Regius and Gassendi on the Human Soul

Intellectual History Review 23 (2):433-452 (2013)
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Reshaping the neo-Aristotelian doctrines about the human soul was Descartes’s most spectacular enterprise, which gave birth to some of the sharpest debates in the Republic of Letters. Neverthe- less, it was certainly Descartes’s intention, as already expressed in the Discours de la méthode, to show that his new metaphysics could be supplemented with experimental research in the field of medicine and the conservation of life. It is no surprise then that several natural philosophers and doctors, such as Henricus Regius from Utrecht, who had studied in Padua with William Harvey, rallied in support, in order to gain a more substantial theoretical basis for their research. Taking as his ground some general metaphysical assumptions, such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and perhaps the separability of the pure understanding, Regius intended to secure a new philosophy of man, which was able to reflect his medical interests and complement his account of human nature. This is the story that is now gaining currency, and it is surely accurate, at least in part. Desmond Clarke has recently defended the same view1, based on the remarkable studies of the Utrecht scholars Theo Verbeek and Erik-Jan Bos. Here I would like to challenge some aspects of this view and ask how Regius, who was perceived as the philosopher most closely associated with Descartes, became a betrayer of his mentor.


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