Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


At the end of the eighteenth century the sensism of Condillac was the dominant philosophy in France. During the Revolution this sensism was represented by the materialist Cabanis, of whom mention has already been made. During the last years of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) taught a system of ideological sensism in opposition to the physiological sensism of Cabanis.

The period of reconstruction, with which the nineteenth century opened in France, witnessed two important movements opposed to sensism, the one theological and the other psychological. Towards the middle of the century, positivism appeared, and, as a result of the practical bent of positivism, there appeared also an important school of economy and sociology. Accordingly, the history of French philosophy in the nineteenth century includes the study of (1) the theological or traditionalist school, (2) the psychologico-spiritualistic school, (3) positivism, and (4) the sociological school.

1. The Traditionalist School.{1} The Catholic reaction against the materialism and rationalism of the period of enlightenment, so called, appears in the writings of Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821), who in his work, Du Pape (1819-1820), defends the principle of papal authority, and in his Soirées de Saint Petersbourg (1821) arraigns the philosophy of the eighteenth century as a conspiracy against the truth. In the latter work De Maistre touches on the relation of Divine Providence to human affairs, and speaks of a future religious renovation which he describes in somewhat mystical language as the submerging of all things and all men in the ocean of divinity.{2}


Life. Louis Gabriel de Bonald, who is perhaps the most important of the traditionalists of this period, was born at Mouna near Millau, in 1754. Having thrown in his lot with the royalists, he was obliged in 1791 to leave France. He sought refuge at Heidelberg, where he composed his treatise entitled Théorie du pouvoir politique et religieux (Constance, 1796). After his return from exile he was appointed by Napoleon to the position of councilor of the University of Paris, and subsequently held several political offices under Louis XVIII and Charles X. In 1830 he renounced the peerage, to which he had been raised by Louis XVIII, and returned to his native place, where he died in 1840. His collected works were published in twelve volumes (Paris, 1817-1819).


De Bonald's philosophy is based on his theory of language. Language, he teaches, is not an invention of man; for in order to invent it, man should think, and he cannot think without words: "Il faut penser sa parole avant de parler sa pensée." Language, therefore, was given to man by God himself; and as language implies a knowledge of the essential truths of the religious, metaphysical, moral, and political orders, such truths must have been conveyed to primitive man together with language. Since the history of philosophy shows that human reason is of itself incapable of arriving at a knowledge of these truths, philosophical method demands that the divine revelation and tradition on which our knowledge of such truths depends should be set up as the supreme criterion of truth. This account of the origin of language implies that social organization of some sort existed from the beginning, and that political authority had not its origin in a social contract. Developing the principles of his speculative system and applying them to the study of the social life of man, De Bonald teaches that the family is the social unit; that the state is not a union of individuals but of families; that in every political society there are three moral personalities, represented by the words power, minister, and subject; that in every state there should exist between these personalities union and distinction; and that such union and distinction are best maintained in a monarchy in which both the authority of the ruler and that of the ministers are hereditary.


Life. Félicité Robert de Lamennais, who was by far the ablest of the traditionalists, was born at St. Malo in 1782. He was educated by his uncle and by his brother, Jean-Marie, who was a priest and founder of a religious society. At the age of twenty-two he experienced the religious crisis of his life. From this time forward he set aside all the doubts which had troubled his youth, spent for the most part in desultory reading, and gave himself up to study and prayer at La Chênaie, the villa which Maurice de Guérin has so vividly described. After a brief sojourn in England, Lamennais returned to France, and in 1816 was ordained priest. During the years 1818-1830, besides publishing the Essai sur l'indifférence en mafière de religion, he contributed to the Conservateur and to other monarchical periodicals articles in which he attacked the Revolution and defended the rights of the Church. So great was the favor which these articles found at Rome that Leo XII proposed to elevate Lamennais to the dignity of cardinal. From the publication of l'Avenir, which first appeared in 1830, dates a new era in Lamennais' life. The motto of the group of distinguished contributors to this celebrated journal was Dieu el la liberté as Dieu et le roi was that of the royalists. They defended freedom of conscience, freedom of education, and freedom of the press; they advocated the separation of Church and State, and the rescinding of the Concordat; they proclaimed the coming triumph of democracy and the abolition of hereditary monarchy. These views naturally provoked opposition. In 1831 the three principal writers engaged on the paper, Lamennais, Lacordaire, and Montalembert, went to lay their case before the Holy See. In the following year Gregory XVI issued the encyclical Mirari Vos, condemning the doctrines advocated in the columns of l'Avenir. Lamennais submitted at first, but later, as is well known, recalled his adhesion to the papal decision, and, in the Paroles d'un croyant (1834) and in the Affaires de Rome, made open war on the Church and on the whole existing order. In 1841 appeared the Esquisse d'une philosophie in four volumes, Lamennais' greatest constructive work. In 1834 he threw in his lot with the revolutionary party, and in 1841 was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. He died unreconciled to the Church in 1854.

