Jean Robinet

In existographies, Jean Robinet (1735-1820) was a French physicist philosopher, naturalist, encyclopedist, and early evolutionist, noted for []

Activity | Active principle
The fundamental reality of nature, according to Robinet, as summarized by Arthur Lovejoy (1933), was not “matter” but “activity” or rather the force behind the active principle; Robinet explains as follows:

“To the inferior beings, such as minerals and vegetables, we refer all the phenomena that occur to matter, as the principle constituent (le fond principle) of these beings. A little higher in the scale, we begin to doubt; we are undecided. We remark a ‘spontaneity’ of movements and operations which discloses an ‘active principle’ which we cannot but attribute to them.

Nevertheless, this activity may still be seen to be dragged along and invincibly determined by matter, so that, in such systems, matter and activity appear to dominate by turns, being alternately principal and accessory, according to circumstances. The active power seems to be making efforts to raise itself above the extended, solid, impenetrable mass to which it is chained, but of which it is often compelled to submit to the yoke. In man, on the contrary, it is evident that matter is only the organ through which the ‘active principle’ brings its faculties into play. The former is an envelope which modifies the action of the latter, one without which it would perhaps act more freely, but also without which, perhaps, it could not act at all, and without which it assuredly could not render its activities sensible.

Does it not, once more, seem that the active power grows and perfects itself in being, in proportion as it raises itself above matter? Such, according to this hypothesis, would be the progression of the active force inherent in matter. At first it would be but the smallest portion of being. By a multiplication of efforts and progressive developments, it would succeed in becoming the principal part. I am strongly inclined to believe that this ‘force’ is the most essential and the most universal attribute or bottom of being (le fond de l'etre) — and that matter is the organ whereby this force manifests its operations. If I am asked to define my conception of such a force, I shall answer, with a number of philosophers, that I represent it to myself as a tendency to change for the better; since every change is the proximate predisposition to another and better one.”
— Jean Robinet (1768), Philosophical View of the Natural Gradation of the Forms of Being (Vue Philosophique de la Gradation Naturelle des Formes de l’etre) (pgs. 8-10); cited by Arthur Lovejoy (1933) in The Great Chain of Being (pg. 282)


“Accustomed as we are to judge the reality of things by the appearances which strike our senses, we a re unwilling to admit that anything exists in the world except matter, since we see only matter. And, to borrow the words of a modern author, since all the modifications which our senses observe in nature consist simply in the variations of the limits of extension, as soon as we are compelled to give up this extension we seem to be confronted with mere nothingness; we come a stop as if there is naught beyond. We do not give heed to the fact that the material or visible world is an assemblage of phenomena and nothing more – that there must necessarily be an invisible world, which is the foundation, the subject, of the visible world, and into which we ought to resolve all that is real and substantial in nature. This invisible world is the collection of all the forces which tend to ameliorate themselves, and which to so in fact, by incessantly extending and perfecting their activity, in the proportion suitable to each of them. There is a ‘gradation of forces’ in the invisible world as there is a progression of forms in the extended or visible world. The active forces propagate themselves in their manner as the material forms do. One might well say that material forms only proceed from one another because a certain degree of force from one has animated the other, and so on. The necessary progress of these two elements fills the universal scale of nature. The whole of nature thus offers to our contemplation two great objects, the progression of forces and the development of forms.”
— Jean Robinet (1786), Philosophical View of the Natural Gradation of the Forms of Being [7]

This so-called ‘activity philosophy’, in the opinion of Lovejoy, supposedly, anticipated concepts such as: Friedrich Schelling’s ‘natural philosophy’ and Henri Bergson’s elan vital. [3] This categorization by Lovejoy, however, seems to be in the neighborhood, but on the wrong side of the fence of nature. Correctly, baring a full reading of Robinet (which mostly seems extant only in the original French), in modern terms, Robinet's so-called "active principle", rooted in active forces and powers, behind the spontaneity of movements, mineral to man, is the Gibbs energy, aka the force function, behind the spontaniety of chemical change, such as is found, in pre-cursory form in Goethe's human chemical theory, described by affiinity chemistry logic, Friedrich Nietzsche's will to power theory, and the leading modern human free energy theorists.

