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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. Primarily a scientist, Descartes opposed Christian Scholasticism. Known to have dissected corpses, he was apparently an early vivisectionist, a factor meeting 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. However, his procedure was not divorced from experiment; he pursued a form of scientific research. This thinker remained a Roman Catholic in his basic religious views, although he was not by any means typical of that ideological category. "Descartes challenged the fundamental philosophy in terms of which both Catholic and Reformed theologians had expressed their teaching of Christian dogmas for centuries" (Clarke 2006:4).

Modern commentators often 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 Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

A philosophical system cannot be studied adequately apart from the intellectual context in which it is situated. Philosophers do not usually utter propositions in a vacuum, but accept, modify, or reject doctrines whose meaning and significance are given in a particular culture. Thus, Cartesian philosophy should be regarded, as indeed it was in Descartes' own day, as a reaction against, as well as an indebtedness to, the scholastic philosophy that still dominated the intellectual climate. (Ariew 2011:1)

The version of philosophy and science, emerging in Descartes, evoked the fierce hostility of some 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, being open to strong criticism. His interpretation was influential in vivisection practices. See Descartes and Vivisection.

In general terms, Descartes was often erroneously presented over the generations. For instance, the trend of French materialism, in the eighteenth century, mistakenly interpreted him as an atheist and political revolutionary.

Descartes' almost canonical status has led to his thought being assimilated to a range of very different philosophers, and put to a wide variety of different and often incompatible uses. More than any other modern philosopher, he has been fashioned according to the philosophers of the time and interpreted accordingly. (Gaukroger 1995:3)

2.   Early  Life

The social context is relevant. Descartes was born at the small town of La Haye, near Poitiers. His father is often described as one of the landed gentry, gaining the reputation of a magistrate and lawyer. Cf. Gaukroger 1995:20, informing that the pater came from a predominantly medical family, while his mother's family were originally merchants and subsequently public administrators. The ancestral status was fairly pronounced.

His family background was in the legal profession and the royal administration. The office held by his father conferred noble rank, but such office-holding nobles had far less prestige than the military nobilty. Yet Descartes, as Ian Maclean observes, derived a sense of status from this background, borne out in his later attitudes, including a tendency to refuse to be identified as a professional scholar. (Moriarty 2008:ix)

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 social level 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, employed by the clergy and scholars. Many people could not even sign their names in French.

His father was a magistrate in Brittany; through his profession he possessed the status of nobility, being a member of the so-called "noblesse de robe." This class was resented by the old military nobility (the "noblesse d' epee"), who looked on lawyers as little more than pen-pushers; but those who enjoyed the status set great store by it. They were not above inflating their claims to aristocracy by acquiring lands which conferred on them titles, and even putting on military airs.... Rene's title, which he used until his mid-twenties, was du Perron: he was known by this title by his Dutch acquaintances in the early 1620s. The sense of status which this background gave him was a motivating force in his later life. (Maclean 2006:viii)

Descartes was educated at the Jesuit College of La Fleche, where he boarded for eight years. The curriculum was not limited to theology, instead lending 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 course at La Fleche "consisted of five years of French and Latin grammar, with a year of rhetoric from Greek and Roman authors, culminating in the last three years with the philosophy curriculum and some mathematics" (Ariew 2000:vii). By this means, Descartes gained "a thorough grounding in ancient languages and literatures, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and instructed in scholastic natural philosophy, mathematics, metaphysics, and ethics" (Maclean 2006:ix).

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. (Sutcliffe 1968: 29-33)

In 1618 Descartes opted for military enlistment, moving to the Netherlands where he joined the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. He is described by some modern commentators as a "gentleman soldier." One deduction is that, because of a truce at that period, he did not participate in any military action. The early biographer Baillet suggested that the young Descartes served as an engineer, using his educated talent. However, "he might equally have undergone a form of training as a gentleman soldier" (Maclean 2006:xi).

