Fouillée, Alfred (1838–1912)

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Alfred Fouillée, the French philosopher and sociologist, was a prolific writer, especially on political, social, and historical subjects. He was a lecturer in lycées at Douai and Montpellier, at the University of Bordeaux, and finally, from 1872 to 1875, at the École Normale in Paris. When he had to retire because of ill health, he devoted his time to his writings. Through most of his varied output there ran a common thread. This was a concern to reconcile the values of traditionally metaphysical or spiritualistic philosophyabove all, liberty and free willwith the deterministic and antimetaphysical findings of contemporary work in the natural sciences: a concern, that is, to reconcile philosophical idealism with scientific naturalism. Fouillée, who was not closely identified with any formal school of thought, thus represented a further step in the direction indicated before him by some of the later disciples of the spiritualistic school of Victor Cousin, such as Paul Janet and Étienne Vacherot, who aimed at absorbing or coming to terms with, rather than combating, the rising power of natural science and scientific philosophy.

Fouillée's outstanding and most original contribution to this enterprise was the idea that thought could lead to action, which he embodied in his concept of idée-force, or "thought force." This concept contains in itself the essence of Fouillée's consciously eclectic, conciliatory method and aim, for it borrows the notion of "force" from contemporary physical science and applies it to mental states, to consciousness. Force, defined as a tendency to action, becomes a universal fact of consciousness; conversely, every idea is a force that has a potential for realizing itself in action. Thus ideas, whether or not they are themselves caused, are causes; and since ideas are mental phenomena, mind is an efficient cause of physical action. The idées-forces are intermediaries between the private existence of consciousness and the objective existence of things. They enabled Fouillée to preserve spiritual values within the conditions imposed by natural science by developing what has been called a "positive metaphysics," that is, a metaphysics within the limits of the physically conceivable. Thus he undertook to refute the central tenet of materialism that mind or consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon. Specifically taking up the crucial concept of liberty, Fouillée argued that the consciousness of liberty amounts to the existence of liberty, since it gives rise to ideas formulated in terms of freedom of choice and since these ideas can in fact exert an effect on the outside world.

Fouillée's system is based primarily on psychological analysis, resembling, again, the spiritualism of the school of Cousin. This orientation was indicated by Fouillée himself when in his last work he labeled his philosophy "voluntaristic idealism." The will is the most immediate reality of consciousness, although not sharply separated from the intelligence or reason; ideas in Fouillée seem scarcely distinguishable from intentions. Yet, since he was attempting a comprehensive philosophical synthesis, Fouillée also constructed ontological categories on his psychological foundations. Causation, for instance, was established as an objective reality because it is one of the conditions necessary for the exercise of will, for the efficacy of the idées-forces. In like manner he developed an ethics with a strong social orientation. Consciousness, he taught, is aware not only of its own existence but of the consciousness of others (in this connection he suggested the emendation of René Descartes's famous dictum to read Cogito ergo sumus ). Altruism is a necessity, since isolation is impossible; moral choice is explained in terms of the attractive or repulsive power of idées-forces in the form of ideals; and ethical conduct is defined in terms of social beneficence.

It is doubtful whether a system like Fouillée's, developed from a defensive posture, could ever prove generally acceptable. The concept of idées-forces is suggestive and useful as a tool of psychological analysis, but dubious if elevated to the status of ontological reality. It is ultimately a merely verbal concept or device, seeking to bridge the gap between internal or mental processes and physical actions by, as it were, inserting a hyphen between them. But it will not bear the weight it is meant to carry, and as a result, the system as a whole remains merely suspended between idealism and naturalism. Though he struck a responsive chord and was widely read in his day, Fouillée had, in the end, few if any important followers.

See also Cousin, Victor; Descartes, René; Determinism and Freedom; Force; Idealism; Liberty; Naturalism.


Among the most important of Fouillée's works are La liberté et le déterminisme (Paris: Ladrange, 1872); La science sociale contemporaine (Paris: Hachette, 1880); L'évolutionnisme des idées-forces (Paris: F. Alcan, 1890); Critique des systèmes de morale contemporains (Paris: G. Baillière, 1883); L'avenir de la métaphysique (Paris: F. Alcan, 1889); Psychologie des idées-forces, 2 vols. (Paris, 1893), perhaps the central work; Le mouvement idéaliste et la réaction contre la science positive (Paris: F. Alcan, 1896); Les éléments sociologiques de la morale (Paris, 1905); Morale des idées-forces (Paris, 1908); La pensée et les nouvelles écoles anti-intellectualistes (Paris, 1911); Esquisse d'une interprétation du monde (Paris, 1913).

For literature on Fouillée, consult Augustin Guyau, La philosophie et la sociologie d'Alfred Fouillée (Paris, 1913), a laudatory view; Harald Höffding, Moderne Filosofer (Aarhus, 1904), translated by Alfred C. Mason as Modern Philosophers, pp. 8288 (London, 1915); D. Parodi, La philosophie contemporaine en France, pp. 4048 (Paris, 1919); and Elisabeth Ganne de Beaucoudrey, La psychologie et la métaphysique des idées-forces chez Alfred Fouillée (Paris: J. Vrin, 1936), a massive and judicious work.

W. M. Simon (1967)