Although not one of the big-name philosophes, L’Abbé Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780) has a claim to the title of the most significant philosopher of the French Enlightenment. Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines [Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge] (1746) naturalized Locke’s epistemological sensualism in France shorn of its moral and political baggage. The principle that “nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses” stands at the head of Hobbes’Leviathan, and Locke had worked out its consequences for the genesis of our ideas. Condillac’s most fundamental difference from Locke was his refusal to grant the human intellect an autonomous power of “reason” independent of the sense data it accumulated.  In Condillac’s model of the human mind, it is not enough to postulate that our senses provide us with the raw material of our knowledge, memory, and imagination; they must also provide the material for signs. Our “ideas” for Condillac are not, as in Locke, independent of the linguistic signs with which they come to be associated.  Condillac anticipates contemporary neurocognitive research in his contention that thought without language, such as animals are capable of achieving, is effective only in its immediate context and leads to no long-term acquisition of knowledge. This reliance on the sign as, one can almost say, a neuronal focus for thought, is also a major step in the direction of originary thinking. Following the logic of this position, Condillac was the first thinker to go beyond generalities about the sensation-based language of the “first men” to construct a minimal scenario of the origin of language.

In Chronicle 176, I suggested that the Enlightenment may be defined in anthropological terms by its atomistic model of human relations. Hobbes’ and even Rousseau’s “state of nature” consists of isolated individuals–males with unmentioned families in Hobbes, both sexes including “single mothers” in Rousseau–whose only human relations beyond the immediate family are with strangers. The mimetic conflict within the minimal social group that the originary hypothesis makes the motivation for human language is excluded from the Enlightenment model. Hobbes, who understood the primarily communicative function of language, could not theorize it as the originary manifestation of human transcendence–whence the unarticulated textual conjunction I described in Chronicle 176 between the author’s description of our “infinite” appeal to the name-of-God and his reliance on the Genesis creation-story as the source of human language. In Locke, the human cognitive apparatus of ideas and signs is detached from human interaction altogether; the human individual is constituted as an idea-maker and language-user independently of any encounters with his fellows.

Condillac’s scenario too takes Genesis into account but, unlike Hobbes, Condillac conceives linguistic transcendence as reemerging after the Fall in a strictly earthly context. His scene is widely alluded to but goes largely unread and misinterpreted.  above all, the generative intent of the scene is ignored. Although nearly any educated French person will express familiarity with Condillac’s scenario of “two children on an island,” few recall that the two children are explicitly designated as of opposite sexes, and that somewhat later in the discussion they themselves have a child.

Condillac is a disciple of Locke; the statue of Le traité des sensations (1754) that acquires its ideas along with its senses is an illustration of Locke’s tabula rasa (“Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? . . . To this I answer, in one word, from experience. . . . Our observation employed either about external, sensible objects or about the internal operations of our mind. . .” Essay Concerning Human Understanding II, 1, 2) Both men consider (with Hobbes) the senses to be the sole origin of our ideas. But the experiential context of the sensations and, consequently, the ideas privileged by Condillac is very different context from that found in Locke, a difference summed up in the word that makes Condillac’s title something other than a translation of his model’s: the word origin. Locke is interested in how the senses write upon the paper of the mind; his concern is with the source of a given idea in our sensations. Condillac, in contrast, sees the biological individual as an “originary” being and seeks to trace the origin and progress of his knowledge. The contrast is visible in their respective descriptions of our first ideas:

First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several perceptions of things, according to those various ways, wherein those objects do affect them. And thus we come by those ideas we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet . . . (Essay II, 1, 3)Let us consider a man at the first moment of his existence; his mind/soul feels at first different sensations such as light, colors, pain, pleasure, motion, rest: these are his first thoughts. (Essai I, 1, 3)

Locke’s conception of sensation is passive and unmotivated. His list of ideas is an arbitrary sampling of the senses, from sight through taste; sound and smell are excluded, the former no doubt because of the possible confusion with the sounds of speech, the latter because there are no simple terms to describe its “perceptions.”  In Condillac, on the contrary, “sensation” is understood not as mere perception but as impingement on a living, appetitive being. Although he was no doubt inspired by Locke to begin with sight, he is concerned not with specific ideas (yellow, white) but with what affects the organism and provides it with its “first thoughts.” Similarly, where Locke’s considerations on language emphasize the cognitive separation of individual speakers whose uses of the same word reflect the different “ideas” of each, Condillac’s originary hypothesis of language is founded on the speakers’ intent to communicate vital needs.


