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The French Enlightenment I: science, materialism
and determinism
Peter Jimack
The French Enlightenment is not just a convenient label devised by hi
storians of
philosophy, and the thinkers to be discussed in this chapter and the next were f
or the most
part conscious of belonging to a movement. They shared to a remarkable degree, i
f in
varying proportions, the negative and positive features which characterized it:
on the one
hand criticism, even rejection of traditional authority, especially that of the
Church, and
on the other a bold and constructive attempt to understand and explai
n man and the
universe, and in particular to define man s place and role in society, both as it
was and as
it should be. On many topics (such as the origin of life, epistemolo
gy, natural law,
religious toleration, political freedom), they held broadly similar views and di
ffered only
in matters of detail. The very term philosophes
came to be used to de
signate the
thinkers who held these views, and the philosophes actually saw themselves as a
kind of
brotherhood involved in a campaign, a group of freres who shared the same attitude
and aspirations. Many of them were friends, or at least acquaintances,
who met
frequently, energetically exchanged ideas on such matters as metaphysics
, morality,
politics and economics as well as gossip and even contributed to each other s works
in a variety of ways. Quite apart from the Encyclopedie, edited by Di
derot and
d Alembert, which had over 130 contributors, several works were in a sense collect
ventures, embodying the results of discussions within the group or even, in the ca
se of
Raynal s Histoire des deux Indes, actual contributions by different individuals.
It has been argued that some of the principal figures of the French Enlightenmen
t were
largely gifted vulgarizers, rather than original thinkers. While this i
s no doubt an
exaggeration, it does draw attention to the way in which they picked up and deve
ideas that had been expressed by sometimes lone voices in previous ce
nturies. They
themselves often emphasized their links with the Ancients as a way of
stressing their
rejection of Christian tradition, though if their declared hero was So
crates, a more
specific inspiration was probably provided by the materialism and evolutionary i
deas of
Lucretius. As for the modern world, Montaigne had adopted a relativist anthropol
approach to morality two centuries before Montesquieu, and Descartes s rationalism
opened the way to the confidence in human reason and the rejection o
f traditional

Volta ire (1694 1778). The very concept of an Enlightenme nt is no doubt a rather nebulous one. Bacon. In the field of science. a contemporary of Montaigne. which was to become an arsenal of material for use by Vo ltaire and others in the battle against the Church. a follower of Descartes in his use of reason. of all things. It is in any case difficult to draw a precise dividing line between predecessors of the French Enlightenment and the movement itself. for example. and more significantly. often seen as its most dominant figure. the possibility of a society of atheists. Nevertheless. referring to a speeding up. and Newton s huge step forward in explaining the laws governing the universe had made it ever easier to conceive of a worl d without God. published in 1734. The same could equally be said of the Lettre s Persanes by Montesquieu (1689 1755). In his Dictionnaire histor ique et critique(1697). it was the 1740s that saw the beginning of the great proliferation of works which constitute the French Enlightenment proper.15]). which was published as early as 1721. he applied Cartesian scepticism to history. had begun writing long before what is usually thought of as the Enlightenment. Nevertheless his work as a w hole could legitimately be said to belong to the movement and some of his early individual works show many of its characteristics: his Lettres philosophiques ([9. a satirical account of French life. Above all. which ended with a chapter envisag ing. Pierre Bayle. perhaps. despite his own deep religious convictions. an inten sification of manifestations of certain currents of thought rather than a new departure. while the movement could be sa id to . which would be one of the great inspirations of the Encyclopedie. politics and relig ion as seen through the eyes of two Persian visitors. which introduced Locke and Newton to the French public and pr aised English religious toleration and political freedom. Locke s account in his Essay concerning human understanding (1690) of the origin of knowledge and genes is of the human faculties provided a starting-point both in content and in methodology for virtually all Enlightenment thought in this area. based on investiga tion and experiment instead of the acceptance of authority.authority: his mechanistic account of man all but excluded the soul. implicitly contrastin g them with the very different situation in France. had ridiculed superstition (and by implication certain religious beliefs) in his Pensees sur la Comete (1682). to biblical history. and his mec hanistic account of the universe all but dispensed with God. had spelled out an ambitious programme of enquiry.

it was Diderot who was the dominant partner and the driving force behind the project. along with the distinguished mathemati cian Jean le Rond d Alembert (1717 83). with some repute as a translator was engaged to do some of the work. though retrospectively. the Revolution was the outcome of this wave of intellectual att acks on authority. the fact that it occurred has inevitably affe cted the way the intellectual movement itself is perceived often as more revolutionary. of course. embodied the ideals and attitu des of the Enlightenment. The origin of this virtual manifesto of the movement lay in a project to produce a French translation of Chambers s Cyclopedia. whose aims were set out in his own Prospectus and subsequent article Encyclopedie . but i n 1747 he was appointed co-editor. If there was one work which. more than any other. Diderot and d Alembert together amassed a veritab le army of Routledge history of philosophy 187 . it was the Encyclopedie. I n many ways.have been brought to a natural close by the outbreak of the French Revolution. But from the very beginning. Denis Diderot (1713 84) as yet merely a promising young writer. than it actually was. which had appeared in 1728. and particularly more specifically political. and this comprehensive survey was to be written by appro priate experts in each field. His vision and enthusiasm transformed it from being a mere translation into a vastly more ambit ious enterprise. as well as in his co-editor s Discours preliminaire : they wanted to make kno wn to the public at large all the huge strides that had recently been made in human knowle dge of every conceivable kind.