That same year he encountered at Breda the Dutch schoolmaster and mathematician Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637). This acquaintance was "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 Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online).

Descartes soon moved to Germany, taking further military service in a Catholic army, apparently without finding action on the battlefield. In November 1619, while lodging at Ulm, he experienced three intense dreams narrated by his early biographer Adrien Baillet in La Vie de M. Descartes (1691). This reputed 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.

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 may have been a participant at the Battle of the White Mountain (near Prague) in November 1620 (Moriarty 2008:x). His presence at that event is disputed. This was the first engagement of the Thirty Years War afflicting Central Europe. Descartes continued to travel after leaving military service; events are basically obscure. In 1622 he returned to France, but did not settle, visiting Italy, afterwards living at Paris. Via an inheritance derived from his mother, he acquired an annual income; he was accordingly able to live as a gentleman. However, Descartes reacted to encounters with Parisian society.

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. Descartes soon afterwards left Paris for Holland that same year, while clearly working on independent lines.

The reason for this departure is sometimes presented in terms of an effort to gain solitude away from the customary urban distractions. However, solitude can be a misleading word here; some of his activities were rather more extroverted than a retirement may suggest. More specifically, his preoccupation with corpses and carcases in a pursuit of anatomical discovery.

Though Descartes moved to Holland, he never settled. For twenty years he lived 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.

Descartes 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 dwell upon his concern for the tragic death of his daughter in 1640.

3.   A  Reclusive  Philosopher

Descartes is described in a major academic work as "a reclusive, cantankerous, and oversensitive loner" by the late 1630s (Clarke 2006:180). 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).

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 class 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 in contact with scientists and philosophers throughout Europe. Mersenne was a Franciscan Minim friar (not a Jesuit) living at Paris. This "secretary of learned Europe" is noted for extensive correspondence and a habit of questioning that generated scientific research. During the 1620s his output attacked atheists and "freethinkers," but mellowed from about 1630 onwards, opting for a moderate Catholicism. He had both Protestant and Catholic correspondents, evidently seeking to overcome doctrinal divisions. During the 1630s, he promoted Galileo (Dear 2015).

Mersenne was in long term correspondence with Descartes from the 1620s, serving as the major transmitter of intellectual news to the reclusive researcher. Over 140 letters to Mersenne from Descartes are extant. Whereas only four letters of Mersenne to Descartes survive. 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).

Some other commentators seem to regard the two correspondents as friends. "Mersenne endlessly provided Descartes with books, fresh information, and editorial services, requesting in exchange answers to queries of all sorts" (Philippe Hamou, "Marin Mersenne," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Mersenne even acted as a mediator in the controversies of Descartes with opponents like Voetius.

The temperament of Descartes is depicted both favourably and critically. From the early biography (or hagiography) of Baillet to the more sceptical modern commentators, the risk is one of extremes. He was not the strongest man, having a weak chest that made him careful about his health; he generally rose late in the day rather than early. "Descartes seems to have been naturally frugal; he did not maintain a large retinue, ate and drank in great moderation, dressed in a sober fashion, and avoided socialising" (Maclean 2006:xi). His relations with contemporaries are regarded with frequent disapproval.

He never fell out, it is true, with his closest acquaintance Mersenne, although he offended him on occasion, but with many other contemporaries his relationship ran into difficulties arising from his touchiness, his high assessment of his own work, his low assesssment of the intelligence of those around him.... He instructed the long-suffering Mersenne to treat his adversary Jean de Beaugrand (d.1640) with contempt, and described his letters as fit only for use as lavatory paper; the work of Pierre de Fermat (1601-65) was "dung"; mathematicians who criticised his geometry were said to be "flies." (Maclean 2006:xx)

Descartes described Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) as being "extremely contemptible" for daring to call his output into question (ibid). The British philosopher became a member of the Mersenne circle while spending a decade in exile at Paris during the 1640s. Hobbesian political philosophy included a defence of absolute sovereignty, a subject not appealing to Cromwell supporters. Some objections raised by Hobbes to the Essays (1637) resembled criticisms of Descartes already lodged by the mathematician Pierre Fermat (Clarke 2006:203).

