Item of the Day: Condorcet’s Human Mind (1796)

Full Title:

Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind: Being a Posthumous Work of The Late M. De Condorcet. Translated from the French.

Written by the Marquis de Condorcet. Printed in Dublin for John Chambers, No. 5, Abbey-Street, 1796.

From the Introduction:

MAN is born with the faculty of receiving sensations. In those which he receives, he is capable of perceiving and of distinguising the simple sensations of which they are composed. He can retain, recognise, combine them. He can preserve or recal them to his memory; he can compare their different combinations; he can ascertain what they possess in common, and what characterises each; lastly, he can affix them, and the more easily to form from them new combinations.

This faculty is developed in him by the action of external objects, that is, by the presence of certain complex sensations, the constancy of which, whether in their identical whole, or in the laws of their change, is independent of himself. It is also exercised by communication with other similarly organised individuals, and by all the artificial means which, from the first developement of this faculty, men have succeeded in inventing.

Sensations are accompanied with pleasure or pain, and man has the further faculty of converting these momentary impressions into durable sentiments of a corresponding nature and of experiencing these sentiments either at the sight or recollection of the pleasure or pain of beings sensitive like himself. And from this faculty, united with that of forming and combining ideas, arise, between him and his fellow-creatures, the ties of interest and duty, to which nature has affixed the most exquisite portion of our felicity, and the most poignant of our sufferings.

Were we to confine our observations to an enquiry into the general facts and unvarying laws which the developement of these faculties presents to us, in what is common to the different individuals of the human species, our enquiry would bear the name of metaphysics.

But if we consider this developement in its results, relative to the mass of individuals coexisting at the same time on a given space, and follow it from generation to generation, it then exhibits a picture of the progress of human intellect. This progress is subject to the same general laws, observable in the individual developement of our faculties; being the result of that very developement considered at once in a great number of individuals united in society. But the result which every instant presents, depends upon that of the preceding instants, and has an influence on the instants which follow.

This picture, therefore, is historical; since, subjected as it will be to perpetual variations, it is formed by the successive observation of human societies at the different eras through which they have passed. It will accordingly exhibit the order in which the changes have taken place; explain the influence of every past period upon that which follows it, and thus show, by the modifications which the human species has experienced, in its incessant renovation through the immensity of ages, the course which it has pursued, and the steps which it has advanced towards knowledge and happiness. From these observations on what man has heretofore been, and what he is at present, we shall be led to the means of securing and of accelerating the still further progress, of which, from his nature, we may indulge the hope.

Such is the object of the work I have undertaken; the result of which will be to show, from reasoning and from facts, that no bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; that the progress of this perfectibility, henceforth above the control of every power that would impede it, has no other limit than the duration of the globeupon which nature has placed us. The course of this progress may doubtless be more of less rapid, but it can never be retrograde; at least while the earth retains its situation in the system of the universe, and the laws of this system shall neither effect upon the globe a general overthrow, nor introduce such changes as would no longer permit the human race to preserve and exercise therein the same faculties, and find the same resources.

The first state of civilization observable in the human species, is that of a society of men, few in number, subsisting by means of hunting and fishing, unacquainted with every art but the imperfect one of fabricating in an uncouth manner their arms and some household utensils, and of constructing or digging for themselves an habitation; yet already in possession of a language for the communication of their wants, and a small number of moral ideas, from which are deduced their common rules of conduct, living in families, conforming themselves to general customs that serve instead of laws, and having even a rude form of government.

In this state it is apparent that the uncertainty and difficulty of procuring subsistance and the unavoidable alternative of extreme fatigue or an absolute repose, leave not to man the leisure in which, by resigning himself to meditation, he might enrich his mind with new combinations. The means of satisfying his wants are even too dependent upon chance and the seasons, usefully to excite an industry, the progressive improvement of which might be transmitted to his progeny; and accordingly the attention of each is confined to the improvement of his individual skill an address.

For this reason, the progress of the human species must in this stage have been extremely slow; it could make no advance but at distant intervals, and when favoured by extraordinary circumstances. Meanwhile, to the subsistance dreived from hunting and fishing, or from the fruits which the earth spontaneously offered, succeeds the sustenance afforded by the animals which man has tamed, and which he knows how to preserve and multiply. To these means is afterwards added an imperfect agriculture; he is no longer content with the fruit or the plants which chance throws in his way; he learns to form a stock of them, to collect them around him, to sow or to plant them, to favour their reproduction by the labour of culture.

