The British Journal for the History of Science

Descartes the doctor: rationalism and its therapies

a1 Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0533, USA


During the Scientific Revolution one important gauge of the quality of reformed natural philosophical knowledge was its ability to produce a more effective medical practice. Indeed, it was sometimes thought that philosophers who pretended to possess new and more potent philosophical knowledge might display that possession in personal health and longevity. René Descartes repeatedly wrote that a better medical practice was a major aim of his philosophical enterprise. He said that he had made important strides towards achieving that aim and, on that basis, he offered practical medical advice to others and advertised the expectation that, taking his own advice, he would live a very long time. This paper describes what Cartesian medicine looked like in practice and what that practice owed to the power of modernist Reason.


1 For critical comments on earlier versions of this paper I thank Harold Cook, Peter Dear, Charles Rosenberg and the anonymous referees for this journal.