La Mettrie and Charlatanism: The Dynamics of Recognition and Denunciation

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This paper contributes to a genealogy of charlatanism by tracing two figures which eventually come to overlap: the street charlatan or operator, known for his eloquence and deceptive skill, and the comically incompetent doctor, represented classically in France in the theatre of Molière. The paper argues that eighteenth-century France gives the term 'charlatan' new moral weight while extending it to fields outside medicine, most notably to philosophy. Some examples of the denunciation of charlatans are examined, and it is suggested that denunciation was usually both extensible and reversible. La Mettrie appears in this regard as the very type of the denouncer denounced. He was a doctor-philosopher who vigorously decried the Paris Faculty of Medicine as a group of charlatans, even though his own medical qualifications were anything but impressive, and he was in turn reviled by Diderot as the most charlatanic and unworthy of philosophers.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland, Queensland 4072, Australia

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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