Transcendentalism in France.

From: Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880)
Author: Octavius Brooks Frothingham
Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1880 New York



  FROM the time of Malebranche, who died in 1715, to Maine de Biran, Royer-Collard, Ampère and Cousin, a period of about a century, philosophy in France had not borne an honorable name. The French mind was active; philosophy was a profession; the philosophical world was larger than in Germany, where it was limited “to the Universities. But France took no lead in speculation, it waited to receive impulse from other lands; and even then, instead of taking up the impulse and carrying it on with original and sympathetic force, it was content to exhibit and reproduce it. The office of expositor, made easy by the perspicacity of its intellect and the flexibility of its language, was accepted and discharged with a cleverness that was recognized by all Europe. Its histories of philosophy, translations, expositions, reproductions, were admirable for neatness and clearness. The most obscure systems became intelligible in that limpid and lucid speech, which reported with faultless dexterity the agile movements of the Gallic mind, and made popular the most abstruse doctrines of metaphysics. German philosophy in its original dress was outlandish, even to practised students in German. The readers of French were many in England and the United States, and the readers of French, without severe labor on their part, were put in possession of the essential ideas of the deep thinkers of the race. The best accounts of human speculation are in French. Barthélemy Saint Hilaire interprets Aristotle, and throws important light on Indian Philosophy; Bouillet translates Plotinus; Emil Saisset translates Spinoza; Tissot and Jules Barni perform the same service for Kant; Jules Simon and Etienne Vacherot undertake to make intelligible the School of Alexandria; Paul Janet explains the dialectics of Plato; Adolphe Franck deals with the Jewish Kabbala; Charles de Rémusat with Anselm, Abelard and Bacon; MM. Hauréau and Rousselot with the philosophy of the middle age; M. Chauvet with the theories of the human understanding in antiquity. Cousin published unedited works of Proclus, analyzed the commentaries of Olympiodorus on the Platonic dialogues, made a complete translation of Plato, admirable for clearness and strength, and proposed to present, not of course with his own hand, but by the hands of friendly fellow-workers, and under his own direction, examples of whatever was best in every philosophical system. The philosophical work of France is ably summed up in the report on “Philosophy in France in the nineteenth century,” presented by Felix Ravaisson, member of the Institute, and published in 1868, under the auspices of the Ministry of Public Instruction.

  The ideas of Locke were brought from London to J Paris by Voltaire, who became acquainted with them during a residence in England, and found them effective in his warfare against the ecclesiastical institutions of his country. Through his brniiant interpretations and keen applications, they gained currency, became fashionable among the wits, were domesticated with people of culture and elegance, and worked their way into the religion and politics of the time. It is needless to say J that in his haftds full justice was done to their external and material aspects.

  The system found a more exact and methodical expounder Condilla who reduced it to greater simplicity by eliminating from it what in the original marred its unity, namely reflection, the bent of the mind back on itself, whereby it took cognizance of impressions made by the outer world. Taking what remained of the system, the notion that all knowledge came primarily through the senses, and drawing the conclusion that the mind itself was a product of sensation, Condillac fashioned a doctrine which had the merit, such as it was, of utter intelligibleness to the least instructed mind; a system of materialism naked and unadorned. If he himself forbore to push his principle to its extreme results, declining to assert that we were absolutely nothing else than products of sensation, and surmising that beneath the layers of intelligence and reason there might lurk a principle that sensation could not account for, something stable in the midst of the ceaseless instability, something absolute below everything relative, which might be called action or will, the popular interpretation of his philosophy took no account of such subtleties. In vain did his “disciple Destutt de Tracy declare that “the principle of movement is the will; and that the will is the person, the man himself.” The fascination of simplicity proved more than a match for nicety of distinction, and both were ranked among materialists.

