Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de (1714–1780)

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Étienne Bonnot de Condillac was one of the French philosophes, known primarily for his development of the doctrine of "sensationism." According to this doctrine, not only all of one's thoughts but even the basic operations on these thoughts derive from sensation.

Condillac was born on September 30, 1714, in Grenoble, one of five children of Gabriel Bonnot, vicomte de Mably, and Catherine de la Coste. He took the name of Condillac after his father purchased an estate of that same name in 1720. Condillac was born with poor eyesight that prevented him from reading before the age of twelve, and he was considered in his childhood to possess only limited intellectual abilities. However, in 1730 he took up residence with his brother, the abbé de Mably, in Lyon to attend the Jesuit college there, and in 1733 he went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where he later became a seminarian at Saint-Suplice. Condillac defended his thesis in theology in 1739, and he took holy orders around 1741, though he subsequently devoted himself more to study than to pastoral work. Indeed, he was said to have celebrated Mass only once in his life. While in Paris Condillac frequented the salons and was exposed to the views of John Locke and Isaac Newton. He was influenced in particular by Locke's critique of innatism and Newton's method of explaining phenomena in terms of simple general principles drawn from experience.

Condillac was well connected in French Enlightenment circles. His cousin was Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, coauthor of the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (17511765), and he was a friend of the other coauthor, Denis Diderot, as well as of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The entries of the Encyclopédie on "Mémoire (Métaphysiq )," "Réflexion (Logique )," and "Signe (Métaphysiq )" reflect the influence of Condillac's views on these topics. The first of his philosophical writings was the Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge), which was published anonymously in 1746, after Diderot had helped him find a publisher. Around this time Condillac corresponded with the French scientist Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, who was then the president of the Royal Prussian Academy in Berlin.

In 1746 Condillac submitted an essay on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's theory of monads to a competition sponsored by the academy (it was not selected for the prize), and he was elected to this organization in 1749. Also in 1749 Condillac published his Traité des systèmes (Treatise on Systems), a critique of the metaphysics and methodologies of philosophers such as René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, and Leibniz. He published his second main philosophical work, Traité des sensations (Treatise on Sensations), in 1754. The following year he published Traité des animaux (Treatise on Animals), a work that emphasizes the differences between human and animal souls, and "Extrait raisonné" of the Traité des sensations. In 1755 he also produced a "Dissertation sur la liberté" (Dissertation on Liberty), appended to the Traité des sensations, that addresses the issue of human freedom.

In 1758 Condillac became tutor to the young Prince of Parma, grandson of Louis XV. He spent nine years in Parma, during which time he wrote with the help of his brother the multivolume Cours d'Etudes (Course of Study), which was published in 1775. He returned to Paris in 1768, when he became a member of the Académie française, but left Paris again in 1773 to take up residence at the chateau de Flux, near Beaugency, which his niece had purchased for him. After that time he published a work on commerce in 1776 and a textbook on logic, which the comte Stanislas Félix Potocki had requested for his Polish schools in 1780. On August 3, 1780, Condillac died at his chateau after a return from a trip to Paris. He left behind an unfinished manuscript, La langue des calculs (The Language of Calculation), which was first published in 1798.

Mind and Sensations

relation to locke

In his Essai Condillac acknowledged his great debt to Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding, and in particular to the attack there on innate ideas and to Locke's empirical investigation of the origin of human thought. This debt is reflected in the subtitle of the English translation of the Essai : "A Supplement to Mr. Locke's Essay." Even so, Condillac argued explicitly against Locke that one can know with certainty that the mind that is the subject of thought is an indivisible and immaterial substance wholly distinct from body (2001, I.i.§6, pp. 12f). In later years Condillac was especially concerned to distance himself from the materialism of more radical French Enlightenment figures such as Julien Offray de La Mettrie and Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach. In the Essai Condillac also distinguished himself from Locke by emphasizing the possibility that when separated from the body one's mind can derive knowledge independently of the senses. However, he noted that in one's present condition, that is, after the fall from the biblical state of innocence that the first humans experienced, the human mind is wholly dependent on the body, to the extent that one can have no thought that does not have a sensory origin. In Condillac's terms, all of one's thoughts are simply "sensations transformées."

Condillac's dualism informs his conclusion that sensations are modification of an immaterial mind. In his Essai he also claimed to follow Locke in holding that there are no sensory impressions in one's mind of which one is not conscious. Indeed, at one point he used this same point against the account in Locke's Essay of shape perception. This account addresses the speculation of Locke's friend, William Molyneux, that a man born blind would on recovering sight not be able to immediately distinguish a cube from a sphere by vision alone, without the aid of touch. Locke accepted this conclusion and claimed on the basis of this hypothetical case that one's perception of three-dimensional shapes involves not only sensations of light and color but also judgments that alter these sensations "without our taking notice of it." Condillac objected that the phenomenology of shape percep-tion belies this account. One's sensations of light and colors render one immediately conscious of a three-dimensional world. Condillac did mention the 1729 report to the Royal Society in London by the English surgeon William Chesselden that subjects who had blinding cataracts removed could not recognize shapes. But he proposed that this result was due simply to the fact that the subjects were overwhelmed by the new sensory information and thus were unable to focus properly on the shapes (2001,§16, p. 110).

