The Description of the Human Body

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The Description of the Human Body (La description du corps humain) is an unfinished treatise written in 1647 by René Descartes. Descartes felt knowing oneself was particularly useful. This for him included medical knowledge. He hoped to cure and prevent disease, even to slow down aging.

René Descartes believed the soul caused conscious thought. The body caused automatic functions like the beating of the heart and digestion he felt. The body was necessary for voluntary movement as well as the will. However, he believed the power to move the body was wrongly imagined to come from the soul. A sick or injured body does not do what we want or moves in ways we do not want. He believed the death of the body stopped it from being fit to bring about movement. This did not necessarily happen because the soul left the body.

René Descartes believed the body could exist through mechanical means alone. This included digestion, blood circulation, muscle movement and some brain function. He felt we all know what the human body is like because animals have similar bodies and we have all seen them opened up.

He saw the body as a machine. He believed the heat of the heart somehow caused all movement of the body. Blood vessels he realized were pipes, he saw that veins carried digested food to the heart. (This was brought further by William Harvey. Harvey developed the idea of the circulation of the blood.) Descartes felt that an energetic part of blood went to the brain and there gave the brain a special type of air imbued with vital force that enabled the brain to experience, think and imagine. This special air then went through the nerves to the muscles enabling them to move.

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