Sources. During Lamennais' lifetime his works were collected and published in twelve volumes (Paris, 1836-1837). Subsequently, several treatises not contained in this edition were published. For full bibliography compare Molien et Duine, Lamennais, sa vie, ses idées (Lyons, 1898). Consult also Gibson's The Abbé de Lamennais and the Liberal Catholic Movement in France (London, 1896).


Traditionalism. In the Essai sur l'indifférence Lamennais appears as the champion of orthodox Christianity. He assails the fundamental tenet of rationalism and endeavors to prove the inability of individual human reason to arrive at a knowledge of truth. Having shown that the individual mind is incapable of attaining certitude, he proceeds to establish a new criterion of truth, namely the verdict of the collective reason, -- in other words, the universal consent of mankind. By means of this criterion he proves the truth of theism, revealed religion, and Catholicism. Lamennais' traditionalism appears when (as in Essai, Tome II, chap. xvi) he refers the verdict of the collective reason (raison sociale) to the illumination of a higher reason.{3}

Philosophical Synthesis. In the Esquisse d'une philosophie Lamennais appears as a synthetic philosopher. To the traditionalism which he professed in his earlier work he here adds an element of mysticism, teaching that tradition is to be supplemented by faith, that God is the first object of philosophy, and that the finite is to be known by means of the infinite. With this Neo-Platonic mysticism he mingles a strange form of rationalism; he maintains, for example, the identity of the supernatural with the natural order of truth, and teaches that the Trinity is an object of philosophical speculation. Finally, he introduces an element of pantheism, teaching that while there are two classes of being, namely finite and infinite, there is but one substance, and that substance is God.

Among those who are influenced to a greater or less degree by Lamennais' philosophical doctrines were Gerbet (1798-1864), Rohrbacher (1789-1856), Bautain (1795-1867), Bonnetty (1798-1879), Ventura (1792-1861), and Gratry (1805-1872). Of these, Bautain, Bonnetty, and Ventura developed traditionalism into a system of fideism, substituting for the universal consent of mankind faith in God and in the doctrines of the Scriptures and of the Church, while Gratry in his celebrated work, De la connaissance de Dieu, developed a system of ontologism.

Historical Position. The traditionalists, fideists, and ontologists of this period were all actuated by the same motive, -- the desire to offset the materialistic scepticism of the age of enlightenment and to place theism and Christianity on a firmer basis than that which individual speculation can furnish. But, as Gratry himself pointed out, the attempt to discredit individual reason could not but result in the discredit of religion, so that, far from curing religious indifference, philosophical indifference was calculated to aggravate the evil. This is the sentence which the Church pronounced in condemnation of traditionalism.{4}

2. The Psychologico-Spiritualistic School was, like the traditionalist movement, an attempt to counteract the influence of scepticism and materialism. But, instead of turning to tradition and authority for the principles out of which it was to build a spiritualistic philosophy, this school turned to Cartesian psychology and restored psychological introspection to its place as a supreme criterion of philosophical truth.

Maine de Biran{5} (1766-1824) belonged at first to the ideological school of De Tracy; later, however, he developed a system of his own, based on the importance of internal reflection as a method in philosophy. By means of this reflection we become aware of the voluntary effort which distinguishes our external from our internal experience. In this way we arrive at a knowledge of self as distinct from not-self, and at an understanding of the true nature of mental life and mental phenomena. For the abstract metaphysician the soul must remain an unknown quantity; for the advocate of sensism also it must remain unknown as to its true nature, because the sensist is unable to avoid the interpretation of internal phenomena in terms of external causes. The only legitimate method in philosophy is that of internal reflection.

During the last years of his life De Biran abandoned the standpoint of psychological experience for that of mystic intuition. To the two stages of life, that of representation, which animals possess, and that of volition (or rather of sensation and volition united in perception), he now adds a third, that of love, -- the spiritual life in which representation and volition are absorbed in the life of supernatural grace.

Royer-Collard (1763-1845), who was more distinguished as a statesman than as a philosopher, introduced into France the principles of the Scottish school, and thus prepared the way for the eclecticism of Cousin.

