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Nineteenth Century

It was in the nineteenth century, however, that eclecticism achieved its greatest notoriety, especially under the leadership of Victor Cousin (1792–1867), who proposed "to select in all systems what appears to be true and good, and consequently everlasting,—this, in a single word, is ECLECTICISM." And Cousin added, "If this philosophy is to be Eclectic, it must also be sustained by the history of philosophy." In post-Revolutionary France philosophy was in great disarray, and Cousin looked back to the great schools of the earlier generation—French, Scottish, and German, represented respectively by Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780), Thomas Reid (1710–1796), and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). "It would be an interesting and instructive study," he proposed, "to examine the weaknesses of these schools by engaging one with another and by selecting their various merits in the context of a great eclecticism which would contain and surpass all three" (Lectures on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, 1858).

Over the next three decades this doctrine was publicized and extended by Cousin's many scholarly publications, by his lectures, by his many international contacts and disciples, by translations of his works, and by his public career as minister of education and as virtually the "official philosopher" of the July Monarchy. Historian though he was, he attached little importance to German precedents in the belief that "eclecticism is a French doctrine and peculiar to us" (Premiers essais de philosophie, 1862, p. 280).

Among philosophers, in fact, eclecticism lost much of its credit in the nineteenth century, and indeed Cousin's major significance was as a scholar and a founder of the "history of ideas," which had been pioneered by Brucker, whom he honored as "the father of the history of philosophy," and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), whose work he was instrumental in introducing to nineteenth-century readers. In the long term, indeed, the principal contribution of Cousin and his school, as of the earlier German eclectics, was not the establishment of a viable philosophical doctrine but the exploration of the modern field of intellectual history.


Hochstrasser, T. J. Natural Law Theories in the Early Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kelley, Donald R. The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History. London: Ashgate, 2002.

——. "Eclecticism and the History of Ideas." Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (2001): 577–592.

Kelley, Donald R., ed. History and the Disciplines: The Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1997. See especially Martin Mulsow, "Gundling and Buddeus: Competing Models of the History of Philosophy," 103–126, and Ulrich Johannes Schneider, "Eclecticism and the History of Philosophy," 83–102.

Donald R. Kelley

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryEclecticism - Modern Era, Nineteenth Century, Bibliography