La Mettrie, Julien Offray de (1709–1751)

views updated


Julien Offray de La Mettrie, the French physician and philosopher, was born in Saint-Malo, Brittany. After attending the Collège d'Harcourt, he studied medicine at the University of Paris, finally obtaining his doctor's degree from the Faculty of Rheims in 1733. He next went to Leiden to complete his training under the celebrated Dr. Hermann Boerhaave, whose iatromechanist doctrines were to have a decisive influence on his orientation in the philosophical, no less than in the medical, domain. Back in Saint-Malo as a practicing physician, La Mettrie undertook to popularize Boerhaave's teachings by translating into French a number of the latter's principal works. His marriage in 1739 to Marie-Louise Droneau proved unhappy and led before long to a separation. From 1743 to 1745 La Mettrie, as surgeon to the Gardes Françaises regiment, participated in several campaigns of the War of the Austrian Succession. The publication in 1745 of his first philosophical work, the Histoire naturelle de l'âme, brought him under severe official censure for his materialist views. This circumstance, along with an imprudent satire he wrote on the foibles of his medical colleagues, caused La Mettrie to exile himself to Holland. It was there that he published in 1747 L'homme machine, his best known and most influential book, whose atheistic and materialistic contents aroused even the liberal-minded Dutch to angry protest.

La Mettrie was fortunate enough, at this crucial moment, to find a protector in Frederick the Great, who invited him to Berlin. In Prussia he was appointed a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, as well as "physician ordinary" and "reader" to the king. Profiting from the security of his position, he brought out, among other writings, L'homme plante (1748), Le système d'Epicure (1750), and Discours sur le bonheur (1750), each of which attested, in its own way, to the sort of scandalizing unorthodoxy of thought for which their author had already acquired a unique reputation. His numerous enemies, powerless to suppress either him or his ideas, contented themselves with a plethora of refutations that were too often irrelevant in substance or abusive in tone; in particular, they drew a portrait of La Mettrie himself as a monster of depravity. But apart from his theoretical advocacy and personal pursuit of a frankly hedonistic ideal and his delight in provoking or shocking those of a stiffly bourgeois or pious outlook, La Mettrie's character was actually far from deserving the ignominy heaped upon it. He died in 1751 of what was regarded by his contemporaries, somewhat unkindly, as the effects of overeatinga diagnosis exploited by his foes to prove both the practical dangers of materialism and the providential punishment reserved for atheists. Frederick II composed the eulogy that was read before the Berlin Academy. Besides his philosophical works, La Mettrie wrote several medical treatises of only minor value, a series of polemical and ironical pamphlets aimed at his critics, and three mordant, informative satires on what he considered to be the incompetence and "malpractice" of the doctors of the period, the best being his Machiavel en médecine (17481750).

"The History of the Soul"

In the Histoire naturelle de l'âme, directed against the metaphysical dualism of René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and their followers, La Mettrie contended that the soul owes its being to those specific organic forms, produced by a force motrice inhering in matter, on which the mental faculties and operations remain dependent. The "history of the soul" thus becomes an aspect of the body's history and falls under the authority, not of the metaphysician or theologian, but of the natural scientist. In this claim we have the fundamental attitude of La Mettrie, from which his originality as a philosopher would spring. His method of inquiry consisted in moving regularly from the empirical sphere of scientific facts and theories to that of philosophy properthe latter being regarded, at least with respect to epistemological and psychological problems, as the logical extension of such branches of knowledge as anatomy, physiology, chemistry, medicine, and the like. La Mettrie was perhaps the first "medical" philosopher in the complete and true sensea designation suggesting at once the strengths and weaknesses peculiar to his thought.

In the Histoire de l'âme, La Mettrie sought to substantiate his naturalistic conception of the soul by means of two types of evidence, profusely cited, which tend to complement each other. Drawing, on the one hand, from the common fund of Lockean sensationalism (to which he gave, incidentally, a materialist meaning), La Mettrie argued that the contents of the mindhence the mind itselfhave no reality independently of the natural world in which sense impressions originate or of the sense organs by which these are transmitted. Utilizing, on the other hand, the technical data offered by the medical sciences of his time, he affirmed that the sensitive and intellectual activities of what is conventionally called the soul depend essentially on the structure and functions of the central nervous system, in general, and of the brain, in particular. Establishing a natural continuity from the external world through the sensory apparatus to the brain itself, La Mettrie identified the soul with a physically conditioned process in a way that allowed him to explain the various faculties of the soul, such as memory, reflection, imagination, the emotions, judgment, volition, solely in terms of their related organic causes.

However, a special feature of the Histoire de l'âme was its exposition of materialism within the conceptual framework of Aristotelian metaphysics. La Mettrie speculated that it is by virtue of the appropriate "material forms" and "substantial forms" that matter, actively organized by an intrinsic force motrice, realizes its potential attributes of a "vegetative soul" and a "sensitive soul"; each of these, in turn, he makes the "directing principle" of the biological or psychological functions coming under its sway. In presenting his empirico-physiological theory of mind under Scholastic auspices, La Mettrie intended, no doubt, to lend it some measure of metaphysical support, but probably more important was his wish to disarm the censorship by insistingas he did throughouton his theory's conformity with the prevailing orthodox tradition in Western philosophy. His strategy did not succeed very well, however, for the Aristotelianism on which he grafted his opinions served only to render them obscure and confused, yet apparently not quite obscure enough to prevent the authorities from recognizing and suppressing his "heretical" defense of materialism.

