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Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780)

A key figure in the French Enlightenment, Condillac proposed a radicalisation of Lockean empiricism that argued that not only ideas, but all manner of sensation, will, and affect, had their origin in his unremitting emphasis on context and environmental factors in the constitution of the human mind. Born in Grenoble, Condillac had early difficulties in his education owing to poor eyesight and a generally weak constitution. In his teens, he began study with a priest and would eventually become a seminarian, taking holy orders in 1740 in Paris. Residing in Paris, Condillac became acquainted with Rousseau and Diderot, and contributed to the heady intellectual atmosphere of the period. The work he produced in the 1740s earned him election to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in 1749. He was a tutor for the Prince of Parma from 1759 to 1768, whereupon he returned to Paris and was elected to the Académie Française in that year. In 1773, he took up residence in his country estate near Beaugency, where he died in 1780.

Condillac’s two most important philosophical works were his Essay on the Origins of Human Knowledge (1746) and his Treatise on Sensations (1754), works which would become key points of reference in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. In volume two, Alain Grosrichard addresses Condillac’s handling of the ‘Molyneux Problem’, focusing on the famous sequence in the Treatise on Sensations whereupon Condillac progressively accords senses to a marble statue in human form in order to account for the genesis of knowledge. In his contribution to volume four, Jean Mosconi negatively contrasts Condillac’s ‘harmonious’ model of the development of the understanding with the radical breaks that mark the Rousseauist account. As an exemplar of the challenges of a materialist account of subjectivity, Condillac was a vital source of critical inspiration for the Cercle d’Épistémologie.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Alain Grosrichard, ‘Une expérience psychologique au 18ème siècle’, CpA 2.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Jean Mosconi, ‘Sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement’, CpA 4.2 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines [1746], in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Georges Le Roy, vol. 1. Paris: PUF, 1947. Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, trans. Hans Aarsleff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Traité des Sensations [1754], in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Georges Le Roy, vol. 1. Paris: PUF, 1947. Condillac’s treatise on the sensations, trans. Geraldine Carr. London: Favil Press, 1930.