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Synopsis of Jean Mosconi, ‘Analyse et genèse: regards sur la théorie du devenir de l’entendement au XVIIIe siècle’

[‘Analysis and Genesis: Remarks on the Theory of the Development of the Understanding in the 18th Century’]

CpA 4.2:52–88

In this article Jean Mosconi offers a sustained comparison of Condillac and Rousseau’s alternative accounts of the origin of language and thought, and privileges Rousseau’s emphasis on the role of specific and unpredictable historical circumstances over Condillac’s reliance on an unchanging model of human nature. Mosconi suggests, furthermore, that the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss might be interpreted as in some sense torn between these two eighteenth-century models. The article was adapted in large part from a dissertation that Mosconi wrote in the mid 1960s under the supervision of Georges Canguilhem, and as Mosconi later acknowledged, its argument was heavily influenced by Althusser’s 1965-66 course at the Ecole Normale on Rousseau and his predecessors (cf. CpA 8.1. Most of Mosconi’s subsequent work has been in the field of formal logic and the philosophy of mathematics, with a particular emphasis on questions of formalisation and calculability.

Mosconi begins his article with an outline of his main concern: the apparent reactivation in modern anthropology (i.e. in the work of Lévi-Strauss) of an argument characteristic of eighteenth-century philosophy, whereby, in order to explain the genesis and operation of thought in an individual, the philosopher speculates on the origin of culture in general (CpA 4.2:53). By insisting on the equal rationality of all human cultures Lévi-Strauss seems to eliminate any reference to previously fashionable ‘primitivist’ modes of explanation, which sought to understand early human cultures through dubious analogies with the ‘infancy’ of humanity itself. Since they are no closer to the ‘origin’ of humanity than are modern cultures, the study of so-called primitive societies should offer no privileged insight into the nature of humanity. Nevertheless, since Lévi-Strauss conceives of modern European society as a ‘degeneration’ of a more generic model of human sociability (a model which the science of anthropology aims to reconstruct), what then justifies his apparent belief that earlier societies better illustrate this model? To what extent, more broadly, does the modern anthropological interest in early or ‘savage’ societies re-activate eighteenth-century concerns with the origin of thought and language, i.e. with the transition from the domain of nature and the animal to the domain of culture, rationality and the human (55-56)?

Mosconi then devotes the bulk of his article to a detailed comparison of the accounts that Condillac and Rousseau provide to explain this origin or transition. Both thinkers approach it in terms of the ‘reciprocal action of the understanding and the needs and passions of the individual’ (68), but they conceive this action in very different ways. In his Treatise on Sensations (1754), Condillac proposed to reconstruct the process of early mental development by speculating on the transformation that might allow an isolated and originally lifeless ‘statue’ to acquire the full range of human senses, one by one (cf. CpA 2.3). The isolation of Condillac’s hypothetical statue is a simple heuristic device: Condillac takes for granted a ubiquitous human nature, such that the process through which any one individual learns to feel or think is in principle always essentially the same. The addition of other individuals, and the introduction of language, merely adds additional resources to any individual’s capacity to perceive, discriminate, analyse, and so on. Condillac assumes that social interaction is unproblematic as a matter of course. The human capacity to reason is not here given in advance, as it is with the theorists of natural law, but it nevertheless ‘develops out of itself, in keeping with an internal necessity’ (60). The operations of the mind, and the procedures of speech, follow on smoothly from their basis in sensory experience, as so many ‘successive translations of sensation’ (63), leading to ever more adequate and precise forms of expression and representation. The process of such ‘systematic’ development, at both the individual and the social level, is essentially harmonious and consistent, everywhere identical in its essential configuration and effects. There can be no place here for a ‘radical novelty’ or abrupt historical break (66).

Rousseau’s approach is very different. For Rousseau, the transition from natural animal to speech and reason proceeds through a contingent, problematic ‘denaturation’ of the animal (68). Mosconi follows Althusser here (against the neo-Kantian approach of Robert Derathé) in acknowledging Rousseau’s inclusion of ‘fortuitous causes’, in his account of the development of reason, as a virtue rather than a weakness of his theory (60). For Rousseau, unlike Condillac, there is no original or ‘primitive’ condition of human sociability, no originary form of primitive society or ‘transcendental benevolence’ (73). Instead, sociability, like language, emerges as a more or less traumatic form of dislocation (one that may invite, implicitly, comparison with a Lacanian account of language acquisition as castration).

For both Condillac and Rousseau, physical gestures are adequate to express physical needs; this applies to human beings as much as to animals. What is distinctively human, Rousseau argues, is the co-emergence of society and ‘moral needs’, or ‘passions’. This emergence is not natural, precisely, i.e. not an aspect of the natural development of the human species, any more than it is a consequence of natural influences like climate or geography. It is instead historical, the product of specific historical circumstances (77). Language and culture developed accidentally, so to speak, over the course of time, rather than as a consequence of a ‘necessity intrinsic to human nature’ (80).

