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This lecture will help you understand:

French materialism
Baron dHolbach
Julien Offray de La Mettrie

Laws of Nature

Pleasure-Pain Principle

Voluntary vs. Non-voluntary behavior

Effective Desire
Fatalism vs. Determinism

Question 1:
What does dHolbach argue?

some free actions are uncaused

all actions are random
some actions are free
there are no free actions

Determinism: is the view that that every event
has a cause, and thus everything that
happens, including human actions, simply
proceeds from previous events.
For every event that happens, there are
previous events in conjunction with laws of
nature that are a sufficient condition for the
occurrence of that event.
There is no such thing as free will.
In principle, the future can be predicted.

Baron dHolbach
An atheist, a determinist,
a materialist, a severe
critic of religion, absolute
monarchy, and feudalism

Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach


If we go back to the beginning we shall find
that ignorance and fear created the gods; that
fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or
disfigured them; that weakness worships
them; that credulity preserves them, and that
custom, respect and tyranny support them in
order to make the blindness of men serve its
own interests (DHolbach, System of Nature)

French Materialism
Denied the existence of a deity.
Denied evidence all a priori arguments.

Man the Machine

all the motion of his
machine springs as a
necessary consequence
from his primitive impulse.
(IP 312)
if his machine were less
complicated. (IP 318)
the complicated motion of
his machine (IP 318)
The Rock Drill 1913-4Jacob
Epstein (1880-1959)

"Man the Machine

In L'Homme Machine
(1748), La Mettrie argues
that man is simply a
machine, subject to the
laws of motion like any
mechanism of

Julien Offray de La Mettrie


Mind = Brain (Holbach)

The will . . . is a modification of the brain (IP

Laws of Nature

Pleasure-Pain Principle

It is the actual essence of man to tend to his well being,

or to be desirous to conserve his existence; if all the
motion of his machine springs as a necessary
consequence from this primitive impulse; if pain warn
him of that which he ought to avoid; if pleasure
announce to him that which he should desire; if it be in
his essence to love that which either excites delight, or
that from which he expects agreeable sensations; to
hate that which either makes him fear contrary
impressions or that which afflicts him with uneasiness; it
must necessarily be that he will be attracted by that
which he deems advantageous; that his will shall be
determined by those objects which he judges useful;
that he will be repelled by those beings which he
believes prejudicial, either to his habitual or to his
transitory mode of existence. (IP 312)

What about Voluntary Behavior?

What is voluntary behavior?
Clearly there is a difference
an automatic or reflex reaction
deliberately raising ones arm

How does Holbach explain this?

Desire = the inherent cause

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss,


Pleasure-Pain Principle
The tendency or drive to achieve pleasure and
avoid pain as the chief motivating force in
behavior. We always tend toward that which
gives us pleasure; and have an aversion to that
which threatens pain.
See Epicurus, Bentham, and Freud

When it is said, that man is not a free agent, it is not

pretended to compare him to a body moved by a simple
impulsive cause: he contains within himself causes
inherent to his existence; he is moved by an interior
organ, which has its own peculiar laws, and is itself
necessarily determined in consequence of ideas formed
from perceptions resulting from sensations which it
receives from exterior objects. As the mechanism of
these sensations, of these perceptions, and the manner
they engrave ideas on the brain of man, are not known
to him; because he is unable to unravel all these
motions; because he cannot perceive the chain of
operations in his soul, or the motive principle that acts
within him, he supposes himself a free agent; which,
literally translated, signifies, that he moves himself by
himself; that he determines himself without cause: when
he rather ought to say, that he is ignorant how or for
why he acts in the manner he does. (IP 318)

Conflict of Desires
Desire to drink
(because thirsty)
Desire not to drink
(because dont want to get sick)

the outcome of deliberation
the stronger desire

Effective Desire
Will is effective desire
American philosopher Harry Frankfurt (Freedom of
the Will 1971) calls the desire that moves (or will or
would move) a person all the way to action
effective desire.

Question 2:
According to dHolbach, the fact
that a person often makes choices

That the person has free will

That motives do not control the will
That the person has no motives
Nothing about whether the person has free

Dont confuse determinism with
Fatalism is the idea that the future
is fixed regardless of what we do.

"The Appointment in Samarra"

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market. The servant
returned, trembling and frightened. The servant told the merchant, "I was
jostled in the market, turned around, and saw Death. "Death made a
threatening gesture, and I fled in terror. May I please borrow your horse? I
can leave Baghdad and ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.
The master lent his horse to the servant, who rode away, to Samarra. Later
the merchant went to the market, and saw Death in the crowd. "Why did
you threaten my servant?" He asked. I did not threaten your servant,
Death replied. It was merely that I was surprised to see him here in
Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

In the moral as well as in the physical world,
every thing that happens is a necessary
consequence of causes, either visible or
concealed, which are of necessity obliged to
act after their peculiar essences. In man, free
agency is nothing more than necessity
contained within himself. (IP 319)

So many crimes are witnessed on earth only

because everything conspires to render man
vicious and criminal; the religion he has adopted,
his government, his education, the examples set
before him, irresistibly drive him to evil. Under
these conditions morality preaches virtues to him
in vain . . . . Such societies . . . frequently have the
injustice to condemn those in penalty of death,
whom public prejudices, maintained by constant
example, have rendered criminal (IP 316-317).

Cesare di Beccaria (1738-1794), Italian
criminologist, jurist, philosopher, and
politician, one of the greatest thinkers
of the Age of Enlightenment.
First person to condemn torture and
the death penalty in his On Crimes and
Punishment (1764)
Cesare Beccaria's works had a profound
influence on the Founding Fathers of
the United States


In no one moment of his existence is man a free agent.

He is not the architect of his own conformation, which
he holds from nature; he has no control over his own
ideas, or over the modification of his brain; these are
due to causes, that, despite him, and without his own
knowledge, unceasingly act upon him; he is not the
master of not loving or coveting that which he finds
amiable or desirable; he is not capable of refusing to
deliberate, when he is uncertain of the effects certain
objects will produce upon him; he cannot avoid choosing
that which he believes will be most advantageous to
him; in the moment when his will is determined by his
choice he is not competent to act otherwise than he
does. (IP 319)