Descartes' visit to the town library: or, How Augustinian is Descartes' neuropsychology?

C.U.M. Smith
Vision Sciences, Aston University, Birmingham, UK

In a letter written from Leyden in November 1640 Descartes thanks an unknown correspondent for bringing to his notice the similarity of his Cogito ergo sum to passages in Augustine's Trinitate and goes on to say that he had been that day to the town library to check the reference. There is no doubt that the philosophy outlined in the Discourse and the Meditations has many Augustinian echoes. In this paper I discuss how far Descartes' neuropsychology also resembles its Augustinian predecessor. It is perhaps not surprising that the Cartesian neurophysiology based as it is on the movement of 'spirits' in 'pipes' shows interesting similarities to that which Augustine outlined in de Genesi ad litteram and elsewhere for both derive through Galen from the Alexandrian physiology of the third century BC. Descartes is known to have been influenced by Vopiscus Fortunatas Plempius (a Dutch Galenist physician, later professor of medicine and then Rector of the University of Louvain) when working on L'Homme. I review these similarities and show how Descartes' mechanistic project enabled him to radically alter the implication of the neurophysiology and thus sharpen the distinction between mind and brain.


Session III
Friday, 20 June 1997, 15.25 - 15.45

Second Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and 6th Meeting of the European Club on the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Leiden, The Netherlands