David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: diderot (page 1 of 3)

Absolutism in the French Enlightenment

This letter is from the June 8 TLS, in response to a review of Jonathan Israel’s Democratic Enlightenment. It’s a far more substantive review than Darin MacMahon’s silly dismissal, but it makes the ubiquitous mistake of attributing a predominantly absolutist streak to the French Enlightenment.

As yet another inauspicious attempt to correct this received idea, I post the letter here:

Sir, – Jeremy Jennings is not quite correct to say that the philosophes firmly stood behind “one true morality [applying] to all the inhabitants of the globe” (in his review of Jonathan Israel’s Democratic Enlightenment, May 25). While Helvétius, d’Holbach and La Mettrie had significant universalist tendencies, Montesquieu and Diderot did not. Diderot explored cultural pluralism in Supplément au Voyage à Bougainville and the aptly titled Réfutation d’Helvétius, and remained sceptical towards all forms of absolutism, including liberal absolutism. Both Montesquieu and Diderot’s empiricist, anthropological explorations influenced Johann Herder’s similarly pluralistic attitudes in his Spinozist world view. Montesquieu and Diderot were a far greater influence on French Revolutionary figures; Helvétius and d’Holbach’s universalism ironically manifested itself only later in utilitarianism and Marxism.

As I have argued (TLS, May 6, 2011), there is a strong supporting case for Israel’s division between an early rational revolution and an irrational, fundamentalist revolution of terror during the Jacobin period. Only after the fall of the philosophe-inflected Girondins does one see a burgeoning vision of an irrationalist “one true morality” in Marat, Danton and Robespierre. Robespierre himself was an avowed devotee of Rousseau, and his influence is seen in the striking abandonment of liberty and atheism that the Jacobins pursued, as when he established a Deist Cult of the Supreme Being intended as the new French state religion.

If there was one absolute to which the philosophes adhered as a whole, it was that of liberté: not an absolute moral value, but a basic human right.


Alas, both neo-Jacobins and neo-Burkeans have helped reinforced the misconception that such deep skeptics as Diderot, D’Alembert, and Isabelle de Charrière were foaming-at-the-mouth imperialist Panglossians.

I advocate this heuristic: the more a philosopher bemoans the absolutism of some past ideology or movement, the more likely that philosopher is an absolutist.

Diderot’s Philosophy of Mind: Vitalist or Emergentist?

This is a bit of further detail on a topic I didn’t have space to treat at length in my TLS article on Diderot, but which always had particular interest for me. In the 18th century, philosophy of mind was struggling in several different ways to come to terms with the influences of empiricism and naturalism. Hobbes was arguably the first to really press the point for a monist, materialist view of reality, life, and the mind, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that in-depth accounts were constructed. I find Diderot’s to be the most satisfying, but it is also one of the most radical.

Among those, like most of the philosophes, who had embraced atheism or at least a non-active role for God in the process of the development of the universe and the human, there were two general schools of thought. One went by the names of vitalism and hylozoism, two separate but related concepts. Both propose that there is some innate principle or characteristic of some or all matter that gives it life, sensitivity, and/or mind.

(The difference between raw sensitivity and higher cognition/mind was another significant question, but which I’ll avoid here since it will only complicate matters. The question at hand is how to explain the occurrence of any sort of sensitivity or mental properties whatsoever in some matter.)

The second school proposed that sensitivity and mind was an emergent property, only arising out of matter when it had a certain configuration and/or relation to the world. This appealed to the more mechanistically-minded.

These two schools have strong analogues today, though bits and pieces have switched sides or been subdivided. Vitalism and hylozoism posit a certain innate property to some or all matter in the same way that John Searle’s biological naturalism or Galen Strawson’s panpsychism does (David Skrbina’s Panpsychism Through the Ages traces this line), while the emergent school continues today in certain forms of functionalism.

The question still remains, ultimately, one of whether sensitivity or mind is a fundamental or emergent property.

Forever ecumenical, Diderot seems to draw from both sides. Diderot proposes at the start of D’Alembert’s Dream that a stone could potentially think, possessing a “latent sensitivity,” and extends this sort of property to all matter as a kind of “pansensism,” tantamount to panpsychism. On the other hand, he gives a lengthy account of how matter spontaneously organizes itself into increasingly complex forms so as to produce hierarchical structures of consciousness and experience. Here he seems to anticipate Daniel Dennett’s homuncular functionalism. And he flatly denies that there are prototypical forms of sensitive organisms that can combine to form larger ones.

