Talk:René Descartes

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Former good article nominee René Descartes was a Philosophy and religion good articles nominee, but did not meet the good article criteria at the time. There are suggestions below for improving the article. Once these issues have been addressed, the article can be renominated. Editors may also seek a reassessment of the decision if they believe there was a mistake.
December 2, 2012 Good article nominee Not listed

Animals as soulless machines[edit]

This article is seriously incomplete. Descartes (along with others at the time) believed that animals did not have souls and therefore were beast machines. He thought that not having a soul meant no higher mental experiences. So when a dog had its paws nailed to a board and it yelped, it was not actually in pain, just exhibiting the external mechanical response that we perceive to be signs of pain. See Nicolaas Rupke, "Vivisection in Historical Perspective", London, Routledge, 1990. I'm not a vegetarian dog-loving, cruelty hating hippy who is complaining that Descartes needs to be portrayed as an ass. I'm just saying that it was an important part of Descartes' work. -elliot

Mechanical theory of the human body, brain, and nervous system: elliot is right that Descartes' mechanical theory of the biological body, not so much the animal body, as the human body, as set out primarily in his Treatise of Man (and briefly in other works) is an immensely important and influential aspect of Descartes thought that ought to be covered much more fully in this entry, and that has had a huge (and, in some respects, still continuing) influence on the development of the science of physiology, and particularly on neurophysiology, neuroscience, and cognitive science. It is true that he regarded the human body as conjoined to and, in some (limited) respects, controlled by an immaterial and immortal soul, but this was supposed to be responsible only for pure consciousness, reason and will, and he gave mechanical (speculatively neurophysiological) explanations of other aspects of mind, including emotion, imagination, and most aspects of perception. He does not, in fact, discuss animal bodies at length, but what he says about humans does seem to imply that animal bodies are machines of a similar sort, but that are not conjoined with souls. Some of his followers (I think Malebranche may have been a key player, but I am not sure) developed this explicitly into the beast-machine theory, and some may have used this theory to rationalize being cruel to animals, but it is unfair to blame Descartes himself for that, and the issue is a huge red-herring as regards Descartes’ own ideas and motivations, and his historical influence. (I do not believe there is any sound evidence that he himself was notably cruel to animals, or, indeed, that animals have suffered significantly more since his time than would have otherwise.) By contrast, his mechanical theory of the human body was of immense influence (both on his own philosophy, and on scientists of later generations) and really ought to be much more prominently discussed in the article. (I have added references to the Treatise on Man to the bibliographic sections, but I do not currently have the time or energy to devote to adding the relevant material to the body of the entry (and to engage in the edit wars that would probably ensue). If another editor wants to use this comment as the basis for an addition to the entry, I am OK with that. Treharne (talk) 10:47, 21 October 2014 (UTC)
Yeah. I don't hate cruelty either. - R_Lee_E Flag of the United States.svg (talk, contribs) 03:50, 17 October 2006 (UTC)

I love cruelty. ninjabulous 22:16, 17 October 2006 (UTC)

I agree with elliot about the importance of the beast-machine theory in Descartes' thinking - considering also the long dispute which followed! If the other editors agree, I will insert a paragraph and improve the bibliography. Benio76 02:14, 29 December 2006 (UTC)
I was just looking for this information myself. I've read the article some time ago and I'm sure it was there, along with the picture of the duck as an automata... Something's fishy here, I'll have a look in the history and try to find out what's happened.
And goodness my friend above, I sure do hope you hate cruelty!Richard001 07:23, 25 January 2007 (UTC)
After a look through the history I think my memory has played tricks on me. It was some time ago that I read this and but the article hasn't changed all that much. It must have been elsewhere that I read about his views on animals/the soul, or perhaps I just thought the section had been a little longer. The subject is covered in the article, though rather briefly. The article as a whole could probably be a little longer. It covers the subject well, but Descartes was such an important figure in both philosophy and mathematics/science that an in depth article on him would be perfectly justified.Richard001 07:49, 25 January 2007 (UTC)
You are probably thinking of the mechanical duck constructed by Jacques de Vaucanson, that seemed to eat and shit. This had no real connection with Descartes. Treharne (talk) 10:52, 21 October 2014 (UTC)

I would venture to say that the average dog has more of a soul than some of the contributors to this section.Lestrade (talk) 03:43, 21 January 2010 (UTC)Lestrade

It's not quite as "cruel" as it sounds; Descartes thought the animal spirits themselves in non-human animals still acted similarly to humans'--so although they don't feel pain per se, they did have an unpleasant sub-cognitive response that you could call dog-pain or something. Descartes was interested in the cognitive aspect of "feeling pain", not the physiological aspect. Mijelliott (talk) 02:18, 12 December 2011 (UTC)

I've taken the stuff about animal vivisection out of the article. This is disproportionate and essentially off-track. Isambard Kingdom (talk) 15:50, 8 October 2016 (UTC)

I have restored this material. This paragraph may not be as helpful as it could be, but Descartes' view of animal nature merits attention. It illuminates his view of human nature and of the nature of the world. -- WikiPedant (talk) 20:15, 8 October 2016 (UTC)
Then why not take a try at fixing it? Isambard Kingdom (talk) 21:02, 8 October 2016 (UTC)

Law of Inertia[edit]

I think this needs to be included in the article, as it is a major development in the history of science. From Herbert Butterfield's book The Origins of Modern Science: "Descartes himself achieved the modern formulation of the law of inertia-the view that motion continues in a straight line until interrupted by something-working it out by a natural deduction from his theory of the conservation of momentum, his theory that the amount of motion in the universe always remains the same. It was he rather than Galileo who fully grasped the principle of inertia in all its clarity." (p. 178)

Awkward flow[edit]

The first we hear that Francine died young is in this quote, " Russell Shorto postulated that the experience of fatherhood and losing a child...". There should be preceding notice that Francine died young. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 04:50, 2 June 2016 (UTC)


The article on Marin Mersenne mentions that "Some history scientists suggest he died for having drunk a huge quantity of fresh water, along with Descartes, on a hot summer day." But this article says nothing like this. What is the truth? (talk) 10:48, 14 January 2017 (UTC)

Descartes never taught at the university of Utrecht.[edit]

In the article, it is stated that Descartes taught at the Utrecht University ("who was born in 1635 in Deventer, at which time Descartes taught at the Utrecht University"). I myself am a student at Utrecht University today and I'm following a course on history of mathematics. However, my professor says that Descartes never had any position at the Utrecht University. A student of his, Henry Reneri, did teach at Utrecht University in that time (source: so I think somebody got the two mixed up. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 23:17, 8 March 2017‎ (UTC)

I have removed the assertion that he taught at Utrecht University, since it was wasn't relevant to the context anyway, whether true or not. If you have any information about what Descartes was up to in 1635, let us know. AWhiteC (talk) 20:55, 9 March 2017 (UTC)
Yes, according to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it was Reneri that taught Cartesian science in Utrech. --Auró (talk) 22:56, 9 March 2017 (UTC)