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  • Happiness and Disability:Emilie Du Châtelet's Adaptive Worldbuilding
  • Tracy Rutler

WHEN TEACING ÉMILIE DU CHÂTELET'S Discours sur le bonheur in a graduate seminar on materialism a couple of years ago, I was a little surprised to learn that some of the students were offended by the text. In particular, those students who had read the English version of the essay were upset with a sentence in the third paragraph in which the philosopher states that in order to be happy, one must be "healthy" (se bien porter). "What does she mean?" one student asked; "is she saying that sick and disabled people can't be happy?" We spent a lot of time parsing out the essay and trying to figure out what "se bien porter" might mean in this context, but having planned a discussion on the passions and the moderation of desire, I was unprepared for the question on that day. However, this question has stuck with me since then. Was I teaching a text that reproduced normative narratives of happiness? Or might there be another way to understand Du Châtelet's views on health and happiness?

In the two years since I taught the materialism course, I have returned many times to these questions, rereading the Discours and studying Du Châtelet's other important work, Institutions de physique, a book on natural philosophy in which she explains the foundations of physics through certain principles of metaphysics. I combed these works for clues about what it means to be healthy and happy according to Du Châtelet. The answer to my question has been as difficult and complicated as I anticipated, but in this article I hope to show that despite some of the more disparaging remarks the philosopher and physicist makes about elderly, ailing, and impaired bodies, in her works we find a universe uniquely welcoming of—and in fact dependent upon—differently abled bodies. I bring together disability and materialist studies to show how Du Châtelet's theory of happiness is directly linked to the materialist philosophy that enables the types of worlds we find in her adaptive and adapting universes. By examining Du Châtelet's Discours through the lens of her earlier writings on physics I will demonstrate that not only does her work allow for the possibility of happiness within the disabled body, but it also defamiliarizes disability, imagining a world of happiness made possible only by considering the interdependency of bodies and the diversity of embodied experience. [End Page 140]

The materialism of happiness

By writing the Discours sur le bonheur, Du Châtelet participated in a common exercise for members of the Republic of Letters: she proposed a theory of what constitutes happiness and how to attain it. In fact, as Robert Mauzi has demonstrated, there were so many treatises on the subject in the eighteenth century that it is nearly impossible to keep track of them all.1 Philosophers such as Helvétius, de la Mettrie, and Voltaire wrote essays and poems in which they discussed virtue, social utility, and sensations, among other things, offering universal proclamations of what happiness means. Du Châtelet should be studied alongside these male thinkers, all of whom appear prominently in studies of happiness since the eighteenth century; however, her role is often ignored or minimized. For example, although Darrin McMahon briefly mentions Du Châtelet's essay in his tome on the history of happiness, he reduces its theoretical import, writing that in the end she appears to consider the belief in happiness a "species of faith."2 It has only been recently, through the hard work of feminist scholars such as Judith Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, that Du Châtelet's work has begun to find its rightful place in Enlightenment philosophy.3

While sexism can account for the lack of studies on this important philosopher to a certain extent, it is also the unique tone of the Discours that initially led many to dismiss its importance. As Zinsser points out in her introduction to the English translation of the essay, Du Châtelet broke with the tradition of her male peers. Given her expertise...


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