Étienne Bonnot de Condillac

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111206529-Condillac.jpg Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: In writings famed for precision, clarity, and persuasiveness, Condillac was the only major figure of the French Enlightenment to create a systematic theory of knowledge and exhibit a professional command of the issues of philosophy.

Early Life

Étienne Bonnot was born on September 30, 1714, at Grenoble, France, the third son of Gabriel de Bonnot, Vicomte de Mably, a magistrate and member of the noblesse de la robe in the Dauphiné provincial parlement. The name Condillac, by which he would be known for the rest of his life, was added in 1720, when his father bought the nearby estate and domain of that name. As a child, his health was poor, his eyesight was bad, and he was painfully shy. His education did not begin until after he was twelve, when a local priest taught him the basics. His mother, about whom virtually nothing is known, died when he was quite young, and his father died in 1727, when he was thirteen.

After his father’s death, he went to live with his eldest brother, Jean Bonnot de Mably, a royal official in Lyons, but his personal situation does not seem to have improved. His shy nature was apparently mistaken by his brother and family for simplemindedness. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was hired by Jean to tutor his children for a short time, was able to see what the family had missed, and so began a long friendship.

Condillac’s other brother, Gabriel Bonnot, had taken holy orders and styled himself the Abbé de Mably. He, too, saw something in Condillac, and, a few years later, Condillac went to Paris to live with Gabriel. Gabriel entered Condillac first at Saint-Sulpice and then at the Sorbonne to study theology. By 1740, Condillac had completed the course of studies and was ordained a priest.

While he wore a cassock and called himself the Abbé de Condillac for the rest of his life, it was reported that he said mass only once and otherwise chose not to exercise the office. This was not unusual in France at that time. Condillac was a man of pleasant but unremarkable appearance. His portrait shows large, wide-set eyes, a high forehead, and a modest smile. Other evidence indicates that he was of average height but slightly built. He wore neither a beard nor a mustache and kept his hair long and curled in the fashion of the day.

Life’s Work

Condillac was twenty-six when he left the Sorbonne, and, under the sponsorship of his brother, was introduced to the social and literary life of Paris. He soon decided that his education was inadequate to move in that circle and began educating himself, reading the works of René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, and Nicolas Malebranche. Sometime during this course of study, he developed a profound disapproval of their speculative systems of thought.

The English philosophers, whom he read next, were much more to his liking. Because he read no English, however, he had to rely on translations or someone’s summary and commentary. John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, had been translated into French in 1700 by Pierre Coste. It was this work that made the deepest impression on Condillac. He also read Voltaire’s summary and commentary Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738; The Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, 1738), which also introduced him to the Idealism of Bishop George Berkeley’s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710). He was also quite impressed with several works by Francis Bacon.

During these years, Condillac sometimes joined in the social life of the Paris salons, where he renewed his friendship with Rousseau, who introduced him to Denis Diderot. The three became good friends and met often. Later writings by both Rousseau and Diderot reflect Condillac’s influence. Condillac does not seem to have made much of an impression on the other intellectuals at the salons, probably because of his acute shyness and timidity. Condillac, however, would make his reputation with the printed word.

In 1746, Condillac published his first book, Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines ( An Essay on the Origin of Human Understanding, 1756), and his second, Traité des systèmes (treatise on systems), in 1749. These two books were very well received and brought Condillac recognition as a major philosopher. Shortly after publishing the second book, he was honored by election to membership in the Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles Lettres of Berlin.

What Condillac sought was a philosophy which was an exact science. He thought philosophy should be clear, precise, universal, and, above all, verifiable. Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines was a systematic elaboration of Locke’s theory that all human knowledge was derived from two sources: the information received by the mind through the senses and the mind’s ability to reflect upon that information and understand its meaning. It was a brilliant study, using only empirical evidence and a strictly logical methodology. Condillac’s essay established empirical sensationism as the prevailing analysis of the working of the human mind for the Enlightenment.

His Traité des systèmes was a vigorous criticism of the metaphysical systems of Descartes, Leibniz, and others that were rationalistic and not empirical. He attempted to show that there was no empirical evidence for such ideas as Descartes’ innate ideas or for Leibniz’s monads, that these ideas were mere speculations without basis in fact. Condillac accused these philosophers of having used vague words that had no clear and precise meaning, thereby producing only confusion and misunderstanding.

In 1754, after some delay because of trouble with his eyes, Condillac published his most advanced work on the theory of empirical sensationism, Traité des sensations ( Condillac’s Treatise on the...

(The entire section is 2483 words.)