Endowed molecules and emergent organization : the Maupertuis-Diderot debate

In Tobias Cheung (ed.), Early Science and Medicine. Brill. pp. 38-65 (2010)
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Abstract

At the very beginning of L’Homme-Machine, La Mettrie claims that Leibnizians with their monads have “rather spiritualized matter than materialized the soul”; a few years later Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and natural philosopher with a strong interest in the modes of transmission of ‘genetic’ information, conceived of living minima which he termed molecules, “endowed with desire, memory and intelligence,” in his Système de la nature ou Essai sur les corps organisés. This text first appeared in Latin in 1751 under the title Dissertatio inauguralis metaphysica de universali naturae systemate, with the pseudonym Dr Baumann; it was translated by Maupertuis in 1754 as Essai sur la formation des corps organisés and was later included in his 1756 Œuvres under the title Système de la nature. Now, it is clear that Maupertuis was a kind of Leibnizian; and that his molecule possessed higher-level, ‘mental’ properties. In that sense he falls under the first category described by La Mettrie. But he was also involved in a debate on this issue with Diderot, who put forth a sustained critique of Maupertuis’ theory of the molecule in the additions to his 1753 Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature. Where Maupertuis attributes higher-level properties to his living minima, Diderot argues that these properties are ‘organizational’, i.e., they can only be properties of the whole. At issue here is the degree of commitment to a form of materialism.

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Charles T. Wolfe
Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès

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