Modern French Philosophy: A Study of the Development Since Comte Informative Summary.


This book provides a comprehensive analysis of French philosophical thought in the latter half of the 19th century. Gunn begins by setting the stage with the intellectual and social upheaval following the French Revolution. He outlines four main currents of thought – the introspectionism of Maine de Biran, the eclecticism of Cousin, the burgeoning socialist movement, and the rise of Comte’s positivism. These currents serve as the backdrop for the three major philosophical trends that emerged after 1851: a transformed positivism seen in Vacherot, Taine, and Renan; the neo-critical philosophy of Cournot and Renouvier; and the new spiritualism championed by Ravaisson, Lachelier, Fouillée, Guyau, Boutroux, Bergson, and Blondel.

The book then delves into specific themes, exploring the changing attitudes towards science, the crucial debate over freedom vs. determinism, and the evolving conceptions of progress. Gunn highlights the initial confidence in science as the ultimate guide to reality, which gradually gives way to a more nuanced understanding of its limits. The question of freedom becomes central, with Renouvier and the new spiritualists fiercely defending the autonomy of the individual against the deterministic pronouncements of science. Similarly, the unquestioning belief in inevitable progress is challenged, replaced by a recognition of its contingency and the responsibility of human action. The book concludes with a discussion of the changing landscape of religious thought in France, from the waning influence of the Roman Catholic Church to the emergence of a more personal and free “non-religion.”

Key Findings:

  • The period witnessed a dramatic shift from positivism and determinism towards spiritualism, idealism, and a belief in free will.
  • French thinkers grappled with the relationship between science and morality, seeking to reconcile the insights of science with the human experience of freedom.
  • The notion of progress, initially embraced as inevitable, was challenged and ultimately viewed as contingent upon human action.
  • A new, more humanist approach to ethics emerged, emphasizing social justice, solidarity, and the inherent worth of the individual.
  • The influence of the Roman Catholic Church declined, while the idea of a free, personalized “non-religion” gained ground.


  • The nature of French philosophy: Readers will gain insight into the distinct characteristics of French thought, marked by its clarity, concreteness, and engagement with both scientific and humanistic concerns.
  • The evolution of key philosophical concepts: The book traces the development of concepts like science, freedom, progress, and religion in the context of 19th-century France.
  • The importance of freedom and responsibility: The book emphasizes the central role of freedom in shaping both individual lives and the course of history, highlighting the ethical and practical implications of this concept.
  • The interplay of science, philosophy, and religion: Readers will learn how these three domains interacted and influenced each other, leading to a more nuanced understanding of each.
  • The emergence of a new spiritualism: The book explores the rise of a new form of spiritualism, distinct from the eclecticism of Cousin and grounded in a deeper engagement with science and psychology.

Historical Context:

The book is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in French history, marked by revolution, political upheaval, and rapid social change. The Second Empire, characterized by reaction and the suppression of liberal thought, had a profound impact on the intellectual landscape. The events of 1870, including the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, further shaped the philosophical discussions of the time. The eventual establishment of the Third Republic in 1871 brought renewed hope and a greater openness to new ideas.


