Brunschvicg, Léon

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Brunschvicg, Léon

(b. Paris, France, 10 November 1869; d. Aix-les-Bains, France, 18 January 1944)


Brunschvicg, of Alsatian origin, achieved a brilliant record at the Lycée Condorcet. There his fellow students included Marcel Proust; Célestin Bouglé, a future sociologist; Xavier Léon; and Élie Halévy, in whose home, around 1885, he met Victor Hugo, Leconte de Lisle, and Bizet. His professor of philosophy, A. Darlu, taught him technical precision and severe self-criticism, and gave him a living example of a sage. In 1888 Brunschvicg entered the École Normale Supérieure with Halévy and Bouglé. At the Sorbonne he took the courses taught by Victor Brochard and Émile Boutroux; it was with the latter’s son Pierre that he became more deeply interested in mathematics. He soon obtained the licence ès lettres, and received the licence ès sciences in 1891.

With F. Gazier, Brunschvicg and Boutroux prepared a fourteen-volume edition of Pascal (1904–1914). Brunschvicg also founded, with Xavier Léon and Élie Halévy, the Revue de métaphysique et de morale (1893). On 30 August 1891 he passed his agrégation in philosophy and became a professor at the lycée of Lorient until 1893; he then taught at the lycée of Tours until 1895 and at that of Rouen until 1900. On 29 March 1897 he presented his doctoral theses: Qua ratione Aristoteles metaphysicam vim syllogismo inesse demonstraverit and La modalité du jugement. In the same year he published the Pensées and Opuscules of Pascal.

In 1899 Brunschvicg married Cécile Kahn, who was active in social work and served as undersecretary for education in 1936–1937. They had four children, the first of whom died young. Brunschvicg was made professor at the Lycée Condorcet in 1900, and in 1903 succeeded Bergson at the Première Supérieure of the Lycée Henri IV. Promoted to the Sorbonne in 1909, he taught there and at the École Normale Supérieure for thirty years. After World War I he was elected to the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques (1919), of which he became president in 1932. Also in 1919 he founded the Societas Spinozana and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Durham. During World War II, Nazi persecution forced Brunschvicg to leave Paris. He took refuge first at Aix-en-Provence, then in the departments of Gers and Gard, and finally at Aix-les-Bains, where he died.

When Brunschvicg’s own doctrine was taking shape, between 1886 and 1896, a reaction was becoming apparent against the dominant influence of Taine and Renan, the eclecticism of Victor Cousin, and psychology like that of Théodule Ribot. Drawing interest were Félix Ravaisson, Charles Renouvier, Jules Lachelier, Émile Boutroux, and, among the classical philosophers, Plato—whom Brunschvicg always opposed to Aristotle and, consequently, to Scholasticism—and Descartes, whose Géométrie he preferred to his Cogito. Spinoza was his favorite; he also commented on Pascal, with whom, by his own admission, he shared not a single idea except in science; Kant, who was then little known; and even Fichte. On the other hand, Brunschvicg always refused to follow Schelling and Hegel in their Naturphilosophie. Thus his critical idealism was already heralded, with the support of the reflective method.

This idealism had already taken form in La modalité du jugement. Judgment is an action that defines the mind. Far from finding the concept already present, as an image or a quasi thing—in any event, as a datum—as is supposed by conceptualists, especially Aristotle, the mind creates the concept through syntheses that form the basis of analysis. At times judgment asserts an intrinsic relationship between ideas, and it must then be classified at the level of necessity, in the modality of interiority. At times it repeatedly asserts a being as an externality, and then it must be classified at the level of the real, in the modality of exteriority. Finally, at times, knowing that it does not produce sensation, judgment discovers that it alone can produce at least all intelligible reality, and it must then be classified at the level of the possible in a mixed modality. This means that in the immanence of the mind, the only valuable knowledge is that which unites the interiority of thought with the exteriority of experience. Going from theory to practice, judgment again turns to necessity when the activity of the mind includes the conditions of its satisfaction, to reality when it does not include them, and to possibility when it feels in harmony with the external world.

If judgment is an action, it can be known only by its work, and this implies a method of historical verification. In this and this only, Brunschvicg is linked to the Port-Royal Logic, to Bernard Fontenelle, and to positivism. Verification is necessary in order not to lose oneself in the verbalism of the a priori. History tests doctrines. It chooses, disengaging from confusion the primitive—the infantile, the adolescent, in short, the irrational—which it eliminates, and the innovator, the progress of conscience, of which it draws the curve. As from the complexity of facts scientists determine a law, both real and ideal, so Brunschvicg’s historico-reflective method endeavors to unsnarl from the tangle of factual history a normative history in which intelligence never ceases to prove the legitimacy of its victory over all empiricism.

