Étienne Bonnot de Condillac

The French philosopher and educator Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780) was a Lockean psychologist and early positivist who greatly influenced economic and political thought in prerevolutionary France.

On Sept. 30, 1715, Étienne Bonnot was born to Gabriel Bonnot, Vicomte de Mably. He later became the Abbé de Condillac, a territory purchased by his father in 1720. Educated in Paris at the Sorbonne and at St-Suplice, he was ordained a priest in 1740 but chose to become a writer and a tutor. From 1740 to 1758 he frequented the literary salons of Paris and worked at his own education. John Locke's psychology and empiricism and Sir Isaac Newton's search for fundamental principles were strong influences in his reading.

Condillac's Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (1746) followed Locke's principles but reduced the operations of human understanding to one principle—sensation—and treated reflection as a sequence and comparison of sensations. The work stated language to be the source of man's superiority to animals and recognized interest as an intimate part of any perception. Traité des systèmes (1749) was a study on proper method and the proper use of hypothesis and system.

In the Traité des sensations (1754) Condillac showed how ideas originate through sensation. The work stressed the integration of man's senses and stated that the higher forms of understanding develop from mere animal sensation because of man's needs. Condillac's Traité des animaux (1755) opposed Buffon's and Descartes's view of animals by declaring that man is like the animals, although more complex because of his more numerous needs, and that neither man nor animal is mere machine.

In 1758 Condillac went to Parma for 9 years to tutor Louis XV's grandson, Ferdinand de Parma. During this time he composed a 16-volume Cours d'études pour l'instruction du Prince de Parme. Opposition from the bishop of Parma delayed publication until 1775, when the volumes appeared in France, under the relaxed censorship of the Turgot ministry.

On returning to France in 1767, Condillac declined an offer to tutor the Dauphin's sons and retired instead to a quiet life of writing at Flux. His 1776 work, Le Commerce et le gouvernement considerés relativement l'un à l'autre, considered the consequences of his basic psychological ideas in relation to political economy. Asked to compose an elementary logic for Palatinate schools, Condillac finished La Logiquein 1779. He died from a fever on Aug. 2, 1780. His unfinished Langage des calculs was published posthumously.

In his opposition to obscurantist metaphysics Condillac was an early positivist. He insisted that, although man is ignorant of the thing-in-itself, he need not be in error if he will use a language of analysis, observation with thoroughness, and systems with circumspection.


Further Reading on Étienne Bonnot de Condillac

The best introduction to Condillac in English is Condillac's Treatise on the Sensations, translated by Geraldine Carr (1930). Zora Schaupp, The Naturalism of Condillac (1926), is a fine introduction to Condillac's thought in relation to early-20th-century psychology. A less readable but still useful work is Isabel F. Knight, The Geometric Spirit: The Abbé de Condillac and the French Enlightenment (1968).