Etienne Bonnot de Condillac

1715 - 1780

Condillac was a French philosopher who theorized about the nature of the mind. He followed in the tradition of philosophical scholars of his time, building especially upon the empirical tradition of John Locke (1632-1704). While Locke differentiated two sources of ideas, sensation and reflection, Condillac forwarded only one, sensation. He regarded reflection as the product of sensation, especially the sensation of touch. Condillac form of sensationism, held that all knowledge comes from the senses. This was a counter to Descartes notion that had knowledge coming from innate ideas.

Condillac offered a precise accounting of what each of the sense organs provides in the way of raw data that then is processed into beliefs and ideas about the world.

Regarding language, Condillac’s depicted it as a vehicle for transforming the senses into mental objects. He believed that language was structured in the same way as thought. He compared ideas to the sounds of a harpsichord.

Condillac is best known for two of his philosophical works, both on the role of sensation and experience in the development of cognition. The first, published in 1746, was an Essay on the origin of human knowledge, and the second published in 1754 was a Treatise on sensations. The Essay included Condillac’s theory on the development of language and its role both in the acquisition cognition. In the Treatise Condillac talked about the nature of pre-linguistic cognitive abilities.

In his Treatise on Sensations Condillac asked his readers to imagine a naïve thinker—a statue of a human being—and how that thinker might learn if a sensory avenue, say smell, was developed in isolation of the other senses. His aim in this thought-experiment was to show how a person could know all that he knows from sensory experience.

Writings of Etienne Condillac

Condillac, E. (1746). Essay on the origin of human knowledge, being a supplement to Mr. Locke’s essay on the human understanding. Retrieved on July 25, 2010 from

Condillac, E. (1754). Treatise on sensations.

Writings about Etienne Condillac

Downing, Thomas (1996). Competing models of sensibility in Condillac: The Château and the Harpsichord, Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, 25, 147-165.

Falkenstein, L. (2007). Etienne Bonnot de Condillac. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (pp. 1-27). Retrieved on July 26, 2010 from:

Knight, Isabel F. (1968), The geometric spirit: The Abbé de Condillac and the French enlightenment. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

O'Neal, John C. (1996), The authority of experience: Sensationist theory in the French enlightenment. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.