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The Atheist's Bible: Diderot's 'Éléments de physiologie'

The Atheist's Bible: Diderot's 'Éléments de physiologie'  Caroline Warman
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The 'Éléments de physiologie' is generally viewed as the book that never was. Diderot never managed, we have been told, to synthesise his brilliant notes and jottings drawn from across the scientific disciplines into a finished text. In 'The Atheist’s Bible', Caroline Warman applies deft, tenacious and often witty textual detective work to the case, as she explores the shadowy passage and influence of Diderot’s materialist writings in manuscript samizdat-like form from the Revolutionary era through to the Restoration. Her conclusion, that Diderot’s text is in fact present within Jacques-André Naigeon’s 1823 work, 'Mémoires historiques et philosophiques sur la vie et les ouvrages de Denis Diderot', is triumphantly convincing. The book that never was has been staring us in the face all along. Its identity documents fully now in order following Warman’s tour de force, 'Éléments de physiologie' can be warmly welcomed into the Enlightenment materialist canon.
Colin Jones, Queen Mary University of London

Caroline Warman’s strikingly original book provides a fascinating history of one of Diderot’s most powerful and significant works, never before studied in a separate monograph. The significance of the 'Élements of Physiology' has been consistently underrated by scholars who treated it as an intrinsically fragmentary production, a set of working notes on other people’s writings. Professor Warman explains how Diderot himself is ultimately responsible for this view, but goes on to show that the 'Élements' is in fact his most systematic exposition of a resolutely anti-religious materialism, rooted in empiricist philosophy, contemporary scientific theories, and the findings of empirical research, powered by a vigorous and creative imagination, and couched in a trenchant polemical style. She offers a fascinating account, based on some patient and resourceful detective work, of the text’s subterranean existence after Diderot’s death, set against the background of the French Revolution and subsequent political upheavals. This throws important new light on the dissemination of materialist arguments through institutions of knowledge in nineteenth-century France. This is high-quality intellectual and literary history, the erudition and close argument suffused by a wit and humour Diderot himself would surely have appreciated.
Michael Moriarty, University of Cambridge

En proposant une monographie sur les Eléments de physiologie et leur première réception, Caroline Warman fait un choix original. On dispose en effet de plusieurs bonnes éditions et d'articles spécialisés, mais pas d'une étude complète. Warman prolonge ce choix d'un pari audacieux : montrer que les Eléments ne sont pas une ébauche inachevée, que leur portée réelle est tout autant philosophique que physiologique, et que, loin d'être restés à côté de l'histoire des sciences et des idées, ils ont été lus et utilisés par plusieurs auteurs de la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Avec l'analyse de la "mystification" par laquelle Naigeon, ami fidèle et éditeur moins fidèle de Diderot, a lancé l'idée (erronée selon Warman) d'un texte fragmentaire inabouti, c'est cette enquête sur la présence cachée des Eléments au coeur de la Révolution qui a le plus retenu mon attention. Warman défend avec force et précision une hypothèse stimulante qui change complètement notre idée de la réception du texte. Cela permet-il de considérer les Eléments comme la "Bible de l'athée"? En tout cas, Warman propose un livre vivant et rigoureux, à mettre en toutes les mains!

In offering a monograph on the Éléments de physiologie and their early reception, Caroline Warman is making an original choice. There are a number of good editions and scholarly articles, but no book-length study. Warman raises the stakes with a further bold gamble: to show that the Éléments are not incomplete, that their real significance is both philosophical and physiological, and that, far from having been excluded from the history of science or of ideas, they were read and drawn on by a number of writers at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Alongside the analysis of how Naigeon, Diderot’s faithful friend and less than faithful editor, disseminated the hoax about the Eléments being fragmentary, it is this investigation into their hidden presence at the centre of the French Revolution that I found most compelling. Warman defends her stimulating hypothesis both forcefully and meticulously, and completely changes what we thought about the reception of this text. Does this mean we should consider the Éléments as the ‘Atheist’s Bible’? Whether it does or not, Warman’s lively and rigorous book is indispensable reading.

François Pépin, Institut d'Histoire des Représentations dans les Modernités, École normale supérieure, Lyon, and author of La Philosophie expérimentale de Diderot et la chimie.

