Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

19

From 'History of Philosophy' to History
of l'Esprit humain

1. FONTENELLE, BOULAINVILLIERS, AND
'L'HISTOIRE DE L'ESPRIT HUMAIN'

The Thomasian Eclectics explored the vast span of human thought searching for the nuggets from which to construct a coherent, stable, and viable new system of thought. This turned out to be a partly shared and partly contested goal also of the Radical Enlightenment. There was a crucial difference in ultimate aims, of course, in that the Eclectics sought to conjoin philosophy to revelation, ecclesiastical authority, and princely sway, leaving room for miracles and 'mysteries', whereas the 'Spinosistes' wished to order the successive stages of Man's intellectual development in a linear, unified, and self-sufficient fashion wholly dispensing with doctrines of divinely authored Creation, revelation, and redemption and altogether excluding the supernatural. But in terms of methodology, research, and historico-critical criteria the two streams were identical.

The philosophers who developed the revolutionary new idea of 'l'histoire de l'esprit humain' as a unitary process encompassing the whole of the human condition were Bayle, Fontenelle, Boulainvilliers, Fréret, Lévesque de Burigny, Mirabaud, Boureau-Deslandes, d'Argens, and Boulanger, culminating in the young Diderot who during the 1740s and 1750s not only became an experienced encyclopedist but also a key exponent of a monistic hylozoism which he himself recognized as having affinities with ancient Greek materialism as well as to Spinozism. Diderot did not hesitate to call himself an 'eclectic' and, from 1750, uninhibitedly plundered, as well as subtly reworked, Brucker's researches.1 For him, the key to understanding all thought and feeling was to link it to matter. 'Selon moi', Diderot assured an ally in October 1765, 'la sensibilité, c'est une propriété universelle de la matière.'2

Since the late 1740s, this had been his consistent view and, as he well knew, in the climate of the times, amounted to an admission of Spinozism, pitting him against most contemporaries, and the entire legacy of Christian thought. But it also

1 Dagen, L'Histoire, 455–6; Albrecht, Eklektik, 562–6; Bonacina, Filosofia ellenistica, 69–70.

2 Mihaila, 'L'Hylozoïsme de Diderot', 189.

-496-

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