Highlights from our Special Collections: Helvetius’ De l’esprit

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

The stacks in the Central Library hold around 250,000 items, a dizzying array of materials covering a vast multitude of fields. This ‘stack stock’ is split into a few main sections: around 40,000 books available for loan; our archived journal holdings; and our Special Collections. While the majority of these items are available to find on our library catalogue, we are aiming to make our collections more accessible by highlighting some of the most interesting titles on the Secret Library Leeds. 

One especially interesting title can be found in our Special Collections: a first-edition of Claude-Adrien Helvetius’ De l’esprit (translated as “On Mind”). Published in 1759, this was a startlingly radical work in its time, in which its author argued that all human faculties could be reduced to physical sensation and that individuals are governed by self-interest – the love of pleasure and the fear of pain. Helvetius developed those ideas to claim that humans are born with an innate equality of intelligence; that the quality of education is the only agent of difference between peoples; and that standards of justice and injustice were determined by custom rather than absolute right. That aspect of Helvetius’ work was deemed so dangerously atheistic that the book was declared heretical and, in some case, burnt. An influence on later thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, D l’esprit remains somewhat undeservedly unknown today.


Other titles in our Special Collections for the social sciences include a 1767 edition of Thomas Short’s A Comparative History of the Increase and Decrease of Mankind in England; a charming volume from 1837 entitled “Look Before You Leap”: Being a Plain Consideration of What the Peerage is and Why it Should Continue What it Is; and two contrasting views of women – William Alexander’s The History of Women: From the Earliest Antiquity to the Present Time (1779: 2 Volumes) and Alexander Walker’s Woman: Physiologically Considered as to Mind, Morals, Marriage, Matrimonial Slavery, Infidelity and Divorce (1839). While Alexander’s book has been criticised for being no more than a “history of politeness to women” it can be praised for not containing lines such as Walker’s “As to works of genius, they exceed the capacity of woman”!

Items in our Special Collections are only available on a reference basis. We still hold those aforementioned 40, 000 items for loan, however – the majority of which are classic or key texts in their fields and not available elsewhere in our service. Particularly well-represented across the social sciences are titles by major thinkers of the post-war era: Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964); The Open Society and its Enemies (1966: Volumes 1 & 2) by Karl Popper; and Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind (1966). Possibly the most famous of all, however, would be Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 The Medium is the Massage (sic) and Shere Hite’s reports on female and male sexuality (1977 and 1981 respectively).

A further selection from our stack stock relating to the social sciences. All these books are available to loan

Contact our Local and Family History department to find out more about accessing any of the titles mentioned in our blog.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. tony2bikes says:

    Thank you Antony. You have demonstrated how important it is to have a managed,accessible collection managed by trained and knowledgeable staff. This is something the advocates of “it’s all on the Net” and we can don’t need libraries and librarians anymore. I don’t how sophisticated the Search engine algorithm is it will never manage this standard of work.

    1. Thanks again Tony! Look out for more blog posts like this one as we explore our Collections further over the next few months.

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