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Materialism – the philosophical doctrine that ‘Everything that exists, is material’, including human beings, who cannot then have an immortal soul – has been a heretical or clandestine teaching since the beginnings of philosophy. Its main... more
Materialism – the philosophical doctrine that ‘Everything that exists, is material’, including human beings, who cannot then have an immortal soul – has been a heretical or clandestine teaching since the beginnings of philosophy. Its main crime is “explaining the higher level in terms of the lower level,” as Auguste Comte put it; this in turn is supposed to lead straight to immoralism: even Darwin denied that he was a materialist! At the same time, materialism is said to be the position which somehow facilitated and prepared the advent of modern science, particularly physical and biological science. What then is materialism? Is there only one, or are there many variants? I will mainly examine the first sustained materialist school in modern philosophy, in eighteenth-century French thought, chiefly represented by La Mettrie and Diderot, but also other figures notably in England. In addition, I will draw some contrasts between ‘French materialism’ and contemporary philosophy of mind, in which the dominant question is the relation between mind and brain.
t was in 1660s England, according to the received view, in the Royal Society of London, that science acquired the form of empirical enquiry we recognize as our own: an open, collaborative experimental practice, mediated by... more
t was in 1660s England, according to the received view, in the Royal Society of London, that science acquired the form of empirical enquiry we recognize as our own: an open, collaborative experimental practice, mediated by specially-designed instruments, supported by civil discourse, stressing accuracy and replicability. Guided by the philosophy of Francis Bacon, by Protestant ideas of thisworldly benevolence, by gentlemanly codes of decorum and by a dominant interest in mechanics and the mechanical structure of the universe, the members of the Royal Society created a novel experimental practice that superseded former modes of empirical inquiry, from Aristotelian observations to alchemical experimentation.

This volume focuses on the development of empiricism as an interest in the body – as both the object of research and the subject of experience. Re-embodying empiricism shifts the focus of interest to the ‘life sciences’; medicine, physiology, natural history. In fact, many of the active members of the Royal Society were physicians, and a significant number of those, disciples of William Harvey and through him, inheritors of the empirical anatomy practices developed in Padua during the 16th century. Indeed, the primary research interests of the early Royal Society were concentrated on the body, human and animal, and its functions much more than on mechanics. Similarly, the Académie des Sciences directly contradicted its self-imposed mandate to investigate Nature in mechanistic fashion, devoting a significant portion of its Mémoires to questions concerning life, reproduction and monsters, consulting empirical botanists, apothecaries and chemists, and keeping closer to experience than to the Cartesian standards of well-founded knowledge
Materialism is the view that everything that is real, is material or is the product of material processes. It tends to take either a 'cosmological' form, as a claim about the ultimate nature of the world, or a more specific... more
Materialism is the view that everything that is real, is material or is the product of material processes. It tends to take either a 'cosmological' form, as a claim about the ultimate nature of the world, or a more specific 'psychological' form, detailing how mental processes are brain processes.
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... de Montpellier in the second half of the eighteenth century, and known as “vitalism” – chiefly Roselyne Rey's 1987 thèse d'État, which only appeared in print in 2000, and works by François Duchesneau, Elizabeth Williams,... more
... de Montpellier in the second half of the eighteenth century, and known as “vitalism” – chiefly Roselyne Rey's 1987 thèse d'État, which only appeared in print in 2000, and works by François Duchesneau, Elizabeth Williams, Timo Kaitaro, and Dominique Boury, some of whom ...
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It was in 1660s England, according to the received view, in the meetings of the Royal Society of London, that science acquired the form of empirical enquiry that we recognize as our own: an open, collaborative experimental practice,... more
It was in 1660s England, according to the received view, in the meetings of the Royal Society of London, that science acquired the form of empirical enquiry that we recognize as our own: an open, collaborative experimental practice, mediated by specially-designed instruments, supported by civil, critical discourse, stressing accuracy and replicability. Guided by the philosophy of Francis Bacon, by Protestant ideas of this-worldly benevolence, by gentlemanly codes of decorum and integrity and by a dominant interest in mechanics and a conviction in the mechanical structure of the universe, the members of the Royal Society created a novel experimental practice that superseded all former modes of empirical inquiry – from Aristotelian observations to alchemical experimentation.
... Empiricist Heresies in Early Modern Medical Thought Dear, Peter. 2006. The Meanings of Experience. ... 1990. Experience and Causal Explanation in Medical Empiricism. In Greek Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, ed. P.... more
... Empiricist Heresies in Early Modern Medical Thought Dear, Peter. 2006. The Meanings of Experience. ... 1990. Experience and Causal Explanation in Medical Empiricism. In Greek Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, ed. P. Nicolacopoulos, BSPS, vol. 121, 91–107. ...
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In reflecting on the relation between early empiricist conceptions of the mind and more experimentally motivated materialist philosophies of mind in the mid-eighteenth century, I suggest that we take seriously the existence of what I... more
In reflecting on the relation between early empiricist conceptions of the mind and more experimentally motivated materialist philosophies of mind in the mid-eighteenth century, I suggest that we take seriously the existence of what I shall call ‘phantom philosophical projects’. A canonical empiricist like Locke goes out of his way to state that their project to investigate and articulate the ‘logic of ideas’ is not a scientific project: “I shall not at present meddle with the Physical consideration of the Mind” (Essay, I.i.2). An equally prominent thinker, Immanuel Kant, seems to make an elementary mistake, given such a clear statement, when he claims that Locke’s project was a “physiology of the understanding,” in the Preface to the A edition of the first Critique). A first question, then, would be: what is this physiology of the understanding, if it was not Locke’s project? Did anyone undertake such a project? If not, what would it have resembled? My second and related case comes out of a remark the Leyden professor of medicine Hieronymus Gaub makes in a letter to Charles Bonnet of 1761: criticizing materialist accounts of mind and mind-body relations such as La Mettrie’s, Gaub suggests that what is needed is a thorough study of the “mechanics of the soul,” and that Bonnet could write such a study. What is the mechanics of the soul, especially given that it is presented as a non-materialist project? To what extent does it resemble the purported “physiology of the understanding”? And more generally, what do both of these phantom projects have to do with a process we might describe as a ‘naturalization of the soul’?
Early modern automata, understood as efforts to ‘model’ life, to grasp its singular properties and/or to unveil and demystify its seeming inaccessibility and mystery, are not just fascinating liminal, boundary, hybrid, crossover or... more
Early modern automata, understood as efforts to ‘model’ life, to grasp its singular properties and/or to unveil and demystify its seeming inaccessibility and mystery, are not just fascinating liminal, boundary, hybrid, crossover or go-between objects, while they are all of those of course. They also pose a direct challenge to some of our common conceptions about mechanism and embodiment. They challenge the simplicity of the distinction between a purported ‘mechanistic’ worldpicture, its ontology and its goals, and on the other hand an attempt to understand ourselves and animals more broadly as flesh-and-blood, affective entities (that is, not just breathing and perspiring, but also desiring and ‘sanguine’ machines, as La Mettrie might have put it). In what follows I reflect on the complexity of early modern mechanism faced with the (living) body, and its mirror image, contemporary theories of embodiment. At times, embodiment theory seems to be governed by a fascination with what the Artificial Life researcher Ezequiel Di Paolo has called ‘biochauvinism’ (Di Paolo, “Extended Life”): an unquestioned belief that ‘living bodies are special’. Yet how does the theorist define this special status? The question is apparently a simple one, or at least promptly yields an aporia which appears simple: to borrow a provocative phrase from Terry Eagleton, embodiment theory is obsessed by the body but terrified of biology. Yet at the same time, at least since Hubert Dreyfus and Andy Clark’s groundbreaking works, embodiment has been a legit part of cognitive science, yielding the even more recently emerged field of ‘embodied cognition’ (see the work of Larry Shapiro), which seeks to depart from traditional cognitive science, especially the latter’s understanding of cognition as computational, in order to instead underscore “the significance of an organism’s body in how and what the organism thinks,” in Shapiro’s words.
