Francois Maine de Biran, born a Count, was wounded as a member of Louis XVI’s Royal Guard while fighting the Paris mob during the 1789 Revolutionary resistance to the throne. Avoiding the horrifying aspects of the Terror, he withdrew to his estate in the countryside, where he took up philosophy and mathematics, and, in 1793, psychology. He returned to Paris when the time was opportune and threw himself into politics. He was naturally suspected of being an unreformed royalist, as indeed he was: he complained in 1814 that young men born after 1789 were only interested in their careers hence failed to appreciate the virtue of affection for royalty.
“The study of love as a political virtue has not yet been carried out.” “The feeling of love for our kings seemed natural” “This love was a religious feeling like divine love; it was a sort of worship that elevated the soul and, like honor, could command every sort of sacrifice of personal interest, even life.”
He earned his keep in the political trade, performing legislative functions and becoming an important official—deputy and member of the State Council under Louis XVIII—earning a fair salary while conscientiously fulfilling his duty. Yet he longed to cast off the political yoke and fully engage himself in the philosophical pursuit of the Wisdom he dearly loved.
Although best known in his day as a political figure rather than a philosopher, Biran was one of the first Ideologues. Their “science of ideas” was despised by Napoleon during the conservative, Romantic reaction to the rational, liberal principles of 1789. Napoleon’s abhorrence of philosophy and love for the sound of church bells moved him to ban the publication of philosophical works and to suppress the Academy of Science, Morals and Politics that had been founded by the Convention. Biran wrote early on that he owed all his ideas to the principal founders of Ideologie; namely, Destutt de Tracy, who had his commentary on Montesquieu published anonymously in English in America due Napoleon’s censorship, and Pierre-Jean Cabanis, a personal friend of Biran. Ideologie was in large part derived from the empiricism of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, and attempted to apply logical methods of analysis and synthesis associated with natural science to the human sciences. Cabanis, physician not practicing except for his advisory attendance on the fatal illness of his friend Mirabeau, more or less rejected theoretical abstractions in favor of physiological explanations of psychological phenomena.
The logic of ideas still had a Romantic undertow insofar as it strove to analyze and introspectively reconstruct the subjective psyche or romantic self that had been virtually demolished or ignored by scientific thinking; thus it is said that Biran’s energetic salvation of the essential or true self from scientific disintegration was “marred” by romanticism. Yet he claimed that the true self cannot be found in romantic desire and passion, but only appears in the higher mental faculties, first of all in his much heralded Will.
Thomas Jefferson liked Ideologie so much that he imported it into the United States and had it substituted for Theology in the curriculum of his beloved university in Virginia. Jefferson praised the Ideologues along with the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stuart in a March 14, 1820 letter to Adams:
“Dugald Stuart is a great man, and among the most honest living ... I consider him and Tracy as the ablest Metaphysicians living; by which I mean Investigators of the thinking faculty of man. Stuart seems to have given it's natural history, from facts and observations; Tracy it's modes of action and education, which he calls Logic and Ideology; and Cabanis, in his Physique et Morale de l'homme, has investigated anatomically, and most ingeniously, the particular organs in the human structure which may most probably exercise that faculty.”
John Adams would call it “idiotology.” Since then “ideology” has come to stand for marriages to certain sets of fixed ideas which one then employs to do political battle, as with tooth and claw, with the adherents of believers in other such sets; that obsessive sort of ideology coupled with compulsive behavior is indeed a sign of neurosis, mental degeneracy, or virtual idiocy, if you will, and that includes the obsession with scientific ideology including its application to cognitive and computational psychology. Language should not be a straitjacket. Ideas are not to be clung to as if they were everlasting gold coins, but are a sort of fiat currency, itself relatively worthless, to purchase passage to enlightenment and liberty. Everyone who would be liberated from something or the other is a liberal, and he would naturally conserve whatever liberty he has, because every individual would be free of all resistance to the will, or absolutely free, if only that were possible; but that is only possible with the death of the individual, which is always in part determined by his relationship to the resistances he encounters from others; that is his “sin”, of not being the whole but in being born in conflict.
Given Biran’s predilection for metaphysics and his noble sympathies, he would eventually resist ideological materialism with his willful psychology. He ultimately became more interested in saving the mystical soul than the mundane self, although he would revive the secular self by bestowing it with a will of its own, founding French Voluntarism in a revival of French Spiritualism. His influence on 19th century French psychology would be profound: for instance, his philosophy had an impact on Paul Janet (1829-1899), professor of eclectic spiritualism at the Sorbonne, who in turn influenced his more famous nephew, psychologist and philosopher Pierre Janet (1859-1947). Paul Janet, in his popular lectures in Paris, posed emotions as the center of gravity of psychological organization, in contradistinction to the materialist and rationalist psychology. Of course spiritualism is the notion that there is an imperceptible or immaterial, transcendental reality, which we associate with vaguely defined entities such as deities, souls, ghosts, spirits, cosmic forces, a universal mind and the like. And spirit is the breath of life; the driving force or virtue of a thing; the moral of the story; the cause or principle of the self-caused self evidenced by the character of a man, race, and nation; and so on and so forth. The writer William Samuel Lilly provided an excellent contrast of spiritualism with materialist in his essay, ‘Materiality and Morality,’ appearing in the October 1886 Fortnight Review:
“It will be found in the long run that there are two, and only two, great schools of thought, two schools which, in common with the philosophical writers of Germany, France, and Italy, I shall denominate Spiritualism 1 and Materialism, until better terms are forthcoming. Spiritualism seeks the explanation of the universe from within, and with Kant holds it as a fundamental truth that the nature of our thinking being imposes our way of conceiving, of valuing, and even of apprehending sensible things. Materialism maintains that in those sensible things must be sought the explanation of our ideas and of our wills. Spiritualism postulates a First Cause possessing absolute freedom, and recognizes true causality in man also, with his endowment of limited and conditioned liberty of the will. Materialism holds that we can know nothing before the proximate and determining causes of phenomena, and demands, in the words of Mr. Huxley, ‘the banishment from all regions of human thought of what we call spirit and spontaneity.’ Spiritualism insists upon the unity of consciousness, upon consciousness of personal identity, upon the ichheit des Ego–the selfhood of the Me–as the original and ultimate facts of man’s existence. Materialism dissolves the Ego into a collection of sensations, makes of consciousness an accidental and superficial effect of mechanism, and exhibits man a mere sequence of action and reaction. Spiritualism maintains the absolute nature of ethics: the immutable distinction between moral good and evil. Materialism refers everything to heredity, temperament, environment, convention. Spiritualism affirms the supersensuous, yes, let us venture upon the word, the supernatural, in man and finds irrefragable evidence of it in ‘this main miracle, that thou art thou, With power on thine own act, and on the world.’”
