Issue #63 June 2023

Maine de Biran and the Dynamism of Habit. The History of French Vitalism

Hendrick Avercamp - "Ice Skating in a Village" - (ca.1610)

I would like to preface this paper with a quote by Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) that is in a direct relation to Biran’s philosophy. In On Life & Death, Bichat writes:

“[L]ife consists in the sum of the functions, by which death is resisted. The measure, then, of life, is the difference which exists between the effort of exterior power, and that of interior resistance”

This Bichatian line of thought, leads us to two fundamentally correlated questions which will be answered later in this paper. The two questions can be put in the following way: First, what is resistance and, second, what is effort?

Who was Maine de Biran and what do we know about his importance in the history of philosophy? We know from the several texts about his life and works, that Biran was the fountainhead of French Spiritualism. We also know that he didn’t publish much, and that he spent a large portion of his life in politics; and that he died young. Maine de Biran (1766-1824) devoted his life to the study of inner experience, or rather spiritual experience. What inspired Maine de Biran’s own philosophical problems? Or perhaps, a question for us all today: Why should we return to the philosophy of Maine de Biran? To answer these questions and much more the focus of this paper will be directed on a single inert power or force that foregrounds Biran’s philosophy. This power can properly be defined as Habit and involves a dynamic relationship with the Biranian concepts of: force, resistance, causation, reflection and the will. 

Understanding these aforementioned Biranian concepts will help us identify the self and grasp the vital concept of interior experience. For Biran, interior experience was both active and unique and played an important role in his philosophy, as it does in relation to the thought of French Spiritualism. As stated by Frederick Coplestone, French Spiritualism is grounded on the “[i]nsistence for the spontaneity of the human will and our reflection on human activity, as a key to understanding the nature of reality” (Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, p.1).

These questions of selfhood are correlated to Biran’s real project that he had attempted to solve but never completed. The Biranian project emerged as a concatenation of philosophy, medical science, and psychology. Biran’s main project was to create a science of man (science de l’homme).

Behind the concept of the science of man lies a more profound philosophy of life. This philosophy of life was meant to disclose both the relations and connections of experience with the concept of world and the phenomena of life. The investigation would end up focusing on our inner experience. According to Brian, the first fact of inner experience was related to consciousness and movement. Movement, motility, resistance, and bodily inhibition all played a part in defining the autonomy of the subject (cf. Trumen, Maine de Biran’s Philosophy of Will p.27).

Biran does not fit with our common philosophical understandings of what has been historically defined as empiricism or rationalism. In fact, Biran was skeptical of the overexaggerated uses, abuses, and abstract methods of metaphysics. He also disliked the dominant brute materialism of French positivism. It is not easy to explain where Biran fits in on this fragmented philosophical image of France. However, my own hypothesis is that Biran was inspired by the philosophy of life emulated by the French Vitalists of the school of Montpellier. This could also explain why he felt the need to open a medical school in Bergerac that matched the same methods from Montpellier. My intentions in this paper will be twofold.

1. I will explain at great length Biran’s distinct relationship with the French Vitalists, which has a direct relationship with his concept of the primitive fact; and

2. I will explain Biran’s concept of habit and how it relates to both passive and active life.

Biran’s philosophical thought is grounded in a complex vitality that leads us back to Bichat’s quote at the beginning of this paper “that the totality of life is grounded in the sheer resistance of death.” This resistance is diversified by the self’s exterior and interior experience. Biran’s idea of the self and inner experience will be shown to be grounded in the potency of the resistance of death.


