Maupertuis, Pierre-Louis Moreau de (1698–1759)

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Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, the French scientist and philosopher, was born in Saint-Malo, Brittany. Elected in 1723 to the Académie des Sciences (and to the Royal Society in 1728), he first became known for his work in geometry. The expedition that he led to Lapland in 1736 to measure a degree of meridian near the pole helped finally to prove that Earth was an oblate spheroid. With his early introduction of Newtonian theories into France, Maupertuis became a leading exponent among the philosophes of the ideal of experimentalism as opposed to the overly deductive method in science associated with the Cartesian tradition. In 1744 Frederick II of Prussia asked him to reorganize the Berlin Academy of Sciences and later appointed him as its president (17461759). The remainder of his career was intimately linked to the activities of this group, and the growth of the academy into an important center of research owed much to his efforts.

Principle of Least Action

Maupertuis's famous principle of least action, which contributed signally to the systematization of mechanics, was formulated in "Recherche des loix du mouvement" (1746) as follows: "Whenever any change occurs in nature, the quantity of action employed for this is always the smallest possible"the "quantity of action" being proportional to the product of the mass of a body and its velocity and the distance traversed. Among the heated controversies provoked by this notion, Samuel Koenig's unfair (although understandable) attribution of it to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz brought about a scandalous quarrel and lifelong enmity between Maupertuis and Voltaire. But all this proved irrelevant to the historic value of the principle of least action, which, clarified progressively by the applications it found in the works of Leonhard Euler, Joseph Lagrange, William Hamilton, Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz, and others, emerged ultimately as a basic concept in the mathematical analysis of dynamic systems.

cosmological argument

In the Essai de cosmologie (1750), Maupertuis's extension of the principle of least action to the much debated problems of theodicy offered a compromise solution between the radical antifinalism of contemporary materialists and the naive finalism of those who saw God's wisdom in every manifestation of design in nature, however trivial or self-contradictory. By claiming that an actual mathematical equation showed God's regulation of nature through the parsimony of kinetic means employed in the production of all physical events, Maupertuis succeeded in giving an original and seemingly scientific version of the Cosmological Argument. But his assumption that there is logical necessity as such in the existence of mechanical laws, which was consistent with the example of René Descartes and Leibniz, typified a rationalist attitude that, though prevalent at the time, was already undermined by those who, like David Hume, alleged a merely empirical necessity for physical causation. Although Maupertuis's distrust of metaphysical reasoning led him to present his cosmological argument not as demonstrably certain, but only as the best that the imperfect human intellect was capable of, it remained perhaps less plausible than ingenious, particularly since it was affirmed without sufficient regard either to the epistemological difficulties it incurred or to the possible nontheological interpretations of its underlying minimal concept. Coming late in a current of thought that was to yield before long to new orientations in philosophy, the Essai de cosmologie had a limited historical impact. It was, in fact, in a form essentially free of teleological meanings that the principle of least action exercised its considerable influence on the development of physicomathematical science.

Biology: The Structure of Matter

A different science, biology, inspired Maupertuis's next major work (1751), the Dissertatio Inauguralis Metaphysica de Universali Naturae Systemate (known also as the Système de la nature ). Study of the problem of heredity had led Maupertuis to reject, in the Vénus physique (1745), the then reigning doctrine of preformation and to favor instead a theory of epigenesis using the law of attraction. But he had subsequently found this theory inadequate and had despaired altogether of accounting mechanistically for the origins and nature of life. In the Dissertatio Inauguralis, therefore, he sought to explain the formation of living things by supposing that all the elementary particles of matter are individually endowed in a proportionately elementary degree with "desire, aversion, and memory," by virtue of which they combine to form organic entities.

Such a notion, no less than that of least action, betrays a marked Leibnizian background in Maupertuis's thinking, despite his outspoken criticism of the metaphysics of Leibniz. It is true, nevertheless, that Maupertuis did not assign the metaphysical status of the monads to his "percipient particles" but, rather, presented them as part of a general biological hypothesis; he accounted for the elemental coexistence of physical and psychic properties in nature by reference to a common unknowable substance. Thus, the philosophical basis of his biological theorizing may be described as either an "atomistic dualism" or a "corpuscular psychism," sustained by a phenomenological accord between matter and its presumed psychic qualities. These ideas were misinterpreted in materialistic terms by Denis Diderot and contributed indirectly to the eventual success of naturalism in biology. Since Maupertuis's metabiological conception was also intended to explain the structural transformations of the various species by a process of genetic mutation, it merged, in that respect too, with an important current of evolutionist speculation that grew in France after about 1750.