‘Love is harder to explain than hunger, for a piece of fruit does not feel the desire to be eaten’: Denis Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie presents a world in flux, turning on the relationship between man, matter and mind. In this late work, Diderot delves playfully into the relationship between bodily sensation, emotion and perception, and asks his readers what it means to be human in the absence of a soul.

The Atheist’s Bible challenges prevailing scholarly views on Diderot’s Éléments, asserting its contemporary philosophical importance, and prompting its readers to inspect more closely this little-known and little-studied work. In this timely volume, Warman establishes the place of Diderot’s Éléments in the trajectory of materialist theories of nature and the mind stretching back to Epicurus and Lucretius, and explores the fascinating reasons behind scholarly neglect of this seminal work. In turn, Warman outlines the hitherto unacknowledged dissemination and reception of Diderot’s Éléments, demonstrating how Diderot’s Éléments was circulated in manuscript-form as early as the 1790s, thus showing how the text came to influence the next generations of materialist thinkers.

This book is accompanied by a digital edition of Jacques-André Naigeon’s Mémoires historiques et philosophiques sur la vie et les ouvrages de Denis Diderot (1823), a work which, Warman argues, represents the first publication of Diderot’s Éléments, long before its official publication date of 1875.

The Atheist’s Bible constitutes a major contribution to the field of Diderot studies, and will be of further interest to scholars and students of materialist natural philosophy in the Age of Enlightenment and beyond.

The Atheist's Bible: Diderot's 'Éléments de physiologie'
Caroline Warman | 13 colour illustrations | November 2020
442 pp. | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783748969
ISBN Hardback: 9781783748976
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783748983
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783748990
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783749003
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783749010
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0199
Categories: BIC: HP (Philosophy), DSB (Literary studies: general), DN (Prose: non-fiction), 3J (Modern period, c. 1500 onwards); BISAC: PHI046000 (PHILOSOPHY / Individual Philosophers); LIT004150 (LITERARY CRITICISM / European / French); LIT024030 (LITERARY CRITICISM / Modern / 18th Century); OCLC Number: 1222933113.

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1. Introduction: The Curious Materialist Download
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2. ‘Toutes les imperfections de l’inachèvement’: The Mystification about the Manuscript Fragments Download
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3. Material World and Embodied Mind Download
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4. Diderot the Physiologist Download
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5. 1790: Naigeon and the Adresse à l’Assemblée nationale Download
Caroline Warman

6. 1792: Naigeon’s Article on ‘Diderot’ in the Encyclopédie méthodique: Philosophie ancienne et moderne Download
Caroline Warman

7. 1794: ‘Le citoyen Garron’, the Comité d’instruction publique, and the Lost Manuscript of the Éléments de physiologie Download
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8. 1794–95: Garat and the École normale Download
Caroline Warman

9. 1796–97: Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy at the Institut national Download
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10. 1798, 1802: Naigeon, the OEuvres de Diderot, and the Censored Preface to Montaigne Download
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11. 1820: Garat’s Mémoires historiques sur la vie de M. Suard, sur ses écrits, et sur le XVIIIe siècle Download
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12. 1823: Naigeon’s Mémoires historiques et philosophiques sur la vie et les ouvrages de Denis Diderot Download
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13. Conclusion Download
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Part One: The Éléments de physiologie Generally, Philosophically, and Physiologically

1. Introduction: The Curious Materialist

Describing the Éléments de physiologie as ‘one long series of jolts’, Warman opens The Atheist’s Bible by arguing that Diderot’s oft-overlooked work made an electrifying contribution to existing discourses on matter, the natural world, and human consciousness. The human being, for Diderot, is not a supreme life form but rather a composite of shifting elements and assemblages. In the context of the eighteenth century, this materialist conception of the body was considered to be a transgressive rejection of theism and, as a result, the Éléments was published only after Diderot’s death. The chapter also briefly outlines the structure and contents of both the Éléments de physiologie and The Atheist’s Bible, as Warman sets up Diderot’s work as a potential answer to the universal question of human nature in both its moral and physiological aspects.