Man a Machine

The thesis of L'homme machine, in asserting and illustrating the material dependence of the states of the soul uniformly on the corresponding states of the body, remains similar to that of the Histoire de l'âme, but its mode of expression and exact meaning are appreciably different. Composed in a lively, unmethodical, popular fashion, its exposition of materialism is effected not only without any metaphysical substructure but in a definitely antimetaphysical spirit. Its naturalistic view of man, consequently, is offered mainly as a general heuristic hypothesis necessary in the positive study of behavior, without the need being felt, beyond such a standpoint, to make mental processes reductively identical with their physiological causes. Concurrently La Mettrie proposed an experimental-inductive method, as opposed to the then prevalent apriorist ones, in the search for the principles of psychology. Discussing the organic basis of both vital and psychic events, he insisted on the mechanistic character of the causation involved. This important point was not brought out clearly in Histoire de l'âme because of the attempted materialization of the pseudo-Scholastic "souls" and "faculties."

In L'homme machine no essential distinction remained between the conscious and voluntary, as against the merely vital, involuntary, or instinctual activities of the "human machine"; the two types of activity are presumed explainable by the relative complexity of the mechanical structures responsible for their production. Thus La Mettrie could claim that his man-machine theory was the extension to its logical and empirical limits of the Cartesian animal-automaton doctrine. However, he must be credited with conceiving of the "living machine" in a manner that goes beyond the inadequacies of Descartes's passive and inert notion of mechanism. The organic machine that sustains the sensitive and mental life of the individual is defined by La Mettrie as a purposively self-moving and self-sufficient system, consisting of dynamically interrelated parts. It was typical of his empirical procedure that he found proof of the autonomous energy and internal finality of the organism in the physiological data of irritability. Following the pioneering researches of Albrecht von Haller, La Mettrie was among the first to understand the radical value of the capacity for irritability, and he succeeded in interpreting it with particular relevance for his thesis of psychophysical automatism.

Among the subsidiary themes of L'homme machine, the declaration of atheism was a new and significant development. On the one hand, it served a polemical and propagandist aim against the religious enemies of La Mettrie's philosophical position. On the other hand, it was a logical outcome of the universal naturalism in which the man-machine theory was appropriately framed; the traditional belief in an Intelligent Creator was replaced by the concept of an active, self-creating nature.

In epistemology, La Mettrie's characteristic approach was to offer picturable analogies between mind and brain, suggesting (however crudely) the model of a "thinking machine" into which sense perceptions feed ideas in the form of coded symbols that are, in turn, stored, classed, compared, and combined by the cerebral apparatus in order to engender all the known varieties of thought. This mechanical ordering and manipulation by the brain of its symbolically represented contents prompted La Mettrie to consider that the fundamental faculty of the mind is "imagination."

Another feature of L'homme machine is its persistent tendency to assimilate human to animal nature with the aid of evidence drawn from the spheres of comparative anatomy and experimental psychology. The doctrine of free will, of course, becomes meaningless in the light of physiological necessity. The moral aspect of behavior is regarded as no less determined than its other aspects, although it should be noted that the man-machine theory, despite its context of universal determinism, leads to the affirmation of a hierarchy of individual values and capabilities, inasmuch as no two "machines" could ever be identical or equal. The problem of the moral or intellectual perfectibility of man, within the compass of La Mettrie's materialism, becomes primarily a medical problem, for its solution depends on the possibility of perfecting the state of the organism.

Discourse on Happiness

In the Discours sur le bonheur, intended as a refutation of Senecan Stoicism, La Mettrie viewed the summum bonum of happiness in a manner no less individualistic than hedonistic. In consistence with his materialist premises, he described happiness as the optimum state of pleasurable well-being of the "man-machine." Underlying his entire treatment of the subject is the assumption that happiness was destined by nature as a benefit to be enjoyed by each and every person, regardless of moral, intellectual, or social preconditions of any sort; that is, the goal of happiness is divorced basically from such traditional considerations as vice and virtue, ignorance and knowledge, social status and responsibility. La Mettrie obviously conceived of the problem of happiness, seen from the perspective of medical ethics, as similar toindeed, as a special instance ofthe more comprehensive problem of health. Accordingly, he diagnosed the greatest threat to felicity to be "remorse," a morbid and "unnatural" symptom, which he proposed, ever faithful to the Hippocratic oath, to alleviate in all and sundry, including even conscience-ridden criminals; he remarked that the practical control of social behavior was a political matter and no business of his.

The Discours sur le bonheur was misinterpreted as a cynical inducement to vice and crime and, more than any of his works, gave to the author an enduring reputation for immoralism among philosophes and antiphilosophes alike.

