Maine de Biran
MAINE DE BIRAN
French philosopher who defended the importance of inward experience as a source of knowledge; b. Marie-François-Pierre Gonthier de Biran, Bergerac, southern France, Nov. 29, 1766; d. Paris, July 20, 1824. After attending the College of Périguex, he moved between the two poles of public and private life, occupying important public offices during and after the French Revolution, while pursuing in solitude his mathematical, psychological, and philosophical researches. In 1813 he became a member of the famous "Committee of Five," which tried to curb Napoleon's international ambitions; and under the first Restoration he was in charge of the liaison between the king and the National Assembly on financial matters.
Teaching. In 1802 Biran's essay "The Influence of Habit on Thought" won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Institute of France, then dominated by the "ideologists," who reduced all experience to the outward data of sight, touch, and the like. In 1805 he was elected to the institute mainly on the strength of his essay "The Analysis of Thought." In the course of his association with such ideologists in the institute as A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy and P. J. G. Cabanis, he gradually clarified and deepened his own doctrines. Because of the originality of his opposition to the ideologists, and despite the personal
and philosophical friction this opposition created, he came to be acknowledged by many French philosophers as their leader and teacher.
His thought went through stages. When he was close to the ideologists (1800–03), he viewed outward sensations as basic to most knowledge. Then, developing his own philosophy (c. 1805), he taught that (1) all experience has an inwardly felt, volitional, and kinesthetic component (when man sees, he moves his eyeballs, keeps his eyelids apart, etc.); (2) the self is felt by man to be primarily this inward experience of willingly moving the body;(3) man's belief in effective causation (as against the mere compresence or succession of disparate external objects) is a result of this inward experience of causing his body to move; and (4) in experiencing this voluntary bodily movement (effort voulu ) through his inward sense (sens intime ), man acquires his belief in freedom, since such movement is frequently unhindered by external objects and is even independent of those objects. This development influenced, among others, V. cousin, j. lachelier, and J. Ravaisson in the nineteenth century, and M. blondel and H. bergson in the twentieth century. On the basis of these four doctrines, Maine de Biran has been described as the father of French existentialism.
In his last years (1819–24), Biran wrote a great deal about la croyance —faith in God who is spiritual, like the self revealed in inward experience, but who, unlike this self, is not temporal but eternal, not individual but universal. This last rather mystical stage has not had much influence because of its ambiguities; for instance, it is difficult to know whether he thought he was presenting a proof of God's existence or taking that existence as an article of faith. This is an undeveloped part of his philosophy.
Appreciation. More generally speaking, the philosophy of Biran is anthropocentric. His Journals, which he kept scrupulously, are as substantial a part of his lifework as his formal essays, and this is so because the basis of his philosophy was the experience of voluntarily moving his own frequently frail and always changing body. More important to him than impersonal, external objects (stressed by J. locke, É. b. condillac, d. hume, and the philosophes in general) was his own intimately felt awareness of willing and his experience of bodily resistance to that willing. This inwardly felt give-and-take convinced Biran that R. Descartes' dualism was an arbitrary separation of two entities deeply and intimately involved with each other. Only by starting from abstract words such as "mind" and "body," and defining these terms as negations of each other, did Descartes create his dualism. Biran found as a matter of experience that mind and body are intimately related with each other and, in emphasizing experience, he opposed his own kind of empiricism to the rationalism of Descartes. There was little of the system builder in Biran and much of the introspective psychologist; he was not so much trying to prove elaborate metaphysical conclusions as he was trying to clarify and personalize the basic terminology of psychology and philosophy. To sensationalism, materialism, and rationalism Biran opposed the descriptions and analyses of his own experience. It is a mistake to think of him primarily as a spiritualistic metaphysician; he was an empirical philosopher, at least in his rich middle period.
See Also: enlightenment, philosophy of.
Bibliography: Works. Journal, ed. h. gouhier, 2 v. (Neuchâtel 1954–55); Oeuvres, ed. p. tisserand and h. gouhier, 14 v. (Paris 1920–49). Literature. a. huxley, Themes and Variations (New York 1950), a good intro. to the journals. p. p. hallie, Maine de Biran: Reformer of Empiricism, 1766–1824 (Cambridge, Mass.1959). h. gouhier, Les Conversions de Maine de Biran (Paris 1947). g. le roy, L'Expérience de l'effort et de la grâce chez Maine de Biran (Paris 1937).
[p. p. hallie]