Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean Gaspard Félix (1813–1900)

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The French spiritualist philosopher and art historian Jean Gaspard Félix Ravaisson-Mollien was born in Namur, Belgium. He received his philosophical training in Munich under Friedrich von Schelling and took a degree in Paris in 1838 under Victor Cousin. His philosophical work began with his prize essay, Essai sur la métaphysique d'Aristote, and a short teaching career at Rennes in 1838. In 1840 he was appointed inspector general of libraries, a post that he held until 1860, when he became inspector general in the department of higher education. Meanwhile, as a semiprofessional painter he had become interested in classical antiquities, and in 1870 he was made curator in the department of antiquities in the Louvre. The fruit of this was his well-known set of reconstructions of the Venus de Milo.

The most influential of Ravaisson's publications was his Rapport sur la philosophie en France au XIXe siècle, made at the request of the imperial government in 1867. At this time the school of Cousin was in the ascendancy in France, and it was difficult, indeed practically impossible, for a man who was not an eclectic to get an appointment in the university system. Ravaisson's purpose in his report was to show that there was a continuity in the French philosophical tradition and that French philosophers had always presupposed metaphysical principles that implied what he called spiritualism. This tradition, he maintained, always swung between sensationalism, phenomenalism, and materialism, on the one hand, and idealism, on the other. But spiritualism really began in the nineteenth century with Maine de Biran, who used as his starting point the human will and who held that the will is independent both of sensations and of ideas. This viewpoint, Ravaisson argued, was not only the proper beginning of a philosophy but also the only one that could unify the opposing tendencies of empiricism and idealism.

Such a conclusion was in clear contradiction to the tenets of Cousin's eclecticism, which aspired to fuse "the best in each philosopher." Ravaisson tried to show that such a fusion in reality consists in refuting those philosophies which displease the eclectic and retaining those which please him. In classifying all philosophies under the headings of sensualism, idealism, mysticism, and skepticism, Cousin accepted only that philosophy which he called idealism but which, said Ravaisson, was really a simple mixture of the Scottish philosophy of common sense with a few ideas from Maine de Biran. The eclectics, moreover, failed to understand these ideas. Ravaisson claimed for himself the credit of introducing the true thought of Maine de Biran to his contemporaries. Readers of this report were thus informed that the de facto official philosophy of the French universities was not only a foreign importation but also untrue.

Ravaisson was not satisfied with undermining eclecticism. He also felt it important to point out the weaknesses of positivism. These weaknesses, he claimed, arose from the identification of philosophical method with the methods of science. Science, which admittedly studies the external world, can never tell us anything about the internal world of thoughts, aspirations, desires, and dreams; and when it attempts to do so, it transforms them into quasi-external objects. This inevitably leads to materialism, for the laws of matter are the only laws that science can formulate. Science's basic categories are space and quantity, and its basic method is analysis. But the phenomena of consciousness are never spatial or quantitative, and to attempt to categorize them in these terms is to change their essential nature.

Ravaisson's report reviewed all the contemporary schools of thought and all the contemporary philosophers. It was a model of patience and thorough investigation and has become the primary source of information about individuals who are obscure and in some cases forgotten. It did not stop at professional philosophers but looked into the presuppositions of scientists, such as the physiologist Claude Bernard and the psychiatrist Albert Lemoine. In every case, Ravaisson found either too strong an emphasis on the dependence of the "spirit" upon material causes or an identification of ideas with strictly logical, hence analytical, reason. Whereas one set of philosophers tried to explain the mind in terms that were inappropriate, the other failed to ask the central question of why the mind operated as it did. Neither group could explain our undeniable feeling of being active causes; neither could see why the spirit needs both analysis and synthesis.

Whether the object of our thinking is the external or the internal world, it will be found that we have to use two absolutely general metaphysical principles, that of an infinite reality and that of limitation. The dialectical reason for this is that every analytical sentence distinguishes between parts of a whole and no whole can be discussed except by reference to its constituent parts. But Ravaisson did not rest his doctrine on this dialectical argument. On the contrary, he believed that history had shown that every philosopher presupposes these principles, whether he knows it or not. The tendency of the history of philosophy is toward the progressive realization of this truth. It is implicit in all philosophy and is steadily becoming explicit. Ravaisson's report thus presented not only an exposition of contemporary French philosophies but also a theory about the history of philosophy.

In a shorter study, De l'habitude, written as a thesis at the Sorbonne in 1838, Ravaisson returned to the problem raised in Maine de Biran's prize-winning essay on the influence of habit on thinking. Ravaisson's study is of special historical interest since it forms the nucleus of the philosophy of Henri Bergson.

At the beginning of his argument Ravaisson laid down a fundamental distinction between the roles played by space and time in our lives. "Space," he said, "is the most obvious and elementary condition and form of stability or permanence; time the universal condition of change." Corresponding to these two basic principles are matter and life respectively. In matter there is no individuality and no possibility of habit, a point that Ravaisson probably encountered in his study of Aristotle. Life, on the contrary, forms a world of its own, a world that is internal to the living being. A set of oppositions follows, that of necessity (matter) versus that of "nature" (life), a set that echoes the two realms of necessity and freedom elaborated by Schelling. The repetition of a change modifies "nature," and the living being swings between the limitations of its material conditions and its own inner freedom. As the forms of life develop, their power of spontaneous action becomes greater, so that although the inorganic is timeless, life implies a "definite continuous durée." As we move up from vegetable to animal to human life, we find that whereas sensory impressions become weaker when repeated, our powers of movement become stronger and stronger.

Corresponding to these dualities is another. Within the human soul are the two powers of understanding and of activity. The understanding sees everything under the aspects of diversity, quantity, and space; the power of activity appears primarily in our feeling of effort, which is gradually reduced by habit. Habit transforms voluntary movements into instinctive movements. Voluntary movements could not be made if there were no resistance from without, but for them to be made at all requires that somewhere there be an undetermined center of activity, which is the will. And when one asks what the will is seeking, the answer is that it seeks the good, or God. It is not difficult to see in these views both the influence of Schelling and the anticipation of Bergson.

See also Aristotle; Bergson, Henri; Bernard, Claude; Cousin, Victor; Empiricism; Idealism; Maine de Biran; Materialism; Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of; Phenomenalism; Positivism; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Sensationalism; Skepticism; Space; Time.


works by ravaisson

Essai sur la métaphysique d'Aristote, 2 vols. Paris, 18371846.

De l'habitude. Paris: H. Fournier, 1838. Reprinted in Revue de métaphysique et de morale 2 (1894): 135.

Rapport sur la philosophie en France au XIXe siècle. Paris, 1867.

Testament philosophique et fragments. Paris, n.d. Published posthumously, with bibliography.

works on ravaisson

Bergson, Henri. "Notice sur la vie et les oeuvres de M. Félix Ravaisson-Mollien." Comptes-rendus de l'Académie des sciences morales et politiques (1904). Reprinted in Bergson's La pensée et le mouvant (Paris: Alcan, 1934) as well as in the Testament philosophique of Ravaisson.

Dopp, Joseph. Félix Ravaisson, la formation de sa pensée d'après des documents inédits. Louvain: Editions de l'Institut Superieur de Philosophie, 1933.

Gunn, J. Alexander. Modern French Philosophy, 7375 and passim. London: Unwin, 1922.

George Boas (1967)