Maine de Biran (1766–1824)

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Maine de Biran, the French statesman and philosopher, was born Marie François Pierre Gonthier de Biran, receiving the name "Maine" from the name of his family's property (le Maine). He attended the collège at Périgueux, dominated by the secular, moderate constitutional Royalists called Doctrinaires, and excelled there in mathematics. In 1784 he joined the king's guard and in 1789 was wounded defending Louis XVI in a mob uprising. To escape the Reign of Terror, he retired to his estate in 1793 and began intensive psychological and philosophical investigations. In 1797 he was elected to the Council of Five Hundred, and this election of a moderate royalist was a symptom of the beginning of the end of the Reign of Terror. This post and other public duties did not keep him from reaping the fruits of his earlier meditations. He became acquainted with the Idéologues Pierre-Jean Georges Cabanis and Comte Destutt de Tracy by winning first prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Institute of France with the essay L'influence de l'habitude sur la faculté de penser (The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking ). He won membership in the institute in 1805 by gaining another first prize, for Mémoire sur la décomposition de la penser (The Analysis of Thought). While continuing to write outstanding philosophic and psychological essays, he intensified his political activities, became a member of the Chamber of Deputies, and was made commander in the Legion of Honor. Under the first restoration he returned to the National Assembly and was put in charge of liaison between the assembly and the king on financial matters. Despite these public activities, he was at the time of his death acknowledged by most of his distinguished contemporaries as their master (maître à tous ) in philosophy.

His famous Journal intime reveals a melancholy, emotionally changeable person, of poor health, who was highly sensitive to climatic and personal surroundings. He spent much of his personal and philosophic life trying to understand and mitigate this sensitivity.

Philosophical Development

Maine de Biran's philosophic development can be summarized briefly as a movement toward a more and more detailed conviction that man's inward experience is (1) different from his outwardly experienced "impressions," and (2) an important source and basis of knowledge. His most mature essays speak of an "inward sense" (sens intime ) that reveals our experience of willed bodily movement (effort voulu ); in the course of his philosophic development he gave to this experience a more and more important role, progressively more subtly analyzed. The names of John Locke, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, and Charles Bonnet, all of whom emphasized outward impressions as the ultimate source of knowledge, occurred as frequently in his early notes as did the name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose "Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar" in Émile had aroused Maine de Biran's interest in the "inner light" (lumiére intérieure ).

But the outwardly oriented epistemologies of Condillac and Locke and their disciples, the Idéologues, soon grew less adequate for Maine de Biran, as did Bonnet's explanations of perception in terms of physiological mechanisms (explanations based upon outward "impressions"). After 1802 and his first great prize essay, The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking, which was similar in many ways to the writings of the Idéologues, Maine de Biran moved into his longest and most original period of philosophizing, during which he became quite critical of his former masters and developed and defended the key doctrine of his philosophy, that the effort voulu is a unique source of basic knowledge. In this stage he wrote Mémoire sur la décomposition de la penser (which won him membership in the Institute of France) and his most mature completed philosophic work, Essai sur les fondements de la psychologie (Essay on the Foundations of Psychology; 1812).

From 1814 to the end of his life he developedbut never with great precisiona doctrine derived from Immanuel Kant (by way of Maine de Biran's friend André Marie Ampère), a doctrine that identified "belief" (croyance ) as one of the inner sources of knowledge. At first Maine de Biran spoke of belief as revealing the transphenomenal substance of things, and from 1815 on he applied this notion of a "faculty of belief" to problems of theology. According to Maine de Biran, croyance, like the effort voulu, originates inwardly, butunlike voluntary bodily movementis always passive; its function is to receive God's grace. Still, he continued to speak of the importance of the effort voulu ; the doctrine of the significance of the faculty of belief in relation to religious matters was not a repudiation of the significance of the activistic, individualistic capacity of the effort voulu in matters of natural knowledge. In fact, during this last period, from 1814 to 1824, he wrote some of his finest essays developing his doctrine that the sens intime is a unique and important source of knowledge. Two of his outstanding works on this subject were Examen des leçons de philosophie de M. Laromiquière (An Examination of Laromiquière's Lessons in Philosophy; 1817) and his unfinished masterpiece, Nouveaux Essais d'anthropologie (New Essays in Anthropology; 1824), both of which cast much light on the doctrine of effort voulu. In fact this doctrine was far more thoroughly developed than the doctrine of croyance. Nevertheless, the emphasis given to belief in the last stage of his thought confirms the generalization that the whole tendency of his philosophic development was toward a more profound conviction that inward experiencewhether of willed effort or of belief itselfis the richest basis of knowledge.

Learning and Experience

Condillac, the forerunner of the Idéologues, had insisted on clarifying terms and validating claims to knowledge by reference to simple, directly experienced outward "sensations" stripped of the increments of learning. The leader of the Idéologues in Maine de Biran's day, Destutt de Tracy, had continued Condillac's line of thought but had noticed that (1) some experiences get duller and vaguer by repetition, while others become more distinct; and that (2) there is a capacity to move our bodies voluntarily (Destutt de Tracy called it "motilité ") that has a vital function in our learning to perceive objects. In addition, Destutt de Tracy's colleagues Cabanis and Bonnet had seen the importance of physiological conditions for an analysis of the human mind.