  Cabanis was at no pains to conceal the most repulsive feature the system. In his work, “The Relations of the Physical and the Moral in Man,” he maintained bluntly the theory that there was no spiritual being apart from the body; that mind had no substance, no separate existence of its own, but, was in all its parts and qualities a product of the nervous system; that sensibility of every kind, sentimental, “intelligent, moral, spiritual, including the whole domain of conscious and unconscious vitality, was a nervous manifestation; that man was capable of sensation because he had nerves; that he was what he was because of the wondrous character of the mechanism of sensation; that, in a word, the perfection of organization was the perfection of humanity. It was Cabanis who said “the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.” Cabanis modified his philosophy before his death, but without effect to break the force of his cardinal positions. The results of such teaching appeared in a morality of selfishness, tending to self-indulgence—a morality destitute of nobleness and sweetness, summing up its lessons in the maxims that good is good to eat; that the pleasurable thing is right, the painful thing wrong; that success is the measure of rectitude; that the aim of life is the attainment of happiness, and that happiness means physical enjoyment; that virtue and vice are names for prudence and for folly,—Virtue being conformity with the ways of the world, Vice being non-conformity with the ways of the world; no ideal standard being recognized for the one, no law of rectitude being confessed for the other. Conscience was regarded as an artificial habit created by custom or acquiesced in from tradition; the “categorical imperative” was pronounced the dogmatism of the fanatic.

  From such principles atheism naturally proceeded. Atheism not of opinion merely, but of sentiment and feeling; for at that time “the potencies” of matter impressed no such awe upon the mind as they have done since; the “mystery of matter” was unfelt; physiology was an unexplored region; the materialist simply denied spirit, putting a blank where believers in religion had been used to find a soul; and had no alternative but to run sensationalism into sensualism, and to give the senses the flavor of the ground. With us the sensational philosophy has become refined into a philosophy of experience, and the materialist finds himself in a region where to distinguish between matter and spirit is difficult, to say the least. But a hundred years ago matter was clod, and the passion it engendered smelt of the charnel-house. The morbid insanities of the revolution, the orgies in which blood and wine ran together, the savage glee, the delirium that ensued when the uncertainty of life acting on the impulse to enjoy life while it lasted, made men ferocious in clutching at immediate pleasure, attest the consequences that ensued from such frank adoption of the sensational philosophy as was practised among the French. Locke was a man of piety, which even his warmest apologists will hardly claim for Voltaire. The English mind, grave and thoughtful, trained by religious institutions in religious beliefs, was less inclined than the French to drive speculative theories to extreme conclusions. The philosophy of sensationalism culminated, not in the French Revolution, as has been vulgarly asserted, but in the unbelief and sensual extravagance that marked one phase of it.

  In this there was nothing original; there was no originality in the reaction that followed, and gave to modern philosophy in France its spiritual character. Laromiguière, educated in the school of Condillac, improved on the suggestion that Condillac had given, and deepened into a chasm the scratch he had made to indicate a distinction between the results of sensation and the faculties of the mind. In his analysis of the mental constitution he came upon two facts that denoted an original activity in advance of sensation—namely, attention and desire: the former the root of the intellectual, the latter of the moral powers; both at last resolvable into one principle-attention. This discovery met with wide and cordial welcome, the popularity of Laromiguière’s lectures, delivered in 1811, 1812, 1813, revealing the fact that thoughtful people were prepared for a new metaphysical departure.

  Maine de Biran, who more than the rest deserves the name of an original investigator, a severe, solitary, independent thinker, pupil of no school and founder of none, brought into strong relief the activity of the intellect. Thought, he maintained, proceeds from will, which is at the base of the personality, is, in fact, the essence of personality. The primary fact is volition. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Maine de Biran said, “I will, therefore I am.” “In every one of my determinations,” he declared, “I recognize myself as being a cause anterior to its effect and capable of surviving it. I behold myself as outside of the movement I produce, and independent of time; for this reason, strictly speaking, I do not become, I really and absolutely am.” “To be, to act, to will, are the same thing under different names.” Will as the seat of activity; will as the core of personality; will as the soul of causation: here is the comer-stone for a new structure to replace the old one of the “Cyclopædists.” Important deductions followed from such a first principle; the dignity of the moral being, freedom of the moral will, the nobility of existence, the persistency of the individual as a ground for continuous effort and far-reaching hope, the spirituality of man and his destiny. To recover the will from the mass of sensations that had buried it out of sight, was the achievement of this philosopher. It was an achievement by which philosophy was disengaged from physics, and sent forth on a more cheerful way.

