Émile Littré

Émile Maximilien Paul Littré (February 1, 1801 – June 2, 1881) was a French lexicographer, philologist and philosopher. Littré was significant for his advocacy of philosophical positivism developed by Auguste Comte. He was not only an advocate of Comte's thought, but also his friend and financial supporter. After Comte's death, however, he revealed his disagreements with the more religious and mystical aspects of Comte's thought. However, Littré is best known for his Dictionnaire de la langue française, commonly known as the Littré. This work is more than a standard dictionary of the French language since it incorporates every historical meaning of each word. It has proved an invaluable source of etymology, as well as providing a deep historical context for the development of the French language through its numerous quotations from works of literature. This work that details the history of a significant language and culture is Littré's great contribution to human knowledge.



Littré was born on February 1, 1801 in Paris, France. His father was a gunner and sergeant-major of marine artillery in the French Navy, and was deeply imbued with the revolutionary ideas of the day. Settling down as a collector of taxes, he had married Sophie Johannot, a free-thinker like himself, and devoted himself to the education of his son Émile. The boy was sent to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he had Louis Christophe François Hachette and Eugène Burnouf for friends. After he had completed his school studies, he hesitated for a while in choosing which profession to pursue. He meanwhile mastered the English and German languages, classical and Sanskrit literature, and philology.

In 1822, Littré enrolled to study medicine. He passed all his examinations in due course, and in 1827 had only his thesis left to prepare in order to obtain his degree as a physician when his father died, leaving his mother absolutely without resources. He left school to care for his mother, and to earn a living he began teaching Latin and Greek.

Littré participated in the Revolution of February 1830, and was in the National Guard that followed Charles X to Rambouillet. In 1831 he met Armand Carrel, the editor of the National, who hired him as a reader of English and German papers for excerpts. Carrel soon realized the ability of his reader and in 1835 made him a constant contributor, and eventually the director of the paper.

In 1836, Littré began to contribute articles on all sorts of topics to the papers, enabling him to live more comfortably and in 1837 he married. In 1839 published the first volume of his edition of the works of Hippocrates. The value of this work was recognized by his election the same year into the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. There he came across the works of Auguste Comte, the reading of which formed, as he himself said, "the cardinal point of his life." From this time onward the influence of positivism appeared in his life, and what is of more importance, his influence on positivism, for he gave as much to positivism as he received from it.

Littré soon became a friend of Comte, and popularized his ideas in numerous works on his positivist philosophy as well as providing financial support when Comte lost his teaching position. At the same time Littré continued his works on Hippocrates, which were not completed until 1862. He also published a similar edition of Pliny's Natural History, and after 1844 took Fauriel's place on the committee engaged on the Histoire littéraire de la France, where his knowledge of the early French language and literature was invaluable.

It was around 1844 that Littré started working on his great Dictionnaire de la langue française, which took him thirty years to complete. In the Revolutions of 1848, he took part in the repression of the extreme republican party. In 1863, after completing his works on Hippocrates and Pliny, he started to work on his French dictionary again. In the same year he was nominated for the Académie Française, but rejected, owing to the opposition of Félix Dupanloup, bishop of Orléans, who denounced him in his Avertissement aux pères de famille as the chief of French materialism.

In mid-1860s Littré started, together with G. N. Vyrubov, the Philosophie Positive, a journal which was to embody the views of modern positivists. His life was fully absorbed in literary work. The overthrow of the empire, however, called on him to take part in politics. He was called by Léon Gambetta to take his seat in the senate, to which he had been chosen by the Département of the Seine. In December 1871 Littré was elected a member of the Académie Française in spite of the renewed opposition of Dupanloup, who resigned his seat in protest. In 1875 Littré was elected a senator for life.

When it became obvious that Littré would not live much longer, his wife and daughter, who had always been fervent Roman Catholics, strove to convert him to their religion. He had long interviews with Père Millériot; but it is hardly probable he would have ever been really converted. Nevertheless, on the point of death, on June 2, 1881, his wife had him baptized, and his funeral was conducted according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church. He was buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.


