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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


HOLBACH

(1723 — 89)

 

MATERIALISM

Paul-Henri, Baron von Holbach (or d'Holbach) — he inherited the title from his uncle — was born in Edesheim, Germany and educated at Leiden University. In 1749 he moved to Paris where he established a famous intellectual salon with Diderot, Rousseau, Condillac, and other philosophes (some meetings were also attended by Hume). He wrote on a wide range of subjects, though usually anonymously on account of their supposedly subversive nature; and he was a major contributor to Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopedia, particularly on scientific topics.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] According to Holbach, Nature is but matter in motion, although he also argued that there were different kinds of matter and that it is not inert; movement belongs to it essentially by virtue of its property of energy or force. A number of consequences follow. The behaviour of individual things, including plants and animals, is to be understood in terms of their material structures and mechanistic explanations. And by virtue of forces of attraction and repulsion they tend to be preserved in their being until transformed into other things — the inherent energy of their constituent atoms and aggregates being redistributed. (In the case of man these forces are manifested as love and hate) [a]. Holbach accordingly argues that the behaviour of material things is necessarily determined; freedom is illusory [b]. He rejects the idea of an immortal spiritual soul, arguing that mental life is to be understood in terms of our sensations [c] grounded in our 'organic machine'. And there can be no God; all attempts at definition lead to self-contradiction; the concept must therefore be meaningless [d].

 

ETHICS/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[2] In line with his atheistic materialism, Holbach was a vigorous opponent of organized religion — to which he attributed all man's misery and corruption, and any lack of progress. His ethics is therefore not grounded in any religious 'natural law'. Rather, despite his commitment to determinism, he advocates a rational ethic based on and a concern for human welfare with respect to both individual self-interest and society as a whole. Ethics is the science of cooperation with others whereby human happiness can be maximized [a]. However, while he asserted that the people had the right to overthrow governments (particularly if underpinned by religion) which failed to secure their happiness [b], he did not favour revolution as the means to solve fundamental political problems. He said (prophetically in the 1770s) that the result might be an even worse state of affairs. Instead he argued for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and thus rejected both republicanism and despotism ('enlightened' or otherwise). As might be expected, he also advocated the separation of church and state [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Materialist, atheist, polemicist, Holbach was an eclectic thinker whose radicalism was not appreciated by the conservative authorities in pre-revolutionary France. His system, however, is perhaps too dogmatic and inflexible to be secure against criticism. His materialism arguably underestimates the complexity of Nature and in particular living things (though this perhaps reflects the limitations of science in his day). Moreover, his thoroughgoing determinism would seem to be inconsistent with his commitment to an ethic built on a quest for mutual cooperation and happiness and also with his views on political reform.

 

READING

Holbach: Systéme de la nature, ou des Lois du monde physique et du monde moral (1770) (System of Nature, or of the Physical and Moral Laws of the World); Le Bon-Sens, ou Idées naturelles opposEes aux idéees surnaturelles (1772) (Common Sense: or Natural Ideas opposed to Supernatural Ideas). The System of Nature has been translated by H.D. Robinson.

Studies

E. C. Ladd, Jr. (1962), "Helvétius and d'Holbach".

A. Kors, (1976), D'Holbach's Coterie.

V. Topazio, D'Holbach's Moral Philosophy: Its Background and Development.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Holbach

 

Note: The influence of other Enlightenment thinkers such as the materialist and atheist Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-51) and Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715-71) (for his utilitarian tendencies) should also be mentioned; and also that of Locke (probably via Condillac).

General rejection of general scientific rationalism and principles of explanation characteristic of Enlightenment philosophers Hamann [1a b]

 

[1a] Nature as matter in motion (intrinsic through energy/ force in basic atoms and complexes, which underlies transformations of things); mechanisitic explanation

   Epicurus

   Hobbes

   Descartes

   Leibniz

   Diderot

[2a c]

[2a 3a]

[3e]

[2d]

[1a b]

 

[1b] Determinism

   Democritus

   Epicurus

   Hobbes

   Spinoza

   Diderot

[1e CSa]

[2b]

[5c]

[3d]

[1d]

 

[1c] No immortal spiritual soul; mental powers from sensations & hence material particles

   Epicurus

   Hobbes

   Descartes

   Diderot

   Condillac

[3b c]

[5a]

[3d]

[1c]

[3a]

 

[1d] There is no God; concept meaningless

   Descartes

   Condillac

[3a]

[4c]

 

[Holbach accordingly rejected all theistic positions — Descartes and Condillac are representative.]

 

[2a] No religious natural law ethics; based instead on self-interest and human welfare — to maximize happiness

   Epicurus

   Rousseau

   Diderot

   [Helvétius]

   Habermas

[4a]

[1b c]

[3a b]

    

[4a]

 

[2b] People's right to rebel if government does not secure happiness

   Hobbes

   Locke

   Rousseau

[7g]

[4f]

[1j]

 

[2c] Advocates separation of church and state

   Hobbes

   Rousseau

   Diderot

[7h]

[2a]

[3d]