L’Homme Machine

Before one can talk about the posthuman, one needs to accept the fundamental materiality of the human body. This is because consciousness itself needs to be located in its material receptacle, the physical human body, if it is to be deemed as capable of transference, for instance, in the process of mind uploading or brain photocopying that one finds in the works of contemporary science fiction authors such as Greg Egan and Peter Hamilton.

Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine (Machine Man), published in 1747, is the path-breaking Enlightenment work of materialist (and atheist) philosophy that firmly spoke about the human body as a machine, a product of nature rather than of supernatural forces:

“Nous sommes de vraies taupes dans le chemin de la Nature ; nous n’y faisons guère que le trajet de cet animal ; et c’est notre orgueil qui donne des bornes à ce qui n’en a point. Nous sommes dans le cas d’une montre qui dirait (un fabuliste en ferait un personnage de conséquence dans un ouvrage frivole) : « quoi! c’est ce sot ouvrier qui m’a faite, moi qui divise le temps ! moi qui marque si exactement le cours du soleil; moi qui répète à haute voix les heures que j’indique ! non, cela ne se peut pas. » Nous dédaignons de même, ingrats que nous sommes, cette mère commune de tous les Règnes, comme parlent les chimistes. Nous imaginons ou plutôt nous supposons une cause supérieure à celle à qui nous devons tout, et qui a véritablement tout fait d’une manière inconcevable. Non, la matière n’a rien de vil qu’aux yeux grossiers qui la méconnaissent dans ses plus brillants ouvrages, et la Nature n’est point une ouvrière bornée. Elle produit des millions d’hommes avec plus de facilité et de plaisir qu’un horloger n’a de peine à faire la montre la plus composée. Sa puissance éclate également et dans la production du plus vil insecte, et dans celle de l’homme le plus superbe; le règne animal ne lui coûte pas plus que le végétal, ni le plus beau génie qu’un épi de blé. Jugeons donc par ce que nous voyons, de ce qui se dérobe à la curiosité de nos yeux et de nos recherches, et n’imaginons rien au delà.”

“We are veritable moles in the field of nature; we hardly cover more ground than that animal and it is only our pride that places limits on things that have none. We are like a watch saying (a storyteller would make it an important character in a frivolous work): ‘What! Was I made by that stupid workman, I who can divide up time, who can indicate so precisely the sun’s course, who can tell out loud the hours which I indicate! No, that is impossible.’ In the same way, ungrateful wretches that we are, we despise the common mother of all the kingdoms, to use the language of the chemists. We imagine, or rather assume, a cause higher than the one to which we owe everything and which has truly created everything in an inconceivable way. No, there is nothing vile about matter, except for crude eyes which do not understand its most brilliant productions, and nature is not a worker of limited ability. The ease and pleasure with which she produces millions of men exceed the watchmaker’s toil when he creates the most complicated of watches. Her power shines out as clearly in the creation of the meanest insect as in that of the most splendid human; she does not expend greater effort on the animal than on the vegetable kingdom, or on the greatest genius than on an ear of corn. We should therefore judge what is hidden from our curious gaze and our research by what we can see, instead of imagining anything more.”

(from La Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings, translated and edited by Ann Thomson. Cambridge University Press, 1996)

While there is some debate about authorship, L’Homme Machine is one of the earliest texts that may serve as the basis for a materialist posthumanist philosophy. By equating man to machine, to animal and to the rest of the productions of nature, it creates the materialist continuum necessary for understanding the transcendence of the human body through modification. While scholars such as Gloria Lauri-Lucente argue for a wider understanding, to include authors like Dante in the posthumanist discourse, the fundamental difference between the earlier texts, particularly those from the Renaissance, lies in a spiritual worldview and dependence on the concept of soul that some authors of the Enlightenment would come to eschew. Of relevance in understanding this shift to the new philosophy are the works of philosophers such as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) and Giambattista Vico (1668 – 1744).


One thought on “L’Homme Machine

  1. Pingback: La Columbia britannique et les Prairies | ArchangelVoyage

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