Victor Cousin, 1792 - 1867
Victor Cousin, a prolific French philosopher, championed a system he called Eclecticism and for a time held considerable influence in New England. Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson
and Amos Bronson Alcott
encountered Cousin's ideas mainly through English translations, which included Caleb Sprague Henry
's Elements of Psychology: Included in a Critical Examination of Locke's Essay on the Human Understanding
(1834) and George Ripley
's Philosophical Miscellanies
(1838), the first book in Ripley's Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature
series. The Transcendentalists enjoyed Cousin's rejection of Lockean materialism and sensationalism as well as his elegant manner of presenting contemporary German thought, which made the philosophies of Immanuel Kant
and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
, among others, more appealing and accessible. Although most Transcendentalists eventually lost enthusiasm in Cousin's Eclecticism due to its vagueness, mechanistic syncretism, and lack of original thought, Henry and Ripley went so far as to embrace eclecticism. Alcott, by 1838, had de-emphasized eclecticism in favor of "Idealism" and "Spiritualism."
The ideas of Locke were brought from London to Paris by Voltaire, who became acquainted with them during a residence in England, and found them effective in his warfare against the ecclesiastical institutions of his country. . . . The system found a more exact and methodical expounder in Condillac, who reduced it to greater simplicity by eliminating from it what in the original marred its unity, namely reflection, the bent of the mind back on itself, whereby it took cognizance of impressions made by the outer world. . . . The next steps were taken by disciples of the Scotch school--Royer-Collard, Victor Cousin and Theodore Jouffroy. The last translated Reid and Stewart from English into French; the two former lectured on them. The three, being masters of clear and persuasive speech, made their ideas popular in France. Cousin's lectures on the Scotch school, including Reid, were delivered in 1819. The lectures on Kant were given in 1820. Both courses were full and adequate. Cousin committed himself to neither, but freely criticised both, laying stress on the sceptical aspect of the transcendental system as expounded by Kant.
Cousin's own system was the once famous, now discarded eclecticism, under cover of which another phase of idealism was presented which found favor in America. The cardinal principle of eclecticism was that truth was contained in no system or group of systems, but in all together; that each had its portion and made its contribution; and that the true philosophy would be reached by a process of intellectual distillation by which the essential truth in each would be extracted. A method like this would have nothing to recommend it but its generosity, if there were no criterion by which truths could be tested, no philosophical principle, in short, to govern the selection of materials. Eclecticism must have a philosophy before proceeding to make one, must have arrived at its conclusion before entering on its process. And this it did. . . .
Cousin's "History of Philosophy," translated by H. G. Linberg, was published in 1832. The "Elements of Psychology," by C. S. Henry, appeared in 1834. Thus Cousin was early introduced and recommended, and his expositions of the German schools . . . had an important influence on New England thought.