The views of Maupertuis in epistemology can be judged from a number of his writings. While, like Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and most of the philosophes, he agreed with John Locke that sensation is the source of all our knowledge, his position was appreciably more sophisticated, probably because of his encounter with the Berkeleian critique. If this critique did not quite win him over to subjectivism, he at least became convinced that experience offers no more than the disjointed fragments of a merely phenomenal reality and that the substance presumed to excite in the mind the perceptions that in turn are projected cognitively toward the natural world remains itself beyond objective determination. Maupertuis ascribed even the evidence of mathematics not to any intrinsic veracity of such knowledge but to the fact that it is based on the repetition (réplicabilité ) of certain simple ideas that consist of identical units and are abstracted from the heterogeneous totality of sensory impressions. In the same spirit, his Réflexions philosophiques sur l'origine des langues et la signification des mots (1748) raises the equally crucial question of the linguistic prefigurations of sense experience, from which scientific reasoning is unable completely to escape.


Maupertuis's principal excursion into ethics, Essai de philosophie morale (1749), tried somewhat overambitiously to reconcile the Stoic, Epicurean, and Christian schools but succeeded only in reaching an eclectic view characterized by the author's own pessimism concerning the chances of human felicity. It offered, however, an early instance of the application of arithmetic to the problem of happiness by its attempt to express, in the analogy of statics, the equations of a "hedonistic calculus."


Generally, the thought of Maupertuis pursued the aim, shared by many of his contemporaries, of linking philosophy more concretely than in the past with the content of the particular sciences. Instead of presenting an overall logical coherence, his work contributes various philosophical essays reflecting the different points of departure dictated by his primarily scientific interests. The cosmological thesis, speculative biology, and moral opinions of Maupertuis remained largely separate from each other; moreover, Maupertuis himself was often in the curious but historically symptomatic predicament of searching earnestly for metaphysical solutions while disbelieving in their possibility. Having elaborated the principle of least action and the notion of percipient particles of matter in a rather ambiguous zone between metaphysics proper and scientific theory, it is not surprising that he should have suffered much unmerited neglect from historians both of philosophy and of science. But it is now recognized that Maupertuis had a significant, even if secondary, role in the maturing of modern physics and biology alike, as well as in the transition of philosophical thinking from classical metaphysics to the critical position adopted by Immanuel Kant.

See also Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Descartes, René; Geometry; Hamilton, William; Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig von; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Meier, Georg Friedrich; Pessimism and Optimism; Scientific Method; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


works by maupertuis

Lettres. 1752. Place of publication unknown.

Examen philosophique de la preuve de l'existence de Dieu. In Memoirs of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. 1756.

Oeuvres. 4 vols. Lyons, 1756.

works on maupertuis

Abelé, Jean. "Introduction à la notion d'action et au principe de l'action stationnaire." Revue des questions scientifiques 119 (1948): 2542.

Bachelard, Suzanne. Les polémiques concernant le principe de moindre action au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Université de Paris, Palais de la Découverte, 1961.

Beeson, David. Maupertuis: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1992.

Brunet, Pierre. Étude historique sur le principe de la moindre action. Paris, 1938.

Brunet, Pierre. Maupertuis, étude biographique and Maupertuis: l'oeuvre et sa place dans la pensée scientifique et philosophique de XVIIIe siècle. 2 vols. Paris: Blanchard, 1929. An authoritative study of Maupertuis's life and thought.

Crombie, A. C. "Maupertuis, précurseur du transformisme." Revue de synthèse 78 (1957): 3556.

Feher, Marta. "The Role of Metaphor and Analogy in the Birth of the Principle of Least Action of Maupertuis (16981759)." International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2 (1988): 175188.

Gossman, L. "Berkeley, Hume and Maupertuis." French Studies 14 (1960): 304324.

Guéroult, Martial. "Note sur le principe de la moindre action chez Maupertuis." In Dynamique et métaphysique leibniziennes, 215235. Strasbourg, 1934.

Maglo, Koffi. "The Reception of Newton's Gravitational Theory by Huygens, Varignon, and Maupertuis: How Normal Science May Be Revolutionary." Perspectives on Science 11(2) (2003): 135169.

Ostoya, Paul. "Maupertuis et la biologie." Revue d'histoire des sciences 7 (1954): 6078.

Terrall, Mary. The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Vartanian, Aram. "Diderot and Maupertuis." Revue Internationale De Philosophie 38 (1984): 4666.

Aram Vartanian (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)