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Guyau and Rand

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Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888)

Guyau was better known in the early twentieth century than today. Shoshana Milgram Knapp has found that while Rand was attending college in St. Petersburg, Russia, a course including the thinker Guyau was being offered. (Rand did not take that course.)

I learned of Guyau some decades back from Frederick Copleston’s A HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY, then encountered him again in my studies (present century) of Nietzsche, who had acquired Guyau 1885 hot off the press from Paris.

In this 1885 work, Guyau was setting aside morality from religious faith, from Kantian duty, and from utilitarianism. He was investigating how far morality could be determined from a purely scientific view of the nature of life. Guyau had some training in and love for science; he prized modern, capitalistic life; and although his was a thoroughly individualistic vision, it was not an egoistic vision.

Concerning morality based on faith, Guyau writes that “the believer wants to believe without knowing.” Faith is a “renunciation of all personal initiative . . . . This kind of intellectual suicide is inexcusable, and that which is still more strange is the pretension to justify it, as is constantly done, by invoking moral reasons. Morality should command the mind to search without resting—that is to say, precisely to guard itself against faith. . . . In the domain of thought there is nothing more moral than truth; and when truth cannot be secured through positive knowledge, nothing is more moral than doubt. . . . We must therefore drive out of ourselves the blind respect for certain principles, for certain beliefs. We must be able to question, scrutinize, penetrate everything.” (62–63)


Concerning Kant’s precept “‘Act in such a way that your maxim may become a universal law,’ no sentiment of obligation whatever will attach itself, so long as there is no question of social life and the deep inclinations awakened by it. . . . / . . . . Will it be said that the universal law itself contains at bottom will—pure will? The reduction of duty to the will of law, which itself would still be a purely formal will, far from building up morality, seems to us to produce a dissolvent effect on the will itself. The will to do a certain deed cannot be based on any law which is not founded on the practical and logical value of the deed itself.” (50)

There must be a specific valued object for pursuit to be morally praiseworthy. Without a specific object valued for its actual or potential uses, “we should no longer have courage to will and to merit; we do not use our will for the mere sake of willing” (32).

Guyau proceeds to lay out his positive moral theory with a preamble: “Scientific morality, in order not to include from its very beginning an inverifiable postulate, must be first individualistic. It should preoccupy itself with the destiny of society only in so far as it more or less includes that of the individual” (71–72).

“An exclusively scientific morality must, to be complete, admit that the pursuit of pleasure is only itself the consequence of the instinctive effort to maintain and enlarge life. . . . It is, then, life itself—life most intense and, at the same time, its most varied forms. From the first bound of the embryo in the womb of its mother, to the last convulsion of old age, every movement of the creature has, as cause, life in its evolution.” (75)

So far as the discipline of ethics can be a science, its task will be to articulate “the means of preserving and enlarging material and intellectual life,” and its laws “will be identical with the deepest laws of life itself” (75–76; further, 80–81). There is in us a cause which “operates as an aim, even before any attraction of pleasure; this cause is life, tending by its nature to grow and to diffuse itself, thus finding pleasure as consequence, but not necessarily taking it as an end in itself” (210–11). Life in its “aspiration towards incessant development . . . makes its own obligation to act by its very power of action” (211). Life makes also “its sanction by its very action; for, in acting, it takes joy in its own capacity” (213).

For Guyau the deepest laws of life are that it is nutritive and self-preservative and that it is fecundity (S 70, 75, 79, 209–10). Beyond nutrition and appropriation necessary for self-maintenance, there may accumulate superabundance capable of the expansion of life that is reproduction. This is a good for humans, as it is for all other life forms. Generation is an elevated intensity of life. Without sexual reproduction, the good that is man, with family and society, would not exist (82–83). “Individual life is expansive for others because it is fruitful, and it is fruitful by the very reason that it is life” (209–10).

Guyau does not think that scientific morality can disparage the tendency of modern higher classes to have fewer children (114), and he realizes that having children is in tension with creating intellectual works (83), but he thinks there is a “need of each individual to beget another individual; so much so that this other becomes a necessary condition of our being. Life, like fire, only maintains itself by communicating itself” (210). We find the same force of expansion with intelligence: “It exists in order to radiate” (210). Likewise with sensibility: We need to share our joys and sorrows. “It is our whole nature which is sociable. . . . [Life] cannot be entirely selfish, even if it wished to be. . . . Life is not only nutrition; it is production and fecundity” (210). “The purely selfish happiness of certain epicureans is an idle fancy, an abstraction, an impossibility. . . . Pure selfishness, . . . instead of being a real affirmation of self, is a mutilation of self” (212).

