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Le Roy, Édouard (1870–1954)


Édouard Le Roy, the French philosopher of science, ethics, and religion, was born in Paris and studied science at the École Normale Supérieure. He passed the agrégation examination in mathematics in 1895 and took a doctorate in science in 1898. Le Roy became a lycée teacher of mathematics in Paris but was soon drawn to philosophical problems through an interest in the philosophy of Henri Bergson. He succeeded Bergson, to whose thought his own was deeply indebted, as professor of philosophy at the Collège de France in 1921 and was elected to the French Academy in 1945.

In a series of articles titled "Science et philosophie" (Revue de métaphysique et de morale 7 [1899]: 375425, 503562, 706731, and 8 [1900]: 3772), Le Roy took a pragmatic view of the nature of scientific truth, a view more or less shared by his contemporaries Bergson, Jules Henri Poincaré, and E. Wilbois. Scientific laws and even scientific "facts," Le Roy maintained, are arbitrary constructs designed to meet our needs and to facilitate effective action in pursuit of those needs. Scientific reason, in other words, distorts reality in the interests of practical action. The scientific facts on which induction is based are artificially extracted from the continuous flow of happenings and experiences and built up into convenient (rather than "true") thought structures, which constitute "the grammar of discourse" and enable us to talk about, and deal with, what would otherwise be "the amorphous material of the given." Thus, in reacting against scientific mechanism, Le Roy presented an extreme view of mind as the creator of its own reality.

Le Roy took the same pragmatic view of discursive religious truth in Dogme et critique (Paris, 1906). His views were supported by the Catholic modernists and condemned as dangerous in a papal encyclical. Le Roy held that the validity of dogmas cannot be proved, nor do they profess to be provable; they depend upon a rigid and externally imposed authority; their expression and frame of reference is that of medieval philosophy; and they are alien to, and incompatible with, the body of modern knowledge. For these four reasons they are unacceptable to the modern mind as truths. Nevertheless, they possess a pragmatic value; they fulfill a purpose, in this case a moral one. "Although mysterious for the intelligence in search of explanatory theories," Le Roy held, "these dogmas lend themselves nonetheless to perfectly specific formulation as directives for action." Christianity is thus not a system of speculative philosophy, but a set of stated or implied injunctions, a way of life. For example, the belief in a personal God demands that our relation to him resemble our relation to a human person. The doctrine of the resurrection of Christ teaches that we should behave in relation to him as if he were alive today.

Le Roy's misgivings concerning religious dogmas arose because the dogmas seemed to him irreconcilable with a homogeneous system of rational knowledge. In a pragmatic and relativist conception of truth such incompatibility should not be significant. However, the criterion of truth, for Le Roy, was neither use nor coherence, but "life" itself, dynamic and self-developing. Scientific theory is useful distortion, religious teaching a source of moral action, and both are arbitrary in their choice of concepts and symbols. Genuine knowledge is a kind of self-identification with the object in its primitive reality, uncontaminated by the demands of practical need. Intuition, not discursive thought, is the instrument of such knowledge, and the criterion of truth is that one should have lived it; otherwise, according to Le Roy, one ought not to understand it. This, as L. Susan Stebbing rightly pointed out, altogether removes the criterion from rational criticism, since life is both truth and the criterion of truth.

Le Roy's philosophy culminated in moral and religious concerns, as is seen in Volume 2 of his posthumously published Essai d'une philosophie première (2 vols., Paris, 19561958). His position is similar to Bergson's in Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion. The élan vital that animates us takes the form of an "open," that is, indeterminate, moral demand. This generalized obligation is the essence of the self as a free and self-creating agent. Le Roy stated that "to believe is to perceive a spiritual exigency and to act under its inspiration." The open nature of the exigency "beyond any ideal capable of being formulated" places Le Roy's view in the same category as much recent morality of authenticity. The agent is constantly transcending the determinate in the direction of some necessarily unspecified self-fulfillment. Because morality implies precepts and precepts imply universalizability, the notion of a morality that cannot be formulated would seem to be self-defeating. In his conception of a moral quest Le Roy, in fact, seemed to presuppose the Christian values to which he subscribed.

