When I last time considered the philosophy of Maine de Biran, we saw him follow in the footsteps of a tradition of Condillac and Cabanis, when he tried to describe different capacities of human mind considering also the viewpoint of physiology.
In Essai sure le fondements de la psychologie, not published in his life time, Maine de Biran adds to this sensualist tradition of philosophy also considerations of the traditional Cartesian and Leibnizian metaphysics, and what is even more striking, of Kant, Fichte and Schelling. Maine de Biran groups all of these philosophers together as dealing with mere abstractions, instead of the concrete embodied mind, like in the Condillacian tradition – worst example in his eyes is Schelling's philosophy of identity, which tries to start from the notion of existence common to both physical nature and human mind. Yet, he is also quick to point out that the philosophers of abstraction have some interesting contributions to the discussion of the capacities of human mind.
One particular discovery of Kantians Maine de Biran mentions is the remark that Lockean ideas or sensations are not as simple as they appear to be, but consist of two components. One is the affection as such, the mere feeling or mood that we just passively receive in sensations (say, that something greenish in front of us). The other component is the appropriation of this feeling as belonging to me. It is just this act which turns mere feeling into a proper sensation, Maine de Biran says. Human sensation is for him, then, born of two different things. Even Descartes had an inkling of this duality in human experience, when he separated physical nature from human soul – still, Descartes made a mistake in substantialising these two different fields of experience.
But the true innovation in Maine be Biran's eyes is to be found in the Fichtean notion of I and its contrast to not-I. He is not satisfied with mere naming of these concepts, but also notes that the source of this separation lies in human striving and resistance of the environment against this striving. Because of these two elements, we regard some affections a belonging to our body – those we can change easily – while others we view as belonging to space outside us – those that we cannot change so easily. Again, this is a very Fichtean notion, although Maine de Biran tries to give this idea a more physiological twist by situating the striving in human brain.
The hierarchy of different capacities of human mind follows more or less closely Maine de Biran's work on habit, although here it is perhaps a bit clearer that the capacities are arranged according to the level of control the active side of human mind has over the passive side. Thus, perceptions differ from mere sensations, says Maine de Biran, because in perceiving we actively put our attention to some facets of what we sense. This capacity of attending is then basis for various other capacities like making comparisons and making generalisations based on similarities.
The highest state of human capacities for Maine de Biran is then the capacity of reflection. This involves, firstly, capacity of making deductions, which is for Maine de Biran essentially a capacity based on memory – the individual steps of deductions should be immediately convincing and memory just assures us that we have considered all the steps in the process (notice how psychological Maine de Biran's notion of deduction is – there's no consideration of cases where a machine would have made the necessary deductive moves, but we humans couldn't verify the truth of these moves, because the proof would be too long for humans to comprehend).
It is quite clear that such deductions alone cannot furnish any truths, unless some truth would have been given before deductions. Here Maine de Biran faces the very Kantian question of synthetic a priori judgements, and his answers are also quite similar as with the followers of Kant. Maine de Biran suggests that we have some basic experiences, which can be taken as such basis for deductions. For instance, we have a fundamental experience of some resistance, and even more, of resistance situated in space. Geometrical axioms are then mere abstractions from this original intuition.
In addition to mathematics, Maine de Biran accepts the existence of such fundamental experience in metaphysics or psychology. If mathematics is based on our primal experience of what is not me, metaphysics, on the other hand, is based on our primal experience of ourselves – we have the ability to recognise ourselves as existing, which Fichte expressed with the formula I = I. Maine de Biran is quick to point out that we cannot use this primal experience in Cartesian manner to deduce that we would be some sort of ”thinking substances” - following Kant's criticism of paralogisms, Maine de Biran suggests that this would involve confusing our experience of ourselves (thinking) with us as we are in ourselves. Indeed, we are not just thinkers, Maine de Biran says, but essentially also active doers, and we wouldn't know ourselves as ourselves without our active striving.
The main thing one can base on this primal experience of ourselves as active agents, according to Maine de Biran is what Kant would have called categories. We are unified agents and in a sense stable elements of our experience – through abstraction, we can then get such categories like unity or substance. What is especially important is Maine de Biran's idea that we draw the notion of causality from our own acting – we think other things as causes, because we first experience ourselves as active agents and then draw analogies from our own case. Similarly, the account of modalities is generated from our original experience that some things we can freely decide, while others are necessarily decided by other things.
Maine de Biran's work presents then an interesting take on Kantian philosophy. It would undoubtedly not satisfy purist, formalist Kantians, who want to keep Kant completely removed from psychological and anatomical considerations. From a more extensive perspective, Maine de Biran offers a refreshing take on a too familiar philosopher.