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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 267-277

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

Physicians and Philosophes:
Physiology and Sexual Morality in the French Enlightenment

Kathleen Wellman

The great revival of interest in medicine and physiology in eighteenth-century France inspired physician and philosophe alike to speculate freely about human nature and the natural bases of morality and society. Medical speculations were well integrated into philosophical and physiological traditions. But physicians also turned to new findings in physiology, particularly on the complex issue of generation, as a foundation for their understanding of nature, and they invoked sexuality as the most natural foundation for morality. Philosophes often resorted to fiction to extricate themselves from tradition and to propose more speculative perspectives on these concerns. This essay focuses on two sets of texts that define almost antithetical ways of connecting the physiology of sex to Enlightenment morality: first, Pierre Roussel's Système physique et moral de la femme and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile; and second, Charles Vandermonde's Essai sur la manière de perfectionner l'espèce humaine and Denis Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville and Le Rêve de d'Alembert. 1 These sets of texts offer a striking connection between concerns central to medical and literary authors; at the same time, they assert such divergent views of that connection that they seem to lay out two distinct Enlightenments. The chasm that they open reflects a materialist/vitalist divide, a gap between radical and traditional philosophy (particularly on the issue of the soul), or a difference between political progressivism and conservatism. They also demonstrate two profoundly different ways of connecting physiology and gender roles. One asserts that physiology defines women and restricts them to narrow social roles; the other integrates men and women into natural processes to serve the same social purpose.

Roussel was integrally connected to the culture of the Enlightenment in a number of ways. 2 Born in Aix in 1742, educated in Toulouse, he went to Montpellier at a time when the great vitalists "delivered their learned lectures" and then to Paris where he was closely tied to Théophile de Bordeu. But he also criticized some conventional Enlightenment views. He rejected the idea of an indefinitely perfectible human spirit, most emphatically defined by Condorcet, 3 and he strongly objected to the overextension of sensibility, rebuking Condillac's followers, who "apply the term sensibility to all phenomena associated with human intelligence and will." 4

Roussel was particularly concerned about the ways that philosophes and physicians had bifurcated their own investigations: philosophes exploring the moral, and physicians the physical. 5 He maintained that if those philosophes who made morality part of their philosophical investigation had had the knowledge of physiological organization of man provided by medicine, our understanding of human nature would be on a more secure footing. His own work bridged this divide because, he believed, "morality provides the most solid basis for medicine" (SF, 8). Roussel consciously placed his works between Descartes and Montesquieu, [End Page 267] the two moderns who best understood "the necessity of making progress in these two areas of knowledge." Because Descartes integrated human bodies into the mechanical operations of the universe, medicine advanced in tandem with physics. And Montesquieu, concerned more with particular causes than general principles, offered to medicine a torch "to penetrate the somber detours of the human heart" (SF, 3). For Roussel, these two figures illuminated the physical and the moral, respectively; his intention was to combine them.

Roussel acknowledged important medical antecedents to his own work. He cited Georg Ernst Stahl as a model of the appropriate and productive integration of medicine and morality. To Bordeu, he owed the crucial understanding of "the sensible difference of the forms that distinguish the organs of the woman from those of the man" (SF, 12). 6 From the vitalists, therefore, Roussel derived fundamental tenets of his own physiology: the emphasis on the soul and on the differences between male and female, and an appreciation of morality as a guide...


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