Cousin, Victor (1792–1867)

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Victor Cousin, the French philosopher and historian, was born in Paris and educated at the Lycée Charlemagne and the École Normale, where he studied under Pierre Laromiguière. He began his teaching career in 1815, assisting Pierre Paul Royer-Collard in his course on the history of philosophy at the University of Paris. Cousin studied German and read Immanuel Kant and F. H. Jacobi; but he was especially attracted to the works of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, whose thought had a permanent influence upon him. A trip to Germany in 1817 brought him into personal contact with both Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, a fact which was later responsible for the accusation that he had rejected French philosophy in favor of Germany's. In 1821 Cousin was removed from his position because of his supposed antigovernmental views, and he used his freedom to make another trip to Germany. While there he was imprisoned, on charges that have never been entirely clear, but was freed after six months. Returning to France, he spent his time writing his philosophical and historical works and editing the works of other philosophers, including Proclus (6 vols., 18201827) and René Descartes (1826, 11 vols.), and beginning his translation of Plato (13 vols., 18221840). In 1828 he was restored to his post and from then on had an influential career as lecturer. He became a spokesman for the juste milieu, as he called it, which in philosophy meant eclecticism. Cousin's power increased when in 1840 he became minister of public instruction, director of the École Normale, and a member of the Institut de France. He was not only the most famous French philosopher of his time but also supreme dictator of who should teach philosophy and what should be taught. He had become, moreover, a power in the whole educational system of France when he published a report on Prussian education (1833). (This report was later translated into English in 1834 and distributed to the schools of Massachusetts by an act of the legislature.) At the advent to power of Louis Napoleon in 1848 Cousin retired from active teaching and spent his time in literary studies.


Though Cousin started his career as a pupil of Laromiguière, it was the commonsense philosophy of Thomas Reid, as interpreted by Royer-Collard, that was the source of his own doctrine. To Cousin common sense was a fusion of the best that had been done in philosophy, combining the empiricism of sensationalism in epistemology with the spiritualism of religion. The epistemology of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and his school, Cousin felt, because it made the spirit of man a simple passive victim of external forces, had led them to atheism and materialism, both of which were to be condemned. Atheism and materialism could not give men those permanent principles that would guide their moral life. Such principles were to be found only if men realized that their minds were active as well as passive, their activity consisting in their use of their a priori categories of substance and causality.

Though it is likely that Cousin got the idea of the complementary active and passive aspects of mentality from Schelling, he himself attributed it to Maine de Biran's self-scrutiny. This gave him a French origin for doctrines which were to guide French professors. Maine de Biran's active will, Cousin maintained, was balanced by sensibility, which "implies" the existence of an external world. Sensibility and active will were accompanied by reason, and thus Cousin revived the traditional threefold analysis of the mind. Corresponding to the three faculties was a threefold division of philosophical problems into that of the good, the beautiful, and the true. In his book Du vrai, du beau et du bien (1853) Cousin argued that these problems were united in a whole which absorbed what was valid in sensation (John Locke), reason (Plato), and the heart (for which he named no sponsor). These three parts of the soul are not independent of one another. Reason requires both sensation and the heart, sensation requires reason and the heart, and the heart requires both reason and sensation. By analogy epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics are all intertwined and inseparable except for purposes of exposition.

Political Philosophy

The political philosophy of Cousin was expressed in Justice et charité, a brief tract that he wrote as one of a series published by members of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in 1848. This tract is based on the same metaphor of the interdependence of separate things. The purpose of all the tracts in this series was to substantiate the right to property, the well-being of family life, popular freedom, and progress. Cousin opposed the idea of equality, the right to work, and governmental aid. Justice is the protection of natural rights, but every right implies a complementary duty. Men are all free, but their freedom resides only in the search for truth, in religious beliefs and practices, and in property. Justice demands that these rights be respected and protected by the state. On the other hand, charity demands that we abuse none of these rights, that we individually seek the truth and not perpetuate error, that we give others the religious freedom that we demand for ourselves, that we respect others' property as we would have them respect ours. In short, law is futile if it is not obeyed, and we cannot obey a law that is not enforced. Respect for the law is like charity in that it has no limits; for charity extends to all men and to liberty in all its forms.


Cousin was a strong believer in absolute beauty. His ideal work of art was the Apollo Belvedere. Art, he believed, is neither an imitation of nature (sensationalism) nor edification (moralism), but rather a vision of "the infinite." Though all arts utilize matter, they communicate to it "a mysterious character which speaks to the imagination and to the soul, liberates them from the real, and bears them aloft either gently or violently to unknown regions." These unknown regions are the country of God, the world of the ideal. Though this passage might seem to ally Cousin with the Romantic school, in fact it led him to give highest praise to the classicists of the seventeenth century. He was clearly under the influence of J. J. Winckelmann, who also admired the Apollo Belvedere as the summum of all ideal beauty and believed that all praiseworthy artists put into their works of art the ideal beauty of Plotinus. Cousin saw in beauty, as did Hegel, a sensuous manifestation of the Absolute, though he expressed it in different language.

At the same time Cousin admitted that one must not exaggerate the idealism of a work of art. All works of art speak to the senses as well as to the heart. The ideal must be presented to us in sensible form and it must also be agreeable to our feelings. A work of art that is beautiful was for Cousin a concrete presentation of the unity he found in eclecticism. Consequently, art that did not realize the potentialities of the sensuous, the rational, and the sentimental would not be of as high a rank as art that did. The conclusion was that poetry was the highest of all the arts. Its power of words is such that it can stimulate images, feelings (affections), and thoughts at one and the same time. It is thus a synthesis of all human powers.


