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To find the origin of many of the tendencies which appear prominently in the thought of the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly those displayed by the new spiritualistic philosophy (which marked the last thirty years of the century), we must go back to the period of the Revolution, to Maine de Biran (1766-1824)— a unique and original thinker who laid the foundations of modern French psychology and who was, we may note in passing, a contemporary of Chateaubriand. A certain tone of romanticism marks the work of both the literary man and the philosopher. Maine de Biran was not a thinker who reflected upon his own experiences in retreat from the world. Born a Count, a Lifeguardsman to Louis XVI. at the Revolution, and faithful to the old aristocracy, he was appointed, at the Restoration, to an important administrative position, and later became a deputy and a member of the State Council. His writings were much greater in extent than is generally thought, but only one important work appeared in publication during his lifetime. This was his treatise, or mémoire, entitled Habitude, which appeared in 1803. This work well illustrates Maine de Biran's historical position in the development of French philosophy. It came at a tome when attention and interest, so far as philosophical problems were concerned, centred round two "foci." These respective centres are indicated by Destutt de Tracy,* the disciple of Condillac on the one hand, and by Cabanis† on the other. Both were "ideologues" and were ridiculed by Napoleon who endeavoured to lay much blame upon the philosophers. We must notice, however, this difference. While the school of Condillac,‡ influenced by Locke, endeavoured to work out a psychology in terms of abstractions, Cabanis, anxious to be more concrete, attempted to interpret the life of the mind by reference to physical and physiological phenomena.
[Footnote * : Destutt de Tracy, 1754-1836. His Elements of Ideology appeared in 1801. He succeeded Cabanis in the Académie in 1808, and in a complimentary Discours pronounced upon his predecessor claimed that Cabanis had introduced medicine into philosophy and philosophy into medicine. This remark might well have been applied later to Claude Bernard.]
[Footnote † : Cabanis, 1757-1808, Rapports du Physique et du Morale de l'Homme, 1802. He was a friend of De Biran, as also was Ampère, the celebrated physicist and a man of considerable philosophical power. A group used to meet chez Cabanis at Auteuil, comprising De Biran, Cabanis, Ampère, Royard-Collard, Guizot, and Cousin.]
[Footnote ‡ : Condillac belongs to the eighteenth century. He died in 1780. His Traité des Sensations is dated 1754.]
It is the special merit of De Biran that he endeavoured, and that successfully, to establish both the concreteness and the essential spirituality of the inner life. The attitude and method which he adopted became a force in freeing psychology, and indeed philosophy in general, from mere play with abstractions. His doctrines proved valuable, too, in establishing the reality and irreducibility of the mental or spiritual nature of man.
Maine de Biran took as his starting-point a psychological fact, the reality of conscious effort. The self is active rather than speculative; the self is action or effort— that is to say, the self is, fundamentally and primarily, will. For the Cartesian formula Cogito, ergo sum, De Biran proposed to substitute that of Volo, ergo sum. He went on to maintain that we have an internal and immediate perception of this effort of will through which we realise, at one and the same time, our self in its fullest activity and the resistance to its operations. In such effort we realise ourselves as free causes and, in spite of the doctrine of physical determinism, we realise in ourselves the self as a cause of its own volitions. The greater the resistance or the greater the effort, the more do we realise ourselves as being free and not the absolute victims of habit. Of this freedom we have an immediate consciousness, it is une donnée immédiate de la conscience.
This freedom is not always realised, for over against the tendency to action we must set the counter-tendency to passivity. Between these two exists, in varying degrees of approach to the two extremes, habitude. Our inner life is seen by the psychologist as a field of conflict between the sensitive and the reflective side of our nature. It is this which gives to the life of this homo duplex all the elements of struggle and tragedy. In the desires and the passions, says Maine de Biran, the true self is not seen. The true self appears in memory, reasoning and, above all, in will.
Such, in brief, is the outline of De Biran's psychology. To his two stages, vie sensitive and vie active (ou réflexive), he added a third, la vie divine. In his religious psychology he upheld the great Christian doctrines of divine love and grace as against the less human attitude of the Stoics. He still insists upon the power of will and action and is an enemy of the religious vice of quietism. In his closing years De Biran penned his ideas upon our realisation of the divine love by intuition. His intense interest in the inner life of the spirit gives De Biran's Journal Intime a rank among the illuminating writings upon religious psychology.
Maine de Biran was nothing if not a psychologist. The most absurd statement ever made about him was that he was "the French Kant." This is very misleading, for De Biran's genius showed itself in his psychological power and not in critical metaphysics. The importance of his work and his tremendous influence upon our period, especially upon the new spiritualism, will be apparent. Indeed he himself foresaw the great possibilities which lay open to philosophy along the lines he laid down. "Qui sait," he remarked,* "tout ce que peut la réflection concentrée et s'il n'y a pas un nouveau monde intérieur qui pourra être découvert un jour par quelque 'Colomb métaphysicien.'" With Maine de Biran began the movement in French philosophy which worked through the writings of Ravaisson, Lachelier, Guyau, Boutroux and particularly Bergson. A careful examination of the philosophy of this last thinker shows how great is his debt to Maine de Biran, whose inspiration he warmly acknowledges.
[Footnote * : Pensées, p. 213.]
But it is only comparatively recently that Maine de Biran has come to his own and that his real power and influence have been recognised. There are two reasons for this, firstly the lack of publication of his writings, and secondly his being known for long only through the work of Cousin and the Eclectics, who were imperfectly acquainted with his work. Upon this school of thought he had some little influence which was immediate and personal, but Cousin, although he edited some of his unpublished work, failed to appreciate its originality and value.
So for a time De Biran's influence waned when that of Cousin himself faded. Maine de Biran stands quite in a different category from the Eclectics, as a unique figure at a transition period, the herald of the best that was to be in the thought of the century. Cousin and the Eclectic school, however, gained the official favour, and eclecticism was for many years the "official philosophy."
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