L’Homme Plante (1748) – No Knowledge without Motion and Friction – Diderot, Histology and “Trembley” Life

Posted: June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

Dawson - Trembley Polyp

Abraham Trembley (1710 – 1784) was a Swiss naturalist. He is best known for being the first to study freshwater polyps or hydra and for being among the first to develop experimental zoology. His mastery of experimental method has led some historians of science to credit him as the “father of biology”.

Rembrandt van Rijn
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
The Hague, Netherlands

After Descartes, we see in Western learning a new emphasis placed on the investigation of the composition and workings, as well as the repair and augmentation, of the human anatomy. Like Locke, many of the leading philosophers will have studied medicine. From mechanical anatomies to the emerging field of histology, the study of bodily tissues and their susceptibility to all kinds of stimulation, irritability, excitation and inflammation. This is crucial to any informed study of the Enlightenment. Along with Rousseau, Diderot and a variety of other authors dwell at great length in their writing on blushes, as well as other less publicly permitted throbs and rushes of blood. We want to remain aware of this because it is quite difficult for us today to grasp just how audaciously experimental the world of the Enlightenment was. We’ve lost our appreciation not just their epistemological but also their moral daring, precisely because we’ve been so thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that the great men of the Enlightenment, as our nation’s intellectual and political forefathers, must surely be upstanding gentlemen of the sort we elect to positions of public trust today. Surprise!

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An important component of Diderot’s histological view of life is his belief, an extreme extension of Locke’s attack on the Cartesian ego, that there really is no Self at all. The individual Self, or soul, is just an illusion which exists because the fibers of our bodies, through their temper and tuning, are able to retain physical impressions which can resonate either more or less harmoniously with newer impressions. We call this capacity memory, and the soul is nothing other than the chain of memories of everything that has happened to the body. Rather than individuals, unique creatures each animated by a living soul, we are really nothing more than a knot of discrete fibers, each of which is pulsing with a life all its own and moving independently of all the other fibers of the body. These different living animalcules, which Antonie van Leeuwenhoek call “eels,” will at times be attracted to each other and coexist (though Kant will have something to say against this), and eventually they can go their separate ways. What we experience as the death of an individual is really nothing but the moment when these little creatures, for reasons of their own, swim or crawl off in their separate directions.


As John Turberville Needham (of whom Diderot writes in his famous “D’Alembert’s Dream”) suggests, anatomical investigations must necessarily lead us to a “wiggly” world in which microscopic bodies writhe and squirm in a state of constant flagellation, wrapping themselves about one another and then releasing each other again. For these radically materialist thinkers, the body, in both the micro- and the macroscopic realms, is always made, unmade and remade. This continuous sartorial labor (weaving, cutting, suturing, ripping, re-suturing, etc.) is in no way indicative of the operation of any soul or higher power. Quite to the contrary, the body is formed exclusively through the continuous interweaving of an infinite number of (potentially indestructible) living threads; to wit, Trembley’s polyps, the most elementary animalcule of which are other organisms are composed. The body, quite literally, is nothing but a living textile.

This understood, we can begin to grasp the significance of painting of the day. Whereas prior to such insights, how what it ever occur to anyone that the best way to conceive of the work of Boucher would be in terms of the microscope?

François Boucher
(1703 – 1770)
sketch for Portrait von Louise O’Murphy (1752)

These wiggly and intertwined freshwater hydra are the “polyps”, discovered in 1744 by Abraham Trembley, about which Diderot writes in both “Rameau’s Nephew” and “D’Alembert’s Dream”. Note how the voluptuous curvature of the body in the Boucher above seems actually to be woven out of individual strands. It’s as if certain regions of the body were magnified so as to reveal their otherwise invisible texture. Diderot’s world is a “sartorial” reality in which bodies are, as I said above, nothing but fabric endowed with memory. And memory itself is purely material, nothing but the sympathetic resonances arising, either more or less harmoniously, between various vibrating strings.


The body, in Diderot, is never at rest. To use another of Diderot’s metaphors, the body is a kind of harp(sichord) which, because it is constantly invisibly caressed (like the feverish and raving mathematician D’Alambert masturbating beneath his blanket, a bawdy representation of how ideas are “conceived”?). For this reason, the body always strives to sigh and cry out. In an era entirely fascinated with nudity, the restless and loquacious human anatomy in no way stands in opposition to the clothed figure.

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The human form, especially the youthful, supple, and voluptuous human form, is really nothing other than a bundle of the most exquisite cloth. No wonder this era of French culture is one we often associate with the fetishism of haut couture. As least when it comes to understanding the 18th century, there may indeed be something to Marx’s contention that social relations exist not between people but rather between the inanimate objects whose servants humans are. Sexual relations, for the Enlightenment, are nothing more than the self-assembling of a costume.

Francois Boucher
Madame de Pompadour (1759)

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