Critical Battle Against French Materialism
Wednesday 23 March 2022, by
Critical Battle Against French Materialism
Karl Marx, The Holy Family
“Spinozism dominated the eighteenth century both in its later French variety, which made matter into substance, and in deism, which conferred on matter a more spiritual name.... Spinoza’s French school and the supporters of deism were but two sects disputing over the true meaning of his system.... The simple fate of this Enlightenment was its decline in romanticism after being obliged to surrender to the reaction which began after the French movement.”
That is what Criticism says.
To the Critical history of French materialism we shall oppose a brief outline of its ordinary, mass-type history. We shall acknowledge with due respect the abyss between history as it really happened and history as it takes place according to the decree of “Absolute Criticism”, the creator equally of the old and of the new. And finally, obeying the prescriptions of Criticism, we shall make the “Why?”, “Whence?” and “Whither?” of Critical history the “object of a persevering study”.
“Speaking exactly and in the prosaic sense”, the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and in particular French materialism, was not only a struggle against the existing political institutions and the existing religion and theology; it was just as much an open, clearly expressed struggle against the metaphysics of the seventeenth century, and against all metaphysics, in particular that of Descartes, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz. Philosophy was counterposed to metaphysics, just as Feuerbach, in his first resolute attack on Hegel, counterposed sober philosophy to wild speculation. Seventeenth century metaphysics, driven from the field by the French Enlightenment, notably, by French materialism of the eighteenth century, experienced a victorious and substantial restoration in German philosophy, particularly in the speculative German philosophy of the nineteenth century. After Hegel linked it in a masterly fashion with all subsequent metaphysics and with German idealism and founded a metaphysical universal kingdom, the attack on theology again corresponded, as in the eighteenth century, to an attack on speculative metaphysics and metaphysics in general. It will be defeated for ever by materialism, which has now been perfected by the work of speculation itself and coincides with humanism. But just as Feuerbach is the representative of materialism coinciding with humanism in the theoretical domain, French and English socialism and communism represent materialism coinciding with humanism in the practical domain.
“Speaking exactly and in the prosaic sense”, there are two trends in French materialism; one traces its origin to Descartes, the other to Locke. The latter is mainly a French development and leads directly to socialism. The former, mechanical materialism, merges with French natural science proper. The two trends intersect in the course of development. We have no need here to go more deeply into the French materialism that derives directly from Descartes, any more than into the French school of Newton and the development of French natural science in general.
We shall therefore merely say the following:
Descartes in his physics endowed matter with self-creative power and conceived mechanical motion as the manifestation of its life. He completely separated his physics from his metaphysics. Within his physics, matter is the sole substance, the sole basis of being and of knowledge.
Mechanical French materialism adopted Descartes’ physics in opposition to his metaphysics. His followers were by profession anti-metaphysicians, i.e., physicists.
This school begins with the physician Le Roy, reaches its zenith with the physician Cabanis, and the physician La Mettrie is its centre. Descartes was still living when Le Roy, like La Mettrie in the eighteenth century, transposed the Cartesian structure of the animal to the human soul and declared that the soul is a modus of the body and ideas are mechanical motions. Le Roy even thought Descartes had kept his real opinion secret. Descartes protested. At the end of the eighteenth century Cabanis perfected Cartesian materialism in his treatise: Rapport du physique et du moral de 1’homme.
Cartesian materialism still exists today in France. It has achieved great successes in mechanical natural science which, “speaking exactly and in the prosaic sense”, will be least of all reproached with romanticism.
The metaphysics of the seventeenth century, represented in France by Descartes, had materialism as its antagonist from its very birth. The latter’s opposition to Descartes was personified by Gassendi, the restorer of Epicurean materialism. French and English materialism was always closely related to Democritus and Epicurus. Cartesian metaphysics had another opponent in the English materialist Hobbes. Gassendi and Hobbes triumphed over their opponent long after their death at the very time when metaphysics was already officially dominant in all French schools.
Voltaire pointed out that the indifference of the French of the eighteenth century to the disputes between the Jesuits and the Jansenists was due less to philosophy than to Law’s financial speculations. So the downfall of seventeenth-century metaphysics can be explained by the materialistic theory of the eighteenth century only in so far as this theoretical movement itself is explained by the practical nature of French life at that time. This life was turned to the immediate present, to worldly enjoyment and worldly interests, to the earthly world. Its anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, materialistic practice demanded corresponding anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, materialistic theories. Metaphysics had in practice lost all credit. Here we have only to indicate briefly the theoretical course of events.
