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Conventionally recognised as the founder of modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650) is also inseparably associated with the development of modern science. His Discourse on Method (1637) was composed in French, not the scholastic Latin; he was here seeking to communicate with literate citizens rather than the university academics, who were still heavily influenced by the derivative form of Aristotelianism that was taught in Christian Scholasticism. Primarily a scientist, Descartes opposed Scholasticism. His reputation as an early vivisectionist has met with strong criticism.

René  Descartes


1.        Introduction

2.        Early  Life

3.        A  Reclusive  Philosopher

4.        The  Suppressed  New  Astronomy

5.         From  the  Rules  to  Meditations

6.         Problems  with  Calvinist  Theologians

7.         Principia  Philosophiae

8.        The  Vivisection  Issue

9.        Supporters  and  Critics



1.   Introduction

While Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is famed as the innovator of modern empirical method, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) has the repute of a rationalist, employing a form of intensive deductive reasoning, but not divorced from experiment; he pursued a form of scientific research. Descartes remained a Roman Catholic in his basic religious views, although he was not by any means typical of that ideological category, and in fact was quite a radical.

Descartes was a proponent of the scientific findings of his era, and tried to improve on these. Modern commentators sometimes refer to the "new science" of that era. Descartes opposed the traditional Scholastic philosophy perpetuated by the universities, a form of thinking rooted in Aristotelianism as interpreted by the Christian Schoolmen of the late medieval period. This version of Aristotle had been accommodated to concepts and circumstances completely unknown to the Stagirite.

Scholastics identified their form of Aristotelianism with the Bible, maintaining that support was found in Biblical text. "Accordingly, if someone were to try to refute some main Aristotelian tenet, then he could be accused of holding a position contrary to the word of God and be punished" (J. Skirry, "Rene Descartes: Overview," Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

There are some misleading "new age" versions of Descartes that depict him as a Jesuit-influenced "dualist." In reality, his version of philosophy and science evoked the fierce hostility of Roman Catholic and Calvinist theologians. Those dogmatic opponents were adherents of the Scholastic Aristotelianism which Descartes negotiated so assiduously. "He is best characterised as a philosopher of the Scientific Revolution" (Clarke 2006:2). However, his definition of animals is controversial, and open to strong criticism, having been influential in vivisection practices. See Descartes and Vivisection.

2.   Early  Life

The social context is relevant. Descartes was born at the small town of La Haye, near Poitiers. His father was one of the landed gentry, gaining the reputation of a councillor and lawyer. French society was then divided into three classes, namely the aristocracy, the clergy, and the "third estate." There could be some movement in the conglomerate third class, where lawyers had some eminence. Most of those below that level (i.e., lawyers) were afflicted with disadvantages, including illiteracy. Even a century later, most of the French population were illiterate. They had no chance of learning the prestige language of Latin, which the clergy and scholars employed. Many people could not even sign their names in French.

Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Fleche, where he boarded for eight years. The curriculum was not limited to theology, but lent scope to the classical humanities. The prevalent Christian Late Scholastic Aristotelianism was represented, at a time when the Jesuits adapted the French university system, gaining control of bourgeois and upper class education.

The pupil was thus able to become proficient in Latin. Descartes moved on to the University of Poitiers, where he gained a law qualification in 1616. He was apparently following paternal wishes, but did not pursue any career in law. Instead he reacted to academic studies, resolving to take life in the raw. In his later Discourse on Method, composed in readable French, he says:

"The only profit I appeared to have drawn from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my ignorance. And yet I was at one of the most famous schools in Europe, where I thought there must be learned men, if there were any such anywhere on earth.... Above all I enjoyed mathematics, because of the certainty and self-evidence of its reasonings, but I did not yet see its true use.... As soon as I reached an age which allowed me to emerge from the tutelage of my teachers, I abandoned the study of letters altogether, and resolving to study no other science than that which I could find within myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth in travelling, seeing courts and armies, mixing with people of different humours and ranks...." (F. E. Sutcliffe, trans., Discourse on Method and the Meditations, pp. 29-33)

In 1618 Descartes opted for military enlistment, moving to the Netherlands where he joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. He has often been described as a soldier; some sources suggest that he served as an engineer, using his educated talent. That same year he encountered at Breda the Dutch mathematician Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637), described as "an enthusiastic scientific amateur" who "introduced Descartes to some of the new currents in science, the newly revived atomist ideas, and the attempt to combine mathematics and physics" (D. Garber, "Rene Descartes: 1 Life," Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

He moved to Germany for further military service. In November 1619, while lodging at Ulm, Descartes experienced three intense dreams narrated by his early biographer Adrien Baillet in La Vie de M. Descartes (1691). This episode created in him the belief that he was destined to complete an encyclopaedia of the sciences. His enthusiasm for mathematics was accompanied by such developing themes as the light of reason, which is more complex in his vocabulary than contemporary usage denotes.