Robinet evolution image (1786)
An illustration (Ѻ) from Robinet’s 1768 Philosophical View of the Natural Gradation of the Forms of Being, wherein he is attempting to show, via descriptions of human-like reported species, that humans “metamorphosized” over time back through the fish species.
In 1761, Robinet, in his Of the Nature, the first volume of five (the last volume completed in 1768), sought to outline an sort of pan-rationalism themed evolutionist scale of being philosophy.

In 1763, Robinet, in Of the Nature, Volume Two, attacked Charles Bonnet and his attempt to “divide the different orders which constitute the scale of being” into the following four classes:

1. Inorganic
2. Organic but inanimate (i.e. plants)
3. Organic and animate, but without reason (i.e. animals)
4. Organic, animate, and rational (i.e. humans)

Robinet viewed this four-part classification divide as an outright denial of continuity, because it credited some classes with possession of certain traits or positive attributes, which the others absolutely lack. Robinet, conversely, argued that we should think not in terms of positive and negative divisions, in respect to certain attributes, but in terms of some common character, which forms the basis of the principle of continuity. [3] Robinet argues as follows:

“What continuity can there be between the organic and the inorganic, between the animate and the inanimate, between the rational and the non-rational? It is evident that there is no mean between the positive and the negative, and consequently, that there are no intermediate beings which link the two together. If there were such beings, it would be necessary that their constitution should simultaneously participate in two mutually exclusive contraries; . . . e. g., that the passage from inorganic to organic should be filled up by a middle sort of beings which are both organic and inorganic. But such beings are self-contradictory (repugnant). If we wish to leave the law of continuity standing, ... if we wish to allow nature to pass insensibly from one of her productions to another, without compelling her to make leaps, we must not admit the existence of any inorganic beings, or any inanimate, or any non-rational. Where there is a single essential quality (an essential one, I say) characteristic of a certain number of beings to the exclusion of others, .. . the chain is broken, the law of continuity becomes a chimera, and the idea of a whole an absurdity.”
— Jean Robinet (1762). Of the Nature, Volume Four (pgs. 4-5) [1]

In commentary on this ideology, chain of being historian Arthur Lovejoy (1933), , characterizes this as the “retrotensive method”, a term he coined in 1927, in contrast to the “emergent method”, as follows:

“This was an acute and important observation upon the concept of the qualitative continuum. It made explicit, and generalized, the logic which was to be more vaguely and less consistently followed by many later philosophers. One of the principal motives, for example, of panpsychism in the philosophy of our own time is the desire to avoid the discontinuity which is manifestly implied by the supposition that consciousness or sentiency is an ‘emergent’ property [see: emergent property] or function, which abruptly supervenes at a certain level of the integration of matter, and at a certain stage in planetary evolution.

Underlying all such reasoning is the assumption of the necessity of what may be called the ‘retrotensive method’ — the rule that whatever is empirically found in or associated with the more complex and highly evolved natural entities must inferentially be read back into the simpler and earlier ones. But where later writers have, as a rule, applied this method only spasmodically and without full realization of its general import, Robinet saw that it must either be applied universally or be admitted to have no cogency at all. The result, it will perhaps seem to the judicious reader, was simply a reductio ad absurdum of the principle of continuity. But to Robinet, it was the establishment, by a single stroke of logic, of a whole group of important philosophical conclusions — among them, hylozoism, panpsychism, and a peculiar sort of panlogism, a doctrine of ubiquity of the rudiments of rationality in all natural things.”
— Arthur Lovejoy (1933), The Great Chain of Being (pgs. 276-77)

Lovejoy cites the following statement of Robinet, as an example of this retrotensive ideology:

“For myself, I would rather give even intelligence to the least atom of matter – provided it were in a degree and of a quality suitable to it – than to refuse organization to the fossils and make of them isolated beings, having no connection with others. It is to no purpose to tell me that this is a bizarre opinion, and that it is not possible to that a stone thinks.”
— Jean Robinet (1762). Of the Nature, Volume Four (pgs. 11-12) [1]

“By including among the ‘animals’ the: fossils, the semi-metals, air, fire, etc., I have ventured farther than any naturalist who has preceded me.”
— Jean Robinet (1762). Of the Nature, Volume Four (pg. #); cited by Arthur Lovejoy (1933) in The Great Chain of Being (pgs. 355-67)


