Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought 9781501723711

Sixteenth-century Aristotelianism was the culmination of four centuries of commentary and criticism. Physiologia is one

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Physiologia: Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought

Table of contents :
Abbreviations and Orthographical Conventions
PART 1: Vicaria Dei
1. Natural Change
2. Motus, Potentia, Actus
3. Form, Privation, and Substance
4. Matter, Quantity, and Figure
5. The Structure of Physical Substance
6. Finality and Final Causes
7. Nature and Counternature
PART II: Bodies in Motion
8. Motion and Its Causes
9. Parts of Matter
10. World without Ends

Citation preview


PHYSIOLOGIA Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought

'i Dennis Des Chene

Cornell University Press Ithaca and London


Copyright© I996 by Cornell University All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in a review, this book, or parts thereof, must not be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher. For information, address Cornell University Press, Sage House, 5I2 East State Street, Ithaca, New York I485o. First published I996 by Cornell University Press

First printing, Cornell Paperbacks, 2000

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Des Chene, Dennis.

Physiologia : natural philosophy in late Aristotelian and

Cartesian thought I Dennis Des Chene.

p. em.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN o-8oi4-3072-o (cloth: alk. paper)

ISBN o-8oi4-8687-4 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Physics-Philosophy. 2. Aristotle-Influence. 3· Descartes,

Rene, I596-I65o-Influence. 4· Philosophy, Medieval. 5· Philosophy

of nature. I. Title.

QC6.D43 I995

II3-- M 0 M 8 = M 0 corresponding to Rules 4, 5, and 6, respectively. I use the word outcome to denote the states and directions of the two particles after the collision, whatever the quan­ tities of motion may be. The outcomes, according to the contest model, are as follows: (i) [Rule 4] If M8 < Me then B loses. The direction of B after the collision, d* 8 , will be contrary to its direction ds before, since that ends the conflict between B's state and Cs state, which will not change since C wins. C, it should be noted, maintains its integrity. (ii) [Rule 5] If M8 >Me then Bwins. Cmust change its state from motion to rest. The question then is how much motion B gives to C. Descartes holds that Cnot only changes its state, but loses its integrity as well. It therefore must move equally quickly as B. (iii) [Rule 6] If M8 = Me, then since there is no comparison of motion with rest, the remaining tiebreakers-speed and quantity of motion-are irrelevant; with no tiebreakers left, the only possibility is that both bodies lose and both win. C is forced to take on the contrary state, that is, to move, while B is forced to reverse its direc­ tion. Both retain their integrity.

It is essential to notice that in these three rules-the "rest" rules-the velocity of B is irrelevant to the outcome, where by 'outcome' I mean change or lack of change ins, d, and integrity. Descartes subsumes Rule 4 under the third law by supposing that the resistance of C toward being moved is always greater than the force of B toward moving it, on the (insufficient) grounds that Cs resistance is proportional to B's speed. 4 3 I will return to that claim later. 41. See To Clerselier 17 Feb. 1645, AT 4:183-187. An analysis and translation of the French rules and the letter to Clerselier are given in Garber 1992:248-262. See also Clarke 1982, appendix 2 (reprinted in Moyal1991, 4:110-122). 42. The following analysis is closest in spirit to those of Costabel and Gabbey, although I have taken more liberties with the order of the rules. Costabel subordinates the contrariness of rest and motion (which he calls a "contrariete de vitesse" on the basis of 2§44, see Costabel 196T243) to the contrariness of direction, which allows him to take up Rules 1-3 before Rules 4-6. 43· The grounds are insufficient because they apply equally well to the situations of Rules 5 and 6. Garber suggests that the force of resistance is proportional also to the volume of the resisting body, so that Cs force of resistance will be equal to Mev (Garber 1992:240, 358).

Bodies in Motion In the remaining four rules, where both bodies are in a state of motion, contrariety of direction is applicable, and so they in turn fall into two groups. In Rules 1, 2, and 3 the directions of Band Care contrary. The symmetry of right and left allows the cases MB < Me and MB > Me to be regarded as one. We therefore have two cases: MB >Me and MB =Me. When the volumes are equal, the next tiebreaker is speed, and again symmetry allows the cases % < vc and % > ve to be combined. (iv) [Rule 2] If Ms >Me then Closes. It therefore changes direction and is joined with B. Descartes considers only the case where tis = vc. In that case the velocity of the resulting body CBwill be lis· My suspicion is that the other two cases would have been treated analogously to Rule 5· (v) [Rule J] If Ms = Me then speed is the tiebreaker. If tis > Vc then C loses. It changes direction and is joined with B. (vi) [Rule 1] If Ms = Me and tis= Vc, then there is no tiebreaker (the quantity of motion will be the same for Band C). At least one of the two bodies must change direction, since they cannot interpenetrate. But B does not resist the action of C more than C resists the action of B. So they both change direction, and neither yields any motion to the other. Nor, of course, does either lose its integrity.

