Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron D’

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Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron D’

(b. Edesheim, Palatinate, Germany, December 1723; d. Paris, France, 21 January 1789)

philosophy of science.

Little more is known about d’Holbach’s parents than that they were Germans of modest middle-class status. Under the tutelage of a wealthy parvenu uncle, Baron Franciscus Adam d’Holbach, he completed his university studies at Leiden and soon thereafter, in 1749, settled permanently in Paris, where he obtained French naturalization and, in 1750, married. On his uncle’s death in 1753, he inherited a considerable fortune and his title. The famous salon that he maintained for several decades in Paris became a social and intellectual center for the Encyclopédie, to which d’Holbach was an important contributor, and with whose editors, Diderot and d’Alembert, he formed close ties. The côterie holbachique, frequented by some of the most brilliant thinkers, writers, scientists, and artists of the age, was also the foremost gathering place for the exchange of radical ideas in philosophy, politics, and science under the ancien régime.

D’Holbach was himself the most audacious philosophe of this circle. During the 1760’s, he caused numerous antireligious and anticlerical tracts (written in large part, but not entirely, by himself) to be clandestinely printed abroad and illegally circulated in France. His philosophical masterpiece, the Système de la nature, ou des lois du monde physique et du monde moral, a methodical and intransigent affirmation of materialism and atheism, appeared anonymously in 1770. In the ensuing decade, he published a series of ethical and political works which criticized or attacked the absolutist monarchy, state religion, class system, administrative policies, and socioeconomic institutions of the ancien régime. D’Holbach’s wideranging, militant activities on behalf of reform have been recognized as constituting a major influence toward the making of the French Revolution.

In regard to his services to science, it should be stated that d’Holbach was mainly a skillful propagator and popularizer of technical information at a time when such efforts represented a new and valuable means for promoting scientific progress. He also helped to develop and disseminate several original theories that had decisive implications not only for philosophy but for the future course of such sciences as geology, biology, and psychology.

Between 1752 and 1765, d’Holbach wrote for the Encyclopédie some 400 signed articles or notices and, it is estimated, at least as many that remained unsigned. The greatest part of this contribution expertly summarized the existing state of knowledge in the fields of chemistry, mineralogy, and metallurgy. D’Holbach typically gave a technological and utilitarian emphasis to his articles which, of course, dealt with subjects that invited practical applications. Concurrently, he translated a number of significant works covering the same sciences, about which the eighteenth-century French public had much to learn from German sources. Among these translations, often usefully annotated by d’Holbach, one may cite the Minéralogic of Wallerius (Paris, 1753); Henckel’s Introduction a la minéralogie (Paris, 1756); C. E. Gellert’s Chimie métallurgique (Paris, 1758); J. G. Lehmann’s Traités de physique, d’histoire naturelle, de minéralogie et de métallurgic (Paris, 1759); and Stahl’s Traité du soufre (Paris, 1766).

In addition to those concerning natural science, many Encyclopédie articles, echoing themes and arguments presented more fully in d’Holbach’s subversive writings, pertained to what would now be called anthropology, ethnology, and the history of religion. In these “human sciences” d’Holbach generally interpreted whatever data were available to him in accordance with his basic aim of exposing the rampancy of superstition and fanaticism practiced by mankind in countless cults, while suggesting or drawing the appropriate parallels with Christianity. As a social scientist, he sought above all to explain how collective emotions of fear and hope in the face of the menacing, misunderstood powers of nature had inspired or encouraged every form of religious illusion from primitive magic to the abstract notion of God; moreover, he showed how governments had soon learned to exploit such human weakness and ignorance in order to tyrannize their peoples.

An entire complex of advanced scientific thought, growing out of d’Holbach’s aforementioned interests, is part and parcel of the philosophy elaborated in the Systéme de la nature. In fact, d’Holbach postulated materialism and atheism squarely on the conclusion that the positive truths already attained by the science of his day, together with the triumph of the empirical method, had rendered contradictory or futile such ideas as God, the creation, soul, and immortality. He supported this revolutionary position by offering an elaborate picture of the universe as a self-sufficient, dynamic, self-creating system, made up exclusively of material elements inherently endowed with specific energies. Thereby matter, eternally in motion, produces according to regular mechanical laws the ever changing combinations that constitute nature, that is, the whole of reality.

In keeping with such a naturalistic conception of things, d’Holbach outlined an anticreationist cosmology and a nondiluvian geology. He proposed a transformistic hypothesis regarding the origins of the animal species, including man, and described the successive changes, or new emergences, of organic beings as a function of ecology, that is, of the geological transformation of the earth itself and of its lifesustaining environment. While all this remained admittedly on the level of vague conjecture, the relative originality and long-term promise of such a hypothesis—which had previously been broached only by Maillet, Maupertuis, and Diderot-were of genuine importance to the history of science. Furthermore, inasmuch as the principles of d’Holbach’s mechanistic philosophy ruled out any fundamental distinction between living and nonliving aggregates of matter, his biology took basic issue with both the animism and the vitalism current among his contemporaries.

His standpoint in psychology was in accordance with the rest of his philosophical outlook. Following the example of La Mettrie’s homme machine thesis, he claimed that all the mental, intellectual, and moral behavior of man, whom he viewed as a purely physical being, was in the first instance determined by organic structures and processes. Therefore, not only psychology, but ethics and politics as well-which d’Holbach sought to root firmly in the scientific study of man so defined-depended essentially on biology and physiology. This closely knit scheme of theories and hypotheses served not merely to liberate eighteenth-century science from various theological and metaphysical impediments, but it also anticipated several of the major directions in which more than one science was later to evolve. Notwithstanding such precursors as Hobbes, La Mettrie, and Diderot, d’Holbach was perhaps the first to argue unequivocally and uncompromisingly that the only philosophical attitude consistent with modern science must be at once naturalistic and antisupernatural.


There is no collected edition of d’Holbach’s works. The Systéme de la nature (Paris, 1770) has recently been issued in photo-reprint form, edited by Y. Belaval (Hildesheim, 1965). The best general account of Holbachian thought, including its scientific aspects, is Pierre Naville, Paul Thiry d’Holbach et la philosophic scientifique au XVIIIe siécle (Paris, 1943). Also see John Lough, Essays on the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert (London, 1968), ch. 3, pp. 111–229; and Virgil Topazio, “D’Holbach, Man of Science,” in Rice Institute Pamphlets, 53, no. 4 (1967), 63–68. Two anthologies of some interest are Paulette Charbonnel, ed., Holbach: Textes choisis; Préface, commentaire et notes (Paris, 1957); and M. Naumann, ed., Paul Thiry d’Holbach. Ausgewählte Texte (Berlin, 1959).

Aram Vartanian