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Spring 2014
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“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.
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