Lachelier, Jules (1832–1918)

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Jules Lachelier, the French idealist, was born at Fontainebleau and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. He received his docteur ès lettres in 1871 and held various professorial and administrative positions in the French educational system until his retirement from the post of inspecteur général in 1900. Lachelier joined with his teacher Jean Gaspard Félix Ravaisson-Mollien in founding the neospiritualist movement in French philosophy, a movement opposed to what seemed to be the naive acceptance of science and the scientific attitude in all phases of life. Among those who have acknowledged Lachelier's influence are Émile Boutroux, Victor Brochard, Jules Lagneau, and Henri Bergson.

Lachelier advanced a number of skeptical arguments that tend to reduce objects to phenomena, phenomena to sensations, and, more generally, to resolve the external world into thought. Nevertheless, he retained the conviction that we live in a common, objective world. Accordingly, his philosophy is directed toward the conclusion that the objectivity of our knowledge and experience is derived from mind. He summarized his idealistic philosophy as the discovery of "a thought which does not think, suspended from a thought which thinks itself."

To avoid the pitfalls of both the empiricism and the spiritualism of his day, Lachelier attempted to provide a basis for induction in a philosophy of nature. His procedure consisted of a Kantian reflection upon the necessary conditions for the existence of the world as we know it. He began by observing that, if knowledge is to be possible, sensations must exhibit the same unities that are found in phenomena. By eliminating competing hypotheses, he found that the unifying element within any phenomenon, as well as the unifying element among phenomena, is established by the necessary relations operative in them and is expressed by the law of efficient causes. The necessity of this law cannot be discovered in sensations alone, in phenomena as such, or in their mere juxtaposition; nor can it be isolated in any locus from which mind is separated. It must be regarded, rather, as a kind of unconscious but logical thought diffused throughout nature. The mechanical linkages among events in nature reflect the logical relations in thought. Lachelier concluded that the unity of thought and the formal unity of nature are inverses of each other.

Given a series of phenomena, the law of efficient cause is sufficient to account for their organization in a mechanically interrelated series. But the questions remain: Why do whole phenomena occur? How are several series of mechanically ordered individual phenomenal objects coordinated into groups in order to form complex and recurrent phenomena? The question of recurrence involves the problem of induction and indicates that some principlein addition to the law of efficient causesmust be found to explain the recurrence of phenomena. If we are neither to stretch the principle of efficient causes beyond reasonable bounds nor to supplement it with some occult principle ex machina, then we must suppose that the whole phenomenoncomplex yet persistentcontains the reasons for its unity and recurrence. Lachelier, like Immanuel Kant, recognized a whole to be an end when the whole contained the reason for the organization of its parts. (A whole of this kind is illustrated in a stable chemical compound or in a living organism.)

Thus, in view of the fact that we indisputably are aware of phenomena which are harmonious and recurring complexes or wholes of this sort, Lachelier arrived at a second principle: The law of final causes. By its operation, sensa are grouped into perceptions of which we are actually aware, and thus they provide content and reality for the necessary but empty form of the universal mechanism. This law is to the matter of phenomena what the law of efficient causes is to their form. In these terms the distinction is drawn between the abstract existence of mechanical nature and the concrete existence of teleologically unified but contingent individuals. Since all actual objects are complex, they all presuppose the operation of the law of final causes. This law is, then, prior to the law of efficient causes in respect to actual existence.

These two laws are not on the same logical footing. Lachelier regards the law of efficient causes as proved. The proof is of the Kantian type. Given coherent experiences, this law, which is logic projected into phenomena, expresses the condition under which they cohere and are intelligible. The law of final causes, however, is not reached in the same way. Presumably, simple phenomena might remain logically ordered while being grouped in different ways. Their actual grouping into the harmonious and persistent unities that we experience is the consequence of a law which operates more like an act of will than like a formal or logical requirement. Thus, the law of final causes is said to be regulative only.

The twin laws of efficient and final causes provide the foundation for induction. Induction is thereby "founded" in the sense that it is partly proved or derived from the conditions for experience and partly justified as expressing a teleology of nature. The practice of induction, therefore, may be expected to be partly the logical deduction of events from previous events, and partly a "divining" that natural phenomena will cooperate with each other in a given way under given circumstances.

This foundation, however, is not ultimate. It does not explain why these two laws alone are the ordering principles of our existent world. Lachelier, in considering this point, observed that some organisms realize to a higher degree than others that harmony toward which nature moves. In fact, the law of final causes entails a whole hierarchy of beings that increase in order and harmony. The more complexly unified organisms in nature are not the chance products of accidentally unified simpler organisms. Rather, the simpler organisms, implicit in the more complex ones, are separated from them by a kind of "division and refraction."

The human being can free himself in thought from the particular mechanical conditions of phenomena. He has the capacity to separate some perceptions from others and, using them as symbols, to represent general properties of things. In his ability to abstract and generalize, the human being, although distinguished from all other things by this capacity, can be said to be in contact with the whole universe. The universe can be discovered again in thought but under a new condition, freedom. In addition, man is free because he can select the means and ends of his activity by reference to ideas. Hence, through man, the realm of final causes and the freedom that is its condition penetrate the organic and mechanical realms. Furthermore, without freedom it would be impossible to conceive of either mechanism or finality. Thus, the laws of efficient and final causality, upon which induction is founded, are themselves founded upon freedomand freedom is the essential property of thought.

The process of founding induction within a philosophy of nature, therefore, consists partly in a demonstration and partly in a discovery of regulative rules. Finally, the process terminates in a metaphysics that affirms the basic reality of thought. This metaphysics is intended to found the philosophy of nature in the sense of providing a reason for belief in the unity of its laws and in its idealistic source. Lachelier's metaphysics of freedom is further developed in his article "Psychologie et métaphysique" (1885) and is given a religious dimension in "Le pari de Pascal" (1901).

See also Bergson, Henri; Continental Philosophy; Idealism; Induction; Kant, Immanuel; Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean Gaspard Félix.


works by lachelier

Oeuvres de Jules Lachelier. 2 vols. Paris: Alcan, 1933.

Lachelier, la nature, l'esprit, Dieu. Edited by Louis Millet. Paris, 1955.

The Philosophy of Jules Lachelier. Edited by Edward G. Ballard. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1960. Contains an introduction and translations by Ballard of "Du fondement de l'induction," "Psychologie et métaphysique," "Le pari de Pascal," and several short writings.

works on lachelier

Devivaise, C. "La philosophic religieuse de Jules Lachelier." Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques (1939): 435464.

Mauchaussat, Gaston. L'idéalisme de Lachelier. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1961.

Millet, Louis. Le symbolisme dans la philosophie de Jules Lachelier. Paris, 1959. Contains a comprehensive bibliography of Lachelier's writings and of the commentaries.

Noël, Georges. "La philosophie de M. Lachelier." Revue de métaphysique et de morale (1898): 230259.

Séailles, Gabriel. La philosophie de Jules Lachelier. Paris, 1921.

Edward G. Ballard (1967)