2. ‘Toutes les imperfections de l’inachèvement’: The Mystification about the Manuscript Fragments

Chapter Two maps current scholarship on the Éléments de physiologie and traces the existing view of this text as a bundle of working notes back to Diderot himself. Within the foreword to an early draft of the Éléments, Diderot recounts the story of an author who, interrupted by death, leaves behind an incomplete piece of writing made from ‘scattered and separate scraps of paper’. Warman argues that Diderot was alluding here to Blaise Pascal’s posthumous Pensées, a puzzling collection of fragments that represented Pascal’s defence of Christianity. This chapter subsequently identifies common reference points between Pascal’s and Diderot’s writings such as animalistic instinct, physical pleasure, and bodily monstrosity. Warman concludes by stating that Diderot positioned Pascal as a ‘crucial interlocutor’ in order to present his own Éléments as an atheistic response to - and rebuttal of - religious accounts of man and nature.

3. Material World and Embodied Mind

Locating the Éléments de physiologie within the timeline of physiological theories on nature, Warman shows how Diderot was consciously responding to a long succession of philosophers stemming from Ancient Greece to late-eighteenth century France. The chapter is broken down into eight subsections that provide a summary of the key ideas addressed by the Éléments. Starting with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s and Charles Bonnet’s overlapping hypotheses on natural order, Warman shifts through a wide range of topics including living and dead matter, cognitive awareness, memory, and selfhood. In each case, she explains how Diderot drew overlapping branches of empiricist thought into one seamless materialist system.

4. Diderot the Physiologist

This chapter compares Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie with other introductory works to the field of physiology written during the mid-to-late-eighteenth century. Warman first shows how the definition of ‘physiology’ remained unfixed throughout this period, referring to both the specific ‘economy of the human body’ and more general concerns about life and health. A more major debate raged between materialist and vitalist thinkers; the former group perceived the body as a machine whereas the latter argued for the existence of a vital principle within all living organisms. Drawing ideas from both these frameworks, as well as from his own grounded knowledge of chemistry, Diderot developed a unique strand of materialist vitalism which saw all human beings as conjoined masses of nature, matter, life, and sensation. The chapter also chronologically tracks the publication of various writings on physiology from 1747 to 1833, using the preeminent Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller as a reference point for every subsequent work discussed within this section. While the Éléments contains a significant amount of Hallerian physiology, its organisation of material vastly differs from Haller’s eight-volume Primae lineae. Warman ultimately argues that Diderot, with his concise descriptions, sharp writing style, frequent references to medical anecdotes, and anti-abstract approach to the human body, provided a superior introduction to physiology than any of his contemporaries.

Part Two: The Éléments de physiologie, 1790–1823

5. 1790: Naigeon and the Adresse à l’Assemblée nationale

Setting the Éléments de physiologie within the wider cultural landscape of the French Revolution, Warman explains how the publication of Jacques-André Naigeon’s ferociously anti-clerical Adresse à l’Assemblée nationale tarnished Diderot’s name by association. As Diderot’s literary executor, Naigeon drew extensively from a range of unpublished Diderotian sources within his Adresse; in particular, Warman focuses on two longer passages taken from Diderot’s Plan d’une université, various extracts from letters, and, most crucially, three glancing quotations from the Éléments. To varying degrees, each of these references poses troubling questions about the role of God, the nature of priesthood, and the institution of religion as a whole. Although Naigeon never explicitly mentions Diderot by name, he attributes many of his direct quotations to ‘un philosophe’. Warman moves to discuss Naigeon’s broader theories on readership, timeliness, and publication, describing how Naigeon formulated the image of an ‘attentive and intelligent reader’ who could successfully trace his various allusions to Diderot back to their source material. Conversely, the ‘ideal writer’ must remain unconcerned about the risk of censorship and speak only in clear, transparent terms. Warman highlights Naigeon’s self-contradiction here, demonstrating how he makes complex cross-references to and borrows snippets of texts from other writers without concrete citation. Overall, Warman argues that Diderot used his Adresse to disseminate Diderot’s unpublished manuscripts to the masses, and that, in doing so, caused great damage to Diderot’s public reputation.

