Jean-Marie Guyau

I only just learned this guy existed. All I’ve found of his own work in English is this (but there is also useful information here and here). If I weren’t prepared to judge his entire life’s work on the basis of one summary, though, I wouldn’t be saying anything about him at all, and these days the poor fellow needs all the attention he can get.

I’m not keen on any of the stuff about evolution or much of that about psychology so far. I should also point out that G.E. Moore is (in his inimitable fashion) not impressed. Some bits I like the sound of, though. Like this:

“The Utilitarians are still too absorbed by considerations of finality; they are entirely wrapped up in the end, which for them is utility, which is itself reducible to pleasure. They are hedonists, i.e., they make of pleasures, in an egoist or sympathic form, the great spring of mental life. We, on the contrary, place ourselves from the point of view of efficient causality, and not finality; we note in ourselves a cause which acts even before the attraction of pleasure as an end. This cause is life, tending by its very nature to grow and spread, thus finding pleasure as a consequence, but not taking it necessarily as an end.”

Guyau’s position, and it’s an interesting one, seems to be that morality is not about what we are aiming for, but instead is only about what we are driven by. It’s not just that some drives are more favourable to moral behaviour than others, or that some particular drives are necessary to act morally, which lots of people would accept. He suggests there’s nothing to acting morally except acting due to the action of the drives he picks out. (He says: “What, in summary, is obligation …? It’s a certain form of impulsion.” Also: “So in our activity, in our intelligence, in our sensibility, there is a pressure exerted in the direction of altruism; there is an expansive force as powerful as that which acts on the stars. And it is this expansive force, become conscious of its power, which gives itself the name of duty.”)

It’s certainly useful to ask whether we can do without aims in morality. It’s also useful to ask whether (internal) efficient causation is given too little attention in psychology. The tendency – and perhaps it will prove to be warranted – does seem to be to treat end-directed states like desires as the only psychological causes. Whether Guyau has the right answers is another matter entirely. I find it hard to appreciate ‘life’ as a cause, as I suspect most modern readers will, but it would surely be interesting to learn why he did.

Finally, isn’t Guyau just correct about the super-personal nature of joy and pain?

“Like fire, life only preserves itself by communicating itself. And this is no less true of the intelligence than of the body: it is as impossible to imprison intelligence within itself as it is with flame: it is made to spread. Sensibility has the same expansive force: we must share our joy, we must share our pain.”

It is part of the nature of some states both that we are driven to share them (even if we are also driven to reticence for other reasons) and that they genuinely can be shared among disparate individuals. And this –

“We are open on all sides, and are invaders and invaded on all sides.”

– is a good thing to know even if Guyau’s theories don’t work out.
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