Le Bon, Gustave

views updated May 18 2018

Le Bon, Gustave

The unconscious


The crowd



Although Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931) is most generally known for his book The Crowd, his career in fact had three overlapping phases, the successive focuses of his interest being anthropology and archeology, experimental and theoretical natural science, and only finally social psychology.

Le Bon received a doctorate of medicine without any vocation for the profession. He began his adult life with travels in Europe, north Africa, and Asia. From these travels there resulted a half-dozen books, chiefly on anthropology and archeology. The last of the works on these subjects, Les monuments de I’Inde, appeared in 1893, when Le Bon was 52.

However, when he was in his late thirties Le Bon’s interests began to shift radically: he invented recording instruments (exhibited in 1878), studied racial variations in cranial capacity, analyzed the composition of tobacco smoke, published a photo-graphic method for making plans and maps, as well as a treatise that put the training of horses on an experimental basis, and, finally, devoted more than ten years to research on black light, intra-atomic energy, and the equivalence of matter and energy. During this period, furthermore, Le Bon began the work in social psychology that was to become the predominant concern of the final phase of his career. The Crowd appeared in 1895, when he was 54.

It is, of course, chiefly by virtue of the works of this third phase that Le Bon belongs to the history of social science. But these works in social psychology have links not only with the books of the period of his travels but also with those of what might be called his scientific phase. Thus, when Le Bon dealt with pedagogy and politics, he carefully transposed to children and peoples what he had earlier learned about horses. Similarly, he claimed to support his ideas on the psychological hierarchy of races and sexes with material from his study of the variations in the volume of the brain.

Before sketching the main outlines of the doctrine underlying all of Le Bon’s psychological work, one trait of this work—perhaps at the time the most original—should be stressed. He selected extremely concrete problems for study—for example, the socialist movement, the organization of education, colonial policy, the French Revolution, and World War I—but always sought to treat these problems in terms of scientific generalizations at the highest level of abstraction. This was nothing less than an attempt to synthesize Comte and Spencer with Michelet and Tocqueville. Le Bon was convinced that contingent events as well as social behavior are guided by eternal laws (1912, p. 322).

The unconscious

One of these eternal laws that Le Bon constantly invoked is the futility of rationality in the affairs of society: an idea does not prevail because it is true, but by virtue of psychological mechanisms that have nothing to do with reason, such as repetition and “mental contagion.” These mechanisms permit an idea to penetrate into the unconscious, and it is only when an idea does become part of the unconscious that it becomes effective for action. This rudimentary theory of learning was first formulated when he was studying the training of horses and then extended to human education and to politics. His watchword was: let the conscious become the unconscious.

The principle that only the unconscious produces effective action applies, according to Le Bon, not only to individuals but also to whole peoples (or races, so long as it is well understood that what is meant are “historical races,” created by the events of history, and not races in the anthropological sense). Thus a people, or a civilization, or a race, properly so-called, must have a national soul, that is, shared sentiments, shared interests, and shared ways of thinking. The national soul is produced by such nonrational mechanisms as suggestion and heredity; all metaphysical, religious, political, and social beliefs are so rooted in the national soul of each people. It is these deeply-rooted beliefs that govern institutions (not the inverse, as Tocqueville had imagined).

The vital implication of this theory for politics is that laws are illusory and ineffective if they lack a basis in the national psychology. Moreover, according to Le Bon, it is these fundamental beliefs that produce lack of understanding and intolerance between peoples and groups and thus account for the irreducibility of what may be called ideological conflicts and the inevitability of civil strife and international wars.


Le Bon was perennially establishing hierarchies. Thus he asserted the existence of a hierarchy of races, based on psychological criteria (such as degree of reasoning ability, power of attention, mastery over instinctual drives; see the Psychology of Peoples 1894) and confirmed on anatomical grounds by the alleged greater differentiation of the superior races and the greater consequent incidence of individuals who rise above the mean. As a specific instance of such hierarchical ordering, Le Bon repeatedly compared the mental constitution of the Anglo–Saxon race with that of the Latin peoples, and down to World War i he considered the Anglo–Saxons superior in every way. He established a hierarchy of the sexes using the same kind of criteria. According to his system of evaluation, animals, the insane, socialists, children, degenerates, and primitives were inferior beings.

The crowd

He postulated another, very interesting kind of inferiority: this is the inferiority of the crowd, or of man in the crowd. Le Bon believed that the psychology of men in a crowd differs essentially from their individual psychology; they be-come simple automata, instances of a sort of new being. Their spirit is that of the crowd which, like every spirit, is part of the unconscious; but this is a very low-level part of the unconscious, archaic or primitive from a historical point of view and medullar from a physiological one.