In the seventeenth century metaphysics (cf. Descartes, Leibniz, and others) still contained a positive, secular element. It made discoveries in mathematics, physics and other exact sciences which seemed to come within its scope. This semblance was done away with as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century. The positive sciences broke away from metaphysics and marked out their independent fields. The whole wealth of metaphysics now consisted only of beings of thought and heavenly things, at the very time when real beings and earthly things began to be the centre of all interest. Metaphysics had become insipid. In the very year in which Malebranche and Arnauld, the last great French metaphysicians of the seventeenth century, died, Helvétius and Condillac were born.
The man who deprived seventeenth-century metaphysics and metaphysics in general of all credit in the domain of theory was Pierre Bayle. His weapon was scepticism, which he forged out of metaphysics’ own magic formulas. He himself proceeded at first from Cartesian metaphysics. Just as Feuerbach by combating speculative theology was driven further to combat speculative philosophy, precisely because he recognised in speculation the last drop of theology, because he had to force theology to retreat from pseudo-science to crude, repulsive faith, so Bayle too was driven by religious doubt to doubt about the metaphysics which was the prop of that faith. He therefore critically investigated metaphysics in its entire historical development. He became its historian in order to write the history of its death. He refuted chiefly Spinoza and Leibniz.
Pierre Bayle not only prepared the reception of materialism and of the philosophy of common sense in France by shattering metaphysics with his scepticism. He heralded the atheistic society which was soon to come into existence by proving that a society consisting only of atheists is possible, that an atheist can be a man worthy of respect, and that it is not by atheism but by superstition and idolatry that man debases himself.
To quote a French writer, Pierre Bayle was “the last metaphysician in the sense of the seventeenth century and the first philosopher in the sense of the eighteenth century”.
Besides the negative refutation of seventeenth-century theology and metaphysics, a positive, anti-metaphysical system was required. A book was needed which would systematise and theoretically substantiate the life practice of that time. Locke’s treatise An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding came from across the Channel as if in answer to a call. It was welcomed enthusiastically like a long-awaited guest.
The question arises: Is Locke perhaps a disciple of Spinoza? “Profane” history can answer:
Materialism is the natural-born son of Great Britain. Already the British schoolman, Duns Scotus, asked, “whether it was impossible for matter to think?”
In order to effect this miracle, he took refuge in God’s omnipotence, i.e., he made theology preach materialism. Moreover, he was a nominalist. Nominalism, the first form of materialism, is chiefly found among the English schoolmen.
The real progenitor of English materialism and all modern experimental science is Bacon. To him natural philosophy is the only true philosophy, and physics based upon the experience of the senses is the chiefest part of natural philosophy. Anaxagoras and his homoeomeriae, Democritus and his atoms, he often quotes as his authorities. According to him the senses are infallible and the source of all knowledge. All science is based on experience, and consists in subjecting the data furnished by the senses to a rational method of investigation. Induction, analysis, comparison, observation, experiment, are the principal forms of such a rational method. Among the qualities inherent in matter, motion is the first and foremost, not only in the form of mechanical and mathematical motion, but chiefly in the form of an impulse, a vital spirit, a tension — or a ‘Qual’, to use a term of Jakob Böhme’s — of matter. The primary forms of matter are the living, individualising forces of being inherent in it and producing the distinctions between the species.
In Bacon, its first creator, materialism still holds back within itself in a naive way the germs of a many-sided development. On the one hand, matter, surrounded by a sensuous, poetic glamour, seems to attract man’s whole entity by winning smiles. On the other, the aphoristically formulated doctrine pullulates with inconsistencies imported from theology.
In its further evolution, materialism becomes one-sided. Hobbes is the man who systematises Baconian materialism. Knowledge based upon the senses loses its poetic blossom, it passes into the abstract experience of the geometrician. Physical motion is sacrificed to mechanical or mathematical motion; geometry is proclaimed as the queen of sciences. Materialism takes to misanthropy. If it is to overcome its opponent, misanthropic, fleshless spiritualism, and that on the latter’s own ground, materialism has to chastise its own flesh and turn ascetic. Thus it passes into an intellectual entity; but thus, too, it evolves all the consistency, regardless of consequences, characteristic of the intellect.
Hobbes, as Bacon’s continuator, argues thus: if all human knowledge is furnished by the senses, then our concepts, notions, and ideas are but the phantoms of the real world, more or less divested of its sensual form. Philosophy can but give names to these phantoms. One name may be applied to more than one of them. There may even be names of names. But it would imply a contradiction if, on the one hand, we maintained that all ideas had their origin in the world of sensation, and, on the other, that a word was more than a word; that besides the beings known to us by our senses, beings which are one and all individuals, there existed also beings of a general, not individual, nature. An unbodily substance is the same absurdity as an unbodily body. Body, being, substance, are but different terms for the same reality. It is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks. This matter is the substratum of all changes going on in the world. The word infinite is meaningless, unless it states that our mind is capable of performing an endless process of addition. Only material things being perceptible, knowable to us, we cannot know anything about the existence of God. My own existence alone is certain. Every human passion is a mechanical movement which has a beginning and an end. The objects of impulse are what we call good. Man is subject to the same laws as nature. Power and freedom are identical.