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La catégorie d’organisme a un statut ambigu : scientifique ou philosophique ? Elle a longtemps en tout cas servi de « caution » scientifique à une argumentation philosophique qui refuse la tendance dite « mécaniste » ou « réductionniste »... more
La catégorie d’organisme a un statut ambigu : scientifique ou philosophique ? Elle a longtemps en tout cas servi de « caution » scientifique à une argumentation philosophique qui refuse la tendance dite « mécaniste » ou « réductionniste » perçue comme dominante depuis le dix-septième siècle, que ce soit au sein de l’animisme stahlien, de la monadologie leibnizienne, du néo-vitalisme de Hans Driesch, ou encore de la « phénoménologie du vivant » au vingtième siècle chez des auteurs comme Goldstein, Straus, Weizsäcker, dont l’influence sur Merleau-Ponty mais aussi Canguilhem est patente. Le but de cet article est à la fois de mettre en lumière la sédimentation de cette catégorie, pour en faire une évaluation critique, autrement dit, pour voir en quoi elle peut demeurer utile une fois qu’on a refusé toute dérive « organiciste ». On proposera une notion de l’organisme en tant que fiction instrumentale.
In this essay, I shall not consider the work of Antonio Negri as a whole, but rather in some of its recent manifestations, from Macchina tempo and the work on Spinoza in the early nineteen-eighties to the recent work on pouvoir... more
In this essay, I shall not consider the work of Antonio Negri as a whole, but rather in some of its recent manifestations, from Macchina tempo and the work on Spinoza in the early nineteen-eighties to the recent work on pouvoir constituant, on Empire, and on a Lucretian strand of materialism, connoted by the expression Alma Venus, from the second line of De rerum natura. I shall presuppose the existence of something like a doctrine of materialism and a theory of temporality in this body of work, and thereby ignore certain questions of genre which might compel the reader to distinguish between a properly political project and a philosophical one. As we shall see, however, it becomes impossible here to dissect the whole and surgically remove an inquiry into matter and time, brain and intellect, power and possibility, nature and ontology, without also having to consider the additional pair of praxis and action. By examining and assessing these conceptual “regions,” I will seek to determine what is new in Negri’s treatment of these old themes. This implies pin-pointing the moments at which his understanding departs from a more “canonical” understanding of these themes ... or from my own. Since this is not an exercise in comparative textual analysis, I will not speak of Negri as a “reader” of Lucretius, Spinoza, Marx or Deleuze, but rather seek to emphasize some of the shared features in this heretical tradition, in order to arrive, as it were, at its essential Denkform or what in French is called a portrait robot, the hypothetical portrait of a suspect, which can then be evaluated.
Ce travail poursuit un double objectif, à la fois historique et théorique. Je tente d’abord de fournir une généalogie et une évaluation de l’épisode « matérialiste » dans la philosophie anglo-saxonne contemporaine à la fin des années 1950... more
Ce travail poursuit un double objectif, à la fois historique et théorique. Je tente d’abord de fournir une généalogie et une évaluation de l’épisode « matérialiste » dans la philosophie anglo-saxonne contemporaine à la fin des années 1950 en Australie, avec U.T. Place, J.J.C. Smart, et D.M. Armstrong. Ces auteurs utilisaient moins l’expression « materialism » que celle de « théorie de l’identité » (identity theory), quoique Smart est bien l’auteur de l’article « Materialism » de l’Encyclopedia Britannica. Par là, ils entendaient une théorie portant sur la nature du rapport entre cerveau et esprit — remarquons d’emblée qu’il n’est plus question de matière et d’esprit —, une théorie à forte connotation programmatique, puisqu’il s’agissait de montrer que ce rapport était en fait une identité. Afin de mieux cerner cet épisode de l’histoire intellectuelle, je tenterai également de fournir quelques éclaircissements sur ses liens avec le Cercle de Vienne (un des premiers membres de cette « communauté de chercheurs » hors Australie fut Herbert Feigl) ; sa réaction au béhaviorisme ; et sa postérité dans la « philosophie de l’esprit » contemporaine. En conclusion, je proposerai une première évaluation de ce type de matérialisme par rapport à un matérialisme philosophique plus généralement défini, et cela m’amènera à quelques critiques de la « théorie de l’identité ».
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In his Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717), the English deist Anthony Collins proposed a complete determinist account of the human mind and action, partly inspired by his mentor Locke, but also by elements from Bayle,... more
In his Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717), the English deist Anthony Collins proposed a complete determinist account of the human mind and action, partly inspired by his mentor Locke, but also by elements from Bayle, Leibniz and other Continental sources. It is a determinism which does not neglect the question of the specific status of the mind but rather seeks to provide a causal account of mental activity and volition in particular. Some decades later, Diderot articulates a very similar determinism, which seeks to recognize the existence of ‘causes proper to man’. The difference with Collins is that now biological factors are being taken into account. Obviously both the ‘volitional’ and the ‘biological’ forms of determinism are noteworthy inasmuch as they change our picture of the nature of determinism itself, but my interest here is to compare these two determinist arguments, both of which are broadly Spinozist in nature – and as such belong to Israel's category ‘the radical Enlightenment’, i.e. a kind of underground Enlightenment constituted by Spinozism – and to see how Collins’ specifically psychological vision and Diderot’s specifically biological vision correspond to their two separate national contexts: determinism in France in the mid-1750s was a much more medico-biological affair than English determinism.
There is an enduring story about empiricism, popularized in the early twentieth century by philosophers like Ayer and Russell, and targeted by other philosophers such as Husserl. It runs as follows: from Locke onwards to Carnap,... more
There is an enduring story about empiricism, popularized in the early twentieth century by philosophers like Ayer and Russell, and targeted by other philosophers such as Husserl. It runs as follows: from Locke onwards to Carnap, empiricism is the doctrine in which raw sense-data are received through the passive mechanism of perception; experience is the effect produced by external reality on the mind or ‘receptors’. In addition, empiricism on this view is the ‘handmaiden’ of experimental natural science, seeking to redefine philosophy and its methods in conformity with the results of modern science. Secondly, there is a story about materialism, popularized initially by Marx and Engels and later restated as standard, ‘textbook’ history of philosophy in the English-speaking world. It portrays materialism as explicitly mechanistic, seeking to reduce the world of qualities, sensations, and purposive behaviour to a quantitative, usually deterministic physical scheme. Building on some recent scholarship, I aim to articulate the contrarian view according to which neither of these stories is true. On the contrary, empiricism turns out to be less ‘science-friendly’ and more concerned with moral matters; materialism reveals itself to be, in at least a large number of cases, a ‘vital’, anti-mechanistic doctrine which focuses on the unique properties of organic beings. This revision of two key philosophical episodes should reveal that our history of early modern philosophy is dependent to a great extent on ‘special interests’, whether positivistic or Kantian, and by extension lead us to rethink the relation and distinction between ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’ in this period.
This odd expression, ‘Epicuro-Cartesianism’, is used by La Mettrie himself to describe his system. It refers, obviously, to a blending of Epicureanism and Cartesianism. But what does this mean? Three senses can be distinguished, of... more
This odd expression, ‘Epicuro-Cartesianism’, is used by La Mettrie himself to describe his system. It refers, obviously, to a blending of Epicureanism and Cartesianism. But what does this mean? Three senses can be distinguished, of which one is probably more significant than the rest:(1) An infusion of subversive Epicurean elements of materialism into a more orthodox Cartesian mechanist framework; (2) An attempt to graft Epicurean, that is, hedonistic moral teaching onto a Cartesian philosophyof science and metaphysics; (3) A decisive transformation of the world of early modern rationalist metaphysics by bringing in the new ‘data’ from the life sciences, primarily medicine and the nascent biology.
    Epicureanism simply served as the convenient form in which to cast this new data (moving away from substantial forms in the Aristotelian sense to a new medically driven materialism). It is the third sense which I will emphasize, although it does not exclude the first two. La Mettrie is generally given short shrift in Anglo-Saxon histories of philosophy, which usually make the ‘textbook’ jump from Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz to Kant and Hegel. Unfortunately, the vivid nature of La Mettrie’s most famous title, L’Homme Machine, has led to his being included in the pantheon of mechanistic materialist thinkers, to the present days. Yet careful research has shown, over the past twenty years, that La Mettrie was anything but a mechanist in our sense (or in Descartes’ sense); the ‘machine’ in question is an anatomical machine, not reproducible artificially. Furthermore, the exact nature of his appropriation of Cartesianism is debatable. I will thus try and describe this important stage of interpretation of the ‘classical’ rationalist systems, which produced a concise materialist system quite different from those generally considered as canonical in Anglo-Saxon histories of philosophy, such as the genuinely mechanistic system of Hobbes.