The acrimonious dispute with Fermat, in 1638, is also associated with Jean Beaugrand, who had published the now obscure Geostatique (1636) and opposed the Cartesian geometry via hostile anonymous pamphlets. Descartes affirmed that Beaugrand's Geostatique "was so impertinent, ridiculous, and despicable that I am surprised that any honest person has ever taken the trouble to read it" (ibid:171). Very briefly, Beaugrand accused Descartes of plagiarism, but was himself accused of the same problematic tendency (Lennon 2015:56-7).

"Like Descartes, Pierre Fermat was effectively a self-taught amateur in mathematics" (Clarke 2006:168). Fermat was not off the map; he was a lawyer at the parliament of Toulouse. Descartes had apparently borrowed from an unpublished manuscript of Fermat in circulation; these two are sometimes described as independent innovators in algebra/geometry.

In retrospect, the row between Fermat and Descartes was sustained by misunderstandings on both sides.... Since Fermat was unwilling to have his mathematical results published, he is probably best understood as a relatively innocent and reluctant critic of an extremely defensive opponent who thought of his reputation as depending on the originality of the analytic methods that he had independently developed in the Geometry. (Clarke 2006:174)

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, incorporating 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 Copernican in some respects.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was a canon at Frombork, a mathematician and astronomer who had enrolled at the University of Cracow in Poland. In his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, Copernicus 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 Encyclopedia). 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. With the aid of improved telescopes, he made various important discoveries of his own. In 1610, 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 1983:91).

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. The victim was forced to recite and sign a formal abjuration of the heresy (see further Stanford Encyclopedia). 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 1983:92). 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; he may have discovered the law of refraction independently. During the 1620s he composed an incomplete treatise on method entitled Rules for the Direction of the Mind. This early work evidences a preoccupation with mathematics; 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. The "method of reasoning based on mathematics" was an optimistic claim to exhaustive knowledge of the universe.

After his suppression of Le Monde, Descartes published three scientific essays in 1637. These Essays 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, incorporating 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 substantial difference between animals and humans, have drawn criticism. His argument about the absence of thought in animals is associated with an inflexible theme of automata amenable to vivisection (section 8 below). In the Discourse, Descartes claims that animals "do not have a mind, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, as one sees that a clock, which is made up of only wheels and springs, can count the hours" (Sutcliffe 1968:75-6). The clockwork theme proved strong in Cartesian ideation, overlooking pain and squashing scruple, traits which became integral to laboratory science.

The famous phrase cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) has "a relatively minor role" in the exegesis of Descartes (Clarke 2006:1), though often assumed to be a virtual cardinal tenet. This phrase (initially in the Discourse) 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), a humanist and "new Pyrrhonist" whose writings exercised a pervasive influence upon French intellectual life during the seventeenth century. Descartes only names Montaigne once in his writings; however, these two are inseparably associated in modern commentary. "Like Descartes, this sixteenth century author was a legally trained gentleman of leisure, who engaged in a broad range of reflections" (Maclean 2006:xxv).

Employing his neo-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, also that his method of doubt was sufficient to incite libertinism.

In 1641, Descartes published in Latin the Meditationes (Meditations on the First Philosophy). This eventually became his most celebrated work. An attached text (Objections and Replies) comprises 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 of Descartes). The intermediary for this feedback was Mersenne, who had a strong religious profile. The Meditations do not explicitly promote heretical views such as the Copernican model. Nevertheless, 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 Encyclopedia, 2007)