Quotes | On
The following are quotes on Robinet:

Robinet, though not the originator, was, so far as I know, the first elaborated and enthusiastic champion of the notion of the Urbild, upon which all organic and perhaps all natural forms are variations, which was to be taken up by Herder and to become an almost obsession of Goethe at one period.”
Arthur Lovejoy (1933), The Great Chain of Being [6]

“In joining man to nature, La Mettrie disputed the Cartesian distinction between the reasoning mid and the corporeal body. For his part, La Mettrie reduced man’s spiritual faculties to the Cartesian category of extended substance and so rid philosophy of the two independent realities. Furthermore, his materialist position contradicted essentialist metaphysics and opened the way for Robinet’s revision of the chain of being.”
— Terence Murphy (1976), “Jean-Baptiste Rene Robinet” (pg. 162) [5]

Robinet’s Of the Nature firmly rejected mechanism and examined alternate philosophies in order to elaborate the central questions, methods, and aims of a science of living things.”
— Terence Murphy (1976), “Jean-Baptiste Rene Robinet” (pg. 2) [5]

Robinet, a French naturalist, combined a traditional belief in the perfect hierarchy of species with the notion of continual progress. In five volumes, issued between 1761 and 1768, he argued that all matter contained both life and soul, and that organisms were simply combinations of these living atoms.”
— Stuart Curran (2012), “Contexts (Ѻ) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus (Ѻ) | Science: Biology: Evolution (Ѻ)”, University of Pennsylvania [4]

Quotes | By
The following are quotes by Robinet:

“The scale of beings constitutes a whole infinitely graduated, with no real lines of separation; that there are only individuals, and no kingdoms or classes or genera or species. This great and important truth, the key to the universal system, and the basis of all true knowledge, will day by day become more evident, as we progress in the study of nature.”
— Jean Robinet (1762). Of the Nature, Volume Four (pgs. 1-2) [1]

“When I compare the stone with the plant, the plant with the insect, the insect with the reptile, the reptile with the quadruped, I perceive, through all the differences which characterize each of them, relations of analogy, which persuade me that they have all been conceived and formed in accordance with a single model (dessein), of which they are variations graduated ad infinitum.”
— Jean Robinet (1762). Of the Nature, Volume Four (pg. 17); supposedly, a paraphrase, in some sense of Denis Diderot (1754) [3]

Nature is always at work, always in travail, in the sense that she is always fashioning new developments, new generations.”
— Jean Robinet (c.1768), De La Nature, Volume Five (pg. 148) [2]

Society, therefore, is the work of nature, since it is a natural product of human perfectibility, equally fertile of evil and of good. Arts and sciences, laws, the diversity of the forms of government, war and commerce — everything, in short, is only a development. The seeds of all were latent in nature; they have unfolded, each in its own time. Perhaps she still retains in her womb other germs, of slower growth, of which future races will reap the fruits. Then genius will expand and take on a still greater form. The tree of science will acquire new branches. As the catalogue of the arts is extended, their scope will become more ample. Thus, new vices and other virtues will manifest themselves.”
— Jean Robinet (c.1768), De La Nature, Volume Five (pg. 148) [1]

“In the prodigious varied sequence of the animals below man, I see nature in labor advancing fumbling towards that excellent being who crowns here work. However imperceptible the progress which she makes in one step, that is, in each new production, in each variation upon the original design which she achieved, nevertheless the advance becomes clearly sensible after a certain number of ‘metamorphoses’. All the varieties intermediate between the prototype and man I regard as so many essays of nature, aiming at the most perfect, yet unable to attain it except though this innumerable sequence of sketches. I think we may call the collection of the preliminary studies the apprenticeship of nature in learning to make a man.””
— Jean Robinet (1768), De La Nature, Volume Five (pg. #); cited by Arthur Lovejoy (1933) in The Great Chain of Being (pg. 280)

“Each [organic] mechanism tends immediately and of itself to produce only that which we see it in fact engendering; but the sum of these mechanisms tends towards the final outcome; and we here take man as the final outcome, in order to limit ourselves to terrestrial beings, which alone are within our knowledge.”
— Jean Robinet (c.1768), De La Nature (pg. #); cited by Arthur Lovejoy (1933) in The Great Chain of Being (pg. 281)