Now a monist might declare that only spirit or matter is real, the other being merely an idea; both idealists and materialists may be called realists. The dualist might infer that there are in fact two separate but somehow related realities or realms: spiritual and material. The psychologist is by definition a student of the psyche, but if she is not spiritually inclined, she may prefer the word ‘mind’ to psyche, and if she is a dualist her dualism would then be mind and matter. The trend nowadays is materialistic, emphasizing the cognitive or computational mind as if it were a calculating machine, itself a field, a kind of matter so fine as to be invisible, programmed by an energetic relationship between particles. As Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA would have it in his “astonishing hypothesis, “you” are a machine:
"You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."
You merely think you have a will of your own, assuming so when you become aware of your material determinations, and then you believe it is your conscious devise, the source of which is unknown to you hence the great mystery called Will. By the way, as an organism, you are merely a genetic pawn; so eat, drink, be merry, go forth, spread the seed, let the surviving genes be selected at random and multiplied.
Mind you that this is just a hypothesis, a working myth, and a morally degenerate one at that. It jibes with our material culture and its science because it is a symptom of that neurotic culture, where all that can be known is particulate and measurable; wherein the individual is about as helpless as an atom or windowless monad, although as a social ant he is a strong force for his size—the secret of the strength of Formica (Sp. hormiga, industrious, thrifty ant): tiny forces or ants pressed into a board. That concrete culture has become so dominated by theory that it loses touch with the matter it worships. High technology: low morality. The debased individual feels little on the job besides a feeling of helplessness, and for the lack of affection during working hours compensates off-duty by resort to an array of self-destructive behaviors. The society is subject to hysterical economic paroxysms over nothing more apparent than a critical calculation of debt, nervous social breakdowns resulting in massive impoverishment in the midst enormous material resources. The will has been so downplayed that little can be done to allay the flight to the exits short of intensive shock therapy: wherefore “God’s Doom” or Judgment Day.
As we shall see below, Biran allowed a third element in his composition, reinserting the spiritual inspiration of life, or rather The Will motivating the will to live, thus virtually reverting to the classical triad: body, mind, and spirit; from which the immortal soul may be abstracted or intuited if you wish, or you may consider the composite as a tripartite soul. Given the freedom of the will at least in respect to language, one can verbally compose any convenient psychological myth one prefers to live by, so we shall not quibble over etymology, the evolution of the meaning of such words as spirit, soul, psyche, pneuma, anima, seale, self, mind, and so on; for the sake of convenience we shall presume that the self comprises, at minimum: mind, body, and spirit; names for the three general functions: cognition, affection, and conation. Triunal reasoning may seem absurd, but it is progressive: no less than the great American logician Charles Sanders Peirce, noting its apparent silliness, resorted to it.
Biran’s few philosophical works would eventually be published by Victor Cousin, the eclectic philosopher and influential minister of education who “channeled” French Spiritualism. Cousin abhorred the “desolate doctrine” of sensationalism and led an educational crusade to restore the spiritual dignity of humanity. Cousin’s “common sense” history of philosophy is readable, but it is not philosophy; it is history. His Eclecticism, an attempt to cherry pick the best parts of philosophies, was bound to perish due to the incoherent diversity of its parts when subjected to logical analysis by philosophy’s cold-blooded, critical piranha. A philosopher by the name of Ravaiison, influenced by Biran’s philosophy, would snatch “neo-spiritualism” from the ruins, publishing what amounted to his manifesto on the date of Cousin’s death.
Cousin, in his History of Philosophy pronounced Biran to be a great philosopher of psychological metaphysics:
“A man who is no more, who may justly be called the greatest metaphysician that has honored France since Malebranche, and who was almost totally unacquainted with the contemporaneous works of Germany, was led gradually by the instinct of superior sagacity from metamorphosis to metamorphosis, until he arrived at a point of view to which nothing is wanted but more consistency, more amplitude, and more boldness, to make it resemble Fichte's. At a great distance from sensation M. de Biran has sought the origin of the most elevated ideas which at present are in consciousness, in the depths of that voluntary and free activity which constitutes all personality. He has reestablished the authority of these ideas, and instead of borrowing them from anything without us, or from the external world, he has drawn them forth from the self itself, in order to transfer them afterwards into nature by virtue of an induction of which the manifest subjectivity seems to be an enfeebled reflex of the subjective and personal idealism of Fichte.”
Although Biran was soon written off as a minor philosopher, he is still famous in philosophical circles as the premier French voluntarist. He countered a philosophy of the human effort or will as the cause of psychological phenomena to Locke and Condillac’s sensationalist theory that consciousness is founded on the passive reception of sensations. Neither Condillac nor Locke, who is considered as the foremost apostle of freedom in America, posited freedom as the fundamental feature of mind, stressing creative effort as the root of reality as did Biran.