The psychological characteristics of crowds, as analyzed at length in the celebrated The Crowd, may be grouped around three themes. The first and most general characteristic attributed by Le Bon to crowd behavior is that of unanimity; he called this the law of the mental unity of crowds and asserted it as a dogma. He saw this mental unity accompanied by an awareness of unanimity that has important consequences: dogmatism and intolerance, a feeling of irresistible power, and a sense of irresponsibility. The second characteristic of crowd behavior is its emotionality: the actions of the crowd are sudden, simple, extreme, intense, and very changeable, so betraying the feminine nature of crowds. The third descriptive theme is that the intellectual processes of crowds are rudimentary and mechanical: crowds are very credulous, their ideas are schematic, and their logic is infrarational and ignores the principle of noncontradiction.

How, then, does it happen that in a crowd situation even the most rational of men are transformed into brutes? Le Bon, like Tarde, who wrote on the same topic at the same time, offered two explanations: mental contagion and the role of leaders, who are often, but not always, described as agitators. But what do these explanations amount to? “Contagion is a phenomenon that is readily observed, but has not yet been explained, and had best be related to the phenomena of hypnotism...” (1895, p. 17). “The unconscious minds of the charmer and the charmed, the leader and the led, penetrate each other by a mysterious mechanism” (1910, p. 139). These tautologous passages suggest that on occasion Dr. Le Bon knew how to resort to the technique of the doctors in Molière.

To concentrate criticism on this particular problem of explanation would be misleading, for these theories of mental contagion and of the role of leaders are no more gratuitous, no more confused, and no more based on obsolete psychology than is the entire core of Le Bon’s system. They may even have special merit, for it was precisely such arbitrary assertions of Le Bon that contained his happiest insights. He believed that “the action of a group consists mainly in fortifying hesitant beliefs. Any individual conviction that is weak is rein- forced when it becomes collective” (1912, p. 102); or that, during World War i, “isolated individuals regained their military value when they rejoined a familiar group, but not when they were merged into other groups” (1916, p. 243). These are sentences that would not surprise us if they appeared in The People’s Choice or in The American Soldier.

The fact remains that these two sentences went unnoticed. It was by the most reckless, the most false, and the most harmful of his theories that Le Bon exerted his greatest influence, in France and even more so abroad. In particular, the “law of the mental unity of crowds” was widely accepted and taught, and perhaps still is. Ironically, the fame of some men is based on their mistakes and thereby confronts their critics with a painful dilemma: either to blame such a man for the very things that made him popular or to praise him for contributions that would not have existed were it not for the mistakes.

Jean Stoetzel

[For the historical context of Le Bon’s work, see the biographies ofTarde; Tocqueville.For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see Collective Behavior.]


1892 L’équitation actuelle et ses principes: Recherches expérimental s. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

1893 Les monuments de I’Inde. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

(1894) 1898 The Psychology of Peoples. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des peuples.

(1895) 1947 The Crowd. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Psychologie des foules. Translation of extract was provided by the editors. A paperback edition was published in 1960 by Viking.

(1898) 1965 Psychology of Socialism. New York: Fraser. → First published as Psychologie du socialisme.

1902 Psychologie de l’éducation. Paris: Flammarion.

1910 Psychologie politique et la defense sociale. Paris: Flammarion.

1911 Les opinions et les croyances. Paris: Flammarion.

(1912) 1913 The Psychology of Revolutions. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as La révolution francaise et la psychologic des révolutions. Translation of extract in the text provided by the editors.

1913 Aphorisme du temps present. Paris: Flammarion.

1916 The Psychology of the Great War. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published in the same year as Enseignements psychologiques de la guerre européenne. Translation of extract in the text provided by the editors.


Merton, Robert K. (1960) 1963 The Ambivalences of Le Bon’s The Crowd. Pages v-xxxix in Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd. New York: Viking.

Picard, Edmond 1909 Gustave Le Bon et son oeuvre. Paris: Mercure de France.

Le Bon, Gustave (1841-1931)

views updated May 18 2018

LE BON, GUSTAVE (1841-1931)

Gustave Le Bon, a French physician and philosopher, was born in 1841 in Nogent-le-Rotrou and died on December 24, 1931, in Paris. Le Bon's name has for years been associated with The Crowd (1895/1995), which made him one of the founders of group psychology. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the book's phenomenal successit has been translated into several languages and was reprinted many timesLe Bon has been disparaged and misunderstood by the scientific community. He has been reproached for the summary, polemical, even reactionary nature of his analysis. A prophet and harsh critic of mass society, he ushered in the "age of the crowd," "the most recent sovereign of the modern age."

The son of a civil servant, this country doctor developed an early interest in anthropology, then sociology and psychology. A tireless worker, he made a living as a writer and editor. Although he was never an academic, he was well known, much more so than someone like Emile Durkheim. Government officials, writers and scientists attended his "lunches": Théodule Ribot, Bergson, Valéry, Henri and Raymond Poincaré, Aristide Briand, and Marie Bonaparte, who introduced him to the work of Sigmund Freud and who remained Le Bon's friend until his death.

