Lily Xiaolei Huang's dissertation project is about a particular moment of metaphysical freedom in France, during the first fifteen years of the twentieth century, when Henri Bergson lectured at the Collège de France. The basis of this freedom has become part of the way we think about the character of conscious life, in its fluidity and unpredictability. These tropes of consciousness have a particular history, and Lily's aim is to understand why and how they came to be salient in the context of the French belle époque. For although Bergson’s idea of consciousness is recognizably modern, it had, in Bergson’s time, an epistemological and metaphysical significance that has since been lost.
For Bergson all reality was sheer mobility: change itself constituted the deepest nature of things. Consciousness, when freed from the immobilizing effects of habits and conventions, partook of this reality, for its own immediate experience consisted of a flux of interpenetrating qualities. Lily Xiaolei Huang's dissertation is concerned with the problems to which this philosophical vision seemed to offered the solution, both for Bergson and for the society that embraced him. The idea of a continually changing reality is ancient, but its ramifications in Bergson’s work reveal the preoccupations of late nineteenth-century France: it provided a way of accepting the uncertainties of science, while circumscribing the domain of scientific explanation; a way of maintaining an essential constancy of the self in the midst of profound material change, but also a way of guarding the indeterminacy of that self against prescribed social forms. Bergsonism seems to have offered both a return to an older tradition French spiritualism and a progressive reconciliation with modern science. Lily Xiaolei Huang's project examines how this was done and why, for a time, it seemed to be needed.