Victor Cousin

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Victor Cousin.

Victor Cousin (November 28, 1792 - January 13, 1867) was a French philosopher, educational reformer, and a historian, whose systematic eclecticism made him the best-known French thinker during his time. When he lectured at the Sorbonne from 1828 to 1831, the hall was crowded as the hall of no philosophical teacher in Paris had been since the days of Pierre Abélard. Cousin's spiritual philosophy inspired his listeners and revived the popularity of philosophy in France. He developed a system that moved from psychology to ontology and then to the history of philosophy. Cousin sought to combine the psychological insights of Maine de Biran, the common sense of the Scottish school, and the idealism of Hegel and Schelling, arguing that each of these philosophies contains an element of truth that can be grasped by intuition. He believed that ultimately the elements of truth from each philosophical system could be combined into a perfect philosophy.

In 1840, when Cousin became Minister of Public Instruction in France, he studied the educational system of Prussia and wrote a report which became the basis for a law of primary instruction, and was translated and widely distributed in the United States. He reorganized and centralized the primary system in France, introduced the study of philosophy into the curriculum, and established a policy of philosophical freedom in the universities. His works include Fragments philosophiques (1826), Du vrai, du beau et du bien (1836; tr. Lectures on the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, 1854), Cours de l’histoire de la philosophie (8 vol., 1815–29), various studies of educational systems, and a brilliant translation of Plato.


Early life

Victor Cousin was born November 28, 1792, in the Quartier Saint-Antoine of Paris, the son of a watchmaker. At the age of ten, he was sent to the local grammar school, the Lycée Charlemagne, where he studied until he was eighteen. The lycée had a connection with the university, and when Cousin left the secondary school he was "crowned" in the ancient hall of the Sorbonne for the Latin oration which he delivered there, in the general concourse of his schoolmates. The classical training of the lycée strongly disposed him to literature. He was already known for his knowledge of Greek. From the lycée, he passed to the Normal School of Paris, where Pierre Laromiguière was then lecturing on philosophy. In the second preface to Fragments philosophiques, in which he candidly states the varied philosophical influences on his life, Cousin speaks of the grateful emotion excited by the memory of the day when he heard Laromiguière for the first time. "That day decided my whole life. Laromiguière taught the philosophy of John Locke and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, happily modified on some points, with a clearness and grace which in appearance at least removed difficulties, and with a charm of spiritual bonhomie which penetrated and subdued."

Early influences

Cousin wanted to lecture on philosophy and quickly obtained the position of master of conferences (maître de conférences) in the school. The second great philosophical impulse of his life was the teaching of Pierre Paul Royer-Collard. This teacher, he says, "by the severity of his logic, the gravity and weight of his words, turned me by degrees, and not without resistance, from the beaten path of Condillac into the way which has since become so easy, but which was then painful and unfrequented, that of the Scottish philosophy." In 1815-1816, Cousin attained the position of suppliant (assistant) to Royer-Collard in the history of modern philosophy chair of the faculty of letters. Another thinker who influenced him at this early period was Maine de Biran, whom Cousin regarded as the unequaled psychological observer of his time in France.

To Laromiguière, Cousin attributes the lesson of decomposing thought, even though the reduction of it to sensation was inadequate. Royer-Collard taught him that even sensation is subject to certain internal laws and principles which it does not itself explain, which are superior to analysis and the natural patrimony of the mind. De Biran made a special study of the phenomena of the will. He taught Cousin to distinguish in all cognitions, and especially in the simplest facts of consciousness, the voluntary activity in which a personality is truly revealed. It was through this "triple discipline" that Cousin's philosophical thought was first developed. In 1815, he began the public teaching of philosophy in the Normal School and in the faculty of letters.