Lester Crocker thinks Diderot never figured it out:

How matter organizes itself into living forms is a question that perplexes Diderot in all his writings on the subject. Does inorganic matter become life by restructuring itself to produce “sensitivity”? Or does “sensitivity” exist in latent or degraded form in non-living substances, awaiting activation by some process such as chemical fermentation (spontaneous generation) or ingestion? He is never able to decide between the two alternatives, or indeed to believe for long, with any real conviction, in either one.

Lester Crocker, Diderot’s Chaotic Order

I think Crocker is wrong here. Diderot had sufficient perspective to find neither approach wholly satisfactory, and so he attempted to combine the best aspects of each. The key is in a phrase that he used near-identically in both Elements of Physiology and D’Alembert’s Dream: “la sensibilité, propriété générale de la matière, ou produit de l’organisation.” [Sensitivity, general property of matter, or product of organization.]

This phrase may seem like dithering, but it is in fact Diderot specifying coexistent causes of sensitivity. Elsewhere he makes it clear that neither description by itself is sufficient; he is not giving a binary opposition.

This less than clear point is a result of Diderot’s dynamic metaphysics. Diderot was rather Heraclitian in his metaphysics: the nature of the universe was constant change, best represented by spontaneous biological evolution and organization. But he extended this to all matter, specifying properties as potentialities rather than actualities. Here, he physicalizes Leibniz. To quote another excellent Diderot scholar, Marx Wartofsky:

Diderot’s matter has motion as an inherent property. It is not endowed with motion; it is not a ground in which motion is put. Matter itself is uncreated, eternal, its motion is its essential mode of existence.

The “latent sensitivity” is not akin to potential energy in the conventional sense, as Diderot thinks of such potentialities as primary properties, not abstractions.

Mais quel rapport y a-t-il entre le mouvement et la sensibilité? Serait-ce par hasard que vous reconnaîtriez une sensibilité active et une sensibilité inerte, comme il y a une force vive et une force morte? Une force vive qui se manifeste par la translation, une force morte qui se manifeste par la pression ; une sensibilité active qui se caractérise par certaines actions remarquables dans l’animal et peut-être dans la plante; et une sensibilité inerte dont on serait assuré par le passage à l’état de sensibilité active.

D’Alembert’s Dream

So while a latent sensibility is rendered active depending on the particular state of matter at a given point, the property is always there. This is not just terminological juggling. Diderot’s suggestion is that reality is primarily processual and makes sense when modeled as such. With such a dynamism at the root of his metaphysics, he is able to posit a “latent” property that does not take the form of a measurable static quality but as a description of a process fundamental to all matter.

Diderot is not certain how latent matter becomes non-latent, and I think this accounts for some of his own hesitation and confusion in dealing with this topic. He gives examples of it happening, as with eating food, but he sees this as a scientific problem to be solved when greater resources are available. Diderot’s contribution was to reframe the problem of mind metaphysically in order to make the possible answers more satisfying.

Denis Diderot in the TLS

I have an article in the May 6 Times Literary Supplement on Denis Diderot’s life and philosophy. The article is available to subscribers online here: Moi and Lui and a Beehive.

This excerpt covers some of Diderot’s very diverse influence on subsequent thinkers and writers:

Moi and Lui and a Beehive

Denis Diderot OEUVRES PHILOSOPHIQUES Edited by Michel Delon and Barbara de Negroni 1,413pp. Gallimard. €65.

Philipp Blom WICKED COMPANY Freethinkers and friendship in pre-Revolutionary Paris 384pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.

In 1805, over twenty years after the death of the French philosophe Denis Diderot, Goethe read a manuscript of Diderot’s then-unpublished dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau. Captivated, he translated it into German. After reading the translation, Hegel cited Diderot along with only half a dozen other modern philosophers in the Phenomenology of Spirit, alongside Descartes and Kant.

Since then, Diderot has wielded diverse influence across the humanities and sciences. Sigmund Freud credited a passage in Le Neveu de Rameau with anticipating the Oedipus complex, while Simone de Beauvoir singled Diderot out as having championed the cause of women. Karl Marx, who like Diderot also wrote a homage to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, counted Diderot as his favourite writer. Auguste Comte called him the greatest philosopher of the eighteenth century, and a key forerunner of positivism. The pioneering cultural pluralist Johann Herder drew from Diderot’s observations on cultures and language.

