Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



Helvétius, Claude-Adrien (1715–71)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Helvétius was one of the most noteworthy and notorious figures of the French Enlightenment. In common with his fellow philosophes, he asserted that all philosophical discussions should be based on the empiricism of Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding (1689). But unlike Voltaire, d’Alembert, and the other members of ‘the party of humanity’, Helvétius took literally the notion that each person is a tabula rasa at birth – he boldly argued the case for unabashed environmental determinism. We are what our surroundings have made us, and nothing more.

Immediately after Helvétius published De l’Esprit in 1758, the Catholic authorities cited his book as definitive proof that the philosophes were out to destroy religion, throne, family, and all that is sacred. Only the struggle between court and parliament over control of censorship, along with his ties to Madame de Pompadour and the Duc de Choiseul, saved Helvétius. After suffering the indignity of three recantations, he decided upon posthumous publication of his second major work, De l’Homme (1773).

Not a single philosophe accepted Helvétius’ view that the mind is a completely passive recipient of data received through the senses; nor did any of his comrades second his constantly reiterated claim that all sensibility may be reduced to physical sensations. Some privately expressed their exasperation that Helvétius published so much that seemed to vindicate every charge the Church lodged against them: that they were materialists, advocates of free love, and champions of a scandalous hedonism. Nevertheless at least a few of the philosophes, after setting aside the philosophical suppositions of De l’Esprit, came to appreciate that the larger concern of Helvétius was with their own search for the social and political preconditions of an independent intelligentsia, the would-be agents of Enlightenment.

Citing this article:
Hulliung, Mark. Helvétius, Claude-Adrien (1715–71), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles