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Morality and Mereology – Diderot on Human Nature and the Emergence of Normativity

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Of all the Enlightenment philosophers, the one most interested in human nature might have been Diderot. He develops a differentiated philosophical anthropology that discusses the materialistic basis of human nature as well as the natural and cultural
    1   Morality and Mereology – Diderot on Human Nature and the Emergence of Normativity Ansgar Lyssy (LMU Munich) This is a manuscript of a talk given at the workshop  Humankind and Humanity in the Philosophy of the Enlightenment  , LMU Munich, June 2017. Unpublished manuscript, please do not cite. Of all the Enlightenment philosophers, the one most interested in human nature might have been Diderot. He develops a differentiated philosophical anthropology that dis-cusses the materialistic basis of human nature as well as the natural and cultural fac-tors that shape the differences between human beings themselves. In a sense, he might just be the first ‘inclusive’ philosopher who acknowledges all those usually excluded from philosophy: Disabled people (he wrote two treatises on the blind, the deaf and the mute), women, as well as “savages” and “negroes.” He not only criticizes the idea of defining humans according to a ‘prototype’ of a mentally healthy male white adult, thereby striving to include all other humans into a more in-clusive concept of humankind; but he also values their perspectives, often adopting the (fictitious) perspective of these usually excluded groups of persons to highlight how a more traditional, ‘eurocentric’ approach is going to systematically overlook philosoph-ically interesting ideas. Thus, his anthropology is not only a large part of his philoso-phy, but it also occasionally inspires him to adopt a corresponding methodology of contrasting different perspectives with each other. His philosophy however has been met with little interest by current researchers, per-haps because his work is less systematic, less subtle and less general than that of his English contemporaries. He is often more interested in articulating a sharp and persua-sive criticism of the political and religious institutions of his time than in developing a timeless foundation of general epistemic or moral principles. Instead of adopting the stance of a non-committal theoretician, his work is often carried by a political and sometimes even emotional impetus: Diderot wants to provoke the clerics, stir up fel-low intellectuals, enlighten the princes and educate the public. Consequently, Diderot never developed a philosophical system of his own. However, we can systematically reconstruct interrelated arguments that build on his monistic materialism and his anti-metaphysical stance and that are developed by using a reflect-ed and nuanced methodology, namely perspectivism and eclecticism. Here I am fol-lowing a current trend in research, which has recently acknowledged Diderot as being    2   more systematic than people have formerly given him credit. 1  His monistic material-ism is the underlying foundation of his practical philosophy; his anti-metaphysical stance is reflected in his views on religious and political institutions. In this presentation, I want to reconstruct such a systematic connection between Dide-rot’s descriptive account of human nature and its normative implications. This con-nects the two main strands of Diderot’s work, namely his interest in human nature and moral philosophy, and would thus, formulated in such broad terms, have to encompass too much material for a single short presentation. I will rather focus on a more precise question: How do normative demands arise from such a descriptive, materialist worldview – without succumbing to the is-ought-fallacy? This question is related to a tension that is typical for Enlightenment philosophy, but has a particularly strong impact on Diderot. This tension consists in two conflicting, but widely held ideas: First, that human beings are part of the great chain of being, which establishes a continuum of forms between all beings; and second, that human beings have a moral quality, a specific humanity that radically separates them from all animals. I will get back to this tension later. For the purposes of this paper, the two most important materialistic claims in Diderot are: The unity of the universe and, consequently, the continuum between all forms; and the idea that thought can arise from matter itself and does not need to be situated in any immaterial or supersensible entity. Diderot rejects both Cartesian dualism, Aris-totelian and scholastic hylomorphism and Leibnizian panspiritualism. He also embrac-es causal determinism and rejects, or even mocks, the concept of a free will. There is no such thing as a causal force embedded in human volitions; our agency is not differ-ent from merely physical happenstance. But this does not mean that Diderot abandons all ideas of functionality within nature – functionality arises from being a functional part of a whole, which is a system. He adopts the idea of a system of nature from Shaftesbury, whom he translated in 1745 (as the  Essai sur le Mérite et la vertu 2 ) – and it doesn’t seem that he abandons this idea anytime thereafter. Here it is argued that the concept of ‘goodness’ is applied to things within a framework of references: If nature were no comprehensive system, in which all living beings take part, we might talk about happy or unhappy beings, but not about good or bad. The latter only come to the fore in interaction, towards which all living beings inherently strive; goodness and sociability are thus correlated. Within the econ-omy of the whole, Shaftesbury argues, no thing is at a wrong place or does not fulfill its function; otherwise the whole system would be deficient. But this cannot be and consequently the function and value of the individual can only be understood as part of a greater design. With Diderot’s materialism comes the need t o conceptualize living beings in a new and different way. Consequently, his article “Animal” builds on the difficulty to define what is an animal: “Une définition de l’animal sera trop générale, ou ne sera pas assez étendue, embrassera des êtres qu’il faud roit peut - être exclurre, & en exclurra d’autres 1 See, for example, Duflo, Colas:  Diderot. Du matérialisme à la politique , Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2013. 