Victor Cousin (1792-1867), borrowing from Leibniz the principle that "systems are true by what they affirm and false by what they deny," sought to unite in one eclectic system Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and German transcendentalism, using the criterion of the Scottish school -- common sense -- as his guiding principle. His works consist of lecture courses (published 1815-1820 and 1828-1830), and Fragments philosophiques (published in five volumes, 1866).

Cousin, with whom the influence of German speculation was at one time preponderant, maintained that the impersonal reason has an immediate intuition of the Absolute. Later, however, he went back to the Cartesian position and restored individual introspection to its place in philosophical method. At a still later period he seems to have reduced philosophy to a matter of merely historical interest. He taught that all philosophical systems may be arranged under four heads: sensism, idealism, scepticism, and mysticism; that in each of these there are elements of truth; and that the whole truth is to be found in a syncretic union of those doctrines which common sense judges to be true.

Théodore Jouffroy (1796-1842) took the extreme spiritualistic view of the relation between physiology and psychology, treating them as branches of science which have nothing to do with each other. His eclecticism appears in the following saying: "There are two ways in which the thinking man can win peace for his soul and rest for his spirit; the one is to possess, or to believe he possesses, the truth respecting the questions which interest humanity; the other is to perceive clearly that truth is unattainable and to know why it is so."{6} There are, he maintains, limits to the horizon of science, and it is the task of science gradually to determine those limits. Here we observe the practical spirit which appears in more systematic form in positivism.

3. Positivism.{7} Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is the founder of positivism. Many influences went to form his system of thought, -- the sensism of Diderot, the criticism of Kant, the common sense of the Scottish school, the scepticism of Hume, and the mysticism of the Middle Ages. Comte stood in relations of personal friendship with Saint-Simon, John Stuart Mill, and Littré. His principal work is his Cours de philosophie positive, published 1839-1842 (translated by Harriet Martineau, London, 1853).

Relativity of knowledge. The critical or destructive aspect of positivism appears in its denial of the validity of metaphysical speculation and in its abolition of final causes and of the absolute. Our knowledge, according to positivism, is confined to facts and the relations of facts. We do not know the essences of things; all knowledge is therefore limited to our sense-knowledge of facts and to the higher kind of organized knowledge, which is a knowledge of the relations of facts. It is futile to inquire into the first origin or the ultimate destiny of the facts which we know: positive philosophy confines its inquiry to the investigation of the relations existing between facts. At the same time, positivism is far from giving its sanction to that empiricism which merely studies facts as isolated phenomena; for the knowledge of isolated phenomena is valueless unless it be referred to a law or theory by which facts are explained.

Law of the three stages. Positive knowledge begins when we learn to explain phenomena by their laws. Now this stage of knowledge was preceded, in the development of human thought, by two preliminary stages, the metaphysical and the theological. The law of the three stages is as follows: human thought passed successively through the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive stage, which correspond to the childhood, youth, and manhood of science. In the theological stage of thought, every phenomenon was referred to the voluntary action of supernatural intelligent beings, and fetichism, polytheism, and monotheism became successively the explanation of natural events; in the metaphysical stage of thought, abstract occult causes took the place of the supernatural entities of the theological period, and events were explained by referring them to chemical force, vital force, substantial forms, etc.; finally, in the positive stage of thought, occult and abstract causes are discarded, and phenomena are explained by means of laws. This law of three stages is germinally contained in the writings of Turgot (1727-1781).{8}

Classification of sciences. Some of the sciences have already attained the positive stage, in which they deal merely with concrete facts and laws; others are still in the metaphysical or the theological stage. Taking the positive sciences in the order of increasing complexity, Comte reduces them to six, namely, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. This arrangement indicates the order in which the sciences have arrived at the positive stage and also the order of dependence, each science being dependent on those which precede it. Metaphysics finds no place in the classification, and psychology is included under biology.

With regard to sociology, it is Comte's aim to make it a positive science, and to this project he devotes special attention. He starts with the doctrine that the relations of man to his fellow-men are subject to law, and proceeds to the discovery and formulation of the laws of the social order: (1) in the social statics (the inquiry into the conditions which constitute social equilibrium and insure the permanence of social states), and (2) in the social dynamics (the inquiry into the laws of social progress). In the former he lays down the principle that the harmony, solidarity, and mutual dependence of the different elements. in social life depend on the proper adjustment of the selfish and the altruistic impulses of the individual. The selfish impulses constitute the conservative, while the altruistic impulses constitute the progressive, element in science, art, religion, politics, and industry. In the social dynamics Comte makes use of the principle of development from militarism through the juristic phase to the industrial phase of human society, -- three stages which correspond to the theological, metaphysical, and positive stages of intellectual development.

