From the Physical Body to the Body Social: The Development of Enlightenment French Materialism

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Zhou, Nan
French Enlightenment , Materialism , Nature , The Body , d'Holbach , Diderot , La Mettrie , Montesquieu , Sensationism
This thesis examines the development of materialism in the French Enlightenment from 1745 to 1789. As a relatively new intellectual category in the eighteenth century, materialism was systematized after the 1740s in France and endorsed a monistic ontology and cosmology of matter and motion; at the same time, the materialists were opponents of Christianity and the Church, which gave rise to the denunciations from the religious and governmental authorities and led to the moralization of the originally amoral materialist principles. My main argument is that eighteenth-century French materialism consisted of a series of efforts to base the physical and the human worlds on secular theories of nature—in essence, on the autonomy of the human body, or the corporeality of human beings. These efforts were heterogeneous and caused a crisis of ideas about the relationship between nature and order, which undercut the theory of the autonomy of the physical body and led to the arrival of the body social. Consequently, the plan of nature gave way to the plan of society. I discuss the thought of major materialists like La Mettrie, Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach, and show how French materialism gradually changed its original course. Besides, one chapter is devoted to Montesquieu. Although not a materialist, his thought is important for understanding the peculiar position of French materialism that was torn between nature and order.
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