See also Bergson, Henri; Laws, Scientific; Modernism; Philosophy of Science; Poincaré, Jules Henri; Religion; Stebbing, Lizzie Susan.


additional works by le roy

Une philosophic nouvelle: Henri Bergson. Paris: Alcan, 1912.

L'exigence idéaliste et le fait de l'évolution. Paris: Boivin, 1927.

Les origines humaines et l'évolution de l'intelligence. Paris: Boivin, 1928.

Le problème de Dieu. Paris, 1929.

La pensée intuitive. 2 vols. Paris: Boivin, 19291930.

Introduction à l'étude du problème religieux. Paris, 1944.

La pensée mathématique pure. Paris, 1960.

works on le roy

Gagnebin, S. La philosophie de l'intuition. Essai sur les idées d'Édouard Le Roy. Paris, 1912.

Olgiati, F. Édouard Le Roy e il problema di Dio. Milan, 1929.

Stebbing, L. Susan. Pragmatism and French Voluntarism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1914.

Colin Smith (1967)

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Le Roy, Édouard

Le Roy, Édouard

(b. Paris, France, 18 June 1870; d. Paris, 9 November 1954),

Mathematics, Philosophy.

Le Roy’s father worked for the Compagnie Transatlantique for several years and then established his own business outfitting ships in Le Havre. Le Roy studied at home under the guidance of a tutor and was admitted in 1892 to the École Normale Supérieure. He became an agrégé in 1895 and earned a doctor of science degree in 1898; his thesis attracted the attention of Henri Poincaré. Until 1921 he taught mathematics classes that prepared students for the leading scientific schools. From 1924 to 1940 he was Chargé de conférences at the Faculty of Sciences in Paris.

Although trained as a mathematician, Le Roy’s enthusiastic discovery of the “new philosophy” of Bergson, to which he devoted a book in 1912, led him to teach philosophy. Bergson appointed Le Roy his suppléant in the chair of modern philosophy at the Collège de France (1914–192). Named professor in 1921, Le Roy taught there until 1941; several of his published works are transcriptions of his courses. He was elected to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1919, and he entered the Académie Francaise as Bergson’s successor in 1945.

A Catholic and a scientist, Le Roy had, in his youth, put forth theses in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science that provoked lively polemics. In “Qu’est-ce qu’un dogme?” (La quinzaine, 16 Apr. 1905) he emphasized the opposition between dogma and the body of positive knowledge. Dogma, he asserted, has a negative sense: it excludes and condemns certain errors rather than determining the truth in a positive fashion. Above all a dogma has a practical sense—that is its primary value.

Le Roy was thus involved in the quarrels precipitated by “modernist philosophy,” which was condemned in the encyclical Pascendi by Pope Pius X in 1907, and his Le problème de Dieu (1929) was placed on the Index in June 1931. In the philosophy of science, Le Roy had proclaimed, in articles in Revue de métaphysiqe et de morale (1899, 1900), that facts are less established than constituted and that, far from being received passively by the mind, they are to some extent created by it. These paradoxical statements excited a certain interest through Poincaré’s criticism of them in La valeur de la science (Paris, 1906, ch. 10).

While wishing to defend and justify the Bergsonian notion of creative evolution, Le Roy set forth his own philosophy of life, a “doctrine of authentically spiritualist inspiration” that sought a “restoration of finality” and respected the idea of creation. Le Roy’s views were similar in many ways to those of his friend Teilhard de Chardin. According to Le Roy, there exists at the basis of life—as the major cause of its changes and progress—a psychic factor, a genuine power of invention. To recapture the activity of this factor one must consider the sole contemporary being—that is, Man—in which the power of creative evolution is still vital. Man must be observed in his capacity as inventor in order to return, by means of retrospective analogy, to the paleontological past. Biosphere and noosphere are the great moments of evolution. At the origin of the noosphere we must conceive a phenomenon suigeneris of vital transformation affecting the entire biosphere: hominization. Humanity then appears as a new order of reality, sustaining a relationship with the lower forms of life analogous to that between these lower forms and inanimate matter. Man then no longer seems a paradoxical excrescence but becomes the key to transformist explanations. According to the “lesson that emerges from Christianity,” man’s intuition of a spiritual beyond and the ideal of an interior and mystic life show that we must form a concept of Homo spiritualis distinct from Homo faber and Homo sapiens.