Minor Works

Among La Mettrie's minor works, perhaps the most curious is the Système d'Epicure. Its concern with ontogenesis and the origin of species represented a broadening of La Mettrie's materialism into an area of biological speculation which, at the time, was just beginning to excite interest. But his description of the "evolutionary" process, in which monstrous and unviable productions are supposed to have been eliminated in favor of the well-constituted types now extant, did little more than revive Lucretian memories.

In L'homme plante, La Mettrie's purpose was to stress the various parallelisms of structure and function between two such seemingly disparate things as the human organism and vegetable life. Reflecting his strong taste for analogical reasoning, it is an extreme confirmation of the "chain-of-being" idea, which it interprets in the sense of a uniform destiny for man and for all other living forms, excluding the possibility of a spiritual transcendence of nature.

Les animaux plus que machines is mainly a polemical piece directed against the school of animistic biology. By elaborating a mock defense of the opinion that a "soul" governs the animal economy, La Mettrie managed to expose, with the support of much physiological evidence, the absurdity and uselessness of such a hypothesis. The inference is that it would be equally ridiculous to claim that the operations of the human machine presuppose the agency of a "soul."

La Mettrie's philosophy, and in particular the man-machine doctrine central to it, has, owing to its very character, grown somewhat obsolete, together with the scientific documentation to which it was so intimately linked. The specific features of his mechanistic theory of mind might, in relation to what is now known or still unknown about neural processes, seem naive, crude, superficial, and pretentious. Nevertheless, his was the first naturalistic rationale for, and technical application of, a consistently physiological method in psychology. And while his philosophic contribution remains circumscribed by the biomedical standpoint that shaped his thinking, the man-machine hypothesis may be said, within its proper limits, to have retained a basic validity and vitality. Despite La Mettrie's bad name in his own age, and the many attempts to suppress, disfigure, or discredit his ideas, he exerted (surreptitiously, on the whole) a considerable influence in the eighteenth-century milieu. Among those indebted to the man-machine conception and to the naturalistic overtones and consequences that accompanied its formulation, the most important were Denis Diderot, Baron d'Holbach, and Pierre-Jean Georges Cabanis. Long neglected after his death, La Mettrie has been recognized since the latter part of the nineteenth century as one of the major forerunners of modern materialism. His nonreductive form of materialism may be regarded as an early version of a theory that is widely advocated at the present time by, among others, Ernest Nagel and various American naturalists; and his view that human beings can be fruitfully considered as a certain type of machine has obvious similarities to the principles underlying the science of cybernetics.

See also Animal Mind; Aristotelianism; Atheism; Cabanis, Pierre-Jean Georges; Continental Philosophy; Descartes, René; Diderot, Denis; Happiness; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Malebranche, Nicolas; Materialism; Mind-Body Problem; Nagel, Ernest; Naturalism; Stoicism.


works by la mettrie

Oeuvres philosophiques. 3 vols. Berlin and Paris, 1796.

L'homme machine. Translated as Man a Machine. London: G. Smith, 1750. A later translation is Man a Machine; including Frederick the Great's "Eulogy" and extracts from "The Natural History of the Soul." Translated with philosophical and historical notes by Gertrude C. Bussey. Chicago: Open Court, 1912.

works on la mettrie

Bergmann, Ernst. Die Satiren des Herrn Maschine. Leipzig, 1913. On La Mettrie's activities as a satirist.

Boissier, Raymond. La Mettrie, médecin, pamphlétaire, et philosophe. Paris, 1931. Mainly on the medical background of La Mettrie's thought.

Campbell, Blair. "La Mettrie: The Robot and the Automaton." Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 555572.

Lange, F. A. History of Materialism. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925. Bk. I, Sec. IV, Ch. 2 has a good discussion of La Mettrie.

Lemée, Pierre. Julien Offray de La Mettrie, médecin, philosophe, polémiste: sa vie, son oeuvre. Mortain, France, 1954. Best biographical account.

Perkins, Jean. "Diderot and La Mettrie." Studies on Voltaire and the 18th Century 10 (1959): 49100.

Pflug, Günther. "Lamettrie und die biologische Theorien des 18. Jahrhunderts." Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 27 (1953): 509527.

Poritzky, J. E. Julien Offray de La Mettrie, sein Leben und seine Werke. Berlin, 1900. Best general treatment of La Mettrie's philosophy.

Thomson, Ann. "La Mettrie, Machines, and the Denial of Liberty." Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 22(1) (2000): 7186.

Thomson, Ann. Materialism and Society in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: La Mettrie's Discours Préliminaire. Genève: Droz, 1981.

Vartanian, Aram. La Mettrie's L'Homme Machine: A Study in the Origins of an Idea. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960. Critical edition with introductory monograph and notes.

Vartanian, Aram. "Trembley's Polyp, La Mettrie, and Eighteenth-Century French Materialism." Journal of the History of Ideas 11 (1950): 259286.

Wright, John P., and Paul Potter, eds. Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind -Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Aram Vartanian (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)

About this article

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de (1709–1751)

Updated About content Print Article