In 1902, Le Bon began editing a collection of scientific works for Flammarion, the "Bibliothèque de philosophie scientifique," intended for the lay reader. The series had considerable success. He published the majority of his own writings as part of the collection, as well as Henri Poincaré's La Science et l'Hypothèse and Marie Bonaparte's Guerres militaires et Guerres sociales.

Taine's influence on Le Bon was considerable, but so was that of Ribot and Charcot. All of Le Bon's work bears the mark of the intellectual climate of fin-de-siècle France: an attraction to the irrational, the primacy of feeling over reason, and the role of heredity and race.

Freud read Le Bon and was directly inspired by him in writing Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego(1921c). Like Le Bon he sought to explain the phenomena of collective life through individual psychology. But Freud eliminated the notions of heredity, mentality, and suggestion and replaced them with a model of unconscious identification. Le Bon's idea of the unconscious as an archaic heritage of the human soul was closer to Jung than to Freud. Their ideas of the social also diverged. Freud wanted to clarify the irrationality of the group in order to reduce it, while Le Bon appeared to systematically cultivate it.

Annick Ohayon

See also: Bonaparte, Marie León; Christians and Jews: A Psychoanalytical Study ; Fascination; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego ; Otherness; Suggestion.


Le Bon, Gustave. (1910). La psychologie politique et la défense sociale. Paris: Flammarion.

. (1980). The French Revolution and the psychology of revolution. With a new introduction by Robert A. Nye. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books. (Original work published 1912)

. (1995). The crowd. With a new introduction by Robert A. Nye. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, c1995. (Original work published 1895)

Freud, Sigmund. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

Gustave Le Bon

views updated May 29 2018

Gustave Le Bon

Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) was a French social scientist and philosopher. Although he was originally trained as a physician, Le Bon's primary contribution was in sociology, where he developed major theories on crowd behavior.

The electric interests and abilities of Gustave Le Bon led to a full and productive life. Studies ranging from components of tobacco smoke, through physical anthropology, to atomic energy and structure describe the broad range of scholarly interests Le Bon maintained until his death. Because of this wide range, many have thought of Le Bon's work as shallow and dilettantish. No one in the course of a lifetime could possibly master all the disciplines observed in Le Bon's scholarly work. Nevertheless, men such as Sigmund Freud and Gordon Allport acknowledged the vital importance of Le Bon's work.

While Le Bon made contributions to theories of social evolution and political revolution, probably his most widely known work concerned the psychology of crowd behavior. He stated that crowds maintained a collective mind and that the group mind was not simply a summary of the individual persons. Instead, a new distillation of traits emerged, primarily unconscious in nature, which reflected racially inherited characteristics.

The consequence of these innate traits was a regression in the direction of more primitive, instinctual determinants of behavior, in contrast to more rational intellectual determinants. Le Bon also believed in the contagion of ideas in a crowd such that individual members, in a heightened state of suggestibility and with feelings of omnipotence, are subjugated to the will and emotion of the crowd mind. He also indicated that crowds are capable of engaging in positive social actions as well.

Le Bon's ideas about social evolution and political revolution were related again to racial stock. History, for Le Bon, is a consequence of racial temperament; to understand the history of a people, one must look to the soul of the people. Just as a people cannot choose its appearance, it cannot freely opt for its cultural institutions.

Le Bon's beliefs with respect to political behavior consistently revealed a basic mistrust of the masses. On the last day of his life he repeated the theme that where the common people continue to maintain, or gain, control of government, civilization is moved in the direction of barbarism. It was this view that earned Le Bon the occasional label of antidemocrat and elitist.

An interesting incident attributed to Le Bon concerns his return in 1884 from an anthropological expedition to India, where he was commissioned by France to study Buddhist monuments. Marie François Sadi Carnot, then the minister of public works, was given an opportunity to choose for himself an artifact from a group Le Bon had brought back. Carnot chose a statuette which Le Bon quickly indicated was not appropriate because it carried a curse. Le Bon told Carnot that the owner of the statuette would be killed upon reaching the highest office in France. The warning was disregarded, and on June 24, 1894, Carnot, the fourth president of the French Republic, was assassinated by an Italian anarchist at Lyons.

Le Bon was a physician, anthropologist in the field, and finally professor of psychology and allied sciences at the University of Paris. His best-known book is La Psychologie des foules (1895; translated as The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, 1897). He died on Dec. 13, 1931, at Marnela-Coquette near Paris.

Further Reading

A good review of Le Bon's career is in the introduction by Robert K. Merton to Le Bon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1960). Le Bon's work is discussed in its historical context in Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson, eds., Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 1 (1954; rev. ed. 1968). Also useful is Edward Ellsworth Jones and Harold B. Gerard, Foundations of Social Psychology (1967). □