Condillac, Étienne Bonnot, Abb

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Condillac, Étienne Bonnot, Abbé De

(b. Grenoble, France, 30 September 1714; d. Beaugency, France, 3 August 1780),

philosophy psychology.

Condilliac’s philosophy od science as language occupies a midpoint in the evolution of scientific epistemology between the empiricism of Locke and the positivism of Comte. He was the third son of Gabriel de Bonnot, vicomte de Mably, magistrate and member of the nobless de la rone in Dauphiny. The second son also took orders, styling himself abbé de Mably and achieving as a writer on economic matters the reputation of philosophe somewhat earlier than did Condillac, who took the name by which he is known from another of their father’s estates, a village near Romans-sur-Isère.

After the death of his father in 1727, Condillac was brought up by his eldest brother, Jean Bonnot de Mably, in whose household Jean-Jacques Rousseau was for a time a tutor. That acquaintanceship opened literary doors in Paris when in due course Condillac followed his brother the abbe to the seminary at Saint-Sulpice and then to the Sorbonne for his lience.

Although hampered by bad vision, he was studious and concentrated his mind on philosophy and science. Theology held no interest for him. For many an eighteenth-century abbé, taking holy orders implied nothing special in the way of religious commitment. Their vocation was for ideas rather than beliefs. They entered the clergy because it was the only profession that accommodated an intellectual career, and they never let their priesthood spoil their interest and pleasure in the world.

Condillac frequented the salons of Mme. du Tencin, Mme. d’Épinay, Mlle. de La Chaux, and Mlle. de Lespinasse. Through Rousseau he met Diderot, and for a time the three dined together weekly. He was soon of the inner circle of the philosophes, and alone among them attained to what in any century would have been regarded as a professional command of the problems of philosophy, whose appellation these men of letters had loosely and somewhat inadvertently taken upon their concerns.

Condillac entered into intellectual life at just the juncture when, for very generalized reasons, French thought was, with some little affectation, disowning the legacy of Descartes and adopting that of Newton and Locke. In consequence of the junction between physics and the empiricist account of the mind, epistemology and pshychology became virtually the same subject in the French Enlightenment. Condillac contributed to the synthesis more decisively than did any other writer.

The development of Condillac’s thought is recorded in a very coherent way in his main works: L’essai sur l’origine des connaisances humaines (1746); Traité des systèmes (1749); Traité des sensation (1754); Traité des animaux (1755); La logique (1780); and La langue des calculs, which was left incomplete and published posthumously. In the lengthy interval between the last two works and the earlier works, he served the Princess Louise-Elisabeth, daughter of Louis XV and the duchess of Parma, as preceptor to her son, Ferdinand de Bourbon, the heir to the sovereign dukedom. To that end he lived in Parma for more than nine years, and published books on history, education, and political economy drawn up in the course of the young prince’s education. These writings are consistent with his philosophy, but they add nothing to it and will not be considered in this article.

On the psychological side, the starting point of Condillac’s philosophy was Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which (never having learned English) he knew through the translation by Pirerre Coste (1700). “Our first object,” he says after Locke, “which we must never lose sight of, is to study the human mind, not to discover its nature, but to know its operations” (Oeuvres, I, 4). To that end he insisted on a genetic analysis of knowledge far more singlemindedly than Locke had ever done. “We must” he continued, “retrace our ideas to their origins, exhibit their genesis, follow them to the limits prescribed by nature, thereby establish the extent and boundaries of our knowledge, and thus renew the entire human understanding.” It was because philosophers habitually dealt with essences rather than origins that their accounts of knowledge failed—Leibniz with his monads and Descartes with his innate ideas. It ought to be possible, however, to bring to metaphysical and moral problems all the exactness of geometry while employing a method for arriving at the evidence that would be simpler and easier than the synthetic mode of proof.

Instead, Condillac advocated an analytic approach, one that should be as rigorous as classical geometric reasoning and that should also repair a critical defect that in his view Locke the pioneer had left in the empiricist account of the mind. For Locke had admitted a distinction between the process of sensation that imprints direct experiences on consciousness and the process of reflection through which the mind is aware of itself in the act of thinking, doubting, reasoning, or willing. “Internal sense” Locke called this source of ideas in contrast to those deriving from external stimuli, and Condillac would have none of it.

