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1750 __ « L’Homme-Machine »
Julien Offray (Offroy) (1709-1751)
Comment : La Mettrie was born in Brittany, in the town of Saint-Malo. After studying medicine at Paris and Reims, he worked under Hermann Boerhaave at Leiden. Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) is the first modern materialist. The book “L’Homme-Machine” was publicly burned and La Mettrie was forced to seek protection from Frederick the Great at Berlin. In many ways, “L'Homme-Machine” was a ground-breaking work. While arguing the case for a uniform material dependence of states of the soul upon states of the body, it maintained a distinctly antimetaphysical tone. As Vartanian (1967) pointed out, La Mettrie's "naturalistic view of man ... is offered mainly as a general heuristic hypothesis necessary in the positive study of behavior, without the need being felt ... to make mental processes reductively identical with their physiological causes" (p. 380). In addition, “L'Homme-Machine“ introduced the critical notion that conscious and voluntary processes are only distinguished from involuntary and instinctual activities by the relative complexity of their mechanical substrate. In articulating this point, La Mettrie went far beyond the static mechanism of Descartes to conceive of the living machine as a purposive, autonomous, and dynamic system. “In his essay “L'Homme-Machine” [The Man-machine], the French physician Julien Offray La Mettrie developed, in 1784, the mechanist concept of human being, not only of his body, but also of his soul. Starting from his studies in natural science and anatomy, La Mettrie defended the thesis, especially bold for a period dominated by Christian thought, that the human body is a machine that works by means of a metabolic mechanics. The idea of the human being transformed in a mechanical artifact subverts the autonomy of the spirit and the conscience, and consequently challenges the very existence of the divine. That materialistic reduction of the human soul allows him to compare the body machine with the time machine (the clock mechanics), with the difference that the latter has its operating mechanisms outside, and the former, inside. It is the machine itself that programs the body's life: "Each individual plays a part in life that is determined by the propelling devices of the machine (which has reasoning ability), that was not built by the individual himself," stated La Mettrie. Human beings are no longer characters in a divine theater and become self-determined mechanical systems.”. (Claudia Giannetti, “The Subject-project: Metaformance and Endoesthetics, The Body as Machine”, 1997 & 2006, In FILE’s Rio book)
Original excerpt 1 : « Man is so complicated a machine that it is impossible to get a clear idea of the machine beforehand, and hence impossible to define it. For this reason, all the investigations have been vain, which the greatest philosophers have made à priori, that is to to say, in so far as they use, as it were, the wings of the spirit. Thus it is only à posteriori or by trying to disentangle the soul from the organs of the body, so to speak, that one can reach the highest probability concerning man's own nature, even though one can not discover with certainty what his nature is. [...] In disease the soul is sometimes hidden, showing no sign of life; sometimes it is so inflamed by fury that it seems to be doubled; sometimes, imbecility vanishes and the convalescence of an idiot produces a wise man. Sometimes, again, the greatest genius becomes imbecile and looses the sense of self. Adieu then to all that fine knowledge, acquired at so high a price, and with so much trouble! Here is a paralytic who asks is his leg is in bed with him; there is a soldier who thinks that he still has the arm which has been cut off. The memory of his old sensations, and of the place to which they were referred by his soul, is the cause of this illusion, and of this kind of delirium. The mere mention of the member which he has lost is enough to recall it to his mind, and to make him feel all its motions; and this causes him an indefinable and inexpressible kind of imaginary suffering. This man cries like a child at death's approach, while this other jests. What was needed to change the bravery of Caius Julius, Seneca, or Petronius into cowardice or faintheartedness? Merely an obstruction in the spleen, in the liver, an impediment in the portal vein. Why? Because the imagination is obstructed along with the viscera, and this gives rise to all the singular phenomena of hysteria and hypochondria. What can I add to the stories already told of those who imagine themselves transformed into wolf-men, cocks or vampires, or of those who think that the dead feed upon them? Why should I stop to speak of the man who imagines that his nose or some other member is of glass? The way to help this man to regain his faculties and his own flesh-and-blood nose