In analyzing the history and philosophy of science, Le Roy likewise accorded a central position to the notion of invention, itself intimately linked to that of intuition, since intuitive thought is always, to some extent, inventive. True mathematical intuition is operative intuition; and the analyst should everywhere attempt to bring to consciousness the operative action perceived in its dynamic indivisibility. The transition from physics to microphysics clearly illuminates “the primary role of a factor of inventive energy in the innermost recesses of thought.” Reason itself is in a state of becoming and must gradually be invented.

What will regulate this invention? An absolutely primary foundation must be sought which will be indisputable in every regard and, at the same time, dynamic and vital. Synthesizing twenty-five years of teaching, Le Roy in the Essai d’une philosophie première, his last course at the Collége de France, presented the major steps of such a search, the chief concern of which is to satisfy “the demands of idealism.”


I. Original Works. Le Roy’s principal publications are “Sur l’intégration des équations de la chaleur,” in Annales scientifiques de l’École normale supérieure,14 (1897), 379–465, and ibid.,15 (1898), 9–178, his doctoral diss.; Dogme et critique (Paris, 1906); Une Philosophie nouvelle: Henri Bergson (Paris, 1912); L’exigence idéaliste et le fait de l’évolution (Paris, 1927); Les origines humaines et l’évolution de l’intelligence (Pairs, 1928); La pensée intuitive, 2 vols. (Paris, 1929–1930); Le Probléme de Dieu (Paris, 1929); and Introduction à l’étude du problème religieux (Paris, 1944).

After Le Roy’s death his son, Georges Le Roy, published the lectures his father had given at the Collége de France as Essai d’une philosophie première, l’exigence idéaliste et l’exigence morale, 2 vols. (Paris, 1956–1958); and La penséemathematique pure (Paris, 1960).The “Notice bibliographique”, inÉtudes philosophiques (Apr. 1995), 207–210, records many of Le Roy’s works.

II. Secondary Literature. See the following, listed chronologically: S. Gagnebin, La philosophie de l’intuition. Essai sur les idées de Mr Édouard Le Roy(Paris, 1912); L. Weber, “Une philosophie de l’invention. M. Édouard Le Roy.” in Revue de métaphysique et de morale,39 (1932) 59–86, 253–292:,F. Olgiati Édouard Le Roy e il problema di Dio (milan, 1929); J.Lacroix,“Édouard Le Roy, philosophe de l’invention.” in Études philodophiques (Apr. 1955), 189–205; G. Maire, “La philosophie d’Edouard Le Roy.” ibid., 27 (1972), 201–220;M. Tavares de Miranda, Théorie de la vérité chez Édouard Le Roy(Paris-Recife, Brazil, 1957), and G.Bachelard, L’engagement rationaliste (Paris, 1972), 155–168.

Biographical information is in E. Rideau, “Édouard Le Roy,” in Études, no. 245 (April 1945), 246–255; and in the addresses delivered at the Académie Française by A. Chaumeix at the time of le Roy’s reception on 18 oct.1945, in Institut de France, Publications diverses,no. 18 (1945); and by H. Daniel-Rops when he succeeded Le Roy at the Academy, ibid., no.8 (1956).

On Le Roy’s religious philosophy, see the article by E. Rideau cited above and A-D.Sertillanges, Le christianisme et les philosophes, II (Paris, 1941),402–419. In an app. to Bergson et Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1963), pp. 655–659,M.B, Madaule discusses Le Roy’s friendship with Teilhard, the large area of agreement in their views, and their correspondence.

Concerning the polemic with Poincaré, the ways in which Le Roy weakened his first statements, and his final homage to Poincaré, see J. Abelé,“Le Roy et la philosophie des sciences,” in Études, no 284 (April 1955), 106–112

M. Serres discusses Le Roy’s Le pensée mathématique pure in “La querelle des anciens et des modernes,” in his Hermès ou la communication(Paris, 11968), pp. 46–77. While terming the work a “monument of traditional epistemology,” he shows how Le Roy, in applying his method of analysis to a mathematics that was already outdated, failed completely to consider “modern mathematics.”

E. Coumet

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