>René Descartes: Discourse on Method

>this is a short paper i had to do for my History of Modern Philosophy course. i figured i’d share.

Why does Descartes believe a monkey is like a machine?

In Part V of René Descartes’ Discourse on Method he expresses his belief that the bodies of humans and animals alike are a beautifully complex networking of organs, nerves, arteries and veins which God himself has created. The fact that it was made by God makes it “incomparably better ordered and has within itself movements far more wondrous than any of those that can be invented by men.”

However, Descartes proceeds to mention that he believes that while humans are unique and soul-driven, animals are remarkably like machines. He supports this logically as well as thoroughly. Descartes begins by explaining the following: we would not be able to differentiate a true monkey from a machine monkey if it had the exact bodily organization and shape of a real monkey. However, if the same were said for humans it would be undoubtedly false.

Descartes’ first point is that machines are unable to piece words together as humans do in order to declare thoughts to others. Animals are made up of bones, nerves, muscles, and organs just as humans, however, though they have movement and actions, they cannot express themselves verbally. In the same way, a machine may be able to move about and function on its own, but it is unable to compile thoughts into speech. This separates “beasts” (as Descartes calls them) from human beings first and foremost. Humans have the capabilities of expressing their thoughts and ideas and animals do not.

One might argue that humans simply do not speak the same language as these beasts, but Descartes is quick to correct this rebuttal. He explains that machines can only perform based on the disposition of their parts and have no ability to develop new understandings and skills. He concedes that animals and machines can and do perform better than human beings in certain aspects of life. Cheetahs can run faster; fish are better swimmers; bears are stronger creatures, yet Descartes continues to mention that although they may have a margin of superiority in certain areas, “it is also very remarkable that they show none at all in many other actions.” This is because they lack the ability to develop greater understanding beyond the abilities their organs allow. Likewise, machines make human life easier at times simply by being able to accomplish things better than a human could on their own. Descartes uses the example of a clock being able to “count the hours and measure time more accurately than we can with all our carefulness.” However, a clock cannot learn and new skills beyond telling the time, nor can it adapt to new situations as humans can.

He wraps up his discourse in Part V by mentioning a third major difference between animals and humans, namely, the soul. Descartes declares that the human rational soul “can in no way be derived from the potentiality of matter.” In this section, everything mentioned pertaining to the human body can be built up, that is, the human body is based upon matter such that an individual is able to enhance their body and their abilities. The soul carries no mass and is made of no matter, and is unlike the rest of the body in that sense. We as humans carry a God-given soul that no other species possesses, and it is important that we realize not only this, but also that an individual’s soul, Descartes explains, is independent from her or his body and does not die when the body does. the soul is immortal.

In summery, according to René Descartes in part V of his Discourse on Method, animals are like machines. This is because animals do not possess the capability of expressing their thoughts verbally, nor are they capable of adopting a further understanding of life beyond that creature’s body’s disposition. Descartes also explains that this is because humans, unlike “beasts”, were created by God with an immortal, yet intangible and formless, soul.


there are 9 more of these little bundles of joy to come this semester. glorious.


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