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Medicine as a Key to Defining Enlightenment Issues: The Case ofJulien Offray de La Mettrie KATHLEEN WELLMAN The role of the sciences in the development of the French Enlighten­ ment has been a fruitful field of scholarly research.1 The most obvious focus of attention has been the physical sciences, especially Newtonian physics, because the philosophes, overtly claiming to be “Newtons of the mind,”2 saw themselves as both the heirs to the scientific revolution and the preeminent practitioners of the scientific method. Thus historians have noted the ways in which the philosophes, either generally or particularly, sought to apply the standards of mathematical certainty to their formula­ tions in the social sphere.3 Historians who have studied the role of the natural sciences in the En­ lightenment can draw less clear-cut connections between the scientific in­ terests of the philosophes and programs for reform.4 Philosophes like Diderot, Maupertuis, Buffon, and Holbach were particularly concerned with the philosophical ramifications of questions raised by the natural sciences. Discussions of Trembley’s polyp, Swammerdam’s animalcules, and the extensive documentation of monstrosities attest to their lively in­ terest in the natural sciences. But, for the philosophes, the biological sciences raised questions and problems which defied easy resolution through programmatic statements. Perhaps it is no coincidence that those philosophes who were most involved in the natural sciences were also most sceptical about systematic reforms or that some of the most thoroughgo­ ing explorations of the social implications of biological discoveries were cast in the guise of fiction, e.g., D’Alembert’s Dream. 75 76 / WELLMAN Medicine has proved to be a particularly problematic science for histori­ ans to integrate into Enlightenment reform efforts. Medical texts reveal a morass of conflicting theories and metaphysical perspectives. Medical practices are more likely to horrify than to stand as shining examples of Enlightenment. (I suspect this disheartening spectacle has made the study of medical professionalization the primary way in which historians of medi­ cine now treat the period.) At best, it seems, the historian of eighteenthcentury medicine can point to modest increases in critical acumen and professional standards or a marginally greater reliance on empirical evidence.5 At the same time, medicine by its very nature offered to the philosophes a clear-cut focus for their concern with the social utility of the sciences, i.e., any improvement in medicine would be immediately beneficial. There are other less obvious connections between medicine and the development of the Enlightenment: Medicine could be considered the logical heir of the scientific revolution in anatomy brought about by Vesalius and Har­ vey. It, like the other natural sciences, held out the hope for more thoroughgoing empirical investigations. Medicine was also one of the clearest ways to integrate man into the process of nature through com­ parative anatomy and physiology. In other words, through medicine one might work toward an understanding of human nature unfettered by metaphysical or theological considerations. The question I would like to raise is whether medicine was, for the philosophes, simply the most striking example of a science which could ameliorate the human condition or whether it could and did play a more central role in formulating their concerns and programs. The case of Julien Offray de La Mettrie is a particularly illuminating perspective from which to address this issue. La Mettrie, who was widely denounced by the philosophes6 and is even considered an anti-philosophe by some historians,7 might seem a strange or illegitimate example to use to suggest a connection between medicine and the philosophes. But several considerations make him an appropri­ ate and even striking example. First of all, La Mettrie cannot be convinc­ ingly separated from the philosophes. Even those who most vehemently denounced him were either indebted to him, as Diderot was, or wrote in response to him, as Voltaire did. Though virtually all of the philosophes, regardless of their philosophical perspective, found it dangerous to be as­ sociated with his radical materialism, La Mettrie himself was eager to proclaim his adherence to the philosophes. In his last philosophical work, the Discours preliminaire, written in 1751 just as the philosophic move­ ments was beginning to coalesce around the Encyclopedic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 75-89
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-20
Open Access
No
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