Quantity of motion, it will be seen, has played no role in determining winners and losers. Its role is limited to determining, in those instances where a transfer of motion is mandated, the amount to be transferred. Any arbitrariness is removed either by supposing that the two bodies move as one, or that (in Rule 6) the outcome of a tie is a mixture of the two ways in which the tie could have been broken. Only in the last rule is quantity of motion explicitly a tiebreaker. In Rule 7, both the state and the direction of the two bodies are the same. Both are moving, and moving to the left. Clearly if Bis to collide with C, it must have a total speed greater than that of C; but in the only cases considered under the rule C has a greater volume than B. Quantity of motion is therefore the only tiebreaker left. 44 There are three cases: Qs < Qc, Qs > Qc, Qs = Qc. The third case is taken up only in the French Principles. Since Es force of motion is equal to M8 v, and Me > M8 , Cs force of resistance will always overcome Es force of motion (Gabbey has a similar account but with a different estimate of Cs force of resistance; see Gabbey 1971 :27f). That is clearly the intent of the French version of the proof of Rule 4; the Latin is not so clear. 44· Descartes does not in fact state the condition explicitly in terms of quantity of motion in Rule 7. He writes: "if the excess of quickness in B were greater than the excess of size in C." 'Excess' denotes a ratio greater than one, so we have lis> Vc, Me> M8 , and VsiVc >Mel M8 . That is equivalent to Qs = M8 v8 > Mcvc = Qc.

Motion and Its Causes (vii) [Rule 7a] If (1 > Qc; then C loses its integrity, while B gives up sufficient motion so that the two bodies can travel at the same speed. (viii) [Rule 7b] If (1 < Qc;, then C keeps its integrity, while B is forced to change direction; the speed of each body remains what it was. 45 The analysis so far is summarized in Figure 15. What is striking is that, contrary to what one might expect from the third law, quantity of motion has only a minor role in determining the outcomes of collisions. It is the determinant per se of the outcome only when both bodies are in motion and in the same direction. In Rules 4, 5, and 6 quantity of motion has no role in determining the winner of a contest; it serves only to determine how motion will be allocated when there is a transfer.46 The rationale of the rules has two heterogeneous components. One, qualitative, serves to classify physical situations. Unlike a classical physicist, Descartes takes the situation ofRules 1, 2, and 3, in which the directions of motion are contrary, to be physically distinct from that of Rule 7, in which they are not. More egregiously from the classical point of view, he distinguishes the rest cases in Rules 4, 5, and 6 from the others. The other component, which is quantitative, serves to determine a precise amount of motion to be transferred when there is transfer. The third law merely tells us that the amount by which the motion of one body is decreased (or remitted, to use the proper Aristotelian term) and the amount by which the motion of the other is increased (or intensified) will be equal. I will now examine first the contrariness of state, and then the concept and use of quantity of motion. State. A physicist now will write vc = o to denote the state of the body C in the rest cases (Rules 4-6).47 There are innocent anachronisms, no doubt, but this is not one of them. Instead it conceals the fact that Descartes did not incorporate the relatively new conception of rest as a limiting case of motion into his physics. In Aristotelian physics, as I have mentioned, there are two quite different ways of being without motion. When a thing is in potentia such and such its quies is a genuine contrary to motion. But when a thing that was in potentia such and such and is now entirely in actu such and such, its quies is only the 45· The three cases of Rule 7 are clearly meant to parallel the three rest rules (4, 5, 6), with 7a corresponding to 5 and 7h to 4· If we work backward from 7a to 5, and from 7b to 4· then the counterpart to Qc: in 4 and 5 should be a quantity greater than Qn if~:> M8 and less than Qn if Me > M 8 . The French Principles make it clear that the resistive force of Cis equal to the quantity of motion that would have been transferred had C and B both moved off to the left at equal speed. I return to this question below. 46. See Clarke 1982:22otr.