Property, which, in the first state, was confined to his household utensils, his arms, his nets, and the animals he killed, is now extended to his flock, and next to the land which he has cleared and cultivated. Upon the death of its head, this property naturally devolves to the family. Some individuals possess a superfluity capable of being preserved. If it be absolute, it gives rise to new wants. If confined to a single article, which the proprietor feels the want of other articles, this want suggests the idea of exchange. Hence moral relations multiply, and become complicate. A greater security, a more certain and more constant leisure, afford time for meditation, or at least for a continued series of observations. The custom is introduced, as to some individuals, of giving a part of their superfluity in exchange for labour, by which they might be exempt from labour themselves. There accordingly exists a class of men whose time is not engrossed by corporeal exertions, and whose desires extend beyond their simple wants. Industry awakes; the arts already known, expand and improve; the facts which chance presents to the observation of the most attentive and best cultivated minds, bring to light new arts; as the means of living become less dangerous and elss precarious, population increases; agriculture, which can provide for a greater number of individuals upon the same space of ground, supplies the place of the other sources of subsistance; it favours the multiplication of the species, by which it is favoured in its turn; in a society become sedentary, more connected, more intimate, ideas that have been acquired communicate themselves more quickly, and are perpetuated with more certainty. And now the dawn of the sciences begins to appear; man exhibits an appearance distinct from the other classes of animals, and is no longer like them confined to an improvement purely individual.

The more extensive, more numerous and more complicated relations which men now form with each other, cause them to fell the necessity of having a mode of communicating their ideas to the absent, of preserving the remembrance of a fact with more precision than by oral tradition, of fixing the conditions of an agreement more securely than by the memory of witnesses, of stating, in a way less liable to change, those respected customs to which the members of any society agree to submit their conduct.

Accordingly the want of writing is felt, and the art invented. It appears at first to have been an absolute painting, to which succeeded a conventional painting, preserving such traits only as were characteristic of the objects. Afterwards, by a kind of metaphor analogous to that which was already introduced into their language, the image of a physical object became expressive of moral ideas. The origin of those signs, like the origin of words, were liable in time to be forgotten; and writing became the art of affixing signs of convention to every idea, every word, and of consequence to every combination of ideas and words.

There was now a language that was spoken, which it was necessary equally to learn, between which there must be establised a reciprocal correspondence.

Some men of genius, the eternal benefactors of the human race, but whose names and even country are for ever buried in oblivion, observed that all the words of a language were only the combinations of a very limited number of primitive articulations; but that this number, small as it was, was sufficient to form a quantity almost infinite of different combinations. Hence they conceived the idea of representing by visible signs, not the ideas or the words that answered to them, but those simple elements of which the words are composed.

Alphabetical writing was then introduced. A small number of signs served to express every thing in this mode, as a small number of sounds sufficed to express every thing orally. The language written and the language spoken were the same; all that was necessary was to be able to know, and to form, the few given signs; and this last step secured for ever the progress of the human race.

It would perhaps be desirable at the present day, to insitute a written language, which, devoted to the sole use of the sciences, expressing only such combinations of simple ideas as are found to be exactly the same in every mind, employed only upon reasonings of logical strictness, upon operations of the mind precise and determinate, might be understood by men of every country, and be translated into all their idioms, without being, like those idioms, liable to corruption, by passing into common use.

Then, singular as it may appear, this kind of writing, the preservation of which would only have served to prolong ignorance, would become, in the hands of philosophy, an useful instrument for the speedy propagation of knowledge, and advancement of the sciences.

It is between this degree of civilization and that in which we still find the savage tribes, that we must place every people whose history has been handed down to us, and who, sometimes making new advancements, sometimes plinging themselves again into ignorance, sometimes floating between the two alternatives or stopping at a certain limit, sometimes totally disappearing from the earth under the sword of conquerors, mixing with those conquerors, or living in slavery; lastly, sometimes receiving knowledge from a more enlightened people, to transmit it to other nations, form an unbroken chain of connection between the earliest periods of history and the age in which we live, between the first people known to us, and the present nations of Europe.

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Filed under 1790's, Medicine, Natural Science, Philosophy, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

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