Models pp 297-337 | Cite as

Diderot and the Development of Materialist Monism

  • Marx W. Wartofsky
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 48)


In the much maligned and neglected philosophy of eighteenth-century France, Diderot stands out as the leading, most creative, and revolutionary force. This essay, reworked from a longer unpublished work, attempts to indicate some of the roots of Diderot’s materialism and also the developments which his own thinking produced. Acknowledging his debt to Descartes and to the mechanist tradition in France and England, we are here most concerned with Diderot’s struggle to break through the limits of this reductionist mechanism, to cope with the contradiction in the materialism of the mechanists, which gave rise to the idealist critique of mechanism and to the idealist solutions of vitalism and hylozoism. Therefore we deal here with Diderot’s relation to Spinoza and Leibniz, and to Robinet, Maupertuis, and La Mettrie. The logic of change, motion, transformation, which had been developed in the main by the idealist philosophers and whose absence was the Achilles’ Heel of mechanism, is grasped by Diderot not in its idealist form, but rather, as the logic of a material universe, which itself changes, moves, is in constant transformation. In a sense, Diderot puts the idealistic logic of change back on its feet, starting from the outermost limits of mechanism.


Prime Mover Material World Qualitative Level Material Universe Cartesian Dualism 
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  1. 1.
    Denis Diderot, Oeuvres complètes de Diderot, ed. Assézat-Tourneux, (Paris, 1875–77). All references to this source are indicated by “A.-T.,” indicating the edition, followed by the volume and page(s) referred to.Google Scholar
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    The question of Diderot’s early deism is debatable. We are of the opinion that by the time he wrote the Pensées philosophiques his deism was a disguised atheism for the benefit of the royal censor, a tongue-in-cheek respectability belied by the content of the ‘deist’ writings. For an interesting argument for Diderot’s deism see ‘From Deist to Atheist — Diderot’s Philosophic Orientation’ by Aram Vartanian, in Diderot Studies, ed. Fellows and Torrey, (Syracuse University Press, 1949), pp. 46–63.Google Scholar
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    Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der Aufklärung (Tübingen, 1932), p. 116.Google Scholar
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    I.K. Luppol. Diderot — Ses Idées philosophiques, translated from the Russian by V. and Y. Feldman, (Editions Sociales Internationales, Paris, 1936), p. 233.Google Scholar
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    Robinet. Système de la nature, cited by Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, translated by Haldane and Simson, III, p. 393.Google Scholar
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    La Mettrie, Oeuvres philosophiques (Amsterdam, 1764), 3 vol. I, vi. The references to the Système d’Epicure in this edition are indicated by the volume and the author’s section number in lower case Latin numerals.Google Scholar
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    La Mettrie, L’Homme plante, republ. with Introd. and notes by L. Rougier; Publications of the Institute of French Studies, Columbia University, (New York, 1936), pp. 116, 143, 146.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1979

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  • Marx W. Wartofsky

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