Thesis ID: CBB329830813

A History of Human Physiology and 17th C. Philosophy: Descartes, Spinoza, and the Current State of Neuroscience (2020)


Richard Velkley (Advisor)
DeFranco, Daniel J. (Author)

Richard Velkley
Tulane University
Publication date: 2020
Language: English

Publication Date: 2020
Physical Details: 257

In the early 1630s, René Descartes developed a speculative treatise on the functional structures of the human body and brain. His work, The Treatise on Man, constituted the first attempt at a complete human physiology, inspiring a generation of scientists and physicians who developed Descartes’ speculations into a genuine field of scientific inquiry. It is the intent of this discussion to determine how Descartes’ speculations in human physiology influenced the direction of 17th c. European philosophy. The above question is often dismissed by scholars who argue that Descartes abandons scientific pursuits for philosophy, finding that science could not provide the kind of knowledge Descartes craved. In contrast, I argue that the themes that emerge in the Treatise are continually developed by Descartes throughout his philosophic career. This is evident in Meditations on First Philosophy, where Descartes demonstrates a preoccupation with (1) the possible resemblance between sensory ideas and their objects and (2) the independence of our nature as a thinking thing from our nature as a corporeal body, topics of great importance in the Treatise. Descartes’ contemporaries, specifically Spinoza, were influenced by these scientific speculations. In the Ethics, Spinoza identifies Descartes’ account of human nature as the specific view he intends to critique and replace with a novel account of human nature, i.e. the conatus doctrine. While ultimately in disagreement with Descartes, Spinoza freely turns to human physiology to both attack Descartes’ views and construct his own account of human nature. Thus, far from rejecting the place of the human sciences in philosophy, Spinoza embraces it. Finally, as a means of demonstrating the philosophic value of Descartes and Spinoza’s engagement with human physiology, I employ their metaphysical insights in a critique of contemporary scientific research. Specifically, I will evaluate neuroscientific studies on the phantom limb, arguing that, in their explanations, researchers tend to unreflectively employ the metaphysical assumption that neural structures work to support an accurate representation of the body to the subject. While this view may ultimately prove correct, it blinds researchers to alternative explanations

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Authors & Contributors
Andrault, Raphaële
Bassiri, Nima
Bray, Michael Edward, Jr.
Cavazzini, Andrea
Damasio, Antonio R.
Garber, Daniel
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
Bruniana & Campanelliana: Ricerche Filosofiche e Materiali Storico-testuali
Galilæana: Journal of Galilean Studies
Perspectives on Science
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
University of Chicago
Pennsylvania State University
Rutgers University
Brepols Publishers
Mind and body
Natural philosophy
Human body
Spinoza, Baruch
Descartes, René
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von
Cudworth, Ralph
Kant, Immanuel
Locke, John
Time Periods
17th century
18th century
16th century
20th century
Early modern

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