Descartes (pronounced Deck Art) was a French philosopher and mathematician whose articulate reasoning about the nature of animals was and is still widely held by many people, to the detriment of animals.
Descartes (1596 - 1650) maintained that animals cannot reason and do not feel pain; animals are living organic creatures, but they are automata, like mechanical robots. Descartes held that only humans are conscious, have minds and souls, can learn and have language and therefore only humans are deserving of compassion.
Descartes is widely interpreted as philosophising
that animals are mechanical robots incapable of thinking or feeling pain. An alternative view is that he did not in his heart
feel this about animals. I leave it to Descartes scholars to elucidate. See Cottingham (1978): Philosophy 53. A Brute to the Brutes
Unfortunately for animals, science adopted his view. Scientists maintained that animals are like unfeeling robots up to and for most of the 20th century, and some 21st century scientists still hold on to this idea more or less. Under Descartes' view the exploitation of animals cannot be a wrong, for you cannot harm things, like robots or sacks of potatoes, which do not possess thoughts, feelings or a sense pain.
Philosophers honour Descartes as the first really modern philosopher. Prior to Descartes' thinking people asked what the world is and how ought we to live in it. But Descartes asked what can we know
of the world (now the branch of philosophy called epistemology, the theory of knowledge). Descartes' great contribution to knowledge was his method of tackling the question he posed. He did not accept established ideas about the world as his starting point, as had generally been the rule since the Ancient Greeks. Instead, he began by asking the most basic questions. He questioned everything he could, tried to take nothing for granted, and if he found ideas unsound he discarded them.
Descartes (right) went to Sweden to teach philosophy to Queen Christina (left) and soon died, supposedly from the frigid Swedish climate.
From Descartes' method grew the philosophy of rationalism, the belief that everything can be known about the world by sitting down and reasoning about it. Rationalism dominated Western philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries before giving way to empiricism, the method of nascent science. Empiricism supports the belief that all knowledge must derive from observation and experience via our senses. No amount of reasoning will tell you if it is raining outside, you have to get up and look. The young science married its empiricist outlook to Descartes' rational approach and became an effective force in society. After Descartes, and until the rise of quantum theory in the 20th century, people generally held that truth can be discovered with certainty, so long as you follow the right method of enquiry, that of rationalism and empiricism.
Descartes' process of thinking led him to believe that nature splits the world into physical matter and immaterial mind. His body-mind dualism was embrace enthusiastically by subsequent philosophers, scientists and people generally well into the 20th century. Descartes is famed for concluding that, even if all his thinking was wrong, there was one thing he could be absolutely certain about: he existed - because he could think. This conclusion is encapsulated in his famous phrase, cogito ego sum
- I think, therefore I am.
For a similar view on animals see Aristotle and for an alternative see Darwin.
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