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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


CONDILLAC

(1715 — 80)

 

SENSATIONALISM

Born in Grenoble, the son of a lawyer, Étienne de Condillac was educated at the seminary of Saint-Sulpice and at the Sorbonne, where he studied theology. He was ordained in 1740, but devoted his life to philosophy rather than to his sacerdotal duties. He was in close touch with the leading figures of the French Enlightenment and was a friend of Rousseau. In 1758 he became tutor to Ferdinand of Parma, returned to France in 1767, and was elected to the Académie Française the following year. He died in the Abbey of Flux near Beaugency.

 

LANGUAGE

[1] In his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge Condillac supposed that language came into being 'naturally' in the context of man's emerging rationality. We receive sensations and thence ideas. We reflect on this and link them together by using signs or symbols [a]. A "well-constructed language" is necessary for human thinking. However, in his later Treatise on Sensations [I, iv] he argues that even people limited to one sense, for example, smell can come to the idea of number (up to a maximum of three) even before they acquire language. He would seem therefore now to admit the possibility of a prelinguistic intelligence [b] — though language is needed if our mental life is to develop fully.

 

METHOD/ KNOWLEDGE

[2] [Treatise on Systems] Condillac rejects the metaphysical rationalists' 'spirit of systems' (esprit de systéme), which employs deduction of conclusions from the definitions or axioms such philosophers suppose to be necessary truths about the world; for definitions, he says, are only about meanings of words. But he does not reject systematization (esprit systématique), which involves the breaking down of what is given to us in sense-experience and the orderly arranging of the various parts of a 'science' so as to make explicit the relations holding between them. He thus accepts the methods of 'analysis' and 'synthesis' — provided they utilize sensory phenomena and not the principles, definitions, and axioms of mathematics [a].

[3] The starting-point for knowledge, indeed the whole of one's psychological or mental life is, according to Condillac, sensations (and their association) [see Treatise on Sensations] [a]. And by means of a 'thought-experiment' he tries to show that all the operations of our minds can be understood as deriving from any of the five senses. He supposes [I, i] man to be a marble statue possessing only the sense of smell, say of a rose. By 'attending' to his sensations he will acquire both memory impressions of variable strengths and liveliness and judgements (through the comparing of memories of smells of different flowers. The feeling of need to return to a pleasant state will produce desire and thence awareness of will [I, iii]. Similar considerations apply to each of the other four senses. By separating and reflecting on disparate sensations we can form abstract ideas [b]. Condillac regards the sense of touch as important in that it both clarifies and fixes our visual impressions of space and first gives us the idea of externality [I, vii, xi, xii; II, v]. We do not know that there are external things. However, in discovering externality we show that our sensations are caused; and we assume thereby that there are existent objects outside us to which we attribute properties, including extension, put together by the mind [c]. But we can have no certainty of this [IV, v]. As for the mind itself this can be known only in or through its modifications or transformed sensations and memory impressions [I, vi] [d].

 

PSYCHOLOGY/ ETHICS

[4] From the concept of 'attention' (to one's sensations) Condillac develops the concept of 'uneasiness' (inquiétude) as the basic motivating principle underlying all mental experience [a] (sense-perception includes understanding, feeling, desiring, fearing, willing, etc.) [see 'Reasoned Excerpt ']. By 'uneasiness' he means roughly a 'felt need' to bring about some change in one's condition, be it intellectual, physiological, or emotional. His position can be described as 'voluntaristic'; he thinks of the soul as an active and free spiritual unifying principle — though nevertheless psychical phenomena are to be understood as deriving from sensations [b]. Morality too arises from feelings (of pleasure and pain) and the will, but is ultimately underpinned by God [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Condillac's philosophy may be understood as having taken to their logical conclusion the assumptions and methods of Lockean/ Newtonian empiricism, both our knowledge of the world and the activities of the human mind being accounted for in terms of sensations. Thus his philosophy was to provide a basis for a 'science of man' [a]. Several original features in his thought should also be mentioned: (a) his emphasis on the primacy of the sense of touch in relation to the concept of externality; (b) his view of the active, unitary, spiritual soul as exhibiting 'voluntarist' tendencies (the concept of 'uneasiness'); (c) his stressing of the important role played by language in our thinking — and in later work his suggestion that intelligence is prior to language though requiring it for its development. Thus Condillac was not strictly a materialist. Nevertheless, to the extent that his theory of knowledge is grounded in and confined to sensations he cuts himself off from the external world and is restricted to probabilism. Moreover, his sensationalism is not easily reconcilable with the spiritualist aspect of his account of mind.

 

READING

Condillac: Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (1746) (Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge); Traité des systémes (1746, 1771) (Treatise on Systems); Traité des sensations (1754) (Treatise on Sensations);   the 1778 edition contains the 'Extrait raisonné'. The Essay has been translated by H. Aarsleff; and there is a translation of the Treatise on Sensations by G. Carr. His writings as a whole are collected in Philosophical Writings of Etienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, (ed.) L. Erlbaum; see also R. Lefèvre, Condillac [selections].

Studies

I. Knight, The Geometric Spirit: The Abbé de Condillac and the French Enlightenment.

E. McNiven, A Critical Study of Condillac's Traité des Systems.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Condillac

 

General rejection of general scientific rationalism and principles of explanation characteristic of Enlightenment philosophers Hamann [1a b]

 

[1a; cf. 3a d] Naturalist theory of origin of language; ideas derived from sensations and linked by signs/ symbols

   Locke

Rousseau

Hamann

Herder

[1a]

[1d]

[1c]

[2a]

 

[1b] (Later view) possibility of pre-linguistic intelligence (thinking without language)

Hamann

Herder

[1c]

[2a]

 

[2a] Critique of rationalist systems but approval of systematization when 'analytic' and 'synthetic' methods are grounded in sensory data

   Descartes

   Spinoza

   Locke

Comte

Bergson

[1a d 1c ]

[1a]

[CSa]

[1b c]

[1a]

 

[3a; cf. 1a] All knowledge and mental life derived from sensation alone; no innate ideas

   Descartes

   Locke

Diderot

Holbach

Comte

Bergson

[1b]

[2a i]

[1c]

[1c]

[1c]

[1a 2a]

 

[3b] Acquisition of abstract ideas through separation and reflection on disparate sensations

   Locke

   Berkeley

[1b 2m]

[1c]

 

[3c] Touch, externality, and assumption of external objects as causes of sensations

   Locke

   Berkeley

[2j m]

[2a 2b]

 

[3d; cf. 1a 3a] Mind (and mental operations) known only through its 'modifications'

   Locke

   Berkeley

[2k]

[2f]

 

[4a] Attention to sensation produces 'inquiétude' (uneasiness): underlies all mental experience    Locke [2g]

 

[4b] Voluntarism: soul as active, spiritual, unifying principle

   Locke

   Berkeley

Holbach

   Herder

   Schopenhauer

Bergson

[2k]

[2f]

[1c]

[4b]

[1c]

[4a]

 

[Condillac's account of the development of total mental life from associations of sensations might also be compared with the views of Descartes [3g] and Spinoza [3b]; a possible influence should not be discounted.]

 

[4c] Morality from feelings and will, ultimately from God as supreme cause

   Rousseau

   Diderot

Holbach

[1c g]

[3a]

[1d]

 

[CSa] Science of man    Hume [1a]