Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de

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Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de (c.1714-1780): French Philosopher.

Condillac was born in Grenoble into judicial nobility, educated by Jesuits, and ordained. In the 1730s he joined his brother Abbé de Mably in Paris. His writings made him fashionable. His philosophe friends introduced him in the salons. In 1758 he was invited to Parma to tutor young duke Ferdinand, grandson of Louis XV. After his return from Parma in 1767, he lived in Paris. Thanks to his erstwhile pupil, he was made abbé of Mureaux . This entailed an income that allowed him to devote himself entirely to studying and writing. In 1768 he was elected member of the French Academy. In 1773, he retreated to his estate near Beaugency, to avoid the bustle of the capital.

His earliest work, the Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746) closely followed John Locke’s analysis of mental operations, but already foreshadowed his deviation from Locke concerning sources of knowledge and the philosophy of language. His major work, The Treatise on Sensations (1754), took Locke’s denial of innate ideas one step further by rejecting his theory that our knowledge derives from two sources: sensation and reflection. Condillac claimed instead that reflection is only a combination of sensations and thus that all of our mental operations and knowledge spring from transformed sensory experiences.

To demonstrate this, Condillac studied the senses separately in order to distinguish the precise role of each and discover how they develop and interact. In the Treatise, he imagines a man-like statue animated by a soul, which had never received an idea nor been exposed to any sense-impression. Beginning with smell, he uncovers its senses one by one. Sensation is turned into attention, which in turn is replaced by memory. With exposure to other sensations, memory gives rise to comparison, reflection, and judgment. Some memories provoke pleasure, others pain. The statue desires the former and rejects the latter. Passions awaken, and as they are abstracted from the sensations which provoked them, general ideas are born. With smell, taste, hearing, and sight, the statue still has only notions of self, but with touch, the statue develops ideas concerning the outer world. The statue is and knows only what he has learned from his senses. From Condillac’s sensationalism stem his views on the importance of education. Being the product of the environment, one can better persons by bringing that environment into closer compliance with nature’s laws.

Condillac’s interest in the methodology of philosophy and science led to his lifelong concern with problems of language from his first work through his Course of Studies (1758-67), Logic (1780), and the posthumously published Language of Calculations. Progress in ideas, he thought, was only progress in expression, and science is only well-formulated language. This belief that language could be explained as the product of sensory experience marked a difference between him and Locke. Language, Condillac stated, originated from spontaneous cries with which man responds to sensations like fear, pain, or pleasure. Gradually, specific expressions were connected with specific experiences as need made language utilitarian. As man’s collection of sensory experiences grew, he created words for abstractions. Before long he invented written language to communicate more widely.

Condillac did much to make psychology a science; however, empiricism did not lead him to materialism or determinism. He remained faithful to Catholic beliefs that man has a soul and free will. In his mathematical reasoning and in the assumption of a fundamental order in the universe, Condillac was a Cartesian. His philosophy was the official philosophy of education during the Revolution and under Bonaparte, Napoleon.

Further Reading:

Isabel F. Knight, The Geometric Spirit; the Abbé Condillac and the French Enlightenment,1968.


Natalie Sandomirsky

Southern Connecticut State University

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