Destutt de Tracy's Life (1754-1836)
Destutt de Tracy was born in Paris on July 20, 1754 and died in Paris on March 10, 1836. He was a philosophe, one of the founders in the 1790s of the classical liberal republican group known as the Idéologues (which included Cabanis, Condorcet, Constant, Daunou, Say, Madame de Staël), a politician under several regimes spanning the Revolution and the Restoration, and an influential author. When the Estates General were called to meet in 1789 he, although a member of an aristocratic family which had been ennobled twice (hence his name), joined the Third Estate and renounced his title. He was later elected to the Constituent Assembly and served in the army in 1792 under the Marquis de Lafayette. During the Terror he was imprisoned and only escaped execution because Robespierre beat him to the scaffold. It was during his period of imprisonment that he read the works of Condillac and Locke and began working on his theory of idéologie. He was made a member of the Institut National in 1796 (he was part of the Section of the Analysis of Sensations and Ideas in the Class of Moral and Political Sciences, which was later suppressed by Napoleon in 1803) and later appointed to the French Academy (1808). During the Directory Tracy was active in educational reform, especially in creating a national system of education. His membership of the Senate during the Consulate and Empire gave him many opportunities to express his "ideological" opposition to Napoleon's illiberal regime, which culminated in 1814 with Tracy's call for the removal of the Emperor. For this, he was rewarded with the restoration of his noble title by Louis XVIII later that year. Nevertheless, he continued to support the liberal opposition during the restoration of Louis XVIII and Charles X. Although Tracy was active in bringing to power a more liberal, constitutional monarchy during the July Revolution of 1830 he quickly became disillusioned with the results.
Tracy coined the term "ideology" shortly after his appointment to the Institute National in 1796 to refer to his "science of ideas" which attempted to create a secure foundation for all the moral and political sciences by closely examining the sensations and the ideas about those sensations which arose in human beings as they interacted with their physical environment. His deductive methodology for the social sciences has much in common with the Austrian school of economics which emerged after 1870. For Tracy, "Ideology" was a liberal social and economic philosophy which provided the basis for a strong defense of private property, individual liberty, the free market, and constitutional limits to the power of the state (preferably in a republican form modeled on that of the USA). For Napoleon, "ideology" was a term of abuse which he directed against his liberal opponents in the Institut National and it was this negative sense of the term which Marx had in mind in his writings on Ideology (he called Tracy a "fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär"—a fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire).
The impact of Tracy's political and economic ideas was considerable. His Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (1811) was much admired by Thomas Jefferson, who translated it and had it published in America at a time when a French edition was impossible due to Napoleon's censorship. In the Commentary Tracy criticised Montesquieu's defence of monarchy and supported American-style republicanism which operated in the context of a laissez-faire economic order. Tracy's multi-volume work Elements of Ideology (1801-1815) is his magnum opus. Volume 4, which appeared in 1815 and which dealt with political economy, was also translated and published by Jefferson in 1817. The Elements of Ideology was quickly translated into the major European languages and influenced a new generation of Italian, Spanish and Russian liberals who were involved in revolutionary activity in the early 1820s (the Carbonari in France and Italy, and the Decembrists in Russia). One of Tracy's key social and economic ideas was that "society is purely and solely a continual series of exchanges" and his broader social theory is based upon working out the implications of this notion of free exchange. Within France, Tracy's work influenced the thinking of the novelist Stendhal, the historian Augustin Thierry, and the political economists and lawyers Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer.
Works by Destutt de Tracy
Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Jefferson (1811) (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969). French 1819 edition online at http://gallica.bnf.fr/scripts/ConsultationTout.exe?O=N005466&E=0.
Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, A Treatise on Political Economy,trans. Thomas Jefferson (1817) (reprinted New York 1970). French 1823 edition online at http://gallica.bnf.fr/scripts/ConsultationTout.exe?O=N041802&E=0.
Works about Destutt de Tracy
Head, Brian, Ideology and Social Science: Destutt de Tracy and French Liberalism (Dordrecht, M. Nijhoff; Boston, Hingham, MA, 1985).
Kaiser, T., "Politics and Political Economy in the Thought of the Idéologues," History of Political Economy, 1980, pp. 141-60.
Kennedy, Emmet, A Philosophe in the Age of Revolution: Destutt de Tracyand the Origins of "Ideology" (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1978).
Klein, Daniel, "Deductive economic methodology in the French Enlightenment: Condillac and Destutt de Tracy," History of Political Economy, 1985, 17:1, pp. 51-71.
Venturi, Franco, "Destutt de Tracy and the Liberal Revolutions" in Studies in Free Russia, trans. Fausta Segre Walsby and Margaret O'Dell(University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 59-93.
Welch, Cheryl B., Liberty and Utility: The French Idéologues and the Transformation of Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press,1984).
*Dr. David M. Hart is the newly appointed Director of the Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty Project. Previously he taught history at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. His research interests include 18th and 19th century French liberal thought.