Victor Cousin

The French educator and philosopher Victor Cousin (1792-1867) helped to reorganize the French primary school system. He also established the study of philosophy as a major intellectual pursuit of the French secondary and higher schools.

Victor Cousin was born in Paris in the midst of the Revolution on Nov. 28, 1792, the son of a poor watchmaker. Like most boys of humble birth at that time, Cousin languished in the streets awaiting the appropriate age to enter an apprenticeship. When he was 11, a fateful event altered the course of his life: in a street fight between schoolboys Cousin came to the rescue of the underdog, whose mother was looking on. A woman of means, she gratefully paid for Cousin's schooling at the Lycée Charlemagne, where he became one of the most brilliant students in the school's history. He continued his successful scholarly career first as a student at the prestigious école Normale, where he decided on a career in philosophy, and then as a teacher of philosophy and in several schools, and finally as a professor at the Sorbonne.

Development of Eclecticism

In 1817 and again in 1818 Cousin traveled to Germany to meet the leading lights of German letters, J. W. von Goethe, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich von Schelling, and, most important of all, G. W. F. Hegel. According to Cousin's "eclecticism," as he called his approach, the human mind can accept all carefully thought-out and moderate interpretations of the world. No system of thought is seen to be false, merely incomplete. By studying the history of philosophy, and Cousin directed his students to choose from each system what is true in it and in so doing to arrive at a complete philosophy. The introduction of the history of philosophy and as a major discipline in higher schools in France is a lasting accomplishment of Cousin. He organized the history of philosophy in two major works: Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie (Course of the History of Philosophy), written and revised between 1815 and 1841, portions of which have been translated into English; and the widely read Du vrai, du beau, et du bien (1836), which has been translated into English under the title Lectures on the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and which came out in 31 editions over 90 years.

Political Pressures

During the repressive years of the Bourbon restoration (1820-1830), Cousin, considered too liberal, was fired from the Sorbonne. While traveling in Germany during that time, he was jailed for 6 months for being a liberal agitator, a charge that was wholly unfounded.

In the government of the July Monarchy (1830-1848) Cousin rose to the heights of power and success as an educator and statesman. As a member of the Council of State and later as a peer, he exercised the major influence over French schools and universities. Because of his knowledge of Germany, Cousin was sent to study the successful primary school systems of several German states, especially Prussia. His book Report of the State of Public Instruction in Prussia (1833), recommending reforms to the French, was read abroad and stirred many Americans, Horace Mann and Calvin Stowe among other, to visit Prussia to learn how the budding American common school could best be guided in its development. The Guizot Law of 1833, which was a constitution for the French primary school system, was written by Cousin and based on his Report.

The Revolution of 1848 left Cousin without a job. Yet his influence continued to be felt into the next two generations, since the leaders of the French nation were the graduates of the schools that for 18 years had felt the imprint of Cousin's dynamic style, thought, and personality. Cousin never married. His voluminous correspondence, which continued steadily until his death, attests to close friendships with many leaders in Europe and North America.

Further Reading on Victor Cousin

The best book in English on Cousin, an affectionate and colorful biography, is Jules Simon, Victor Cousin (2d ed. 1882; trans. 1888). See also George Boas, French Philosophies of the Romantic Period (1925).