"The 'light of reason,' or 'natural light' as Descartes came to call it, is nothing 'revelatory' in the biblical sense; on the contrary, it is the austerely intellectual faculty bestowed on us by God which enables us to grasp as self-evident the fundamental mathematical and logical truths that are the key to understanding the universe." (Cottingham 2000:103)

He continued to travel after leaving military service. Descartes returned to France, but did not settle. To obtain an income, he sold his share of the ancestral property; he was able to live as a gentleman. However, Descartes reacted to encounters with Parisian society. The reasons for his second departure from France in 1628 have been differently explained. One version is presented in terms of an effort to gain solitude away from the customary urban distractions. Yet solitude can be a misleading word here; some of his activities were rather more extroverted than a retirement may suggest. Meaning his preoccupation with corpses and carcases in a pursuit of anatomical discovery.

Descartes moved to the Netherlands, though never settling, living in numerous places, including Amsterdam, Leiden, and Utrecht. He became so difficult to locate that some persons spelt his name as Monsieur d'Escartes, meaning Mr. Evasion.

3.   A  Reclusive  Philosopher

This habit of peregrination and withdrawal has created different interpretations of his psychology. Descartes is described in a major academic work as "a reclusive, cantankerous, and oversensitive loner" by the late 1630s (Clarke, op. cit., p. 180). We may believe that "his aversion to the ideas of others extended to his avoidance of learned people; in fact, as he matured, he tended to avoid all contact with people, and his adult life was lived primarily in isolation" (K. Detlefsen, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews).

Care is needed to describe and define such traits, however briefly. It is not too difficult to discern why the subject was so wary of involvement with the learned, who were so often linked to the inflexible Scholastic curriculum which he opposed in his researches.

"While Descartes is portrayed [by Desmond Clarke] with many flaws and few positive personality traits, the reader gains insight into one reason why Descartes might have been so. He lived under an almost constant threat from various religious authorities, a threat that constantly undermined his ability to write and publish freely, especially on scientific matters.... Many of Descartes' 'battles,' in which his cantankerous personality is on display, were centered around potential theological clashes and his attempts to avoid them." (Detlefsen, review of Clarke, link above)

What was the reclusive philosopher trying to avoid ? He must have known of such unfortunate instances as Vanini, who had died hideously at the time when Descartes enlisted with the military.

"Guilio Cesare Vanini, a wandering priest-scholar, was accused of atheism and other crimes in Toulouse in 1618. Having been imprisoned for six months, he was condemned to have his tongue cut out by the public executioner, and then to be strangled and burned at the stake.... There were many examples of the barbaric penalties that were applied to those who expressed dissident views in the early seventeenth century." (Clarke 2006:7)

Quite understandably, Descartes did not want his tongue cut out for contradicting ecclesiastical authorities, who inhabited the upper tiers of the French caste system. Religion so often becomes a suppressive measure of convenience for the executioner mentality, which can too easily masquerade behind the pomp and veneer of presumed spirituality.

More well known than Vanini is the plight of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who was publicly burned in Rome for heresy. Tommaso Campanella (1538-1639), sometimes described as a Renaissance philosopher, spent over twenty-five years in prison. Also notorious is the condemnation of Galileo, a name strongly associated with the "cantankerous" Descartes.

The major correspondent of Descartes was Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), an erudite French theologian and multi-linguist who was in contact with scientists and philosophers throughout Europe. Mersenne was in contact with Descartes from the 1620s. Indeed, it was Mersenne who acted as the major transmitter of intellectual news to the reclusive Descartes. Yet perhaps the latter was even wary of the former in some "cantankerous" moods, just in case loyalties might switch. Mersenne had written books against heresy, and was familiar with much scientific research, grasping that Scholastic philosophy was vulnerable to attack.

Despite the frequency of their correspondence, "one would hardly have described Mersenne as a friend of Descartes; he was more like a Catholic apologist who was anxious to enlist Descartes' assistance in his religious propaganda" (Clarke 2006:250). The philosopher was always respectful to Mersenne, a habit of courtesy extended "even towards the Jesuits whom he was criticising" (ibid).