2 He seems to generally agree with Shaftesbury, as he notes his reservations in footnotes.    3   qu’elle devroit embrasser.” 3   The literal definition of an animals as a being endowed with a soul does not hold up well; the traditional tripartite distinction between plants, animals and humans due to their c ognitive facilities needs to be redefined. While it is the faculty to think, act and feel (“la faculté de penser, d’agir, de sentir”) that distinguishes humans and animals from plants, it is the organizational basis for it, the embodied faculty, that count s: Not all humans think, act and feel in the same way; they can occasionally even lose their sentiment or their sensitive capacities without being reduced to a merely vegetable state. We can ascribe sentiment to most animals and maybe even to some plants. But this is not an ontologically fixed criterion but rather something that we need to investigate empirically. 4   He claims that further research might find “intermediary beings” between primitive living beings like plants and merely mineral structures, that   still display some matter of organization without reproducibility and thereby defy the classical dichotomy  between animate and inanimate matter  –     probably because this distinction still suggests an ontological commitment to immaterial souls inhabiting a m aterial body, making it ‘animate.’ In the  Pensées sur l’interpretation de la nature   (1753), Diderot adopts the idea of a “prototype of all animals”  –    an idea directly taken from Buffon. But that should not be understood as a proto - evolutionary approach, a s Diderot does not want to say that one species can srcinate from another. It rather relates to his idea that species adapt to their surroundings, both due to an external causal influence and an internal  perfectibility. But despite this duplicity of influ ences, the ‘order’ of actions can be traced back to the nature of the species itself, as, again, the whole determines its parts. 5   This, of course, also holds for human beings, who are only apparently distinguished from animals by their capability for reaso n. But no property can be described to only one species, not even reason. Diderot explains in the  Réfutation d’Helvétius (1774) that humans also are an animal species and that human reason is nothing but a  perfectible and perfected instinct; but he also em  phasizes that human instincts can vary quite a bit and that there is no reason to assume that human reason is spread out equally. 6   3  L’Encyclopédie , 1st edition, 1751, vol. 1, p. 468. 4 Article  Animal  : “  Mais une considération qui s’accorde avec l’une & l’autre, & qui nous est suggérée  par le spectacle de la nature dans les individus, c’est que l’état de cette faculté de penser, d’agir, de sen-tir, réside dans quelques hommes dans un degré éminent, dans un degré moins éminent en d’autres hommes, va en s’affoiblissant à mesure qu’on suit la chaîne des etres en descendant, & s’éteint ap- paremment dans quelque point de la chaîne très-éloigné : placé entre le regne animal & le regne végétal,  point dont nous approcherons de plus en plus par les observations, mais qui nous échappera à jamais ; les expériences resteront toûjours en-deçà, & les systèmes iront toûjours au-delà ; l’expérience marchant  pié à pié, & l’esprit de système allant toûjours par sauts & par bonds .” Ibid., p. 470. 5 “[T]ous travaillent sur le même modele ; l’ordre de leurs actions est tracé dans l’espece entiere ; il n’appartient point à l’individu ; & si l’on vouloit attribuer une ame aux animaux, on seroit obligé à n’en faire qu’une pour chaque espece, à laquelle chaque individu participeroit également.” Ibid. 6 “L’homme est aussi une espèce animale, sa raison n’est qu’un instinct perfectible et perfectionné ; et dans la carrière des sciences et des arts il y a autant d’instincts divers que de chiens dans un équipage de chasse.” Œuvres complètes, éd. Assézat, vol. II, p. 341. He repeats this assertion multiple times: “L’homme est aussi une espèce animale, sa raison n’est qu’un instinct perfectible et perfectionné; et dans    4   All living beings strive towards cooperation, at least within a certain degree; as they follow a universal ‘necessary order’ imposed by nature, they all strive to work towards “the general good of the species.” 7  Any being that would act against this general good would soon cease to exist, by means of natural self-regulation. This also, Diderot notes, holds just as well for the human being, who is always and necessarily a part of a society and as such defined by the whole. 8  While Shaftesbury is rather interested in the order of nature, Diderot deliberately blurs the lines between the natural and the social  – or, to put it in more modern terms, between nature and culture. For example, Diderot translates Shaftesbury’s expression ‘natural affection’ as ‘inclinations sociales.’ 9  He often uses this conflation for comical or critical purposes, highlighting the ways in which cultural conventions can prevent us from following our natural desires or pur-poses. He rejects the traditional definition of human beings as animal rationale : Reason itself is not something unique, but a result of natural instinct and natural perfectibility. Dide-rot, inspired by Buffon and Maupertuis, asserts that human beings are adapted to their geography and climate, but they are also shaped by their food consumption, their way of life, natural or migrational „degeneracy“ and simple ‘mutational errors’ in procrea-tion. 10  Reason is thereby a mere byproduct of the natural metamorphosis of species. However, human beings have the unique capacity to extend their sphere of influence and thereby improve the things that surround them: They can build instruments and refine them,   far beyond the grasp of their own natural organs. The human hand is not designed to fit one single purpose and can thus be used to shape nature itself beyond the reach of other animals. It is the organization of the hand as a universal tool that elevates humans beyond all other animals. 