6. 1792: Naigeon’s Article on ‘Diderot’ in the Encyclopédie méthodique: Philosophie ancienne et moderne

This short chapter discusses Naigeon’s article on ‘Diderot’, published as part of his Encyclopédie méthodique, and offers an explanation as to why Naigeon chose to advertise his forthcoming Mémoires historiques et philosophiques within this piece of writing. While limiting discussion to Diderot’s published works within the main body of his article, Naigeon explicitly advises readers to consult the Mémoires in the introduction and conclusion of ‘Diderot’. After consciously drawing readers’ attention to his own unreleased manuscript, Naigeon comments on an unnamed work by Diderot more ‘profound’ than any other of the philosopher’s writings. Warman argues that Naigeon was alluding here to the Éléments de physiologie, and wanted to build anticipation around a text that he felt would shake the foundations of Diderotian scholarship as soon as it entered the public domain.

7. 1794: ‘Le citoyen Garron’, the Comité d’instruction publique, and the Lost Manuscript of the Éléments de physiologie

On 24 March 1794, the Comité d’instruction publique received a letter and full-length manuscript of Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie from a so-called ‘citoyen Garron’. Warman considers the fate of this floating manuscript, which remains unlocated to this day, and addresses the mystery of its keeper’s identity. The Comité published numerous decrees relating to the preservation of valuable manuscripts during the year 1974, and had adopted a proposal specifically regarding the creation of an arts and sciences inventory just nine days before Garron’s letter was sent. Due to the ground-breaking contents of the Éléments as well as Diderot’s own prominence, Warman argues that this particular manuscript was most likely intercepted or stolen rather than merely lost in the Comité’s vast network of archiving and cataloguing. Warman then presents several candidates for the enigmatic ‘Garron’ figure, suggesting that the name may have been mistranscribed or even a homonym. Although no concrete conclusion can be drawn from such circumstantial evidence, Warman tentatively proposes that Dominique-Joseph Garat, who was both an active member of the Republican government and a personal acquaintance of Diderot, is the most plausible contender for this role.

8. 1794–95: Garat and the École normale

By examining Garat’s lectures as delivered at the École normale, Warman argues that Garat was not only familiar with Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie but actively drew from its material to form the basis of his own teachings. The chapter first describes how the École normale was supposed to act as the physical base of a centralised national education system and provide a means of re-establishing trust between the Republic and the country’s elites. At the centre of this institution, Garat envisaged the École normale as ‘the first School in the world’ and presented his own lectures on the Analysis of Human Understanding as the foundation of all other subjects. In particular, Garat was interested in the theory of sense-based knowledge and declared himself a loyal follower of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac. However, Warman notes that Garat often diverges from the Condillacian school of thought and, within these instances, appears to repeat arguments presented in Diderot’s Éléments.  The chapter presents five overarching topics on which Garat and Diderot formulate parallel commentaries including sensory perception, memory, and imagination. It was likely that Garat was using Condillac as a ‘shield’ to prevent any student or scholar from recognizing his connections to materialism and, more precisely, to Diderot. Warman concludes this chapter by explaining that Garat, after repeatedly being accused of atheism, never released the unpublished transcripts of his lectures in order to break the dangerous associations between himself, materialism, and Diderot.

9. 1796–97: Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy at the Institut national

By closely analysing the published lectures of Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis and Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, Warman suggests that influences of Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie can be perceived at various points in these philosophers’ writings. Both held positions at Pierre Daunou’s Institut national des sciences et des arts, and each went on to publish extensive meditations on the nature of the senses, a topic in which both the Institut and Diderot were deeply invested. Warman first identifies perceptible similarities between passages in Cabanis’s Rapports sur le physique et le moral and the Éléments, examining in particular Cabanis’s discussions of dream-thinking, the brain, memories, and physical strength. Although the relationship between Destutt de Tracy and Diderot is not quite as clear, Warman notes that Tracy’s ongoing project on sensory analysis would have been strongly associated with Diderot’s distinctive branch of materialism. The chapter also discusses how Jacobin Gracchus Babeuf and Marquis de Sade both played a role in increasing the state’s suspicion towards materialist research, thus making it necessary for Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy to publicly distance themselves from Diderotian scholarship. For Warman, however, the fact that Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy were still quietly engaging with materialist physiological determinism during this period makes it highly likely that these writers were at least aware of the Éléments and, by extension, used this crucial text to develop their own hypotheses.

