De La Mettrie was a French philosopher and a physician who argued his philosophical ideologies contrary to other great philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Leibnitz, Wolff and Malebranche. His arguments hinged on the definition of a human nature as he rejected two philosophical systems that define human soul, materialism and spiritualism. Arguing from his experience as a physician, he questioned the capacity of other philosophers to define and explain the human nature from theoretical perspective only. He believed the proper definition of a human being should entail both theoretical and empirical considerations and with his philosophical knowledge and experience as a physician, he claimed to be better placed to define human nature than any other philosopher does. He argued that a human being is a complicated machine whose definition lies in the philosophical and empirical experiences of the physicians.
Nevertheless, De La Mettrie, just like anybody else had his intellectual strengths and weaknesses as explored in this work.
De La Mettrie was a great philosopher because he applied his empirical experience as a physician in trying to define human nature, unlike other philosophers who relied only on their theoretical perceptions. He objectively criticized theologians and metaphysicians for trying to define human nature narrow-mindedly. He argued that, it is unwise to study nature and truth without stating their true benefits. For instance, metaphysicians theorized that, matter and thoughts relate to one another without articulating the true meaning of their theory. The proponents of materialism and spiritualism have also erred in defining the human soul from purely theoretical perception without expressing the empirical aspect. Unlike other philosophers, De La Mettrie did not want to be complacent with mere theories that make one become a slave of prejudice.
He argued that observation and experience gave credible definition of the human nature and “they are to be found throughout the records of physicians who were philosophers, and not in the works of philosophers who were not physicians” (De La Mettrie, 1747, p. 92). He insinuates that, physicians alone have the ability to explain the human nature because they understand the mechanism of the body.
With his great intellectual ability, he realized that other philosophers and theologians did not understand the nature of the human body for they based their arguments on their sheer ignorance formulating incredible theories about the human soul. De La Mettrie (1747) wonders, “what could others, especially the theologians, have to tell us? Is not ridiculous to hear them shamelessly dogmatize on a subject that lies completely out of their province?” (p. 92).
He perceived other philosophers and theologians as slaves of prejudice because obscure theories had turned them into philosophical fanatics who tried to explain human nature out of ignorance. Since the nature of a human being is complicated and hard to define, the theoretical explanation is quite incredible as “all the investigations which the greatest philosophers have conducted a priori, that is to say, by attempting in away to use the wings of the spirit, have been fruitless” (De La Mettrie,1747, p. 92). This observation is quite true because theories without true empirical application in life cannot define the nature of a human being, which is naturally complicated. Despising theologians and philosophical proponents of materialism and spiritualism, De La Mettrie perceived the nature of a human being as a very complicated entity that only through anatomy; one could have a glimpse of what constitutes human nature.
As a physician and a philosopher, he sees, “the human body as a machine which winds itself up, the living image of perpetual motion” (De La Mettrie, 1747, p. 94). Food nourishes the body and soul, hence perpetuating the life of a human being since with food, a man becomes strong physically and the soul too gains courage and happiness, while without food, the body become weak and the soul loses courage and happiness. When the body is sick, the soul is also inflamed and both of them die together as “the soul feels itself gently sinking along with the eyelids and relaxing along with the fibers of the brain; thus little by little it becomes as if paralyzed along with the muscles of the body” (De La Mettrie, 1747, p. 93). When the body cannot withstand the weight of the head, and the soul cannot endure the burden of thoughts, then, death occurs. These observations underline De La Mettrie’s unique philosophy.
De La Mettrie reasoned that the human brain is a faculty of imagination where the human soul resides. “…judgment, reason, and memory, are no wise absolute parts of the soul, but real modifications of the kind of medullary screen upon which images of objects painted in the eye are reflected as by a magic lantern” (De La Mettrie, 1747, p. 95). The human soul is complex and is indivisible into distinct parts as suggested by the theories of spiritualism and materialism. Although other philosophers concurred that the human soul is indivisible, it is ambiguous that the same philosophers coined materialism and spiritualism as the two components of the soul.
The philosophers used these terms haphazardly to confuse the minds of the learners and make them slaves of prejudice. In his conclusion, De La Mettrie (1747) offers, “…man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance with various modifications” (p. 96). The physicians are the only ones who can understand this various modifications in the human body but not philosophical and theological fanatics.
De La Mettrie in his quest to explain the nature of a human being demonstrated his intellectual weaknesses. He equated the structure of the human brain with that of a monkey and that intellectual gain is similar to that of animals. “A geometrician has learned to perform the most difficult demonstrations and calculations, as a monkey has learned to take off or put on his little hat to mount his tame dog” (De La Mettrie, 1747, p.
94). He supports his argument that it is only through education that men polished their minds with knowledge to become different from monkeys. In his philosophy, he reduced intellectual capacity of the human beings to the level of animals, which is practically and logically absurd since the intellectual ability of the human being is matchless. Human beings have made many inventions and discoveries during the course of history while animals remain with their natural instincts in surviving and adapting to the changing environment.
Doubting the existence of humanity, religion and a Supreme Being, is another intellectual weakness of De La Mettrie. Although he may believe the existence of God, he criticizes forms of worship and religion saying that they are dishonest as atheism. On the existence of the human being, he suggests, “perhaps he was thrown by chance on some spot of the earth’s surface; nobody knows how or why, but simply that he must live and die like mushrooms that appear from one day to the next” (De La Mettrie, 1747, p. 96). This argument underscores his intellectual weakness in trying to deny the true existence of humanity, religion and God. The existence of humanity proves the existence of God and the religion is what links humanity to God. De La Mettrie was very biased in his argument as he viewed himself as the most intellectual philosopher and physician who should have right to critique the work of other philosophers as useless. “We even should admire all these fine geniuses in their most useless works, Descartes, Malebranche, Leibnitz, Wolff, and the rest, but what profit, I ask any one gained from the profound meditations, and from all their works? (De La Mettrie, 1747.
P. 93). He did not want to appreciate the great works of other great philosophers for he believed in exploring new thoughts rather than old thoughts. His intellectual weakness lies in his claims that, his knowledge of anatomy makes him the best philosopher who can explain the human nature.
De La Mettrie employed great intellectual abilities in his arguments concerning the nature of a human being, but some of his argument revealed his intellectual weakness. In his argument, he criticized other philosophers who defined human nature according to their theoretical perceptions. He argued that proper definition of human nature must entail both theoretical and empirical experience; as in his case, being a philosopher and a physician.
His experience as a physician and the philosophical knowledge he had, formed a perfect combination of knowledge, which gave him the ability to explain human nature. The philosophical concepts of materialism and spiritualism are not enough in defining human soul because they have theoretical basis only. However, he demonstrated his intellectual weakness by equating the intellectual ability of human beings to that of animals.
He also criticized unfairly the works of other great philosophers and further doubted the existence of God, humanity and religion.
De La Mettrie, J.O. (1747). Man a Machine. London: Penguin.