Bonnet, Charles (1720–1793)

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Charles Bonnet, the Swiss naturalist, "religious cosmologist," and philosopher, was born and died in Geneva. An original if eccentric thinker, Bonnet was widely read and influential. He was early attracted to natural history, and especially to entomology, by René Réaumur's work and by the Abbé Pluche's apologetic, Spectacle de la nature (1732). At the age of twenty, he discovered that the aphis can reproduce for several generations without mating, and that animals other than the "polyp" (hydra) can regenerate themselves. He treated these and other matters in his Traité d'insectologie (1745). When his eyesight became severely weakened from microscopic work, he turned to botany and philosophy. In Recherches sur l'usage des feuilles dans les plantes (1754), he outlined a vitalistic concept of plant behavior in relation to physical environment. In the Essai de psychologie (1754) and the Essai analytique sur les facultés de l'âme (1760), he followed Étienne Bonnot de Condillac by using the device of the imaginary statue to illustrate the genetic method of explaining the development of the personality. The personality arises from memory, which grows out of sensations. Especially concerned with the body-mind relation, Bonnet accepted David Hartley's theory of association of ideas. He defined freedom as the power of the soul to follow necessary motives; but in granting man a substantial mind, he denied mechanical determinism. He held that the relation between mind and body indicates that the mind must operate in a physical organism, but survives itan idea that was to be developed in his cosmic speculations.

With the Considérations sur les corps organisés (1762) and the popular Contemplation de la nature (17641765), Bonnet approached the general problems that were crucial in the biology of his time. In the Considérations he espoused the preformation theory (which he also needed for his cosmological speculations), using the work of Albrecht von Haller and Lazzaro Spallanzani. In the Contemplation, he developed the traditional idea of the chain of beings, temporalizing it as a process rather than as a static creation. Bonnet's cosmic philosophy received full development in his Palingénésie philosophique, ou Idées sur l'état passé et sur l'état futur des êtres vivants (1770), a work that Arthur O. Lovejoy termed "one of the most extraordinary speculative compounds to be found in the history of either science or philosophy." Bonnet looked to biology as a support for his religious beliefs, and used both biology and religion to build a view of cosmic evolution.

Bonnet's theory held, essentially, that the immortal soul ("the ethereal machine") is a "subtle matter" (as distinguished from "gross matter") in the pineal gland. The ethereal machine is the germ of the resurrected body. All possible beings, all individuals, were created at once, according to the principle of plenitude. They exist in germ until released by the death of other individual organisms. The lower souls of animals are perfectible, and the universe is one in which all things tend to perfection. The principal changes occur as the result of catastrophes. Earth has passed through a series of epochs, each terminated by a cataclysm that destroyed all organic life except the immortal germs, allowing the germs to take on different forms, all foreseen in the original creation and all ascending to higher levels. Ontogenesis is a proof of this. Thus, every germ will reappear in a succession of higher embodiments, the soul of each waiting until the proper state of Earth evokes its next and higher incarnation. The entire creation is moving upward; man will become angel, and apes and elephants will take man's place. There is also life on other worlds, more or less advanced in perfection than on Earth.

This theory cannot be called one of organic evolution (as is sometimes erroneously affirmed), since species, according to Bonnet, have no natural history within a single world epoch. Species do not evolve from lower forms in the way modern biology conceives this process; their history is predetermined and fully inscribed in the germ at the moment of the original creation. The germ bears the form of all it will ever be. Nevertheless, Bonnet's universe is self-differentiating arid progressive.

Bonnet considered finalism in organisms an incontrovertible argument against atheism. An optimist, he maintained there is greater good than evil in the universe, and that created things necessarily have a lesser degree of perfection than their creator. Man is superior to animals in his sensual apparatus, brain, and speech organs; but he is part of the general, unfolding order of nature. Man knows a Natural Law that is virtual in him but develops by experience; however, he is moved by self-love and by passions, which may be beneficent or may be destructive and cruel. In considering the inherited organization more determining than education (experience), Bonnet was closer to the "man-machine" school of Julien Offray de La Mettrie than to the sensationist theories of Claude-Adrien Helvétius.

See also Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Descartes, René; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Hartley, David; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; La Mettrie, Julien Offray de; Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken; Mind-Body Problem; Organismic Biology; Philosophy of Biology; Psychology.


The best work on Bonnet is Max Offner, Die Psychologie Charles Bonnets (Leipzig, 1893). See also Georges Bonnet, Charles Bonnet (Lac, 1929); Edouard Claparède, La psychologie animale de Charles Bonnet (Geneva: Georg, 1909); Jacques Roger, Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée française du XVIII siècle (Paris, 1963). For further bibliographical information, see D. C. Cabeen, A Critical Bibliography of Eighteenth Century French Literature (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1951), pp. 294296.

other recommended titles

Anderson, Lorin. Charles Bonnet and the Order of the Known. Boston: Kluwer, 1982.

Anderson, Lorin. "Charles Bonnet's Taxonomy and Chain of Being." Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 4558.

Kaitaro, Timo. "Ideas in the Brain: The Localization of Memory Traces in the Eighteenth Century." Journal of the History of Philosophy 37 (2) (1999): 301322.

O'Neal, John C. The Authority of Experience: Sensationist Theory in the French Enlightenment. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1996.

L. G. Crocker (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)