Rene Descartes

David Sztybel PhD

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher who is also known as one of the fathers of modern science and mathematics. A dualist, he believed that only two kinds of substance exist in the universe: mental substance and corporeal, or bodily, substance. Human beings, he thought, are composed of mind (which he equated with the soul) and body. Nonhuman animals, however, he saw as mindless automata or machines. The traditional interpretation is that he even denied that animals have feelings.

Descartes himself not only influenced the formation of the scientific method, but also engaged in various studies of his own, including, apparently, vivisection. In a little-cited passage from his Description of the Human Body, Descartes took issue with William Harvey's theory of blood circulation by cutting off part of the heart of a live dog and feeling the length of the pulse in various parts. He was an avid observer of animal bodies by his own account, stating in a letter in 1639, "I have spent much time on dissection during the last eleven years, and I doubt whether there is a doctor who has made more detailed observations than I." He inspired generations of scientists after him to dissect live animals without inhibition, since after all these living machines are without feeling--or so Descartes believed.

However, John Cottingham, who translated the philosophical works of Descartes, claimed that Descartes did think that nonhuman animals have conscious feelings, just not self-conscious awareness of feelings. Supposedly, this interpretation would mean that an animal can feel, but has no sense that the feelings are associated with that animal's own self. Some philosophers have said that animal feelings have no significance if animals lack self-consciousness, even though an animal can still be hurt on this theory.

Cottingham refers to letters of Descartes in which animals are said to feel joy, anger, and fear, for example. Tom Regan has explained this apparent inconsistency in Descartes by reference to a distinction that the latter makes between three different types of sensation. According to Descartes, animals can have three different grades of sensation: physical, conscious, and self-conscious. Descartes indicated that we have only the first in common with nonhuman creatures. His denial that animals have minds prevents animals from having either conscious or self-conscious tools. Regan's interpretation is more consistent with what Descartes actually wrote. Animals only "felt joy" and other emotions in the first grade of sensation, which is a very unfamiliar sense of "feeling": the animals, in response to a physical stimulus, would mechanically respond by dancing about, appearing happy, or the like, even though the "animal machines" would not consciously feel anything. Thus Descartes actually wrote that animals do not feel "pain in the strict sense," since they lack understanding or a mind, and also that they are not aware of any thing. This appears to rule out the view that animals have conscious feelings according to Descartes. This view did not go uncontested even in Descartes' own time. Voltaire (1694-1778) famously wrote a generation later: "Answer me, machinist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal, so that it may not feel?"

There are a few people who still hold to Cartesianism. Bernard Rollin found the animals-feel-no-pain thesis expressed in the Bulletin of the National Society for Medical Research, a U.S. lobby group that tries "to block legislation that would in any way place restrictions on biomedical research." Peter Harrison, a philosopher, defends Cartesianism based largely on the view that we cannot absolutely prove that animals feel pain (his argument is much more detailed, however). The criticism of Descartes' view of animals stems from its conflict with commonsense experience of animals and also its being at odds with a variety of considerations in favor of holding that animals can suffer.

Selected Bibliography

Cottingham, John, "'A Brute to the Brutes'? Descartes' Treatment of Animals", Philosophy 63 (1988): 175-183.

Descartes, Rene, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Regan, Tom, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

Rollin, Bernard, The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain, and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Singer, Peter, Animal Liberation 2nd ed. (New York: Avon Books, 1990).

Williams, Bernard, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1978).