Renouvier, Charles Bernard (1815–1903)

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The French critical philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier was born in Montpellier and was educated at the École Polytechnique, where he specialized in mathematics and natural science. At the school he came under the influence of the work of Antoine Cournot and of Auguste Comte, who at that time was an instructor (répétiteur ) in higher mathematics there. In 1848 Renouvier published in Paris his Manuel républicain de l'homme et du citoyen, a volume addressed to schoolteachers, which urged the preaching of socialism. But his political views were frustrated by the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon, and he retired from active participation in politics to write philosophy. Renouvier never held an academic position but worked as a private individual, producing one of the longest series of philosophical works in French history. In 1867 he began the publication, with his friend and collaborator François Pillon, of L'année philosophique, a monthly that propagated Renouvier's philosophical doctrines. These doctrines were chiefly expounded in a series of books, constantly revised by Renouvier, the Essais de critique générale, the final edition of which appeared in 1897. He continued writing up to the time of his death, his last work being Le personnalisme (1903). Though his pluralism and his personalism anticipated some philosophical doctrines of the early twentieth century, his main influence was upon his French contemporaries.


Renouvier's general position is called neocriticism, because it took the method of Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy as its starting point. But though Renouvier started with Kant's method, he did not accept Kant's conclusions but used them rather as a basis from which to launch a set of ideas often critical of Kant.

Renouvier laid down as an integral part of his philosophy what he called the "law of numbers," according to which every cardinal number is an ultimate individual, finite and irreducible. Mathematics is the paradigm of thinking, and the law of contradiction is more clearly manifested in mathematical operations than anywhere else. But the term mathematics, as Renouvier used it, was restricted to arithmetic, and he derived the nature of numbers exclusively from the cardinal numbers. This led him to deny the existence of any infinite, for he maintainedunable to anticipate the work of Georg Cantorthat an infinite number was a contradiction in terms. Renouvier extended his criticism of the notion of infinity beyond numbers to deny the infinity of space and time as well.

Renouvier recognized that knowledge is relative to its premises and to the person who laid down the premises; nevertheless he could not accept the relativity of logical processes. There is a distinction involved here between logic and the psychology of thought. Just as each number is a distinct and separate entity, so is each human being. And just as the characteristics of each numberduality, triplicity, and so oncan never be reduced to, or "reconciled" with, the characteristics of any other number, so each human being is not exactly like any other and cannot be merged into a general group-consciousness or absorbed into an absolute mind. Knowledge is always the property of individual knowers, and the distinction between knowledge and belief disappears. What an individual knows is what seems reasonable to him, and his contribution to knowledge can never be subtracted. The subtraction can be made verbally, to be sure, but to do so is to alter the character of cognition, which is essentially judgment.


Renouvier also differed from Kant in his doctrine of phenomena. Phenomena are not the appearances of anything other than themselves. They are neither illusions nor purely subjective beings. They are sui generis, being whatever we perceive or whatever we make judgments about. He granted that the name is unfortunate except insofar as it indicates appearances. Because there are no things-in-themselves, Renouvier criticized Kant's antinomies, which hold good only if there are noumena. His attack on the first antinomy, for example, was based on its use of the concept of infinity. Since infinity is an inherently inconsistent idea, Renouvier asserted that the world must have had a beginning in time and that space is limited. The domination of the number concept as a conceptual model appears here in full force. For Renouvier, the numbers begin with one, since zero and negative numbers are not really numbers, and spaces are the spaces of individual discrete beings, there being no such entity as number-in-itself or space-in-itself.

There exists within the number series the category of relation. For the numbers are ordered, and order is a kind of relation. All other categories are, for Renouvier, forms of relation, but of relation as discovered within the framework of an individual's consciousness. There turn out to be nine categoriesrelation, number, position, succession, quality, becoming (devenir ), causality, purposiveness, and personality. Each has its thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; and all are rooted in the phenomenal world as judged by us. It is uncertain whether Renouvier attempted to derive his categories in the manner of Maine de Biran from personalityour acting as a cause, our seeking ends, our sensory discriminations (which might produce the separateness of quantity and quality), spatial positions, moments in time, and the intervals between themor whether his assertion that personality is one of the categories is derived from his premise of the law of numbers. In any event, just as each number has its own distinctive quality, its own position in the numeral order, and its many relations to other numbers, determined not only by its own character but also by that of the other numbers, so the human being has his own personality and displays the other categories not only as a distinct entity but also as a perceptive consciousness.

