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ON THE INFLUENCE OF LOCKE'S AUTHORITY UPON
THE PHILOSOPHICAL SYSTEMS WHICH PREVAILED
IN FRANCE DURING THE LATTER PART OF THE
HE account given by Locke of the origin of our ideas, which furnished the chief subject of one of the foregoing Essays, has, for many years past, been adopted implicitly, and almost universally, as a fundamental and unquestionable truth by the philosophers of France. It was early sanctioned in that country by the authority of Fontenelle, whose mind was probably prepared for its reception, by some similar discussions in the works of Gassendi; at a later period, it acquired much additional celebrity from the vague and exaggerated encomiums of Voltaire; and it has since been assumed, as the common basis of their respective conclusions concerning the history of the Human Understanding, by Condillac, Turgot, Helvetius, Diderot, D'Alembert, Condorcet, Destutt-Tracy, De Gerando, and many other writers of the highest reputation, at complete variance with each other, in the general spirit of their philosophical systems.
"Tous les philosophes François de ce siècle ont fait gloire de
But although all these ingenious men have laid hold eagerly of this common principle of reasoning, and have vied with each other in extolling Locke for the sagacity which he has displayed in unfolding it, hardly two of them can be named who have understood it exactly in the same sense; and perhaps not one who has understood it precisely in the sense annexed to it by the author. What is still more remarkable, the praise of Locke has been loudest from those who seem to have taken the least pains to ascertain the import of his conclusions.
The mistakes so prevalent among the French philosophers on this fundamental question, may be accounted for, in a great measure, by the implicit confidence which they have reposed in Condillac (whom a late author * has distinguished by the title of the Father of Ideology), as a faithful expounder of Locke's doctrines; and by the weight which Locke's authority has thus lent to the glosses and inferences of his ingenious disciple. In the introduction to Condillac's Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, after remarking, that "a philoso-pher often announces the truth, without being "aware of it himself;" he adds, that "it seems to "have been by some accident of this sort, that the Peripatetics were led to assume, as a principle, "that all our knowledge comes by the Senses :-a principle which they were so far from compre
se ranger au nombre des disciples de Locke, et d'admettre ses "principes."-De Gerando, de la Génération des Connoissances Humaines, p. 81.
"hending, that none of them was able to unfold it " in detail; and which it was reserved for the mo"derns to bring to light, after a long succession of "ages."
"Bacon," the same author continues, was perhaps the first who perceived it; having made it "the ground-work of a treatise, in which he gives "excellent precepts for the advancement of the "sciences. The Cartesians rejected it with con"tempt, because they formed their judgment of it
only upon the statement given by the Peripate"tics. At last, Locke laid hold of it, and has the "merit of being the first by whom its truth was de"monstrated."
Of the meaning which Condillac annexed to this discovery of Locke, a sufficient estimate may be formed from the following sentence: "According "to the system which derives all our knowledge "from the Senses, nothing is more easy than to "form a precise notion of what is meant by the "word idea. Our ideas are only sensations, or "portions abstracted from some sensation, in order "to be considered apart. Hence two sorts of ideas, "the sensible, and the abstract.” * On other occasions, he tells us, that "all the operations of the "understanding are only transformed sensations; † "and that the faculty of feeling comprehends all
* Traité des Systêmes, p. 68.
"Le jugement, la réflexion, les desirs, les passions, &c. ne "sont que la sensation même qui se transforme differemment." -Traité des Sensations, p. 4.
Essay III. "the other powers of the mind." I must acknowledge, for my own part (with a very profound writer of the same country), "that these figurative expres"sions do not present to me any clear conceptions; "but, on the contrary, tend to involve Locke's principle in much additional obscurity."
To how great a degree this vague language of Condillac has influenced the speculations of his successors, will appear from some passages which I am now to produce; and which, in my opinion, will sufficiently shew through what channel the French philosophers have, in general, acquired their information, with respect to Locke's doctrine concerning the origin of our ideas. †
* De Gerando, de la Generation des Connoissances Humaines, p. 78.
In justice to some individuals, I must observe here, that the vagueness of Condillac's language, in this instance, has been remarked by several of his own countrymen. "Trompé par la "nouveauté d'une expression qui paroit avoir pour lui un charme "secret, renfermant toutes les opérations de l'esprit sous le titre
commun de sensation transformée, Condillac croit avoir rendre "aux faits une simplicité qu'il n'a placée que dans les termes." In a note on this passage, the same author adds, "Cette observa "tion a été faite par M. Prevost, dans les notes de son mémoire
sur les signes; par M. Maine- Biran, dans son Traité de l'Ha"bitude, &c. Cet abus des termes est si sensible, qu'on s'etonne "de l'avoir vu renouvelé depuis, par des écrivains très éclairés." -De Gerando, Histoire Comparée, &c. Tome I. pp. 345, 346.
The work of M. Maine-Biran here referred to, is entitled, "Influence de l'Habitude sur la faculté de penser. Ouvrage "qui a remporté le prix sur cette question proposée par la classe "des sciences morales et politiques de l'Institut National: De"terminer quelle est l'influence de l'habitude sur la faculté de pen"ser; ou, en d'autres termes, faire voir l'effet que produit sur
"When Aristotle," says Helvetius, " nihil est in intellectu quod non fuit prius in sen"su, he certainly did not attach to this maxim the "same meaning with Locke. In the Greek phi
losopher, it was nothing more than the glimpse of "a future discovery, the honour of which belongs "to the Englishman alone."*
"chacune de nos facultés intellectuelles, la fréquente répétition des "mêmes operations."
Although I differ from this author in many of his views, I acknowledge, with pleasure, the instruction I have received from his ingenious Essay.-For his criticism on Condillac's Theory of Transformed Sensations, see pp. 51 and 52 of the Traité de l'Habitude.
To prevent any ambiguities that may be occasioned by the general title of French Philosophers, it is necessary for me to mention, that Ì use it in its most restricted sense; without comprehending under it the writers on the Human Mind who have issued from the school of Geneva, or who have belonged to other parts of Europe, where the French language is commonly employed by men of learning in their publications.
"Lorsqu' Aristote a dit, nihil est in intellectu, &c. il n'at "tachoit certainement pas à cet axiome les même idées que M. "Locke. Cette idée n'étoit tout au plus, dans le philosophe "Grec, que l'apperçevance d'une découverte à faire, et dont "l'honneur appartient en entier au philosophe Anglois."— De l'Esprit, Disc. iv.
It is observed by Dr Gillies, in his very valuable Analysis of Aristotle's Works, that “he nowhere finds, in that author, the "words universally ascribed to him, nihil est in intellectu," &c. He quotes, at the same time, from Aristotle, the following maxim, which seems to convey the same meaning, almost as explicitly as it is possible to do, in a different language: Ev Tois ειδεσὶ τοῖς αισθητοις τα νοητά εστι.Gillies's Arist. 2d edition, Vol. I. p. 47. I must remark here, that the clause, which I have distinguished by italics, in the above quotation from Dr