1902 Encyclopedia > France > 18th Century French Philosophy

(Part 62)


18th Century Philosophy

The Anglomania which distinguished the time was nowhere strongly shown than in the cast and direction of its philosophical speculations. As Montesquieu and Voltaire had imported into France a vivid theoretical admiration for the British construction and for British theories in politics, so Voltaire, Diderot, and a crowd of others popularized and continued in France the philosophical ideas of Hobbes and Locke and even Berkeley, the theological ideas of Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, and the English deists, and the physical discoveries of Newton. Descartes, Frenchman and genius as he was, and though his principles in physics an philosophy were long clung to in the schools, was completely abandoned by the more adventurous and progressive spirit. At no time indeed, owing to the confusion of thought and purpose to which we have already alluded, was the word philosophy used with greater looseness than at this time. Using it as we have hitherto used it in the sense of metaphysics, the majority of the Philosophes have very little claim to their title. They were all more or less partisans of materialism, but few of them were contented with arguing materialism out on purely philosophical grounds, or with purely philosophical applications. They usually busied themselves with deducting it from physical considerations, and with applying it to ethical and theological conclusions. There were some who manifested, however, an aptitude for purely philosophical argument, and one who confined himself strictly thereto. Among the former the most remarkable are La Mettrie (1709-1751) and Diderot. La Mettrie in his works L’Homme Machine, L’Homme Plante, &c., applied a lively and vigorous imagination, a considerable familiarity with physics and medicine, and a brilliant but unequal style to the task of advocating materialistic ideas on the constitution of man. Diderot, in a series of early works, Lettre sur les Aveugles, Promenade d’un Sceptique, Pensées Philosophiques, &c., exhibited a good acquaintance with philosophical history and opinion, and gave sign in this direction, as in so many others, of a far-reaching intellect. As in almost all his works, however, the value of the thought is extremely unequal, while the different pieces, always written in the hottest haste, and never duly matured or corrected, present but few specimens of finished and polished writing. Bonnet (1724-1793), a Swiss of Geneva, wrote a large number of works, many of which are purely scientific. Others, however, are more psychological, these, though advocating the materialistic philosophy generally in vogue were remarkable for uniting materialism with an honest adherence to Christianity. The half mystical writer, St Martin, also deserves notice. But the French metaphysician of the century is undoubtedly Condillac (1714-1780), almost the only writer of the time in France who succeeded in keeping strictly to philosophy without attempting to pursue his system to its results in ethics, politics, and theology ; still more without desiring to anticipate such results, and to discuss the application of a philosophy before the philosophy was itself established. In the Traité des Sensations, the Essai sur l’Origine des Connaissances Humaines, and other works Condillac elaborated and continued the imperfect sensationalism of Locke. As his philosophical view, though perhaps more restricted, was far more direct, conservative, and uncompromising than that of the Englishman, so his style greatly exceeded Locke’s in clearness and elegance. It cannot pretend to vie with the beauty and artistic suitability of the styles of Descartes and Malebrance, nor with that of Condillac’s elder contemporary Berkeley. But for all that, it is a good medium of philosophical expression, and its literature character did not a little to assist the diffusion of the principles of materialism.

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