4.   The  Suppressed  New  Astronomy

Descartes inherited the new and improved astronomy from Copernicus and Galileo, while ingeniously attempting to remain safely within the dogmatic confines of the Roman Catholic Church. "He avoided church censure of his astronomy for almost two decades by dissimulation, self-censorship, and astuteness" (Clarke 2006:4).

The suppressed new astronomy is inseparably associated with the drafting of Le Monde (The World), a work which Descartes had virtually completed by 1633, and which incorporated his mechanistic physics and physiology. That same year, however, he learnt with dismay of the recent condemnation (in Rome) of Galileo for holding Copernican views. Descartes prudently decided not to publish his book, which was deducibly Copernican in complexion.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was a canon at Frombork, a mathematician and astronomer who had enrolled at the University of Cracow in Poland. His On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres redefined the Earth as a small planet moving around the sun, as distinct from the traditional geocentric theory which believed the Earth to exist at the centre of the universe. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) assimilated the heliocentric new astronomy, authoring the first book (Mysterium Cosmographicum) to be openly heliocentric (see Stanford Encyclopaedia). The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of Kepler's readers.

Galileo Galilei

Galileo was subsequently an empirical convert to the Copernican rationale, and via his improved telescopes, made various important discoveries of his own. In 1610, and in a letter to Kepler, "Galileo reported that the professors at Padua and Pisa did not want to know of his discoveries because they adhered to the opinion that truth is not to be found in nature but in text comparisons" (Shepherd, Psychology in Science, 1983, p. 91).

Galileo's conversion to Copernicanism met with strong resistance from theologians, certain of whom denounced him to the Roman Inquisition. Galileo went to Rome to defend himself against accusations, only to find in 1616 that Cardinal Bellarmine prohibited him from advocating or teaching Copernican astronomy. So Galileo had to abandon the heliocentric rationale.

Many years later, he reasserted that rationale in his Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), published at Florence. The Inquisition banned the sale of his book. Galileo was ordered to appear before the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome. In 1633 the Inquisition issued a sentence of condemnation, and he was forced to recite and sign a formal abjuration of the heresy (see further Stanford Encyclopaedia). Galileo was confined in Siena and placed under house arrest. That same year, he was permitted to retire to his villa at Arcetri, near Florence, where he lived under house arrest for the remaining years of his existence.

"The same eyes which had made telescopic discoveries were totally blind during the last years of his life, Pope Urban VIII having denied his requests to consult doctors in nearby Florence at the critical onset of the fatality" (Shepherd, op. cit., p. 92). Eyes could suffer as well as tongues, in the climate of inquisition.

Galileo has been described as an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist, and the probable key figure in the birth of modern science. Via the self-deliberating suppression of his own work Le Monde, Descartes remains closely associated with the fate of Galileo.

5.    From  the  Rules  to  Meditations

The travelling Descartes had earlier studied various sciences, including optics, and may have discovered the law of refraction independently. During the 1620s he had composed an incomplete treatise on method entitled Rules for the Direction of the Mind. This early work evidences a preoccupation with mathematics, and he perhaps abandoned the Rules because of the difficulties encountered in taking mathematics as the model for knowledge. His subsequent works predominantly contain metaphysics and much natural philosophy; his invocation of mathematics as a gauge of certainty has been viewed as rhetorical by close analysts. Thus, the associated "method of reasoning based on mathematics" requires due caution as a criterion for his philosophy.

In a gathering at Paris in 1628, at the residence of the Papal nuncio, Descartes expressed some of his emerging ideas to a small audience discussing Scholastic philosophy. Cardinal Pierre de Berulle (1575-1629), the Augustinian theologian, encouraged Descartes to pursue his researches as a means of serving Christianity. The Copernican issue would not have been envisaged in this cue; the fact is that Descartes soon afterwards left Paris for the Netherlands that same year, and was clearly working on very independent lines.

After his suppression of Le Monde, Descartes published three scientific essays in 1637. These appeared in French, not the scholastic Latin. The Dioptrique (Optics), Geometrie (Geometry) , and Meteors (Meteorology) contained some of his most advanced research; however, Descartes was careful to conceal his Copernican leanings and his rejection of certain Scholastic doctrines. Strong claims have been made for his version of geometry as the origin of co-ordinate geometry, although some commentators have modified the attribution.