is to advise him to sleep on hay, lest he beak the fragile organ, and then to set fire to the hay that he may be afraid of being burned - a far which has sometimes cured paralysis. But I must touch lightly on facts which everybody knows. [...] Nothing, as any one can see, is so simple as the mechanism of our education. Everything may be reduced to sounds or words that pass from the mouth of one through the ears of another into his brain. At the same moment, he perceives through his eyes the shape of the bodies of which these words are the arbitrary signs. [...] We must think that the men who were the most highly organized, those on whom nature has lavished her richest gifts, taught the others. They could not have heard a new sound for instance, nor experienced new sensations, nor been struck by all the varied and beautiful objects that compose the ravishing spectacle of nature without finding themselves in the state of mind of the deaf man of Chartres, whose experience was first related by the great Fontenelle, when, at forty years, he heard for the first time, the astonishing sound of bells. Would it be absurd to conclude from this that the first mortals tried after the manner of this deaf man, or like animals and like mutes (another kind of animals), to express their new feeling by motions depending on the nature of their imagination, and therefore afterwards by spontaneous sounds, distinctive of each animal, as the natural expression of their surprise, their joy, their ecstasies and their needs? For doubtless those whom nature endowed with finer feeling had also greater facility in expression. That is the way in which, I think, men have used their feeling and their instinct to gain intelligence and then have employed their intelligence to gain knowledge. Those are the ways, so far as I can understand them, in which men have filled the brain with the ideas, for the reception of which nature made it. Nature and man have helped each other; and the smallest beginnings have, little by little, increased, until everything in the universe could be as easily described as a circle. As a violin string or a harpsichord key vibrates and gives forth sound, so the cerebral fibers, struck by waves of sound, are stimulated to render or repeat the words that strike them. And as the structure of the brain is such that when eyes well formed for seeing, have once perceived the image of objects, the brain can not help seeing their images and their differences, so when the signs of these differences have been traced or imprinted in the brain, the soul necessarily examines their relations - an examination that would have been impossible without the discovery of signs or the invention of language. At the time when the universe was almost dumb, the soul's attitude toward all objects was that of a man without any idea of proportion toward a picture or a piece of sculpture, in which he could distinguish nothing; or the soul was like a little child (for the soul was then in its infancy) who, holding in his hand small bits of straw or wood, sees them in a vague and superficial way without being able to count or distinguish them. [...] » (Translation based on a Leyden edition of 1748; The basic translation was by Miss Gertrude Carman Bussey, and revised by Professor M. W. Calkins, assisted by Mlle. M. Carret and Prof. George Santayana)
Original excerpt 2 : « L'Homme est une Machine si composée, qu'il est impossible de s'en faire d'abord une idée claire, & conséquemment de la définir. C'est pourquoi toutes les recherches que les plus grands Philosophes ont faites à priori, c'est à dire, en voulant se servir en quelque sorte des aîles de l'Esprit, ont été vaines. Ainsi ce n'est qu'à posteriori, ou en cherchant à demêler l'Ame, comme au travers des Organes du corps, qu'on peut, je ne dis pas, découvrir avec évidence la nature même de l'Homme, mais atteindre le plus grand degré de probabilité possible sur ce sujet. [...] Dans les maladies, tantôt l'Ame s'éclipse & ne montre aucun signe d'elle-même; tantôt on diroit qu'elle est double, tant la fureur la transporte; tantôt l'imbécillité se dissipe: & la convalescence, d'un Sot fait un Homme d'esprit. Tantôt le plus beau Génie devenu stupide, ne se reconnoit plus. Adieu toutes ces belles connoissances acquises à si grands frais, & avec tant de peine! Ici c'est un Paralitique, qui demande si sa jambe est dans son lit: Là c'est un Soldat qui croit avoir le bras qu'on lui a coupé. La mémoire de ses anciennes sensations, & du lieu, où son Ame les rapportoit, fait son illusion, & son espece de délire. Il suffit de lui parler de cette partie qui lui manque, pour lui en rappeller & faire sentir tous les mouvemens; ce qui se fait avec je ne sai quel déplaisir d'imagination qu'on ne peut exprimer. Celui-ci pleure, comme un Enfant, aux approches de la Mort, que celui-là badine. Que falloit-il à Canus Julius, à Séneque, à Pétrone, pour changer leur intrépidité, en pusillanimité, ou en