He then took up the study of German, worked at Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, and sought to master the Philosophy of Nature of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, which at first greatly attracted him. The influence of Schelling is evident in the earlier form of Cousin’s philosophy. He sympathized with the principle of faith of Jacobi, but regarded it as arbitrary so long as it was not recognized as grounded in reason. In 1817, he went to Germany, and met Georg Hegel at Heidelberg. Hegel's Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften appeared the same year, and Cousin had one of the earliest copies. He thought Hegel not particularly amiable, but the two became friends. The following year, Cousin went to Munich, where he met Schelling for the first time, and spent a month with him and Jacobi, obtaining a deeper insight into the Philosophy of Nature.

Political troubles

During France's political troubles of 1814-1815, Cousin took the royalist side and adopted the views of the doctrinaire party, of which Royer-Collard was the philosophical leader. He seems to have gone further and approached the extreme Left. Then came a reaction against liberalism, and in 1821-1822 Cousin was deprived of his offices in the faculty of letters and in the Normal School. The Normal School was swept away, and Cousin shared the fate of Guizot, who was ejected from the chair of history. This enforced abandonment of public teaching was a mixed blessing; he set out for Germany to further his philosophical studies. While in Berlin, in 1824-1825, he was thrown into prison, either on some ill-defined political charge at the insistence of the French police, or as a result of an indiscreet conversation. Freed after six months, he remained under the suspicion of the French government for three years. This was the period during which he developed what is distinctive in his philosophical doctrine. His eclecticism, his ontology and his philosophy of history were declared in principle and in most of their salient details in the Fragments philosophiques (Paris, 1826). The preface to the second (1833) and the third editions (1838) aimed at a vindication of his principles against contemporary criticism. Even the best of his later books, the Philosophie ecossaise, the Du vrai, du beau, et du bien, and the Philosophie de Locke, were simply mature revisions lectures given during the period from 1815 to 1820. The lectures on Locke were first sketched in 1819, and fully developed in the course of 1829.

The publication of Fragments philosophiques (Paris, 1826) marked the first expansion of Cousin’s reputation as a philosopher. The work fused together the different philosophical influences which had shaped his opinions. It was followed in 1827, by the Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie.

During the seven years when he was prevented from teaching, he produced, besides the Fragments, the edition of the works of Proclus (6 vols., 1820-1827), and the works of René Descartes (2 vols., 1826). He also commenced his Translation of Plato (13 vols.), which occupied his leisure time from 1825 to 1840.

Reinstatement at the university

In 1828, de Vatimesnil, minister of public instruction in Martignac's ministry, recalled Cousin and Guizot to their professorial positions in the university. The three years which followed were the period of Cousin's greatest triumph as a lecturer. His return to the chair was a symbol of the triumph of constitutional ideas and was greeted with enthusiasm. The hall of the Sorbonne was crowded as the hall of no philosophical teacher in Paris had been since the days of Pierre Abélard. The lecturer's eloquence mingled with speculative exposition, and he possessed a singular power of rhetorical climax. His philosophy showed the French intellectual tendency to generalize, and logical need to group details around central principles.

There was a moral elevation in Cousin's spiritual philosophy which inspired his listeners, and seemed to be a stronger basis for the higher development in national literature and art, and even in politics, than the traditional philosophy of France. His lectures produced more disciples than those of any other contemporary professor of philosophy. Cousin occupies a foremost place in the rank of professors of philosophy, who like Jacobi, Schelling and Dugald Stewart united the gifts of speculative, expository and imaginative power. The popularity of philosophy, especially its history, was revived in France to an extent unknown since the seventeenth century.


Among those influenced by Cousin were Théodore Simon Jouffroy, Jean Philibert Damiron, Garnier, Jules Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire, Felix Ravaisson-Mollien, Charles de Rémusat, Jules Simon, and Adolphe Franck. Cousin continued to lecture for two-and-a-half years after his return to the chair. Sympathizing with the revolution of July, he was at once recognized by the new government as a friend of national liberty. Writing in June 1833, he explained the eclecticism of both his philosophical and his political position:

I had the advantage of holding united against me for many years both the sensational and the theological school. In 1830, both schools descended into the arena of politics. The sensational school quite naturally produced the demagogic party, and the theological school became quite as naturally absolutism, safe to borrow from time to time the mask of the demagogue in order the better to reach its ends, as in philosophy it is by skepticism that it undertakes to restore theocracy. On the other hand, he who combated any exclusive principle in science was bound to reject also any exclusive principle in the state, and to defend representative government.