The trio of essays were accompanied by a more famous work, intended as an introduction to the essays. Again in French, the full title in translation reads Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences. This was published anonymously, and has an autobiographical content relating to the author's discoveries.

In the third section of the Discourse, Descartes claims to cultivate the divinely implanted "light of reason," supposedly facilitating discrimination between truth and falsity, in contrast to the opinions of others. His Discourse and Essays were evidently aimed at educated citizens who might find Latin more difficult. These anonymous contributions appear to have created much interest. Since that time, his remarks (in part five of the Discourse) on the difference between animals and humans have drawn criticism; his argument about the absence of a mind in animals was accompanied by a rigid deduction about the absence of sensation and pain in those creatures.

This theory is not convincing, and can be accused of gross insensitivity. "I think, therefore I am" can too easily mean "I think, therefore animals do not feel pain, and therefore I can act without conscience in relation to them." Descartes is strongly associated with the growth of vivisection practices in the wake of Vesalius (see further section 8 below).

He never married. The tendency of the subject to withdrawal did not prevent his relationship in 1635 at Amsterdam with the servant girl Helena Jans van der Strom, who gave birth to his daughter Francine that year. Some commentators have dwelt upon his concern for the tragic death of his daughter in 1640. Meanwhile, his output had infiltrated the University of Utrecht, where Henri Reneri promoted him. A subsequent supporter was Henricus Regius, though the clearly emerging non-Scholastic concepts of Descartes gained opposition from the Calvinist camp.

In 1641 he published in Latin the Meditationes (Meditations on the First Philosophy), which eventually became his most celebrated work. It is complicated by the attached text (Objections and Replies) comprising written objections from leading scholars and theologians, plus the replies of Descartes. The critics included Pierre Gassendi, Antoine Arnauld, Thomas Hobbes, and Marin Mersenne (otherwise the supporter and friend of Descartes). The intermediary for this feedback was Mersenne, who had a high social profile. The Meditations does not explicitly promote heretical views such as the Copernican model, but in his attempt to introduce the ground for science or knowledge (scientia), Descartes was in the underlying role of contesting Scholastic philosophy. That role is confirmed by the following detail:

"In a letter to Mersenne, dated 28 January 1641, Descartes says 'these six meditations [i.e., the Meditations] contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognise their truth, before they notice that they [my principles] destroy the principles of Aristotle.' " (Stanford Encyclopaedia, 2007)

The famous phrase cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) has "a relatively minor role" in the exegesis of Descartes (Clarke 2006:1), but is often assumed to be a virtual cardinal tenet. This phrase appears as a counter to scepticism, a contemporary trend which Descartes adapted to form a preliminary exercise of doubt about the nature of knowledge. That trend is strongly associated with Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), whose writings exercised a pervasive influence upon French intellectual life during the seventeenth century.

Employing his sceptical line of enquiry, or "method of doubt," Descartes professedly arrived at certainty, both of his own mental existence and that of God. The sceptical ingredient in his approach was misconstrued. Some theological opponents said that his proofs for the existence of God, outlined in the Meditations, amounted to secret atheism, and that his method of doubt was sufficient to incite libertinism.

A basic point to grasp is that: "Descartes challenged the fundamental philosophy in terms of which both Catholic and Reformed theologians had expressed their teaching of Christian dogmas for centuries" (ibid:4). The hostile response eventually listed him posthumously in the Papal Index of Forbidden Books (1663). The basic conflict visible here is that between obsolete Scholasticism and the emerging Scientific Revolution.

Interpretations of "Cartesian dualism" have differed significantly. The empirical aspect of Descartes, as reflected, e.g., in his attempts to understand the brain and nervous system, has been considered to qualify assumptions and misunderstandings about his dualism. In particular, the latter day attack by Gilbert Ryle on "the ghost in the machine" (mind in the body) has been reassessed in such reflections as:

"A close reading of the texts suggests that Descartes did not endorse the [traditional Scholastic] understanding of substances, and its implicit category mistake, on which Ryle's version of Cartesian dualism depends." (Clarke 2003:2)

6.  Problems  with  Calvinist  Theologians

The non-Scholastic orientation of Descartes was memorably opposed by the Dutch Calvinist minister Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), who became the first professor of theology at Utrecht University (and subsequently the dean or rector). The sequence of events is complex (Clarke 2006:218ff).

