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Locke and French Materialism.

Yolton, John W. Locke and French Materialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. 239 pp. $55.00-This book is the continuation of a project begun by the author in his Thinking Matter. Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). In that work Yolton showed that Locke's suggestion that God might have given the power of thought to matter itself (Essay 4.3.6) had significant effects in Britain. The present work makes clear that Locke's passing comment also had significant and quite varied effects in France. Yolton himself characterizes this book as telling the story of "the adventures of Locke's suggestion in France." These adventures are for him "picaresque because of the way this suggestion appears, reappears, is attacked and defended in so many places and in such different contexts" (p. 208).

Yolton's story is highly interesting, and it is well told. However, it does not necessarily show that Locke influenced French philosophy in important ways, or that he had a major impact on the development of French Materialism. Perhaps it should not be understood as having attempted to show this. It delivers precisely what it promises: a historical sketch of the discussion of "Locke's suggestion" in France, not an argument for the philosophical importance of this discussion.

Yolton's sketch begins with the characterization of the so-called three hypotheses, namely the systems of physical influx, occasionalism, and preestablished harmony. Yolton shows that during the first half of the eighteenth century (or roughly from 1730 to 1750) Locke's Essay came to be viewed as being based on the doctrine of physical influx. More importantly, Locke also came to be perceived as having given this doctrine a definite tendency towards materialism. Locke's views became associated with the views of the "free" thinkers in France. Accordingly, he also came to be viewed as presenting a danger to religion. While it appears that it was especially Voltaire's discussion of Locke's suggestion that played a role in reinforcing this association, Yolton shows that Voltaire was far from alone in making this connection. Indeed, Yolton's survey of the discussion in philosophical journals shows how pervasive this view became in eighteenth-century France. Locke's so-called disciples in France were not only called "materialists" and "radicals" by more traditional thinkers, but they clearly also exhibited definite tendencies towards materialism. However, these writers were neither very well known nor philosophically important. Most of the critics of Locke and Voltaire on thinking matter were "obscure followers of Malebranche" (p. 182). Most of the supposed followers of Locke were not much better known adherents of the doctrine of physical influx. Accordingly, this part of Yolton's story does not go to show that Locke had any significant influence on the development of French Materialism.

Though the French "philosophes"--and especially Diderot and d'Alembert, who appealed to Locke as a witness for their own materialistic view of man during the second half of the eighteenth century--might be thought to have been influenced in significant ways by Locke, Yolton's account shows that their view was really quite different from Locke's. Their materialism differed in significant ways from what Locke might have had in mind. Diderot's "physiological materialism" was based on biological matter, which consists of muscle tissue, of flesh and bone. This matter possesses the properties of sensibility and irritability and is "essentially active" (p. 193). Locke's matter has--at best--the natural properties of attraction and repulsion, and is essentially passive. "British thinking matter is not the same as French "matiere pensante'" (p. 194). Therefore, the philosophes' positive references to Locke must not be construed as indicating a debt to Locke. Rather, Diderot and d'Alembert used Locke's reputation as an honest and serious thinker simply "to illustrate and convince their readers of the new view of man that was emerging" (p. 206).

Thus, though Yolton's story is interesting--even fascinating--it is ultimately disappointing to see how little of philosophical significance came from Locke's suggestion in France. Though it played a large role in the discussion of materialism, it does not appear to have made much of a difference to the philosophical discussion. It would be wrong, however, to conclude from this that Locke's philosophy as a whole was not important in France. Yolton makes no attempt to survey all of Locke's influences in France, but he looks only at one of its many aspects. In doing so he provides--at the very least--the promise of a corrective to the standard view, which sees Locke's influence in France almost exclusively in terms of his effects on Condillac. According to the standard view, Locke was important in France mainly because of his sensationalism or sensualism. Yolton clearly rejects this view as being based on a one-sided reading of Locke. While he does not argue against it here, he clearly wants to show that there are other facets to his influence in France. Yet, one might wonder whether the part of the story he tells can go very far in correcting the traditional view. One might still argue that Locke's effects on Condillac were both philosophically more important and historically more influential than anything having to do with Locke's suggestion. Be that as it may. If nothing else, Yolton's account can serve to whet our appetites for the "more important project" that he proposes, namely to "trace the reception of Locke's doctrines and books in France, and not only in France" (p. 210). University.
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Author:Kuehn, Manfred
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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