Seventeenth-century self-movers

The notion of an automaton, as it is employed in the natural philosophy of Descartes and his closest followers, has three main components. None of them is new; what is new in early modern philosophy is the uses to which this old notion is put, and the idiosyncrasies into which its components are combined by subsequent philosophers. The thaumaturgic element is never entirely suppressed; but the more down-to-earth usage exemplified in antiquity by Aristotle’s references predominates. The automaton is quite often the opposite of wonderful: phenomena that might excited wonder are proved to be unworthy of it, just by showing that they are the productions of an automaton. The automaton is, first of all, a machine, and therefore an artifact, human or (if the metaphor becomes literal) divine. It offers a model of intelligibility—to use Peter Dear’s term—for a certain class of natural phenomena, namely those we find in living things. But Descartes wants from it something more. In Descartes’ usage, a machine is that which makes itself available not just to “mechanical” explanation, but to a complete explanation, an explanation that makes all others superfluous. Not all machines, of course, are automata. Two further components figure in the notion. One is that automata are typically imitative. From the automata thaumata of Aristotle’s De Motu animalium to the nymphs of Salomon de Caus’s fountains, many automata are likenesses, partaking both of the iconic (to use Peirce’s term) and the symbolic. Moving sculptures proceed moving pictures by over two thousand years. They succeeded if they convinced their audiences that they could do what their prototypes did—where the doing is typically restricted to some few sorts of act. The wind-up mouse skitters across the floor like a real mouse; but it does not eat, nor does it seek the..
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