Descartes was sensitive to requests for advice from his supporter Henricus Regius (a professor of medicine at Utrecht). The latter found himself in opposition with Voetius, who defended certain Scholastic doctrines on behalf of Calvinist theologians against adherents of the "new philosophy." Descartes counselled that Regius should adopt a conciliatory tactic, one of praising his opponent at every opportunity, and emphasising the status of Voetius as "Magnificent Rector." There were various other refinements of this tactic that were advocated.

Regius proved stubborn in this situation. Despite the danger of losing his chair at Utrecht, Regius ignored the unanimous advice of his friends not to make any public reply to the influential Voetius. Instead he published a confronting pamphlet in February 1642. Voetius reacted strongly, deeming this a libel, and exhorting the university senate to take action against the pamphlet of Regius. The senate passed a verdict that Regius should restrict his teaching to medicine and traditional authors. A delegation was sent to the city magistrates, who issued a condemnation of the "new philosophy" and confiscated remaining copies of the contested pamphlet.

Descartes was now drawn into the dispute, critically referring to Voetius (without mentioning his name) in the Letter to Father Dinet, a document which appeared as an appendix to the second edition (1642) of the Meditations. Jacques Dinet was a Jesuit, and Descartes here attempted a reconcilation with that theological organisation (an endeavour which transpired to be difficult). Meanwhile, when Voetius learned about this letter that same year (via a translation from Latin into Dutch by an opponent of his), he requested one of his supporters to compose a reply to Descartes. The acquaintance was Martinus Schoock (1614-1669), a former colleague who had since gained a chair of philosophy at Groningen.

In 1643, Professor Schoock published a lengthy personal attack on Descartes. The title was deceptive, i.e., The Admirable Method of the New Philosophy of René Descartes. The contents included an accusation that the subject was a liar; his philosophy was depicted as leading to atheism. The habit of Descartes in frequently changing residence was attributed to the consequences of an immoral life. Another insinuation amounted to the philosopher being "a shrewd manipulator of credulous followers whose primary interest is to found a new 'sect' and to control its members by the authority of his word" (Clarke 2006:236).

Descartes countered in the Open Letter to Voetius (1643), defending freedom of thought. However, this letter "repays him [Voetius] in the same currency of personal attack that had marred the whole discussion from the beginning" (ibid., p. 239). Against this drawback should be set the recognition of Descartes that "the most worrying feature of Schoock's long book was the suggestion that he [Descartes] was some kind of cryptic atheist, and that he deserved the same fate as Vanini" (ibid:240).

Soon after, and that same year, Voetius caused the French philosopher to be summoned by the municipal council of Utrecht; Descartes was expected to answer the charge of libel against Voetius. Descartes was not living in Utrecht, and he complained at the nature of the summons. He took advice to contact the French ambassador to the Hague, and via that channel, to request the Prince of Orange to intervene on his behalf. Descartes was successful in this recourse, and the Utrecht magistrates accordingly closed the case (ibid:242-3).

Two years later, Schoock acknowledged that the incentive to write The Admirable Method had come from Voetius, and that he had only undertaken the disputed work because he was asked to do so by Voetius, who had suggested the charge of atheism. Schoock also conceded that the tone of the attack did not befit a scholarly debate, and emphasised that he had never meant to compare Descartes to Vanini.

This revealing situation eventually resulted in a lawsuit launched by Voetius against Schoock, "whose testimony at Groningen had publicly exposed the extent to which Voetius had inspired The Admirable Method " (ibid:244). In 1647, the persistent Voetius published a new version of this controversy in his Theological Disputations, "addressing accusatory questions to Descartes about his alleged atheism" (ibid).

Descartes responded with his Apologetic Letter to the Magistrates of Utrecht (1648), in which he complained, e.g., about the accusation that he had been sent by the Jesuits to create trouble in The Netherlands. He repeated his charge that Voetius must have been the real author of The Admirable Method, the content of which had been disowned by Schoock. The latter was temporarily arrested due to the activity of Voetius.

Voetius "seems to have spent all his spare time conducting campaigns against Catholics, Jesuit spies, heretics, and Cartesians." (Gaukroger 1995:479)

Descartes had a disagreement with his erratic supporter Regius when the latter composed the controversial treatise Physical Foundations (1646), which presented the ideas of Descartes without the legitimating (and protective) metaphysical context. Regius again ignored the advice of Descartes, and the correspondence between them apparently ceased (Clarke 2006:312ff).

