Cousin, Victor, an eminent philosopher and writer, was born in Paris November 28,1792, and was educated at the Lyce Charlemagne, where, at sixteen, he gained the grand prize of honor. Soon after he was admitted into the Ecole Vormale, where he became repetiteur, or private teacher of Greek literature, and afterwards professor of philosophy. "In 1811 he attended the lectures of Laromiguibre (q.v.), whose theory was a mixture of Condillac and Descartes, of sensation and spiritualism, and who made it his mission to reconcile the two systems. Cousin was at first fascinated by this theory, and still more by the elegant phraseology and lucid exposition of the lecturer. It was very probably at the same period that his great idea first presented itself to his mind, 'that each system is true, but incomplete, and that by collecting all the systems together a complete philosophy would be obtained.' In 1813 and 1814 he attended the courses of philosophical lectures delivered at the Faculte des Lettres by Royer-Collard, whose earnest mind had long distrusted that school of sensation which Locke and Condillac had established in the 18th century, and who had sought refuge from these doubts in the doctrines of the Scotch system. This doctrine, which insisted that there were notions in the mind totally independent of the senses, was ardently embraced by Cousin, who became lecturer at the Faculte des Lettres, and began his famous course of the History of Philosophy December 7, 1815. Having learned to doubt from Royer- Collard, he resolved to examine in turn all the great philosophers, both ancient and modern, before he formed his opinions. He became a universal inquirer. He professed to judge without prejudice each philosopher, and in each he believed he had found a system, and in each system a fragment of truth. As fast as he proceeded in this inquiry he communicated what he had found to the public, sometimes in lectures, at other times in books. To enable his pupils to judge for themselves, he published the works of Plato, the inedited works of Proclus, and an edition of Descartes, though the whole did not appear till after his dismission. His translation of Plato in 13 vols. would preserve his name had he done nothing else" (English Cyclopaedia). The government dismissed him from the Faculty of Letters in 1821, and in 1824 he went to Germany as tutor to the young Duke of Montebello. "During his progress the frank opinions he expressed excited the suspicion of the Prussian authorities, who caused him to be arrested and conveyed to Berlin, where he was thrown into prison as an agitator. He remained in close confinement for six months. After his return he published, in 1826, his celebrated Fragmens Philosophiques, with a remarkable preface, which is still considered the best summary of his particular doctrine." In 1828 he recommenced lectures on Philosophy at the Faculte des Lettres. His former lectures had consisted principally of the history of ideal truth, as it had been explained by the great thinkers who had preceded him. But this time his own theory was exhibited. The first series was published in 1828, under the title of Cours d'Histoire de la Philosophie; the second in 1829, as Cours de Philosophie. Soon after, the accession of Louis Philippe introduced his friends Guizot and De Broglie to power. He now became a councillor of state, a member of the Board of Public Education, an officer of the Legion of Honor, and a peer of France, in quick succession. In 1831 he was commissioned by the ministry to proceed to Germany to examine the state of education in that country. The results were given to the world in 1832, Rapport sur Ietat de. I instruction publique dans quelques pays de I'A 1lemagne (translated by Mrs. Austin, and published in London in 1834). He succeeded Fourier in the Academy, and delivered his eloge, or reception address, May 5, 1831. He seldom spoke in the Chamber of Peers, and when he did it was almost invariably on the subject of National Instruction. On March 1, 1840, Cousin entered the liberal cabinet of Thiers as minister of Public Instruction. He introduced a number of reforms during his administration, which lasted eight months, and of which he published himself a review in the Revue des deux Mondes in 1841. In 1848 M. Cousin seemed cordially to accept the introduction of the republic, and when General Cavaignac appealed to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences to aid the government in the enlightenment of the people, Cousin published, with a republican preface, a popular edition of the Profession defoi du vicaire savoyard. He subsequently wrote, under the title of Justice et Charite, a pamphlet against the socialistic tendencies.