"(English abstract; article in French) This article seeks to explicate the notion of what I term the ‘materialist dream’, on the basis of an examination of Diderot’s work D’Alembert’s Dream. What might the connection be, between the... more
"(English abstract; article in French)
This article seeks to explicate the notion of what I term the ‘materialist dream’, on the basis of an examination of Diderot’s work D’Alembert’s Dream. What might the connection be, between the materialist philosophy put forth as the content of the work, and the form of the dream which gives a highly idiosyncratic character to the presentation of this philosophy ? A purely textual, literary analysis would itself show a particular kind of inseparability between form and content here ; but the analysis suggested here focuses on how a certain idea of the dream serves as a necessary conceptual condition for the elaboration of Diderot’s materialism : for the affirmation of the unity of the material world without losing sight of the mental states of a dreaming subject."
A look at whether or not we can be considered as the 'inheritors' today of eighteenth-century materialism.
La philosophie rencontre la figure du monstre d’abord comme un défi à l’ordre – ordre naturel ou ordre moral, la distinction est secondaire. Ce défi peut également être porteur de sens, comme une malédiction. Puis la philosophie... more
La philosophie rencontre la figure du monstre d’abord comme un défi à l’ordre – ordre naturel ou ordre moral, la distinction est secondaire. Ce défi peut également être porteur de sens, comme une malédiction. Puis la philosophie «naturalise » cette figure, soit pour effacer toute dimension potentiellement chaotique dans l’univers, soit pour construire une ontologie (un « roman métaphysique», comme on disait au dix-huitième siècle) du vivant et de son imprévisibilité, dont le monstre est la représentation princeps. Mais il existe un troisième moment, une troisième « rencontre » entre la philosophie et le monstre, qui marque une sorte de retour à sa puissance significative, dans la pensée contemporaine cette fois : elle attribue à la figure du monstre un pouvoir messianique. Nous tentons ici d’évaluer le sens et la justification de cette attribution.
In selected texts by Diderot, including the Encyclopédie article “Cabinet d’histoire naturelle” (along with his comments in the article “Histoire naturelle”), the Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature and the Salon de 1767, I examine... more
In selected texts by Diderot, including the Encyclopédie article “Cabinet d’histoire naturelle” (along with his comments in the article “Histoire naturelle”), the Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature and the Salon de 1767, I examine the interplay between philosophical naturalism and the recognition of the irreducible nature of artifice, in order to arrive at a provisional definition of Diderot’s vision of Nature as “une femme qui aime à se travestir.” How can a metaphysics in which the concept of Nature has a normative status, also ultimately consider it to be something necessarily artificial? Historically, the answer to this question involves the project of natural history. A present-day reconstruction would have to make sense of this project and relate it to the vision of Nature expressed in Diderot’s phrase. In addition, it would hopefully pinpoint the difference between this brand of Enlightenment naturalism and contemporary naturalism, and by extension, allow us to understand a bit more about what naturalism is in general.
In this paper we suggest a revisionist perspective on two significant figures in early modern life science and philosophy: William Harvey and John Locke. Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, is often named as one of the... more
In this paper we suggest a revisionist perspective on two significant figures in early modern life science and philosophy: William Harvey and John Locke. Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, is often named as one of the rare representatives of the ‘life sciences’ who was a major figure in the Scientific Revolution. While this status itself is problematic, we would like to call attention to a different kind of problem: Harvey dislikes abstraction and controlled experiments (aside from the ligature experiment in De Motu Cordis), tends to dismiss the value of instruments such as the microscope, and emphasizes instead the privileged status of ‘observed experience’. To use a contemporary term, Harvey appears to rely on, and chiefly value, ‘tacit knowledge’. Secondly, Locke’s project is often explained with reference to the image he uses in the Epistle to the Reader of his Essay, that he was an “underlabourer” of the sciences. In fact, despite the significant medical phase of his career, Locke’s ‘empiricism’ turns out to be above all a practical (i.e. ‘moral’) project, which focuses on the delimitation of our powers in order to achieve happiness, and rejects the possibility of naturalizing knowledge. When combined, these two cases suggest a different view of some canonical moments in early modern natural philosophy.
La Mettrie is best known for his L’Homme-Machine, about which there has been a tenacious malentendu for many generations, partly tied up with the influence of German Idealism, then Hegelian Marxism, on the historiography of materialism:... more
La Mettrie is best known for his L’Homme-Machine, about which there has been a tenacious malentendu for many generations, partly tied up with the influence of German Idealism, then Hegelian Marxism, on the historiography of materialism: namely, that a work entitled Man a Machine is, of course, a statement of mechanistic materialism. Recent scholarship has shown not only that is this not true about La Mettrie in particular, who is interested in living, organic bodies and uses machine metaphors both loosely and heuristically, but more broadly, that there may be no such thing as a mechanistic materialist, certainly not in the eighteenth century. La Mettrie’s materialism focuses on, and is motivated by, the existence of animate matter. Slightly less known is La Mettrie’s contribution to moral thought, his Anti-Sénèque ou Discours sur le bonheur, which is a few years posterior to L’Homme-Machine. It turns out that most of the scandals associated with his name, most of the opprobrium attached to it, even by fellow materialists such as Diderot or d’Holbach, was in reaction to this work, which defends a particularly radical brand of ‘modern Epicureanism’, i.e. hedonism. My interest here is to articulate a connection – and a coherent, doctrinal connection – between La Mettrie’s materialism and his moral (or immoral) work; I claim that it is under the aegis of Epicureanism that the two come together. That is, La Mettrie is not a materialist about mind, body, soul and medicine, and an Epicurean about ethics as the pursuit of happiness understood as pleasure. Rather, he is what I term a ‘medical Epicurean’ (in the tradition of Gassendi and Lamy) for whom an understanding of ‘animate bodies’ applies equally to metaphysics and to ethics. As he asks in the Discours sur le bonheur, if man were not a machine, why would we need doctors?
The eminent French biologist and historian of biology, François Jacob, once notoriously declared “On n’interroge plus la vie dans les laboratoires”: laboratory research no longer inquires into the notion of ‘Life’. Nowadays, as David Hull... more
The eminent French biologist and historian of biology, François Jacob, once notoriously declared “On n’interroge plus la vie dans les laboratoires”: laboratory research no longer inquires into the notion of ‘Life’. Nowadays, as David Hull puts it, “both scientists and philosophers take ontological reduction for granted… Organisms are ‘nothing but’ atoms, and that is that.” In the mid-twentieth century, from the immediate post-war period to the late 1960s, French philosophers of science such as Georges Canguilhem, Raymond Ruyer and Gilbert Simondon returned to Jacob’s statement with an odd kind of pathos: they were determined to reverse course. Not by imposing a different kind of research program in laboratories, but by an unusual combination of historical and philosophical inquiry into the foundations of the life sciences (particularly medicine, physiology and the cluster of activities that were termed ‘biology’ in the early 1800s). Even in as straightforwardly scholarly a work as La formation du concept de réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (1955), Canguilhem speaks oddly of “defending vitalist biology,” and declares that Life cannot be grasped by logic (or at least, “la vie déconcerte la logique”). Was all this historical and philosophical work merely a reassertion of ‘mysterian’, magical vitalism? In order to answer this question we need to achieve some perspective on Canguilhem’s ‘vitalism’, notably with respect to its philosophical influences such as Kurt Goldstein.
Les antimatérialistes tels que Lamy, Bergier, et Frédéric II affirment que les matérialistes réduisent l’homme à un automate. Après tout, un des livres les plus célèbres de l’époque ne s’intitule-t-il pas L’Homme-Machine ? Mais la réalité... more
Les antimatérialistes tels que Lamy, Bergier, et Frédéric II affirment que les matérialistes réduisent l’homme à un automate. Après tout, un des livres les plus célèbres de l’époque ne s’intitule-t-il pas L’Homme-Machine ? Mais la réalité est plus complexe. D’une part on a pu montrer que La Mettrie emploie la machine surtout comme analogie et ne réduit jamais les propriétés « organiques » aux propriétés « inorganiques ». D’autre part, et inversement, les physiologies mécanistes (Descartes, Boerhaave) et  a fortiori micro-mécanistes (Haller) ne sont pas dépourvues de dimensions explicatives fonctionnelles, rendant donc compte de la spécificité des vivants sans être toutefois finalistes. Enfin, les modèles de l’organisation et de l’économie animale creusent un terrain qui apparaît parfois comme un mécanisme élargi, parfois comme un vitalisme qui serait compatible avec des modèles mécaniques « heuristiques » (Bordeu, Ménuret de Chambaud). Il nous reste donc à comprendre la figure matérialiste de l’automate, irréductiblement organique et pourtant entièrement « automatique » dans ses déterminations physiques et affectives (comme dans le Discours sur le bonheur de La Mettrie). Cette figure mérite-t-elle encore d’être qualifiée de « machine » ou de « mécanique » ?
