Rey, Abel

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(b. Chaâlon-sur-Saone, France, 29 December 1873; ci Paris, France, 13 January 1940)


Rey studied classics at the lycée in Marseilles and in Paris, at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand and the Sorbonne. He won his licence in law, the agrégation in philosophy, and took the courses leading to a licence ès sciences. He studied philosophy and its history under Victor Brochard and Émile Boutroux and mathematics and the history of science under Emile Picard and Paul Tannery. He also shared the esthetic ideals of Gabriel Séailles and attended the lectures of Henri Poincaré, In addition he worked in the laboratories of Edmond Bouty and Lippmann at a time when the alliance of philosophy and science was still a daring novelty in French academic life.

Rey taught philosophy at the lycée of Bourg-en-Bresse and then at Beauvais. The topics of his two dissertations for the doctorat és lettres reflected his training in philosophy and science: La théorie de la physique chez les physiciens contemporains and L’énergétique et le mécanisme au point de vue de la theorie de la connaissance (Paris, 1907). In 1908 he was appointed to the Faculty of Letters of Dijon, where he established an experimental psychology laboratory equipped with the most advanced apparatus. The laboratory was the outcome of long reflection on psychology, which Rey had published in 1903 in Leçons élémentaires de psychologie et de philosophie. This work was accompanied by Éléments de philosophie scientifique et morale (1903) and Leçons de morale fondées sur l’histoire des moeurs et des institutions (1905), both of which were designed for use in the classics curriculum. He also wrote the chapter on invention for the first edition of Georges Dumas’s Traite de psychologie (1923). In 1909 Rey published La philosophie moderne, which enjoyed a large audience, “curious about a philosophic panorama modernized by epistemology”—in the words of his student and biographer Pierre Ducassé.

In 1919, following the interruption of his research by World War I, Rey was named professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. In 1922 he published Le retour éternel et la philosophic de la physique, which contrasted scientific theories with “an intuition that has always recurred [in philosophy] from the Greeks until Nietzsche.” In 1932 Rey was named first director of the new Institut d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques at the University of Paris. This post, which he held until his death, made him responsible for the publication of the first four volumes of Thales, containing reports on the Institute’s activities. He also supervised for the scries Actualités Scientifiques et Industrielles, the collection of texts and translations “Pour Servir a l’Histoire de la Pensee Moderne” and the “Exposes d’Histoire et de Philosophic des Sciences.”

Rey was associated with the Centre International de Synthèse from its beginning, and he organized its Section des Sciences de la Nature before becoming, in 1931, director of the Section de Synthèse Générate. In this latter capacity he collaborated with Henri Berr, Lucien Febvre, and Paul Langevin on the Revue de synthèse and the journal Science. A friend of Aldo Mieli, Hélène Metzger, and Pierre Brunei, he was elected one of the first members of the Acadèmic Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences. Febvre invited Rey to collaborate on the Encyclopédic française, and with A. Meillet and p. Montel he edited the first volume, L’outillage mental, to which he contributed the opening pages: “De la pensée primitive a la ensee actuelle.” Henri Berr, impressed by his skill synthesizing, entrusted him with the four volumes of the series “Évolution de l’Humanite” that were devoted to the role of Greece in the origins of scientific thought: La science dans l’antiquité, I, La science riental avant les Gracs (1930); II, La jeunesse de a science grecque (1933); III, La maturite de la pensee scientifique en Gréce (1939); IV, L’apogée de la pensee technique grecque: 1, Les science de la nature et de homme, les mathematiques, d’Hippocrate a Platon (1946); and 2, L’essor de la mathématique(1948).

A philosopher, Rey was fascinated by science. Free of dogmatism, he admired the rigor of Kant, the sincerity of Renouvier, and the intuitions of Comte. A remarkable teacher, he was sensitive to the strivings of individuals and the fate of society. In his thought deep-rooted positivism was tempered by reason and sensitivty. As an epistemologist he was close Gaston Milhaud, Émile Meyerson, and Léon Brunschvicg; but he maintained a personal orientation the governing idea of which is summarized in a remark often made: “Real scientific truth lies in its historical curve. It never lies on one point of the curve.”


I. Original Works. Rey’s most important publications are cited in the text. He also contributed prefaces and articles to many periodicals, principally Scientia, Revue de metaphysique et de morale, Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger, and Revue de synthése.

II. Secondary Literature. See Léon Brunschvicg, “Abel Rey,” in Thelés, 4 , for 1937–1939 (1940), 7–8; and Pierre Ducassé, “La vie et l’oeuvre d’Abel Rey (1873–1940),” in Annales de l’Université de Paris, 15 , no. 2 (Apr.-June 1940), 157–164.

Suzanne Delorme