  The next steps were taken by disciples of the Scotch school-Royer-Collard, Victor Cousin and Theodore Jouffroy. The last translated Reid and Stewart from English into French; the two former lectured on them. The three, being masters of clear and persuasive speech, made their ideas popular in France. Cousin’s lectures on the Scotch school, including Reid, were delivered in 1819. The lectures on Kant were given in 1820. Both courses were full and adequate. Cousin committed himself to neither, but freely criticised both, laying stress on the sceptical aspect of the transcendental system as expounded by Kant.

  Cousin’s own system was the once famous, now discarded eclecticism, under cover of which another phase of idealism was presented which found favor in America. The cardinal principle of eclecticism was that truth was contained in no system or group of systems, but in all together; that each had its portion and made its contribution; and that the true philosophy would be reached by a process of intellectual distillation by which the essential truth in each would be extracted. A method like this would have nothing to recommend it but its generosity, if there were no criterion by which truths could be tested, no philosophical principle, in short, to govern the selection of materials. Eclecticism must have a philosophy before proceeding to make one, must have arrived at its conclusion before entering on its process. And this it did. It will be seen by the following extracts from his writings what the fundamental ideas of M. Cousin were, and in what respect they aided the process of rationalism.

  The quotations are from his exposition of eclecticism:

  “Facts are the point of departure, if not the limit of philosophy. Now facts, whatever they may be, exist for us only as they come to our consciousness. It is there alone that observation seizes them and describes them, before committing them to induction, which forces them to reveal the consequences which they contain in their bosom. The field of philosophical observation is consciousness; there is no other; but in this nothing is to be neglected; everything is important, for everything is connected; and if one part be wanting, complete unity is unattainable. To return within our consciousness, and scrupulously to study all the phenomena, their differences and their relations—this is the primary study of philosophy. Its scientific name is psychology. Psychology is then the condition and, as it were, the vestibule of philosophy. The psychological method consists in completely retiring within the world of consciousness, in order to become familiar in that sphere where all is reality, but where the reality is so various and so delicate; and the psychological talent consists in placing ourselves at will within this interior world, in presenting the spectacle there displayed to ourselves, and in reproducing freely and distinctly all the facts which are accidentally and confusedly brought to our notice by the circumstances of life.” . . . . . .

  “The first duty of the psychological method is to retire within the field of consciousness, where there is nothing but phenomena, that are all capable of being perceived and judged by observation. Now as no substantial existence falls under the eye of consciousness, it follows that the first effect of a rigid application of method is to postpone the subject of ontology. It postpones it, I say, but does not destroy it. It is a fact, indeed, attested by observation, that in this same consciousness, in which there is nothing but phenomena, there are found notions, whose regular development passes the limits of consciousness and attains the knowledge of actual existences. Would you stop the development of these notions? You would then arbitrarily limit the compass of a fact, you would attack this fact itself, and thus shake the authority of all other facts. We must either call in question the authority of consciousness in itself, or admit this authority without reserve for all the facts attested by consciousness. The reason is no less certain and real than the will or the sensibility; its certainty once admitted we must follow it wherever it rigorously conducts, though it be even into the depths of ontology. For example, it is a rational fact attested by consciousness, that in the view of intelligence, every phenomenon which is presented supposes a cause. It is a fact, moreover, that this principle of causality is marked with the characteristics of universality and necessity. If it be universal and necessary, to limit it would be to destroy it. Now in the phenomenon of sensation, the principle of causality intervenes universally and necessarily, and refers this phenomenon to a cause; and our consciousness testifying that this cause is not the personal cause which the will represents, it follows that the principle of causality in its irresistible application conducts to an impersonal cause, that is to say, to an external cause, which subsequently, and always irresistibly, the principle of causality enriches with the characteristics and laws, of which the aggregate is the Universe. Here then is an existence; but an existence revealed by a principle which is itself attested by consciousness. Here is a primary step in ontology, but by the path of psychology, that is to say, of observation. We are led by similar processes to the Cause of all causes, to the substantial Cause, to God; and not only to a God of Power, but to a God of Justice, a God of Holiness; so that this experimental method, which, applied to a single order of phenomena, incomplete and exclusive, destroyed ontology and the higher elements of consciousness, applied with fidelity, firmness and completeness, to all the phenomena, builds up that which it had overthrown, and by itself furnishes ontology with a sure and legitimate instrument. Thus, having commenced with modesty, we can end with results whose certainty is equalled by their importance.” . . . . . . .

