The Materialist Denial Of Monsters

Locke and Leibniz deny that there are any such beings as 'monsters' (anomalies, natural curiosities, wonders, marvels), for two very different reasons. For Locke, monsters are not 'natural kinds': the word ‘monster’ does not individuate any specific class beings 'out there' in the natural world. Monsters depend on our subjective viewpoint. For Leibniz, there are no monsters because we are all parts of the Great Chain of Being. Every thing that happens, happens for a reason, including a monstrous birth. But what about French materialism? Beginning with the anatomical interest into 'monstrous births' in the French Académie des Sciences in the first 3 decades of the 18th century, there is a shift away from 'imaginationist' claims such as those of Malebranche, that if a woman gives birth to a monstrous child it is a consequence of something she imagined. Anatomists such as Lemery and Winslow try to formulate a strictly mechanical explanation for such events, rejecting moral and metaphysical explanations. Picking up on this work, materialist thinkers like Diderot are compelled to reject the very idea of monsters. We are all material beings produced according to the same mechanisms or laws, some of us are more 'successful' products than others, i.e. some live longer than others. In his late Elements de physiologie he says ‘L'homme est un effet commun, le monstre un effet rare.’ Ultimately he arrives at a materialist version of Leibniz's position : there are no monsters, we are all monsters in each other's eyes, at one time or another. This conclusion is a pregnant one in light of 20th-century interest in the problem of 'the normal and the pathological' (G. Canguilhem, then Foucault), and also of the problem of how materialism can or cannot be said to have an ethical dimension, the problem which emerges immediately after Diderot: if there are beings with conformations different to ours, how should they be treated socially, legally, medically?

Charles T. Wolfe
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Philosophy Department, Boston University, USA