The concept of ‘social brain’ is a hybrid, located somewhere in between politically motivated philosophical speculation about the mind and its place in the social world, and recently emerged inquiries into cognition, selfhood,... more
The concept of ‘social brain’ is a hybrid, located somewhere in between politically motivated philosophical speculation about the mind and its place in the social world, and recently emerged inquiries into cognition, selfhood, development, etc., returning to some of the founding insights of social psychology but embedding them in a neuroscientific framework. In this paper I try to reconstruct a philosophical tradition for the social brain, a ‘Spinozist’ tradition which locates the brain within the broader network of relations, including social relations. This tradition runs from Spinoza to Lev Vygotsky in the early 20th century, and on to Gilles Deleuze, Toni Negri and Paolo Virno in recent European philosophy, as a new perspective on the brain. The concept of social brain that is articulated in this reconstruction – some early-20th century Soviet neuropsychologists spoke of socialism and the cortex as being “on the same path” – overcomes distinctions between Continental thought and the philosophy of mind, and possibly gives a new metaphysical framework for social cognition.
The category of ‘organism’ has an ambiguous status: is it scientific or is it philosophical? Or, if one looks at it from within the relatively recent field or sub-field of philosophy of biology, is it a central, or at least legitimate... more
The category of ‘organism’ has an ambiguous status: is it scientific or is it philosophical? Or, if one looks at it from within the relatively recent field or sub-field of philosophy of biology, is it a central, or at least legitimate category therein, or should it be dispensed with? In any case, it has long served as a kind of scientific “bolstering” for a philosophical train of argument which seeks to refute the “mechanistic” or “reductionist” trend, which has been perceived as dominant since the 17th century, whether in the case of Stahlian animism, Leibnizian monadology, the neo-vitalism of Hans Driesch, or, lastly, of the “phenomenology of organic life” in the 20th century, with authors such as Kurt Goldstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Georges Canguilhem. In this paper I try to reconstruct some of the main interpretive ‘stages’ or ‘layers’ of the concept of organism in order to critically evaluate it. How might ‘organism’ be a useful concept if one rules out the excesses of ‘organismic’ biology and metaphysics? Varieties of instrumentalism and what I call the ‘projective’ concept of organism are appealing, but perhaps ultimately unsatisfying.
In Book II, chapter xxi of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, on ‘Power’, Locke presents a radical critique of free will. This is the longest chapter in the Essay, and it is a difficult one, not least since Locke revised it four... more
In Book II, chapter xxi of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, on ‘Power’, Locke presents a radical critique of free will. This is the longest chapter in the Essay, and it is a difficult one, not least since Locke revised it four times without always taking care to ensure that every part cohered with the rest. My interest is to work out a coherent statement of what would today be termed ‘compatibilism’ from this text – namely, a doctrine which seeks to render free will and determinism compatible. By emphasizing the hedonistic dimension of his argument, according to which we are determined by “the most pressing uneasiness” we feel, I show how a deterministic reading is possible. This was seen by Locke’s favorite and also most radical disciple, the deist Anthony Collins, whose treatise A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty (1717) is both a critique of Essay II.xxi and a radicalization of its contents. I argue that Collins articulated a form of determinism which recognizes the specificity of action, thanks in large part to the uniquely ‘volitional’ determinism suggested by Locke.
At the very beginning of L’Homme-Machine, La Mettrie claims that Leibnizians with their monads have “rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul”; a few years later Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, President of the Berlin... more
At the very beginning of L’Homme-Machine, La Mettrie claims that Leibnizians with their monads have “rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul”; a few years later Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and natural philosopher with a strong interest in the modes of transmission of ‘genetic’ information, conceived of living minima which he termed molecules, “endowed with desire, memory and intelligence,” in his Système de la nature ou Essai sur les corps organisés. This text first appeared in Latin in 1751 under the title Dissertatio inauguralis metaphysica de universali naturae systemate, with the pseudonym Dr Baumann; it was translated by Maupertuis in 1754 as Essai sur la formation des corps organisés and was later included in his 1756 Œuvres under the title Système de la nature. Now, it is clear that Maupertuis was a kind of Leibnizian; and that his molecule possessed higher-level, ‘mental’ properties. In that sense he falls under the first category described by La Mettrie. But he was also involved in a debate on this issue with Diderot, who put forth a sustained critique of Maupertuis’ theory of the molecule in the additions to his 1753 Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature. Where Maupertuis attributes higher-level properties to his living minima, Diderot argues that these properties are ‘organizational’, i.e., they can only be properties of the whole. At issue here is the degree of commitment to a form of materialism.
Well prior to the invention of the term ‗biology‘ in the early 1800s by Lamarck and Treviranus, and also prior to the appearance of terms such as ‗organism‘ under the pen of Leibniz in the early 1700s, the question of ‗Life‘, that is, the... more
Well prior to the invention of the term ‗biology‘ in the early 1800s by Lamarck and Treviranus, and also prior to the appearance of terms such as ‗organism‘ under the pen of Leibniz in the early 1700s, the question of ‗Life‘, that is, the status of living organisms within the broader physico-mechanical universe, agitated different corners of the European intellectual scene. From modern Epicureanism to medical Newtonianism, from Stahlian animism to the discourse on the ‗animal economy‘ in vitalist medicine, models of living being were constructed in opposition to ‗merely anatomical‘, structural, mechanical models. It is therefore curious to turn to the ‗passion play‘ of the Scientific Revolution – whether in its early, canonical definitions or its more recent, hybridized, reconstructed and expanded versions: from Koyré to Biagioli, from Merton to Shapin – and find there a conspicuous absence of worry over what status to grant living beings in a newly physicalized universe. Neither Harvey, nor Boyle, nor Locke (to name some likely candidates, the latter having studied with Willis and collaborated with Sydenham) ever ask what makes organisms unique, or conversely, what does not. In this paper I seek to establish how ‗Life‘ became a source of contention in early modern thought, and how the Scientific Revolution missed the controversy.
Prior to publishing (with Michael Hardt) his political treatise entitled Empire (2000), followed by its sequels, which are actually more like ‘complements’, Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009), Antonio Negri had elaborated what we... more
Prior to publishing (with Michael Hardt) his political treatise entitled Empire (2000), followed by its sequels, which are actually more like ‘complements’, Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009), Antonio Negri had elaborated what we might call an ontology, a theory of what there is, or in his case, of ‘the real’, in works on Spinoza, Marx, the concept of ‘constituent power’ (pouvoir constituant) and most recently, kairos. And as it turns out, not only does the ontology we encounter in these works underpin the empirical reflections on Empire, but less traditionally (that is, in a sense distinct from the usual relation between theory and practice), the idea of ontology itself becomes political. This paper tries to bring to light this dimension of Negri’s thought – the hidden connections between the metaphysics of a 17th century Dutch philosopher and the potentially emancipatory mechanisms of globalisation.
Je traiterai de l’« hétérodoxie » de la construction biologique chez Diderot : de sa construction conceptuelle du vivant qui serait l’équivalent « clandestin » d’une contribution à la biologie. Mais justement en tant que c’est une forme... more
Je traiterai de l’« hétérodoxie » de la construction biologique chez Diderot : de sa construction conceptuelle du vivant qui serait l’équivalent « clandestin » d’une contribution à la biologie. Mais justement en tant que c’est une forme clandestine de la biologie, elle ne se laisse pas transformer en épisode appartenant à un récit, progressif, linéaire ou non, de l’histoire de la science du vivant. Le matérialisme d’inspiration clandestine de Diderot, tel qu’il apparait par exemple dans l’article « Spinosiste » de l’Encyclopédie, n’est ni une métaphysique chimique ou chimiatrique à la Stahl, ni, dans l’attention qu’il porte au vivant, une contribution à la biologie comme chez Maupertuis ou Lamarck.
Une réflexion sur le concept d'organisme, à cheval entre biologie et philosophie, et en tant que concept polémique.