Guyau included biological fecundity in his basic characterization of all life. For human life, this encompassed not only procreation, but intellectual fecundity and practical productivity (76, 183–84, 214).

There are differences with Rand in the preceding samples from Guyau, which should be plain to the reader. Likewise plain, some similarities with Rand. The thing most important to further investigate in the thought of Guyau is the expansiveness of life per se he makes salient and his sketch for how to parlay that (not only into human reproduction, but) into human social solidarity, a circumscribed altruism, and limitless intellectual advance and productivity. Highly pertinent for close comparison in Rand’s thought would be the Branden essay in THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS titled “The Divine Right of Stagnation” and the Rand/Branden writings underpinning love and other social enjoyments with an egoistic psychology.

(My quotations from Guyau 1885 are from its translation into English by Gertrude Kapteyn in 1898.)

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AR writes in 1961: "No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of WHY man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, OBJECTIVE code of ethics could be discovered or defined." Guyau had been born into the world having Darwin and Spencer, and beyond the scientific facts of evolution, in which seeming teleology or aiming in living nature is explained by natural selection, he, like Rand later on, realized that one should look scientifically to the nature of the living organism per se---a look alongside the perspective of non-purposive evolution of species---as the realm in which aims are naturally housed and objectively based and sorted.

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Posted (edited)

It was during a summer conference of David Kelley’s (1995) held at the University of Wisconsin at Madison that I found in the stacks of the main library Gertrude Kapteyn’s 1898 translation of A Sketch of Morality Independent of Obligation or Sanction. That translation is of the second edition of Sketch, which was prepared in 1890 (after death of Guyau) by Guyau’s father-in-law, who was also a philosopher and whose name is Alfred Fouillée. All of the first edition is in the second.

In 1996 I had met Walter (shown in the attached photo), and when we travelled to Paris that year for honeymoon, I went into Librairie J. Vrin near the Sorbonne, and there I was able to purchase for a memento a reissue of Esquisse (Sketch). That was the 1890 version. The first writing I did about Guyau was comparison of his 1885 ideas to Nietzsche’s. The Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago had the first edition (1885). That was important because I needed to go through both of the French editions together to figure out which parts of Kapteyn’s translation had been in the first edition of Esquisse. That is, Nietzsche saw only the first edition, and it was to that that any of his nachlass (also at Regenstein) pertained to Guyau and from that that any shadow of Guyau might show in Nietzsche from 1885 to the finish of his mind in 1889. All of the material from Guyau in my post above in this thread, for comparison with Rand’s thought, are from Guyau 1885, that is, they are assuredly from Guyau without additions or slants from Fouillée.

Here are a couple of my earlier posts comparing Nietzsche and Guyau: 1 2

Walter 1996.jpg

Edited by Boydstun
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  • 2 months later...

My paper comparing Nietzsche and Guyau (see 12) was written in the spring of 2000. Today I I have learned that in 2014 an informative paper appeared which is titled “Contra Kant and beyond Nietzsche: Naturalizing Ethics in the work of Jean-Marie Guyau.” The author is Keith Ansell-Pearson, and his paper is available online here.

The subtitles of this paper, which I recommend, are: Guyau and Naturalism / Guyau and Ethics / Contra Kant / Life and Pleasure: Beyond Epicurus / Guyau and Nietzsche.

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On 12/29/2021 at 8:09 AM, Boydstun said:

thoroughly individualistic vision, it was not an egoistic vision

Hi Boydstun:


My gray matter crashes when attempting to process this. 


I'm curious how can something be "thoroughly individualistic" but not "egoistic"?


I know the term "egoistic" (distinguished from egotistic or egotistical) can refer to different concepts when used by different scholars, or more generally, it refers to specific different concepts when used in accordance with a particular philosophical context or framework, culture, history etc. 

I suspect its particular usage here has not been properly initialized or matched in my gray matter to avoid the crash. 

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To be self-directed is enough for independence and individualism. Self-direction is itself egoistic and part of full egoism. Guyau praises that much and even praises much action that is from a motive of personal self-benefit. But if he does not go further and maintain that the only praiseworthy actions are those that are (self-directed and) from a motive of self-benefit, then he is not advocating ethical egoism.

One might argue against a position such as Guyau's, with its mix of self and others as beneficiary aimed for, that unless uniform self-benefit is your motivation in your choices, you cannot remain stable in your self-direction. But before getting to back and forth on some sort of proposal as that, back closer to common parlance, there is nothing on the surface connecting individualism with ethical egoism, meaning an ethical system purely egoistic. Emerson and the America widely in step with self-direction could easily nod when Rand glorified self-direction, but would raise an eyebrow at her or anyone's embrace of full ethical egoism.

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