poltronnerie? Une obstruction dans la rate, dans le foie, un embarras dans la veine porte. Pourquoi? Parce que l'imagination se bouche avec les viscères; & de là naissent tous ces singuliers Phénomènes de l'affection hystérique & hypocondriàque. Que dirois-je de nouveau sur ceux qui s'imaginent être transformés en Loups-garoux, en Coqs, en Vampires, qui croient que les Morts les sucent? Pourquoi m'arrêterois-je à ceux qui croient leur nez, ou autres membres de verre, & à quil il faut conseiller de coucher sur la paille, de peur qu'ils ne se cassent; afin qu'ils en retrouvent l'usage & la véritable chair, lorsque mettant le feu à la paille, on leur fait craindre d'être brûlés: frayeur qui a quelquefois guéri la Paralysie? Je dois légèrement passer sur des choses connues de tout le Monde. [...] Rien de si simple, comme on voit, que la Mécanique de notre Education! Tout se réduit à des sons, ou à des mots, qui de la bouche de l'un, passent par l'oreille de l'autre, dans le cerveau, qui reçoit en même tems par les yeux la figure des corps, dont ces mots sont les Signes arbitraires. [...] On doit croire que les Hommes les mieux organisés, ceux pour qui la Nature aura épuisé ses bienfaits, auront instruit les autres. Ils n'auront pû entendre un bruit nouveau, par exemple, éprouver de nouvelles sensations, être frappés de tous ces beaux objets divers qui forment le ravissant Spectacle de la Nature, sans se trouver dans le cas de ce Sourd de Chartres, dont Fontenelle nous a le premier donné l'Histoire, lorsqu'il entendit pour la première fois à quarante ans le bruit étonnant des cloches. De là seroit-il absurde de croire que ces premiers Mortels essaièrent, à la manière de ce Sourd, ou à celle des Animaux & des Müets (autre Espece d'Animaux), d'exprimer leurs nouveaux sentimens, par des mouvemens dépendans de l'Economie de leur imagination, & conséquemment ensuite par des sons spontanés propres à chaque Animal; expression naturelle de leur surprise, de leur joie, de leurs transports, ou de leurs besoins? Car sans doute ceux que la Nature a doüés d'un sentiment plus exquis, ont eu aussi plus de facilité pour l'exprimer. Voilà comme je conçois que les Hommes ont emploié leur sentiment, ou leur instinct, pour avoir de l'esprit, & enfin leur esprit, pour avoir des connoissances. Voilà par quels moiens, autant que je peux les saisir, on s'est rempli le cerveau des idées, pour la reception desquelles la Nature l'avoit formé. On s'est aidé l'un par l'autre; & les plus petits commencemens s'agrandissant peu à peu, toutes les choses de l'Univers ont été aussi facilement distinguées, qu'un Cercle. Comme une corde de Violon, ou une touche de Clavecin, frémit & rend un son, les cordes du cerveau frappées par les raisons sonores, ont été excitées à rendre, ou à redire les mots qui les touchoient. Mais comme telle est la construction de ce viscère, que dès qu'une fois les yeux bien formés pour l'Optique, ont reçu la peinture des objets, le cerveau ne peut pas ne pas voir leurs images & leurs différences; de même, lorsque les Signes de ces différences ont été marqués, ou gravés dans le cerveau, l'Ame en a nécessairement examiné les rapports; examen qui lui étoit impossible, sans la découverte des Signes, ou l'invention des Langues. Dans ces tems, où l'Univers étoit presque müet, l'Ame étoit à l'égard de tous les objets, comme un Homme, qui, sans avoir aucune idée des proportions, regarderoit un tableau, ou une pièce de Sculpture; il n'y pourroit rien distinguer; ou comme un petit Enfant (car alors l'Ame étoit dans son Enfance) qui tenant dans sa main un certain nombre de petits brins de paille, ou de bois, les voit en général d'une vüe vague & superficielle, sans pouvoir les compter, ni les distinguer. [...] » (Corresponding to : Edition Folio Essais [1999 & 2006], Paris : Gallimard & Denoël/Gonthier [1981], pp. 147-150, pp. 164-166)
Source : Quoted in “The Percy Anecdotes. Original and select by Sholto and Reuben Percy, Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery, Mont Benger”, Vol. VI - Science - Literature, Chapter : The Telegraph, London : Printed for T.Boys, Ludgate Hill, 1823, p. 146.
Source : Offroy de La Mettrie, Julien (1750), “L’Homme-Machine”, Collection Folio Essais, Paris : Gallimard [1999 & 2006] & Denoël/Gonthier [1981].
Source : Offray de La Mettrie, Julien (1750), “L'Homme machine suivi de L'Art de jouir”, Paris : Éd. M. Solovine, 1921.
Urls : http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/LaMettrie/Machine/ (last visited ) http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/L'Homme_Machine (last visited ) http://www.artmetamedia.net/pdf/Giannetti_Metaformance.pdf (last visited ) http://www.filefestival.org/site_2007/pop_trabalho.asp?id_trabalho=2081&cd_idioma=2&acao=visualizar& (last visited ) http://www.hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/gallica/Chronologie/18siecle/LaMettrie/met_hom3.html (last visited )

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