  “What physical inquirer, since Euler, seeks anything in nature but forces and laws? Who now speaks of atoms? And even molecules, the old atoms revived—who defends them as anything but an hypothesis? If the fact be incontestable, if modern physics be now employed only with forces and laws, I draw the rigorous conclusion from it, that the science of Physics, whether it know it or not, is no longer material, and that it became spiritual when it rejected every other method than observation and induction, which can never lead to aught but forces and laws. Now what is there material in forces and laws? The physical sciences, then, themselves have entered into the broad path of an enlightened spiritualism; and they have only to march with a firm step, and to gain a more and more profound knowledge of forces and laws, in order to arrive at more important generalizations. Let us go still further. As it is a law already recognized of the same reason which governs humanity and nature, to refer every finite cause and every multiple law—that is to say, every phenomenal cause and every phenomenal law—to something absolute, which leaves nothing to be sought beyond it in relation to existence, that is to say, to a substance; so this law refers the external world composed of forces and laws to a substance, which must needs be a cause in order to be the subject of the causes of this world, which must needs be an intelligence in order to be the subject of its laws; a substance, in fine, which must needs be the identity of activity and intelligence. We have thus arrived accordingly, for the second time, by observation and induction in the external sphere, at precisely the same point to which observation and induction have successively conducted us in the sphere of personality and in that of reason; consciousness in its triplicity is therefore one; the physical and moral world is one, science is one, that is to say, in other words, God is One.” . . . . . . . . .

  “Having gained these heights, philosophy becomes more luminous as well as more grand; universal harmony enters into human thought, enlarges it, and gives it peace. The divorce of ontology and psychology, of speculation and observation, of science and commonsense, is brought to an end by a method which arrives at speculation by observation, at ontology by psychology, in order then to confirm observation by speculation, psychology by ontology, and which starting from the immediate facts of consciousness, of which the commonsense of the human race is composed, derives from them the science which contains nothing more than commonsense, but which elevates that to its purest and most rigid form, and enables it to comprehend itself. But I here approach a fundamental point.

  “If every fact of consciousness contains all the human faculties, sensibility, free activity, and reason, the me, the not-me, and their absolute identity; and if every fact of consciousness be equal to itself, it follows that every man who has the consciousness of himself possesses and cannot but possess all the ideas that are necessarily contained in consciousness. Thus every man, if he knows himself, knows all the rest, nature and God at the same time with himself. Every man believes in his own existence, every man therefore believes in the existence of the world and of God; every man thinks, ever man therefore thinks God, if we may so express it every human proposition, reflecting the consciousness, reflects the idea of unity and of being that is essential to consciousness; every human proposition therefore contains God; every man who speaks, speaks of God, and every word is an act of faith and a hymn. Atheism is a barren formula, a negation without reality, an abstraction of the mind which cannot assert itself without self-destruction; for every assertion, even though negative, is a judgment which contains the idea of being, and, consequently, God in His fulness. Atheism is the illusion of a few sophists, who place their liberty in opposition to their reason, and are unable even to give an account to themselves of what they think; but the human race, which is never false to its consciousness and never places itself in contradiction to its laws, possesses the knowledge of God, believes iri him, and never ceases to proclaim Him. In fact, the human race believes in reason and cannot but believe in it, in that reason which is manifested in consciousness, in a momentary relation with the me—the pure though faint reflection of that primitive light which flows from the bosom of the eternal substance, which is at once substance, cause, intelligence. Without the manifestation of reason in our consciousness, there could be no knowledge—neither psychological, nor, still less, ontological. Reason is, in some sort, the bridge between psychology and ontology, between consciousness and being; it rests at the same time on both; it descends from God and approaches man; it makes its appearance in the consciousness, as a guest who brings intelligence of an unknown world of which it at once presents the idea and awakens the want.

  If reason were personal, it would pave no value, no authority, beyond the limits of the individual subject, If it remained in the condition of primitive substance, without manifestation, it would be the same for the me which would not know itself, as if it were not. It is necessary therefore that the intelligent substance should manifest itself; and this manifestation is .the appearance of reason in the consciousness. Reason then is literally a revelation, a necessary and universal revelation, which is wanting to no man and which enlightens every man on his coming into the world: illuminat omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum. Reason is the necessary mediator between God and man, the λόγος of Pythagoras and Plato, the Word made flesh which serves as the interpreter of God and the teacher of man, divine and human at the same time. It is not, indeed, the absolute God in his majestic individuality, but his manifestation in spirit and in truth; it is not the Being of beings, but it is the revealed God of the human race. As God is never wanting to the human race and never abandons it, so the human race believes in God with an irresistible and unalterable faith, and this unity of faith is its own highest unity. . . . . . . .

