What is the Influence of Claude Adrien Helvétius on Enlightenment Philosophy?June 26, 2021
Helvetius (1715-1771) in his main work On the Mind (1758) continued Condillac’s attempt to show that all psychic phenomena are transformed sensations. Due to the reactions this work aroused, it was not brought to an important position in the royal service. Apart from his travels to England and Berlin, he lived a quiet life in his own environment. After his death, his On Man (De l’homme de se facultés et de son éducation) was published in 1772.
Helvetius, like Condillac, tries to reduce all the faculties of the human mind to sensation and sense perception. The belief that human beings have independent abilities that exceed the level of sense is a mistake, according to him. For example, it is believed that the power of judgment is the work of reason. However, according to him, making judgments is nothing but perceiving the similarities and dissimilarities between individual thoughts. For example, if we judge yellow to be separate from blue, it is because we perceive that the color we call ‘yellow’ affects our eyes in a different way than the color we call ‘blue’ does. To make a judgment, then, is a mere perception.
According to Helvetius, humans do not have an independent faculty that exceeds the sense level. Making any judgment consists of perceiving the similarities or dissimilarities between individual ideas. Judging is just a perception.
Therefore, according to Helvetius, all physical and mental acts of man are governed by the laws of nature. Our moral actions are also included in this framework; Our moral actions also take place as a necessary product of natural laws. Helvetius also keeps a reductionist path in the ethical field, reducing all our moral actions to one’s self-love. It states that all people love themselves and want to be happy, and if they had enough power to produce all kinds of pleasure for themselves, they would not hesitate to realize their pleasure or happiness to the end. In this case, phenomena such as the will to power remain at the secondary level. They are just transformed forms of basic pleasure-loving. So the bodily sensibility is basically man’s only physical or mental and ethical single mover. Virtues such as generosity and benevolence can also be reduced to self-love, that is, to the love of pleasure. For example, a benevolent person tries to relieve people’s unhappiness and pain because it causes painful feelings.
This reductionist state of mind would undoubtedly be compatible with an ethically utilitarian theory. According to him, different moral views in different societies lead to different meanings of concepts such as good and virtue by people, which causes endless debates among people. Therefore, before engaging in discussions on morality, the meanings of ethical terms should be determined and people should agree on these meanings. Then, perhaps, the debates in this area will also disappear. If the belief in this area is accepted as freedom of thought, the common sense of humanity will solve this problem and find a common expression for the actual meanings of ethical terms. Still, he suggests in this area that the word ‘virtue’ should be given to actions that are beneficial to the public and compatible with the general interest. According to this, although self-interest is the basic and universal motive of behavior, public interest or benefit is the universal moral principle. According to him, it is possible to serve the common good from a psychological point of view. For example, if a child is taught to put himself in the place of the miserable and the needy, he will experience bitter feelings and the love of the self will awaken a desire to relieve misery. In the course of time, he will have acquired a habit of benevolent impulses and behaviors. Thus, benevolence is also psychologically possible, although at its most fundamental lies self-love.
From this point of view, Helvetius tries to emphasize the importance of education in creating positive behavioral habits: Despite being one of the main representatives of utilitarian moral theory, he continues to insist on the power of education: “Education can do anything and it is education that makes us who we are.” But there are serious obstacles to the establishment of a good education system. First, there is the clergy, and second, there is the fact that most governments are incompetent. The education system will not reach the desired level until the power of the clergy is broken and a good government and a good legal system are established. The most basic principle of morality can be expressed as “the public good is the highest law”.
According to Helvetius, the most basic principle of morality is “The public good is the supreme law.” can be expressed in the form
In the light of these thoughts, Helvetius also criticizes political despotism. He states that monarchical despotism kills both genius-creativity and virtue. Again, in this system, national income is extremely unevenly distributed. Only in a free country can national income be distributed progressively more equitably. Some critics argue that Helvetius is much better than Voltaire.