Lavelle, Louis (1883–1951)

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Louis Lavelle, the French philosopher, was born in Saint-Martin-de-Villéréal, in southwestern France. He was professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1932 to 1934 and at the Collège de France from 1941 until his death. In a time of reaction against speculative system-building, Lavelle boldly elaborated an extensive system combining elements of the French philosophie de l'esprit and existentialism. Convinced that the modern world needs basic security, Lavelle, like other existentialist thinkers, sought philosophical and moral certitude in the experience of the self, "pure inwardness," and "absolute existence." Unlike such philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre, who "disintegrated" the human universe inherited from tradition, Lavelle, like Karl Jaspers and Karl Barth, attempted to "reintegrate" the basic experiences of humanity in a novel form. In his spiritualistic interpretation of the self Lavelle continued the French tradition of Nicolas Malebranche, Maine de Biran, Octave Hamelin, Henri Bergson, and Maurice Blondel.

Metaphysics of Participation

Metaphysics was for Lavelle "the science of spiritual inwardness." According to him, Immanuel Kant had shown that we cannot find true reality on the side of the object, or thing, because objects and the world they compose cannot have independent existence. The essence of things resides in their relation to a being for whom they are "objects." Consequently, in the search for true or absolute reality we must turn toward the act of consciousness, the "inwardness" of the human being. Thus Lavelle's central preoccupation was to discover and describe the fundamental relation between our innermost being and the Absolute.

Lavelle pointed out that there is a "primitive act" upon which our very being depends, as well as the being of the entire world. It is our primordial experience of being part of the world, in which act we find ourselves also "participating" in something that infinitely transcends usthe Act (Absolute Being, God). From a subtle dialectic description of this spiritual act of "participation" flow the broad lines of Lavelle's doctrine.

Ontology of Spiritualistic Existentialism

The originality of Lavelle's conception of the nature of beings in their relation to Being consists in his introducing a dynamic and "actualistic" content into the traditional themes of Aristotelian ontology. His approach yields a finalistic and optimistic view of the universe and human destiny.

All experiences of humankind emerge against the background of the limited individual being, participating in the Absolute Being. By their relation to participation, which is constant and eternal, individual beings establish their relation to the world, and through the notions of essence and existence they establish their spiritual identity. The Absolute Being is pure actuality, the infinite source of existential dynamism, and an endless reservoir of all possible forms or essences, from which individual beings receive their own limited existence. In spite of this direct and continuous dependence of the individual on his source, actualism is reconciled in Lavelle's thought with temporal progression, dynamism with formal immobility, and human freedom is safeguarded by the self-creativity of the individual. Indeed, from the human point of view, participation is a pursuit of an ideal that constantly moves ahead of our efforts. In this pursuit we create our spiritual self, and our experiences, moving onward, progressively acquire a unique form. Our effort in life is meant to discover this form, which has its prototype in the reservoir of Being and is our spiritual essence. The accomplishment of our essence at our death means the radical passage from limited existence into transfinite Being. Thus participation appears as the means of humanity's ultimate redemption, toward which everything occurring in the universe converges.

The world is the interval that separates pure Act (Being) from the limited act of participation (human existence). Matter, in limiting the spirit, offers the resistance necessary for the self to transcend itself. The world comprises three modes of reality: the world of things, that of ideas, and that of individual beings (consciousnesses). The material world plays the necessary role of separating beings; ideas give spiritual meaning to things. The world of individual consciousnesses is necessarily conscious because the essence of the Absolute Being from which they proceed is itself perfect inwardness; as such it is eternally fecund and intended to communicate the creative act to beings which, in turn, propagate it in self-creation.

Ethics of Consent

In Lavelle's moral philosophy an unusual meaning is given to existential themes, such as freedom, human destiny, and solitude. Lavelle had a constructive conception of man's vocation and of the ideal of life.

