Brunschvicg, Léon (1869–1944)

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Léon Brunschvicg, the French idealist philosopher, was born in Paris and educated at the Lycée Condorcet, where he won awards in science as well as in classics and philosophy. He received both the licence ès lettres and the licence ès sciences from l'École Normale Supérieure in 1891. During the following nine years he taught philosophy at lycées in Lorient, Tours, and Rouen. His doctoral thesis, La modalité du jugement, was presented to the Sorbonne in 1897, and published in Paris the same year. In 1900 he returned to Paris to teach at his old lycée, later moving to the Lycée Henri IV and l'École Normale de Sèvres. In 1909 he was named professor of general philosophy at the Sorbonne. Except for the period 19141918, when he served in the armed forces auxiliary and as adviser to the government on educational reform, Brunschvicg held various chairs at the Sorbonne until the German occupation of Paris in 1940. He then settled in Aix-en-Provence and finally in Aix-les-Bains until his death.

Brunschvicg was one of the founders of the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale (1893) and of the Société française de Philosophie (1901). In 1919 he was elected to the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, serving as president in 1932. A prolific writer, editor of Blaise Pascal, and well known for his studies of René Descartes and Benedict de Spinoza, Brunschvicg was a major figure in French intellectual life for nearly half a century.

The "critical idealism" of Brunschvicg primarily recalls Immanuel Kant's analysis of the conditions of knowledge, but Brunschvicg's method was historical rather than deductive: He wished to grasp the mind's activity as it has revealed itself in the history of mathematics, science, and philosophy. In general perspective, Brunschvicg may be seen as heir to two currents in nineteenth-century French philosophy: the tradition of epistemological idealism descending through Charles Renouvier from Kant and Antoine Cournot, and the metaphysical idealism of Maine de Biran, Félix Ravaisson, Jules Lachelier, and Jules Lagneau.

For Brunschvicg, the goal of philosophical reflection was to disclose intellectual activity tending toward self-consciousness as it progressively constitutes knowledge. He therefore frequently characterized history as "the progress of consciousness" (le progrès de la conscience ). The double meaning of this expressionthe progress of conscience as well as of consciousnessalso suggests the moral dimension of Brunschvicg's monistic idealism. Viewed subjectively, the process is a conversion from naive acceptance of reality as external to an affirmation of the primacy of the mind as it provides intelligibility. Brunschvicg equated this with recognition of the supremacy of intelligence in a moral sense, which is to say that self-knowledge progresses toward refinement of conscience and moral autonomy. According to Brunschvicg, personal conversion reflects an absolute historical development undetermined in form but immanently oriented toward spiritual values (of which Unity is highest) and self-knowledge on the part of humanity as a whole.

The critique of this process, Brunschvicg insisted, cannot depend on a priori assumptions, nor can it hope to specify categories or functions of thought; such analysis would only falsify the mind's essential freedom and inventiveness. The emphasis on creative spontaneity suggests a relationship with Henri Bergson that Brunschvicg was proud to acknowledge, but not to the extent that he wished to embrace Bergson's intuitionism. Although Brunschvicg preferred the general terms mind and intelligence to thought and reason, this does not imply a commitment to nonintellectual modes of understanding. At the heart of his work lay studies in the history of science and of mathematics. Brunschvicg regarded scientific progress not only as a triumph of intellect but also as an exemplification of humankind's growing self-understanding. In this way, he defended a moral or "spiritual" conception of science as opposed to positivistic and conventionalistic theories. In his view, the truth of a theory essentially depends on the creative vitality of the mind as it assimilates what is given as nonmental, and as it judges, in turn, the adequacy of this synthesis.

In La modalité du jugement, Brunschvicg attempted to delineate the mind's developing accord with being or the real in a theory that classifies judgments according to the forms of "internality" and "externality." Brunschvicg took judgment, rather than the concept or category, as fundamental because he saw it as a synthesizing or unifying act, combining form and content. The form of "externality" was interpreted (evidently following Johann Gottlieb Fichte) as a restraining activity that the mind imposes dialectically on its own creative freedom or "internality."

In Les étapes de la philosophie mathématique (Paris, 1912), Brunschvicg examined the highest expression of "internality," mathematical judgment, which he regarded as uniquely appropriate to science because it is at once a free creationnot to be justified through physical interpretationyet inseparable from experience in its origin and in its "collaborative" task of assimilating being to the understanding. Brunschvicg substantiated this theme in L'expérience humaine et la causalité physique (Paris, 1922), which further revealed an implicit dualism and a reluctance to employ categories or principles of analysis, however provisional.

Brunschvicg's last decade was marked by works of a religious nature, following a comprehensive history of philosophy, Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale (Paris, 1927), intended to bear witness to humanity's spiritual unification. "Our destiny is to tend toward unity." Religious value apparently attaches to a particular dimension of the "progress of consciousness": The assimilation of being to consciousness insofar as the process is regarded as immanently guided by the value of unity. In this assimilation, humankind moves toward self-identification through the communion of shared intelligence.

Although it appears likely that Brunschvicg felt a moral or spiritual ideal to be predominant in his career, he will perhaps be best remembered as an interpreter of the French philosophical tradition and as a leading spokesman for the life of reason and the value of science.

See also Bergson, Henri; Cournot, Antoine; Descartes, René; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Lachelier, Jules; Maine de Biran; Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean Gaspard Félix; Renouvier, Charles Bernard; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de.


additional works by brunschvicg

Introduction à la vie de l'esprit. Paris, 1920.

Spinoza et ses contemporains. Paris: Alcan, 1923.

Les âges de l'intelligence. Paris: Alcan, 1934.

La raison et la religion. Paris: Alcan, 1939.

Écrits philosophiques. 3 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1951, 1954, 1958.

works on brunschvicg

Boirel, R. Brunschvicg, sa vie, son oeuvre avec un exposé de sa philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964.

Cochet, M. A. Commentaire sur la conversion spirituelle dans la philosophie de Léon Brunschvicg. Brussels, 1937.

Dagognet, F. "Brunschvicg et Bachelard." Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 70 (1965): 4354.

Deschoux, Marcel. La philosophie de Léon Brunschvicg. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949. Contains a complete bibliography.

Gex, M. "L'idéalisme critique de Léon Brunschvicg." Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie 19 (1969): 145164.

Messaut, J. La philosophie de Léon Brunschvicg. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1938.

Bernard Elevitch (1967)

Bibliography updated by Thomas Nenon (2005)

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Brunschvicg, Léon (1869–1944)

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