IV. WHAT IS MIND?

Lamarck’s emphasis on felt need and consequent effort as factors in organic response harmonized with the retreat of the Institute’s psychologists from the view of mind as a completely uninitiative mechanism of response to external and internal sensations. These internal explorers used the word “philosophy” as a summary of their findings; philosophy was not yet quite distinct from science; and, indeed, philosophy might be justly termed a summing up of science if science could successfully apply to mind and consciousness its methods of specific hypothesis, careful observation, controlled experiment, and mathematical formulation of verifiable results. That time had not yet come, and the psychologists of the early nineteenth century considered themselves philosophers as men reasoning tentatively about matters still beyond the reach and tools of science.

Despite Napoleon’s opposition, the “ideologues” continued for a decade to dominate psychology and philosophy as taught in the Institute. His bête noire there was Antoine Destutt de Tracy, the firebrand who carried the torch of Condillac’s sensationism through the years of the Empire. Sent as a deputy to the States-General of 1789, he worked for the liberal Constitution of 1791, but in 1793, revolted by the brutality of the mob and the terrorism of the “Great Committee,” he subsided from politics into philosophy. In suburban Auteuil he joined the charmed circle that fluttered about the ever beautiful Mme. Helvétius, and there he came under the radical influence of Condorcet and Cabanis. He became a member of the Institute, where he rose to prominence in its Second Class, which specialized in philosophy and psychology.

In 1801 he began, and in 1815 completed, publication of his Éléments d’idéologie. He defined this as the study of ideas on the basis of Condillac’s sensationism—the doctrine that all ideas are derived from sensations. This, he held, may seem untrue about general or abstract ideas like virtue, religion, beauty, or man; but in treating such ideas we should “examine the elementary ideas from which they are abstracted, and go back to the simple perceptions, to the sensations, from which they emanate.”16 Such an objective study, Destutt thought, could displace metaphysics, and end the reign of Kant. If we cannot reach a definite conclusion by this method “we must wait, suspend judgment, and renounce the attempt to explain what we do not really know.”17 This tough agnosticism displeased the agnostic Napoleon, who was at that time arranging a Concordat with the Church. Undeterred, Destutt classified ideology (psychology) as part of zoology. He defined consciousness as the perception of sensations; judgment as a sensation of relations; will as a sensation of desire. As for the idealists who argued that sensations do not indubitably prove the existence of an external world, Destutt admitted this concerning sights, sounds, odors, and tastes; but he insisted that we may certainly conclude to an external world from our sensations of touch, resistance, and movement. As Dr. Johnson had said, we can settle the question by kicking a stone.

In 1803 Napoleon suppressed the Second Class of the Institute, and Destutt de Tracy found himself without a podium or a printer. Unable to get permission to publish his Commentaire sur L’Esprit des Lois de Montesquieu, he sent the manuscript to Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States; Jefferson had it translated and printed (1811), without revealing the author’s name.18 Destutt lived to be eighty-two, and celebrated his old age by issuing a treatise De l’Amour (1826).

Maine de Biran (Marie-François-Pierre Gonthier de Biran), began his philosophical career by expounding sensationism with an obscurity that guaranteed his fame.*He began as a soldier and ended as a mystic. In 1784 he joined the royal Garde du Corps of Louis XVI, and helped to defend him from the “monstrous regiment of women”20 besieging King and Queen at Versailles on October 5–6, 1789. Horrified by the Revolution, he returned to his estate near Bergerac. He was elected to the Corps Législatif in 1809, opposed Napoleon in 1813, and became treasurer of the Chamber of Deputies under Louis XVIII. His writings were asides from his political career, but they raised him to acknowledged leadership among the French philosophers of his time.

He stumbled into fame in 1802 by winning first prize in a competition sponsored by the Institute. His essay L’Influence de l’habitude sur les facultés de penser seemed to follow the sensationist views of Condillac, and even the physiological psychology of Destutt de Tracy. “The nature of the understanding,” he wrote, “is nothing other than the sum of the principal habits of the central organ, which must be considered as the universal sense of perception”;21 and he thought that one might “suppose in reality each impression represented by the corresponding movement of a fiber in the brain.”22 But as he proceeded he moved away from the notion that the mind is merely the total of the body’s sensations; it seemed to him that in efforts of attention or will the mind was an active and originative factor, not reducible to any combination of sensations.

This divergence from the ideologues was widened in 1805 with Mémoire sur la décomposition de la pensée, which chimed in with Napoleon’s restoration of religion. The effort of will, Maine de Biran argued, shows that the soul of man is no passive recycling of sensations; it is a positive and will-full force which is the very essence of the self; the will and the ego are one. (Schopenhauer would stress this voluntarism in 1819, and it would continue in French philosophy and take brilliant form in Bergson.) This effortful will is added to the other factors that determine action, and gives them that “free will” without which man would be a ridiculous automaton. That internal force is a spiritual reality, not a conglomerate of sensations and memories. There is nothing material or spatial about it. Indeed (Maine de Biran proceeds), probably all force is likewise immaterial, and can be understood only by analogy with the willful self. From this point of view Leibniz was right in describing the world as a compound and battleground of monads each of which is a center of force, will, and individuality.

Perhaps Maine de Biran’s double life of politics and philosophy, added to lively participation in weekly meetings at the Institute with Cuvier, Royer-Collard, Ampère, Guizot, and Victor Cousin, proved too arduous; his health broke down; his short life of fifty-eight years was nearing its close; he turned from mind-stretching speculation to a tranquilizing religious faith, and at last to a mysticism that raised him out of this painful world. Man, he said, should progress from the animal stage of sensation through the human stage of free and conscious will, to an absorption in the consciousness and love of God.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!