Freedom is the essence of man. But whereas the Absolute Act is synonymous with absolute freedom, man, the participating act, is limited by the "natural spontaneity" of the instinct. Consequently, the life of the spirit, which he proposed as the ideal of human life, is a fighting toward gradual liberation from the passivity peculiar to instinct. We become fully human by subordinating natural spontaneity to reflection and rational discipline. Human freedom originates in this process; and this conversion of spontaneity into freedom is the real vehicle of participation. The spiritual being, like the Leibnizian monad, is endowed with potentialities for the accomplishment of its preestablished essence. Our vocation is to seek to make our actual selves coincide with the "better part of ourselves," which represents these potentialities. This self-searching and self-controlling effort presupposes an "act of consent" to our vocation of the spirit. In opposition to other existentialist thinkers who glorify the "exceptional instant," Lavelle rehabilitated everyday existence, seeing even in the least significant instant an opportunity for consent to the self-creative effort and, thereby, an opportunity for participation in the Absolute.

Finally, the theme of solitude was reconciled with that of human communion insofar as the ideal of wisdom was seen to lie in the union between a certain asceticism and everyday life and love.

See also Absolute, The; Aristotelianism; Barth, Karl; Being; Bergson, Henri; Blondel, Maurice; Continental Philosophy; Essence and Existence; Existentialism; Freedom; Hamelin, Octave; Jaspers, Karl; Kant, Immanuel; Maine de Biran; Malebranche, Nicolas; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Self.


works by lavelle

La dialectique du monde sensible. Strasbourg: Commission des publications de la Faculté des lettres, 1921.

La perception visuelle de la profondeur. Strasbourg: Commission des publications de la Faculté des lettres, 1921.

La dialectique de l'éternel présent. 3 vols. Vol. 1: De l'être. Paris: Alcan, 1928; Vol. 2: De l'acte. Paris, 1937; Vol. 3: Du temps et de l'éternité. Paris: Aubier, Éditions Montaigne, 1945.

La conscience de soi. Paris: Grasset, 1933.

La présence totale. Paris, 1934.

De l'acte. Paris: Aubier 1937; Paris: Flammarion, 1992.

Les puissances du moi. Paris, 1939.

L'erreur de Narcisse. Paris: Grasset, 1939.

Le mal et la souffrance. Paris, 1940.

La parole et l'écriture. Paris: L'artisan du livre, 1942.

La philosophie française entre les deux guerres. Paris: Aubier, 1942.

Du temps et de l'éternité. Paris, 1945.

Introduction à l'ontologie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947.

Science, ésthetique, métaphysique: chroniques philosophiques. Paris: Albin Michel, 1967.

Psychologie et spiritualité. Paris: Albin Michel, 1967.

Règles de la vie quotidienn. Paris: Arfuyen, 2004.


The Meaning of Holiness. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

The Dilemma of Narcissus. Larson: Burdett, NY, 1993.

The Act of Presence, Works of Louis Lavelle. Introduction and tranlation into English of selected texts of Louis Lavelle by Robert Jones, posted at

works on lavelle

Ainval, Christiane d'. Une doctrine de la présence spirituelle: La philosophie de Louis Lavelle. Paris: Nauwelaerts, 1967.

Bourbon-Busset, Jacques de. La raison ardente. Paris: Gallimard, 2000.

Chretien, Jean-Louis, L'arche de la parole. Paris: PUF, 1999.

Delfgaauw, B. M. I. Het Spiritualistiche Existentialisme van Louis Lavelle. Amsterdam, 1947.

Ecole, Jean, Métaphysique de l'être, doctrine de la connaissance et philosophie de la religion chez Louis Lavelle. Gênes: L'Arcipelago, 1994.

Foulquié, P. L'existentialisme, 109122. Paris, 1946.

Grasso, Pier G. L. Lavelle. Brescia: La Scuola, 1949.

Nobile, O. M. La filosofia di Louis Lavelle. Florence: Sansoni, 1943.

Reymond, Christiane, Autrui dans la Dialectique de l'éternel présent de Louis Lavelle. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1972.

True, G. De Jean-Paul Sartre à Louis Lavelle, ou désagrégation et réintegration. Paris, 1946.

Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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Lavelle, Louis (1883–1951)

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