relation to berkeley

In a 1749 Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on the Blind) Diderot charged that Condillac's Essai had failed to respond adequately to an idealism in George Berkeley that precludes any awareness of an external material world. Condillac in effect responded to this charge by attempting in his Traité des sensations to give an account of one's perception of the extended world that does not simply assume from the start that such a world exists. He introduced the example of a slowly animated statue to illustrate the manner in which one comes to perceive the external world. This statue is supposed to possess initially only the sense of smell and to perceive this smell merely as an aspect of itself, and not as part of an external world (Traité des sensations I.i.2). Even when the statue comes to sense colors, the colors themselves are not considered as constituting distinct shapes. It is only with the sense of touch that the statue acquires an awareness of objects in space and attributes various sensible qualities to such objects (III.iii.§2). Here, Condillac abandoned his view in the Essai that one senses shapes by means of the sensations of light and color alone. He also granted in the Traité, in effect, that one is not immediately aware of everything in one's sensations. Even though sensations of color are shaped, one cannot recognize the shapes until one comes to associate colors with various tactile sensations.

In a supplement to his 1756 Lettres à un Américan, Joseph Adrien Lelarge de Lignac objected that, by allowing in the Traité that one has color sensations that are themselves extended, Condillac illicitly attributed to spirits a quality that pertains to bodies alone. In his "Lettre de M. l'abbé de Condillace à l'auteur des Lettres à un Américan," first published the same year, Condillac responded that colors are considered as manners of being of the mind only with respect to their chromatic features, and not with respect to their extension or shape. On the view in the Traité, one can recognize the colors as marking out shapes only when one associates them with tactile sensations and, on that basis, attributes the shapes to external objects. But there is still the question whether the color sensations themselves are extended, however one might consider them. Here, Condillac could perhaps draw on Berkeley's view in his Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) that extension exists in the mind not "by way of mode or attribute" but "by way of idea." There is still Berkeley's challenge that the extension that exists by way of idea can in no way "resemble" any purported extramental extension. But it is not clear that Condillac was too concerned to respond to this sort of challenge given the skeptical suggestion in his writings that one cannot know for certain whether any object exists external to mind and, if any does, what the nature of such an object is (Traité des sensations IV.v).

Mental Operations and Signs

In his introductory remarks in the Essai Condillac claimed to have found a "fundamental fact of experience" that explains all operations involved in human knowledge, a fact that consists in "the connection of ideas, either with signs or among themselves" (2001, p. 5). An important part of Condillac's sensationism is his claim that not only the ideas but even their connections with signs or among themselves derive from sensation. He focused in particular on the initial connections forged through imagination, memory, and reminiscence. Imagination occurs when a perception is recalled at the sight of an object. This operation is possible because of an association between the object and perception set up by attention to their conjunction in experience. The attention is itself developed by associations of perceptions with sensations of pleasure and pain. Memory is a more developed operation that involves the recall not of the perception itself, but only of certain signs or circumstances associated with the object. Thus, memory is an imagination of these signs. Finally, reminiscence is the most developed of the operations, which involves not merely the formation of previously experienced perceptions, as in imagination, or previously experienced signs, as in memory, but also the recognition that the recalled perceptions or signs were experienced in the past. The ability so to recognize itself depends on the previous exercise of the imagination and memory.

In the Essai Condillac distinguished among three kinds of signs involved in the development of memory and reminiscence. The first two, accidental and natural signs, are not initially recognized as signs. Accidental signs are simply objects that have been experienced with certain circumstances, whereas natural signs are merely one's instinctual reactions to certain experiences. These two become signs only when they are actually associated with the circumstances or experiences. Instituted signs are those that one has chosen to induce thoughts. Though not required for the exercise of imagination and memory, the use of instituted signs allows one to have control over these operations. Such control in turn allows for the development of further rational operations such as abstraction and judgment that according to Condillac are not present in brute animals but are unique to humans.

In a 1752 letter to Maupertuis Condillac wrote that though he had tried to show in the Essai how the progress of the mind depends on language, "I was mistaken and gave too much to signs" (19471951, vol. 2, p. 536). The mistake here is indicated by Condillac's comment in a 1747 letter to Gabriel Cramer that his work was "not clear enough" on the point that natural and arbitrary signs "are the first principles of the development and progress of the operations of mind" (1953, p. 86). Condillac had of course indicated the importance of these kinds of signs in the Essai, but his mistake seems to have consisted in distinguishing them too greatly from instituted signs involved in language. This would explain why he chose to focus in his Traité on the nature of sensation and mental operations before the start of language. There, even a statue without language is held to be capable of constructing a rich awareness of a spatially extended world on the basis of primitive sensory experience.

