The soul, mind, the relations between soul, mind and body have always been one of the central issues in philosophy. Various philosophers treated these issues in various ways; nevertheless the majority of them adhered to the position of dualism of soul (mind) and body. Julien Offray de la Mettrie is one of the philosophers who made attempts to treat the mind from purely materialistic positions. In his book “Man a machine” (L’Homme Machine) he endeavored to show that faculty of thought is best understood by considering the nature of the physical body.
That means that mind and ability to think is only one of the “mechanical” features of our body. The whole la Mettrie’s book gives numerous examples and arguments in favor of such interpretation of mind and leads, in essence, to the confirmation of one single thesis. For instance, wide range of differences in temperament and disorders of the mind, according to La Mettrie can be directly related to differences in physiology (La Mettrie, 1748). Other examples also indicate that our mind is closely connected with our body.
For instance, La Mettrie describes the impact produced by coffee, wine and opium upon our mind. Its obvious that this is our body that is exposed to certain impact and only then it is reflected in our mind. At this point it is important to note that La Mettrie is right to some extent in so far as contemporary medicine and biology verified the our mind functioning has biochemical basis and respectively any chemical changes in the blood have immediate reflection in our thinking.
Thus, La Mettrie comes to conclusion that a man is a machine. But if humans are nothing more than machines, he argued, then there is certainly no great gap between humans and the lower animals, for they are also machines, though less refined and complex (La Mettrie, 1748). Only due to the simpler body composition of animals we can explain the difference of their behavior from human one. He asserts that different behavior of various animals can be explained within “comparative anatomy”.
As the example, he describes humans and apes, for ape among all the other animals have the most resembling to humans body composition and consequently, most likely the mind (what concerned mind the contemporary for La Mettrie science could not claim this fact for certain). Thus, ape’s behavior, unlike all other animals’, could have resembled human behavior. This conclusion is confirmed by the life itself. However, La Mettrie himself provides the fact that among animals, some learn to speak and sing; they remember tunes, and strike the notes as exactly as a musician.
However the ape cannot learn music. In this context a man is treated like a being that feels music in the best way among the animals. So what is the striking difference between a man and an ape? Must it be ape’s inferiority in rationality to human beings? The difference in La Mettrie’s opinion is because of “some defect in the organs of speech” (La Mettrie, 1748). Moreover, he believed a young ape could be taught the use of language if we were to instruct it using the (then newly invented) methods used to teach deaf-mutes to “speak” (La Mettrie, 1748).
In other words, given the right teacher, apes could be taught sign language. In La Mettrie’s opinion a man in his development left other animals far behind exactly thanks to “invention of words and the knowledge of language” (La Mettrie, 1748). La Mettrie put the question: “What was man before it”? and gives the immediate answer: “An animal of his own species with much less instinct than the others.
In those days, he did not consider himself king over the other animals, nor was he distinguished from the ape, and from the rest, except as the ape itself differs from the other animals, i. e. , by a more intelligent face. ” (La Mettrie, 1748). In this statement La Mettrie is right again as far as a modern science (for example, evolution theory) claims, that using language marks human thought and behavior as being qualitatively different to that of animals and not the existence of a ‘soul’.
As the conclusion it may be noted that La Mettrie was not the only philosopher who based his philosophical concepts on ordinary nature observations. However, even such a primitive approach, as we can see, sometimes allows arriving to correct conclusions as regards human being, relations between man and nature, etc.
Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Man a Machine, 1748, La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1912 Retrieved on 13 Jan. 2006 from: http://www. cscs. umich. edu/~crshalizi/LaMettrie/Machine/