Academic Philosophy Events in the Netherlands
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Colloquium Geschiedenis van de Filosofie
17 January @ 15:00 - 17:00
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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