Rene´ Descartes

In Encyclopedia of the life sciences. Macmillan. 383-386 (2001)
Abstract
Descartes was born in La Haye (now Descartes) in Touraine and educated at the Jesuit college of La Fleche` in Anjou. Descartes’modern reputation as a rationalistic armchair philosopher, whose mind–body dualism is the source of damaging divisions between psychology and the life sciences, is almost entirely undeserved. Some 90% of his surviving correspondence is on mathematics and scientific matters, from acoustics and hydrostatics to chemistry and the practical problems of constructing scientific instruments. Descartes was just as interested in the motions of matter as in the supernatural soul, and he advised against spending too much time on metaphysical inquiries which neglect imagination and the senses. After meeting the Dutch engineer Isaac Beeckman in 1618, Descartes became committed to a systematically ‘mechanical’account of nature. This involved explaining all natural processes in terms of interactions between microscopic material bodies in motion. Descartes modelled his physics and cosmology on the behaviour of fluids, which also have a distinctive and central role in his physiology: the key processes for natural philosophical investigation are the circulation and mutual displacement of constrained bodies, rather than the isolated collisions of atoms in a void. Descartes settled in Holland in 1628, and commenced an ambitious programme of physiological research. In 1630 he was ‘studying chemistry and anatomy simultaneously’, and in late 1632 he was ‘dissecting the heads of various animals’, in order to ‘explain what imagination, memory, etc. consist in’. By late 1633 Descartes had almost completed L’homme, the Treatise on Man; but he abandoned plans to publish it along with a work on matter theory and optics which relied on Copernican cosmology, after he heard of the condemnation of Galileo. L’homme was published posthumously in 1662 (Latin) and 1664 (French); not until 1972 was it fully translated into English. L’homme draws on many (mostly unnamed) Renaissance medical writers, and covers, firstly, a range of traditional physiological topics, such as digestion and respiration..
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