There was a sequel to the Utrecht problem at Leiden University, where Descartes gained both friends and enemies. Objections from two Calvinist theologians at Leiden developed into a public controversy during 1647. Descartes countered that his writings did not contain the themes that were censored. Jacobus Revius (1586-1658) was one of the opponents, and he mentioned the dire word Pelagianism, in a context of stigma. The French philosopher sent a letter of complaint to the university, relating that he had wrongfully been accused of blasphemy and Pelagianism.

"The real source of Descartes' concern was his fear of a Calvinist inquisition, of being denounced to a synod of Calvinist theologians who would almost certainly support the charges brought against him, and of being handed over subsequently to the magistrates or a civil court." (Clarke 2006:347)

The curators of Leiden University convened in February 1648, and confirmed their decision of the previous year that only Aristotelian philosophy could be taught in their precincts. Both Revius and the Cartesian exponent Adriaan Heereboord (1614-1661) were reprimanded. The curators took no action against Descartes (ibid:343ff). However, nobody could teach his philosophy at Leiden, and the professors were forbidden to mention his name.

7.   Principia  Philosophiae

Meanwhile, in 1644 Descartes published his Latin work Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), which was dedicated to his correspondent Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who was unusually intellectual. That text restates his metaphysics and outlines his version of physics and other sciences. The physics is mechanistic, having disadvantages by comparison with later models; yet at the time of Descartes, the mechanistic rationale was an advance. The Principles influenced such scientists as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. Yet the book has gained criticism in terms of a physics rooted in metaphysics. Such a perspective can be misleading.

Recent research has described Descartes as being in more affinity with the natural philosophy of Francis Bacon than was formerly supposed. The World and Principles of Philosophy reveal the French thinker as a practitioner of mathematics, mechanics, optics, anatomy, physiology, and also "psycho-physiology" (see further Gaukroger 2000). The spotlight generally given to the Meditations has tended to obscure the scientific endeavours of Descartes in other works.

"Both of them [Bacon and Descartes] see natural philosophy as the core of the philosophical enterprise, by contrast, on the one hand, with Renaissance humanist philosophers, who saw moral and political philosophy in this role, and, on the other, with late Scholastic philosophers, who saw metaphysics as the core enterprise." (Gaukroger 2002:vii)

However, Descartes exhibited rather more metaphysics than Bacon, which introduces a complexity.

"His achievement was wide-ranging: he completely reformulated metaphysics by exploring its epistemological credentials in a wholly novel and indeed unprecedented fashion; he led the way in seventeenth century cosmology up until Newton; he was one of the founders of modern geometrical optics; his contribution to mathematics was second to none in the seventeenth century; and he not only discovered reflex action, but developed a mechanistic approach to physiology which set the parameters for much thinking about physiology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries." (Gaukroger 2002:1)

The Principles of Philosophy was published in four parts, with two other envisaged parts that have since been reconstructed. This mature work borrowed from the format of Late Scholastic textbooks, but took the argument into different significations. The Principles commenced with a concern to establish the metaphysical foundations of natural philosophy, and ended with the link between that philosophy and morality.

"Descartes completely reshapes the relation between metaphysics and natural philosophy, and develops the first mechanist physical cosmology, the first non-mythological theory of the formation of the Earth, the first mechanist physiology and embryology, the first mechanist account of animal sentience, an account of the nature of mental functioning that goes beyond anything devised to that time and which has largely shaped discussion of the mind since, and an account of human passions that demonstrates the need for a unified conception of the person." (Gaukroger 2002:4)

8.   The  Vivisection  Issue

Descartes has the generalised reputation of a deductivist, as distinct from an empiricist. He was a mechanist who believed that he had evolved a perfect rationalism, a way of thinking that can be strongly questioned. He was a crude empiricist in his preoccupation with observation. "He even arranged for the slaughter of a pregnant cow so that he could examine the foetus at an early stage of its development" (Clarke 2006:332). Such tendencies did not assist his insensitive approach to the question of animal consciousness. Strong accusations have been lodged against his version of animal existence. His obnoxious theme that "animals are machines" can be found in his Passions of the Soul (1649).

His followers, meaning the Cartesians, have been criticised as the brutal precursors of laboratory practices. A systematic approach to his theories occurred after his death. An early posthumous report, dating to the 1650s, has received different interpretations.

