3. The 18th Century: Mind, Matter, and Monism
All of the above views, even that of Spinoza, make some distinction
between mind and body. Once such a distinction is drawn, at whatever level,
the problem of re-relating mind to body immediately arises. In order to avoid
the mind/body problem entirely, one must deny any distinction between mind
and body. Over the course of intellectual history, denials of this sort have
taken different forms. Immaterialism
, best represented by George Berkeley
(1685-1753) in his A Treatise concerning the Principles of Human
(1710), denies even the possibility of mindless material substance.
For something to exist for Berkeley, it must either be perceived or be the
active mind doing the perceiving. From this perspective, there is no
mind/body distinction because what we think of as body is merely the
perception of mind. While Berkeley had few contemporary adherents,
immaterialism was to resurface in the later 19th century in the guise of mind-
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)
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© by Serendip 1994-
- Last Modified:
Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:24 CDT
Wozniak, Robert H. "Mind and Body: Rene Déscartes to William
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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