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Brief Lives

Maine de Biran (1766-1824)

Benjamin Bâcle finds Maine de Biran’s idea of the self-willing self to be underrated.

If you come across any French person and ask them about René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Jean Paul Sartre, the chances are they’ll say the name rings a bell. If you ask them about Maine de Biran, first they’ll say ‘Pardon?’, and upon you repeating the three odd words, they’ll go blank – unless they belong to the chosen few who happen to have been schooled at the Lycée Maine de Biran in Bergerac. But you’d have to be pretty lucky to stumble upon them; and, indeed, to be in a situation where the name ‘Maine de Biran’ would be likely to occur at all.

The truth is, Biran is not your average bestselling philosopher. Having published very little in his lifetime (29 November 1766–20 July 1824), he rose to only relative philosophical prominence in the nineteenth century thanks to the posthumous publication of his extensive manuscripts. In addition, he can be said to only ever have had one idea, which shapes all of his philosophical considerations in a way that may seem rather repetitive. But this idea was arguably one of the first dents in the Enlightenment consensus on the need to objectify, categorise and classify all things on what Michel Foucault referred to as the ‘flat space of [a] spreadsheet’ (The Order of Things, 1966). Biran forces us to rethink what we understand by ‘observation’ and ‘facts.’

Maine De Biran
Maine De Biran by Clinton Inman, 2019
Portrait © Clinton Inman 2018. Facebook him at clinton.inman

A Political Life

François-Pierre-Gontier de Biran, known as Maine, was born into a family of Bergerac notables in 1766. He was to be a close witness to, and occasionally even an actor in, some of the defining events of the Revolution of 1789 and its immediate aftermath.

Biran spent most of the Terror in his family property of Grateloup. He was a member of the Royal Guard from 1785 to its dissolution in 1792. After the demise of Robespierre in 1794, Biran was made administrator of the Dordogne by the Convention. Then after a brief spell as an elected representative in the Directory in 1797, he again disappeared from the public sphere until 1802, when he got another chance to make his mark on local politics in his native Dordogne and Bergerac, mainly in the latter’s prefectural services. As part of Napoléon Bonaparte’s imperial Legislative Body from 1812 to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1814, he made his name by joining a commission demanding peace, an end to Napoléon’s politics of expansion, and the respect of individual and political rights. A monarchist by nurture and by nature, he welcomed the end of Napoléon’s rule and the return of Louis XVIII (younger brother of Louis XVI) in 1814, seeing it as a promise of stability. He went on to represent the Dordogne in the Chamber of Deputies almost without interruption until his death in 1824.

A keen student of epistemology (theory of knowledge) from an early age, Biran never ceased to write and debate with his friends, mentors and protégés throughout his sometimes high-profile career. Although his perfectionism meant that he could not bring himself to publish what he often regarded as incomplete reflections on the subject, his work was noted and sometimes rewarded by prestigious institutions such as the newly founded ‘Institut Francais’ in 1802, and the academies of Berlin (in 1807) and Copenhagen (in 1811).

New, Internal Kinds of Facts

As a child of the eighteenth century, Biran was a firm empiricist. Influenced by the work of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1714-1780), he initially believed that ideas are the product of sensory impressions, and that as a result the mind is mostly passive in its acquisition of knowledge, both of the outside world and of its own contents. In the 1790s Biran became acquainted with the Idéologues, a collective headed by Antoine Destutt de Tracy and Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis. The ambition of the Idéologues was to map out the birth, life and death of ideas in a way which would help promote the educative and regenerative work of the Revolution. Understanding ideas as objects, and minds as mere receptacles, implied that all of France’s future citizens could be shaped into a prescribed mould of thought.

Biran was eager to play his part in the cultural aspects of the revolution, although he had reservations about the regime change, as he was convinced that legitimacy rested with the King. In 1802 he published a study of L’influence de l’habitude sur la faculté de penser (The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking). In it he observed that habit had a paradoxical effect on intellectual operations, making them simultaneously more focused and accurate, and more spontaneous and unconscious.

Biran’s account of the influence of habit on thinking hinted at the behind-the-scenes work of an active faculty akin to the will, but he fell short of explaining what this faculty might be or how it might work. There was a good reason for this. Condillac and the Idéologues’ empiricist premises could not harbour the notion of a spontaneously creative will. In a world ruled by physical and mental cause and effect, nothing can be its own cause – which is precisely what the will would be if it is to be at all. This dogma became increasingly frustrating for Biran, who wanted to find a firm ground for his philosophy – some place where self-consciousness could be originated and chosen by the will instead of being the mere accidental consequence of mechanically determined phenomena. This firm ground he eventually found in himself, in what he called the ‘primitive fact of the intimate sense’. In short, it was the intimate sense of the effort of will which made one conscious of oneself.

