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Daunou and the Fate of Experimental Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century France

Alberto Vanzo writes…

On this blog, we have often stressed the importance of the movement of experimental philosophy between the 1660s and ca. 1800. What happened to this movement in the nineteenth century? Last week Juan noted that, after 1823, the entry “experimental philosophy” in the Encyclopedia Britannica was substantially shortened and then removed. This suggests that that notion may have disappeared from the British philosophical scene. Something similar had happened in Germany, where the tradition of experimental or, as it was mostly called, observational philosophy was eclipsed by Kantian and post-Kantian systems around 1800. The expression “observational philosophy” seems to have disappeared from the German philosophical vocabulary in the early nineteenth century.

In this post, I will highlight an exception to this trend: Pierre-Claude-François Daunou’s Recherches sur les systèmes philosophiques applicables à l’historie. This is the text of the lectures on the history of philosophy that Daunou gave at the Collège de France in 1829-1830. It was published posthumously in 1849. In this work, as late as in the mid-nineteenth century, we find a wholehearted defense of experimental philosophy and its application to philosophical historiography.

Daunou aims to outline a philosophical history of philosophy. What renders the history of philosophy philosophical? Daunou’s answer is: “history is philosophy, when it consists in a methodical series of facts that are carefully verified and presented as experimental instructions”. In fact, “only the experimental school provides the true method in the historical studies”.

Like Degérando before him, Daunou draws on the historical facts to develop a natural history of philosophy: a classification of the various types of philosophical systems which we can use to establish which is the best. To this end, “the classifications must resemble those of naturalists, that is, they must only summarize the facts. Pretending that they are given and established a priori by the nature of things is a Platonic illusion, that has introduced many prejudices and errors into the sciences”.

In 1829, Daunou could chose between plenty of alternative classifications: for instance, the old division of philosophers into sects to be found in Brucker’s manual, praised by Daunou; the empiricism/rationalism distinction used by the Kantians and by Degérando; and Cousin’s fourfold distinction between idealism, sensualism, scepticism and mysticism. Rejecting all of these classifications, Daunou follows Diderot, Condillac and Condorcet in relying on the good old division between experimental and speculative (or in his terms, contemplative) systems. On the one hand, we have the experimental approach of Aristotle, Bacon, Gassendi, Locke, and Condillac. On the other hand, we have the Platonic attempt to develop philosophical systems a priori. Kant, far from synthesizing these two trends as his disciples claimed, was responsible for perpetuating the Platonic, contemplative illusion. He “delayed the progress of science” and he induced French thinkers to accept the mistaken principle that “the abstract precedes the concrete, sheds light on it and dominates upon it”.

Given Daunou’s assumptions, it is easy to guess what moral he draws from his history of philosophy: we must abandon the Platonic “picture of an idea or imaginary world” and acknowledge that “we owe all progress of physical and moral sciences” to experimental philosophers.

What is surprising, or at least interesting, is that we find these claims in a text published as late as in 1849. Was Daunou a historian attardé, a living fossil in his own time, as Gregorio Piaia states in his very informative survey of Daunou’s work (to which this post owes much) in the Storia delle storie generali della filosofia? It is hard to deny that he was, at least to some extent. However, Daunou’s speculative-experimental distinction was paralleled in Saint-Simon’s contrast between Plato’s and Descartes’ vague speculations on the one hand, Aristotle’s and Bacon’s positive philosophy on the other. The term used by Saint-Simon is “positive”, not “experimental”. However, Saint-Simon’s positive philosophy was based on the experimental method. And in the first volume of Comte’s Course of Positive Philosophy we find the same contrast between the metaphysical spirit, to be rejected, and the positive spirit of those that Daunou regarded as experimental philosophers.

Let’s go back to our initial question on the fate of experimental philosophy in the nineteenth century. Daunou’s work, together with Saint-Simon’s and Comte’s statements, suggests that the notion of experimental philosophy was not simply abandoned in nineteenth century France. Instead, it morphed into the new notion of positive philosophy, or at least it contributed to the definition of this new important movement in the French philosophical scene. I am no expert in nineteenth century French philosophy though. I would love to hear if you find this suggestion plausible.

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