The materialist approach to the body is often, if not always understood in ‘mechanistic’ terms, as the view in which the properties unique to organic, living embodied agents are reduced to or described in terms of properties that... more
The materialist approach to the body is often, if not always understood in ‘mechanistic’ terms, as the view in which the properties unique to organic, living embodied agents are reduced to or described in terms of properties that characterize matter as a whole, which allow of mechanistic explanation. Indeed, from Hobbes and Descartes in the 17th century to the popularity of automata such as Vaucanson’s in the 18th century, this vision of things would seem to be correct. In this paper I aim to correct this inaccurate vision of materialism. On the contrary, the materialist project on closer consideration reveals itself to be, significantly if not exclusively, (a) a body of theories specifically focused on the contribution that ‘biology’ or rather ‘natural history’ and physiology make to metaphysical debates, (b) much more intimately connected to what we now call ‘vitalism’ (a case in point is the presence of Théophile de Bordeu, a prominent Montpellier physician and theorist of vitalism, as a fictional character and spokesman of materialism, in Diderot’s novel D’Alembert’s Dream), and ultimately (c) an anti-mechanistic doctrine which focuses on the unique properties of organic beings. To establish this revised vision of materialism I examine philosophical texts such as La Mettrie’s Man a Machine and Diderot’s D’Alembert’s Dream; medical entries in the Encyclopédie by physicians such as Ménuret and Fouquet; and clandestine combinations of all such sources (Fontenelle, Gaultier and others).
Au chapitre XXI du 2e Livre de son Essai concernant l’entendement humain, intitulé « Du Pouvoir », Locke propose une critique radicale du libre arbitre (« free will ») dans son acception traditionnelle. Il s’agit du chapitre le plus long... more
Au chapitre XXI du 2e Livre de son Essai concernant l’entendement humain, intitulé « Du Pouvoir », Locke propose une critique radicale du libre arbitre (« free will ») dans son acception traditionnelle. Il s’agit du chapitre le plus long de l’Essai, et de l’un des plus difficiles, car Locke l’a retravaillé lors des quatre éditions successives, sans tout à fait se soucier de la cohérence entre les éléments présents dans la 1ère édition et ses ajouts conceptuels ultérieurs. Mon but est de montrer qu’il existe bel et bien une cohérence dans l’approche lockienne de la liberté, en tant qu’elle articule une forme de « compatibilisme » – c’est-à-dire la position selon laquelle le libre-arbitre et le déterminisme sont compatibles. Mais la position de Locke vacille entre une reconnaissance du déterminisme (selon la dimension hédoniste de son argument) et un retrait face à ce constat (selon ce qu’il appelle la « suspension du désir »). Cette indécision, ou en tout cas cette coexistence précaire de deux visions de l’action et de la motivation, sera critiquée par le disciple préféré de Locke, le déiste Anthony Collins, dans son Enquête philosophique sur la liberté humaine (1717). Je suggèrerai en conclusion que Locke a défini un espace conceptuel dans lequel le déterminisme et la reconnaissance de la spécificité de l’univers mental peuvent coexister, mais que Collins en a tiré un système plus conséquent, fondé en grande partie sur l’idée de « clôture causale ».
An attempt at reconstruction, analysis and classification of recent arguments in favor of a 'politics of affect(s)'.
I distinguish between what I call ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ forms of vitalism in the eighteenth century. Substantival vitalism presupposes the existence of something like a (substantive) vital force which either plays a causal role... more
I distinguish between what I call ‘substantival’ and ‘functional’ forms of vitalism in the eighteenth century. Substantival vitalism presupposes the existence of something like a (substantive) vital force which either plays a causal role in the natural world as studied by scientific means, or remains a kind of hovering, extra-causal entity. Functional vitalism tends to operate ‘post facto’, from the existence of living bodies to the desire to find explanatory models that will do justice to their uniquely ‘vital’ properties in a way that fully mechanistic (Cartesian, Boerhaavian etc.) models cannot. I discuss some representative figures of the Montpellier school (Bordeu, Ménuret, Fouquet) as being functional rather than substantival vitalists. Time allowing, I will make an additional point regarding the reprisal of vitalism(s) in ‘late modernity’, as some call it; from Hans Driesch to Georges Canguilhem. I suggest that in addition to the substantival and functional varieties, we then encounter a third species of vitalism, which I term ‘attitudinal’, as it argues for vitalism as a kind of attitude.
We have been accustomed at least since Kant and mainstream history of philosophy to distinguish between the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘teleological’; between a fully mechanistic, quantitative science of Nature exemplified by Newton (or... more
We have been accustomed at least since Kant and mainstream history of philosophy to distinguish between the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘teleological’; between a fully mechanistic, quantitative science of Nature exemplified by Newton (or Galileo, or Descartes) and a teleological, qualitative approach to living beings ultimately expressed in the concept of ‘organism’ – a purposive entity, or at least an entity possessed of functions. The beauty of this distinction is that it seems to make intuitive sense and to map onto historical and conceptual constellations in medicine, physiology and the related natural-philosophical discussions on the status of the body versus that of the machine. In this paper I argue that the distinction between mechanism and teleology is imprecise and flawed, on the basis of a series of examples: the presence of ‘functional’ or ‘purposive’ features even in Cartesian physiology; work such as that of Richard Lower’s on animal respiration; the fact that the model of the ‘body-machine’ is not at all a mechanistic reduction of organismic properties to basic physical properties but on the contrary a way of emphasizing the uniqueness of organic life; and the concept of ‘animal economy’ in vitalist medical theory, which I present as a kind of ‘teleo-mechanistic’ concept of organism (borrowing a term of Timothy Lenoir’s which he used to discuss 19th-century embryology) – neither mechanical nor teleological.
The early modern radical savant did not travel so much as he read travel narratives. From Montaigne’s cannibals to Locke’s talking parrot, from Leibniz’s plans to create a race of “warrior slaves” to Diderot’s utopian Voyage de... more
The early modern radical savant did not travel so much as he read travel narratives. From Montaigne’s cannibals to Locke’s talking parrot, from Leibniz’s plans to create a race of “warrior slaves” to Diderot’s utopian Voyage de Bougainville, a kind of ‘science fiction’ or ‘deterritorialization’ of the narrative of the familiar, Eurocentric, Plato-to-Hegel narrative of Western philosophy can be discerned. A key feature of these artificial travel narratives is that they serve as a basis for proclaiming atheism (and China plays a well-known role here). The radical savant described here is neither the solitary meditator, nor the participant in communal knowledge-gathering projects for national glory (Bacon, Linnaeus). He (for it is always a he in this case) is less a producer of a stable, cumulative body of knowledge than a destabilizer of forms of existing knowledge.
Sensibility, in any of its myriad realms – moral, physical, aesthetic, medical and so on – seems to be a paramount case of a higher-level, intentional property, not a basic property. Diderot famously made the bold and attributive move of... more
Sensibility, in any of its myriad realms – moral, physical, aesthetic, medical and so on – seems to be a paramount case of a higher-level, intentional property, not a basic property. Diderot famously made the bold and attributive move of postulating that matter itself senses, or that sensibility (perhaps better translated ‘sensitivity’ here) is a general or universal property of matter, even if he at times took a step back from this claim and called it a “supposition.” Crucially, sensibility is here playing the role of a ‘booster’: it enables materialism to provide a full and rich account of the phenomena of conscious, sentient life, contrary to what its opponents hold: for if matter can sense, and sensibility is not a merely mechanical process, then the loftiest cognitive plateaus are accessible to materialist analysis, or at least belong to one and the same world as the rest of matter. This was noted by the astute anti-materialist critic, the Abbé Lelarge de Lignac, who, in his 1751 Lettres à un Amériquain, criticized Buffon for “granting to the body [la machine, a common term for the body at the time] a quality which is essential to minds, namely sensibility.” This view, here attributed to Buffon and definitely held by Diderot, was comparatively rare. If we look for the sources of this concept, the most notable ones are physiological and medical treatises by prominent figures such as Robert Whytt, Albrecht von Haller and the Montpellier vitalist Théophile de Bordeu. We then have, or so I shall try to sketch out, an intellectual landscape in which new – or newly articulated – properties such as irritability and sensibility are presented either as an experimental property of muscle fibers, that can be understood mechanistically (Hallerian irritability, as studied recently by Hubert Steinke and Dominique Boury) or a property of matter itself (whether specifically living matter as in Bordeu and his fellow montpelliérains Ménuret and Fouquet, or matter in general, as in Diderot). I am by no means convinced that it is one and the same ‘sensibility’ that is at issue in debates between these figures (as when Bordeu attacks Haller’s distinction between irritability and sensibility and claims that ‘his own’ property of sensibility is both more correct and more fundamental in organic beings), but I am interested in mapping out a topography of the problem of sensibility as property of matter or as vital force in mid-eighteenth-century debates – not an exhaustive cartography of all possible positions or theories, but an attempt to understand the ‘triangulation’ of three views: a vitalist view in which sensibility is fundamental, matching up with a conception of the organism as the sum of parts conceived as little lives (Bordeu et al.); a mechanist, or ‘enhanced mechanist’ view in which one can work upwards, step by step from the basic property of irritability to the higher-level property of sensibility (Haller); and, more eclectic, a materialist view which seeks to combine the mechanistic, componential rigour and explanatory power of the Hallerian approach, with the monistic and metaphysically explosive potential of the vitalist approach (Diderot). It is my hope that examining Diderot in the context of this triangulated topography of sensibility as property sheds light on his famous proclamation regarding sensibility as a universal property of matter.
