“Determinism/Spinozism in the Radical Enlightenment: the cases of Anthony Collins and Denis Diderot”

Charles T. Wolfe
University of Venice
In his Philosophical Inquiry concerning Human Liberty (1717), the English deist Anthony Collins proposed a complete determinist account of the human mind and action, partly inspired by his mentor Locke, but also by elements from Bayle, Leibniz and other Continental sources. It is a determinism which does not neglect the question of the specific status of the mind but rather seeks to provide a causal account of mental activity and volition in particular; it is a ‘volitional determinism’. Some decades later, Diderot articulates a very similar determinism, which seeks to recognize the existence of “causes proper to man” (as he says in the Réfutation d’Helvétius). The difference with Collins is that now biological factors are being taken into account. Obviously both the ‘volitional’ and the ‘biological’ forms of determinism are noteworthy inasmuch as they change our picture of the nature of determinism itself, but my interest here is to compare these two determinist arguments, both of which are broadly Spinozist in nature – and as such belong to what Jonathan Israel called in his recent book “the radical Enlightenment,” i.e. a kind of underground Enlightenment constituted by Spinozism – and to see how Collins’ specifically psychological vision and Diderot’s specifically biological vision correspond to their two separate national contexts: determinism in France in the mid-1750s was a much more medico-biological affair than English determinism, which appears to be on a ‘path’ leading to Mill and associationist psychology.
Keywords determinism  action  Collins  Diderot
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The Norton Dome and the Nineteenth Century Foundations of Determinism.Marij van Strien - 2014 - Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 45 (1):167-185.
On the Origins and Foundations of Laplacian Determinism.Marij van Strien - 2014 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 45:24-31.
“What is Living and What is Dead” in Materialism?John H. Zammito - 2018 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 67:89-96.
Who Let the Demon Out? Laplace and Boscovich on Determinism.Boris Kožnjak - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 51:42-52.

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