47· So, for example, Clarke 1990:212 andJammer 1991:316.

dB= de, right to left

dB contra de, dB from right to left



(VB> Ve)

VB= ve

VB> ve



d* B contra dB


~ Qe

(QB = Qc)



(QB > Qc)

d*B contra dB, s*e contra se


MB=Me VB= ve

s*e contra se




d*B contra dB


MB­ nizian optimism, there are reasons not to do so. The first is that Descartes insists that the good is dependent on God's will: Ifwe attend to God's immensity, it is manifest that nothing whatsoever can exist that does not depend on him: not only no subsistent thing, but also no order, no law, nor any reason of truth or goodness; since otherwise [ ... ] he would not have been entirely indifferent in creating what he created. If a reason of goodness [ratio bonz1 had preceded his pre-ordering [of the world], it would have determined him to do what is best; but the contrary is true, because he determined himself to make the things that now exist, they were for that reason, as it says in Genesis, "exceedingly good'-the reason for their goodness, that is, depended on his willing that they be made thus (6 &sp., AT 7=435-436; cf. 7:432 and To Mersenne 15 Apr 1630, AT 1:145 and subsequent letters to Mersenne in 1630)

Although one may then say that God, since his will does not change, will maintain the world according to the standard that was created with it, the argument of the fourth Meditation has to do with a world-not the actual

World without Ends


world-in which human nature is other than it is. To borrow the analogy with royal legislation which Descartes draws on: if justice depends on the decrees of the head of state, then comparison of the laws of one state to those of another is idle, since there is no independent standard. So it is vain for me to complain about my error-prone condition in this world, and to wish that I had a more perfect nature, not because my condition is necessary to the greater perfection of the whole, but because such comparisons have no basis. When Descartes says, therefore, that "we should take no reasons, where natural things are concerned, from the end which God or nature proposed to himself in making them, because we should presume that we are privy to his counsels" (PP1§28, AT 8/I:15), the point is not just that God's ways are mysterious, but that the goodness of the world in no way precedes its existence; it therefore explains nothing. The second reason not to take Descartes to anticipate Leibniz is that the laws of nature are derived not from any "reason of the good" but from the immutability of the divine will. Immutability, like the steadfastness that Descartes recommends in the morale provisoire of the Discourse, is a formal condition on God's will; it is compatible with any content. Unlike Leibniz's God, who orders the world so that the simplest means will yield the greatest variety of beings, Descarte;5's God can order the world as he pleases, so long as he conseiVes that order afteiWard. Although it is true that for Descartes the simplicity of a hypothesis is a reason to favor it over others that explain the same phenomena, hypotheses chosen according to that criterion can be only morally certain. They are such that, in other words, we know that we shall never go wrong in adopting them. But we cannot argue that God must operate according to that criterion. In Aristotelianism, the ordering of the actions of creatures toward their own good, toward ours, and toward that of nature as a whole provides the basis for a natural morality. Suarez, as we have seen, argues from the propo­ sition that woman is ordered to man to the proposition that a husband has dominion over his wife (§6.2). By their nature humans have, in fact, domi­ nion over the entire corporeal world, since they are its most perfect mem­ bers. The usus of the world is ours; it would be a kind of disruption of the natural order for us not to exercise our dominion. In the Cartesian world, there is no such order, and therefore no such law. There is indeed a kind of fitness of the human body to the human soul; that the body is such as to be useful to us is obvious. Perhaps by extension one could say that there is a kind of fitness of the natural world to the needs of beings like us. But one cannot truly say of the human body, or of any other corporeal things, that it has us as its end. Bodies have no ends; what governs their behavior is not individual, collective, or cosmic ends but a set of laws whose ground is the purely formal condition that whatever God wills he wills

Bodies in Motion always and everywhere. The relation of our nature-that we are thinking, willing things-to the natural world amounts to nothing more than that we have the power to initiate motion in it, a power no corporeal thing has, and that God, by acting on corporeal things, can act on us. The Aristotelian hierarchy of created things collapses into a single step: from soul to body. · The only morality, it would seem, to be gleaned from the natural world so understood consists in the unique admonition: do what you will. An Aristo­ telian who genuinely conceived such a world would not find it incompre­ hensible. But he would find it unheimlich.


Note: Essays in collective volumes are cross-referenced to the volume in which they appear (e.g., Filosojia della natura).

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