We usually portray the early modern period as one characterised by the ‘birth of subjectivity’ with Luther and Descartes as two alternate representatives of this radical break with the past, each ushering in the new era in which ‘I’ am... more
We usually portray the early modern period as one characterised by the ‘birth of subjectivity’ with Luther and Descartes as two alternate representatives of this radical break with the past, each ushering in the new era in which ‘I’ am the locus of judgements about the world. A sub-narrative under the heading ‘the mind-body problem’ recounts how Cartesian dualism, responding to the new promise of a mechanistic science of nature, “split off” the world of the soul/mind/self from the world of extended, physical substance – a split which has preoccupied the philosophy of mind up until the present day. We would like to call attention to a different constellation of texts – neither a robust ‘tradition’ nor an isolated ‘episode’, somewhere in between – which have in common their indebtedness to, and promotion of an embodied, Epicurean approach to the soul. These texts follow the evocative hint given in Lucretius’ De rerum natura (III, 327-330) that ‘the soul is to the body as scent is to incense’ (in an anonymous early modern French version); in other words they neither assert the autonomy of the soul, nor the dualism of body and soul, nor again a sheer physicalism in which ‘psychic’ or ‘intentional’ properties are reduced to the basic properties of matter. Rather, to borrow the title of one of these treatises (L’âme matérielle), they seek to articulate the concept of a material soul. By reconstructing some elements of the tradition of a corporeal, mortal and ultimately material soul, at the intersection of medicine, natural philosophy and metaphysics, including sections devoted to Malebranche and Willis, but focusing primarily on texts including the 1675 Discours anatomiques by the Epicurean physician Guillaume Lamy; the anonymous manuscript from circa 1725 entitled L’âme matérielle, which is essentially a compendium of texts from the later seventeenth century such as Malebranche and Bayle, along with excerpts from Lucretius; and materialist writings such Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’Homme-Machine (1748), we seek to articulate this concept of a ‘material soul’ with its implications for notions of embodiment, the nature of mental states, and selfhood.
Newton’s impact on Enlightenment natural philosophy has been studied at great length, in its experimental, methodological and ideological ramifications. One aspect that has received fairly little attention is the role Newtonian... more
Newton’s impact on Enlightenment natural philosophy has been studied at great length, in its experimental, methodological and ideological ramifications. One aspect that has received fairly little attention is the role Newtonian “analogies” played in the formulation of new conceptual schemes in physiology, medicine, and the life science as a whole in the work of self-proclaimed Newtonians in natural history such as Buffon. The so-called ‘medical Newtonians’, people like Pitcairne and Keill, have been studied; but they were engaged in a more literal project of directly transposing, or seeking to transpose, Newtonian laws into quantitative models of the body. What I shall be interested in here is something different: neither the metaphysical reading of Newton, nor direct empirical transpositions, but rather, a more heuristic, empiricist construction of Newtonian analogies. Figures such as Haller, Barthez, and Blumenbach constructed analogies between the method of celestial mechanics and the method of physiology. In celestial mechanics, they held, an unknown entity (such as gravity) is posited and used to mathematically link sets of determinate physical phenomena (e.g., the phases of the moon and tides). This process allows one to remain agnostic about the ontological status of the unknown entity, as long as the two linked sets of phenomena are represented adequately. Haller, et. al., held that the Newtonian physician and physiologist can similarly posit an unknown called ‘life’ and use it to link various other phenomena, from digestion to sensation, to the functioning of the glands. These phenomena consequently appear as interconnected, goal-oriented processes which do not exist either in an inanimate mechanism or in a corpse. In keeping with the empiricist roots of the analogy, however, no ontological claims are made about the nature of this vital principle, and no attempts to directly causally connect such a principle and observable phenomena are made. The role of the “Newtonian analogy” thus brings together diverse schools of thought, and cuts across a surprising variety of programs, models and practices in natural philosophy.
There is a familiar opposition between a ‘Scientific Revolution’ ethos and practice of experimentation, including experimentation on life, and a ‘vitalist’ reaction to this outlook. The former is often allied with different forms of... more
There is a familiar opposition between a ‘Scientific Revolution’ ethos and practice of experimentation, including experimentation on life, and a ‘vitalist’ reaction to this outlook. The former is often allied with different forms of mechanism – if all of Nature obeys mechanical laws, including living bodies, ‘iatromechanism’ should encounter no obstructions in investigating the particularities of animal-machines – or with more chimiatric theories of life and matter, as in the ‘Oxford Physiologists’. The latter reaction also comes in different, perhaps irreducibly heterogeneous forms, ranging from metaphysical and ethical objections to the destruction of life, as in Margaret Cavendish, to more epistemological objections against the usage of instruments, the ‘anatomical’ outlook and experimentation, e.g. in Locke and Sydenham. But I will mainly focus on a third anti-interventionist argument, which I call ‘vitalist’ since it is often articulated in the writings of the so-called Montpellier Vitalists, including their medical articles for the Encyclopédie. The vitalist argument against experimentation on life is subtly different from the metaphysical, ethical and epistemological arguments, although at times it may borrow from any of them. It expresses a Hippocratic sensibility – understood as an artifact of early modernity, not as some atemporal trait of medical thought – in which Life resists the experimenter, or conversely, for the experimenter to grasp something about Life, it will have to be without torturing or radically intervening in it. I suggest that this view does not have to imply that Nature is something mysterious or sacred; nor does the vitalist have to attack experimentation on life in the name of some ‘vital force’ – which makes it less surprising to find a vivisectionist like Claude Bernard sounding so close to the vitalists.
In debates between holism and reductionism in biology, from the early twentieth century to more recent re-enactments involving genetic reductionism, developmental systems theory, or systems biology, the role of chance – the presence of... more
In debates between holism and reductionism in biology, from the early twentieth century to more recent re-enactments involving genetic reductionism, developmental systems theory, or systems biology, the role of chance – the presence of theories invoking chance as a strong explanatory principle – is hardly ever acknowledged. Conversely, Darwinian models of chance and selection (Dennett 1995, Kupiec 1996, Kupiec 2009) sit awkwardly with reductionist and holistic concepts, which they alternately challenge or approve of. I suggest that the juxtaposition of chance and the holism-reductionism pair (at multiple levels, ontological and methodological, pertaining to the vision of scientific practice as well as to the foundations of a vision of Nature, implicit or explicit) allows the theorist to shed some new light on these perennial tensions in the conceptualisation of Life.
I discuss the relation between materialism and brain from Ddierot to the identity theory of brain and mind and reflect on the specificity of a 'cultured brain' materialism.
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My topic is the materialist appropriation of empiricism – as conveyed in the ‘minimal credo’ nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu (which is not just a phrase repeated from Hobbes and Locke to Diderot, but significantly, is... more
My topic is the materialist appropriation of empiricism – as conveyed in the ‘minimal credo’ nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu (which is not just a phrase repeated from Hobbes and Locke to Diderot, but significantly, is also a medical phrase used by Harvey, Mandeville and others). That is, canonical empiricists like Locke go out of their way to state that their project to investigate and articulate the ‘logic of ideas’ is not a scientific project: “I shall not at present meddle with the Physical consideration of the Mind” (Locke 1975, I.i.2), which Kant gets exactly wrong in his reading of Locke, in the Preface to the A edition of the first Critique. Indeed, I have suggested elsewhere, contrary to a prevalent reading of Locke, that the Essay is not the extension to the study of the mind of natural-philosophical methods; that he is actually not the “underlabourer” of Newton and Boyle he claims politely to be in the Epistle to the Reader (Wolfe and Salter 2009, Wolfe 2010). Rather, Locke says quite directly, “Our Business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct” (Locke 1975, I.i.6). There is more to say here about what this implies for our understanding of empiricism (see Norton 1981 and Gaukroger 2005), but instead I shall focus on a different aspect of this episode: how a non-naturalistic claim which belongs to what we now call epistemology (a claim about the senses as the source of knowledge) becomes an ontology – materialism. That is, how an empiricist claim could shift from being about the sources of knowledge to being about the nature of reality (and/or the mind, in which case it needs, as Hartley saw and Diderot stated more overtly, an account of the relation between mental processes and the brain). (David Armstrong, for one, denied that there could be an identification between empiricism and materialism on this point [Armstrong 1968, 1978]: eighteenth-century history of science seems to prove him wrong.) Put differently, I want to examine the shift from Locke’s logic of ideas to an eighteenth-century focus on what kind of ‘world’ the senses give us (Condillac), to an assertion that there is only one substance in the universe (Diderot, giving a materialist cast to Spinozism), and that we need an account of the material substrate of mental life. This is neither a ‘scientific empiricism’ nor a linear developmental process from philosophical empiricism to natural science, but something else again: the unpredictable emergence of an ontology on empiricist grounds.
