Materialism, which dates to antiquity, holds that matter is fundamental. Whatever else may exist, if it exists, it depends on matter. In its most extreme version, materialism completely denies the existence of mental events, a view which would appear to have its roots in Descartes' conception of animals as purely physical automata. In a less extreme form, materialism makes mental events causally dependent on bodily events, but does not deny their existence. This was the view offered a century after Descartes by Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) [see figure 6].
La Mettrie was born in Brittany, in the town of Saint-Malo. After studying medicine at Paris and Rheims, he worked under Hermann Boerhaave at Leiden. In 1745, he published his first work, Histoire naturelle de l'ame. Public outcry over his materialism, exacerbated by outrage over his publication of an incautious medical satire, led to La Mettrie's self-exile to Holland. There, in 1748, he published L'homme machine, an extension of Descartes' automata concept from animals to man. With L'homme machine, La Mettrie succeeded in testing the patience of even the liberal Dutch clergy. The book was publicly burned [see figure 7] and La Mettrie was forced to seek protection from Frederick the Great at Berlin. There, until his death in 1751, he continued to publish on a variety of topics, usually in a manner calculated to infuriate his enemies.
In many ways, L'homme machine was a ground-breaking work. While arguing the case for a uniform material dependence of states of the soul upon states of the body, it maintained a distinctly antimetaphysical tone. As Vartanian (1967) pointed out, La Mettrie's "naturalistic view of man ... is offered mainly as a general heuristic hypothesis necessary in the positive study of behavior, without the need being felt ... to make mental processes reductively identical with their physiological causes" (p. 380). In addition, L'homme machine introduced the critical notion that conscious and voluntary processes are only distinguished from involuntary and instinctual activities by the relative complexity of their mechanical substrate. In articulating this point, La Mettrie went far beyond the static mechanism of Descartes to conceive of the living machine as a purposive, autonomous, and dynamic system.
Although vilified in his own time, La Mettrie's often unacknowledged influence continued to be felt for many years within French intellectual circles. Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808) [see figure 8] was among those indebted to La Mettrie's ideas. Indeed, Cabanis, the most ardent materialist of the French enlightenment, was simply taking La Mettrie's naturalism to its logical extreme in his Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme (1802) , when he argued that "to have an accurate idea of the operations from which thought results, it is necessary to consider the brain as a special organ designed especially to produce it, as the stomach and the intestines are designed to operate the digestion, (and) the liver to filter bile..." (English translation, p. 116)
Wozniak, Robert H. "Mind and Body: Rene Déscartes to William James"
Bryn Mawr College, Serendip 1995
Originally published in 1992 at Bethesda, MD & Washington, DC by the National Library of Medicine and the American Psychological Association.
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