Hobbes had systematised Bacon without, however, furnishing a proof for Bacon’s fundamental principle, the origin of all human knowledge and ideas from the world of sensation.
It was Locke who, in his Essay on the Humane Understanding, supplied this proof.
Hobbes had shattered the theistic prejudices of Baconian materialism; Collins, Dodwell, Coward, Hartley, Priestley, similarly shattered the last theological bars that still hemmed in Locke’s sensationalism. At all events, for materialists, deism is but an easy-going way of getting rid of religion.
We have already mentioned how opportune Locke’s work was for the French. Locke founded the philosophy of bon sens, of common sense; i.e., he said indirectly that there cannot be any philosophy at variance with the healthy human senses and reason based on them.
Locke’s immediate pupil, Condillac, who translated him into French, at once applied Locke’s sensualism against seventeenth-century metaphysics. He proved that the French had rightly rejected this metaphysics as a mere botch work of fancy and theological prejudice. He published a refutation of the systems of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Malebranche.
In his Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines he expounded Locke’s ideas and proved that not only the soul, but the senses too, not only the art of creating ideas, but also the art of sensuous perception, are matters of experience and habit. The whole development of man therefore depends on education and external circumstances. It was only by eclectic philosophy that Condillac was ousted from the French schools.
The difference between French and English materialism reflects the difference between the two nations. The French imparted to English materialism wit, flesh and blood, and eloquence. They gave it the temperament and grace that it lacked. They civilised it.
In Helvétius, who also based himself on Locke, materialism assumed a really French character. Helvétius conceived it immediately in its application to social life (Helvétius, De 1’homme). The sensory qualities and self-love, enjoyment and correctly understood personal interest are the basis of all morality. The natural equality of human intelligences, the unity of progress of reason and progress of industry, the natural goodness of man, and the omnipotence of education, are the main features in his system.
In Lamettrie’s works we find a synthesis of Cartesian and English materialism. He makes use of Descartes’ physics in detail. His Man Machine is a treatise after the model of Descartes’ animal-machine. The physical part of Holbach’s Système de la nature is also a result of the combination of French and English materialism, while the moral part is based essentially on the morality of Helvétius. Robinet (De la nature), the French materialist who had the most connection with metaphysics and was therefore praised by Hegel, refers explicitly to Leibniz.
We need not dwell on Volney, Dupuis, Diderot and others, any more than on the physiocrats, after we have proved the dual origin of French materialism from Descartes’ physics and English materialism, and the opposition of French materialism to seventeenth-century metaphysics, to the metaphysics of Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz. This opposition only became evident to the Germans after they themselves had come into opposition to speculative metaphysics.
Just as Cartesian materialism passes into natural science proper, the other trend of French materialism leads directly to socialism and communism.
There is no need for any great penetration to see from the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of experience, habit and education, and the influence of environment on man, the great significance of industry, the justification of enjoyment, etc., how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc., from the world of the senses and the experience gained in it, then what has to be done is to arrange the empirical world in such a way that man experiences and becomes accustomed to what is truly human in it and that he becomes aware of himself as man. If correctly understood interest is the principle of all morality, man’s private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity. If man is unfree in the materialistic sense, i.e., is free not through the negative power to avoid this or that, but through the positive power to assert his true individuality, crime must not be punished in the individual, but the anti-social sources of crime must be destroyed, and each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being. If man is shaped by environment, his environment must be made human. If man is social by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the power of his nature must be measured not by the power of the separate individual but by the power of society. These and similar propositions are to be found almost literally even in the oldest French materialists. This is not the place to assess them. The apologia of vices by Mandeville, one of Locke’s early English followers, is typical of the socialist tendencies of materialism. He proves that in modern society vice is indispensable and useful. [Bernard de. Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits] This was by no means an apologia for modern society.
Fourier proceeds directly from the teaching of the French materialists. The Babouvists were crude, uncivilised materialists, but developed communism, too, derives directly from French materialism. The latter returned to its mother-country, England, in the form Helvétius gave it. Bentham based his system of correctly understood interest on Helvétius’ morality, and Owen proceeded from Bentham’s system to found English communism. Exiled to England, the Frenchman Cabet came under the influence of communist ideas there and on his return to France became the most popular, if the most superficial, representative of communism. Like Owen, the more scientific French Communists, Dézamy, Gay and others, developed the teaching of materialism as the teaching of real humanism and the logical basis of communism.
Where, then, did Herr Bauer or, Criticism, manage to acquire the documents for the Critical history of French materialism?