The government was quick to honor him. The ministry of which his friend Guizot was head made him a member of the Council of Public Instruction and Counselor of State, and in 1832, he was made a peer of France. He ceased to lecture, but retained the title of professor of philosophy. Finally, he accepted the position of Minister of Public Instruction in 1840, under Adolphe Thiers. He was director of the Normal School and virtual head of the university, and from 1840, a member of the Institute (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences). His character and his official position gave him considerable influence over the university and the educational arrangements of France. During the seventeen and a half years of the reign of Louis Philippe, it was mainly Cousin who shaped the philosophical and even the literary tendencies of the cultivated class in France.

Impact on primary instruction

The most important work accomplished by Cousin during this period was the organization of primary instruction in France. It was to his efforts that France owed her advancement in primary education between 1830 and 1848. Cousin thought that Prussia afforded the best example of an organized system of national education; and in the summer of 1831, commissioned by the government, he visited Frankfort and Saxony, and spent some time in Berlin. The result was a series of reports to the minister, afterward published as Rapport sur Vital de l'instruction publique dans quelques pays de l'Allemagne et particulièrement en Prusse (Compare also De l'instruction publique en Hollande, 1837). His views were readily accepted in France, and soon after his return, he influenced the passage of a law of primary instruction (Exposé des motifs et projet de loi sur I'instruction primaire, présentes a la chambre des deputes, séance du 2 janvier 1837).

In the words of the Edinburgh Review (July 1833), these documents "mark an epoch in the progress of national education, and are directly conducive to results important not only to France but to Europe." The Report was translated into English by Mrs. Sarah Austin in 1834, and the translation was frequently reprinted in the United States of America. The legislatures of New Jersey and Massachusetts distributed it in the schools at government expense. Cousin remarked that, among all the literary distinctions which he had received, "None has touched me more than the title of foreign member of the American Institute for Education." France’s system of primary education that had been neglected under the French Revolution, the Empire, and the Restoration (Expose, p. 17). In the first two years of the reign of Louis Philippe, due to the enlightened views of the ministries of François Guizot and Adolphe Thiers and Cousin’s organizational ability, more was done for the education of the people than had been accomplished in all the history of France. Cousin spoke before the Chamber of Peers, in 1844, in defense of the freedom of the study of philosophy in the university, opposing the clerical party on the one hand and the “leveling” or Philistine party on the other, both of which wanted to impose restrictions on what could be taught. His speeches on this occasion were published in a tract, Défense de l'université et de la philosophie (1844 and 1845).

Writing period 1830 to 1848

Cousin spent this period of official life, from 1830 to 1848, revising his former lectures and writings, maturing them for publication or reissue, and researching certain periods of the sophical history of philosophy. In 1835, appeared De la writings. Métaphysique d'Aristote, suivi d'un essai de traduction des deux premiers times; in 1836, Cours de philosophie professé à la faculté des lettres pendant l'année 1818, and Œuvres inédites d'Abélard. This Cours de philosophie appeared later, in 1854, as Du vrai, du beau, et du bien. From 1825 to 1840, Cousin published Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie, in 1829, Manuel de l'histoire de la philosophie de Tennemann, translated from the German, and in 1840-1841, Cours d'histoire de la philosophie morale au XVIIIe siècle (5 vols.). In 1841, he published his edition of the Œuvres philosophiques de Maine-de-Biran; in 1842, Leçons de philosophie sur Kant (Eng. trans. AG Henderson, 1854), and in the same year, Des Pensées de Pascal. The Nouveaux Fragments were gathered together and republished in 1847. Later, in 1859, he published Petri Abaelardi Opera.

