The Birth of French Materialism -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

The Birth of French Materialism

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From this point on, the road to further development of philosophy in Britain was blocked, but not before it had given a powerful impulse to the movement which became known as the Enlightenment in France. The difference between English empiricism and French materialism is sometimes ascribed to difference of national temperament. For instance:

"To carry out the empiricism of Locke into its ultimate consequence, into sensualism and materialism—this is the task which has been assumed by the French. Though grown on a soil of English principles, and very soon universally prevalent there, empiricism could not possibly be developed amongst the English into the extreme form which presently declared itself among the French—that is, into the complete destruction of all the foundations of the moral and religious life. This last consequence was not congenial to the national character of the English." (Schwegler) (Schwegler, op. cit., p. 184.)

The existence of different national temperaments and traditions undoubtedly played a major role, as Marx and Engels pointed out in The Holy Family: "The difference between French and English materialism reflects the difference between the two nations. The French imparted to English materialism wit, flesh and blood, and eloquence. They gave it the temperament and grace that it lacked. They civilised it." (MECW, Vol. 4, pp. 129-30.)

Nonetheless, to explain great historical movements it is not sufficient to appeal to national characteristics alone. The character of the French and English were also different a hundred years before, without producing either Hume or Voltaire, who were products of their own time, or, more accurately, products of a particular concatenation of circumstances, social, economic and cultural. The philosophy of Berkeley and Hume emerged in a period when the bourgeoisie had already triumphed, and was trying to lay revolution to rest. That of Concordet, Diderot and Voltaire belongs to an entirely different period—the period of social and intellectual ferment leading up to the revolution of 1789-93. In an important sense the struggle of the "philosophers" against religion and orthodoxy was a preparation for the storming of the Bastille. Before the old order was overthrown in fact, it first had to be shown to be redundant in the minds of men and women.

In his excellent essay on Holbach and HelvŽtius, Plekhanov has this to say about 18th century French philosophy:

"Eighteenth-century materialist philosophy was a revolutionary philosophy. It was merely the ideological expression of the revolutionary bourgeoisie’s struggle against the clergy, the nobility, and the absolute monarchy. It goes without saying that, in its struggle against an obsolete system, the bourgeoisie could have no respect for a world-outlook that was inherited from the past and hallowed that despised system. ‘Different times, different circumstances, a different philosophy,’ as Diderot so excellently put it in his article on Hobbes in the EncyclopŽdie." (Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 2, p. 45.)

The ideas of Locke had a great impact on the Abbe de Condillac (1715-80). Condillac accepted Locke’s teaching that all knowledge comes from the senses, but went even further, claiming that all mental processes, even the will, are only modified sensations. He never actually denied the existence of God, but nevertheless maintained that only matter existed. A very remarkable conclusion for someone who was a priest. Another disciple of Locke, Claude Adrien HelvŽtius (1715-71), with whom, said Marx, "materialism assumed a really French character." HelvŽtius was so outspoken that even his fellow materialists were taken aback, and did not dare follow him in his bold conclusions.

Baron Holbach (1723-89), although a German, spent most of his life in France, where he played a major role in the materialist movement. Like HelvŽtius, he was persecuted by the Church, and his book Le Syst?me de la Nature was publicly burnt by order of the Paris Parliament. A determined materialist, Holbach attacked religion and idealism, especially the ideas of Berkeley. Locke already thought it possible that matter could possess the faculty of thinking, and Holbach enthusiastically agreed, but, unlike Locke, was prepared to draw all the conclusions, throwing religion and the Church out of the window:

"If we consult experience, we shall see that it is in religious illusions and opinions that we should seek for the real source of the host of evils that we everywhere see overwhelming mankind. Ignorance of natural causes has led it to create its Gods; deception has made the latter terrible; a baneful concept of them has pursued man without making him any better, made him tremble uselessly, filled his mind with chimeras, opposing the progress of reason, and hindering the search for happiness. These fears have made him the slave of those who deceived him under the pretext of caring for his good; he did evil when he was told that his Gods called for crimes; he lived in adversity because he was made to hear that his Gods had condemned him to misery; he never dared to resist his Gods or to cast off his fetters, because it was drummed into him that stupidity, the renunciation of reason, spiritual torpor and abasement of the soul were the best means of winning eternal bliss." (Quoted in Plekhanov, op. cit., p. 72.)