Denis Diderot’s natural philosophy is deeply and centrally ‘biologistic’: as it emerges between the 1740s and 1780s, thus right before the appearance of the term ‘biology’ as a way of designating a unified science of life (McLaughlin),... more
Denis Diderot’s natural philosophy is deeply and centrally ‘biologistic’: as it emerges between the 1740s and 1780s, thus right before the appearance of the term ‘biology’ as a way of designating a unified science of life (McLaughlin), his project is motivated by the desire both to understand the laws governing organic beings and to emphasize, more ‘philosophically’, the uniqueness of organic beings within the physical world as a whole. This is apparent both in the metaphysics of vital matter he puts forth in works such as D’Alembert’s Dream (1769) and the more empirical concern with the mechanics of life in his manuscript Elements of Physiology, on which he worked during the last twenty years of his life. This ‘biologism’ obviously presents the interpreter of Diderot with some difficulties, notably as regards his materialism. In response, some have described him as a ‘holist’ (Kaitaro) while others have emphasized his materialist, naturalist project (Bourdin, Wolfe). In what follows I examine a little-known aspect of Diderot’s articulation of his biological project: his statement in favour of epigenesis within the short but suggestive Encyclopédie article “Spinosiste.” Diderot was, of course, a partisan of epigenesis (the developmental-biological theory opposed to preformation, according to which beings develop by successive adjunction of layers of matter), but why include a statement in favour of a particular biological (or developmental) theory within an entry dealing with a philosopher, Spinoza, who does not seem to have been concerned at all with the specific properties of living beings, how they grow from embryonic to developed states, and so on? By trying to answer this question I also try and locate Diderot’s biological project in relation to what will become, in the years after his death, the project for a science called ‘biology’. For it is not clear that the two can be easily correlated or causally linked: Diderot’s ‘epigenetic Spinozism’ is a different conceptual entity from what we find in histories of biology.

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Materialism – the doctrine that everything that is, is material – does not appear at first glance to be very friendly to la chose artistique, or more broadly, to the sphere of invention, fantasy and artifice. Materialist philosophers... more
Materialism – the doctrine that everything that is, is material – does not appear at first glance to be very friendly to la chose artistique, or more broadly, to the sphere of invention, fantasy and artifice. Materialist philosophers claim that everything real, is somehow material inasmuch as it belongs to the physical, ‘spacetime’ world of causes and effects, from microbes to volcanoes, from tables and chairs to paintings and love letters. In modern times (starting in the Enlightenment and reaching full velocity in the twentieth century) materialists have specifically been interested in the particular ‘region’ of minds and brains. That is, from a general metaphysical position on how we belong to the material universe, materialism focused on the particular case of how our minds would be material in the sense of being brains, i.e., how mental states are brain states. Aesthetic and moral theorists (including existentialists and phenomenologists) tended to react with horror to this thesis, since – in random order – it strips us of our free will; it is blind to the universe of values and emotions; it is similarly blind to the symbolic realm, to fictions and lies, and by extension to art.
In this lecture I return first to an apparently quite different case, that of cabinets of natural history, to explore the interpenetration of materialism and artificiality that 20th-21st century ‘physicalism’ appears blind to. Natural history is the (immediately pre-Darwinian) project to understand Nature as a whole, including the place of humans in Nature. Dispositifs such as zoos, curiosity cabinets and their near-cousin, natural history cabinets were an integral part of this approach to Nature, which was closely connected to the materialist tendency of some ‘philosophes’ such as Diderot and the natural historian Buffon (the curator, so to speak, of the Jardin du Roi, today the Jardin des Plantes in Paris). In selected texts by Diderot, I examine the interplay between materialism and the recognition of the irreducible nature of artifice, in order to arrive at a provisional definition of Diderot’s vision of Nature as “une femme qui aime à se travestir.” How can a materialist metaphysics in which the concept of Nature has a normative status, also ultimately consider it to be something necessarily artificial? Historically, the answer to this question involves the project of natural history.
I then turn to the case for how materialism is not necessarily blind to artificiality, as regards the brain. Additional cases of embarrassment for materialists include ‘neuroaesthetics’ which purports to find a neuronal basis for understanding art, with childish claims like ‘neuroscience confirms Cubism!’. It thus comes as something of a surprise to find that theorists from Terrence Deacon to Warren Neidich, along with passing aperçus from Gilles Deleuze and Daniel Dennett, have developed a view in which the brain belongs to the symbolic realm, and its plasticity embeds it in the world of culture. One key route to take is that of what I’ve called elsewhere a cultured-brain materialism. If the brain is (always) already social then the gulf separating cerebral materialism and art, or Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften, disappears in a puff of smoke. Cabinets of natural history and cultured brains (a.k.a. brains in development) turn out to be (a) part of a parcel of a thriving materialism and (b) irreducibly embedded in the sphere of representations, phantasmagorias and creation.
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A well-known specimen of hybridity and nomadism (whether ontological or historicist) is animal spirits, crossing as they do domains such as neuroscience, literature, culture, and economics. Animal spirits – the “internuncii” or messengers... more
A well-known specimen of hybridity and nomadism (whether ontological or historicist) is animal spirits, crossing as they do domains such as neuroscience, literature, culture, and economics. Animal spirits – the “internuncii” or messengers of the body, as Mandeville calls them – are not a neutral concept. On the one hand, classic historians of neuroscience will produce narratives in which it was the abandonment of animal spirits which allowed experimental neuroscience to emerge. On the other hand Sutton 1998 has described a real conceptual fertility of animal spirits, not ‘trapped’ in a linear scientific development, but precisely messengers, agents of transmission which enable Willis, Sterne (and others I discuss) to articulate brain models characterized by fluidity and dynamism rather than by passive matter. I focus here on animal spirits, as a dividing-point between two forms of materialism – a more mechanistic materialism in which matter, but also the brain, is a mere lump of inert substance, and a more dynamic materialism in which matter, but also the brain, is self-transforming and malleable (plastic, in current parlance). A vision of the brain that incorporates animal spirits can enable a particularly dynamic picture of materialism.  Animal spirits serve here as a marker for a dynamic cerebral materialism.
Research Interests:
I use the term ‘brain theory’ to seek to navigate around various shipwrecks, hidden reefs and also ‘siren calls’ with promised emancipatory results of various neurophilosophical, neurophenomenological, neuronormative discourses. Brain... more
I use the term ‘brain theory’ to seek to navigate around various shipwrecks, hidden reefs and also ‘siren calls’ with promised emancipatory results of various neurophilosophical, neurophenomenological, neuronormative discourses. Brain theory is not identical with the current state of philosophy of neuroscience, understood as a kind of foundational reflection on technical issues in neuroscience (Bickle and Hardcastle 2012), yet it is closer to this kind of project than to social and cultural studies of our relation to the figure of the brain, the popularity of brain imaging (Dumit 2003, Alač 2008). Brain theory can of course be applied to a variety of fields and contexts, at times resembling the project of critical neuroscience (Choudhury and Slaby, eds., 2012). But in this short talk I aim to focus on one particular aspect: the utopian hopes and claims of such discourse.