11   In a sense, humans are not defined as animal rationale , but rather as animal faber  . We can reasonably read these ideas as  polemically charged against all other attempts to highlight the reach of human beings into the super  sensible realm  –    religion, and certain types of philosophy. la carrier des sciences et des arts, il y a autant d’instincts divers que de chiens dans unéquipage de chasse.” Réfutation…, 7 “[I]l est aussi naturel à la créature de travailler au bien général de son espèce, qu’à une plante de porter son fruit, et à un organe ou à quelque autre partie de notre corps, de prendre l’étendue et la conformation qui conviennent à la machine entière […].” Œuvres complètes, éd. Assézat, I., pp. 64 f. 8 “On pourrait ajouter à cela, que nous sommes chacun, dans la société, ce qu’est une partie, relativement à un tout organisé. La mesure du temps est la propriété essentielle d’une montre ; le bonheur des par-ticuliers est la fin principale de la société. Ces effets, ou ne se produiront point, ou ne se produiront qu’imparfaitement, sans une conspiration mutuelle des parties dans la montre et des membres dans la so-ciété. Si quelque roue se dérange, la mesure du temps sera suspendue ou troublée ; si quelque particulier occupe une place qui n’était point faite pour lui, le bien général en souffrira, ou même s’anéantira ; et la société ne sera plus que l’image d’une montre détraquée.” Ibid. 9 See Duchet, Michèle:  Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des lumières , Paris: Éditions Abin Michel (2 nd  edition, 1995), p. 415. 10 See Gregory, Mary Efrosini:  Diderot and the Metamorphosis of Species , New York: Routledge 2007, eg. pp. 164 f. 11 “L’homme, au contraire, avec une main qui se plié à tout et se soumet à tout, a dans ce seul organe du tact tous les instruments réunis de la force et de l’adresse. Mais ne doit-il pas principalement à cet avantage de son organization, la supériorité de son espèce sur toutes les autres? Ce n’est point parce qu’il lève les yeux au ciel comme tous les oiseaux, qu’il est le roi des animaux; c’est parce qu’il est armé d’une main souple, flexible, industrieuse, terrible et secourable.”  Histoire des Indes , OC, Vol VII, p. 190.    5   As every living being should be understood as part of the species, the species should be regarded as part of the whole of nature. Understanding human nature is just an as-pect, a fragment of a much broader natural history. 12  But nature as a whole is not a static, but a dynamic system. Everything is submitted to constant change. Diderot writes in the  Rêve de d’Alembert  : “Change the whole and you necessarily change me. But the totality is changing constantly … Man is only a common effect; a monster is only a rare effect. Both of them are equally natural, equally necessary, equally part of the universal general order … Is there anything astonishing in that? … All beings circulate through each other—thus all the species ... everything is in a perpetual flux … Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral is more or less a plant, every plant is more or less an animal. There is nothing fixed in nature...” But the species as a whole is not an abstract concept. He suggests: “Species are only tendencies towards a common end appropriate to them.” 13  This notion could be best understood as deriving from the above-mentioned functionality, as every species is situated at a designated place in nature, which can not be fulfilled by any individual, but which also cannot be captured by platonic metaphysics. As we would be unable to understand a world composed of radically different individuals – and as no such indi-viduals exist in the first place, strictly speaking –, we need to derive each and every-thing from its place in the whole. The relevant passage again comes from the  Rêve : “And what’s important about one form or another? Each form has the hap- piness and unhappiness appropriate to it. From the elephant all the way to the aphid ... from the aphid all the way to the sensitive and living molecule, the srcin of everything, there’s no point in all nature which does not un-dergo pain or pleasure.” All this, of course, is nothing but speculation, as we do not have access to the point of view from the whole to its parts – but that is where science and interpretation come in to confirm this “lofty philosophy” (not mere observation, as interpretation entails the understanding of causal connections and functional tasks 14 ). However, while the form of human beings is part of the great chain of beings, they still develop a moral form of life, their humanity, that separates them from all animals: “[A]nimals are separated from us by invariable and eternal barriers; and we are dealing here with a system of knowledge and ideas peculiar to the hu-man species, arising from and forming his station in the world [‘qui émanent de sa dignité (!) et qui la constituent’].” 15   Dignity and, consequently, humanity derives from a superior form of knowledge that is attainable – so far – only by human beings. 16  This knowledge, namely a certain type of self-understanding, can only be brought forth within a proper society – a topic to which I now turn. 12 See  Rêve de d’Alembert  , op. cit., p. 53. See Duchet op. cit., p. 424. 13 “[L]es espèces ne sont que des tendances à un terme commun qui leur est propre.” 14 See Duchet, p. 424. 15 From the article ‘Droit naturel’. In:  Political Writings , op. cit., p. 21. 16 Diderot does acknowledge that we need to attribute certain animal rights to the more intelligent spe-cies.
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