In his first prize-winning essay Maine de Biran developed all of these suggestions. He not only distinguished between outer impressions and felt effort, but he distinguished what he called "sensations" (such as tastes and smells), wherein the impression is vivacious and our voluntary bodily movement is minimal, from what he called "perceptions" (such as talking aloud and hearing ourselves), wherein the outward impresssion is less important than the inward experience of moving our organs.

But these distinctions might have no importance for an analysis of knowledge, he thought, if they do not help us to understand learning more fully. And so in his first essay he set about trying to discover whether habituation or repetition has a different effect on passive sensations than on active perceptions; if different effects were found to exist it could be assumed that the distinction between sensations and perceptions is important. He found that passively experienced sensations got vaguer with habituation, and perceptions that are involved with our willed bodily movement became more and more precise. Our sense of smell loses its refinement in a hothouse, but we walk, talk, play games better by practicing. Therefore, he concluded, in perceptions alone do we find the possibility of learning, of moving from the passive sensational confusion of the infant to the subtle distinctions of the adult mind. If Condillac's passively received outward impressions were all that was available to consciousness, the repetition of these impressions would have resulted in a vague blur. The development of mind is linked with willed bodily movement, with perceptions.

One of our most important perceptions is our experience of speaking and hearing our own words; this is the most active perception, and the least dependent upon adventitious external impressions. Sounds uttered by us are among the first signs we know; they are outwardly experienced signs of our own inward actions, and it is the inward action that constitutes the meaning of the sign. There are other signs too: We learn to associate two or more external impressions as natural, or physical, signs of each other. But for Maine de Biran the sign-relationship most directly involved in human reasoning is the relationship between spoken words or conventional signs and our inwardly experienced effort to move our organs of speech. In the course of acquiring by habituation a more subtle and distinct way of talking we acquire a more subtle and distinct mentality. Maine de Biran never lost sight of natural sign-relationships between impressions or between images of impressions as part of our learning process, but he insisted that oral, conventional sign-relationships were basic to human mentality. To describe human thinking only in terms of associated images of outward impressions is to ignore speech, the faculty that makes human thought peculiarly human.

In 1812, in his "Essay on the Foundations of Psychology," Maine de Biran set out to find a primary experience, a fait primitif antecedent to all learning or habituation (Condillac had sought such a fact and had claimed to find it in outward sensations). Maine de Biran held that such a basic experience must satisfy three criteria: First, it must be within the limits of awareness (although he sometimes talked of unconscious perceptions); second, it must, of course, not be learned or deduced, but must be directly experienced; finally, it must be persistent, for knowledge must have a firmer basis than the passing moment. He rejected outward impressions and inward emotions and affections because they were fleeting, and he rejected the physiological findings he had once been attracted to because they were the results of inferences or deductions, not immediately experienced. In the end he adopted as his primary experience the effort voulu he had found to be so crucial to the learning process: We are aware of it, although sometimes not vivaciously; it is not itself learned, although we learn how to move various members skillfully; and this experience persists in various degrees of tension (ranging from sensations up to perceptions) throughout our waking life. The most lucidly developed part of Maine de Biran's philosophy is his explanation and defense of this triple claim involved in calling the effort voulu a primary experience.

Selfhood, Causality, and Liberty

Philosophers such as Locke, Condillac, and the Idéologues had great difficulty accounting for our idea of a persistent, inwardly experienced self, because they assumed that experience was made up of nothing but fleeting, outward impressions. But the origin of this idea loses its mystery if we give our attention to our persistent, inward experience of our own willing against our varying bodily resistance to that willing. Throughout our lives we feel this relationship at the center of our experience in varying degrees of tension. The center is the self (le moi ), the periphery, or the surrounding impressions, is the nonself. In fact, the unity of our own more or less resisting body as felt in the sens intime is the origin of our whole notion of unity or identity, whether it occurs in mathematics or elsewhere.

The felt relationship between the body and our more or less active willing to move that body is for Maine de Biran our basic experience of causation. In defending this claim he argued that the term cause cannot be explained by hazy references to "innate" ideas, or by question-begging, tautological assertions about effects presupposing causes; in this he agreed with David Hume. He also agreed with Hume that our disparate impressions do not reveal any instance of necessary connection. But he flatly disagreed with Hume's double assumption that outward impressions are basically similar to and are the origin of any inward experience we may have. Maine de Biran insisted that in our sens intime we find a unique, primary experience of necessary connection.

Hume's main objections to this claim occur in his Enquiries concerning the Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals ; he points out that in cases such as palsy or amputation we cannot be sure our own bodily movement will follow our willing. Moreover, the means by which the will and our body are united is, in Hume's word, "mysterious." How then can we be said to experience an instance of necessary connection when neither connection nor necessity is experienced here? Maine de Biran responded to these objections by using his basic distinction between impressions and the effort voulu, or between images, or copies of outward impressions, and our idea of inward felt effort. To the first objection he replied that bodily movement is simultaneous with the willing that is its cause, and that if there is any failure or disappointment, it is the failure or disappointment of a plan involving memory and anticipatory images concerning a succession of experiences. Willed effort itself, involving the simultaneity of cause and effect, never fails; only plans involving successive outward impressions may fail. According to Maine de Biran, Hume mistakes our pensées for our effort voulu, confuses disparate outward impressions and their images with intimately related, inwardly simultaneous willing and movement.