Language and Action

In the Essai Condillac criticized Locke for addressing the topic of words only after he had provided an account of ideas and mental operations. He insisted that the use of words is in fact "the principle that develops the seed of all our ideas" (2001, p. 8). Though the discussion in the Traité indicates that Condillac came to have a greater appreciation of one's prelinguistic abilities, he never relinquished the view that language is crucial for the development of mind. Whereas Descartes and Locke both suggested that thoughts or ideas are prior to and condition the use of language, Condillac insisted that it is the use of language that makes higher-order thoughts and mental operations possible. Here, one has a historical precedent for the "linguistic turn" in twentieth-century analytic philosophy.

Among the higher-order operations that require the use of language, Condillac singled out in particular a reflection that allows the mind to detach itself from current perceptions and apply itself to different objects. The Essai introduces the objection that the claim that this operation depends on language seems to be circular, since the use of instituted signs itself requires the abilities involved in reflection. Condillac responded to this objection that the nonlinguistic use of signs prepares the way for the mental operations required for the use of language and that these operations in turn make possible the development of reflection. He compared this relation between reflection and language to the discovery of algebraic signs by means of mental operations that had sufficient exercise to prepare the way for this discovery, but that were more primitive than the sort of mathematical thought that could not have occurred without this discovery (2001, II.i.§4, p. 115).

In the Essai Condillac claimed that spoken language derives from a "language of action" that involves voluntary control over nonlinguistic signs. He took the fact that such control develops over time to show that even the will derives from sensation. Still, he also seems to have indicated in the "Dissertation sur la liberté" that the freedom to direct attention is an original mental ability (19471951, vol. 1, p. 316). His sensationism thus appears to entail not that the will itself as a capacity derives from sensation, but that the employment of the capacity so derives. The employment of the will is made possible in particular by the habits that the instinctual use of natural and artificial signs produces.

Noam Chomsky claims to find in Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot's Grammaire générale et raisonnée, ou La grammaire de Port-Royal a doctrine that posits innate "universal grammar" responsible for language (compare Arnauld and Lancelot 1966 and Chomsky 1966). The historical accuracy of this characterization is a matter of dispute (e.g., see the critical review of Chomsky in Aarsleff 1982, pp. 101119), but what is undeniable is that Condillac offered an alternative to this sort of linguistics that attempts to explain language in terms of prelinguistic instincts and habits. This alternative was a particularly important influence for one of the classic texts in the field, Johann Gottfried Herder's Abhandlung Über den Ursprung der Sprache (1772).

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Animal Mind; Arnauld, Antoine; Berkeley, George; Chomsky, Noam; Descartes, René; Diderot, Denis; Encyclopédie; Enlightenment; Experience; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; La Mettrie, Julien Offray de; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Malebranche, Nicolas; Maupertuis, Pierre-Louis Moreau de; Newton, Isaac; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Sensationalism; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Touch.


works by condillac

Oeuvres philosophiques. 3 vols., edited by Georges Le Roy. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 19471951.

Lettres inédites à Gabriel Cramer, edited by Georges Le Roy. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953.

Condillacou la joie de vivre, edited by Roger Lefévre. Paris: Seghers, 1966.

La logique/Logic, edited by W. R. Albury. New York: Abaris, 1980.

Les monades, edited by Laurence L. Bongie. Oxford, U.K.: Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institution, 1980.

Philosophical Writings of Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac. 2 vols. Translated by Franklin Philip. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982.

Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge. Translated by Hans Aarsleff. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

historical works

Arnauld, Antoine, and Claude Lancelot. Grammaire générale et raisonnée, ou La grammaire de Port-Royal, edited by Herbert E. Brekle. Studtgart-Bad: Frommann, 1966.

Chesselden, W. "An Account of Some Observations Made by a Young Gentleman Who Was Born Blind and Was Couch'd between 13 and 14 Years of Age." In Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions 35 (402) (April 1728): 447450.

Diderot, Denis. "Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See." In Diderot's Early Philosophical Works. Translated by Margaret Jourdain. New York: AMS Press, 1973.

Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. 17 vols. Paris and Neufchâtel, Switzerland: Briasson et al, 17511765.

Lignac, Joseph Adrien Lelarge de. Suite des "Lettres à un Américan" sur les IV et V Volumes de l'Histoire Naturelle" de M. de Buffon et sur le "Traité des Animaux" de M. l'abbé de Condillac. 4 vols. Hamburg, Germany, 1756.

contemporary works

Aarsleff, Hans. From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Chomsky, Noam. Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Derrida, Jacques. The Archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac. Translated by John P. Leavy Jr. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Falkenstein, Lorne. "Étienne Bonnot de Condillac." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, 1995.

Knight, Isabel F. The Geometric Spirit: The Abbé de Condillac and the French Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

Lenois, Raymond. Condillac. Paris: F. Alcan, 1924.

Rousseau, Nicolas. Connaissance et langage chez Condillac. Geneva: Droz, 1986.

Sgard, Jean, ed. Condillac et les problèmes du langage. Geneva: Slatkine, 1982.

Sgard, Jean, ed. Corpus Condillac, 17141780. Geneva: Slatkine, 1981.

Tad M. Schmaltz (2005)