Locke began an early draft of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding with the statement, “I imagine that all knowledge is founded on and ultimately derives itself from sense, or something analogous to it, and may be called sensation which is done by our senses conversant about particular objects.” The mind and the living brain along with it changes over time; Locke like all persons invariably contradict themselves, deviating or changing earlier attitudes. We see that the very subject of the book, the understanding, has priority in the Introduction of the Sixth Edition: “Since it is the UNDERSTANDING that sets man above the rest of sensible beings, and gives him all the advantage and dominion which he has over them; it is certainly a subject, even for its nobleness, worth our labour to inquire into.”
In one draft, he said that “volition is the exercise of the actual power the mind has to order the consideration of any idea or the forbearing to consider it,” and “volition is an act of the mind, knowing asserting that dominion it takes itself to have over any part of the man, by employing it or withholding it from any particular action.” So there is an actual power to order thoughts, but when it comes to doing something, volition can only intend or prefer the action to be done presuming that it has dominion. “The notion of free will is incoherent. There are voluntary actions, and free agents, but there’s no such thing as free will.” Although Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, had allowed mankind political dominion over civil affairs while disallowing any one man including Adam and his descendents tyranny over the Earth, he could not, due to the weight of circumstances and conditioning, afford human beings such a thing as a free will in the Human Understanding. A man may appear to act voluntarily, or he may think that he acts voluntarily because he prefers one thing to another, but he is not so free as to have a free will as that subject is commonly understood. His freedom is political but not psychological.
So as not to misunderstand Locke on the subject of the will, the freedom of which many of us attribute the progress of the human race although others believe its course and fate is preordained by divine providence or cause and effect, we must take pause to explain what he meant when he said there is no such thing as the will. Of course, if there is no such thing, then we cannot attribute freedom to it!
Locke like the rest of us in ordinary conversation referred to the will as if it were something that causes something or the other. But as a philosopher he was fain to quibble over the meaning of words and define them for the sake of clarity. We might say all this amounts to drawling trivial semantical differences; still we should admit that without semantics our language would have no meaning at all. Locke was saying that “The Will” is not a being, that it has no ontological significance. There is not a thing behind the name, in the sense of a supersensible, metaphysical entity. We note that radical Protestant thinking is not disposed to admit the existence of supersensible or transcendental entities besides God, lest ideas become idolized; restrained by sensation on Earth, only God’s will can set us free, and does so at once for his will is immediately converted into action; his power is absolutely unimpeded by his creation. The divine will is not something in itself, neither an angel nor an agent, but is a power of the divinity.
What we should mean by the will, if we think as clearly as Locke would have us do, is the mental power of deciding and preferring. The dispositional mental activity itself we call volition. Conditions of existence are such that our preferences are not automatically realized. We do not always get what we will; what we will may not be what we want for desire and will do differ inasmuch as the will can oppose desire; and what we desire and will is determined or caused by conditions we may be unaware of and which may be beyond our control; to wit: the cart is pulling the horse. Even if there were such a thing as the will, it is not free.
I experienced symptoms indicative or possible cancer. I did not go to a doctor, reasoning that the probability of having the cancer and then dying of it at my age was rather low—I tend to think of myself as older than I am. Besides, I had read that the cure is worse than the disease. I figured it would be better to die than suffer the consequences of the treatment. I remembered some old men I had met on Orcas Island one winter in my youth; they said it was better to die in the woods than in hospital. Then I recalled a recent statement about Michael Jackson’s instantaneous death, how he had went permanently to sleep before he could close his eyes. I wondered where I could get some propofol in case of the worst scenario I could imagine; which reminded me of how Cleopatra had searched her kingdom for the best poison. I asked a medical technician at the used book store what I should do with my body: “Get some exercise,” she said. Of course I believed that my forbearance from visiting a doctor was a reasonable act of free will. The real reason or cause of my reluctance was my fear of death, and the idea that going to the doctor at my age is the beginning of the end. The symptoms suddenly worsened a year later; I reasoned that I should visit the doctor, decided to do just that, and literally ran to the doctor’s office, expecting the worse. Were my actions determined by my will, or was my willpower determined by my fear? Apparently, following Locke’s argument, “uneasiness” determined my will.
“Uneasiness determines the Will… What is it that determines the will in regard to our actions? And that, upon second thoughts, I am apt to imagine is not, as is generally supposed, the greater good in view; but some (and for the most part the most pressing) UNEASINESS a man is at present under. This is that which successively determines the will, and sets us upon those actions we perform. This uneasiness we may call, as it is, DESIRE; which is an uneasiness of the mind for want of some absent good. All pain of the body, of what sort soever, and disquiet of the mind, is uneasiness: and with this is always joined desire, equal to the pain or uneasiness felt; and is scarce distinguishable from it.
Now the reader may be interested to know that my symptoms subsided after I read about the hysterical behavior of the dogs that Dr. Valentin Magnan got drunk on absinthe. I stopped drinking my two beers every day. My symptoms subsided for a while, but then recurred, and the more so the more I worried about my fate, particularly on rainy days and when washing dishes, which suggests that mental dispositions do have a bearing on bodily functions; hopefully, then, the will, or personal power of preference, can be changed by the person. Another possible factor rests in the fact that, although the cancer test came back negative, the man who invented it said it is no better than flipping a coin, which returns me, in a vicious circle, to my main worry, the fear of imminent death, and that aggravates the symptoms.
Then what about Locke’s perfusions of freedom and liberty? Well, the will is not an agent capable of doing what it wants but the human being presumably is, so it is the human being that is free to a certain extent and is entitled to that political liberty which is in accord with his natural equality and mutual love etc. To the extent that our actions are in accord with our mental preferences, providing that we know what they are, we say those actions are voluntary.
