Who is Claude Adrien Helvetius?June 25, 2021
Claude Adrien HA is a French philosopher who is one of the important thinkers of the Enlightenment and contributed to the preparation of the Encyclopedia.
Helvetius became famous for his attempt to reduce all the intellectual powers of the human mind to sensation, or sense perception, through a reductive analysis similar to that of Condillac. He argues that the two most important factors affecting human life and actions are pain and pleasure.
He is one of the philosophers of the French Enlightenment, who stands out with his uncompromising attitude on the issue that all people are born equal, and one of the main authors of the Encyclopedia prepared under the leadership of Diderot. Contrary to thinkers of the period such as Voltaire, d’Alem-bert and Rousseau, following Locke’s criticisms of innate ideas, Helvetius, who claimed that people were “tabula rasa” when they were born, underlined that the environment played a decisive role in the formation of the person and emphasized the function of experience in reaching knowledge.
Helvetius, who adopted a materialist attitude and argued that all philosophical discussions should be based on Locke’s empiricism, grasps sensations as the basis of human knowledge and argues that the only source of intellectual activity is physical sensations. According to Helvetius, the faculties are nothing but the passive production of sense experience; in other words, the faculties of the human mind such as memory, imagination, judgment, and reason can be reduced to sensations. Helvetius pursues these ideas, which were quite extreme to his contemporaries, by emphasizing the social determinations of our knowledge. According to Helvetius, who argues that our own interests and passions are the starting point of our turn to knowledge, the source of our desires and actions is selfishness. But the civil laws of a developed and enlightened state can turn selfishness into social competition and public interest.
Helvetius, who also had interesting thoughts on education, fiercely criticized Rousseau’s thoughts on education and argued that all people are born with equal mental abilities, and that the differences between individuals arise due to environment and education, not hereditary factors. In other words, Helvetius, unlike Rousseau, sees education as the source of inequality and thinks that all abilities can be acquired and developed through education.
Helvetius, who prioritized Bentham with his hedonistic and pragmatic attitude, defined good action as “the one that brings the highest level of happiness to the greatest number of people”, saying that the main factors that motivate people’s behavior are pain and pleasure. Rejecting that individuals have primary natural rights over the happiness of all, Helvetius said that man looks after his own benefit, therefore the only way to gather everyone around a common interest is to combine private and public interests by making each family share in national welfare. Helvetius, who despised all moral teachings of religious origin and fiercely criticized the social function of the Church, argued that priests instilled false moral ideas into society.
The two main works of Helvétius, who see the developments in science, art and industry as the tools of the historical development of humanity, and therefore are thought to have influenced historical materialism, are “De l’Esprit (On the Mind,” which he was able to save himself from the heavy accusations of the Catholic Church only thanks to his important friends. 1758)” and “De I’Homme (On Man, 1773)” which he published posthumously, fearing that the same thing would happen to him.
– Helvetius and the philosophy of enlightenment
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy TextbookWho is Elvetius?