torstai 11. syyskuuta 2014

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac: Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (1746)

Enlightenment thinker Condillac (1714 - 1780)

If one wanted to name one philosopher as the strongest influence on works of abbé Condillac, it would clearly be John Locke, which is shown well by Condillac's first book, which investigates the origin of human knowledge. Almost all other modern philosophers are discarded, because they have based their philosophies on abstract principles, which Condillac considers to be a completely topsy-turvy method, because such principles are usually the most difficult topic to master properly. Condillac makes especially fun of Christian Wolff's metaphysics: Wolff defines e.g. existence as a complement of possibility, although this statement tells us almost nothing about existence or possibility, and indeed, fails to note that existence is actually the more fundamental notion.

It is then no wonder that Condillac instead wants to begin with what we experience. Experience provides us with ideas, which we then can use as building material for further ideas (e.g. we can abstract the idea of horseness from ideas of individual horses, or we could combine idea of a headless body of a horse and idea of human head to form the idea of centaur). It is by analyzing the genesis of our ideas that we make them clearer and gain a better understanding of what we actually know, while of abstract principles and concepts we usually have only a very murky idea. This is all very Lockean, as is the division of ideas into simple (certain shade of green) and complex (green apple).

What Condillac develops more than Locke is the psychological framework of different mental capacities required for turning perceptions into knowledge and complete science. What is truly remarkable is Condillac's attempt to reduce all mental phenomena into nothing more than sensation and attention. It is undoubtedly to be expected that according to an empiricist sensation would be the origin or basis of knowledge, but it truly appears radical to say that sensation is almost all there is to human mind. Thus, we sense things and we can choose some object as the focus of our sensation, but we can also focus our attention on the fact that what we now sense is something that we have sensed earlier – this is just what memory is about and therefore, Condillac concludes, memory is just another form of sensation.

Now, I find this reduction of all mental faculties into sensation deeply problematic, because there could be organisms that sense, but still fail to have e,g. memory. Such an organism could, for instance, note the presence of a certain chemical, detrimental to its condition, in its environment and then react with a movement taking its backwards, away from the source of that chemical. There's no need for any memory, just an unpleasant feeling and an automated reaction to that feeling. The existence of such an organism would be even evolutionarily reasonable, because this capacity would greatly enhance the survival of such an organism.

Indeed, a capacity for memory appears to require something else – some way to storage features of past sensations. Of course, this requirement of memory storage seems more imminent in a materialistically grounded theory of consciousness. Condillac, in yet another move away from Locke, commits himself to a non-materialistic theory of soul, and for reasons that strikingly remind one of Wolffian psychology: self-consciousness just cannot be explained through a complex substance. It is probably more reasonable to suppose that to such an immaterial soul it is just a matter of directing your attention to view some sensation as resembling past sensations.

Yet another area in which Condillac goes beyond Locke's philosophy is the role of language, which Condillac admits is almost a necessity for more abstract ideas and required, for instance, in advancing mathematics beyond simple calculations. Condillac even provides the reader with a hypothetical history of forms of language, starting from what Condillac calls a language of action, by which he apparently means a language using natural gestures and cries for communicating one's thoughts and emotions to others.

It might be that Condillac understood the importance of language from the example of ”wolf kids” who had grown up outside human communities and learned language only later in their life – at least this is a topic Condillac was quite interested of. It might also be an inspiration for Condillac's main work, in which he experiments with the idea of a person born without all the senses and upbringing of an average Frenchman – but this is a topic I'll return to later.