“Will and Understanding two Powers in Mind or Spirit: This, at least, I think evident,—That we find in ourselves a power to begin or forbear, continue or end several actions of our minds, and motions of our bodies, barely by a thought or preference of the mind ordering, or as it were commanding, the doing or not doing such or such a particular action. This power which the mind has thus to order the consideration of any idea, or the forbearing to consider it; or to prefer the motion of any part of the body to its rest, and vice versa, in any particular instance, is that which we call the WILL. The actual exercise of that power, by directing any particular action, or its forbearance, is that which we call VOLITION or WILLING. The forbearance of that action, consequent to such order or command of the mind, is called VOLUNTARY. And whatsoever action is performed without such a thought of the mind, is called INVOLUNTARY.”
Locke’s qualification of WILL makes the extent of the power rather uncertain after castration, something that the eunuch carries around in a box, as was done in China, so he could be reunited with it in Heaven, or even qualifying it out of existence. Well, we were forewarned: he did say there is no such thing before devoting a whole chapter to the abstraction. UNDERSTANDING is certainly a wonderful thing, for the truth, no matter how awful it may be, sets us free. Elevating Cognition or Knowledge and degrading Conation or Will is back in fashion today.
However liberating Locke’s thoughts of freedom might have been for the pragmatic Americans who embodied his ideas and who used to be a willful lot despite their alleged subservience to the Highest Power, it was not freedom enough for Biran; as far as he was concerned, experience proves that the existential self persistently strains against the resistance of the world, a phenomenon commonly associated with the so-called free will.
Of course there were a number of introspective or meditating philosophers before Biran. Volitional or decisive thought is evident in Descartes cognitive principle—I think therefore I am. Jean Jacques Rousseau felt the will at work within and found no reason to doubt the feeling was in accord with his affective principle—I feel therefore I am: "I feel it. I wish to move my arm, and I move it without that movement having any other immediate cause than my will. It is in vain that one tries by reasoning to destroy this feeling; it is stronger than any evidence." This “sens intime” or first-person inner sense of freedom is the principle of French Spiritualism, which hails back to the Holy Spirit or absolutely unimpeded freedom, and forward to its secular offshoot, French Existentialism; indeed, the free spirit, or ‘Mind’ if you will, that breathes life into the higher powers of the human soul is the first and foremost principle of the argument for human autonomy and freedom.
Biran’s first principle, the volitional principle—I will therefore I am—was the consequence of his effort to save the self from chaotic affections and tyrannical rationality; a self that happens to be in dire need of salvation today; coincidentally, volitional psychology, which places willpower between stimulus and response, was suppressed with the rise of computational psychology incidental to the rise of the computer which is relieving the human being of the need for memory and information processing, making more space available in the plastic i.e. living brain for unregulated affective activities off the job, activities typical of a permissive culture associated by some thinkers with moral degeneration. The computer is a projection of mechanical mental processes; the emphasis on that aspect neglects the fact that the brain is alive.
As for Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, he was a French clergyman who took holy orders in 1740 and wore a cassock ever since, although he did not occupy himself with pastoral work. He espoused absolute sensationalism, a more radical version of Locke’s philosophy as he insisted on sensation alone as the foundation of knowledge, dropping Locke’s allowance for reflection as a supplementary source.
“Locke distinguished two sources of ideas, sense and reflection. It would be more exact to recognize but one; first, because reflection is, in its principle, nothing but sensation itself; secondly, because it is less a source of ideas than a canal through which they flow from sense…. Judgment, reflection, the passions, in a word, all the faculties of the mind, are nothing but sensation which transforms itself differently.”
Condillac’s critics would call him an atheist, but we may give him and other similarly oriented psychologists the benefit of the doubt, for many of them drew a clear line between this sensible world and Heaven, allowing for no supersensible entities between Earth and God. As for his simplistic reduction of knowledge to sensation with only slight reference to physiology: his armchair psychology was called shallow and meager. After all, just as YHWH is beyond definition, the human being, who depends on the Lord for his dignity since he himself is obviously not G-d on high; he is otherwise at least made in the Supreme Being’s image, a g-d too complex to be fully understood and pinned down with a named concept. Although the universe itself may be one day reduced to a singularity subject to one overarching law, without mention of God and Providence, Man’s wondrous being must be beyond definition.
However that may be, the Abbé de Condillac, starting with an inert statue as his model, and bestowing upon it the sense of smell in respect to a rose, had virtually ignored the self as an independent agent, rendering it a product of the reflection on external influences, i.e. experience. As far as Condillac was concerned, tactile sensation was unnecessary for the acquisition of knowledge even though touch eventually provides us with spatial ideas i.e. knowledge of external objects. Any sense providing a sufficient variety of sensations, such as sight, would do for the acquisition of ideas and sense of self, without the benefit of other senses, and those sensations would also provide the experience of pain and pleasure. Sensations modify our being although we may not be conscious of the modifications at the time of occurrence; they do not have to be converted into perceptions to become thought. We must learn to attend to sensations, and what we attend to is dictated by our desires and interests. Since our desires direct us to real and imagined objects, which are differentiated the one from the other, and we seem to be able to order our ideas on our own, we imagine that we have a free will; the will, then, is notion derived from a feeling of want or desire, and a belief that the self is directing its desire to a certain end. Smell, the most primitive sense, provides a subject with both pleasurable and painful sensations. As for self-identity: The being would not initially perceive the rose as an object external to itself, but would, in effect, be the smell of the rose; but when other smells are sensed, it obtains a sense of itself as something different and continuous in respect to the different sensations; that is when we treat them as ideas, something different from ourselves. Therefore touch is not required to acquire a sense of self.