1) Hegel’s [Vorlesungen über die] Geschichte der Philosophie presents French materialism as the realisation of the Substance of Spinoza, which at any rate is far more comprehensible than “the French school of Spinoza’.
2) Herr Bauer read Hegel’s Geschichte dear Philosophie as saying that French materialism was the school of Spinoza. Then, as he found in another of Hegel’s works that deism and materialism are two parties representing one and the same basic principle, he concluded that Spinoza had two schools which disputed over the meaning of his system. Herr Bauer could have found the supposed explanation in Hegel’s Phänomenologie, where it is said:
“Regarding that Absolute Being, Enlightenment itself fails out with itself ... and is divided between the views of two parties.... The one ... calls Absolute Being that predicateless Absolute ... the other calls it matter .... Both are entirely the same notion — the distinction lies not in the objective fact, but purely in the diversity of starting-point adopted by the two developments” (Hegel, Phänomenologie, pp. 420, 421, 422)
3) Finally Herr Bauer could find, again in Hegel, that when Substance does not develop into a concept and self-consciousness, it degenerates into “romanticism”. The journal Hallische Jahrbücher at one time developed a similar theory.
But at all costs the “Spirit” had to decree a “foolish destiny” for its “adversary”, materialism.
Note. French materialism’s connection with Descartes and Locke and the opposition of eighteenth-century philosophy to seventeenth-century metaphysics are presented in detail in most recent French histories of philosophy. In this respect, we had only to repeat against Critical Criticism what was already known. But the connection of eighteenth-century materialism with English and French communism of the nineteenth century still needs to be presented in detail. We confine ourselves here to quoting a few typical passages from Helvétius, Holbach and Bentham.
1) Helvétius. “Man is not wicked, but he is subordinate to his interests. One must not therefore complain of the wickedness of man but of the ignorance of the legislators, who have always placed the particular interest in opposition to the general interest.” — “The moralists have so far had no success because we have to dig into legislation to pull out the roots which create vice. In New Orleans women have the right to repudiate their husbands as soon as they are tired of them. In countries like that women are not faithless, because they have no interest in being so.” — “Morality is but a frivolous science when not combined with politics and legislation The hypocritical moralists can be recognised on the one hand by the equanimity with which they consider vices which undermine the state, and on the other by the fury with which they condemn private vice” — “Human beings are born neither good nor bad but ready to become one or the other according as a common interest unites or divides them.” — “If citizens could not achieve their own particular good without achieving the general good, there would be no vicious people except fools” (De l’esprit. 1, Paris, 1822, pp. 117, 240, 241, 249, 251, 369 and 339).
As, according to Helvétius, it is education, by which he means (cf. loc. cit., p. 390) not only education in the ordinary sense but the totality of the individual’s conditions of life, which forms man, if a reform is necessary to abolish the contradiction between particular interests and those of society, so, on the other hand, a transformation of consciousness is necessary to carry out such a reform:
“Great reforms can he implemented only by weakening the stupid respect of peoples for old laws and customs” (loc. cit., p. 260)
or, as he says elsewhere, by abolishing ignorance.
2) Holbach. “Man can only love himself in the objects he loves: he can have affection only for himself in the other beings of his-kind.” “Man can never separate himself from himself for a single instant in his life, he cannot lose sight of himself.” ‘It is always our convenience, our interest ... that makes us hate or love things.” (Système social, t. 1, Paris, 1822,56 pp. 80, 112), but “In his own interest man must love other men, because they are necessary to welfare.... Morality proves to him that of all beings the most necessary to man is man.” (p. 76). “True morality, and true politics as well, is that which seeks to bring men nearer to one another to make them work by united efforts for their common happiness. Any morality which separates our interests from those of our associates, is false, senseless, unnatural.” (p. 116). “To love others ... is to merge our interests with those of our associates, to work for the common benefit.... Virtue is but the usefulness of men united in society”. (p. 77). “A man without desires or passions would cease to be a man.... Perfectly detached from himself, how could one make him decide to attach himself to others? A man indifferent to everything and having no passions, sufficient to himself, would cease to he a social being.... Virtue is but the communication of good.” (loc. cit., p. 118). “ Religious morality never served to make mortals more sociable.” (loc. cit., p. 36).
3) Bentham. We only quote one passage from Bentham in which he opposes “intérêt général in the political sense” “The interest of individuals ... must give way to the public interest. But ... what does that mean? Is not each individual part of the public as much as any other? This public interest that you personify is but an abstract term: it represents but the mass of individual interests.... If it were good to sacrifice the fortune of one individual to increase that of others, it would be better to sacrifice that of a second, a third, and so on ad infinitum.... Individual interests are the only real interests.” (Bentham, Théorie des peines et des récompenses, Paris, 1826, 3ème 6d., II, p. , 230).