Let us turn to Condillac’s originary scene. I have used and occasionally modified the only available English translation, that of Thomas Nugent, published in 1756(!) and reprinted in the 1970s.

[Part II, sec. 1] In Adam and Eve, the habit of intellectual operations was not the effect of experience; for immediately after their creation they were rendered capable, by the extraordinary assistance of the Deity, of reflecting and of communicating their thoughts to each other. But suppose that some time after the deluge two children, one male, and the other female, wandered about in the deserts, before they understood the use of any sign. I am authorized to make this supposition by the fact above related. And who knows but some nation or other owes its origin to an event of this kind? Let me then be permitted to make the supposition, and the question* will be to know, in what manner this nation first invented language.

* “In judging only from the nature of things,” (says Dr. Warburton, Divine legation, Vol. II. p. 81) “and without the surer aid of revelation, one should be apt to embrace the opinion of Diodorus Siculus (lib. ii.) and Vitruvius (lib. ii. cap. 1.) that the first men lived for some time in woods and caves, after the manner of beasts, uttering only confused and indistinct sounds, till, associating for mutual assistance, they came, by degrees, to use such as were articulate, for the arbitrary signs or marks, mutually agreed on, of those ideas in the mind of the speaker which he wanted to communicate to others. . . .[T]hough, continues Dr. Warburton a little lower, it appears that God taught man language, yet we cannot reasonably suppose it any other than what served his present needs, he being now of himself able to improve and enlarge it: consequently the first language must have been sterile and narrow.” All this appears to me very judicious. My motive for supposing two children under the necessity of inventing even the first signs of language is because I did not think it sufficient for a philosopher to say a thing was effected by extraordinary means but judged it to be incumbent upon him to explain how it could have happened by natural means.

It would be wrong to interpret Condillac’s opening sentence as a mere sop to the Church. Leaving to God the responsibility of the Creation avoids the problem of anthropogenesis that would become accessible to scientific thought only with the emergence of theories of evolution in the next century. No doubt the children’s status as full-fledged humans precludes the construction of a model of hominization as the acquisition of language. But the preexistence of the Genesis story gives Condillac’s model the advantage over the “natural” pagan one cited by Warburton in the note of avoiding the trappings of “woods and caves” that serve as mere alibis of prehumanity. By reducing the opposition between isolation and communication to the minimal terms of the  couple, Condillac articulates the terms of the “mutual assistance” that in the ancient scenario is simply taken for granted as the result of our emergence from the “state of nature.”

Condillac’s point in the note against Warburton–Bishop William Warburton, 1698-1779, famous for his work on language The Divine Legation of Moses (1737), which included a study of hieroglyphics translated into French–is not to dismiss the religious tradition but to propose a more epistemologically sophisticated mode of transition between the Judeo-Christian creation story and the modern scientific perspective. Warburton’s way of reconciling the religious tradition with the needs of secular thought was to suggest that God gave man an elementary form of language that he was expected to “improve and enlarge.” In Condillac’s model, what God had done in the Garden of Eden, man was required to do after the Fall; the point is not to integrate the two stories but to separate the (divine) creation of the human being per se from the construction of a model of human communication in our “fallen” state. We may reproach Condillac with failing to take the mimetic nature of our “fallenness” fully into account; but his emphasis on desire and lack, in contrast to Locke’s passive cognitivism, is already a creative–and creatively “Judeo-Christian”–step in this direction.

The remainder of Condillac’s “originary scene” will be discussed in the following Chronicle.