After studying with distinction under the doctrinaires of Pengueux, he entered the life-guards of Louis XVI, and was present at Versailles on the memorable 5th and 6th of October 1789. On the breaking up of the gardes du corps Biran retired to his patrimonial inheritance of Grateloup, near Bergerac, where his retired life preserved him from the horrors of the Revolution.
It was at this period that, to use his own words, he "passed per saltum from frivolity to philosophy." He began with psychology, which he made the study of his life. After the Reign of Terror Maine de Biran took part in political affairs. Having been excluded from the council of the Five Hundred on suspicion of royalism[?], he took part with his friend Lamé[?] in the commission of 1813, which gave expression for the first time to direct opposition to the will of the emperor. After the Restoration he held the office of treasurer to the chamber of deputies, and habitually retired during the autumn recess to his native district to pursue his favourite study. He died on the 20th (16th, or 23rd, according to others) of July 1824.
Maine de Biran's philosophical reputation has suffered from two causes--his obscure and laboured style, and the fact that only a few, and those the least characteristic, of his writings appeared during his lifetime. These consisted of the essay on habit (Sur l'influence de l'habitude, 1803), a critical review of Pierre Laromiguière's lectures (1817), and the philosophical portion of the article "Leibnitz" in the Biographie universelle (1819). A treatise on the analysis of thought (Sur la décomposition de la pensée), although sent to press, was never printed. In 1834 these writings, together with the essay entitled Nouvelles considérations sur les rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme, were published by Victor Cousin, who in 1841 added three volumes, under the title Œuvres philosophiques de Maine de Biran. But the publication (in 1859) by E Naville (from manuscripts placed at his father's disposal by Biran's son) of the Œuvres inidétes de Maine de Biran, in three volumes, first rendered possible a connected view of his philosophical development.
At first a sensualist, like Condillac and Locke, next an intellectualist, he finally shows himself a mystical theosophist. The Essai sur les fondements de la psychologie represents the second or completest stage of his philosophy, the fragments of the Nouveaux essais d'anthropologie the third.
Maine de Biran's first essays in philosophy were written avowedly from the point of view of Locke and Condillac, but even in them he was brought to signalize the essential fact on which his later speculation turns. Dealing with the formation of habits, he is compelled to note that passive impressions, however transformed, do not furnish a complete or adequate explanation. With Laromiguière he distinguishes attention as an active effort, of no less importance than the passive receptivity of sense, and with Butler distinguishes passively formed customs from active habits. He finally arrived at the conclusion that Condillac's notion of passive receptivity as the one source of conscious experience was not only an error in fact but an error of method--in short, that the mechanical mode of viewing consciousness as formed by external influence was fallacious and deceptive. For it he proposed to substitute the genetic method, whereby human conscious experience might be exhibited as growing or developing from its essential basis in connexion with external conditions. The essential basis he finds in the real consciousness, of self as an active striving power, and the stages of its development, corresponding to what one may call the relative importance of the external conditions and the reflective clearness of self-consciousness he designates as the affective, the perceptive and the reflective. In connexion with this Biran treats most of the obscure problems which arise in dealing with conscious experience, such as the mode by which the organism is cognized, the mode by which the organism is distinguished from extra-organic things, and the nature of those general ideas by which the relations of things are known to us--cause, power, force, etc.
In the latest stage of his speculation Biran distinguishes the animal existence from the human, under which the three forms above noted are classed, and both from the life of the spirit, in which human thought is brought into relation with the supersensible, divine system of things. This stage is left imperfect. Altogether Biran's work presents a very remarkable specimen of deep metaphysical thinking directed by preference to the psychological aspect of experience.
The OElig;uvres inédites of Maine de Biran by E Naville contain an introductory study; in 1887 appeared Science et psychologie: nouvelles œuvres inédites, with introduction by A Bertrand. See also O Merton, Étude critique sur Maine de Biran (1865); E Naville, Maine de Biran, sa vie et ses pensées (1874); J Gerard, Maine de Biran, essai sur sa philosophie (1876); Mayonade, Pensées et pages inidétes de Maine de Biran (Périgueux, 1896); G Allievo, "Maine de Biran e Ia sua dottrina antropologica" (Turin, 1896, in Memorie dell' accademia delle scienze, 2nd ser., xlv, pt. 2); A Lang, Maine de Biran und die neuere Philosophie (Cologne, 1901); monographs by A Kühtmann (Bremen, 1901) and M Couailhac (1905); NE Truman in Cornell Studies in Philosophy, No. 5 (f 904) on Maine de Biran's Philosophy of Will.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.