As an empiricist, Biran was keen to stick to facts. But he soon came to realise that this did not mean that facts could only be externally verifiable. Looking inward, he found that what created the spark of self-consciousness was the confrontation of his own hyper-organic force (a vital force whose origin was impossible to ascertain) with the resistance of his own (organic) body or of an external object. Self-consciousness could only exist if it was being resisted at the very same time of its occurrence – by the body, or by an external object: “as soon as the effort unfolds, there is a subject and an object, each constituted in relation to each other… Without this effort everything is passive and absolute… With it, everything refers to a person who wants and acts” (Mémoire sur la décomposition de la pensée, 1805).

So for Biran, self-consciousness was above all the result of an act of will: an act which he thought could not be accounted for in the same way as, say, gravity, or the action of one billiard ball on another. Here Biran managed to still respond to the empiricist demand that facts be based on experience while undermining the Enlightenment claim that everything worth knowing was objectifiable, quantifiable, and comparable. The incommunicable nature of the sense of effort, and the idea, implied in the necessary interdependence of resistance and effort, that self-consciousness is inseparable from otherness, soared beyond the traditional empiricism favoured by the likes of Condillac, Cabanis, and Destutt de Tracy.

But Biran went further, arguing that all of our basic ideas of how the world is regulated – of causality, force, unity, identity, and permanence, among others – were derived from the primitive fact of the act of self-consciousness. For instance, our general idea of causality was abstracted from our sense of being the cause of an effort when acting. Our ideas of unity, identity, and permanence were the intellectualised expression of the unity, identity, and permanence of a self which in its willed effort recognised itself in the midst of an infinite stream of ever-changing sensations. The same logic applied to ‘normal’ ideas – of a tree, a cloud, or a cat, for example. To become easily identifiable among other sensations as a distinct idea, a sensory impression had to be actively received by the willing self. Biran’s account of what regulates our perception was as far removed from Immanuel Kant’s a priori categories of thought as it was from David Hume’s argument for the impossibility of proving causal links. Instead, it was firmly grounded in creative willing.

Mind versus Body in Thought and Life

With the primitive fact of the inner sense, Biran had found his fulcrum, his point d’appui. He had also salvaged the mind’s active nature from the passivity implied by Condillac’s empiricism. But he had also re-established dualism, by erecting an insurmountable barrier between the active self and its ‘passive’ counterpart, the organic body. In spite of their interdependence, and of the appropriation of sensations through willed effort, in Biran’s theory mind and body remain constantly at war. The body constantly threatens to swallow the mind, which in turn only exists in affirmation against its organic counterpart. This tension reflects the tension between our social and our personal lives.

Although it started almost accidentally, Biran’s career as a statesman survived a revolution, an empire, and the restoration of the monarchy. Behind this apparently successful career, however, was a man forever torn between his desire to please in the public sphere, and his hankering after solitude in nature.

Biran’s Journal is an enlightening record of his complex emotional response to public and social life. Throughout its pages he appears painfully aware that no mark of approval or affection could ever quench his desperate need for recognition; and yet he readily acknowledges that he cannot help but act upon that need: “ this is the source of all my sorrows and disappointments in life. I have always wanted, I still want, to seem what I am not, and keep on neglecting what I could be” (Journal, III). This craving he saw as a mode of the body’s proneness to sensual gratification – a tendency which inevitably leads one to seek society and to play all sorts of roles and games, thereby damaging one’s moral integrity: “Natural passions have their source in organic life and belong to the animal side of man… Social passions always combine with natural passions and complicate them” (Journal, II). The Journal also shows how Biran continuously exhorted himself to fight off his social passions, to recollect his thoughts and reunify his self, and how this was helped by the seclusion and contemplation afforded by his family residence. There the thinker’s efforts could unfold properly, at last.

This is perhaps one of the most interesting features of Biran’s will. Nowadays willpower is more often than not associated with the determination to succeed according to externally established standards. Biran’s will, by contrast, expressed itself most powerfully by his shutting the world away and turning inwards.

The Utilitarian Threat

Biran’s emphasis on the conflict between the self and the senses reflects his temperament and attitude. But rooting his real-life tensions in a universal physiological and psychological divide shows that he saw this divide and these tensions as essential to human experience. This made for fertile ground when it came to criticising the excesses of a certain kind of empiricism and its moral applications – so much so that Biran can be credited for providing us with one of the first philosophical critiques of utilitarianism.

Although no explicit mention of Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) works is to be found in Biran’s writings, in his Journal he makes a number of allusions to some of the core principles of Bentham’s utilitarianism, and Biran’s philosophy is based on a partial rejection of the empiricist premises on which that doctrine is founded. Bentham wrote that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789), and he advocated a moral system directed to the maximisation of the latter. In doing so he was merely taking the core empiricist and sensualist premises to their natural conclusions: sensations were the only experiential reality the role of which everyone could agree on. The new moral order would be all about collective happiness understood as the generalisation of the individual search for pleasure, and it did not matter which pleasure, as long as it did not interfere too obviously with other individual pursuits of the same kind.

