There follow some quick thoughts on reading Emile Boutroux’s 1874 philosophy thèse, De la contingence des lois de la nature.
The essential movement of Boutroux’s De la contingence is a double gesture of logical affirmation and then empirical wiggling. He establishes in the first chapter, ‘de la nécessité,’ that the only true necessity, the only true determination, is that which applies to a priori causal syntheses. He says, “c’est seulement aux synthèses causal à priori qu’appartient la nécessité tant objective que subjective: elle seules peuvent engendrer des conséquences analytiques entièrement nécessaires” (13). There is another form of necessity, of fact rather than logic, submitted to rigorous empirical testing. Boutroux says, “Celle-ci existe lorsque la synthèse que développe l’analyse est posée à priori par l’esprit et unit un effet à une cause. Lorsque cette synthèse sans être connu à priori, est impliquée dans un enseble de faits connus, et qu’elle est constamment confirmée par l’expérience, elle manifeste, sinon la nécessité du tout, du moins la nécessité de chaque partie, à supposer que les autres soient réalisées” (14). Having established these conditions for necessity, Boutroux then proceeds up the chain of being, showing at each stage that those laws we believe to be posed a priori are, first, in fact derived from experience and, second, do not meet the conditions of the second kind of necessity in an entirely rigorous way. Boutroux constantly reminds us that “il s’agit ici, non de l’être en soi, mais de l’être tel que le considèrent les sciences positives, c’est-à-dire des faits donnés dans l’expérience” (16). In this sense, the ideas of causality and of possibility, are not given a priori, but rather are drawn from experience. Boutroux, this is to say, presents us with a rigorous definition of necessity, and then demonstrates at successively ‘higher’ levels of reality, that this necessity is an idea we derive from experiment and experience (the words are slightly ambiguous in French, but Boutroux does not, here, draw a sharp distinction between the two), and that even at this level, given the incomplete nature of our knowledge, there cannot be said to be strict causality.
Ravaisson, in his ‘rapport’ on the state of French philosophy published a few years before Boutroux’s thèse, marked out the divergence between those who began with the higher, and derived the lower, and those who began with the lower, and built their way up into the higher. Boutroux’s intervention, in a sense, is to reject this dichotomy. The physical world is imagines in a strictly hierarchical fashion, along an ascending, stepped scale not so much of complexity, as of contingency. Although no step can be derived from those below it, or conversely made to yield up the ‘truth’ of the one above it, it is important that we do not have simply overlapping sets of rules, but a genuine hierarchy. The laws of one step on the ladder cannot explain (though they apply within) a different step on the ladder.
The bulk of the book is taken up with the elaboration of this way of thinking and the erecting and demolition of various objections to it. Consciousness, he says, is simply not reducible to its component physical parts. Boutroux continually inquires after the relation of what we assume and our experience. Metaphysics, together with claims to absolute necessity, is cordoned off into its proper field, excluded from the given world. It is this negative and defensive part of Boutroux’s book that functioned as a touchstone and foundational text for the epistemological tradition. But this was only part of Boutroux’s project. It is not enough to reject determinism, a positive ideal must also be erected. This aspect of the book, which links it strikingly to Ravaisson’s De l’habitude, seems to have been less important for the founders of the RMM. This second, constructive, part of Boutroux’s work is crucial, however, if we want to contextualize him more broadly, and understand how his work could have been read.
The question of probability is important. If, later on, it would be possible to regard the physical world as, at a certain level, essentially probabilistic, Boutroux does not yet arrive at this point of view. It seems to me that his contingency is not based on chance, but on irreducibility. At the very least, I am comfortable saying that Boutroux is enormously cagey on the question of the epistemological status of statistics, skeptical at best.
Particularly interesting are Boutroux’s discussions of the relation of law to fact. He says, “les lois sont le lit où passe le torrent des faits: ils l’ont creusé, bien qu’ils le suivent” (39). At the end of the chapter ‘de l’homme,’ Boutroux has mounted a sort of sneak-attack on the supposed law of the conservation of psychic energy. He is willing, perhaps, to accept the idea, but fragments it so that it applies not to all people equally, but to each in a particular way. He says, “plus que tous les autres êtres, le personne humaine a une existence propre, est à elle-même son monde. Plus que les autres êtres, elle peut agir, sans être forcée de faire entrer ses actes dans un système qui la dépasse.” Individuals, by making their own facts, make their own laws, “la loi tend à se rapprocher du fait...L’individu, devenu, à lui seul, tout le genre auquel s’applique la loi, en est maître. Il la tourne en instrument; et il rêve un état où, en chaque instant de son existence, il serait aisni l’égal de la loi et posséderait, en lui-même, tous les éléments de son action” (130). This dream in which actions are coterminous with laws is evidently a re-import of the Kantian imperative back into the realm of the physical, a smearing together of the moral and the physical realms, of the ideal and the real. This is perhaps why, at the end of Boutroux’s text, he speaks a great deal about the good and the beautiful, but not at all about the true.
If stability is the truth of the physical world, so also is change. Both are present everywhere, but the great chain of being is constructed by increasing change, indeed, this is expressed in terms of being and its law. Boutroux says, “dans les mondes inférieurs, la loi tient uns si large place qu’elle se substitue presque à l’être; dans les mondes supérieurs, au contraire, l’être fait presque oublier la loi. Ainsi tout fait relève non seulement du principle de conservation, mais aussi et tout d’abord, d’un principe de création” (139-40). Necessity is understood here in something like a Kantian way—it is an imperative and an ideal, rather than a fact. Each level of reality takes as its ideal the one above it. Compare this idea of a hierarchy of necessity and freedom to Ravaisson, in De l’habitude: “La limite inférieure est la nécessité, le Destin si l’on veut, mais dans la spontanéité de la Nature; la limite supérieure, la Liberté de l’entendement. L’habitude descend de ‘une à l’autre ; elle rapproche ces contraires, et en les rapprochant elle en dévoile l’essence intime et la nécessaire connexion” (97). Boutroux retains hierarchy, and the basic idea of a chain of being, but some things have changed, though perhaps somewhat subtly. We can perhaps say that Habit, for Ravaisson, is the sliding of willed actions into unconscious performance, their regularization and becoming routine. How different is this from Boutroux’s metaphor of law as like a riverbed carved out by the flow of fact?
In this light, Boutroux’s ‘system,’ built around contingency, presenting an ideal of pure understanding towards which one strives, appears as remarkably mystical. Metaphysics does not provide a mode of intellectual access to the world, but rather an unrealizable but motivating ideal. Ravaisson seems almost the more content to understand. I suppose Ravaisson’s stance is the serenity of rationalism, and that Boutroux’s mystical frenzy is the defensive result of overcompensation for the encroachment of vulgar materialism.
A great deal more could and should be said in particular about Ravaisson's and Boutroux's handling of the concept of being. I think Boutroux has taken an important step toward a conception of being as radically discontinuous, and would therefore represent an interestingly non-Bergsonian development of Ravaisson's thought. The next step for me to take here is, in any case, looking over the relevant work by Jean Beaufret and especially Dominique Janicaud’s Ravaisson-Bergson book. More laterally, it seems that Boutroux’s book fits into a sort of cohort of work appearing just after the fall of the Second Empire—I think that Janicaud puts it in a box with other thèses by Alfred Fouillée and Jules Lachelier. I know already a bit about Fouillée, Lachelier might be worth looking at.