"The scientists administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling. They nailed the poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood, which was a great subject of controversy." (Vivisection)

Some have interpreted this report to mean the early Cartesians. Yet another version has deduced that the reference refers to a Jesuit school, where young students were apparently taught vivisection. The victimised animals were dogs (Gombay, Descartes, p. ix). However, Descartes cannot escape the worst implications, especially as he was in all likelihood influenced by some Jesuit ideas. He is known to have undertaken some anatomical dissection, making daily visits to a butcher in Amsterdam, and acquiring animal parts to dissect at home, in addition to his "solitary meditations" (Rodis-Lewis 1998:85). The realistic indications are that some of his dissections applied to live animals, and this means vivisection. Descartes is associated with the tradition of Vesalius, a sixteenth century anatomist.

A basic problem is that much of the subject's life is obscure; biographical lore was substituted for the blanks. Much of what we know about his life comes from the biography La Vie de Monsieur Descartes (1691) by Adrien Baillet. Some writers have claimed to explode the myths surrounding Descartes. At Amsterdam in the early 1630s, he assisted in the dissection of human corpses; the location was an amphitheatre reserved for this purpose (Watson 2007:15). The same writer has emphasised that Descartes described the dissection of a dog's heart, and describes him as a pioneer of vivisection.

In a letter dated February 1638, Descartes describes vivisection on a living rabbit, something he had observed several times before, and which he had just performed himself. "I opened the chest of a live rabbit and removed the ribs to expose the heart" (Cottingham et al, Philosophical Writings of Descartes Vol. 3, pp. 79ff). This barbarous activity tends to offset his "solitary meditations." It is not clear where he had made his earlier observations, whether in a Jesuit environment or a secular one.

Descartes lived in a bloodthirsty age, dominated by the Thirty Years War, in which the descendants of European "barbarian tribes" were far from perfection. His attitude to animals was weighted by a belief that they were automatons, reflecting theological dogmas that animals had no soul. The simplistic motto "I think, therefore I am" also signified, in effect, that "animals do not think, therefore they are not conscious, and do not feel pain." These assumptions were very convenient for Christian vivisectors, and may be dismissed as banal.

The seemingly contradictory beliefs of the subject have been a source of aggravation. In the mid-1640s, Descartes himself "opens up the possibility for the first time that there may be different degrees of thought and that animals may enjoy some less perfect form of thinking" (Clarke 2006:336).

An English royalist, namely William Cavendish (the Marquis of Newcastle), read the Principles of Philosophy and sent a letter to Descartes in 1646 about the apparent capacity of animals to think. The reply indicates that the rigid thinking of Descartes about animals was influenced by his aversion to views of Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Charron, who had both extolled the ingenuity and thinking ability of animals (ibid:332ff).

Descartes had preferred to argue in his Discourse on Method that the distinctive character of human language meant that animals do not think, equating to the assumption that only humans have an immortal soul. This misleading argument was pitched against the scepticism of that era, and was effectively in support of some religious beliefs. "There is nothing which leads feeble minds more readily astray from the straight path of virtue than to imagine that the soul of animals is of the same nature as our own, and that, consequently, we have nothing to fear or to hope for after this life" (F. E. Sutcliffe, trans., Discourse on Method, p. 76).

9.   Supporters  and  Critics

A relevant theme is that "in the 1640s, he [Descartes] thought himself at war with the Jesuits" (Ariew 1999:155). Descartes had early reacted against the doctrines of influential Jesuit thinkers like Francisco Suarez. The latter writer, along with the Jesuits Toledo and Fonseca, is classified as "Late Scholastic" in current analysis. Descartes became familiar with the writings of these Late Scholastics during his schooling at La Fleche, an acquaintance resulting in his "discreet incredulity" (Secada 2000:29-30).

The reactionary Descartes "saw himself as presenting a new philosophy, both natural and metaphysical, to take the place of Aristotle's and St. Thomas Aquinas's" (ibid:1). Aquinas was undeniably a partisan of Aristotle, but he accommodated the Greek philosopher to a Christian theological setting in medieval Scholasticism.

In 1649 Descartes published in French the Passions de l'ame (Passions of the Soul). The context for this is relevant to assimilate, having a different complexion to the "dualism" so strongly associated with his exegesis:

"Descartes became increasingly interested in the interaction between mind and body, prompted by the acute questions put to him in a long correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia.... In his replies to Elizabeth, Descartes explores the paradox that while philosophical reason teaches us that mind and body are distinct, our everyday human experience shows us they are united. It is that human experience, and its characteristic modes of awareness, the emotions and passions (such as fear, anger, and love), that forms the subject of Descartes' last work, the Passions of the Soul. " (Cottingham 2000:104-5)

By this time, the overall situation was critical. In 1647-8, the conflict with Voetius was accompanied by a prohibition against teaching the philosophy of Descartes at the University of Leiden (section 6 above). The opposition must have worried the philosopher. However, at Paris he was awarded a generous royal pension "in recognition of his contribution to philosophy and as financial support for the experiments required to complete his research" (Clarke 2006:360).