10. 1798, 1802: Naigeon, the Œuvres de Diderot, and the Censored Preface to Montaigne’s Essais

This chapter considers Naigeon’s approach to and feelings towards his role as Diderot’s literary executor, as well as examining Naigeon’s general remarks about the editorial process. Within the preface to his fifteen-volume Œuvres de Diderot, Naigeon refers to himself as Diderot’s ‘censor’ and emphasises his duty to exercise judgement regarding which manuscripts to publish and which to suppress. In particular, he harshly criticises two of Diderot’s novels (Jacques le fataliste and La Religieuse) by describing their severe lack of unified thought. Warman argues here that Naigeon’s desire for textual ‘oneness’ echoes a Diderotian motif that appears across the philosopher’s corpus of work, including his Éléments de physiologie. A similar commentary on the role of editor can be found in Naigeon’s original preface to a new edition of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which was censored and suppressed due its anti-authoritarian content. Analysing a passage within which Naigeon celebrates the editor’s ability to bring any text to a state of perfection, Warman shows how Naigeon positions the work of the editor above that of the writer. For Warman, these comments provide a useful framework through which to examine Naigeon’s Mémoires, which is discussed in Chapter Twelve of The Atheist’s Bible.

11. 1820: Garat’s Mémoires historiques sur la vie de M. Suard, sur ses écrits, et sur le XVIIIe siècle

This chapter looks at Garat’s Mémoires sur Suard and identifies various moments in which Garat may have been cautiously alluding to Diderot’s Éléments de physiologie. Warman first notes that Garat potentially wanted his biographical text to be associated with other forthcoming memoirs during this period, including Naigeon’s Mémoires on Diderot, as a way of reinstating his position within the academic community from which he had been shunned. She then quotes an extensive passage from the Mémoires sur Suard on Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in which Garat describes Fontenelle’s interest in and work on theories of human understanding. Although Fontenelle did actively engage with this topic, Warman argues that, with its framing references to literary fragments and posthumous papers, Garat’s description applies better to Diderot’s Éléments than to Fontenelle. At points, Garat mentions Diderot explicitly by combatting Suard’s criticism of the philosopher, and by claiming that Diderot excelled in one particular – albeit unspecified – field of science. Garat was most likely referring here to Diderot’s work on materialism but consciously masked his meaning for fear of backlash from the state and authoritarian theologians. Ultimately, it is impossible to fully prove that Garat was using his Mémoires sur Suard to allude to Diderot’s Éléments because, according to Warman, Garat ‘masks and conceals’ as much as he ‘suggests and signals’.

12. 1823: Naigeon’s Mémoires historiques et philosophiques sur la vie et les ouvrages de Denis Diderot

In her final chapter, Warman argues that Naigeon’s Mémoires historiques et philosophiques constitutes the first print publication of two of Diderot’s most innovative texts: his Éléments de physiologie and Le Rêve de d’Alembert. Warman first gives a rapid sketch of the Mémoires, revealing how Naigeon provides both a complete history of Diderot’s work and a detailed study of the philosopher’s unpublished manuscripts. Seventy-eight pages of the Mémoires form an intricate mosaic of quotation from the Éléments and Le Rêve as Naigeon cuts, reorders, and knits together both individual sentences and entire passages from each of these works. At the end of this textual collage, Naigeon admits that his abridged version of Diderot’s writing remains inferior to the source text(s). From this, Warman deduces that Naigeon must have had unprecedented access to multiple manuscript variants of the Éléments. By highlighting disparities in lexis and structure between an early St Petersburg draft of the Éléments and a mature draft held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Warman illustrates how Naigeon fluidly switches between these two manuscript versions within the Mémoires.

13. Conclusion

For Warman, The Atheist’s Bible is the culmination of two separate narratives. On one level, it rigorously tracks Naigeon’s repeated allusions to and explicit quotations of the Éléments de physiologie across his corpus of work, and shows how these various references are brought together in his Mémoires on Diderot.   At the same time, Warman recognises how she herself performs the role of ‘textual detective’ by magnifying hints and traces of the Éléments as they appear in the writings of Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, and Dominique-Joseph Garat. In this way, The Atheist’s Bible not only provides a detailed study of Diderot’s hardline materialist work. Warman’s monograph simultaneously offers a historicist account of the French Revolution in terms of its various research committees, educational institutions, theological debates, and political transformations.