Biran’s Relation to the French Vitalists & the Concept of the Primitive Fact

The school of Montpellier was not just a school devoted to French Medicine in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was, according to Elizabeth A. Williams, an intellectual tradition that came to be known by the name of ‘The Science of Man.’ The science of man was not just a social science it was a science of society (cf. Williams, The Physical and the Moral, p. 9). The science of society was, in its first stages, a medical science of humanity. It was devoted directly to many academic disciplines, anthropology, physiology, and philosophical medicine. Williams states that it is best known for a kind of hybrid anthropological medicine (cf. Williams, p.11). Even though vitalism has had a rather checkered past regarding the history of medicine and biology, its importance was how it had managed to legitimate the exercise and the study of the principles of life. Followers of the school searched for the causes that animated the human being.

The question that must be raised now is why would such a discourse be of interest to Biran? Initially the discourse of Montpellier vitalism devoted itself to a strict criticism of Cartesian dualism and attacked philosophies that separated mind and body or subordinated one to the other (cf. Williams, p.21). The vitalist camp had hoped to diversity its understanding of human phenomena. What interested Biran directly was how this school was concerned with the therapeutics of what animated the human being and that possibly such a rigorous study of the principles of life could also become a larger scientific enterprise for him.

The study of physiology was best suited for the vitalists because it was a study of the living functions. The method was grounded on two distinct living functions: the physical phenomena and the moral phenomena (or, in Biranian terms, the external stimulus and internal stimulus). Biran’s central focus was to complete an encyclopedic project of 3 unfinished works on anthropology, psychology, and an analysis on the immediacy of apperception. These unfinished works would later be synthesized into a greater work called the science of man.

The phrase ‘the science of man’ was used in a medical treatise by one of the Montpellier vitalists known as Paul-Joseph Barthez (1734-1806). Barthez set out to create a vitalist science that explored all aspects of the human body. His anthropological, and medical system was grounded on a holistic approach that was determined to reveal the dynamism behind the physical-moral relation (cf. Williams, p.23). It should be mentioned that Biran, following Barthez, had also searched to discover the depths behind the singularity of life. This concept of the singularity of life would be explained by the process or determination of striving (conatus); however, the problem with the theory was that both living and non-living matter were characterized by the same force called anima. Critics of the science of man would complain that by focusing on a single principle, the direction of the study would lead into a hyper-theologized understanding of the human and its world.

This debate then diverged into two distinct sects of the science: one grounding all life on one animating principle, and the other focusing on the brute mechanics of the muscles and the body. What was ignored, dismissed, and/or neglected in this debate was the core message of Montpellier which was directed at creating a doctrine of life.

The vitalist Theophile de Bordeu (1722-1776) side-stepped this debate with the spiritualists and the mechanists by redirecting vitalist science back to its origin, by examining what makes the human alive. Bordeu’s theory developed into a philosophy and his essential claim was rather close to Biran’s original, philosophical maxim — “to live is to feel.” Bordeu explained that the phenomenon of life was engaged in a direct process of feeling. According to Bordeu, to feel meant to get acquainted with the world around us and with the forces that move us. However, the faculty of feeling was somehow connected or controlled by what Bordeu called “a principle of principles,” which was some unknown force that propelled the human forward in both motion and action. Bordeu’s theory was more satisfying to medical practitioners than Barthez’s vitalism, yet his philosophy still lacked a comprehensive analysis of sensation. What was really missing from this picture was human experience and a detailed understanding of how these forces  played a part in human experience. The overall mission that Bordeu had set out for himself was to figure out what the principle was that organized all of life. In a sense, Bordeu lacked concrete evidence as to what animated the singularity of man. There was nevertheless one beneficial outcome that was spawned from Bordeu’s quest for the vital principle. It led to Louis de Lacaze’s (1789-1869) intricate analysis that proposed that humanity’s fundamental property was solidified in both movement and sentiment.

According to Lacaze, both movement and sentiment formed a union that was responsible for the basic maintenance of life. This focus on movement would play an important role in distinguishing the two vitalist faculties of feeling and movement. Lacaze concluded that an electrical fluid was the cause of the physical principle behind movement.

