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Etienne Bonnot de Condillac

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A French philosopher, born at Grenoble, 30 September, 1715; died near Beaugency (Loiret), 3 August, 1780. He was the brother of the Abbé de Mably and was himself Abbé of Mureaux. Thanks to the resources of his benefice, he was able to follow his natural inclinations and devote himself wholly to study, for which purpose he retired into solitude. About 1755 he was chosen preceptor of the Duke of Parma, the grandson of Louis XV, for whom he wrote his "Cours d'études". The education of the prince being completed, Condillac was elected in 1768 to succeed the Abbé d'Olivet as a member of the French Academy. He was present but once at the sessions--on the day of his reception--and then retired to his estate of Flux near Beaugency where he spent the remainder of his days.

From an intellectual point of view, Condillac's life may be divided into two periods. During the first he simply developed the theories of Locke. He published in 1746 his "Essai sur l' origine des connaissances humaines" which is a summary of Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding", and in 1749 his "Traité des systemes" wherein he attacks the innate ideas and abstract systems of Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Boursier. The latter period, devoted to more original work, begins with the "Traité des sensations" in 1754, the central idea of which is to renew the human understanding by a fundamental analysis of the first data of mental experience in man's conscious life. In 1755 he published his "Traité des animaux", a sequel to the "Traité des sensations"; and then his "Cours d'études" which includes "Grammaire", "L'Art d'écrire", "L'Art de raisonner", "L'Art de penser", "L'histoire générale des hommes et des empires", edited in 13 vols., Parma, 1769-1773. This was placed on the Index in 1836. In 1776 appeared his book on "Le commerce et le gouvernement considérés relativement l'un à l'autre" in which he exposes his principles of the right to property and his theory of economics. In 1780, a few months before his death, he published his "Logique", an elementary treatise composed at the request of the council of public instruction of Poland. His "Langue des calculs" was published unfinished only after his death in the first complete edition of his works (23 vols., Paris, 1798).

Condillac starts with Locke's empiricism, but Locke, he thinks, did not go deeply enough into the problem of the origin of human knowledge. According to Locke our knowledge has a two-fold source, sensation and reflection; according to Condillac, not only all our ideas, but even all our mental operations and faculties spring from sensation alone as their ultimate source; all are merely different stages or forms in the development of sensation (sensations transformées). He illustrates his theory by the hypothesis of a statue, which, inert at the beginning, is supposed to acquire, one by one, the senses, from the most elementary, smell, to the most perfect, touch. With this last sense and its impression of resistance, the statue which had been previously mere odour, taste, colour, etc., now acquires the distinction between the self and non-self. When it has all the senses, it has also the whole mental life. From sensation considered as representative spring all the faculties of the understanding. Attention is nothing but an exclusive sensation. When the object is present the impression is called actual sensation; the impression which remains after the disappearance of the object is called memory. Comparison is nothing more than a double attention; we cannot compare two objects or perceive two sensations without remarking that they are similar or dissimilar; to perceive similarities or differences is to judge; to reason is to draw a judgment from another judgment wherein it was contained. Moreover, all sensation is essentially affective, that is, painful or pleasant; under this aspect it is the source of all our active faculties. Need is the pain which results from the privation of an object whose presence is demanded by nature or habit; need directs all our energies towards this object; this very direction is what we call desire; desire as a dominant habit or passion; will is nothing but absolute desire, a desire made more energetic and more permanent through hope. What we call substance is simply the collection of sensations. What we call the ego is simply the collection of our sensations. Is there behind these sensations a something which supports them? We do not know. We express and summarize our sensations by means of words; we give the same name to all the individual object which we judge to be similar; this name is what we call a general idea. Through general ideas or names we bring order into our knowledge; and this is precisely the purpose of reasoning and it is what constitutes science. Good reasoning, therefore, consists essentially in speaking well. Ultimately the work of human thought is to pass from the confused and complex content of the primitive sensations to clear and simple concepts; the essential and the unique method is analysis based on the principle of identity, and the perfect analytical method is the mathematical method. To reason is to calculate; what we call progress in ideas is only progress in expression. A science is only a well-constructed language, une langue bien faite, that is, simple, with signs precisely determined according to the laws of analogy. The primitive form of language is the language of action which is innate in us, synthetical and confused. Under pressure of the need of communication between men, these actions are interpreted as signs, decomposed, analyzed, and the spoken language takes the place of the language of action.

Condillac's theory of education is based on the idea that the child in its development must repeat the various states through which the race has passed--an idea which, with certain modifications, still survives. Another of his principles, more widely received at present, is that the educative process must be shaped in accordance with natural development. He also insists on the necessity of establishing a connection between the various items of knowledge, and of training the judgment rather than burdening the memory. The study of history holds a large place in his system, and religion is of paramount importance. He insists that the prince, for whom the "Course d'études" was written shall be more thoroughly instructed in matters of religion than the subjects whom he is later to govern. On the other hand, Condillac has been justly criticized for his attempt to make the child a logician and psychologist, even a metaphysician, before he has mastered the elements of grammar--a mistake which is obviously due to his error concerning the origin of ideas. The system of Condillac ends, therefore, in sensualistic empiricism, nominalism, and agnosticism.

If Condillac's works evince a certain precision of thought and vigour of reasoning they clearly betray a lack of observation and of the sense of reality. Most of the time he is blinded by the tendency to reduce all processes of thought to a single method, all ideas and principles to a single source. This tendency is well exemplified in his hypothesis of the statue. He supposes it to be mere passivity; and by this very supposition, instead of a man he makes it a machine or, as Cousin says, a sensible corpse. He attempts to reduce everything to mere sensation or impression, and in reality every step in what he calls a transformation is made under the influence of an activity and a principle which dominate and interpret this sensation, but which Condillac confounds with it. It is the operation of this activity and principle essentially distinct from sensation, that enables him to speak of attention, comparison, judgment, and personality. An attempt has been made to show that Condillac was the forerunner, in psychology, ethics, and sociology of the English school represented by Mill, Bain, and Spencer (Dewaule, Condillac et la psychologie anglaise contemporaine, Paris, 1892); but this view seems to overlook the influence of Locke upon his successors in England and the traditional tendency of English philosophical thought (cf. Picavet in Revue philosophique, XXXIX, p. 215).

About this page

APA citation. Sauvage, G. (1908). Etienne Bonnot de Condillac. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Sauvage, George. "Etienne Bonnot de Condillac." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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