Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 28, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/cousin-victor-1792-1867/v-1
French philosopher, educationalist and historian, Victor Cousin is primarily associated with ‘Eclecticism’ and the history of philosophy, but his work also includes contributions to aesthetics, philosophy of history and political theory. He was a prolific writer and editor, and a significant figure in the development of philosophy as a professional discipline in France.
Victor Cousin was born in Paris, the son of an artisan. His education was funded by a wealthy sponsor, and culminated in the prix d’honneur and study at the École normale, where his formative influences included Laromiguière, Royer-Collard and Maine de Biran. His subsequent academic career at the École normale and the Sorbonne progressed rapidly, his lectures attracting large audiences and much publicity. In the early 1820s Cousin became a victim of the reaction against liberalism; his university lecturers were suspended and the École normale closed. Employed as a private tutor, Cousin worked on the history of philosophy and studied contemporary German idealism. On a visit to Prussia in 1824, French police reports and his association with members of the Carbonari led to his imprisonment. Hegel, with whom Cousin had established a relatively warm association, intervened on his behalf with the authorities, and he was subsequently released. Restored to his University post in 1828, Cousin’s lectures received great acclaim and, especially under the July Monarchy, public recognition followed on a grand scale. He became a member of the Académie Française and of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, a peer of France, Commander of the Légion d’Honneur, member of the Conseil Supérieur de l’Instruction Publique and, briefly, in Theirs’ second cabinet, minister for public instruction. From 1830, Cousin increasingly devoted his energies to administrative and educational affairs. Using his position as director of the École normale, he presided over the development of philosophy as a professional (and non-theological) discipline in France. Cousin also influenced the reform of French primary education, publishing reports on the school systems of Prussia, Saxony and Holland. Following the ‘tragic experience’ of 1848, he fell out of favour, and with the coup d’état of 2 December 1851, was increasingly removed from public life. His last years were spent quietly, surrounded by his books in rooms in the Sorbonne, writing a series of historical studies, mainly portraits of women notables of the seventeenth century. He died in Cannes.
Cousin was probably the best known exponent of Eclecticism, maintaining that schools of philosophical thought (which, for him, fell into four categories) all contained elements of the truth that, once recovered, could be reconciled (see Eclecticism). Sensationalism, idealism, scepticism and mysticism, he averred, were ‘not false but incomplete’. Cousin denied the charge of facile syncretism, insisting that Eclecticism was grounded in a tripartite model of human psychology revealed by observation and experiment, human nature being composed of the three distinct but complementary faculties of sensibility, will and reason. Various philosophical schools were chided for their neglect of one or more of these capacities; thus Cousin charged the epistemology of Condillac (and of his materialist successors) with mistakenly reducing human experience to the passive faculty of sensation.
For Cousin, the reason revealed by psychological introspection was universal and necessary, and by virtue of this impersonal character – and in a manner not always clear to his critics – it provided the conditions for both the existence of, and our knowledge of, humanity and nature. His apparent assertion of the immanentism of reason led to charges of pantheism or even Neoplatonism (see Pantheism; Neoplatonism). Clerical critics were scarcely reassured when Cousin insisted that, since the masses could not attain philosophical understanding, his system preserved a place for religion as a socially necessary and seemingly inferior (because symbolic) parallel of Eclectic metaphysics.
Art (like religion and philosophy) was a mode in which the infinite, or God, became apparent. It formed an independent sphere in which human nature provided the criteria by which to judge an ideal beauty. For Cousin, the aesthetic hierarchy that resulted was headed by imaginative poetry.
Cousin also discerned a ‘manifestation of God’ in the historical development of epochs and cultures. History followed a tripartite spiritual progression, as philosophical concerns turned from the infinite, to the finite, to the relation between the two. The resulting Oriental, Greek and Modern worlds were characterized successively by pantheism (and monarchy), polytheism (and democracy), and theism (and constitutionalism). Cousin described this philosophy of history as both speculative and empirical, although critics found it easier to discern evidence of the former than the latter quality. Furthermore, here as elsewhere in Cousin’s work, the distinction between his own opinions and his reproduction of certain themes in contemporary German philosophy is not always apparent.
In rejecting all exclusive doctrines, Eclecticism claimed to have a political parallel in the repudiation of political doctrines and practice based on faction. Cousin was a moderate liberal, committed to constitutional monarchy, the Charter and the interests of the ‘juste milieu’. He distinguished a sphere of enforceable individual rights to equal respect and private property, and a subordinate sphere of voluntary duties to protect and promote the wellbeing of others. Cousin attributed a positive role to the state, not least in the provision of moral and educational instruction.
Claiming to recover and reconcile the truth embedded in previous schools of thought, Eclecticism encouraged work in the history of philosophy. Cousin’s own efforts in this area were prodigious. His editorial labours included a six-volume edition of Proclus (1820–7); an eleven-volume edition of Descartes (1826); and single-volume editions of Abélard and Maine de Biran. Cousin was also responsible for a thirteen-volume translation of Plato (1822–40). His interpretative studies included works on Aristotle, Locke, the Scottish Enlightenment and Kant, together with an inflammatory contribution to l’affaire Pascal (an acrimonious dispute about editorial and interpretative standards in contemporary Pascal scholarship).
The contrast between Cousin’s intellectual hegemony in nineteenth-century France and the subsequent neglect of his work is striking. Although Cousin’s historical significance is undeniable, claims for the intrinsic philosophical interest of his work remain muted. Eclecticism strikes many as empty or flawed, while Cousin’s role as an interpreter and popularizer of post-Kantian German philosophy largely rests on the unsystematic, and often unacknowledged, incorporation of elements of Schelling and Hegel into his own work. Even Cousin’s endeavours in the history of philosophy, although not without interest, and unquestionably important in opening up French philosophy to new influences, frequently fall short of modern scholarly standards.
Leopold, David. Cousin, Victor (1792–1867), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC018-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/cousin-victor-1792-1867/v-1.
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