| “Cogito ergo sum” might be Rene Descartes’s
claim to fame, but the French
philosopher concerned himself with
matters physical as well as metaphysical.
His De Homine Figuris (Leyden, 1662)
was the first work in the history of science
to portray the human body from a
mechanistic point of view—that is, to
ascribe mechanical rather than spiritual
or metaphysical causes to all physical
motions. This perspective was so dangerously
divergent from accepted views
of the time (Galileo Galilei was condemned
in 1633 for holding that the sun
was the center of the universe) that he
deferred its publication. The book, translated
into Latin by Florentio Schuyl, a
physician, was not published until a dozen
years after Descartes’s death. |
Donated by Albert E. Lownes ’20
in 1954, De Homine Figuris was the Brown
University Library’s one millionth item.
You can almost smell three and a half
centuries of time in the foxed and crinkly
pages. The illustrations, considered the
best of their day, include engraved plates
of the heart, like the one shown at left,
some with lift-up flaps.
Descartes believed in the importance of knowing oneself, and that included one's body.