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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl: The Course of French Philosophy and the Primitive Mind November 17, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in 1857 in Paris.  In 1876, he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, specializing in philosophy.  Lévy-Bruhl taught at secondary schools until 1895.  Obtaining his doctorate in 1884, from 1886 onwards he lectured at Ecole Libre des Sciences, and from 1895 onwards, at Ecole Normale and the Sorbonne.  At the Sorbonne, in 1904, Lévy-Bruhl became professor of philosophy.  In 1917, Lévy-Bruhl became the editor of Revue Philosophique and in 1925 founded the Institut d’Ethnologie, together with Paul Rivet and Marcel Mauss.  In 1927, he retired from the Institute as well as the Sorbonne.  He was a visiting professor at Harvard from 1919 to 1920.  Levy-Bruhl died in Paris in 1939.

Lévy-Bruhl considered the history of French philosophy, from Descartes to the 1890s, to demonstrate specific features connected to the French national character and intellectual life.  For Lévy-Bruhl, it was of utmost significance that many French philosophers began their studies in either mathematics or the natural sciences.  Voltaire “became the herald of Newton” in France, while Condillac wrote on the language of the calculus.  “It seems allowable to infer,” Lévy-Bruhl concluded, “not that French philosophy was based upon mathematics, but that there has been in France a close affinity between the mathematical and the philosophical spirit” (History of modern philosophy in France, 470.)

Due to the legacy of Descartes as well as mathematics,  philosophers “took it for granted that among the various ways of representing reality, there is one which is adequate and recognizable on account of its clearness and sufficient evidence” (ibid.)  The connection of French philosophy to mathematics explained why French philosophers “have nearly always taken care to show that their doctrines were in perfect accord with common sense” and that method “was a mere application of the rules of common sense”  (474,475.)  

Consistent with Lévy-Bruhl’s coupling of French philosophy with the rational and the scientific was his privileging of the Cartesian tradition over that exemplified by de Maistre.  Lévy-Bruhl’s association of French philosophy with a particular kind of system and a particular kind of intellectual work forced him to gloss over some of the more extravagant features of the French socialists and Utopians, such as Saint-Simon and Fourier, as well as the more extreme ideologues of the French Revolution.  For Lévy-Bruhl, the history of “philosophy” was the steady growth of reason itself.  Any derivation from such a growth was explicable by either a falling away from tradition or to a concern for justice which obviated reason.  (more…)