Pierre Jean George Cabanis (June 5, 1757 – May 5, 1808), was a French physiologist who pioneered experiential philosophy. His ideas were formed in the context of the French Revolution, which wanted to set aside the old ideas of servitude to priests and an absolute monarch, and replace them with the concept of humans as free agents, responsible for their own moral actions. Cabanis developed a mechanistic, materialistic understanding of life as a series of nervous impulses resulting from our biological make-up. This removed the need for any God or divine reality, since life could be understood as the product of natural processes. Cabanis, though, did not abandon belief in the ego, which he saw as eternal. Although he pioneered the exact use of language in philosophy, he did not fully explain why his belief in the ego did not contradict his view of life as a biological entity, that is, as the organization of physical forces. Perhaps, having stripped everything immortal from the human story, he could not completely abandon the concept that each human life is somehow of infinite worth, and the existence of the ego helped him explain this strongly held conviction.
He was born at Cosnac (Corrèze), the son of Jean Baptiste Cabanis (1723-1786), a lawyer and agronomist. At the age of ten, he attended the college of Brives, where he showed great aptitude for study, but his independence of spirit was so great that he was almost constantly in a state of rebellion against his teachers and was finally expelled. He was then taken to Paris by his father and left to carry on his studies at his own discretion for two years. From 1773 to 1775 he traveled in Poland and Germany, and on his return to Paris he devoted himself mainly to poetry. About this time he sent a translation of the passage from Homer proposed for a prize to the Académie française and, though he did not win, he received so much encouragement from his friends that he contemplated translating the whole of the Iliad.
At his father's wish, he gave up writing and decided to engage in a more settled profession, selecting medicine. In 1789 his Observations sur les hôpitaux (Observations on hospitals, 1790) procured him an appointment as administrator of hospitals in Paris, and in 1795 he became professor of hygiene at the medical school of Paris, a post which he exchanged for the chair of legal medicine and the history of medicine in 1799. He forsook poetry and enjoyed the company of literati, including Diderot.
Partly because of his poor health, he tended not to practice as a physician, his interests lying in the deeper problems of medical and physiological science. During the last two years of Honoré Mirabeau's life, Cabanis was intimately connected with him, and wrote the four papers on public education which were found among the Mirabeau's papers at his death The papers were edited by the real author soon afterwards in 1791. During the illness which terminated his life, Mirabeau trusted entirely in Cabanis's professional skills. Of the death of Mirabeau, Cabanis drew up a detailed narrative, intended as a justification of his treatment of the case.
He was enthusiastic about the French Revolution and became a member of the Council of Five Hundred and then of the conservative senate, and the dissolution of the Directory was the result of a motion which he made to that effect. His political career was brief. Hostile to the policy of Napoleon Bonaparte, he rejected every offer of a place under his government. He also knew both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin during their time as Ambassadors in Paris, and later corresponded with them.
There is a direct link between Cabanis's ideas and the ethos of the French Revolution, with its motto of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. The revolution aimed to wipe the slate clean, to free French citizens from old ideas and from the tyranny of priests and of absolutist government. The revolution provided an opportunity to re-organize the education system and to re-write the curriculum. For Cabanis, for whom life or existence was equated with "sensibility” and for whom the human consciousness and intelligence were products of the nervous system, equality became a demand because all people, as biological mechanism that can think, have the same desires and the same needs. Liberty also became a demand because without the freedom to fulfill desires and to pursue a happy life, pain and not pleasure would result. Pursuing this logic, Cabanis explained morality as those acts that benefit individuals and society. Similarity with Utilitarian thought can be detected.
According to Cabanis, the soul is not an entity, but a faculty; thought is the function of the brain. Just as the stomach and intestines receive food and digest it, so the brain receives impressions, digests them, and has as its organic secretion: thought. This material, mechanistic view explained, for him, how the body and mind functioned without any need for the supernatural, or for a creator. He thus developed a non-religious view of life that could form part of a new, secular curriculum. Rene Descartes’s "I think, therefore I am" lies in the background of Cabanis's ideas.
Alongside this materialism, Cabanis held another principle. In biology he belonged to the vitalistic school of G.E. Stahl, and in his posthumous work, Lettre sur les causes premières (1824), the consequences of this opinion became clear. Life is something added to the organism: over and above the universally diffused sensibility, there is some living and productive power to which we give the name of Nature. It is impossible to avoid ascribing both intelligence and will to this power. In us this living power constitutes the ego, which is truly immaterial and immortal. Cabanis did not think that his belief in the ego was inconsistent with his earlier theory.
Cabanis insisted on the precise use of language. Vague or ambiguous language did nothing to promote a better understanding of life. In 1953 Williams cited his comment that:
It is ... the exactitude and correct usages of words, or more generally of signs, which must be considered as the criterion of truth; imperfect concepts, prejudices, errors and bad mental habits can be attributed to the vague character and uncertain and confused way in which they are deployed (Williams, 314).
He was also convinced that while life can be explained biologically, no progress in understanding how people think is possible unless science investigates human individuals as both moral and physical beings.
A complete edition of Cabanis's works was begun in 1825, and five volumes were published. His principal work, Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme (On the relations between the physical and moral aspects of man, 1802), consists in part of memoirs, read in 1796 and 1797 to the Institute, and is a sketch of physiological psychology. Psychology with Cabanis is directly linked to biology.
Cabanis is credited as the father of experimental philosophy. His ideas about the precise use of language feature prominently in the later school of logical positivism, which sees all science and philosophy as a critique of language. While Cabanis saw no need for belief in the existence of a God, he did not abandon such concepts as that of the “soul” or of the “ego.” In retaining the “ego,” he can be compared with Sigmund Freud. Cabanis's description of life as a biological, thinking mechanism and of morality as the pursuit of happiness removed God from the picture. This has some similarity with the ideas of Richard Dawkins, for whom evolution unlocks the mystery of life and of the universe. He viewed—as did Freud—belief in God as dangerous and irrational because it surrenders responsibility for morality onto an imaginary, supernatural being. Not everyone, however, saw a contradiction between a material, mechanistic view of life and of morality and religious faith. Among such thinkers are Henry Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin believed that "Man," the “knowing subject,” through self-knowledge, will "perceive at last that man, the object of knowledge, is the key to the whole science of nature" (Chardin, 281). “Enormous powers,” De Chardin predicted, would be “liberated in mankind” once a true understanding of human existence had been realized; then “disease and hunger will be conquered by science and we will no longer need to fear them in any acute form” (Chardin, 288). Some, of course, see such materialistic science as the enemy of faith.
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