe the birth of a ‘feeling of honour’ that is identical to esprit de corps.[3]</EXT>

Bergson seemed to present here a synthesis of the ideas of authors like Durkheim, Tarde, Palante, or Terraillon: esprit de corps was a tribal process of collective self-glorification. But Bergson’s use of inverted commas was probably connected to the fact that for him, this ‘feeling of honour’ was not true or natural, but rather a necessary fiction, a ‘fabulation’.[4]

Fabulation was a cognitive capacity to manipulate symbols and fictional narratives in order to generate common beliefs. It functioned like a form of ‘virtual instinct’:

<EXT>It can be called a virtual instinct, because at the extremity of another line of evolution, in insect societies, we see instinct provoking a mechanical conduct comparable in its usefulness to the one that is induced, in the intelligent and free mind of man, by quasi-hallucinatory images.[5]</EXT>

In Latin, fabulari meant to speak and invent a story.[6] Bergson suggested that language, ideology and storytelling could help to create a mindset, a second nature, that simulated animal instinct to a certain extent. Esprit de corps was a form of collective hallucination, a contagious social fiction, a more or less permanent altered state of consciousness. This would justify the use of the term esprit as a form of spiritual possession. The apparent paradox here was that freedom and intelligence were interlaced with illusion and insect-like instinct. How could one be free and at the same time hallucinating? How could one be intelligent and model one’s conduct on a fable?

The answer, according to Bergson, lay in our plastic capacity to recreate new ideologies, to modify our narratives, to regularly redesign our evolving virtual instinct, to which we then gave our near-blind consent for a period of time, for the sake of social utility and mutual effectuality. Not unlike others before him, but more systematically, Bergson distinguished two interdependent and dialectical modes of human solidarity, one more conservative, the other more creative. It was the first one, based on obligation and social pressure, that was comparable with the instinct of eusocial animals like ants and bees. It formed in human societies an effective second nature via ‘habitude’, language, and social fictions.[7] In this case, the cohesion of the group was also maintained through its opposition to an outside territory, an outgroup. It was, when ripe, a circular force, hostile to the new:

<EXT>Between the society we live in and humanity in general there is […] the same contrast as between the closed and the open. […] Anyone can understand that social cohesion is due in large part to a society’s necessity to defend itself against others, and that it is first against all the other men that one loves the men with whom he lives?[8]</EXT>

In other words, esprit de caste and antagonism between groups was inevitable. But a more creative form of esprit de corps existed, if ephemerally; one that was about love and openness for mankind rather than agonism.

Bergson thought that the mortar that joined the bricks of a closed society was ‘discipline’, which prepared for an ‘attitude’ of ‘war’ in front of an ‘enemy’, a defensive mindset that subsisted even when covered by the ‘varnish’ of ‘moral duty’.[9] There was a collective pressure on the members to remain united in a hermetic corps and surrender part of their individuality to the obligations and discipline of the in-group, for the sake of battles won. But because life was dual, both structured and structuring, both spiritual and natural, because it was a process of ‘creative evolution’,[10] human societies, according to Bergson, also manifested a meta-historical flow of sentimental universalism, a slow and widening feeling of unity and solidarity that kept creating renewed and larger, more encompassing fabulations. This second tendency, representative of our cosmic freedom, was often manifested in spiritual figures who were at the forefront of the momentum of life [‘élan de vie.’][11] Life evolves towards the ‘ideal limit’ of a ‘mystical society that would encompass the whole of humanity’:[12]

<EXT>Privileged souls arose who felt akin to all souls and who, instead of remaining within the limits of the group and sticking to the solidarity established by nature, moved towards humanity in general in a spirit of love. The appearance of each of them was like the creation of a new species composed of a single individual, the vital thrust arriving once in a while, in a determined man, at a result which could not have been attained immediately by the whole of humanity.[13]</EXT>

The mystical hero, a mutant of sorts, was the key to the evolution of humanity. Nature is antagonistic and closed, while life is openness to a spiritual dimension, deeper and freer than instinct. Universalism and particularism, love and war, were for Bergson a process of dialectical humanism that slowly aspired towards a cosmopolitan form of solidarity, even if it was constantly limited by specific manifestations and norms. The pression of basic instinct was slowly overflowed by the aspiration of life, a virtual instinct that was more plastic, not completely solid or automatic, but rather carrying the energy of life as cosmic creative flow. This energy was incarnated by rare role-model figures that kept re-inventing humanity.