If, as Locke urges, the soul experiences no perception of which it is not conscious, so that an unconscious perception is a contradiction in terms, then perception and consciousness ought to be taken for a single operation. If the contrary be true, then the two operations are distinct, and it would be in consciousness, and not as I have supposed in perception, that our knowledge originates [Ibid., I, II].

Locke, in his discursive English way, had failed to notice that this distinction gave all the room required for innate ideas, and Condillac, the heir of Cartesian rationalism in his repudiation of Cartesian metaphysics, set about to eliminate it.

His instrument was a highly original theory of language as the analyst of experience. It is by the mind’s capacity to invent and manipulate symbols of uniform and determinate significance that it passes from sensation to reflection and communication and hence to effective knowledge. Approaching all his problems genetically, Condillac adduced the acquisition of language by a baby. In its first years, a baby translates every sensation directly into actions expressing needs or satisfactions. With observation and education, this primitive language of action gives way to French or English. A child who can talk is no longer at the mercy of inexpressible events. The mastery of a symbol or a word for what one needs creates the possibility of securing it. Even if all knowledge originates from outside experience, there-fore, to dispose of a language is to be the master of one’s thought. Language, then, the conventionalization of symbols from experience, is the cause of the most complex operations of the mind, those functions usually grouped under the faculties of attention, memory, imagination, intuition, and reflection.

By identifying the operations of language as the cause of intellectual functions, Condillac intended to be making the kind of statement Newton had made when he identified gravity as the cause of the planetary motion—an exact and verifiable generalization of phenomenal effects. In the Traité des systèmes, Condillac expounded the Newtonian conception of scientific methodology as the healthy alternative to the metaphysical and necessarily chimerical systems constructed by Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, Spinoza, and their followers. Protopositivist strictures about metaphysics were already the fashion, and on the critical side the main distinction of his treatise is that it examined the systems it attacked more carefully and fully than did Voltaire, Diderot, or the more literary writers. On the positive side, his development of inductive empiricism merely systematized the scientific methodology of Newton. The originality of all his work lay in combining that methodology with his theory of language and communication in order to make the science of the human mind a science of experience.

In 1749 Diderot played the part of devil’s advocate in several passages of his Lettre sur les aveugles. He pointed out that Condillac’s restriction of the knowledge that each person has of his own existence to his inner consciousness of sensation could equally well serve the purpose of Bishop Berkeley’s idealism, and invited Condillac to distinguish his own account from one that employed strikingly similar arguments to reach entirely opposite conclusions about the reality of the sensible world. Confronted with that challenge, Condillac recognized that his handling of the input from sensible experience was no clearer than Locke’s.

He had treated sensations sometimes as images of real objects and sometimes as mere modes of thought, and had never established the objective existence of the world thus represented. Accordingly, in the most comprehensive of his works, the Traité des sensations, he set out, faithful to his genetic approach, to trace in principle the process by which a being organized with the capacity of becoming human learns to avail itself of the several senses with which it is provided.

To that end he imagined (not altogether originally) the most famous of eighteenth-century psychological fictions, a statue “organized internally like us, and animated with an intellect devoid of ideas of any sort. We suppose further that an exterior entirely of marble allows it the use of none of its senses, and we reserve to ourselves the liberty to open them at our will to the different impressions of which they are capable” (Ibid., I, 222).

Condillac chose to begin with the sense of smell since that one appears to contribute the least to human knowledge. To the nose of his statue, he held a rose. What then would its situation be? “Relative to us it will be a statue that is smelling a rose, but relative to itself it will be only the odor of a rose” (Ibid., I, 224). In this state it will be capable of existence and attention, although not yet of desire or choice. Hold a carnation to its nose, however, and the situation changes, for it has comparisons to make, and should the new odor be actually disagreeable, it would come to know the difference between pleasure and pain as a basis for action in its response to external stimuli. Thus did Condillac build up in his statue a schematized sensibility, endowing it with the five senses in succession and with episodes filtered through each one until, having acquired the full syntax of experience, the statue could be imagined receiving the experiences of a varied life.