The hostile response eventually listed him posthumously in the Papal Index of Forbidden Books (1663). The basic conflict visible here is that dividing Scholasticism from 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) is 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, while emphasising the status of Voetius as "Magnificent Rector." Various other refinements of this tactic were also 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 heretical pamphlet. 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. Descartes here attempted a reconcilation with the confronting 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:239). Against this drawback should be set a relevant recognition of Descartes: "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, who was not living in Utrecht, complained at the nature of the summons. He took advice to contact the French ambassador to the Hague, and via this prestige channel, to request the Prince of Orange to intervene on his behalf. Descartes was successful in this recourse; 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, while emphasising 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 an accusation to the effect 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 as a consequence of 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). This work presented the ideas of Descartes without the legitimating (and protective) metaphysical context. Regius again ignored the advice of Descartes; 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. He mentioned the dire word Pelagianism, in a context of stigma. The French philosopher sent a letter of complaint to the university, to the effect 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. They 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, where the professors were forbidden to mention his name.

7.   Principia  Philosophiae

Meanwhile, in 1644 Descartes published his Latin work Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), dedicated to his correspondent Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, an unusually intellectual aristocrat. 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. However, the book also gained criticism in terms of a physics rooted in metaphysics.

Recent research describes 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 awarded to the Meditations has tended to obscure the scientific dimensions 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, while pushing the argument into different significations. The Principles commenced with a concern to establish the metaphysical foundations of natural philosophy, and ended by proposing a 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)

Another aspect of this philosopher scientist's activity is frequently missing in well known textbooks. This is a less glorifying factor open to strong criticism. The deducible role of a vivisectionist (however marginally) is repugnant to many readers. Descartes was remote from any theme of the animal mind, more recently emerging in varied studies.

8.   The  Vivisection  Issue

Descartes has the generalised reputation of a deductivist, a loose association. He was a mechanist who believed that he had evolved a due rationalism. Descartes 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. The disputed theme that "animals are machines" can be found in his Passions of the Soul (1649).

Professor John Cottingham, a Descartes specialist, acknowledged some extreme assertions of Descartes while defending him against the notorious charge of affirming: “Animals are totally without feeling.” In a late period letter of 1649, to the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614-87), Descartes states that he denied thought (cogitatio) to animals, but not sensation (sensus). “I deny sensation to no animal” (Cottingham 1978:557). The French philosopher here refers to “their [meaning animals] natural impulses of anger, fear, hunger and so on” (ibid:556).

Cf. Clarke 2006:386, who interprets: “He [Descartes] could appreciate the reasons for thinking that they [animals] have sensations that are similar to ours, but there was one outstanding reason for resisting the idea that they have genuine thoughts.” The reason specified was the absence of animal speech. Of the human situation, Descartes added: “All the motions of our limbs which accompany our emotions are caused, not by the soul, but exclusively by the machinery of the body” (ibid:387). The mechanistic view tended to be parsimonious.

The Cartesian claim that animals were more splendid versions of artificial automata, "which move without thought" (Letter to More, February 1649), for example, was seen by More as providing hostages to atheists. In the scholastic tradition the ability to move oneself was seen as evidence of the presence of a soul, and therefore of life. Descartes, pointing out that clocks and other automata are capable of moving themselves, denied this traditional view and held the soul to be responsible only for thinking; movement was exclusively a feature of bodies. In the Cartesian system, consequently, plants and animals were living creatures without souls. (John Henry, "Henry More," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The forthright Cottingham felt obliged to remind:

Strict dualism makes nonsense of Descartes’ commonsense attribution of feelings like hunger to the animals; but then Descartes is unable to extract from dualism any clear account of the awkwardly undeniable experience of human hunger. (Cottingham 1978:559)

The same scholar believed that Descartes was guilty of “a certain fuzziness” in his thinking about consciousness. Cottingham concluded: “Descartes may not have been completely consistent, but at least he was not altogether beastly to the beasts” (ibid).

