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Robinet, Jean-Baptiste René


(b. Rennes, France, 23 June 1735; d. Rennes, 24 March 1820)

literature, philosophy, natural history.

Robinet, who began his career as a writer, worked for booksellers in Holland and then in Bouillon. Besides translating works by Hume (Essais de morale [1760]) and by several English writers—including Frances Sheridan, John Langhorne, and Sir Charles Morell—he collaborated on a number of periodicals, dictionaries, and other joint works. He also wrote French and English grammars, an Analyse raisonnée de Bayle (London, 1755–1770), and a few works in economics and politics. Returning to Paris in 1778, he was appointed a royal censor. At the outbreak of the French Revolution he withdrew to Rennes, where he spent the rest of his life.

Robinet’s most important work from the point of view of the history of science is his four-volume treatise De la nature (1761–1766). It was followed in 1768 by Considérations philosophiques de la gradation naturelle des formes de l’êtitre, ou les essais de la nature qui apprend à faire l’homme and in 1769 by Paralléle de la condition et des facultés de l’homme avec la condition et les facultés des autres animaux.

Robinet’s principal intention in these works was to demonstrate that there is an equal quantity of good and evil in all the conditions and creatures of the universe. A staunch proponent of the idea of “the chain of beings,” lie believed that it was continuous, its elements separated only by imperceptible gradations. At the base of the chain, creatures are characterized by very little good or evil. At the top stands man, in whom good and evil, always present to an equal degree, are engaged in a convulsive struggle.

This vision of the moral world is based on a vision of the physical world, according to which all things— even stones—are sentient, living, and organized. Robinet argued that the phenomenon of nutrition—in which matter circulates from the earth to plants, then to herbivores, and finally to carnivores and man— proves that matter is organized and sentient. If this were not the case, how could inorganic matter constitute and nourish organs? The difference between beings, from crystals to man, is therefore only a difference in the degree of organization. The sponges and polyps constitute, respectively, the transitions between stones and plants, and between plants and animals. In this scheme Robinet carried to an extreme the ideas of Buffon and Charles Bonnet.

Robinet’s metaphysical ideas, strongly influenced by Leibniz, are of a certain interest; they even attracted the attention of Hegel. According to Robinet, nature, although created, is, like God, eternal; but it exists in succession and in time. The created universe contains the germ of every being that will develop—in the literal sense of the tern—in the course of its history. Robinet followed Leibniz in adopting the theory of the preexistence of germs, but he did not think that these genes, which were created at the beginning of the world, were encased (“emboîtés”) inside each other. He held that the progressive development of these germs could give rise to completely unknown creatures, unexpected variations of the initial prototype. Accordingly, in certain of his statements Robinet appears to be heralding the theory of transformism and the idea that all living beings are constructed according to a single basic plan. In fact, he was only elaborating ideas he had borrowed from Leibniz and perhaps also, directly or indirectly, from Paracelsus.

The proof that Robinet did not propose a genuine theory of transformism is furnished by Considérations philosophiques. Here, claiming to exhibit “Nature, who teaches us how to construct man,” he discusses a collection of stones, roots, and animals possessing more or less imaginary resemblances to parts of the human body. The total absence of a critical sense, or even of simple common sense, shows that Robinet was much more a metaphysician than a naturalist.

Nevertheless, Robinet’s work illustrates several important elements in the scientific thinking of the second half of the eighteenth century: the unity of nature, the chain of beings, universal dynamism and sensibility, and—at this early date—vitalism. It also illustrates the role of Leibniz in the development of Enlightenment ideas on living nature. Robinet’s writings influenced philosophers rather than scientists, but they cast an interesting light on the genesis of the theory of transformism.


Robinet’s major works have been cited in the text. On his life and work, see Jacques Roger, Les sciences de la vie dans la pensée francaise du XVIIIe siécle (Paris, 1963), 642–651; and Corrado Rosso, “II paradosso di Robinet,” in Filosofia, 5 , no. 1 (1954), 37–62.

Jacques Roger

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