Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean-Gaspard Félix Lacher (1813–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC061-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Félix Ravaisson was a French philosopher, born in Namur. Apart from his three main works – Rapport sur la philosophie en France au dix-neuvième siècle (Report on Philosophy in France in the Nineteenth Century) (1863), Métaphysique d’Aristote (Metaphysics of Aristotle) (1837, 1846) and De l’habitude (On Habit) (1838) – his ideas can mainly be found in articles, fragments and short passages, such as those collected in Testament philosophique (Philosophical Testament) (1901) or others that are still unpublished. None the less, Henri-Louis Bergson, who succeeded him at the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, according to custom gave a synthetic account of Ravaisson’s work, in his Notice sur la vie et les oeuvres de M. Félix Ravaisson-Mollien (Account of the Life and Works of Mr Félix Ravaisson-Mollien) (1934). Bergson insisted on the importance of artistic research in Ravaisson’s thought, and one can indeed explain his philosophy as beginning from a meditation on works of art and on beauty. The importance of this starting point can be seen in the privileged role he gives to synthesis in all explanation, for in an artistic masterpiece, it is the whole that allows for comprehension of the parts. Ravaisson gave this idea a metaphysical dimension.

In 1832 Ravaisson was awarded a prize by the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in a competition on the study of Aristotle’s metaphysics. The first volume of his Essai sur la métaphysique d’Aristote (On Aristotle’s Metaphysics) appeared in 1837, the second in 1846. In 1838 he defended his doctoral thesis, De l’habitude (On Habit). However, Ravaisson never became a professor of philosophy. In 1839 he was made Inspector of Libraries, and fifteen years later he became Inspector General of Higher Education. In 1852, the Minister of Public Education considered the issue of the teaching of drawing in schools. Ravaisson was chairman on the commission set up to report to the minister, while Delacroix and Ingres were among its members. In 1863, at the request of the government, Ravaisson wrote a Rapport sur la philosophie en France au dix-neuvième siècle (Report on Philosophy in France in the Nineteenth Century), which exercised an important influence on academic philosophy. In 1893 he put forward an overview of his philosophy in an article titled ‘Métaphysique et morale’ (Metaphysics and Morals), which appeared as the introduction to the philosophical journal of that name. A complete exposition of his doctrine appeared in the unpublished fragments put together after his death under the title Testament philosophique (Philosophical Testament) (1901).

Ravaisson’s most original work is De l’habitude, in which, according to Bergson, he broadly sets out a philosophy of nature. He refused to limit habit to its negative aspect, claiming, indeed, that it allows the mind to liberate itself more easily from nature. Nature, according to Ravaisson, is essentially spontaneity. Just as habit is voluntarily acquired, and spirit is thereby made nature, so freedom makes itself into necessity.

Ravaisson also developed a personal conception of the teaching of drawing. In his research on the Venus de Milo, he emphasized the spiritual significance of a pose that expresses love and peace. Finding the paradigm of all the stages of thought in aesthetic intuition, Ravaisson believed that the method goes back to Aristotle in his attempt to make teleological explanation the basis for all true understanding. Indeed, in his studies on the metaphysics of Aristotle, Ravaisson insisted on the fact that Aristotle saw philosophy as a bringing to completion of reality. According to Ravaisson, the essential claim in Aristotle’s philosophy is that attention must be focused on the individual, and not dispersed in the general. Philosophy must not stay in the abstract, which is why Aristotle finds the highest truth in the contemplation of works of art.

Rapport sur la philosophie en France au dix-neuvième siècle gives the most complete account of Ravaisson’s thought. Having distinguished the mechanical and organic modes of apprehension, he returns to the origin of things, and claims that God created the universe by a process of ‘condescension’ and love in a way that resembles the creation of art.

Ravaisson begins the Rapport by examining the ancient philosophers, and shows that Aristotle is the founder of metaphysics. After a rapid overview of pre-nineteenth-century thinkers, he summarizes the eclecticism of Victor Cousin (see Eclecticism §3) and insists on his debt to Schelling. His examination of Comte suggests that Comte passed from physical to moral positivism, and, from the same point of view, his study of Paul Janet’s works leads him to conclude that true materialism is impossible.

The Rapport ends with the examination of two works that seem best to express Ravaisson’s fundamental ideas: those of Anthelme-Edouard Chaignet and Jean-Charles Leveque on the theory of beauty. In commenting on them, he shows that beauty, charm and grace spring from souls that are capable of goodness and love. These qualities are the essential driving forces of the world, and as a result the realm of the aesthetic blends with that of philosophy. In short, while materialism finds its origins in the mathematical and physical sciences, living things reveal the spiritual, or rather the moral and aesthetic order, being dominated more by considerations of the order and harmony of the whole than by the detail of its parts; they are more concerned with form than with content. According to Ravaisson, this leaves two main routes for philosophy: analysis and synthesis. The perspective of synthesis is essentially that of art, which consists primarily of composition and construction, and thus also of science, when it is inventive. In other words, synthesis is the main method of philosophy. We judge the whole against the model of perfection which we carry in ourselves. Synthesis strives to explain everything through the absolute perfection that nothing limits; it strives by degrees towards the infinite. Similarly, in the order of wisdom, the wise man freely chooses the good. This also leads to a reconciliation of spirit and nature, which is one way of linking the classical belief that Eros was the first of all the gods with the Christian dictum, ‘God is love’.

Testament philosophique repeats the essential themes of the Rapport. Ravaisson once more shows the importance of the role of feeling in the search for truth and restates the claim that beauty can only be created where there is enthusiasm. He underlines the values of generosity and love as the proper foundation of education and social morality. In addition to these claims, Ravaisson adds one for a natural belief in immortality.

Citing this article:
Bonet, Pierrette. Ravaisson-Mollien, Jean-Gaspard Félix Lacher (1813–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC061-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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