It was Xavier Bichat who tried to understand the human as the construction of a reciprocal physical-moral influence, and its crucial concept was habit. Habits served to develop the talents and faculties of the body and determined “an empire of passions” (Williams, p.45.). Bichat’s vitalist study focused on both muscular movement and the habits of well-ordered life.

Bichat did not imply a concept of the thinking soul. Rather, he maintained a tripartite system molded on the sensory motor schema that involved the concepts of effort, rationality, and interior resistance. Like many of the other vitalist theorists, Bichat maintained that the center of the human was facilitated by a vital force. However, this vital force was not a spiritualized principle. Nor was it an unknown factor. Bichat explains that such a force was regulated by excitability or inner energetics that were coextensive in all the behaviors of the living being. Bichat noted that if we are to understand the principle of life, a new phenomenon must be studied which he called the habitual alternation of action and reaction. Action and reaction occurred between an exterior body and the living body. This relationship involved an understanding of the dynamic tension between the effort of exterior power and the human beings’ interior resistance, and it leads us to a question that Biran would also ask: How could we understand this connection between the forces of effort and resistance? Bichat responds to the question by saying that habit is formed as a necessary response to the connection between effort and resistance, or between cause and effect.

Hendrick Avercamp - "Winter Landscape With Skaters" - (1608)

Before we turn directly to Biran’s philosophy, it is important for us to briefly look at vitalism’s evolution into the school of thought known as Ideology. A critical break occurred in the doctrine of vitalism, and that break was referred to as sensationalism. Those who practiced medicine searched for a new critical method to evaluate the philosophical medicine of the time. Their critical element was deep-rooted in the philosophy of Etienne Bonnet de Condillac (1714-1780). What Condillac’s philosophy offered, as an extension of Bichat’s theory of habit, was a doctrine devoted to impressions and a language that could explicate those distinct impressions as signs. His analytic method impressed the doctors of Montpellier, but it was the so-called Paris theorists who were completely at odds with sensationalist philosophy. It wasn’t only the doctors of Paris that offered criticisms of the new sensationalist doctrine. Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) and Pierre Georges Cabanis (1757-1808) also rejected the school of sensationalism. For Cabanis the crux of life was grounded on the absolute moment of existence.

Moreover, both Cabanis and de Tracy argued that sensibility is a general fact of a living nature and this notion of sensibility arrived directly through vital phenomena. Sensibility was the source of all human activity. And yet Cabanis, like the vitalists before him who searched for the principle of life, also maintained that in human beings, there was a special seat of sensibility that allowed access to all our experience. This knowledge of our experience involved a study of the science of man, which would be properly grounded in physiology, in instinct, and involved a thorough analysis of ideas. While Cabanis focused on the intellectual forces, Destutt de Tracy looked to the senses and to a sweeping theory of materialism. The very young Biran was welcomed into the company of both Cabanis and de Tracy. However, Biran was already suspicious of a theory of experience solely grounded on brute materialism (cf. Kennedy, p.121). As Emmet Kennedy suggest, there is no doubt that Maine de Biran’s text on habit was inspired by Cabanis’ physiology and Destutt de Tracy’s theory of motility. However, Biran’s own investigation led him to a deeper understanding of motility that distinguished the forces behind active and passive experience. The active self, according to Biran, was associated with movement, whereas de Tracy saw all the faculties as both active and passive. Biran thought this position would confuse the meaning behind the true experience of the self or the true activity of selfhood. De Tracy also grounded the understanding on language, and Biran objected that linguistic postulates were not key identifiers into understanding personal experience. Biran noted that, if personal experience was to be properly analyzed, each modification would have to represent a specific sign that gave a detailed analysis of an experience.

