Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, Comte (1754–1836)

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Comte Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, the French philosopher and propounder of the doctrine of Ideology, was born in Paris. Educated at the University of Strasbourg, he entered the army and served later as deputy of the Bourbonnais nobility to the States-General. Despite his noble rank he was a fervent partisan of reform in monarchical government, but by 1792 he had become disgusted with the extremists among the revolutionaries and retired from politics to Auteuil, where he joined the celebrated group of philosopher-scientists that found its center at the home of Madame Helvétius. Among his intimates were Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis and Marquis de Condorcet, Comte de Volney and Dominique Joseph Garat. Imprisoned for a year under the Terror, he began to study the works of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and John Locke, the result of which was his elaboration of the discipline he called Ideology. The group associated with Destutt de Tracy took the name Idéologues from his doctrine. They became influential in 1795 in two new institutions, the École Normale and the Institut National, especially in the Second Class of the Institut National.

Ideology, according to Destutt de Tracy, is the analysis of ideas into the sensory elements of which he believed them to be composed. Training in this new science would replace classical logic, and, he maintained, if a man learned how to analyze his ideas, he would then discover which of them were founded in experience and which were groundless. Destutt de Tracy held that Ideology was a branch of zoology; all ideas had a physiological determinant. The child, with its weak sense organs, has nothing but sensation and memory; the adult, whose sense organs have become strengthened through use, has the powers of judgment and intelligence. It was therefore to be asked what the effect of habit would be on judgment. This question was put to the Second Class of the Institut National on 15 Vendémiaire, An VIII (October 6, 1799). The winning mémoire was that of Maine de Biran, at that time a young disciple of the Idéologues, and his Mémoire sur l'habitude (1802) formed the link between the French epistemological tradition of the eighteenth century and that of the nineteenth-century "spiritualists."

The word thinking in the works of Destutt de Tracy means, as it did for René Descartes, all conscious processes. Any immediate apprehension is called "feeling," whether it be sensory, emotional, or intellectual. Even memory and the perception of relations were "felt." But the feelings were not images; they were merely the awareness of whatever content might be before one. Destutt de Tracy called these contents ideas, following Locke. They were of four kinds: sensations, memories, judgments, and desires.

The question that puzzled Destutt de Tracy and, for that matter, most of the philosophers of this period in France was whether all consciousness is passive or whether some is active. If all were passive, then we should have no reason to believe in the existence of an external world. There is, however, according to Destutt de Tracy, one idea that gives us an intimation of a reality beyond ourselves, the idea of touch. When we put pressure upon an object, it resists. We cannot, at the same time, desire both a feeling and its annihilation. The feeling of resistance annihilates the desire to penetrate. Therefore, when we feel resistance, we are forced to conclude that there is a resisting object. In this way an element of activity was introduced into Destutt de Tracy's epistemology, an element that was to form the logical nucleus of the theories of his successors, Maine de Biran and Pierre Laromiguière.

Destutt de Tracy thought that the analysis of general ideas into elementary feelings would destroy the analyzer's faith in many of the teachings of religion. For if an idea could not be found to be either an elementary feeling or to be composed of such, it must be discarded. But many religious ideas cannot be so analyzed and therefore must be discarded.

Although the Idéologues had favored Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'état of 1799, they soon opposed him, and in 1803 Napoleon suppressed the Second Class of the Institut. Destutt de Tracy's antireligious views, which directly clashed with Napoleon's reestablishment of religion, were a major factor in Napoleon's act of suppression. The soon-to-be emperor, moreover, could not tolerate Destutt de Tracy's view that every man has the power to determine the truth and falsity of his ideas without recourse to authority and that among those ideas are those of right and wrong, both moral and political.

See also Cabanis, Pierre-Jean Georges; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Condorcet, Marquis de; Continental Philosophy; Descartes, René; Ideology; Laromiguière, Pierre; Locke, John; Maine de Biran; Volney, Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, Comte de.


primary works

Quels sont les moyens de fonder la morale chez un peuple? Paris, 1798.

Observations sur le système d'instruction publique. Paris, 1801.

Eléments d'idéologie, 4 vols. Paris, 18011815.

Grammaire générale. Paris, 1803.

Logique. Paris, 1805.

Traité de la volonté et de ses effets. Paris, 1805.

Commentaire sur l'esprit des lois de Montesquieu (A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws ). Translated by Thomas Jefferson. Philadelphia, 1811.

De l'Amour. Edited by Gilbert Chinard. Paris, 1926.

A Treatise on Political Economy. Translated by Thomas Jefferson. Detroit: Center for Health Education, 1973.

secondary works

Boas, George. French Philosophies of the Romantic Period. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1925.

Chinard, J. Jefferson et les idéologues. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1925.

Head, Brian William. Ideology and Social Science: Destutt de Tracy and French Liberalism. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1985.

Kennedy, Emmet. A Philosophe in the Age of Revolution, Destutt de Tracy and the Origins of "Ideology." Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1978.

Picavet, François. Les idéologues. Paris: Alcan, 1891.

Van Duzen, C. The Contributions of the Idéologues to French Revolutionary Thought. Baltimore, 1935.

Welch, Cheryl B. Liberty and Utility: The French Ideologues and the Transformation of Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

George Boas (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, Comte (1754–1836)

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