  “If these convictions of faith be combined in every act of consciousness, and if consciousness be one in the whole human race, whence arises the prodigious diversity which seems to exist between man and man, and in what does this diversity consist? In truth, when we perceive at first view so many apparent differences between one individual and another, one country and another, one epoch of humanity and another, we feel a profound emotion of melancholy, and are tempted to regard an intellectual development so capricious, and even the whole of humanity, as a phenomenon without consistency, without grandeur, and without interest. But it is demonstrated by a more attentive observation of facts, that no man is a stranger to either of the three great ideas which constitute consciousness, namely, personality or the liberty of man, impersonality or the necessity of nature, and the providence of God. Every man comprehends these three ideas immediately, because he found them at first and constantly finds them again within himself. The exceptions to this fact, by their small number, by the absurdities which they involve, by the difficulties which they create, serve only to exhibit, in a still clearer light, the universality of faith in the human race, the treasure of good sense deposited in truth, and the peace and happiness that there are for a human soul in not discarding the convictions of its kind. Leave out the exceptions which appear from time to time in certain critical periods of history, and you will perceive that the masses which alone have true existence, always and everywhere live in the same faith, of which the forms only vary.”

  These somewhat too copious extracts have been purposely taken from the first volume of the “Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature,” edited by George Ripley in 1838, rather than from the collected writings of Cousin, because they show what a leading New England transcendentalist thought most important in the teaching of the French school. His own estimate of the philosophy and his expectations from it may be learned from the closing passages of the introduction to that volume:

  “The objects at which Mr. Coleridge aims, it seems to me, are in a great measure accomplished by the philosophy of Cousin. This philosophy demolishes, by one of the most beautiful specimens of scientific analysis that is anywhere to be met with, the system of sensation, against which Mr. Coleridge utters such eloquent and pathetic denunciations. It establishes on a rock the truth of the everlasting sentiments of the human heart. It exhibits to the speculative inquirer, in the rigorous forms of science, the reality of our instinctive faith in God, in virtue, in the human soul, in the beauty of holiness, and in the immortality of man.

  “Such a philosophy, I cannot but believe, will ultimately find a cherished abode in the youthful affections of this nation, in whose history, from the beginning, the love of freedom, the love of philosophical inquiry, and the love of religion, have been combined in a thrice holy bond. We need a philosophy like this to purify and enlighten our politics, to consecrate our industry, to cheer and elevate society. We need it for our own use in the hours of mental misgiving and gloom; when the mystery of the universe presses heavily upon our souls; when the fountains of the great deep are broken up, and the

‘Intellectual power
Goes sounding on, a dim and perilous way,’

over the troubled waters of the stormy sea. We need it for the use of our practical men, who, surrounded on every side with the objects of sense, engrossed with the competitions of business, the rivalries of public life, or the cares of professional duty, and accustomed to look at the immediate and obvious utility of everything which appeals to their notice, often acquire a distaste for all moral and religious inquiries, and as an almost inevitable consequence, lose their interest, and often their belief, in the moral and religious faculties of their nature. We need it for the use of our young men, who are engaged in the active pursuits of life, or devoted to the cultivation of literature. How many on the very threshold of manly responsibility, by the influence of a few unhappy mistakes, which an acquaintance with their higher nature, as unfolded by a sound religious philosophy, would have prevented, have consigned themselves to disgrace, remorse, and all the evils of a violated conscience! How many have become the dupes of the sophists’ eloquence, or the victims of the fanatics’ terrors, for whom the spirit of a true philosophy—a philosophy ‘baptized in the pure fountain of eternal love,’ would have preserved the charm and beauty of life.”

  Cousin’s “History of Philosophy,” translated by H. Linberg, was published in 1832. The “Elements of Psychology,” by C. S. Henry, appeared in 1834. Thus Cousin was early introduced and recommended, and his expositions of the German schools were received. The volume from which passages have been cited had an important influence on New England thought.

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