La Mettrie (1709-51) went still further in recognising that all forms of life, plant and animal (including man), consisted of matter organised in different ways. His main works were the famous L’ Homme Machine, (Man, a Machine), and Le Syst?me d’Epicure (The System of Epicurus). La Mettrie was partly a follower of Descartes, who said that animals were machines in the sense that they could not think. Taking this literally, La Mettrie said that man also must be a machine, then, because there was no qualitative difference between man and the animals. This merely reflects the predominant influence of mechanics on the scientific thinking of the period.

The intention of La Mettrie was to oppose the idea that man was a special creation of God, something entirely set aside from the rest of nature, by the special privilege of an immortal soul. This argument, in effect, was already disposed of by the English materialist and scientist Joseph Priestley, remembered today mainly as the discoverer of oxygen:

"The power of cutting, in a razor, depends upon a certain cohesion, and arrangement of the parts of which it consists. If we suppose this razor to be wholly dissolved in any acid liquor, its power of cutting will certainly be lost, or cease to be, though no particle of the metal that constituted the razor be annihilated by the process; and its former shape, and power of cutting, etc., may be restored to it after the metal has been precipitated. Thus when the body is dissolved by putrefaction, its power of thinking entirely ceases." (Quoted in Plekhanov, op. cit., p. 82, footnote.)

La Mettrie considered that thought was one of the properties of matter:

"I believe thinking to be so little incompatible with organised matter that it seems to be a property of the latter in the same way as electricity, the faculty of movement, impenetrability, extent, etc." (Ibid., p. 333.)

From the radical materialism and rationalism of the Enlightenment it was easy to draw revolutionary conclusions, and this was done. Voltaire (1694-1778), although not really a philosopher, played a prominent role in this movement, as a writer, historian and pamphleteer. He was arrested twice for his political satires, and had to spend most of his life outside France. Voltaire’s greatest contribution was his collaboration with Diderot in the great Encyclopaedia (1751-80) a massive undertaking which gave a systematic summary of all the scientific knowledge of the time. A galaxy of the greatest French thinkers participated in this unique task: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, HelvŽtius, and other progressive and materialist philosophers combined to produce a militant work directed against the basis of the existing social order, its philosophy and morality.

Compared to the writings of the French materialists, the philosophical views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau represent a step backwards. Nevertheless, in the field of social criticism, he produced a number of masterpieces, and Engels specifically singles out for praise his work The Origins of Inequality Among Men. Still, as he is also not really a philosopher in the strict sense, we will not enter into his ideas more fully here.

In general, these writers were preparing the ground for the bourgeois revolution of 1789-93. Their fierce denunciations are directed against the evils of feudalism and the Church. The ideal for most of them was a constitutional monarchy. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how later on people began to draw socialist and communist conclusions from their writings:

"There is no need for any great penetration," say Marx and Engels, "to see from the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of experience, habit and education, and the influence of environment on man, the great significance of industry, the justification of enjoyment, etc., how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc., from the world of the senses and the experience gained in it, then what has to be done is to arrange the empirical world in such a way that man experiences and becomes accustomed to what is truly human in it and that he becomes aware of himself as man.

"If correctly understood interest is the principle of all morality, man’s private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity. If man is unfree in the materialistic sense, i.e., is free not through the negative power to avoid this or that, but through the positive power to assert his true individuality, crime must not be punished in the individual, but the anti-social sources of crime must be destroyed, and each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being. If man is shaped by environment, his environment must be made human. If man is shaped by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the power of his nature must be measured not by the power of the separate individual but by the power of society." (MECW, Vol. 4, pp. 130-1.)

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