Descartes, René


1596–1650 French natural philosopherwhose mechanization of physiology was coupled with a speculative psychosomatic medicine.

Keywords: animal spirits; memory; brain; reflex; scientific revolution; neurophysiology

Figure 1.

‘The whole brain is nothing but a tissue constituted in a particular way’. Illustration of the brain as a ‘net or mesh’, with the pineal gland (H) in the centre, from the first French edition of Descartes’ L'homme.

Figure 2.

Descartes’ conception of reflex action. The stimulus A pulls the nerve fibre at B and thus opens the entrance to a particular pore in the brain, allowing the influx of the animal spirits into the nerves and leading to immediate muscular motion. The oval ‘cavity’ in the brain labelled F is not the pineal gland but the ventricle. From L'homme.

Figure 3.

Descartes’ analogy for associative memory. Just as the repeated passage of needles through a linen cloth leaves traces, so certain ‘passageways’ in the brain are altered in perceptual experience, and thus ‘become more apt than the others to be opened in the same way when the [animal] spirits again flow towards them’. From L'homme.


Further Reading

Descartes R (1972) Treatise of Man, Hall TS (ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Descartes R (1985–1991) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (3 vols), Cottingham J, Stoothoff R, Murdoch D and Kenny A (transl.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Descartes R (1998) The World and Other Writings, Gaukroger S (ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Brown TM (1985) Descartes, dualism, and psychosomatic medicine. In: Bynum WF, Porter R and Shepherd M (eds) The Anatomy of Madness, vol. 1, pp. 40–62. London: Tavistock Press.

Carter RB (1983) Descartes’ Medical Philosophy: the Organic Solution to the Mind–Body Problem. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gaukroger S (1995) Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Gaukroger S, Schuster JA and Sutton J (eds) (2000) Descartes’ Natural Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Hall TS (1970) Descartes’ physiological method: position, principles, examples. Journal of the History of Biology 3: 53–79.

Hatfield G (1992) Descartes’ physiology and its relation to his psychology. In Cottingham J (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Descartes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lindeboom GA (1979) Descartes and Medicine. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Sutton J (1998) Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to Connectionism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Sutton, J(Jun 2001) Descartes, René. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0002472]