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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Etienne de Condillac deserves a place in the catalogue of great philosophers for the reason that he was the founder of the French Sensational School, which has a permanent place in the history of speculation. He was, as his name indicates, a nobleman, but his family was poor. Shut out from the possibilities of success in political life, which probably he had entered had his wealth been commensurate with the position to which his birth entitled him, he turned his brilliant mind to the consideration of philosophical and religious questions. This led him to go into the church, but it may be said that if there was ever abbé who had no faith in the theology and philosophy that was currently taught by the church, that abbé was Condillac.
His life is possibly the most uneventful of all of those we have thus far considered. It was spent altogether in the privacy of his study, where he read, meditated, and wrote. He had, as a youth, been attracted by Rousseau, with whom it is said he became well acquainted and whose affection he won. The only position of importance that he seems to have held was that of tutor to the grandson of Louis XV, the Duke of Parma. It was for the benefit of this distinguished pupil that Condillac wrote many of his books. His chief work is Traité des Sensations. He was born at Grenoble in 1715, and he died in 1780. In 1768 he was elected a member of the French Academy, but it is not known that he attended any of its sessions.
Condillac was the representative in France of the Lockean philosophy, but he progressed further than Locke and taught doctrines which Locke certainly would have repudiated. Locke held that knowledge consisted of two elements the element of sensation and the element of reflection. Condillac improved this by throwing out reflection altogether and reducing knowledge to pure sensation. Thus it is that his school is properly and precisely named the Sensational School. His principle is very briefly, but very clearly laid down in his prefatory remarks in Traité des Sensations. "The chief object of this work," he says, "is to show how all our knowledge and all our faculties are derived from the senses, or to speak more accurately from sensations."
In this we have a distinct departure from Locke's theory, which counted as the great modifying element of thought the action of intelligence or reflection. To Condillac's mind human understanding derives its knowledge from one source; that is the senses. The famous aphorism, "Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the sense," he attributes to Aristotle, and continues : "Immediately after Aristotle comes Locke, for the other philosophers who have written on this subject are not worthy of mention. This Englishman has certainly thrown great light on the subject, but he has left some obscurity. All the faculties of the soul appeared to be made to be innate qualities, and he never suspected they might be derived from sensation itself."
To quote him again : "Locke distinguished two sources of ideas sense and reflection. It would be more exact to recognize but one; first, because reflection is in its principle nothing but sensation itself. Secondly, because it is less a source of ideas than a canal through which they flow from sense. This inexactitude, slight as it may seem, has thrown much obscurity over his system. He contents himself with recognizing that the soul perceives, thinks, doubts, believes, reasons, wills, reflects; that we are convinced of the existence of these operations because we find them in ourselves, and they contribute to the progress of our knowledge; but he did not perceive the necessity of discovering their origin and the principle of their generation he did not suspect that they might only be acquired habits; he seems to have regarded them as innate and he says that they may only be perfected by exercise."
These quotations serve to show the leading principle of Condillac's scheme. He can be said to have improved upon Locke, inasmuch as Locke had improved upon those who had gone before him, with the exception of Hobbes, for Locke reduced knowledge to the two elements of sense and reflection; whereas Condillac, rejecting reflection and leaving sense only, took the one step by refraining from which Locke saved himself from the charge of pure materialism.