Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The "System" as a Reading Technology: Pedagogy and Philosophical Criticism in Condillac's Traité Des Systêmes

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The "System" as a Reading Technology: Pedagogy and Philosophical Criticism in Condillac's Traité Des Systêmes

Article excerpt

"The taste for systems," d'Alembert famously proclaimed in his "Preliminary Discourse" to the Encyclopédie, "is today almost entirely banished from good works. One of our greatest philosophers seems to have dealt it a fatal blow."1 The philosopher in question was the abbé Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, whose 1749 Traité des systèmes Treatise on Systems) catapulted him to literary fame. Praised in over a half dozen journals and cited extensively in the Encyclopédie, the work won him admission into the Royal Academy of Sciences and Belles-Lettres in Berlin, an appointment as royal censor, and access to several of the most fashionable literary salons in Paris.2 In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, the abbé had succeeded in establishing himself as a leading authority on "systems."

Condillac owed this success to his timely intervention in a controversy that had been brewing for some years. The word système, which first entered into widespread French usage in the late seventeenth century, was used throughout this period to denote a variety of different things.3 In some contexts it stood for any orderly arrangement of a subject matter, ranging from classification schemes to Euclidean, deductive, "methodical," or pedagogical presentations of a body of knowledge. In other contexts, it could mean something more like an "explanation," and the word was particularly associated with a hypothetical style of reasoning prevalent in much early modern natural philosophy. Increasingly polemicized in the course of the 1730s and 1740s, especially by partisans of Newtonian physics, the term emerged in the years around 1750 as the focus of a major philosophical debate: one that was to leave a lasting mark on French learned and even political discourse throughout the rest of the century.

Not surprisingly, historians have written extensively about this controversy, many situating it at the heart of broader narratives about the French Enlightenment as a whole. Although individual interpretations vary, most commentators have tended at some level to view the episode as a reaction against the fundamental style and aims of seventeenth-century philosophy. The system builders were the rationalists or their eighteenth-century imitators, championing an a priori, deductive, mechanical, Cartesian, or metaphysical approach to philosophy, confident in their ability to penetrate to the first causes of all things, and eager to construct a total explanation of everything. Their opponents were a new breed of empiricists weaned on Newton and Locke, championing patient observation, a posteriori reasoning, and a wise skepticism about the limits of possible knowledge.4 Recent works have also added social and moral themes to this story: whereas the older philosophers had been dogmatic and asocial, their enlightened opponents championed a polite, sentimental, and conversational approach to philosophizing more conducive to the stability of the Republic of Letters.5

These kinds of interpretations effectively analyze the range of polemics articulated by the actors themselves. Yet I would like to suggest that a closer look at the practices of criticism involved in these disputes reveals a somewhat different story. I shall focus on the Traité des systèmes, a work that has often been seen to exemplify many of the themes sketched above.6 And understandably so: for it used the concept of the system to group together and refute all of the major seventeenth -century metaphysicians on epistemologica! grounds, arguing that they had founded their speculations on abstractions rather than the concrete evidence of their senses. Yet to read the work exclusively in this way, as a theoretical treatise on epistemology, is to neglect its central pedagogical program. For Condillac proposed not only to refute his predecessors, but also to teach his contemporaries how to evaluate philosophical arguments on their own, thereby transforming them into critical readers in their own right. …

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