During this period, Cousin seems to have returned to the literary studies, which he had abandoned under the influence of Laromiguière and Royer-Collard. He wrote studies of men and women of note in France in the seventeenth century: Des Pensées de Pascal (1842), Audes sur les femmes et la société du XVII siècle (1853), Jacqueline Pascal (1844), Madame de Longueville (1853), the marquise de Sable (1854), the duchesse de Chevreuse (1856), ''Madame de Hautefort'' (1856).

The reign of Louis Philippe came to a close through the opposition of his ministry, headed by Guizot, to the demand for electoral reform, and through the policy of promoting political ends through marriages to members of the Spanish royal family. Cousin, who opposed the government on these points, lent his sympathy to Cavaignac and the Provisional government, and published a pamphlet, markedly anti-socialistic, entitled Justice et charite, which showed the moderation of his political views. He passed almost entirely from public life, and ceased to wield the personal influence of the preceding years. After the coup d'état of December 2, he was deprived of his position as permanent member of the Superior Council of Public Instruction. A decree of 1852 placed him along with Guizot and Villemain in the rank of honorary professors. He distanced himself from Napoleon and the Empire, and he apparently favored a constitutional monarchy. Speaking in 1853, on the political issues of the spiritual philosophy which he had taught during his lifetime, he says, "It conducts human societies to the true republic, that dream of all generous souls, which in our time can be realized in Europe only by constitutional monarchy."


During the last years of his life, Cousin occupied a suite of rooms in the Sorbonne, where he lived simply and unostentatiously. The chief feature of the rooms was his noble library, the cherished collection of a lifetime. He died at Cannes on January 13, 1867, in his sixty-fifth year. In the front of the Sorbonne, below the lecture rooms of the faculty of letters, a tablet records an extract from his will, in which he bequeaths his noble and cherished library to the halls of his professorial work and triumphs.


Three distinctive elements

There are three distinctive elements in Cousin's philosophy. His philosophy is usually described as eclecticism, but it is eclectic only in a secondary and subordinate sense. The fact that his analysis of consciousness has been borne out by history indicates that his eclecticism was based on a sound system. Cousin saw the three elements of his philosophy, the method, the results, and the philosophy of history, as intimately connected and developments in a natural order of sequence. In practice, they become psychology, ontology, and eclecticism in history.

Cousin strongly insisted on the importance of method in philosophy. He adopted the ordinary method of observation, analysis, and induction, which he regarded as the method of the eighteenth century: The method which Descartes began and abandoned, and which Locke and Condillac applied, though imperfectly, and which Thomas Reid and Kant used with more success. He insisted that this was the true method of philosophy as applied to consciousness, in which alone the facts of experience appear.

Observational method

The observational method applied to consciousness gives us the science of psychology, which is the basis of ontology, metaphysics, and of the philosophy of history. Cousin complemented the observation of consciousness with induction, the making of inferences about the reality necessitated by the data of consciousness, and their interpretation using certain laws found in consciousness, those of reason. What Cousin found psychologically in the individual consciousness, he also found spontaneously expressed in the common sense or universal experience of humanity. He regarded the classification and explanation of universal convictions and beliefs as the function of philosophy; common-sense was simply the material on which the philosophical method worked and in harmony with which its results must ultimately be found.

Three results of psychological observation

The three results of psychological observation are sensibility, activity or liberty (volition), and reason. These three are different in character, but are not separated in consciousness. Sensations, or the facts of the sensibility, are necessary. The facts of reason are also necessary, and reason is no more controlled by the will than is sensibility. Voluntary facts (facts of the will) alone have the characteristics of immutability and personality. The will alone is the person or "Me." Without the "Me" at the center of the intellectual sphere, consciousness is impossible. The will is situated between two orders of phenomena, sensations and facts of reason, which do not belong to it, and which it can apprehend only by distinguishing itself from them. Further, the will apprehends by means of a light which does not come from itself, but from reason. All light comes from the reason, and it is the reason which apprehends both itself and the sensibility which envelops it, and the will which it obliges but does not constrain. Consciousness, then, is composed of these three integrated and inseparable elements, but reason is the immediate ground of knowledge and of consciousness itself.