This was Biran’s point about de Tracy’s failure to understand personal experience. If a person is merely limited to the brute necessity of sensation, then any person could not have any knowledge of signs, ideas, or memory. Biran might have been influenced by the ideologists, Cabanis and de Tracey, but when it comes to identifying a theory of habit and of personal experience, Biran is on the same page as Bichat. Biran felt that the ideologist philosophy had missed something deeper in human experience. This missing factor is what sets apart his text on habit from the rest of the ideologists, for it is in this work that Biran creates the distinct concept of the primitive fact. For Biran, it is the notion of the primitive fact that connects the association of memory and ideas with the signs of active experience. It is this primitive fact that I feel is directly linked to the vitalist tradition and to the vital principle, but more importantly, that each experience is dynamic on its own. Biran states:

“[W]e call the unique force in question, soul, arche, enormon, or vital principle especially insofar as it is distinct in the self, the only thing that must be considered in the characteristic of the system in question is the unity of class, and by the phenomenon of life and thought that is given to the intimate sense. Without such a principle the subject would remain foreign to itself as the non-self” (Biran, p 65).

Although this quote does not clarify Biran’s own vitalism, it does lead us to believe that he is certainly implying that there must be a principle behind the knowledge of experience that synthesizes this intimate sense. As Pierre Montebello states, the primitive fact is given to us because it is our first knowledge, and it is a fact because it is also our self-consciousness, which is grounded in our own given awareness. Thus, the primitive fact remains first in the order of knowledge. Biran’s philosophy does not begin by an absolute principle. It begins with a fact. This fact is consciousness, which expresses the exercise of the same individual force over the same resistant body. Montebello further explains that the primitive fact is behind four factors of knowledge, the first being consciousness, the second being our intimate sense, the third being our reflection and the fourth being the will.


Biran’s Concept of Habit

If I am correct in my judgement, we will be able to see a clear connection with Bichat’s declaration that life is the totality of those functions which resist death. Biran believed that there were complex and intimate relations between the affective and the active life (cf. F.C.T. Moore p.112). Affective experience provided the necessary materials of conscious life and is the heart of conditioning the subject. It is rather fitting that Biran starts off his work on habit with a quote from Charles Bonnet (1720-1793), which states: “What are all the operations of the soul, if not movements and repetitions of movement” (Biran, p.47). This quote expresses a direct concern for Biran, for in order to understand the depths behind habit, one must first study all the actions of the subject, as they express the totality of the living being. Biran’s study is concerned with a direct examination of the inner self. The starting point of inner experience is predicated on what Biran calls self-knowledge. If Biran is correct, the discourse of habit will give those practitioners of the science of man immediate access to how the living body is modified in its daily routines. Biranian philosophy begins with the simple notion of receiving impressions. This faculty pertains to all phenomena that are both intuited and perceived.

For Biran, one of the first problems that both physiology and sensationalism posed was the sheer confusion between the concepts of feeling and consciousness. According to Biran, feeling must always be appropriated with passive modifications. Thus, the error of the past sciences was their continued correlation and synthesis of consciousness and feeling. This seemed troubling for Biran because for him, there were different kinds of impressions, one active and the other passive. Passive impressions referred to modifications of pain, feelings of uneasiness, pungent odors and the feeling of hotness and coldness. Biran’s point about passive impressions was that they do in fact modify the body, but these impressions exercise no power over the subject, since there is no way that the subject can interrupt or change the way they feel. Biran states that passive impressions occur in us without any agency. Thus, what grounds the idea behind active impressions is the feature of motor activity. Biran states:  “It is I who create my own active modifications, I can begin it, suspend it, and vary it in every way. The consciousness I have of my own activity is as evident to me as the modification itself” (Biran p.57). What movement adds to the human being is an awareness that they can be present and influence their surroundings. Thus, each action, and each movement is a vital expression of existence. Biran explains: “When I move, my being is extended outward but always present to itself, it recovers itself, and apprehends itself” (Biran, p.53).