For Bergson, not unlike Durkheim or Palante, esprit de corps was not only a societal notion but also a biological one: ‘Any morality, of pressure or aspiration, is of biological essence.’[14] But Bergson’s biology was holistic rather than reductionist. For him the flow of life was a spiritual creative flow, a dilation, an expansive aspiration towards the creation of new forms of society and intelligence, a movement that was regularly obstructed but never stopped by matter, reality contracted into the robustness, solidity and solidarity of collective niches, but never totally rigidified because of the underground momentum of life. Our existence is driven by this double dynamic movement of, on the one hand, ‘dilatation’ and springing (inspiration, esprit), and ‘contraction’, solidification by ordering (incorporation, corps) on the other hand.[15] Esprit de corps is for Bergson the very dialectic of life, reflecting the original cosmic dynamic duality between the multiple and One, creation and unification.

There is such a dialectic at work in human social processes: one movement is of creation and aspiration towards freedom, the other regulates the preservation of individuals into safer cohesive groups. To achieve the latter, a simulated instinct was often more efficient than intelligence: ‘Intelligence would be an obstacle to serenity.’[16] The reduction of the unpredictable was the practical aim of esprit de corps as second nature: it had to somewhat contradict the impetus of creative evolution.[17]


[1]Henri Bergson, Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990 [1932]).

[2]Ibid. p. 65.

[3]‘Si l’on admet […] une ‘mentalité primitive’, on y verra le respect de soi coïncider avec le sentiment d’une telle solidarité entre l’individu et le groupe que le groupe reste présent à l’individu isolé, le surveille, l’encourage ou le menace, exige enfin d’être consulté et obéi […]. La pression du moi social s’exerce avec toutes ces énergies accumulées. L’individu n’obéit d’ailleurs pas seulement par habitude de la discipline ou par crainte du châtiment : le groupe auquel il appartient se met nécessairement au-dessus des autres, […] et la conscience de cette supériorité de force lui assure […] toutes les jouissances de l’orgueil. […] Il suffit d’observer ce qui se passe sous nos yeux dans les petites sociétés qui se constituent au sein de la grande, quand des hommes se trouvent rapprochés les uns des autres par quelque marque distinctive qui souligne une supériorité réelle ou apparente, et qui les met à part. […] Tous les membres du groupe ‘se tiennent’ ; on voit naître un ‘sentiment de l’honneur’ qui ne fait qu’un avec l’esprit de corps.’ Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 66–7.

[4]Ibid., p. 111.

[5]‘C’est de l’instinct virtuel, entendant par là qu’à l’extrémité d’une autre ligne d’évolution, dans les sociétés d’insectes, nous voyons l’instinct provoquer mécaniquement une conduite comparable, pour son utilité, à celle que suggèrent à l’homme, intelligent et libre, des images quasi hallucinatoires.’ Ibid., p. 114.

[6]‘Fabuler’, Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, <>.

[7]Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 23.

[8]‘Entre la société où nous vivons et l’humanité en général il y a […] le même contraste qu’entre le clos et l’ouvert. […] Qui ne voit que la cohésion sociale est due, en grande partie, à la nécessité pour une société de se défendre contre d’autres, et que c’est d’abord contre tous les autres hommes qu’on aime les hommes avec lesquels on vit ?’ Ibid., p. 27.

[9]Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 27.

[10]Bergson, L’évolution créatrice(Paris, Alcan, 1907).

[11]Bergson, Les deux sources, p. 56.

[12]‘société mystique qui engloberait l’humanité entière’ Ibid.,p. 85.

[13]‘Des âmes privilégiées ont surgi qui se sentaient apparentées à toutes les âmes et qui, au lieu de rester dans les limites du groupe et de s’en tenir à la solidarité établie par la nature, se portaient vers l’humanité en général dans un élan d’amour. L’apparition de chacune d’elles était comme la création d’une espèce nouvelle composée d’un individu unique, la poussée vitale aboutissant de loin en loin, dans un homme déterminé, à un résultat qui n’eût pu être obtenu tout d’un coup pour l’ensemble de l’humanité.’ Ibid., p. 97.

[14]‘Toute morale, pression ou aspiration, est d’essence biologique.’Bergson,Les deux sources, p. 103.

[15]Bergson, L’évolution créatrice, pp. 46–149.

[16]‘L’intelligence serait un obstacle à la sérénité.’ Bergson,Les deux sources, p. 219.

[17]Ibid., p. 147.

[18]‘Des exercices continuellement répétés sont nécessaires, comme ceux dont l’automatisme finit par fixer dans le corps du soldat l’assurance morale dont il aura besoin au jour du danger.’ Ibid., p. 212.

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