In his early career, Littré was a strong proponent of Comtean ideas. His essays contributed during this period to the newspaper National, in which he actively promoted positivist philosophy. Those essays were later collected and published under the title Conservation, revolution et positivisme (1852). In it he showed a thorough acceptance of all the doctrines propounded by Comte.

However, during the later years of Comte’s life, Littré started to realize that he could not wholly accept all the ideas of his friend and master. He nevertheless concealed his differences of opinion, and never challenged Comte directly. Comte failed to perceive that his pupil had outgrown him, as he himself had outgrown his master Comte de Saint-Simon.

Comte's death in 1858 freed Littré from any fear of embittering his master's later years, and he published his own ideas in his Paroles de la philosophie positive in 1859, and at still greater length in his work in Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive in 1863. In the latter book he traced the origin of Comte's ideas through Turgot, Kant, and Saint-Simon, then eulogized Comte's own life, his method of philosophy, his great services to the cause and the effect of his works, and finally proceeded to show where he differed from Comte. He approved wholly of Comte's philosophy, his great laws of society, and his philosophical method, which indeed he defended warmly against John Stuart Mill, but declared that, while he believed in a positivist philosophy, he did not believe in a religion of humanity.

Littré claimed that Comte had abandoned the positive method in his later works, and suggested it was necessary to clean Comte’s works of any trace of “subjectivism.” He held that Positivism was the only true philosophy, and that through the scientific method one can ultimately realize everything that is known about the world, man, and society. Unlike Comte, Littré doubted that Positivism was sufficiently advanced to serve as a basis for social and political action.

Littré's great work, his Dictionnaire de la langue française, was completed in 1873 after three decades of effort. The dictionary was published in four volumes, plus a supplement issued in 1877. It contained an authoritative interpretation of the use of each word, based on the various meanings it had held in the past, beginning with the earliest meaning. It also contained numerous quotations from works of literature, illustrating the use of words and the development of the French language.


Littré remains famous for his dictionary of the French language— Dictionnaire de la langue française, commonly called simply the "Littré," which he wrote over almost thirty years. The dictionary proved to be of an enormous value, as it included precise definitions and showed how the French language developed throughout history. His dictionary remains important for its history, etymology, and grammar, and has been reprinted several times incorporating the supplemental material in the alphabetized volumes.

Littré also contributed greatly to the spread of Comte’s ideas and to the further development of positivist philosophy. His works published after Comte's death returned positivism to its more objective origins, in contrast to the increasingly mystical direction taken by Comte in his later years.


  • Littré, Paul-Émile (ed.). [1839] 1861. Hippocrates.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1845. Analyse raisonnée du cours de philosophie positive de M. A. Comte. Utrecht: Kemink & Zoon.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile (ed.). [1848] 1850. Pliny's Natural History.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1849. Application de la philosophie positive au gouvernement. Paris: Librairie philosophique de Ladrange.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1852. Conservation, révolution et positivisme. Paris: Ladrange.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1859. Paroles de philosophie positive. Paris: Adolphe Delahays.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1863. Auguste Comte et la philosophie positive. Paris: L. Hachette et cie. ISBN 1421246341
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1865. La Verité sur la mort d'Alexandre le grand. Paris: Pincebourde.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1867. Études sur les barbares et le moyen âge. Paris: Didier et cie. ISBN 0543913147
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. [1863-1872] 2000. Dictionnaire de la langue française. Paris: Hachette. ISBN 0785979417
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1873. Discours prononcés dans la séance publique tenue par l'Académie française pour la réception de M. Littré le 5 juin 1873. Paris: Typographie de Firmin Didot frères.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1873. La Science au point de vue philosophique. Paris: Didier.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1876. Fragments de philosophie et de sociologie contemporaine. Paris: Aux bureaux de la philosophie positive.
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. [1880] 1998. Comment j'ai fait mon dictionnaire ("How I made my dictionary"). Cre-A. ISBN 8185602727
  • Littré, Paul-Émile. 1880. Études et glanures pour faire suite à l'Histoire de la langue française. Paris: Didier et cie.


  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


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