Now we cannot help but to take notice here of Francis Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis.” His “search for the soul” approached consciousness through a study of vision. He opined that there is a correlation between visual awareness and the coordinated firing of neurons in the brain; he suggested that the coordinated firing produced consciousness, but he did not say why it should do so. Another fly in the ointment: blind people are conscious; the optical function cannot be the paradigm for consciousness.
Biran emphasized the priority of the sense of touch or resistance, from which the idea of a self and non-self is derived. Although an artist might vehemently object to positing touch as the fundamental sense, preferring sight instead, we know that a blind, deaf, and mute human being can be communicated with and educated through touch, and even become as astute as Helen Keller. We recall Paul Bach-y-Rita’s invention that employed the sense of touch to allow congenitally blind people to read, perceive shadows, distinguish between close and distant objects, and even to recognize supermodel Twiggy: a chair with 400 stimulators to which electric signals were sent to cause them to vibrate in certain patterns related to images taken by a camera behind the chair in which the subject sat. Paul Bach-y-Rita said that we see with our brains and not with our eyes. One might learn something from any one sense, certainly more from touch, sight and hearing than from taste and smell, but the sense of touch is fundamental to the sense of self incarnate. As for touch, the human hand’s manipulation of the world has become so touchingly intelligent that we cannot say if the brain made the hand or the hand the brain.
However that may be, Biran’s active resistance to empiricism, upon which he founded his own theory, was actually empiricism’s reform, a synthesis of passive receptivity and willful activity that was effectually a development of the Locke-Condillac school rather than its utter destruction. The empiricists had failed to adequately account for the most important aspect of experience of all, the internal experience of voluntary movement which is the liberating force of human development; Biran was wont to investigate that phenomenon from a first person, introspective perspective, leading the way for French existentialists led by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Biran’s voluntarism is the result of his own psychological struggle through self-analysis that initially confirmed the materialist perspective, that mind is a superficial reflection of the body, an epiphenomenon so to speak. For instance, he noticed that indigestion brought his intellectual efforts to a screeching halt. His diaries disclose his unbalanced, melancholic mental state, which we might characterize as post-traumatic misanthropic neuroses although that category will never make it into an official diagnostic manual; his syndrome would fall well within the existing manuals anyway. His was existentially alienated, dispossessed of the self he would be, determined as it were by somatic forces he was unconscious of. It was as if he were sleepwalking through a history of madness; history is a mistake, woeful account of human unwholesomeness, of insanity. Given Biran’s experiences with the madness of the Revolution and its disappointing reactionary aftermath, we can hardly blame him for his distress, and for desperately clinging to the rationalism of the founding Ideologues for assurance that there was some foundational regularity in the revolutionary flux.
No less than Aldous Huxley, exploring the relationship between the individual person and the historical society in which man exists, quoted Biran’s bitter entries in his intimate Journal, wherein Biran referred to the frustration of his good intentions when confronted by certain events in 1815, including the Battle of Waterloo, that occurred during the hundred days between Napoleon’s arrival in Paris from Elba, where he had been exiled, and Louis XVIII’s return to Paris:
“During the Hundred Days Biran was a good deal closer to history, than he had been at his ancestral estate of Grateloup in 1794. Every event that occurred between the return from Elba and Waterloo filled him with a bitter indignation. ‘I am no longer kind, for men exasperate me. I can now see only criminals and cowards. Pity for misfortune, the need to be useful and to serve my fellows, the desire to relieve distress, all the expansive and generous sentiments which were, up till now, my principles of action, are suffering a daily diminution in my heart.’”
“Such are the ordinary psychological consequences of violent events on the historical level. Individuals react to these events with a chronic uncharitableness punctuated by paroxysms of hate, rage and fear. Happily, in the long run, malice is always self-destructive. If it were not, this earth would be, not a Middle World of inextricably mingled good and evil, but plain, unmitigated Hell. In the short run, however, the war-born uncharitableness of many individuals constitutes a public opinion in favor of yet more collective violence.”
“In Biran's case, the bitterness with which he reacted to contemporary history filled only his heart.” For Biran had said he found an escape in philosophy: ‘My mind, meanwhile, is occupied with abstract speculations, foreign to all the interests of this world. The speculations keep me from thinking about my fellow men — and this is fortunate; for I cannot think of them except to hate and despise.’”
Biran observed that he was essentially mentally unstable; everything for him was in flux; his fleeting emotions held sway over his thoughts; his will was subordinate to same; powerless, as it were, to effect some change that would bring him the final cause of his introspective research: much desired freedom from determination, which he naturally associated with happiness. Indeed, happiness is the appropriate human goal, and not knowledge in itself; therefore happiness is the goal of knowledge whatever its extent.
Biran asked the perennial question:
“Will reason always be powerless against the influence of temperament? Liberty—can it be anything else than the consciousness of a state of mind which is in conformity with our desires, but which depends in reality upon certain organic conditions over which we have no control; so that when we are as we would be, we imagine that our mind by its own activity has itself produced the modification in which it takes pleasure?” And, “'I recognize in my own experience that I am powerless against the passive forces of my being. I pass rapidly through a series of states of physical and moral well-being or unrest without any power of resistance.”
But resist he did, at least intellectually, fulfilling a wish he entertained while a disciple of Condillac:
“In my experience the state of the soul is always determined by this or that state of the body…. If I could ever write a continuous work, I should like to inquire in what degree the soul is active, and to what extent it is able to modify external I impressions, to increase or diminish their strength according to the amount of attention bestowed on them—in short, to prove how far this attention is supreme…. It is much to be desired that some man, well-skilled in introspection, should analyze the will, as Condillac as analyzed the understanding.”