Not through the experience of smell, taste, hearing, or sight might Berkeley be refuted, however. Only the sense of touch, through which is experienced reaction to the action of putting another body into motion, carries conviction that external objects must exist and be subject to the laws of physics. The point about physical contact with the external world through the sense of touch was critical to Condillac, as indeed it had been in related ways to Voltaire, Descartes, and many another reasoning upon the epistemological significance of a science reducible to mechanics. In the Traité des animaux (1755), directed in part against Buffon, Condillac distinguished between the sensitivity of animals and the intellect of men largely on grounds of the superiority of the information conveyed by the human sense of touch. It is not this part of his doctrine that seems the most impressive historically, however. It is rather that his theory of language as the syntax of experience united philosophical empiricism with the account of behavior (later called utilitarian) that explained it by the preference for pleasure over pain.

It was through his last works—La logique and, especially, La langue des calculs—that Condillac exercised the most decisive influence on the philosophical taste of the generation of scientists immediately following his own. Therein, like his predecessors in the rationalist tradition, he looked to mathematics as the exemplar of knowledge. He parted company with them, however, in developing the preference he had expressed in his early work for the analytic over the synthetic mode of reasoning. Geometry had lent itself to the abuses of the framers of systems, and it was algebra that would exhibit how the operations of any proper science are only those of a “well-made language.” Algebraic terms consist of a set of exact symbols. By convention they always mean the same thing. They are combined and manipulated according to rules of a perfectly exact syntax. Algebra, indeed, is at once a language and a method of analysis. By contrast, ordinary language is an inaccurate and clumsy instrument all rusted and corrupted by centuries of sophistry and superstition. To compare it with algebra would reveal the difference between science and the imperfections of life in society.

In that comparison Condillac’s philosophy entered into the reforming mission of the Enlightenment, the central imperative of the rationalism then having been to reduce the imperfections of human arrangements by approximating them to the natural and to educate the human understanding in the grammar of nature. In France at least, the congruence of Condillac’s philosophy of science with the broader commitments of progressive culture recommended it to scientists themselves as the most authoritative reading of Newtonian methodology. By its canons analysis must first identify the elements of a subject. Once they are made clear, they are to be classified according to the logical (which is the same thing as the natural) relations discerned beneath the complexities of phenomena and the confusion of unanalyzed experience. Analysis dissipates that confusion by finding the science its proper language, a systematic nomenclature chosen to identify the thing by the name, associate the idea with its object, and fasten the memory to nature.

The terminology and symbolism of the modern science of chemistry are examples still alive in science of the practicality of this program. The opening passages of Lavoisier’s Élements de chimie (1789) show that the author had taken Condillac’s lessons to heart. Other protagonists of the chemical revolution joined him in making the reform of nomenclature one of its central features so that henceforth the identity of a compound should be declared in its name—copper sulfate instead of blue vitriol.

More generally, the taxonomic activity in science at the end of the eighteenth century and its identification with analysis exhibited how widely Condillac’s conception of scientific explanation had been adopted—in botany, in zoology, and even in the classification of geometric surfaces according to their mode of generation. The legitimacy with which his philosophy helped invest this program in science proper was certainly a more important legacy than the work of the one school that a generation later identified itself overtly with his influence, that of the idéologues—Destutt de Tracy, Cabanis, Volney, Garat, Ginguené, etc. Despite their role in the foundation of the Institut de France, there remains something bookish and disembodied about their psychology. It was not this but rather the historicism that Comte drew from Turgot and Condorcet that developed Condillac’s psychological empiricism into the first positivist account of science.


I. Original Works. Condillac’s works are available in an excellent modern critical edition, edited and with an introduction by Georges Le Roy, Oeuvres philosophiques de Condillac, 3 vols. (Paris, 1947–1951). These constitute vols. XXXIII-XXXV of the series “Corpus Général des Philosophes Français,” directed by Raymond Bayer. The Traité des sensations has been translated into English by Geraldine Carr, Treatise on Sensations (Los Angeles, 1930), with a preface by H. Wildon Carr.

II. Secondary Literature. The best single book on Condillac is more interested in his psychology than his philosophy of science; it is Georges Le Roy, La psychologie de Condillac (Paris, 1937). A recent doctoral dissertation that treats of his place in intellectual history is Isabel F. Knight, The Geometric Spirit: the Abbé de Condillac and the French Enlightenment (New Haven–London, 1968).

Charles C. Gillispie

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Condillac, Étienne Bonnot, Abb

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