Another commentator emerged with the parallel judgment:

Descartes’ took animals to have no souls, no thoughts, or experiences, and to be in fact automata. This is quite certainly his view, even though there are passages in which he expresses skepticism or takes a milder tone. (Williams 1978:282)

A closely argued analysis of various contentions, including the well known Cottingham theme, arrived at the conclusion that Descartes was consistent and  “thought animals to be unfeeling brutes” (David Sztybel, Did Descartes believe that nonhuman animals cannot feel?)

A strong accusation is expressed by Professor Bernard E.  Rollin, noted for his support of animal victims worldwide. He points out that, in contrast to Descartes, the medieval theologian Aquinas, plus John Locke and David Hume, expressed a degree of scruple about the animal plight (Rollin 2018).  

For Descartes, animals were simply machines of the sort contrived by clever watchmakers at the period he was writing. Lacking language, unlike other humans, animals could not be said to be capable of thought, feeling, or any of the subjective experiences we take for granted in human mentation. With this assertion, Descartes believed he had assured the special place for humans stipulated in Catholic theology, while at the same time paving the way for scientific experimentation on animals regardless of how much putative pain it engendered. (Seventeenth century reports documenting in lurid detail the “vivisection” occurring at the Port Royal Abbey evidence the extent to which Descartes’ followers put his theories into practice). (Rollin 2018)

A visitor in the 1650s, to the Port Royal School at Paris, reports that pupils were dissecting dogs who were nailed alive to wooden planks by their four paws. The purpose was apparently to inspect the circulation of the blood, a subject of controversy. Hammering in the nails inevitably caused pain to the victims, an ordeal dismissed by the experimenters. “Their [animal] cries when hammered were nothing but the noises of some small springs that were being deranged” (Gombay 2007:ix). The justifying associations of mere clockwork fit the Cartesian theory of animals as automata. The molesters made fun of persons who pitied the creatures feeling pain. The cruel situation was reported by Nicolas Fontaine (1625-1709), who employed a testimony of his niece. Fontaine included the details in his Memoires pour servir a l’histoire de Port-Royal, published in 1736 (Delforges 1985:97).

The Port Royal School (or Petites Ecoles, Little Schools) existed for only twenty-three years (1637-60). Few sources are available. About a hundred names of pupils survive. The programme of study for these boys is elusive. This expensive boarding school, of Jansenist auspices, was connected to the Port Royal Abbey (formerly a Cistercian convent), which became a centre of the Jansenist movement (Delforges 1985). The School was closed in 1660 by the dominating French clergy keen to suppress rivals.

The influential book Logique de Port-Royal, or Port Royal Logic (1662), was authored by Antoine Arnauld (1612-95) and Pierre Nicole (1625-95), both of whom were closely associated with the Abbey and School. These two prominent Jansenists (especially Arnauld) were strongly influenced by Cartesian ideas, which they promoted in their book (Martin 2019). The Logic achieved five editions during their lifetimes (Buroker 1996). In 1650, Nicole retired as a solitaire to the Abbey when Jansenism came under official attack; he assisted in the production of books, and was for some years a master at the Port Royal School for boys (James 1972). Arnauld had also corresponded with Descartes during the 1640s. However, the Sorbonne theologian was not able to meet Descartes, being in hiding as a consequence of Jansenist sympathies.

The Port Royal School withdrew, in a situation of dire friction, from the Jesuit teaching system. Jesuits regarded Jansenists as heretical, to the extent that Arnauld was forced into hiding again in 1656, the year he was expelled from the Sorbonne. The vivisection activity of the 1650s is evocative of Cartesian influence. The Port Royal Logic reflects a strong Cartesian factor in Jansenist ranks, while the Port Royal School was founded by a group including Arnauld and Nicole.  

A systematic approach to theories of Descartes occurred after his death. His followers, meaning the Cartesians, are criticised by some as the brutal precursors of laboratory practices. Descartes cannot escape all the implications. He is known to have undertaken some anatomical dissection, making daily visits to a butcher in Amsterdam, acquiring animal parts to dissect at home, in addition to his "solitary meditations" (Rodis-Lewis 1998:85). 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 2002:15). The same writer emphasises that Descartes described the dissection of a dog's heart. The French empiricist is classified by some commentators 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 is not commendable The realistic indications are that at least a few of his dissections applied to living animals. His attitude to animals was certainly weighted by a belief that they were automatons.