On the positive side also, Queen Christina of Sweden was now in correspondence with him, which led to her invitation for Descartes to join her court at Stockholm in early 1649. That correspondence had commenced via the French diplomat Chanut, a contact of Descartes. The latter evidently had some hesitation about moving to Stockholm, and the conflict in his mind was apparently the cause of his sending very different letters to Chanut and the Queen (via Chanut) about the royal invitation. These discrepant letters "show Descartes at his dissembling best" (ibid:384). The philosopher was basically worried as to whether the royal interest amounted to "a temporary curiosity."

Descartes eventually accepted Queen Christina's invitation, arriving in Sweden in September 1649. The Queen was serious about learning philosophy, but the tuition entailed Descartes rising at five in the morning, an early hour to which he was quite unaccustomed. Some commentators state that he caught pneumonia. He died at Stockholm in February 1650.

A recent theory has suggested that Descartes did not die from natural causes. Instead, a Catholic priest reputedly administered to him a communion wafer coated with arsenic. The villain in this version of events is Jacques Viogue, a Catholic missionary who is said to have feared that the radical ideas of Descartes would upset an anticipated conversion to Roman Catholicism in Sweden.

Descartes died in relative obscurity. By 1667, some French "Cartesians" had begun to publish his works, and to develop a more systematic Cartesian philosophy, in the face of orthodox religious disapproval. "Descartes had many followers who took his ideas (as they understood them) as dogma.... Late seventeenth century Europe was flooded with paraphrases of and commentaries on Descartes' writings" (D. Garber, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). The hostile campaign of Voetius did not succeed for long, and Utrecht became the most Cartesian of the Dutch universities.

There were also independent thinkers who were influenced by Descartes, notably Malebranche and Spinoza. The first published book of Spinoza was a commentary on the Principles of Descartes, and "although he [Spinoza] later moved well outside the Cartesian camp, Descartes' doctrines helped to structure his mature thought" (ibid).

Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) was a Parisian who rejected Scholasticism after attending the Sorbonne. He was ordained an Augustinian priest in 1664; reputedly in the same year, he discovered the book by Descartes entitled Traité de l'Homme (Treatise on Man), posthumously published and which tackles physiology. Malebranche subsequently attempted to synthesise St. Augustine and Descartes, and was also known for his occasionalism, a doctrine meaning that God is the only real cause. He composed the widely read work Recherche de la vérité or The Search after Truth, appearing in 1674/5 (Lennon and Olscamp 1997). See further Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

As a consequence of Recherche, Malebranche "quickly became the most influential Cartesian philosopher, and indeed before Locke the most influential philosopher of any kind in his era, eclipsing even Descartes" (Gaukroger 1995:476). Malebranche was the channel by means of which many later philosophers assimilated Descartes. During the eighteenth century, the theme of Descartes as the founder of modern philosophy was evolved, although not without disagreements and distortions.

Meanwhile, there were critiques of Cartesian philosophy, including those expressed by the panpsychist Spinoza, the materialist Thomas Hobbes, the polymathic Leibniz, and the "commonsense empiricist" John Locke. In his Ethics, Spinoza rejected the theory of Descartes concerning the pineal gland, and also radically altered the Cartesian perspective on substance, applying a panpsychist or "pantheist" context decoding to a substantial gulf from Malebranche and others.

A very hostile critique came from the Roman Catholic camp associated with the Jesuits, who attacked the developing Cartesianism during the 1660s. The Cartesians countered with both satirical and learned writings. In 1662, Catholics at Louvain expressed a condemnation, which may have been instigated by Jesuits. This event is thought to have resulted in the censorship of Descartes at Rome the following year.

"The official condemnations of Cartesianism of the late seventeenth century were unusually frequent and ferocious. Only the condemnations of Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century seem to have been as frequent." (Ariew 1999:156)

Attempts to place Descartes in due context are ongoing.

Kevin  R. D. Shepherd

July 2010 (modified December 2012 and July 2015)



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