Mysticism. In his later writings Comte evinces a decided leaning towards the principles of mysticism. He abandons the view that intellectual development is paramount, and that the stage of positive science is the highest aim of human activity and of social amelioration. In his earlier works he was content with expressing his admiration for "everything great and deep which the Catholic system effected during the Middle Ages"; now, however, he has recourse to the Catholic system for direct inspiration, and learns from the study of the Imitation of Christ to put the spiritual and emotional above the intellectual as a standard of values. He aims at making positivism a religion, of which he himself is to be the first pontiff. The objects of veneration in this new religion are to be the "great being" (humanity), the "great medium" (world-space), and the "great fetich" (the earth), which are to form the positivist trinity. Nature must be looked upon as essentially endowed with life, and all humanity is to form one family. There must be universal and whole-souled adhesion to the dogmas of the positive religion, all freedom of inquiry being rigorously prohibited, the only matter in which individuality is permitted being that of private devotion, by which each may venerate some particular person, living or dead, as his guardian angel.

Among the most distinguished of Comte's disciples was the well-known lexicographer, E. Littre (1801-1881), who after having posed as the "saint of positivism" was eventually converted to the Catholic Church.

Historical Position. It is hardly necessary to point out here the superficiality of the positivist doctrine of knowledge, the inaccuracy of Comte's historical formula (law of three stages), and the inadequacy of his classification of sciences. Positivism has had greater and more widespread influence in England than in France, where the defection of its founder from the principles of intellectual positivism did much to discredit the system.

4. The Sociological School.{9} Mention has already been made of Saint-Simon (1760-1825) among those who had a determining influence on the formation of Comte's idea of philosophy. Saint-Simon did not formulate a system of speculative thought; he represents, however, a tendency which may be designated as industrialism, and which took definite form and received systematic development in the writings of the French sociologists who flourished about the middle of the nineteenth century. The best known of the Saint-Simoniens, as they are called, are Augustin Thierry (1795-1856), Pierre Leroux (1797-1871), and Jean Reynaud (1806-1863). These writers favored a reorganization of the social order on the basis of material progress, advocating the substitution of industrial and economic ideals for intellectual and aesthetic ideals in political and social life. Things, they maintained, not men, must be exploited: the material world must be developed. Saint-Simon himself had the greatest respect for the social organization of the Middle Ages. The new era, he maintained, has so far been a period of social and spiritual chaos out of which a new Christianity must be developed, -- a Christianity which, however, will be more of a religion of this life than mediaeval Christianity was. This idea was taken up by Enfantin (1796-1864), who became the père suprême of the new religion, and not only preached but also practised the doctrines of socialism and communism in the community which he founded.

Opposed to the socialists of the school of Saint-Simon were those sociologists who believed that the present social order is sound, and that, if free play be given to the industrial forces now existing, they will of themselves produce harmony and social well-being. Laissez faire, laissez passer may be said to have been the motto of this school, to which J. B. Say (1767-1832) and Bastiat (1801-1850) belonged. Sismondi (1773-1842), while protesting against the laissez faire doctrine, adopted a modified form of political optimism and advocated the intervention of the state for the purpose of directing the social forces towards the general happiness.{10}

{1} Cf. Blanc, Histoire de la philosophie (3 vols., Lyons, 1896-1897), II, 443 ff.

{2} Cf. Soirées (septième édition), II, 203.

{3} Cf. Gibson, op. cit., pp. 59 ff.

{4} Cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion (Ed. VII), p. 360.

{5} Cf. Fouillée, Histoire de la philosophie, pp. 418 ff.

{6} Cf. Höffding. op. cit., II, 313.

{7} Cf. Archiv f. Gesch. der Phil., Bd. VII, Heft 1 und 2 (1900-1901). Consult Mill, Comte and Positivism (London, 1865), E. Caird, The Social Philosophy and Religion of Comte (Glasgow, 1885).

{8} Cf. Fouillée, Histoire de la philosophie, p. 426.

{9} Cf. Paul Janet, Saint-Simon et le Saint Simonisme (Paris, 1878).

{10} For origin and meaning of the phrase laissez faire, cf. Dictionary of Philosophy (ed. Baldwin), Vol. I, article, "Laissez Faire." cf. Ingram, <\>History of Political Economy (New York, 1894.)

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