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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 235-238

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Forum: Biology, Sexuality, and Morality in Eighteenth-Century France


Robert A. Nye

These excellent essayshave a number of points of congruence that illuminate in interesting ways the topics of medicine, gender, and physiological theories of vital energy. The cultural context they address is the Enlightenment and its legacy. However, although the themes covered here have important resonances in Europe generally, there is also a nexus of sociopolitical problems that make the French context important for them all--not just for the eighteenth century but for the "longue durée" of French history as well. They demonstrate in particular the important theme in recent Enlightenment scholarship that there are many competing discourses in the eighteenth century, some of which appear to fit badly with our notions that this era broke decisively with older traditions, embraced scientific materialism and progress, and advanced the cause of political and social equality.

Another overarching theme these papers share is their focus on biology, medicine, and biomedical discourse in eighteenth-century culture. It is easy to take this focus for granted nowadays, but there was a time not so long ago in eighteenth-century studies when prevailing views of the Enlightenment resembled the synthetic definition offered by Isiah Berlin, who held that the ideal-typical philosophe wanted above all to reduce nature and life to mathematical relations. 1 As these essays show, although there was a materialistic discourse available to eighteenth-century biology, there were others available as well. Vitalist biology, in particular, seems to have had greater appeal as a way of discussing life and generation, not just because such language and analysis accorded better with theology [End Page 235] or religion--though it clearly did--but because it was able to more readily express sociopolitical concepts and themes drawn from popular culture. And, even where the material body was regarded as determinate in some sense, either because it excluded some traditional notion of "soul," or because it served as the foundation of the "moral" features of the bodily economy (as in the case of Charles Vandermonde, discussed by Kathleen Wellman), a lot of room remained for feedback mechanisms--from the mind or the environment--to shape the organism's course of development. It provided explanatory wiggle room, so to speak. There was even space for a medical conservative like Jean Astruc to entertain providential reasoning about the origins of life, although Astruc did take pains to correlatedivine intentions with the most up-to-date physiology.

This flexible approach to the mind-body and nature-culture problems is not unique to France, but it does appear that French scientists and medical thinkers, along with public figures who found their work useful in informing contemporary issues, maintained a long-term loyalty to Lamarckian and, later, neo-Lamarckian notions of organic evolution, which, applied to social development, produced a remarkably indeterministic and open-ended outlook in the human sciences. 2 This orientation does not reflect an optimistic bias in the French character; to the contrary, it expresses a nearly obsessional concern, peaking at the beginning of the twentieth century but by no means dead even now, with the tenuousness of France's status as a great power. The concern about depopulation that first surfaced in the consciousness of reforming philosophes such as Rousseau, while unjustified at the time, was a legitimate concern by the middle of the nineteenth century, as were all the other geopolitical problems produced by demographic stagnation. 3 A view of human nature was required that permitted a melioristic intervention in social life, whether by changing the physical environment in which people lived, or by promoting "moral" reform that became, as it were, "second nature" to everyone. Political reform per se, although it does not figure much in these essays, is an aspect of this issue insofar as it makes the nation--depending on one's point of view--better or less able to respond effectively to these challenges to its viability.

The eighteenth-century roots of this characteristic set of concerns are all displayed in...


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