“When I contemplate the innumerable multitude of individuals spread on the surface of the earth, in its entrails, and in its atmosphere…I perceive among the differences which characterize each of them, the relations of analogy [which] persuade me that they all have been conceived and formed after a unique design…They offer me all the striking traits of this model of this original exemplar, of this prototype, which, while realizing itself, has successfully clothed an infinite multitude of forms under which being is manifested to our eyes.”
— Jean Robinet (c.1768), Of the Nature; cited by Terence Murphy (1976) in “Jean-Baptiste Rene Robinet” (pg. 184)

“The unity of the model, or the plan, maintained in the prodigious diversity of its forms, provides the base of the continuity of the graduated liaison of beings. All beings differ from one another, but all these differences are the natural variations of the prototype which it is necessary to regard as the generative element of all beings. It engenders them by the means of development. It is a germ which naturally tends to develop. As such, it has a force of extension so great that it contains many more beings than those which exist…The germ develops them, and each degree of development gives a variation of the prototype, a new combination of the universal primitive plan.”
— Jean Robinet (c.1768), Of the Nature; cited by Terence Murphy (1976) in “Jean-Baptiste Rene Robinet” (pgs. 184-85)

“We have proposed that matter is essentially endowed with the faculties of nourishing itself, growing and reproducing. We have also seen that this triple faculty is the distinctive character of animality. Let us conclude that all matter is essentially animal.”
— Jean Robinet (c.1768), Of the Nature; cited by Terence Murphy (1976) in “Jean-Baptiste Rene Robinet” (pg. 208)

1. (a) Robinet, Jean. (c.1786). Of the Nature, Volume Four (De La Nature) (pgs. 1-2). Publisher.
(b) Lovejoy, Arthur. (1933). The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea (pgs. 275). Harvard University Press, 1936.
2. (a) Robinet, Jean. (1786). Of the Nature, Volume Five (De La Nature) (pg. 148). Publisher.
(b) Lovejoy, Arthur. (1933). The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea (pgs. 275). Harvard University Press, 1936.
3. Lovejoy, Arthur. (1933). The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea (pgs. 275-76; Diderot, pg. 278-79; activity, pg. 281). Harvard University Press, 1936.
4. Curran, Stuart. (2012), “Contexts (Ѻ) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus (Ѻ) | Science: Biology: Evolution (Ѻ)”, University of Pennsylvania.
5. (a) Murphy, Terence. (1976). “Jean-Baptiste Rene Robinet: the Career of a Man of Letters”, Miscellany, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 150:187-88; 195; 201-31.
(b) Anon. (c.2015). “The Great Chain of Being” (Ѻ), SUNY Orange.
6. (a) Herder, Johann. (1791). Ideas for the Philosophy of Human History (Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Book 5, chapter 1)) (Ѻ). Publisher.
(b) Lovejoy, Arthur. (1933). The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea (pgs. 279-80). Harvard University Press, 1936.
7. (a) Robinet, Jean. (1786). Philosophical View of the Natural Gradation of the Forms of Being (Vue Philosophique de la Gradation Naturelle des Formes de l’etre) (pgs. 8-10). Publisher.
(b) Lovejoy, Arthur. (1933). The Great Chain of Being: a Study of the History of an Idea (pgs. 283). Harvard University Press, 1936.
(c) Piper, Herbert W. (1962). The Active Universe: Pantheism and the Concept of Imagination in the English Romantic Poets (pgs. 25-26). A&C Black, 2014.

Further reading
● Robinet, Jean. (1761). De La Nature, Volume One. Chez.
● Robinet, Jean. (1763). De La Nature, Volume Two. Chez.
● Robinet, Jean. (1762). De La Nature, Volume Three. Chez.
● Robinet, Jean. (1762). De La Nature, Volume Four. Chez.
● Robinet, Jean. (1768). De La Nature, Volume Five. Chez.

External links
Jean-Baptiste Robinet – Wikipedia.
● Anon. (c.2015). “The Great Chain of Being” (Ѻ),

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