Hume's second objection is that no connection or "means" connecting the will to the body is present in willed effort. By "means" Hume chiefly meant physiological means that can be demonstrated through outward impressions and derived hypotheses concerning the connection between the willed effort and bodily movement. Maine de Biran answered, however, that in the face of the plainly felt experience of inward causation, one need not ask for "connecting" entities deviously derived from a different sort of experience; Hume, in doing so, simply reasserted his old prejudice in favor of outward impressions and their images. No assertion concerning our physiological structures can diminish or put in question our inwardly experienced relationship between willing and our body. To say that it does is like claiming that remarks about a Caruso's anatomy diminish or put in question the greatness of his artistry. The greatness lies in the singing itself, just as our certainty in experiencing the effort voulu lies in this experience itself, not in any hypothetical structures based on quite different experiences. Finally, Maine de Biran pointed out that we apply the term cause or necessary connection to outward impressions by projecting our inward experience of simultaneity into the outward world of successive impressions; our original experience of causation or necessary connection is inward; all other uses of the term causation are derivative from it.

The certainty of the experienced relationship between will and bodily movement is the basis of man's liberty. Deterministic arguments that have been invoked to contest man's liberty depend on causal laws that are less certain than, and indeed irrelevant to, the experience of moving our bodies ourselves. Maine de Biran was willing to assert that in varying degrees strong motives or desires incline us to will certain movements. He was even willing to agree that our passions are sometimes overwhelming, for example, under the influence of hunger or fear, but he went on to say that there are times when the crucial causal factor in any action is our will, which is capable of rejecting any given desire or inclining motive. At those times we are free, and no dubious hypotheses concerning determining causes can hold up against the plain fact that we can and do withstand particular external or internal pressures. Our freedom does exist, although it is occasional and is tempered by the degree of inclination or pressure.

See also Ampère, André Marie; Bonnet, Charles; Cabanis, Pierre-Jean Georges; Causation; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, Comte; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Locke, John; Perception; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.


works by maine de biran

The first published edition of Maine de Biran's works was Oeuvres philosophiques de Maine de Biran, edited by Victor Cousin, 4 vols. (Paris: Ladrange, 1841). This edition is incomplete and should be avoided, except by those who wish to account for the gross misunderstandings of Maine de Biran's thought that were current in the nineteenth century. The definitive edition of Maine de Biran's notes, essays, and letters is the one edited by Pierre Tisserand and Henri Gouhier: Oeuvres de Maine de Biran, 14 vols. (Paris: Alcan, 19201942). Gouhier has also edited the definitive edition of Maine de Biran's philosophically revealing Journal intime (Neuchâtel, 19541957). Only one of Maine de Biran's works has been translated into Englishhis first prize-winning essay, translated by Margaret Boehm as The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1929).

works on maine de biran

No definitive biography has been written; the most detailed life now in print is that by Amable de La Vallett-Monbrun, Maine de Biran: Essai de biographie historique et psychologique (Paris, 1914). Sainte-Beuve's brief biography of him in Causeries du Lundi, Vol. VIII (Paris, undated), is famous for its eloquence.

On the development of Maine de Biran's philosophy three excellent books have been written. Henri Gouhier's Les conversions de Maine de Biran (Paris: Vrin, 1947) is the best account we have of the influences upon him. Maine de Biran et son oeuvre philosophique, by Victor Delbos (Paris: Vrin, 1931), is a lucid, impartial summary of the key works. L'expérience de l'effort et de la grâce chez Maine de Biran, by George Le Roy (Paris, 1934), uses a Bergsonian approach but even so is faithful and perceptive; it is the best consecutive account of his development. A perceptive, memorable account of his thought occurs in French Philosophies of the Romantic Period, by George Boas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1925).

A few useful works on specific topics include Henri Gouhier, "Maine de Biran et Bergson," in Les études bergsoniennes, Vol. I (Paris, 1948); Philip Paul Hallie, Maine de Biran, Reformer of Empiricism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959); Jacques Paliard, Le raisonnement selon Maine de Biran (Paris, 1925); Euthyme Robef, Leibniz et Maine de Biran (Paris, 1927); Ian W. Alexander, Ian W. "Maine De Biran and Phenomenology," Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 1 [1970]: 2437); Francis C. Moore, Francis C., The Psychology of Maine De Biran (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970); Serge J. Morin, "Maine De Biran: A New Dualism," Philosophical Forum (5[1974]: 441459); Jean Pucelle, "The Meaning of Experience in Maine De Brian's Philosophy," International Philosophical Quarterly (13[1973]: 2532); Christopher C. Rodie, "Delacroix, Maine De Biran, and the Aesthetics of Romanticism." Dialogue (17[1974]: 1324).

Philip P. Hallie (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

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Maine de Biran (1766–1824)

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