Vital materialism and the problem of ethics in the Radical Enlightenment

Philosophica 88 (1):31-70 (2013)
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From Hegel to Engels, Sartre and Ruyer (Ruyer, 1933), to name only a few, materialism is viewed as a necropolis, or the metaphysics befitting such an abode; many speak of matter’s crudeness, bruteness, coldness or stupidity. Science or scientism, on this view, reduces the living world to ‘dead matter’, ‘brutish’, ‘mechanical, lifeless matter’, thereby also stripping it of its freedom (Crocker, 1959). Materialism is often wrongly presented as ‘mechanistic materialism’ – with ‘Death of Nature’ echoes of de-humanization and hostility to the Scientific Revolution (which knew nothing of materialism!), also a powerful Christian theme in Cudworth, Clarke and beyond (Overhoff, 2000). Here I challenge this view, building on some aspects of Israel’s Radical Enlightenment concept (Israel, 2001), which has been controversial but for my purposes is a useful claim about the dissemination of a home-grown Spinozism, sometimes reformulated as an ontology of the life sciences, an aspect Israel does not address (compare Secrétan et al., eds., 2007; Citton, 2006). First, I examine some ‘moments’ of radical Enlightenment materialism such as La Mettrie and Diderot (including his Encyclopédie entry “Spinosiste”), but also anonymous, clandestine texts such as L’Âme Matérielle, to emphasize their distinctive focus on the specific existence of organic beings. Second, I show how this ‘embodied’, non-mechanistic character of Enlightenment ‘vital materialism’ makes it different from other episodes, and perhaps more of an ethics than is usually thought (also via the figure of the materialist as ‘laughing philosopher’). Third, I reflect on what this implies for our image of the Enlightenment – no longer a Frankfurt School and/or Foucaldian vision of ‘discipline’, regimentation and order (as in Mayr, 1986) – but ‘vital’, without, conversely, being a kind of holist vitalism “at odds with the universalizing discourse of Encyclopedist materialism, with its insistence on the uniformity of nature and the universality of physical laws” (Williams, 2003): vital materialism is still materialism. Its ethics tends towards hedonism, but its most radical proponents (Diderot, La Mettrie and later Sade) disagree as to what this means.

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Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès


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