Descartes: The Smear and Related Misconstruals



In part because he is known through his Meditations, a short pamphlet he wrote, rightly in fear, to conciliate (unsuccessfully) with the church, and because his rationalism is misconstrued when interpreted empirically, Descartes is subject to a variety of misunderstandings. It does not help that he is dogged by a canard invented in the late 1600s and revived by the animal rights movement, a canard that was designed to denigrate the then burgeoning mechanistic new science, discovered cruelly cutting up living animals, while laughingly insisting the writhing animals feel no pain. Descartes maintained that, physically speaking, humans as well as animals are machines, but he also clearly maintained that animals feel pain and hunger, have sensory experiences, etc. As a more abstract level, 20th Century analytic empiricism revivified the attack on rationalist views. But the last half century has seen strong support (though largely unacknowledged) for Descartes’ views about cognition and perception.