The determining factor in this history, according to Rousseau (in apparent anticipation of Marx), is economic, and depends on the relation people maintain to their means of subsistence. Whereas their earliest (sexual and physical) needs served to keep initially self-sufficient family groups apart, Rousseau suggests that a growing scarcity of food and water must then have forced them together - for instance, in encounters around a shrinking number of sources of fresh water. Once thus assembled ‘around fountains’, the defining break must have taken place: ‘passion’ supplanted instinct, communities supplanted families, words supplanted things. Society then emerges as the process whereby ‘passion turns into institution’ (82). To begin with, during the golden age of a long-lost innocence, these new socialised passions were those of youthful pleasures, and the languages which emerged to give voice to them spoke in poetry and song; the creation of new needs, however, and with them new forms of resentment and greed, soon gave rise to the creation of ‘a second nature which is a second barbarism’ (82).

The nature of these needs and passions varies with the place and occasion of their emergence. The voluptuous passions of warmer climates give rise to melodious languages of seduction and pleasure, whereas the more urgent needs for food and shelter experienced in harsher climates helped to shape more ‘irascible’ people, speaking harsher languages. A similar diversity applies to the process whereby spoken language ’degrades’ into writing, a process which completes the stifling of passionate expression (84).

Mosconi concludes with a proposal that Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages should be read as part of a

philosophical tradition which runs from Plato’s Phaedrus to the ‘Writing Lesson’ of Tristes Tropiques. We might then see in the Essay an effort to think the origin [of culture and language] in terms of historical and ‘local’ difference; the history of culture is the history of that which escapes the necessary recuperation of the institution within physical nature, i.e. the history of that which has the value of an origin. After the moment of this instauration, cultural formations degrade to become forms of a quasi-physical necessity, which may in turn authorise (but not incite) a new instauration, in opposition to the older one, now degenerated in the form of ‘technie’. An understanding of this new formation requires, then, an empirical investigation of the set of conditions under which it appeared, since no deductive explanation can serve to account for it (85).

But Lévi-Strauss’s own work, Mosconi suggests, is ambivalent in relation to this tradition. On the one hand, for instance in The Raw and the Cooked, he celebrates, very much as Rousseau does, music as the most ‘essentially cultural’ form of human expression, precisely because it is the most distant from the dictates of physical nature. On the other hands, works like The Savage Mind and Totemism Today appear to privilege a different approach, one closer to Condillac, whereby ‘the natural organisation of the domain of the senses anticipates the intellectual organisation of science’, such that ‘nothing need prevent a natural and necessary genesis of the latter on the basis of purely physical factors’ (86).

To the degree that ethnology follows Condillac rather than Rousseau on this decisive point, it will persist in its deluded belief that ‘primitive’ peoples might offer a privileged means of understanding human nature, an exemplary illustration of a general ‘model’ of what it means to be human - precisely because they are apparently closest to the origin or development of that nature. Mosconi acknowledges that Lévi-Strauss’ work sometimes appears to be other nothing more than a ‘brilliant reactivation of Condillac’s philosophy’, but suggests that he is fundamentally guided by a more profound (albeit often only implicit) fidelity to Rousseau. This Rousseauist Levi-Strauss would accept and celebrate the fact that there is no human ‘nature’, no model for human sociability, and thus no ‘inherent necessity’ guiding the events of history or the inventions of language and thought (87-88).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de. Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines [1746], in Oeuvres philosophiques, ed. Georges Le Roy, vol. 1. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 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: Presses Universitaires de France, 1947. Condillac’s treatise on the sensations, trans. Geraldine Carr. London: Favil Press, 1930.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955. Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • ---. Le Cru et le cuit. Paris: Plon, 1964. The Raw and the Cooked, trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Essai sur l’origine des langues [written 1754], trans. Victor Gourevitch as Essay on the Origin of Languages, in Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • ---. Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes [1755], trans. Victor Gourevitch as Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, or Second Discourse, in Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, ed. Gourevitch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Selected secondary literature:

  • In his book On Grammatology (which grew in part out of the article on Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss he published as CpA 4.1), Jacques Derrida refers briefly to Mosconi’s essay to support his point that Rousseau’s ‘primitive’ families should not be understood as social or ‘institutional’ phenomena. Derrida also relies on Mosconi to demonstrate that ‘there is nothing comparable about the conceptions of the age of “huts”’ evoked in Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, on the one hand, and his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality on the other (Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998], 253, 231, 347n.48).