Doctrine of the reason

The distinctive principle of Cousin’s philosophy lies in his doctrine of the Reason. By psychological observation, one discovers that the reason of his consciousness is impersonal, universal, and necessary by nature. The essential point in psychology is the recognition of universal and necessary principles in knowledge. The number of these principles, their enumeration, and classification, is important, but first and foremost one should recognize that they are absolute, and wholly impersonal. The impersonality or absoluteness of the conditions of knowledge can be established if one recognizes causality and substance as the two primary laws of thought, from which flow all the others. In the order of nature, that of substance is the first and causality second. In the order of one's acquisition of knowledge, causality precedes substance, but both are contemporaneous in consciousness.

These two principles of reason, cause and substance, explained psychologically, enable us to pass beyond the limits of the relative and subjective to objective and absolute reality; to pass from psychology, or the science of knowledge, to ontology, or the science of being. These laws are inextricably mixed in consciousness with the data of volition and sensation, and they guide one in rising to the realization of a personal being, a self or free cause; and an impersonal reality, a "not-me," nature, the world of force, existing outside of consciousness and affecting the self.

These two forces, the "me" and the "not-me," are reciprocally limiting. Reason apprehends these two simultaneous phenomena, attention and sensation, and leads us immediately to conceive the two sorts of distinct absolute, causes to which they are related. The notion of this limitation makes it impossible not to conceive a supreme cause, absolute and infinite, itself the first and last cause of all. This cause is self-sufficient, and is sufficient for the reason. This is God; he must be conceived under the notion of cause, related to humanity and the world. He is absolute substance only in so far as he is absolute cause; his essence lies precisely in his creative power. God thus creates out of necessity.

This doctrine gave rise to charges of pantheism, which Cousin countered by pointing out that he was not deifying the law of natural phenomena and that the necessity out of which God created was spontaneous and freely creative. His concept of the absolute was criticized by Schelling and by Sir W Hamilton in the Edinburgh Review of 1829.

History of philosophy

Eclecticism means the application of the psychological method to the history of philosophy. Confronting the various systems of sensualism, idealism, skepticism, and mysticism, with the facts of consciousness, resulted in the conclusion, "that each system expresses an order of phenomena and ideas, which is in truth very real, but which is not alone in consciousness, and which at the same time holds an almost exclusive place in the system; whence it follows that each system is not false but incomplete, and that in re-uniting all incomplete systems, we should have a complete philosophy, adequate to the totality of consciousness." Philosophy, thus perfected, would not be a mere aggregation of systems, but an integration of the truth in each system after the false or incomplete is discarded.


Victor Cousin had a tendency to be observational and generalizing rather than analytic and discriminating, to create an outline of his principles and then fill it in with imaginative details. He left no distinctive permanent principle of philosophy, but he left very interesting psychological analyses, and offered new views of philosophical systems, especially that of Locke and the philosophers of Scotland. His legacy was a doctrine of tolerance and comprehension, which through his charisma and personal authority, he was able to incorporate in the educational system of France, ensuring by law that neither the authority of the church or of a totalitarian state would be able to restrict the knowledge available to French students.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brewer, Walter Vance. Victor Cousin as a Comparative Educator. Teachers College Press, 1971.
  • Cousin, Victor. oeuvres de M. Victor Cousin: Instruction publique. Tome 1. Adamant Media Corporation, 2001. ISBN 978-1421230535.
  • Cousin, Victor. Du vrai, du beau et du bien. Adamant Media Corporation, 2001. ISBN 978-0543964489.
  • Cousin, Victor. Course of the History of Modern Philosophy. Translated by O.W. Wight. Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library, 2005. ISBN 978-1425548865.
  • Høffding, Harald. A History of Modern Philosophy, Volume II. Dover Publications, Inc., 1955.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

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