Condillac, he reasoned, had gotten a bad start with a lifeless statue. On the other hand, there was Rene Descartes’ perspective that the thinking ego is the only self-certain existence, obtained via self-reflection. It is undeniable that if I imagine that I am not, then I who am doing the imagining must exist. The logical difficulty in Descartes’ proposition, “I think therefore I am,” was that the ‘I’ thinking about the ‘I’ differs from the ‘I’ thought of. Descartes errs, thought Biran, in identifying the self or ‘I’, the subject of introspection, with an abstraction, the immaterial and immortal soul, an identification that would ultimately depersonalize the concrete self and destroy the identification altogether.
Yet Biran, confronted with uncertainty and disillusion, as was Descartes, would in his despair eventually turn in the divine direction himself to intuit the Supreme Being, the god that must exist, Descartes held, because man would not consider himself imperfect unless he had an innate sense of perfection, the Perfect being the Supreme Being. Descartes by no means denigrated the human will; after all, he never would have discovered his identify in thought without it. And he placed immaterial mind, which is often called “spirit,” over the material body, which has extension in space, so that mind could master and have actual dominion over the world for the benefit of humankind. Yet his reasoning was too ironclad, his faith in logic purblind, overwrought with enslaving musts; e.g., man must obey reason for there is no alternative to accepting its dictates. And his dualism admitted two substances; mind and body, which somehow were united, leaving open the question of how one could act on another. A trilogy would have served Descartes better, with the will as the third and superior angle, exerting a conative force affecting changes in habitual behavior through its relationship with mind and body.
Biran’s effort at self-analysis caused him to observe that the true nature of the phenomenal self or ego, that which sets the self’s shoulder against the Stone, is its own effort, by which it makes itself known:
“The ego makes itself known, by means of the inner sense, through the exertion or movements of the will, which the soul within itself apperceives as a product of its activity, as an effect produced by its will.”
Indeed, it was his effort and not the influence of circumstances outside of his control that led him to his phenomenal discovery that he had an independent will; that will exists in human individuality, in the ‘I’. That ‘I’ is not a transcendental soul; it is a peculiar or unique psychic force confronted by objects.
“The self identifies itself completely with this acting force. But the existence of the force is a fact for the self only so far as it is exerted, and it is exerted only so far as it can apply itself to a resisting or inert term. The force is then determined or actualized only in the relation to its term of application, moreover the latter is determined as resisting or inert only in relation to the actual force which moves it, or tends to impress movement on it.”
Again, he identifies the presumably independent self with the willful activity; however, he does posit an ontology of a will possessed by the soul nor does he directly infer the reality of the soul or self from the voluntary movements for he does not believe he can step outside of what can be said about the self and observe the self in itself; that would be identifying or confusing a particular thing with a quality that might be applied as well to other things.
“If I do not get out of the conscious fact, I could not find any support for this proposition: I am a thinking being, for my thought would have to be felt or perceived as the fundamental mode or permanent attribute of the substance, such that there existed in consciousness a real duality, or a relationship between two distinct terms, one of which being the substance and the other the mode or the attribute.”
Wherefore Biran reasoned that the feeling of external resistance, including his discomforting indigestion, to his internal effort was the reason for being of the human being. It is only in voluntary activity resisted by something that the self is conscious of itself, and it is from this primitive fact of consciousness of a not-self that our ideas of substance, causality, and unity as individuals, is derived. The self has the power hence is the unitary cause of the effort. Therefore Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” should be “volo ergo sum”—I will therefore I am. since “I feel or perceive myself as free cause, then I am really caused…” The cause of the effort “becomes self by the sole fact of the distinction which is established between the subject of this free effort, and the term which resists immediately by its own inertia."
“Whereas Descartes thought that he had put forward the first principle of all science, the first self-evident truth, by saying: I think, therefore I am (a thinking thing or substance), we would say better, in a more determinate manner, and this time with the undeniable self-evidence of the inner sense: I act, I want or I think the action, hence I feel myself as a cause, hence I am or exist really as a cause or a force. It is exactly under this relationship that my inner thought is the expression or the conception or the production of my own real existence, and at the same time the primary manifestation and birth of the self, which is born for himself by starting to know itself.”
In fact, there is no such thing as a fact of existence absent a self-conscious subject to perceive it: “A fact is nothing unless it is known, unless there is an individual and permanent subject which knows," quoth Biran. Attention to an object or knowing is an intentional act—the will is the first principle of consciousness—this psychological hypothesis would be emphasized by the phenomenologists such as Husserl. The self, then, is simply a fact of experience introspectively known. The resistance we feel from the external world or not-self as our effort is exerted is, primarily, the existence of our own body. We abstract the concept of substance or matter from our experience with resistance to our will, and we may associate that notion of unlimited resistance or all possible resistance of substance with the interference of a supreme being i.e. God.
We also abstract the notion of cause from our experience of resistance to our will; the resistance may be active inasmuch as voluntary effort is exerted or passive when the resistance is not from something definitely known but rather from desire for nothing in particular.
“(The) cause is self if the mode is active or perceived as the actual result of a voluntary effort; it is not-self, if it is a passive impression sensed as opposed to that effort, or independent of all exercise of the will…. The belief in a cause, not-self, differs essentially from the knowledge of an external object. The first can be based simply on a sort of resistance to even the vaguest desire; the second rests on perceptible resistance to effort, or determinate will.”
In fine, Biran’s dissatisfaction and subsequent introspection and analysis in search of some route to happiness involved a therapeutic exercise of his will i.e. will therapy. The political ramifications of his assertion of individual identity in a will that was inherently free to accomplish what it could within and even contrary to its circumstances obviously contradict his royalist tendency; the seat of authority is placed within the individual as an active human being rather than with an uncommanded commander with a divine right to manipulate passive human subjects at his feet.
