Destutt de Tracy

Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy (1754 – 1836) was a French Enlightenment aristocrat and philosopher who coined the term “ideology”. Although active in the Napoleonic government, he was important for his leadership of the ideologists, disciples of Condillac. This group contributed to such later psychological developments as the James-Lange theory of emotions. Starting from Condillac’s reduction of consciousness to the reception and combination of sensations, he developed a philosophy of education for post-Revolutionary France.

Influenced by Condillac and Locke, Tracy elaborated a ‘science of ideas’ which reduced all mental processes to sense-impressions: thought is a function of our physical organization: ‘penser, c’est sentir’. The four-volume Éléments d’idéologie (1801-15), which forms the main corpus of his philosophical writings, seeks to provide a methodology for explaining the development of thought from its sensory origin.

Tracy rejected monarchism, favoring the American republican form of government. This republicanism, as well as his advocacy of reason in philosophy and laissez-faire for economic policy, lost him favor with Napoleon, who turned Tracy’s coinage of “ideology” into a term of abuse; Karl Marx followed this vein of invective to refer to Tracy as a “fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär”—a “fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire.”

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, thought highly enough of Destutt de Tracy’s work to ready two of his manuscripts for American publication. In his preface to the 1817 publication, Jefferson wrote, “By diffusing sound principles of Political Economy, it will protect the public industry from the parasite institutions now consuming it. . .”

Destutt de Tracy was the last eminent representative of the sensualistic school which Condillac founded in France upon a one-sided interpretation of Locke. He pushed the sensualistic principles of Condillac to their last consequences, being in full agreement with the materialistic views of Cabanis, though the attention of the latter was devoted more to the physiological, that of Tracy to the psychological or “ideological” side of man. His ideology, he frankly stated, formed “a part of zoology,” (biology). The four faculties into which he divides the conscious life—perception, memory, judgment, will—are all varieties of sensation. Perception is sensation caused by a present affection of the external extremities of the nerves; memory is sensation caused, in the absence of present excitation, by dispositions of the nerves which are the result of past experiences; judgment is the perception of relations between sensations, and is itself a species of sensation, because if we are aware of the sensations we must be aware also of the relations between them; will he identifies with the feeling of desire, and therefore includes it as a variety of sensation.

His chief works are Eléments d’idéologie (1817–1818), in which he presented the complete statement of his earlier monographs; Commentaire sur l’esprit des lois de Montesquieu (1806); Essai sur le génie, et les ouvrages de Montesquieu (1808). The fourth volume of the Eléments d’idéologie the author regarded as the second section of the work, which he titled Traité de la volonté (Treatise on the Will and Its Effects). When translated into English, editor Thomas Jefferson retitled the volume A Treatise on Political Economy, obscuring the novelties of Tracy’s approach.

As a psychologist de Tracy deserves credit for his distinction between active and passive touch, which developed into the theory of the muscular sense. His account of the notion of external existence, as derived, not from pure sensation, but from the experience of action on the one hand and resistance on the other, may be compared with the work of Alexander Bain and later psychologists.

Tracy advanced a rigorous use of deductive method in social theory, seeing economics in terms of actions (praxeology) and exchanges (catallactics). Tracy’s influence can be seen both on the Continent, particularly on Stendhal, Augustin Thierry, Auguste Comte, and Charles Dunoyer, and in America, where the general approach of the French Liberal School of political economy competed evenly with British classical political economy well until the end of the 19th century, as evidence in the work and reputation of Arthur Latham Perry and others.


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