However, for Biran, utilitarian morals were mistaken in that the empiricist premises on which they were founded were only partly true. There had to be more to life than pleasure and pain, if only because the idea of free will (which even Bentham’s system relied on) means more than being a mere weathervane blown about by ever-changing sensations. Yet Biran was acutely aware that for all its wrong assumptions, utilitarian morality could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that there’s always a “concordance between speculative systems and practical morals” (Journal, II). With pleasure and pain becoming the cardinal points of moral science, people were free to blindly follow their own impulses to the detriment of others and of their own fulfilment. This could only lead to stagnant existences, and unbridled selfishness:

“Those who think that everything in man is founded on feelings of pleasure and pain, must believe too that the individual is the be all and end all of his existence: duty is then a word devoid of any meaning, and so is the idea of the absolute: everything is forever likely to change, along with place, time and sensitive dispositions.” (Journal, II)

Biran thought that as a result of empiricism and utilitarianism, his was a time “where generous sentiments [were] practically extinct in all souls, and where human actions [were] only considered through the prism of utility or material advantages” (Journal, I). This was to heap a lot of blame upon those philosophies; but perhaps he understood utilitarianism as the theoretical justification for the nascent capitalism. Biran’s suggested cure for these ills – moral firmness and established values – may appear rather conservative to us; but it should be remembered that his basis for these values was quite original. The immediate apperception of the self through self-willing effort was where Biran found both individual moral strength and a reason to respect others, as free agents engaged in their very own intimate struggle with incessant natural and social stimuli. His conception of will was thus less an accompaniment to triumphant economic liberalism than a warning of and potential tool against some of its most manifest perils.

God and the ‘Third Life’

Biran’s values were initially founded on a generalisation of his introspective psychology, and as such did not rely on any transcendental truth. Even his monarchism could be said, if not to originate, then at least to be consolidated by his belief that the state, like the individual, needed to organise itself around principles of unity and permanence.

Still, as the vicissitudes of life started to take their toll, Biran became increasingly aware that his ‘firm ground’ of the self-willing self was not enough to yield a peaceful and rewarding life. Free will was not a given, but needed to be constantly reaffirmed in the face of countless physical ailments and social disappointments. There is no end to this balancing act. This led Biran to seek peace and contentment in an experience in the inner self coming from a higher source, and for Biran there was no mistaking that this higher source was God. But here again, Biran was intent on accounting for the phenomenon in a philosophical way:

“Until now, I have tried to establish a metaphysical theory by consulting my intimate sense and paying close attention… to all consequences derived from the facts of this intimate sense… If I find God and the true laws of the moral order, it will be pure happiness, and I shall be more credible than those who, starting from prejudices, only try and establish the latter through their theories.” (Journal, I)

Biran’s last decade was to be dedicated to ‘finding God’, both personally and metaphysically. By the end of his life, he had discovered that beyond the ‘first’ and the ‘second’ lives of man (the animal/sensitive and the human/rational aspects respectively), was a third life, characterised by a calm and contentment which could only be the act of a higher power.

The Afterlife of the Self-Willed Self

Maine de Biran was both a man of the eighteenth century in his attempt to organise his thought in a systematic and transparent way, and a man of the nineteenth century in his subversion of classical empiricism through an acknowledgment of the most fundamental human experience. While his ideas were coloured by an undeniable traditionalism when it came to morals and politics, he cleared the way for the emergence of modern philosophies such as French Eclecticism (Victor Cousin’s attempt to bridge the gap between Cartesian rationalism and empiricism), French Spiritualism (culminating in Henri Bergson’s philosophy of mind and creativity), and last but not least, French existentialism.

When he died in 1824 after years of ill-health, Biran was hailed as ‘our mentor’ by Pierre Paul Royer-Collard, and even ‘our Kant’ by Jules Lachelier. But some hundred and fifty years later, F.C.T. Moore remarked that “Maine de Biran is an author almost without critics, indeed, almost without readers in the English philosophical tradition” (The Psychology of Maine de Biran, 1970). The situation does not seem to have changed much. It may primarily be down to the fact that there are only a few available English translations of Biran’s writings (his work on The Relationship between the Physical and the Moral in Man was translated and published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016). But even in France, although a handful of academics have devoted their careers to editing and analysing his works, Biran remains largely unknown – as though notoriety, just like freedom, was bound to escape him.

© Dr Benjamin Bâcle 2019

Benjamin Bâcle is Senior Teaching Fellow in French at University College London.

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