Biran further explains that activity creates a duplicity of being. Active habits are doubled because they affect the subject twofold. The first is the action, and second the act that determines it. Biran explains this process by stating: “It is I who move, or who wish to move, and it is also I who am moved. These two terms of the relation are necessary for the foundation of the judgement of personality ‘I am’ (Biran p.53). This ‘I am’ is channeled through the power of a willed action and animated in the expression of movement. The concept behind movement is a point Bichat brought up earlier, that an active individual perceives the part they play in life. Movement is not only the active faculty, but in a sense, it grounds the full feature of perception and habits. As Pierre Montebello suggests, “[t]he major test from which one can make the division between passivity and activity is founded upon the process of movement which activates the vital principle and its relation to the will” (Pierre Montebello, Le vocabulaire de Maine de Biran p.25). What Montebello is suggesting, is that conscious movement involves both an awareness of the act and the effort produced in the subject which animates its movement. Effort, explains Biran, “is composed of a thwarted movement” (Biran, p.58). It is resistance and those obstacles in the world, which energize the potency of effort and give meaning to voluntary activity. Without a concept of resistance, without a will to move, or an effort to act, there would be no knowledge at all. Biran is explicit here: Movement, effort and resistance are primordial facets in understanding our existence. It is the method of habit that allows access to understanding all dynamic connections: “Nothing, indeed is closer to the soul than the particular intimate sense that stems directly from the dynamics of life” (Biran, p.57). The real influence on the faculty of thinking is this active process that is encountered in the philosophy of habit, whereby movement, effort, and resistance reveal the primordial layers of habit. Biran’s real motivation behind the text is to disclose the power of the self, its conscious will as a force; and the dynamics of habit that create a life. A life, which moves, feels, and resists.

Christopher Satoor is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in the Department of Humanities at York University. He is also currently a Sessional Instructional Assistant at the University of Toronto. Christopher’s main research centers around 18th and 19th-century German idealism and German Romanticism (Kant, Herder, Maimon, Reinhold, Fichte, Hölderlin, and Novalis), with a special concentration on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. His writings can be found in the Deleuze Studies Journal from Edinburgh University Press, Environment Space and Place (University of Minnesota), and Epoché Magazine. Christopher has a forthcoming publication with Bloombury in 2024. He creates philosophical content on YouTube which can be found here.  He has also recently co-founded, and is president of, The Idealist Society of North America.

Works Cited

Bichat, Xavier. Physiological Researches on Life and Death. Trans. F. Gold, University Publications of America, Boston, 1827. Pg.1-57.

Biran, Maine de. The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking. Trans Margaret Donaldson Boehm. Greenwood Press, Publishers, Connecticut, 1929. Pg. 47-187.

Biran, Maine de. The Relationship Between the Physical and the Moral in Man. Ed. Darian Meacham, Trans. Joseph Spadola, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2016. Pg. 43-137.

Coplestone, Frederick, SJ. A History of Philosophy Volume IX: Modern Philosophy: From the French Revolution to Sartre, Camus and Levi-Strauss. The Ideologists & Maine de Biran. Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. New York, 1977. Pg. 19-177.

Gouhier, Henri. Maine De Biran: Par Lui-meme. Editions Du Seuil. Paris, 1970. Pg.15- 133.

Kennedy, Emmet. A Philosophes in the Age of Revolution: Destutt De Tracy and the Origins of Ideology. George Washington University, Philadelphia, 1978. Pg. 112-128

Moore, F.C.T. The Psychology of Maine de Biran. Oxford, Clarendon Press, London, 1970. Pg. 49-140.

Montebello, Pierre. La Vocabulaire de Maine De Biran. Ellipses Edition, Paris, 2000. Pg 5-59.

Truman. E. Nathan. Maine de Biran’s Philosophy of Will. The Macmillan Company, London, 1904. Pg. 23-67.

Williams, A. Elizabeth. The Physical and the Moral: Anthropology, Physiology, and Philosophical Medicine in France, 1750-1850. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1994. Pg. 5-151.


June 2023


Maine de Biran and the Dynamism of Habit. The History of French Vitalism

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