Mind you that he was not the first philosopher who found some happiness in such an enterprise. Although no one can definitely say what philosophy is all about, it appears to climb the metaphysical ladder to Being. But what Biran wound up with was not really metaphysics, which concerns itself with objective universals, for he was standing on his head on empiricism, which depends on subjective experience. As L. Susan Stebbing explained, in Pragmatism and French Voluntarism:
“In seeking a metaphysical reality empirically given, de Biran endeavoured to steer a middle way between empiricism and the ontology of Descartes. But in taking as his basis the subjective psychological fact of will he was forced to remain at the point of view of empiricism, hence he failed to explain the universality and necessity of the categories he deduced therefrom…. The significance of Kant consists not merely in his emphasis on the activity of mind in opposition to the empiricists, but in his showing that the activity which expresses the nature of mind is universal and objective. But de Biran, owing to his standpoint, which, in spite of himself, remained purely empirical, was, as we have seen, unable to explain the universality and necessity of the categories. The pure concepts of the understanding cannot be obtained by a purely psychological deduction.”
Moreover, Stebbing observes Biran’s confusion of mind and body, with the will placed in the mind: “Under the conception of effort de Biran confuses ‘mental effort’ or activity of will, and ‘muscular effort’ or sensation. He nowhere makes clear what exactly he means by the force that is one term—or limit—of effort.” And, “There is indeed an ambiguity apparent in his conception of activity. In combining with it as an essential constituent the notion of resistance, it would appear to be of the nature of what is now called conation. But the activity of which we are immediately aware is an activity of knowing no less than of willing, hence it cannot be identified with conation rather than with cognition. There is, then, no justification for regarding activity in the sense of volitional activity as more fundamental than cognitive activity, that is, as psychologically ultimate.”
Ultimately, Biran, after revisiting the Gospel of St. John, The Imitation of Christ, and the divine instructions of Francois Fenelon, placed his feet on the ground and his head in heaven. Brother Azarius of The Brothers of The Christian Schools, in Phases of Thought and Criticism, has this to say of Biran’s tortuous path to religious faith:
“We have nothing to fear from Religion. She is our strength and our support. ‘The splendor of the divine truths received into the mind helps the understanding, and far from detracting from its dignity, rather adds to its nobility, keenness, and stability.’ So speaks His Holiness, Leo XIII., in his noble vindication of Christian philosophy. Such is also the experience of Maine de Biran, whom Cousin pronounces the greatest metaphysician that has honored France since Malebranche. His testimony is all the more valuable because it is the outcome of long and circuitous wanderings through the mazes of philosophic errors, with here and there a glimpse of light, till finally in his mature years, after much groping and great toil, the full splendor of truth burst upon him. He says, ‘Religion alone solves the problems of philosophy. She alone tells us where to find truth, absolute reality. Moreover, she shows us that we live in a perpetual illusion when we estimate things by the testimony of the senses, or according to our passions, or even according to an artificial and conventional reason. It is in raising ourselves up to God and seeking union with Him by his grace, that we see and appreciate things as they are. Certain it is that the point of view of the senses and passions is not at all that of human reason; still less is it that of the superior reason, which, strengthened by religion, soars far above all earthly things.’ These are not the words of a cloistered monk, nor of a religious teacher. He who penned them had been a materialist in philosophy and a worldling in practical life, and though he had outgrown his materialism, and cast off much of the spirit of the world, still at the time of writing them he did not acknowledge himself a Christian. They are his inmost convictions wrung from him in self-communion by the spirit of truth.”
Norman E. Truman, in Maine de Biran’s Philosophy of Will, sums up Biran’s simplified chain of being as follows:
“(Biran posed) a third form of life, higher than the animal life or the active life of man, that is, a life ‘which is entirely spiritual.’ Man stands intermediate between God and nature. In virtue of this position he possesses freedom in his activity. At a lower stage the personality of the soul is annihilated in animal life, at a higher stage it is lost in God. ‘Perhaps man holds in the scale of spirits the rank that the coral holds among sentient beings,’ but man is endowed with an activity by which he can rise in the scale. The second life is given to man as a means to the third, in which he is free from the bondage of the affections and passions. Christianity alone reveals to man this third life above human sensibility, reason, or will. Stoicism did not get beyond the second life and exaggerated the power of the will and of reason over the passions and affections of the sensitive life. But there is something more to be explained, that is, ‘the absorption of the reason and the will in a supreme force, an absorption which without effort establishes a state of perfection and happiness.’ ‘This is the mystical life of enthusiasm, the highest degree to which the soul can attain in identifying itself with its supreme object.’ The necessity of the second life, as a means to the realization of the third, is emphasized. The absorption is described as ‘calm’ succeeding ‘storms,’ and as ‘repose of the soul after and not before effort.’ But, on the other hand, it is not absolutely in the power of the soul to pass from an inferior to a superior stage. The individual ‘needs a support beyond himself. Religion comes to his aid.’”
In Biran’s own words:
"There are not—there are not only two principles opposed to each other in Man,—there are three. For there are in him three lives and three orders of faculties. Though all should be in accord and in harmony between the sensitive and the active faculties which constitute Man, there would still be a nature superior, a third life which would not be satisfied; which would make felt (ferait sentir) the truth that there is another happiness, another wisdom, another perfection, at once above the greatest human happiness, above the highest wisdom, or intellectual and moral perfection of which the human being is susceptible." "The relations (rapports) which exist between the elements and the products of the three lives of Man are the subjects of meditation, the fairest and finest, but also the most difficult. The Stoic Philosophy shows us all which can be most elevated in active life; but it makes abstraction of the animal nature, and absolutely fails to recognize all which belongs to the life of the spirit. Its practical morality is beyond the forces of humanity. Christianity alone embraces the whole Man. It dissimulates none of the sides of his nature, and avails itself of his miseries and his weakness in order to conduct him to his end in showing him all the want that he has of a succor more exalted."