But after 1849 Cousin altogether withdrew from public life. He published, besides the works already mentioned, among others, Procli Opera, 6 vols. 8vo, 1820-27; Descartes, OEuvres Completes, 11 vols. 8vo; Abelard, Sic et non, 1836; several series of Fragmens Philosophiques, 1838-40; Hist. de la Phslosophie (1st series, 5 vols. 8vo; 2d, 3 vols. 8vo; 3d, 4 vols. 8vo); Du Vrai, du Beau, du Bien (1853, 8vo, a republication of his lectures delivered between 1815 and 1821); Cours de Philosophie Morale, 5 vols. 1840-41. A collected edition of his principal works (up to 1846) in 22 vols. 18mo, was published in 1846-47. From 1853 to 1864 he published a series of works on celebrated literary women of the 17th century, which are an important contribution to the history of that time, and found a large circulation. The series comprises Jacqueline Pascal and Mad. de Longuleville (1853), Mad. de Sable (1854), Mad. de Chevrseuse et Mad. de Hau'ffort (1856); La Societe Frangaise au XVIPI Siecle (1858, 2 vols.); La Jeunesse de Mad. de Longueville (1864, 4th edit.); la Jeunesse de Mazarin (1865). In 1863 he published Histoire Generale de la Philosophie depuis les temps les plus recules jusqu'au X VIIe siecle (1863), being a revised edition of his Cours de l'histoire de la philosophie. Cousin was also a frequent contributor to some of the leading periodicals of France, such as the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Journal des Savants, and others. A kind of Gallican catechism, published anonymously in 1833, under the title Livre d'instruction morale et religieuse, has also been ascribed to Cousin. He died in Jan. 14, 1867.
Cousin undoubtedly rendered great service to modern thought by his advocacy of "spiritualism" (spiritualist philosophy) as opposed to materialistic doctrines. In the preface to Du Vrai, du Beau, du Bien, he thus expresses himself (1853): "Our true doctrine, our true standard, is spiritualism; the philosophy, generous and solid at the same time, that commences with Socrates and Plato, that the Gospel spreads over the world, that Descartes forced into the severer forms of the genius of modern times. The name of spiritualism is properly given to this philosophy, for its character is that it subordinates the senses to the spirit, and that, by all means which reason can avow, it perpetually tends to elevate man and make him greater. Spiritualism teaches the immortality of the soul, the freedom and responsibility of human action, the obligation of morality, the virtue of disinterestedness, the dignity of justice, the beauty of charity; and, beyond the limits of this earth, spiritualism points to God, the Creator and the Type of humanity, who, having created man evidently for an excellent end, will not abandon him during the mysterious development of his destiny." As to method, Cousin follows the psychological rather than the a priori method, but he avoids carefully the views of Locke and the sensationalists. His psychology is idealistic, his ontology also. What he calls "spontaneous reason" acquaints us with the "true and essential nature of things." In place of commencing, as the Germans do, with ontology, he affirms the possibility of finding a passage from the world of phenomena to real existence. Since reason receives truth spontaneously, by direct and immediate perception, he considers that we may, by means of this faculty, attain to the knowledge of essential and absolute existence" (Morell, Hist. of Mod. Philos. pt. ii, ch. viii). The tendency of this view to pantheism has been shown by many writers, especially by Gioberti (Considerations sur les doctrines religieuses de M. Victor Cousin, transl. by Tourneur, Paris, 1847, 8vo). Cousin himself always strenuously repudiated the name of pantheist. It is certain that towards the end of his career he "sought more and more the support of the great Christian masters, and drew daily nearer to Pascal, Descartes, and Leibnitz" (North British Review, March, 1867, art. v). Of translations of his works, we have, by Daniel, The Philosophy of the Beautiful (N. Y. 1849, 8vo); by Wight, History of Modern Philosophy (N. Y. 2 vols. 8vo, 1852); by the same, Lectures on the True, the Beautiful, and the Good (N. Y. 1854, 8vo); by Henry, Psychology, including an Examination of Locke's Philosophy (N. Y. 4th ed., 1856, 8vo). — English Cyclopadia, s.v.; Vapereau, Dict. des Contemporairns, 1865; Lewes, History of Philosophy (Lond. 2 vols. 1867), 2:645; Christian Spectator, 7:89, North American Review, 53:1; 85:19; Edinb. Review, I, 194 (art. by Sir W. Hamilton); Brit. Quart. Review, v. 289; Westminster Review, Oct. 1853; Ripley, Specimens of Foreign Literature, vol. 1; Alaux, La Philosophie de Cousin (Paris, 1864).