Of all the mind’s works, is not science, especially mathematics, the best expression of its rationality? Consequently, Brunschvicg began by following the developments of mathematical philosophy in Lesétapes de la philosophie mathématique. This was not the history of mathematics, but the underlining of its essential innovations: (1) Pythagorean dogmatism, which was shattered by the discovery of irrationals; (2) with Plato, the consciousness of operative dynamism; (3) with Aristotle, the appearance of formal logic; (4) the sinking of mathematics in the Middle Ages into syllogistic deduction; (5) the renaissance of Platonism with Descartes and the invention of analytical geometry; (6) the crisis brought about by infinitesimal calculus; (7) the revolution brought on by non-Euclidean geometries, symbolic logic, renewed intuitionism, and relativity. With what result? According to a contemporary mathematician, André Lichnérowicz, in Les étapes, which is probably the last book to treat of “mathematical philosophy,” Brunschvicg foresaw the resolutely nonontological orientation and the unification—through the study of algebraic-topological structures—of today’s mathematics.

L’expérience humaine et la causalité physique rediscovers, throughout the history of the accepted concepts of nature, the stages corresponding to those of mathematical philosophy, from the most primitive to the most recent, proceeding through Platonism, Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, Cartesian mechanism, and Hegelianism. “There is only one Universe” should be the only correct statement concerning causality for anyone who would defend the value of rational experience against the scorn of empiricism; the constantly unforeseen progress, always free and yet always linked, of physics. Once more the thesis of critical idealism is confirmed.

The lesson drawn from the history of science in Les étapes and L’expérience humaine, and from the studies on Pascal, Spinoza, and Descartes, was completed by the history of philosophy in Brunschvicg’s third masterwork, Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale. Raymond Aron has shown how Brunschvicg, by depending on science without falling into positivism, by turning to historical development without losing timelessness, reached an ethics of creative man, free and rational—man at his highest, “equal to his own idea of himself.”

Brunschvicg’s influence is easily recognized in all types of thinkers: such moralists as René Le Senne and Georges Bastide, such aestheticians as Joseph Segond and Valentin Feldmann, and particularly such epistemologists as Gaston Bachelard, Robert Blanché, Jean Cavaillès, Alexandre Koyré, and Albert Lautmann.


I. Original Works. Brunschvicg’s books are La modalité du jugement (Paris, 1897), 3rd ed., enl., entitled La vertu métaphysique du syllogisme selon Aristote (Paris, 1964); Introduction à la vie de l’esprit (Paris, 1900); L’idé alisme contemporain (Paris, 1905); Les étapes de la philosophie mathématique (Paris, 1912); Nature et liberté (Paris, 1921); L’expérience humaine et la causalité physique (Paris, 1922); La génie de Pascal (Paris, 1924); Spinoza et ses contemporains (Paris, 1924); Le progrès de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale (Paris, 1927); De la connaissance de soi (Paris, 1931); Pascal (Paris, 1932); Les âges de l’intelligence (Paris, 1934); La raison et la religion (Paris, 1939); Descartes et Pascal, lecteurs de Montaigne (Neuchâtel, 1942); Héritage des mots, héritage des idées (Paris, 1945); L’espirt européen (Neuchätel, 1947); Agenda retrouvé, 1892–1942 (Paris, 1948); and La philosophie de l’espirt (Paris, 1950). His articles were collected as Écrits philosophiques, 3 vols. (Paris, 1949–1958).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Brunschvicg include Marcel Deschoux, La philosophie de Léon Brunschvicg (Paris, 1949); Bernard Elevitch, in Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967), I, 408–409; Martial Gueroult, “Brunschvicg et l’histoire de la philosophie,” in Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 48 , no. 1 (1954); and D. Parodi, La philosophie contemporaine en France (Paris, 1925), pp. 420–424, 427–431. Also of value are a special number of Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 55 , no. 1–2 (1945); and a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Les étapes by A. Lichnérowicz, A. Koyré, R. P. Dubarle, and J. Wahl, Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 57 , no. 2(1963).

Yvon Belaval

Brunschvicg, Léon

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French idealist philosopher and historian of philosophy; b. Paris, 1869; d. Aix-les-Bains, 1944. He was professor at the Sorbonne, president of the Academie des sciences, morales et politiques and of the Societé française de Philosophie, and founder of the Societas Spinoziana. Between the two world wars Brunschvicg served as the official representative of French philosophy at international conferences and on cultural missions. His doctrine is an idealism with a strong historical orientation and with epistemological emphases. Brunschvicg viewed philosophy in close relation to the history of culture and of science, devoting much attention to physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. Philosophy, for him, is the integrating principle of knowledge and not a means of extending knowledge materially; it is intellectual activity that takes complete account of itself. Only in its critical activity can reason and science free themselves and realize themselves.

As a historian, Brunschvicg gained distinction especially through his studies of Spinoza and of Pascal. In both he saw his ideal of total mediation realized under different forms; in Spinoza through the elevation of reason to the role of total mediating principle; in Pascal through an appeal to mediating principles that outrange, without denigrating, abstract intellect.

See Also: idealism.

Bibliography: Works. L'Idéalisme contemporain ; Les tapes de la philosophie mathématique ; Le Progrés de la conscience dans la philosophie occidentale. Studies. j. messaut, La Philosophie de Léon Brunschvicg. m. deschoux, La Philosophie de Léon Brunschvicg, extensive bibliog. c. rosso, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:820821.

[a. r. caponigri]