  1. Maine de Biran emphasized the reality of conscious effort: He believed the self is primarily will and we have an immediate perception of effort, revealing our freedom.
  2. Cousin’s eclecticism sought a spiritual basis for philosophy: Reacting against 18th-century materialism, he combined elements from diverse sources to create a spiritualist philosophy.
  3. Saint-Simon envisioned a society organized around industry: He believed the industrial class should hold the ultimate power and society should be structured to benefit them.
  4. Comte’s positivism championed science as the ultimate guide: He believed science could bring order to both knowledge and society, leading to a “positive” era.
  5. Taine saw intelligence as a mechanism shaped by environment: He applied a deterministic framework to psychology, viewing human nature as a product of race, environment, and history.
  6. Renan questioned the absoluteness of knowledge: While valuing science, he ultimately embraced a skeptical outlook, highlighting the role of irony and doubt in philosophy.
  7. Cournot recognized the limits of scientific knowledge: He emphasized the importance of chance and probability, challenging the idea of a rigidly determined universe.
  8. Renouvier championed freedom and personal responsibility: He fiercely opposed determinism and defended the autonomy of the individual as the cornerstone of his philosophy.
  9. Ravaisson revived interest in Maine de Biran’s spiritualism: He laid the groundwork for the new spiritualism, emphasizing the creative activity of the spirit and the importance of intuition.
  10. Lachelier reconciled efficient and final causes: He argued that final causes, based on a concept of totality, are necessary for understanding the universe and justifying induction.
  11. Fouillée sought to reconcile science and idealism: He proposed the concept of “idées-forces,” arguing that ideas are forces that strive for realization in the world.
  12. Guyau emphasized the concept of “Life” in both ethics and religion: He saw Life as a force for expansion and sociability, forming the basis for a morality without obligation or sanction and a “non-religion” of the future.
  13. Boutroux challenged the deterministic view of science: He argued for the contingency of natural laws, upholding the possibility of freedom and creativity in the universe.
  14. Bergson emphasized the importance of “durée” (real time): He argued that our experience of time is not linear and spatial, but rather a continuous flow of becoming.
  15. Blondel championed a “philosophy of action”: He stressed the primacy of action over contemplation, arguing that we understand reality through our engagement with it.
  16. The social aspect of morality gained prominence: Comte’s influence led to a greater emphasis on the social dimensions of ethics, with concepts like solidarity and social justice coming to the fore.
  17. Renouvier saw justice as the criterion of progress: He believed true progress lies in the establishment of a just society that respects the inherent worth of all individuals.
  18. Guyau envisioned a “non-religion” free from dogma and authority: He predicted the decline of traditional religion and the emergence of a more personal and free form of spirituality.
  19. The “Modernist” movement sought to reconcile Catholicism with modern thought: This current within the Church attempted to reinterpret dogma in light of contemporary science and philosophy.
  20. French philosophy is characterized by clarity, concreteness, and vitality: It distinguishes itself from the more abstract and systematic approaches of German philosophy, remaining deeply engaged with both science and human experience.


  1. Positivism: A philosophical system that emphasizes empirical observation and scientific method as the sole sources of valid knowledge.
  2. Eclecticism: A philosophical approach that combines elements from various schools of thought.
  3. Socialism: A political and economic theory advocating for collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
  4. Determinism: The doctrine that all events, including human actions, are determined by preceding causes and there is no free will.
  5. Freedom: The capacity for self-determination, the ability to choose and act independently of external constraints.
  6. Progress: The idea of continual improvement in human society, knowledge, and morality.
  7. Idées-forces: Fouillée’s concept of ideas as forces that actively strive for realization in the world.
  8. Sociology: The scientific study of human society, its institutions, and its development.
  9. Justice: The moral principle of fairness, impartiality, and respect for the rights of individuals.
  10. Irreligion: As used by Guyau, the rejection of dogmatic religion and the embrace of a free and personal form of spirituality.


  1. The French Revolution: The text cites the Revolution as a pivotal event that shaped the intellectual landscape of 19th-century France, prompting both reactionary and progressive responses.
  2. The coup d’état of 1851: This event, which marked the beginning of the Second Empire, is presented as a turning point that instilled pessimism and disillusionment in thinkers like Vacherot, Taine, and Renan.
  3. The Dreyfus affair: This scandal, with its anti-Semitism and anti-clericalism, is highlighted as an example of the ongoing conflict between the Church and the Republic.
  4. The development of psychology: The text traces the emergence of scientific psychology, noting Taine’s influence on figures like Ribot and the Paris School.
  5. The conflict between efficient and final causes: Lachelier’s analysis of induction is presented as a key example of the philosophical debate about the nature of causality.
  6. The idea of freedom as an “idée-force”: Fouillée’s concept is illustrated through examples like the idea of movement being connected to actual physical movement.
  7. Guyau’s concept of “Life”: He uses examples like the evolution of reproduction to illustrate the expansion of life and the emergence of sociability.
  8. Boutroux’s metaphor of the ship: He compares the journey of a ship to a predetermined port with the development of beings in nature towards an ideal, allowing for contingency within a teleological framework.
  9. Renouvier’s “Uchronie”: This fictional history is presented as an example of how human choices could have shaped events differently, challenging the idea of a determined historical progression.
  10. The cult of Jeanne d’Arc: The text discusses the rise of this cult as an example of the Church’s attempt to align itself with French patriotism and strengthen its waning influence.


Modern French philosophy in the late 19th century witnessed a profound transformation, moving from positivism and determinism towards spiritualism, idealism, and a belief in free will. This shift significantly altered conceptions of science, progress, ethics, and religion. The emphasis on freedom and personal responsibility became central, leading to a more humanist and social approach to ethical and political thought. The decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence opened up space for a more personalized and free “non-religion,” reflecting the changing religious landscape of France. French philosophy, characterized by its clarity, concreteness, and vitality, stands as a testament to the enduring power of thought and the quest for a more just and harmonious world.

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