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Descartes’ Natural Philosophy by Gaukroger Stephen; Schuster John; Sutton John

Author:Gaukroger, Stephen; Schuster, John; Sutton, John [STEPHEN GAUKROGER, JOHN SCHUSTER AND JOHN SUTTON]

Language: eng

Format: epub

Publisher: Routledge

Published: 2011-10-04T16:00:00+00:00

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Descartes’ Natural Philosophy by Gaukroger Stephen; Schuster John; Sutton John

The aims of a mechanistic physiology

Before we can appreciate the strengths and limitations of these resources, it is important that we ask about the aim of a mechanised physiology, that is, what Descartes hoped to achieve by such a programme. Descartes’ commitment to mechanism extends far beyond physiology, and the most important statement of his mechanist physiology, the Traité de l’Homme, is the continuation of a work providing a mechanist account of optics and cosmology, the Traité de la Lumière, also known by the generic title Le Monde. Le Monde set out to show how optical and cosmological phenomena can be explained in terms of a theory of matter and two basic physical principles, centrifugal force and the principle of rectilinear inertia. His theory of matter allows no qualitative distinction between types of matter, it allows no internal forces or activities, and it explains various differences between the properties of things in terms of three sizes of matter, the largest making up the planets, the second making up fluids such as the air and the regions between planets, and the smallest filling up the regions between the boundaries of the first and second kinds, which are generally speaking corpuscular, and also making up the sun.1 The most important feature of Cartesian matter from the point of view of mechanism is its inertness. This was a constraint the full implications of which Descartes had learned from Mersenne, for it was the version of mechanism that Mersenne was developing in various works in the mid-1620s that largely shaped Descartes’ understanding of the natural-philosophical issues underlying mechanism.2 Mersenne had been particularly concerned to rebut various forms of Renaissance naturalism, which had obscured the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and had conceived nature generally as animate in varying degrees, having numerous powers and forces by which natural processes were effected. One particular danger that he perceived in the construal of nature as an ‘active realm’ along naturalist lines was that the need for divine activity would ultimately be rendered otiose. Unable to counter these forms of naturalism by relying on traditional scholasticism – for the Aristotelian doctrine of form was part of the naturalist armoury – he advocated a strict separation between an active supernatural realm and a completely inert natural realm, stripping the latter not just of the offending sympathies and powers of the naturalists, but also of Aristotelian forms and qualities.

Descartes employs this notion of matter not only in his physical theory, but also in his account of physiology. There are three kinds of approach to which his mechanist account can be seen as an alternative. These attempt to provide an account of physiology that aims to explain various functional differences between organs either, first, in terms of qualitatively different kinds of matter, or, second, in terms of some non-material principle guiding those functions, or, third, in goal-directed terms which cannot be captured mechanistically. In the first case, what was usually invoked was the traditional doctrine of the four elements

 

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Descartes’ Natural Philosophy by Gaukroger Stephen; Schuster John; Sutton John

Author:Gaukroger, Stephen; Schuster, John; Sutton, John [STEPHEN GAUKROGER, JOHN SCHUSTER AND JOHN SUTTON] , Date: June 27, 2019

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Author:Gaukroger, Stephen; Schuster, John; Sutton, John [STEPHEN GAUKROGER, JOHN SCHUSTER AND JOHN SUTTON]

Language: eng

Format: epub

Publisher: Routledge

Published: 2011-10-04T16:00:00+00:00
The aims of a mechanistic physiology

Before we can appreciate the strengths and limitations of these resources, it is important that we ask about the aim of a mechanised physiology, that is, what Descartes hoped to achieve by such a programme. Descartes’ commitment to mechanism extends far beyond physiology, and the most important statement of his mechanist physiology, the Traité de l’Homme, is the continuation of a work providing a mechanist account of optics and cosmology, the Traité de la Lumière, also known by the generic title Le Monde. Le Monde set out to show how optical and cosmological phenomena can be explained in terms of a theory of matter and two basic physical principles, centrifugal force and the principle of rectilinear inertia. His theory of matter allows no qualitative distinction between types of matter, it allows no internal forces or activities, and it explains various differences between the properties of things in terms of three sizes of matter, the largest making up the planets, the second making up fluids such as the air and the regions between planets, and the smallest filling up the regions between the boundaries of the first and second kinds, which are generally speaking corpuscular, and also making up the sun.1 The most important feature of Cartesian matter from the point of view of mechanism is its inertness. This was a constraint the full implications of which Descartes had learned from Mersenne, for it was the version of mechanism that Mersenne was developing in various works in the mid-1620s that largely shaped Descartes’ understanding of the natural-philosophical issues underlying mechanism.2 Mersenne had been particularly concerned to rebut various forms of Renaissance naturalism, which had obscured the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and had conceived nature generally as animate in varying degrees, having numerous powers and forces by which natural processes were effected. One particular danger that he perceived in the construal of nature as an ‘active realm’ along naturalist lines was that the need for divine activity would ultimately be rendered otiose. Unable to counter these forms of naturalism by relying on traditional scholasticism – for the Aristotelian doctrine of form was part of the naturalist armoury – he advocated a strict separation between an active supernatural realm and a completely inert natural realm, stripping the latter not just of the offending sympathies and powers of the naturalists, but also of Aristotelian forms and qualities.

Descartes employs this notion of matter not only in his physical theory, but also in his account of physiology. There are three kinds of approach to which his mechanist account can be seen as an alternative. These attempt to provide an account of physiology that aims to explain various functional differences between organs either, first, in terms of qualitatively different kinds of matter, or, second, in terms of some non-material principle guiding those functions, or, third, in goal-directed terms which cannot be captured mechanistically. In the first case, what was usually invoked was the traditional doctrine of the four elements

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