Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and her Understanding of Empiricism

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and her Understanding of Empiricism

June 26, 2021 Off By Felso

Although Condillac (1715-1780) was one of the French Enlightenment thinkers, he was greatly influenced by Locke’s empiricist arguments and became a devoted follower of empiricism. It is therefore appropriate to consider Condillac in this unit in the context of followers of empiricism.

He was born in Grenoble, France. He first studied theology to become a priest. He left this school in 1740 and turned to philosophy. His first work is entitled Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge. With this he set about promoting Locke’s empiricism in France. In his second work, Essay on Systems, he defended Locke’s empiricism against Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz. He explained his empiricist philosophy in the Treatise on Sensations (1754) and drew great attention with this work. He also studied philosophy of mind, epistemology, language and politics.

First of all, Condillac states that Locke’s distinction between external experience-inner experience or sensation-reflection is unnecessary, since our minds produce thoughts and information. Although he initially thought in accord with Locke’s distinction, he declared in the Treatise on Senses that our knowledge is the sole source of all our ideas and concepts. This source was none other than sensations. In addition, Locke went on to express the main aims of his work to illuminate another point in his philosophy. Its primary purpose was to defend an external, material world, and how the impressions received automatically through the senses undergo changes in the mind, without referring to an unobservable spirit or innate ideas. Although the first purpose did not seem different from Locke, the second purpose introduced a new approach. This approach denied the claim that sensations or impressions were images created by material things outside of us. His aim was to try to prove the existence of a material world outside our mind, through sensations of purely mental nature.

In order to realize this dual purpose, Condillac begins by assuming a marble statue with a mind that is human-like in its inner structure but devoid of all ideas. To begin with, all his senses are off; then it will be possible to see the relations between the various sensations by opening them in order. The first sense organ it chooses to open is the sense of smell; because smell is a simple sensation that can eliminate the danger of the existence of what is thought as an image of an external object. So let’s first open the nose of the statue and let him smell a rose. In this case, the whole mentality of the sculpture will be a sense of smell, which we might later call the scent of a rose. As long as it perceives the scent of this rose, being aware of it means attention. In other words, the received sensation not only stimulates attention as soon as the smell is perceived, but also this sensation causes an emotional response, which we call like or dislike. For example, from the experience of being pleasant, accompanied by the smell itself, also arises the desire to judge or reason in the form of a “pleasant smell”. Thus, momentary desires give rise to longer-lasting passions. Since it will be possible to compare the old with the new by seeing the similarity of the old with the new, by taking new sensations, by remembering the old, memory, that is, the ability to remember, is also activated. Again, if a person picks up an unpleasant sense of smell and remembers a pleasant sensation from the past, this also engages the imagination because the old sensation is being revived. Comparing the old scents with the new will also engage the acts of making judgments or reasoning. Again, the same person can form particular and abstract thoughts: some smells are pleasant, some are unpleasant; If one develops the habit of separating thoughts of likes and dislikes from their various particular cases, one will have abstract thoughts. Likewise, he will be able to develop number thinking if he remembers many different sequential sensations.

The sum total of our desires and more enduring passions reveals the faculty we call the will. Likewise, the sum of our sensations, memories, judgments, and reasonings reveals the cognitive faculty. As it is seen, all mental acts arise in chains from a single sensation such as the scent of a rose. Especially the more sophisticated ones will follow the aforementioned ones, and it can be easily imagined how the human mentality can take on a complex structure after the sensations provided by the other senses come into play.

Condillac then moves on to examining the senses of hearing, taste, and sight. But the combination of these four senses is not yet sufficient to produce a judgment of externality. The statue still only sees itself. He is not even aware of his body yet. He is not yet conscious of the fact that all these mental changes have an external cause. However, after the sense of touch is activated, a judgment of externality will emerge in the sculpture. A child will run his hand along parts of his body