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Descartes' “Animated Machines”

Nature volume 5, pages 6263 | Download Citation



As you open your valuable columns to philosophical discussions, may I request you to publish the following remarks on a passage in Mr. Lewes's popular “History of Philosophy” (Vol. ii. p 148 of the new edition), where he confesses himself puzzled, along with other critics, to account for Descartes' theory that animals were only animated machines. “I am not prepared,” he says, “with a satisfactory explanation.” I cannot but think that a careful perusal of the “Discourse on Method” (Part 5, sub. fin.) and of the treatise on les Passions de l'âme, makes Descartes' reasons perfectly clear. In the first place, the use of the word machine has misled most of his critics, and if the story of Malebranche and his dog be true, even this great disciple had grievously mistaken the principles of his master. For in the last-named treatise Descartes endeavours to show that such feelings as joy, grief, fear, &c., though in us accompanied by really mental acts (pensées), are produced by physical causes, and produce physical effects apart from the mind. Descartes would therefore never have denied to brutes any of the bodily sensibilities which we possess; and says expressly that he calls them machines in a special sense—machines made by the Deity, and therefore infinitely more subtle and perfect than any which we can construct. He says that we could not ourselves be ranked higher in the scale of beings did we not possess the gift of language, the phenomena of which can only be accounted for by an internal principle different in kind from those which appear to guide the lower animals, though there are also those passions in us which we have in common with them.

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  1. Trin, Coll., Dublin, Nov. 11

    • J. P. MAHAFFY


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