The parallelism between the ways in which a man judges, perceives, and knows and the ways in which he as a person differs from other beings pervades Renouvier's writings. Thus, because one acts to achieve one's purposes, it follows that both causality and purposiveness exist within the human being and must likewise be combined in the phenomenal world. A cause determines the path of an event, but the direction of that event is determined by that which participates in it.

Since no two events are exactly alike, the deterministic factor in nature is mitigated by chance. Renouvier probably got this argument from Cournot, who also insisted upon the probabilistic element in nature. To frame a law or a generalized description depends upon our ability to discover absolutely homogeneous phenomena or groups of phenomena. If this is impossible, then generalizations are at most only probable. But at the same time, each individual phenomenon contributes something to the events of which it is a part, and that contribution in the very nature of things cannot be predicted.


The problem of causation arises with regard to human beings in the form of the antithesis between free will and determinism. Since every act of consciousness is a relation between a perceiving subject and that which is perceptible, then as soon as a conscious act is formulated and made clear to the perceiving mind, it will be organized in terms of the categories. But there is a choice among the various categories to be applied, for we are not forced either to quantify or qualify, to count or to locate, to assign a date or to recognize a cause. The categories limit the possibilities of judgment but have no inherent order of predominance. In other words, Renouvier held that when we see a phenomenon, for example, a tree, we are not forced first to judge it as green, then as distant, old, fan-shaped, simple, or what you will. The order of judgment is determined by us, and we are free, within the range of possible categories, to judge it as we will. The selection of a category or group of categories depends on our free choice in accordance with our interests at the moment of judging.

Freedom cannot be proved, nor can determinism. Both are assumptions utilized in view of their consequences. These consequences may be purely intellectual or may be moral or practical. But freedom itself rests upon the inherent individuality of the human will, an individuality which cannot be completely absorbed into any larger class of beings. Insofar as any being is unique, to that extent it is undetermined or self-determined. And insofar as it is identical with other beings, to that extent the homogeneity of its class accounts for the regularity of its behavior. In short, individuality and freedom are synonymous terms, and Renouvier even called freedom the principle of individuation. The consequence is that just as the personal equation enters into all judgments, so the only certainty we have is the certainty of our judgments. Renouvier put it as follows:

Certitude is not and cannot be absolute. It is a condition and act of mannot an act and a condition in which he grasps immediately that which could not be immediate, i.e., facts and laws external and superior to present experience, but rather one in which he posits his awareness as it exists and as he maintains it. Strictly speaking, there is no certitude; there are only men who are certain. (Traité de psychologie rationnelle, Paris, 1912, Vol. I, p. 366)

But indeterminism is not limited to human judgments. It extends also to history. For since history is in part made up of human behavior, human decisions must be included in its scope, and there is no way of eliminating them. One can, of course, describe the environment of human life, its stability, and its mutability; but if it remains stable, that is because human beings have not changed it, and if it changes, that is due to human acts as much as to natural disasters. People modify their living conditions, not as a group acting as one person, but as a collection of individuals. Their reasons for doing so may vary, as is inevitable, and of course they are not able to modify their conditions completely. But Renouvier emphasized the importance of human decisions for the way in which individuals will live, since the ability of human beings to make choices makes it impossible to lay down either a law of universal progress toward the good or one of constant degeneration. Hence Renouvier rejected historical laws, such as those of Comte and G. W. F. Hegel, though he was attracted to meliorism.