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 Marquess of Newcastle), read the Principles of Philosophy and sent a letter to Descartes in 1646. The subject here was the apparent capacity of animals to think. The reply indicates that the rigid thinking of Descartes about animals was influenced by his aversion to sceptical 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 means that animals do not think, equating to the assumption that only humans have an immortal soul. According to Descartes: "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" (Sutcliffe 1968:76).

9.   Supporters  and  Critics

"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. Along with the Jesuits Toledo and Fonseca, Suarez 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; at the same time, 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 reveals 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 six 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. She invited Descartes to join her court at Stockholm in early 1649. That correspondence had commenced via the French diplomat Chanut, a contact of Descartes. The philosopher evidently felt hesitation about moving to Stockholm. 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. 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. As a consequence, 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 Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online). The hostile campaign of Voetius did not succeed for long. Utrecht became the most Cartesian of the Dutch universities.

There were also independent thinkers influenced by Descartes, notably Malebranche and Spinoza. The first published book of Spinoza was a commentary on the Principles of Descartes. "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 posthumously published book by Descartes entitled Traité de l'Homme (Treatise on Man). This contribution tackles physiology. Malebranche subsequently attempted to synthesise St. Augustine and Descartes; he was also known for his occasionalism, a doctrine meaning that God is the only real cause. Malebranche 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 Encyclopedia 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, there evolved a theme of Descartes as the founder of modern philosophy, 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 rationalist Leibniz, and the "commonsense empiricist" John Locke. In his Ethics, Spinoza rejected the theory of Descartes concerning the pineal gland. The heretical Jew also radically altered the Cartesian perspective on substance, applying a "pantheist" context decoding to a substantial distance between himself and others like Malebranche.

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)


Kevin  R. D. Shepherd

July 2010 (modified December 2012 and July 2015; last modified March 2021)


Descartes lived in a Europe dominated by religious division and the brutal Thirty Years War (1618-48). This was the most destructive conflict in Europe prior to the twentieth century. Estimates of the death toll vary from 4.5 to over 8 million. The Austrian Habsburg dynasty, of the “Holy Roman Empire,” enlisted Catholic supporters to fight Protestant states. Peasants suffered misery in the crossfire created by upper class politics. Massacres and plundering soldiers were accompanied by disease and starvation. Many territories were reduced to a wasteland. France was drawn into the deadly struggle from 1635. An unknown mercy was the absence of chemical weapons.

Since that time, the Western world has increasingly taken pride in technology and modernity, an attitude spreading globally. Today, modernity is dying, not merely via COVID-19 virus infection spread by aeroplanes.

The overpowering invasion of chemicals, including the indelible PFAS variety, is globally affecting humans and other species.  PFAS refers to over 4,500 industrial chemicals that are found extensively in consumer products. These chemicals are speedily interactive, contaminating water everywhere. Because of their extreme persistence, the predatory "forever chemicals" create a contamination that will last decades, or even centuries.

In more specific terms, pervasive industrial chemicals can disrupt hormones, a phenomenon now strongly implicated in the impairment of human reproductive capacity. Phthalates (now in everyone) are used to make plastics soft and flexible. These chemicals are now viewed as a plague because they lower testosterone, thus diminishing sperm count. In countries like America, crucial regulation is hindered by the agenda of chemical industry giants who contaminate water supply and other life assets. This adverse situation requires “sweeping modifications to the kinds and volumes of chemicals that are manufactured and pumped into the environment” (Swan 2021:4).

In the political comic strip of Britain and other countries, ecological issues are restricted to electric cars, planting trees, and a theoretical timeline evasive of reality. The planet is now suffering a far worse condition than in the seventeenth century.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

March 2021


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