Biran’s struggle for freedom and happiness from suffering was punctuated by occasional ecstatic experiences, such as this one noted by Huxley:
“Fortunately for Biran, his martyrdom was not continuous. Even at moments when history pressed upon him most alarmingly, he found it possible to take a complete holiday in abstract thought. Sometimes he did not even have to take his holiday; it came to him, spontaneously, gratuitously, in the form of an illumination or a kind of ecstasy. Thus, to our philosopher, the spring of 1794 was memorable not for the executions of Hébert and Danton, not because Robespierre had now dedicated the Terror to the greater glory of the Supreme Being, but on account of an event that had nothing whatever to do with history or the social environment. ‘Today, the 27th of May, I had an experience too beautiful, too remarkable by its rarity ever to be forgotten. I was walking by myself a few minutes before sundown. The weather was perfect; spring was at its freshest and most brilliant; the whole world was clothed in that charm which can be felt by the soul, but not described in words. All that struck my senses filled my heart with a mysterious, sad sweetness. The tears stood in my eyes. Ravishment succeeded ravishment. If I could perpetuate this state, what would be lacking to my felicity? I should have found upon this earth the joys of heaven.’”
Huxley presumed that Biran, if asked about the relationship between society and the person, would say that it is a relationship monster to victim, and that the victim should try to escape from history into an abstract life. But Biran did not say that, and we are no sure that he would. Whatever the relationship between the person and society, it is unavoidable because man is a social creature and rational being; the person by definition is at once individual and social; what he thinks of that relationship is something else again, something subject in part to the will that Biran identified with the self.
Suffice it to say that, in the final analysis, Biran’s solace was in the eternal holy spirit and not in the self-willed ephemeral self. He found his supreme being in Logos, and died a faithful Christian.
D.M. Bennet, The World’s Sages, Thinkers and Reformers, New York: The Truth Seeker Company, 1876
Brother Azarius, Phases of Thought and Criticism, Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1893
Abbé de Condillac, Essay on The Origin of Human Knowledge, transl. Mr. Nugent, London: J. Nourse, 1756
Victor Cousin, History of Philosophy, trans. Henning Gotfried Linberg, Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkins, 1832
Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, the Scientific Search for the Soul, New York: Charles Scribner and Sons,1994
J. Alexander Gunn, Modern French Philosophy, New York: Dodd Mead & Co., 1922
Harold Hoffding, A History of Modern Philosophy, transl. B.E. Meyer, London: Macmillan, 1900
Aldous Huxley, ‘Maine de Biran: The Philosopher in History,’ from “Variations on a Philosopher,” in Themes and Variations (1950)
William Samuel Lilly, ‘Materialism and Morality’, Fortnightly Review, October 1886
John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, various editions, 1690-1735
Dr. V. Magnan, Alcoholism, transl. W.S. Greenfield, London: H.K. Lewis, 1876
Francois Maine de Biran, Oeuvres inedites
Francois Maine de Biran, Maine de Biran, sa vie et ses pensees, Ernest Naville: Paris, 1877
L. Susan Stebbing, Pragmatism and French Voluntarism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914
N. J. Symons, ‘The Development of the Psychology of Maine de Biran’, in Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson, Kingston: Queen’s University, 1922.
Norman E. Truman, Maine de Biran’s Philosophy of Will, New York: MacMillan, (1904)
FOOTNOTE: A reference to Maine de Biran can be found in Chapter Seventeen of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as follows:
"…. Well, as I was saying, there was a man called Cardinal Newman. Ah, here's the book." He pulled it out. "And while I'm about it I'll take this one too. It's by a man called Maine de Biran. He was a philosopher, if you know what that was."
"A man who dreams of fewer things than there are in heaven and earth," said the Savage promptly.
"Quite so. I'll read you one of the things he did dream of in a moment. Meanwhile, listen to what this old Arch-Community-Songster said."
He opened the book at the place marked by a slip of paper and began to read. "'We are not our own any more than what we possess is our own. We did not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme over ourselves. We are not our own masters. We are God's property. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way–to depend on no one–to have to think of nothing out of sight, to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgment, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to the will of another. But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man–that it is an unnatural state–will do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end …'"
Mustapha Mond paused, put down the first book and, picking up the other, turned over the pages. "Take this, for example," he said, and in his deep voice once more began to read:"'A man grows old; he feels in himself that radical sense of weakness, of listlessness, of discomfort, which accompanies the advance of age; and, feeling thus, imagines himself merely sick, lulling his fears with the notion that this distressing condition is due to some particular cause, from which, as from an illness, he hopes to recover. Vain imaginings! That sickness is old age; and a horrible disease it is. They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.'"
Mustapha Mond shut the book and leaned back in his chair. "One of the numerous things in heaven and earth that these philosophers didn't dream about was this" (he waved his hand), "us, the modern world. “You can only be independent of God while you've got youth and prosperity; independence won't take you safely to the end.' Well, we've now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently, that we can be independent of God. 'The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.' But there aren't any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?"
"Then you think there is no God?"
"No, I think there quite probably is one."
"Then why? …"
Mustapha Mond checked him. "But he manifests himself in different ways to different men. In premodern times he manifested himself as the being that's described in these books. Now …"
"How does he manifest himself now?" asked the Savage.
"Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren't there at all."
"That's your fault."
"Call it the fault of civilization. God isn't compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness. That's why I have to keep these books locked up in the safe. They're smut. People would be shocked if …"
The modern God or Supreme Being, then, is Nothing, an absence pregnant with all possibilities. Thus it is equivocally said that Nothing Exists, Nothing is Perfect, Nothing is Permanent, et cetera. The Death of Godders then await not the resurrection of Christ, who is already incorporated by everyone, but the reappearance of God, at which time Man will be exalted to his dignity because, given the evidence, he knows there is an higher being than his self, better than anything that can be thought; to wit: the perfect Supreme Being aka God.