In Janet Broughton & John Carriero (eds.), Companion to Descartes. Blackwell. pp. 404–425 (2008)
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This chapter considers philosophical problems concerning non-human (and sometimes human) animals, including their metaphysical, physical, and moral status, their origin, what makes them alive, their functional organization, and the basis of their sensitive and cognitive capacities. I proceed by assuming what most of Descartes’s followers and interpreters have held: that Descartes proposed that animals lack sentience, feeling, and genuinely cognitive representations of things. (Some scholars interpret Descartes differently, denying that he excluded sentience, feeling, and representation from animals, and I consider the evidence for these interpretations as well.) Given that Descartes denied any sort of soul to animals, his other philosophical commitments entailed that he must explain the vital and sensitive powers of non-human animals through purely material causes. Indeed, he welcomed this task, for he was engaged in the larger project of providing purely mechanistic explanations for all natural phenomena of the material world. Animal bodies form functional unities that are adapted to environmental circumstances. In his new physics, Descartes sought to discover or hypothesize material mechanisms that would explain the physiological and behavioral capacities of animals, including how they maintain themselves by seeking food and drink, reproduce themselves, and modify their behavior to fit current circumstances. Metaphysically, his new perspective raised the problem of accounting for the functional unity of the animal body considered as a purely material construction, devoid of an active, organizing power such as the sensitive soul. Descartes’s project becomes even more challenging if we ask whence come such mechanisms that are capable of performing the functions of living things. Officially, Descartes endorsed the accepted theological orthodoxy, that God designed and created the bodily mechanisms of humans and animals. However, in his natural philosophy he set himself the task of explaining the origin of animals as part of the natural development of the universe out of an original chaotic soup of material particles. Within this naturalistic perspective, he must explain how, through purely material processes, the functionally organized bodies of living things (plants and animals) could be produced from non-living matter. Without a designing creator, how do animal bodies arise that are capable of digesting food, growing, reproducing, and performing the behaviors needed to preserve life and health?

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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania


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