Julien Offray de La Mettrie: The Philosopher of Materialism

The Enlightened Radical

Philosobytes level 1In the annals of philosophical history, few have stirred as much intrigue and controversy as Julien Offray de La Mettrie. Born in 1709 in Saint-Malo, France, La Mettrie was not just a philosopher but also a physician, a combination that profoundly influenced his thinking. His journey through the realms of science and philosophy led him to a radical materialism that challenged the very foundations of 18th-century thought. Imagine a world where the soul is not a divine spark but a mere cog in the complex machinery of the body. This was La Mettrie’s world – a realm where human beings were complex machines, devoid of an immaterial soul.

The Mechanistic Muse

Portrait D'homme : NeckerLa Mettrie’s key philosophies revolve around materialism and mechanistic views of human nature. His major works, like “L’Homme Machine” (Man a Machine), propose that humans are complex machines, their functioning and consciousness entirely dependent on physical processes. Another significant philosophy is his hedonism, as seen in “Discours sur le bonheur” (Discourse on Happiness), where he suggests that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain are the primary drivers of human behaviour.

Philosophies and Ideologies: The Machine in Man

Let’s delve into La Mettrie’s mechanistic view of humanity. In “L’Homme Machine”, he argued that humans are biological machines, their mental and moral life completely governed by corporeal processes. Imagine your thoughts and emotions as the whirring of gears and levers, each thought a spark in an intricate circuitry of nerves. La Mettrie, drawing from his medical background, dismissed the dualistic separation of mind and body proposed by Descartes. Instead, he viewed mental processes as the direct result of bodily functions – a concept both radical and disconcerting for his time.

His hedonistic philosophy, as elaborated in “Discourse on Happiness”, presents pleasure as the ultimate goal of life. Picture a world where every action, every pursuit, is directed towards the attainment of pleasure and the evasion of pain. La Mettrie saw humans as beings driven by sensual desires, proposing a form of ethical hedonism that was as scandalous as it was revolutionary.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie is most notably associated with the following branches of philosophy:

  1. Metaphysics: La Mettrie’s work delved into metaphysical questions, particularly concerning the nature of consciousness and the mind-body relationship. His materialist approach challenged traditional metaphysical views, proposing that mental and spiritual phenomena are entirely dependent on physical processes.
  2. Epistemology: Although not his primary focus, La Mettrie’s theories do touch on epistemological concerns, especially regarding the nature and limits of human understanding. His materialist viewpoint implies that knowledge is fundamentally rooted in physical processes and sensory experiences.
  3. Ethics: La Mettrie’s philosophy also extends into the realm of ethics, particularly through his views on hedonism. He posited that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain are central to human motivation and morality, presenting a form of ethical hedonism that was quite controversial during his time.
  4. Philosophy of Mind: Perhaps his most significant contribution is to the philosophy of mind. La Mettrie argued for a form of materialism that saw mental processes as nothing more than the workings of the physical brain. This perspective was revolutionary in an era dominated by dualistic thinking, where mind and body were considered separate entities.
  5. Political Philosophy: La Mettrie’s ideas also had implications for political philosophy. His materialist view suggested a more secular approach to governance and societal organization, challenging the religious and spiritual assumptions that often underpinned political theory in his era.
Legacies and Modern Context

La Mettrie’s ideas, though initially met with outrage and scorn, have significantly influenced modern thought. His mechanistic view of human nature paved the way for later psychological and neurological studies, shedding light on the complex interplay between body and mind. In the political sphere, his materialistic views have subtly influenced various ideologies, advocating for a worldview grounded in physical reality rather than metaphysical speculation.

Reading List
  1. “Man a Machine” by Julien Offray de La Mettrie
  2. “Discourse on Happiness” by Julien Offray de La Mettrie
  3. “The Natural History of the Soul” by Julien Offray de La Mettrie
  4. “La Mettrie: Medicine, Philosophy, and Enlightenment” by Kathleen Wellman
  5. “The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans” by Margaret C. Jacob


Online Information:

Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on Julien Offray de La Mettrie for further reading and research: Julien Offray de La Mettrie – Wikipedia

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