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Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy (July 20, 1754 – March 9, 1836) was a French Enlightenment aristocrat and philosopher who coined the term "ideology".


The son of a distinguished soldier, he was born in the Bourbonnais. His family was of Scottish descent, tracing its origin to Walter Stutt, who in 1420 had accompanied the Earls of Buchan and Douglas to the court of France, and whose family afterwards rose to be counts of Tracy. He was educated at home and at the University of Strasbourg, where he was noted for his athletic skill. He went into the army, and when the French Revolution broke out, he took an active part in the provincial assembly of Bourbonnais. Elected a deputy of the nobility to the states-general, he sat alongside his friend, the Marquis de La Fayette. In the spring of 1792, he received the rank of maréchal de camp in command of the cavalry in the army of the north; but the influence of the extremists becoming predominant he took indefinite leave of absence, and settled at Auteuil, where, with Condorcet and Cabanis, he devoted himself to scientific studies.

Under the Reign of Terror, he was arrested and imprisoned for nearly a year, during which he studied Condillac and Locke, and abandoned the natural sciences for philosophy. On the motion of Cabanis, he was named associate of the Institute in the class of the moral and political sciences. He soon began to attract attention by the memoires which he read before his colleagues—papers which formed the first draft of his comprehensive work on ideology, named Eléments d'idéologie. He conceived of ideology as the "science of ideas." The society of "ideologists" at Auteuil embraced, besides Cabanis and Tracy, Constantin-François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney and Dominique Joseph Garat, professor in the National Institute. (See also: Les Neuf Sœurs)

Under the First French Empire, Tracy was a member of the senate, but took little part in its deliberations. Under the Restoration he became a peer of France, but protested against the reactionary split of the government, and remained in opposition. In 1808, he was elected a member of the Académie française in place of Cabanis, and in 1832, he was also named a member of the Academy of Moral Sciences on its reorganization. He appeared, however, only once at its conferences, owing to his age and to disappointment at the comparative failure of his work. Destutt de Tracy was one of the principal advocates of liberalism during and after the Revolution. He died in Paris.


Destutt de Tracy was the last eminent representative of the sensualistic school which Condillac founded in France upon a one-sided interpretation of Locke. He pushed the sensualistic principles of Condillac to their last consequences, being in full agreement with the materialistic views of Cabanis, though the attention of the latter was devoted more to the physiological, that of Tracy to the psychological or "ideological" side of man. His ideology, he frankly stated, formed "a part of zoology," (biology). The four faculties into which he divides the conscious life—perception, memory, judgment, will—are all varieties of sensation. Perception is sensation caused by a present affection of the external extremities of the nerves; memory is sensation caused, in the absence of present excitation, by dispositions of the nerves which are the result of past experiences; judgment is the perception of relations between sensations, and is itself a species of sensation, because if we are aware of the sensations we must be aware also of the relations between them; will he identifies with the feeling of desire, and therefore includes it as a variety of sensation.

As a psychologist de Tracy deserves credit for his distinction between active and passive touch, which developed into the theory of the muscular sense. His account of the notion of external existence, as derived, not from pure sensation, but from the experience of action on the one hand and resistance on the other, may be compared with the work of Alexander Bain and later psychologists.


His chief works are Eléments d'idéologie (1817–1818), in which he presented the complete statement of his earlier monographs; Commentaire sur l'esprit des lois de Montesquieu (1806); Essai sur le génie, et les ouvrages de Montesquieu (1808). The fourth volume of the Eléments d'idéologie the author regarded as the second section of the work,[1] which he titled Traité de la volonté (Treatise on the Will and Its Effects).[2] When translated into English, editor Thomas Jefferson retitled the volume A Treatise on Political Economy, obscuring the novelties of Tracy's approach.


Tracy advanced a rigorous use of deductive method in social theory, seeing economics in terms of actions (praxeology) and exchanges (catallactics).[3] Tracy's influence can be seen both on the Continent, particularly on Stendhal, Augustin Thierry, Auguste Comte, and Charles Dunoyer,[4] and in America, where the general approach of the French Liberal School of political economy competed evenly with British classical political economy well until the end of the 19th century, as evidence in the work and reputation of Arthur Latham Perry and others. In his political writings,[5] Tracy rejected monarchism, favoring the American republican form of government. This republicanism, as well as his advocacy of reason in philosophy and laissez-faire for economic policy, lost him favor with Napoleon, who turned Tracy's coinage of "ideology" into a term of abuse; Karl Marx followed this vein of invective to refer to Tracy as a "fischblütige Bourgeoisdoktrinär"—a "fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire."[6]

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, thought highly enough of Destutt de Tracy's work to ready two of his manuscripts for American publication. In his preface to the 1817 publication, Jefferson wrote, "By diffusing sound principles of Political Economy, it will protect the public industry from the parasite institutions now consuming it. . . ."[7]

Also, Stendhal was much influenced by de Tracy's enlightenment ideals, and attended the De Tracy salon regularly, in the 1820s[8]


  1. Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de, A Treatise on Political Economy, trans. edited by Thomas Jefferson (Georgetown: Joseph Milligan, 1817; reprinted New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970), p. x.
  2. "Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, Comte de Tracy, 1754-1836", The History of Economic Thought Website
  3. Klein, Daniel, "Deductive economic methodology in the French Enlightenment: Condillac and Destutt de Tracy," History of Political Economy, 1985, 17:1, pp. 51-71
  4. Hart, David M., Destutt de Tracy: Annotated Bibliography
  5. de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Jefferson (1811) (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969)
  6. Hart, David M., Destutt de Tracy: Annotated Bibliography
  7. Campbell, Willisam F. "Liberty, Peace, and Self-Interest Properly Understood", speech before The Philadelphia Society, Regional Meeting, Wilmington, Delaware, October 10, 1998.
  8. Matthew Josephison, Stendhal, p.277

See also histories of philosophy, especially F. Picavet, Les Idéologues chs. v. and vi. (Paris, 1891), and La Philosophie de Biran (Académie des sci. mor. et pol., 1889).

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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