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Colloquium Geschiedenis van de Filosofie

17 January @ 15:00 - 17:00

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From /L’Homme /to /La Description du corps humain/: Shortcomings, Gaps, and Botanical Experimentation in Descartes’ Tortuous Medical Programme Despite counting one fifth of his entire work, Descartes’ medical study of the living bodies represents one of the greatest drawbacks of his philosophy. Indeed, Descartes failed to publish any work of medicine during his lifetime, although he considered this discipline one of the fruits to catch from the tree of his philosophy. On the one hand, Descartes’ intellectual biography shows his…
From /L’Homme /to /La Description du corps humain/: Shortcomings, 
Gaps, and Botanical Experimentation in Descartes’ Tortuous Medical 
Programme

Despite counting one fifth of his entire work, Descartes’ medical study 
of the living bodies represents one of the greatest drawbacks of his 
philosophy. Indeed, Descartes failed to publish any work of medicine 
during his lifetime, although he considered this discipline one of the 
fruits to catch from the tree of his philosophy. On the one hand, 
Descartes’ intellectual biography shows his constant work on physiology 
and diverse projects he followed; on the other hand, it also reveals his 
experiential attempts and changes of interpretations. However, the 
complex condition of Descartes’ medical programme lags largely 
under-explored.
A tortuous programme surfaces. Descartes himself reveals several 
problems in his /Discours de la Méthode/, where he noted the failures of 
his previous physiology (these concern both the logic underlying his 
medicine and the results of his studies). Consequently, he started 
re-working on his physiology. From 1637, he revised the characteristics 
of his cardiology (in the correspondence with Plempius), started dealing 
with the organic features of living bodies in a more exhaustive way, and 
acknowledged the importance of the teachings of nature for the 
definition of a healthy body. Moreover, he enlarged the focus of his 
physiology, previously limited to sensation, and started moving away 
from his mechanistic framework. All these features especially surface in 
the botanical notes Descartes collected in one of his /biomedical 
/manuscripts, the /Excerpta Anatomica/.
By means of some relevant experiments with seeds and plants, he dealt 
with the basic operations of living bodies, discussed a mechanization of 
the vegetative soul, interpreted the living body as an organic whole, 
and defined the well-being and individuality of living bodies, therefore 
isolating a class of living beings.
However, Descartes’ work with plants stayed confined within his 
manuscript, despite their importance. On the one hand, this appears a 
mere detour without consequences in Descartes’ physiology. He studied 
vegetation from 1637 to 1639, but this work did not stem in a science of 
plants in its proper signification. After 1639, new projects attracted 
Descartes’ attention―the work on the /Meditationes de prima philosophia, 
/the /Principia philosophiae, /the study of passions. On the other hand, 
some of his work surfaces in the sections devoted to generation, 
nutrition, and growth in his /La Description du corps humain/, probably 
1647-8.
In sum, Descartes’ studies of plants have a minor, though 
non-unimportant role, as these experiments helped him reshape his 
physiology and provide completion to his understanding of the living 
bodies. In the light of his botanical interest, in this talk I analyse 
the role played by his botanical experimentation and reconstruct 
Descartes’ tortuous medical programme.

Details

Date:
17 January
Time:
15:00 - 17:00
Event Categories:
,
From /L’Homme /to /La Description du corps humain/: Shortcomings, 
Gaps, and Botanical Experimentation in Descartes’ Tortuous Medical 
Programme

Despite counting one fifth of his entire work, Descartes’ medical study 
of the living bodies represents one of the greatest drawbacks of his 
philosophy. Indeed, Descartes failed to publish any work of medicine 
during his lifetime, although he considered this discipline one of the 
fruits to catch from the tree of his philosophy. On the one hand, 
Descartes’ intellectual biography shows his constant work on physiology 
and diverse projects he followed; on the other hand, it also reveals his 
experiential attempts and changes of interpretations. However, the 
complex condition of Descartes’ medical programme lags largely 
under-explored.
A tortuous programme surfaces. Descartes himself reveals several 
problems in his /Discours de la Méthode/, where he noted the failures of 
his previous physiology (these concern both the logic underlying his 
medicine and the results of his studies). Consequently, he started 
re-working on his physiology. From 1637, he revised the characteristics 
of his cardiology (in the correspondence with Plempius), started dealing 
with the organic features of living bodies in a more exhaustive way, and 
acknowledged the importance of the teachings of nature for the 
definition of a healthy body. Moreover, he enlarged the focus of his 
physiology, previously limited to sensation, and started moving away 
from his mechanistic framework. All these features especially surface in 
the botanical notes Descartes collected in one of his /biomedical 
/manuscripts, the /Excerpta Anatomica/.
By means of some relevant experiments with seeds and plants, he dealt 
with the basic operations of living bodies, discussed a mechanization of 
the vegetative soul, interpreted the living body as an organic whole, 
and defined the well-being and individuality of living bodies, therefore 
isolating a class of living beings.
However, Descartes’ work with plants stayed confined within his 
manuscript, despite their importance. On the one hand, this appears a 
mere detour without consequences in Descartes’ physiology. He studied 
vegetation from 1637 to 1639, but this work did not stem in a science of 
plants in its proper signification. After 1639, new projects attracted 
Descartes’ attention―the work on the /Meditationes de prima philosophia, 
/the /Principia philosophiae, /the study of passions. On the other hand, 
some of his work surfaces in the sections devoted to generation, 
nutrition, and growth in his /La Description du corps humain/, probably 
1647-8.
In sum, Descartes’ studies of plants have a minor, though 
non-unimportant role, as these experiments helped him reshape his 
physiology and provide completion to his understanding of the living 
bodies. In the light of his botanical interest, in this talk I analyse 
the role played by his botanical experimentation and reconstruct 
Descartes’ tortuous medical programme.

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