If there is no historical law dooming humankind to move in any predetermined direction and if history only records actual change, the question arises of the relation of history to ethics. People make moral judgments and act so as to achieve what they believe to be right. Morals, then, are not the result of history, though what happens in history reflects our moral judgments. Morals are rather the source of historical changes, and if we are to appraise historical events, we shall have to do so in moral terms. This clearly requires a definition of good and evil, and in view of the radical individualism of Renouvier this might seem an insurmountable task. But he identified evil with conflict, conflict both between persons and between groups of persons. For warfare is in essence the prevention by one or more persons of the fulfillment of the volitions of others. Hence tyranny, slavery, and conquest are to be condemned. This assumes that it is possible for a group of enlightened people to respect the individuality of their fellows and for all to live in peace.

In his fictional account of what history might have been, Uchronie (1876), Renouvier claimed that the secret of human happiness lies in our recognition of the individual's freedom. If at any epoch people had accepted individual freedom wholeheartedly, he argued, universal peace and harmony would have prevailed. Religious, economic, and national wars would have ended at once; for everyone would have taken it for granted that each person has a right to his own religious views, to the satisfaction of his own economic interests, and to his own national loyalties. Renouvier held that education alone could bring this about, though he had no illusions that proper education was ever likely to be instituted. The dogma of historical determinism has had too firm a hold on human will power and has brought about acquiescence, sloth, injustice, and ignorance.

The basic premises of Renouvier's Science de la morale (1869) are that human nature is rational and that people believe themselves to be free. Their belief in freedom leads individuals to act for what they judge to be better, and their rationality guides them in their choice of ends. To act morally is to act rationally. By doing so we rise above the beasts; we recognize the humanity in our fellows and respect it. For this reason Renouvier became a bitter opponent of the Catholic Church and of monarchy and urged his readers to turn to Protestantism as the religion of individual conscience. To him Protestantism was the religion of a personal Godnot an absolute and unchanging Being, omniscient and omnipotent, but finite, limited, free, and the guarantor of our freedom. God's existence is not proved, but it is a reasonable hypothesis drawn from the existence of our moral objectives. Running through Renouvier's many works are the premises that the plurality of existing things is irreducible; that chance is real and is reproduced in individual freedom of choice; that time and novelty really exist; and that no absolutes or infinites exist.

See also Comte, Auguste; Cournot, Antoine Augustin; Determinism and Indeterminism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Infinity in Mathematics and Logic; Kant, Immanuel; Maine de Biran; Neo-Kantianism.


works by renouvier

Essais de critique générale. 4 vols. Paris, 18541864.

Science de la morale. 2 vols. Paris, 1869.

Uchronie, l'utopie dans l'histoire. Paris, 1876.

Esquisse d'une classification systématique des doctrines philosophiques. 2 vols. Paris, 18851886.

Philosophique analytique de l'histoire. Paris, 18961897.

Le personnalisme. Paris, 1903.

Lettres de Renouvier à Henneguy (18611899), edited by Marcel Méry. Gap: Editions Ophrys, 1969.

Manuel républicain de l'homme et du citoyen (1848). Paris: Garnier, 1981.

Les dilemmes de la métaphysique pure. 2nd ed. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1991.

Victor Hugo, le philosophe. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2002.

works on renouvier

Blais, Marie-Claude. Au principe de la République: Le Cas Renouvier. Paris: Gallimard, 2000.

Fedi, Laurent. Le problème de la connaissance dans la philosophie de Charles Renouvier. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1998.

Foucher, Louis. La jeunesse de Renouvier et sa première philosophie. Paris: Vrin, 1927.

Grande, Sonia Kase. Charles Renouvier and the Search for Intellectual and Social Synthesis in Nineteenth-Century France. 1975.

Gunn, J. Alexander. Modern French Philosophy. London: Unwin, 1922. Contains an excellent bibliography.

Hamelin, Octave. Le système de Renouvier. Paris: Vrin, 1927.

Logue, William. Charles Renouvier, Philosopher of Liberty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Milhaud, Gaston. La philosophie de Charles Renouvier. Paris, 1927.

Séailles, Gabriel. La philosophie de Charles Renouvier. Paris: Alcan, 1905.

Turlot, Fernand. Le personnalisme critique de Charles Renouvier: Une philosophie française. Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2003.

George Boas (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)