The pioneering editorial work of Cousin, mentioned above, made accessible to the public manuscripts that had been previously hidden in libraries. His eclecticism served him well in this field, for with the exception of the sensationalists of the eighteenth century, there were few philosophers of the past in whom he could not find some truth.

Cousin's Philosophie sensualiste au XVIIIe siècle (1819), a course of lectures, is the most biased of his historical studies, but still treats of Locke, Condillac, Claude-Adrien Helvétius, Saint-Lambert, and Thomas Hobbes in an interesting manner. His criticism of Locke, that Locke was unable by the very nature of his epistemology to account for universal and necessary ideas, Cousin's analysis of Condillac's notion that deduction is always tautological, and even Cousin's attacks on Helvétius are carefully based on the texts and are far from superficial. Fundamentally his objection to these thinkers was the pragmatic, moral, and religious consequences of their premises, an objection which obviously sprang from his own moral and religious convictions. His Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie (1829) was considered a work serious enough to be analyzed and commented upon by Sir William Hamilton in the Edinburgh Review, and, indeed, its exposition of the technique of historiography was thorough and based on a perception of genuine historical problems.

Cousin made the mistake of dividing all possible philosophies into four kindssensualism, idealism, skepticism, and mysticismand thus helped to influence his successors in this area toward thinking of philosophies as always productive of systems. This division led Cousin to look for a unitary idea pervading each system, though the idea in question might be a simple metaphor or a theory of the origin of ideas which exfoliated into an ethics, aesthetics, theology, or other theoretical construct. Like Hegel, Cousin was given to envisioning philosophical systems as "expressive" of ages and peoples, as if an age or a people were homogeneous. Yet at the same time he admitted the heterogeneity of what he called populations as distinguished from peoples, the latter being unified in their beliefs and outlooks on the world's problems, the former being diversified or, as he would put it, not yet unified. Where there was diversity, there was nevertheless a predominant idea in every epoch, but alongside of it existed other ideas "playing a secondary but real role."

Each people, Cousin maintained, was given, presumably by God or by the inevitable course of history, an idea to represent, and its history was the realization of this idea. This idea expresses itself in all human concernsin philosophy, religion, science, art, and morals. It is almost certain that Hegel was the source of this theory, though Cousin made no mention of his influence. He was willing, however, to give great credit to J. J. Brucker, Dietrich Tiedemann, and W. G. Tennemann; these last two, he believed, expressed a history of philosophy associated with Locke and Kant, respectively. As for the nineteenth century, Cousin held that it would not have its own history of philosophy until it had a representative philosophy. That philosophy would be a union of the two traditions referred to by Cousin as the nucleus of a "vast and powerful eclecticism."

It is customary to treat Cousin with patronizing disdain, and it is true that he was always ready to compromise with political power and adjust his conclusions and, indeed, his methods of research to what he believed to be expedient. He succeeded in excluding from his "regiment," as he called it, philosophers whose views were not harmonious with his own. Thus neither Auguste Comte nor J. G. F. Ravaisson-Mollien nor Charles Renouvier, to cite but three names, were able to become members of the teaching staff of the University of Paris. On the other hand, Cousin did stimulate research into the classics of philosophy, and his very chauvinism turned men's attention to such neglected figures as Maine de Biran. His eclecticism was not real, for he rejected any philosophy whose supposed religious and ethical effects he thought were undesirable. Yet his notion that every philosophy contained some truth induced his pupils to look into them all and gave them a catholicity of interest that was unusual and almost unique.

See also Absolute, The; Art, Interpretation of; Comte, Auguste; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Descartes, René; Hamilton, William; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien; Hobbes, Thomas; Idealism; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Kant, Immanuel; Laromiguière, Pierre; Locke, John; Maine de Biran; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Plato; Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean Gaspard Félix; Reid, Thomas; Renouvier, Charles Bernard; Royer-Collard, Pierre Paul; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Winckelmann, Johann Joachim.


With the omission of his editions of classical authors and literary studies, Cousin's works include Fragments philosophiques (Paris: A Sautelet, 1826); Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie, 3 vols. (Paris: Pichon et Didier, 1829), which together with Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie moderne, 5 vols. (Paris: Ladrange, 1841) contains many titles also published separately; Justice et charité (Paris: Pagnerre, 1848); and Du Vrai, du beau et du bien (Paris: Didier, 1853).

For literature on Cousin, see P. F. Dubois, Cousin, Jouffroy, Damiron, souvenirs publiés avec un introduction par Adolphe Lair (Paris: Perrin and Cie, 1902); Paul Janet, Victor Cousin et son oeuvre (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1885); and Jules Simon, Victor Cousin (Paris: Hachette et Sie, 1887), which has been translated under the same title by M. B. Anderson and E. P. Anderson (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1888). For a generally hostile approach, from a positivistic point of view, see Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, History of Modern Philosophy in France, translated by G. Coblence (Chicago and London: Open Court, 1924), Ch. 12; for a favorable account see John Veitch and X, "Cousin, Victor," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed. (Chicago, 1910).

George Boas (1967)

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Cousin, Victor (1792–1867)

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