The prefix ‘neuro-‘ has become ubiquitous in numerous scientific and loosely scientific disciplines, offering as it does a surplus of concrete, supposedly experimentally substantiated ‘brain explanations’ for various hotly debated phenomena (from punishment and free will to gender and economic decision-making). But as Jan De Vos has observed, this trend has led to a doubly unfortunate effect: the weakening of the relation of any of these projects to actual neuroscience, and the weakening of the discipline of which they are the ‘neuro’ version of (De Vos 2014; see also Ortega and Vidal eds., 2011). De Vos quotes Matthew Taylor, a British Labour Party activist and government adviser under Tony Blair, who claimed that insights from neurological research offered a more solid base “than previous attempts to move beyond left and right” (Taylor 2009). To the 1980s-type fascination with ‘my brain is my self’, the last decade has responded with a particularly vacuous version of a social turn, expressed in a variety of expressions, from ‘neurocapitalism’ and ‘neuropolitics’ to the possibility of neuroenhanced individuals possessing a ‘neurocompetitive advantage’ (Lynch 2004). Critical neuroscience has ably challenged some of the pseudoscientific discourse of neuronormativity, as has the neurofeminist analysis of Cordelia Fine (Fine 2010; see also Schmitz).
What do I mean then with utopian hopes? Neurolegal attempts to identify psychopaths before they commit crimes? Rather, the combined fervor of the Bolshevik invocation of the socialist cortex – as if, contrary to present, tedious attacks on ‘dangerous naturalism’ à la Virno, the true radical Marxism was in the brain (Wolfe 2010, Pasquinelli 2013) – and Negri’s incantantory assertion that ‘the brain is the biopolitical monster’ (cit. in Wolfe 2008). We might take a dose of deflationary realism towards such utopias; yet they are infinitely more sympathetic than the melancholy cynicism of the déraciné architecture theorists, the gleeful naïveté of metaphysicians of the prosthesis, or (again) the reactive, fearful anti-naturalisms, anti-cerebralisms of some our fellow-travellers.
The sciences of cognition, going back to the early days of the Artificial Intelligence movement in the 1950s, were typically viewed with profound suspicion or distaste by thinkers, Marxist and other, for whom the embeddedness of human... more
The sciences of cognition, going back to the early days of the
Artificial Intelligence movement in the 1950s, were typically
viewed with profound suspicion or distaste by thinkers,
Marxist and other, for whom the embeddedness of human
beings in the symbolic realm of representations and values
was a sine qua non condition of any legitimate theory –
whether ethical, political, metaphysical. Attempts to locate
mind and action within the natural world studied by the
natural sciences, in this case by neuroscience, were viewed as
at best conceptual justifications for de-humanizing, secret
military projects. The fact that in recent years the sciences of
cognition have had a ‘social turn’ (“social cognition,” “social
neuroscience,” “affective neuroscience,” “collective
intentionality” and so forth) does little to assuage the fears of
the engagé, anti-naturalist thinker. In contrast, I propose a
historic-philosophical reconstruction of a ‘Spinozist’ tradition
which locates the brain within the broader network of
relations, including social relations. This tradition runs from
Spinoza to Marx and Lev Vygotski in the early 20th century,
and on to Toni Negri and Paolo Virno in recent European
philosophy, as a new perspective on the brain. The concept of
social brain that is articulated in this reconstruction – some
early-20th century Soviet neuropsychologists spoke of the
“socialist cortex” – overcomes distinctions between
Continental thought and the philosophy of mind (and its
ancillary, cognitive science), and possibly gives a new
metaphysical framework for social cognition.
Phenomena at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology such as phantom limb syndrome, much discussed in the wake of Ramachandran’s work (1998, 1999, etc.), when considered in a philosophical light, might seem to imply the necessity... more
Phenomena at the intersection of neuroscience and psychology such as phantom limb syndrome, much discussed in the wake of Ramachandran’s work (1998, 1999, etc.), when considered in a philosophical light, might seem to imply the necessity of the first-person perspective, made popular by Nagel (1979) but stemming from the central insights of the phenomenological tradition (Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in particular). But it is possible to formulate a materialist response to this first-person challenge. For this response to be effective, it will have to take account of, indeed include, the theme of embodiment (F. Varela, S. Kelly). However, in order to not to reinvest brain or body with the mysterious character that the materialist approach has stripped from the ‘first person’, the vision of the brain here must also be what Andy Clark called an embedded vision, that is, locating brain not just in an embodied context but also in the social world, in the network of symbolic relations (what Vygotsky and more recently Toni Negri have called the “social brain”). This is what I mean by “de-ontologizing the brain.”
On croyait que le temps de l'ontologie était révolu. Il n'existait presque plus personne d'intelligent qui croyait à la pertinence d'un discours sur la nature du réel lui-même. Tout était devenu une affaire de langage, avec le fameux... more
On croyait que le temps de l'ontologie était révolu. Il n'existait presque plus personne d'intelligent qui croyait à la pertinence d'un discours sur la nature du réel lui-même. Tout était devenu une affaire de langage, avec le fameux "tournant linguistique" ; que ce soit l'inextricabilité des jeux de langage ou la politique réduite à un modèle de dialogue, le réel était devenu, définitivement pouvait-on croire, linguistique. Le constat dépasse largement les frontières provinciales du "continental" et de "l'analytique". Or il n'en est rien. D'autres courants, qu'ils soient mineurs ou non, tentent de nous replacer au sein du monde, que ce soit comme des "parties de la nature", des acteurs dans la transformation du réel, ou des cerveaux.
Que l'on qualifie ces courants de matérialistes, de spinozistes, ou de naturalistes (le premier et le troisième terme étant pris au sens philosophique et non pas anthropologique), ils existent et se font entendre. Ainsi nous voyons apparaître depuis quelques décennies des nouvelles images de l'ontologie, inspirées par des pratiques diverses, notamment la science, l'anthropologie et la politique : W.V.O. Quine, Ph. Descola et A. Negri.
Le matérialisme face à la culture, à la sphère symbolique, à l’univers des représentations et des valeurs est censé être un parent pauvre ou appauvri, un ennemi, et surtout un observateur borné et limité. De Platon à Raymond Ruyer et... more
Le matérialisme face à la culture, à la sphère symbolique, à l’univers des représentations et des valeurs est censé être un parent pauvre ou appauvri, un ennemi, et surtout un observateur borné et limité. De Platon à Raymond Ruyer et Sartre, on dépeint le monde contemplé par le matérialiste comme une nécropole, un univers de masses, éventuellement de quantités d’énergie, sans forme ni sens. Au sein d’un tel univers, comment le philosophe matérialiste pourrait-il concevoir « le culturel » ou « le social » ? Il n’est donc pas surprenant que les théoriciens de l’univers plastique, des médias virtuels, mais aussi de l’activité politique des « intermittents du spectacle », sont plutôt tournés vers la notion d’« immatériel ». Or, une demi-génération de sciences cognitives, de neurophilosophie, mais aussi de réflexions philosophiques « hérétiques » comme celles de Deleuze-Guattari affirmant que « c’est le cerveau qui pense, pas l’homme » nous dévoilent l’existence d’un cerveau « plastique » (plasticité cérébrale), un cerveau « culturel », voire même un cerveau « social », pour reprendre l’expression du grand neuropsychologue soviétique, co-fondateur de la psychologie sociale (et spinoziste devant l’éternel), Lev Vygotski. Si le cerveau est culturel et social, et que le matérialiste est certainement en droit de parler du cerveau, serait-il possible que le matérialisme se saisisse de cet « au-delà » qui jusqu’à présent lui échappait ?
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Well prior to the invention of the term ‘biology’ in the early 1800s by Lamarck and Treviranus, and also prior to the appearance of terms such as ‘organism’ under the pen of Leibniz in the early 1700s, the question of ‘Life’, that is, the... more
Well prior to the invention of the term ‘biology’ in the early 1800s by Lamarck and Treviranus, and also prior to the appearance of terms such as ‘organism’ under the pen of Leibniz in the early 1700s, the question of ‘Life’, that is, the status of living organisms within the broader physico-mechanical universe, agitated different corners of the European intellectual scene. From modern Epicureanism to medical Newtonianism, from Stahlian animism to the discourse on the ‘animal economy’ in vitalist medicine, models of living being were constructed in opposition to ‘merely anatomical’, structural, mechanical models. It is therefore curious to turn to the ‘passion play’ of the Scientific Revolution – whether in its early, canonical definitions or its more recent, hybridized, reconstructed and expanded versions: from Koyré to Biagioli, from Merton to Shapin – and find there a conspicuous absence of worry over what status to grant living beings in a newly physicalized universe. Neither Harvey, nor Boyle, nor Locke (to name some likely candidates, the latter having studied with Willis and collaborated with Sydenham) ever ask what makes organisms unique, or conversely, what does not. In this paper I seek to establish how ‘Life’ became a source of contention in early modern thought, and how the Scientific Revolution missed the controversy.