Diderot and Descartes: A Study of Scientific Naturalism in the Enlightenment

Aram Vartanian. Diderot and Descartes: A Study of Scientific Naturalism in the Enlightenment. Princeton University Press. 1953. 336pp.


The point of departure of the present study is the truism that Descartes’s philosophy, despite the spiritualist metaphysics on which it was claimed to rest, concealed the incipient germs of modern naturalism.  Depending on whether its explicit or implicit features are stressed, the Cartesian system can be made either the fountainhead of Malebranchean, Berkeleyan, Kantian, and nineteenth-century idealism, or the instigator of the eighteenth-century lumieres.  Yet, the Enlightenment itself was an ideological event of great complexity and internecine conflicts.  Only too often, in attempting to state the relationship of Descartes to the Enlightenment in toto, the former’s doctrine has unavoidably been quintessentialized to an almost deceptive generality.  Our intention, however, is to restrict the Cartesian influence on the philosophes to a special and definite subject: namely, the rise of materialism as reflected in Diderot’s writings principally, and, in so far as a common outlook was manifested, in those of Buffon, La Mettrie, D’Holbach, Maupertius.  This materialist movement, moreover, will be considered with reference particularly to its origins in the history of scientific method, theory, and discovery.