Yet well into the twentieth century, Diderot’s intellectual reputation remained comparatively submerged, even in France. He was the least systematic of writers, and his works were published in the least systematic of ways. His modest publication history during his lifetime paled next to the monumental achievement of editing the Encyclopédie, which occupied him for twenty years. Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, he never published a chef-d’oeuvre. His most sophisticated and radical works were published only posthumously, and their interdisciplinary and non-systematic nature prevented their easy assimilation into the literary or philosophical traditions. His first collected works were not published until 1870. The new Pléiade edition of four volumes, of which the volume under review is the second, is a welcome corrective measure, capturing and contextualizing his unique, eclectic voice and aggressive speculation. Today, Diderot seems more contemporary than his more famous brethren, Voltaire and Rousseau.

Diderot, 25 Years On

From 1772 or so, some haunting words of Diderot’s that spring up almost from nowhere in the middle of his thoughts on physiology, including a grim paraphrase of Cicero’s old maxim:

I shall not know until the end what I have lost or gained in this vast gaming-house, where I shall have passed some threescore years, dice-box in hand, tesseras agitans.

What do I perceive? Forms. And what besides? Forms. Of the substance I know nothing. We walk among shadows, ourselves shadows to ourselves and to others.

If I look at a rainbow traced on a cloud, I can perceive it; for him who looks at it from another angle, there is nothing.

A fancy common enough among the living is to dream that they are dead, that they stand by the side of their own corpse, and follow their own funeral. It is like a swimmer watching his garments stretched out on the shore.

Philosophy, that habitual and profound meditation which takes us away from all that surrounds us, which annihilates our own personality, is another apprenticeship for death.

Denis Diderot’s Pensées Philosophiques

The Pensées Philosophiques were an early work of Diderot’s written around 1747. They were popular but also got him into trouble by critiquing religious belief and Catholicism. A few years later he would be an outright atheist. They are more aphoristic than usual; he was never given to great exegesis, but he tended to avoid the overly polemical statement as well. Chalk it up to youth. The translation here is from 1916, by Margaret Jourdain, and is a bit antiquated. I’m not aware of a newer one.

People are for ever declaiming against the passions; they attribute to them all the pains that man endures, and forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures. It is an ingredient in man’s constitution which cannot sufficiently be blessed and banned. It is considered as an affront to reason if one ventures to say a word in favour of its rivals; yet it is passions alone, and strong passions, that can elevate the soul to great things. Without them, there is no sublime, either in morality or in achievement; the fine arts return to puerility, and virtue becomes a pettifogging thing.

It is not from the metaphysician that atheism has received its most vital attack. The sublime meditations of Malebranche and Descartes were less calculated to shake materialism than a single observation of Malpighi’s. If this dangerous hypothesis is tottering at the present day, it is to experimental physics that the result is due. It is only in the works of Newton, of Muschenbroek, of Hartzoeker, and of Nieuwentit, that satisfactory proofs have been found of the existence of a reign of sovereign intelligence. Thanks to the works of these great men, the world is no longer a God; it is a machine with its wheels, its cords, its pulleys, its springs, and its weights.

You grant me that matter exists from all eternity and that movement is essential to it. In return for this concession, I will suppose, as you do, that the world has no limits, that the multitude of atoms is infinite, and that this order which causes you astonishment nowhere contradicts itself. Well, from these mutual admissions there follows nothing else unless it be that the possibility of fortuitously creating the universe is very small but that the quantity of throws is infinite; that is to say, that the difficulty of the result is more than sufficiently compensated by the multitude of throws. Therefore, if anything ought to be repugnant to reason, it is the supposition that –matter being in motion from all eternity, and there being perhaps in the infinite number of possible combinations an infinite number of admirable arrangements,–none of these admirable arrangements would have ensued, out of the infinite multitude of those which matter took on successively. Therefore the mind ought to be more astonished at the hypothetical duration of chaos than at the actual birth of the universe.

And a note on style, from “Letter on the Deaf-Mutes”:

The poet and the orator gain by studying harmony of style, and the musician finds his compositions are improved by avoiding certain chords and certain intervals, and I praise their efforts; but at the same time I blame that affected refinement which banishes from our language a number of vigorous expressions. The Greeks and Romans were strangers to this false refinement, and said what they liked in their own language, and said it as they liked. By overrefining we have impoverished our language; and though there may be only one term which expresses an idea, we prefer rather to weaken the idea than to express it by some vulgar word or expression. How many words are thus lost to our great imaginative writers, words which we find with pleasure in the pages of Amyot and Montaigne! They were at first rejected from a refined style, because they were commonly used by the people; later on they were rejected by the common people, who always ape their betters, and they are become entirely obsolete. I believe we shall soon become like the Chinese, and have a different written and spoken language.

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