Saturday, 5 December 2015

Meher Baba Update

Meher Baba 1957

Errors of assessment are a common occurrence in the contemporary field of “new religious movements.” Such matters necessitate due information rather than hearsay and assumption. The historical angle is necessary with the subject of Meher Baba (1894-1969), as with other figureheads of well known religious movements. The alternative is lore.
 
A Meher Baba devotee inserted on Wikipedia a misleading version of events dating back to the 1960s. The errors were traced to the American branch of the Meher Baba movement, and more especially, to the Myrtle Beach Centre. The pronounced distortion has been refuted. The erroneous storyline is an example of what can happen when supporters of a movement have no adequate knowledge of events they purport to describe.
 
The Wikipedia lore interpreted a Hindu disciple of Meher Baba as being a rival “spiritual teacher” to the Irani mystic. No contextual information was supplied, only a variant of anecdotal calumny sustained for decades. The Hindu disciple and scientist was never a rival of Meher Baba, and was instead a regular donor to the latter’s Meherazad ashram, located in Maharashtra.
 
The Hindu disciple lived for ten years in England at the instruction of Meher Baba. Possessing a degree in physics, this man worked as a salaried professional, and was able to send to India regular donations, amounting in total to thousands of pounds sterling. His level of commitment was very high, and far more so than most other adherents of Meher Baba.
 
The experiences and viewpoint of this Hindu disciple are not without an interest of their own. However, obscuring biases of the Myrtle Beach Centre worked against any accurate knowledge of the subject. Instead of registering complaints and explanations provided in a lengthy document, the prestige Centre ignored the document and opted to impose an unofficial ban on a book about Meher Baba that was published in 1988. As a consequence of this censorship, the stories about a rival spiritual teacher continued. Nor was there any rectification of other serious errors involved in the misrepresentation.
 
The literature on cults is now prodigious. Two of the basic problems typical of “cults” are misrepresentation and suppression of relevant details. The American branch of the Meher Baba movement achieved both of these undesirable drawbacks. An extension of this muddle infiltrated Wikipedia, a web venue notorious for troll activity and other complications. The rather basic sectarian issue is obvious to a number of observers.
 
Pseudonymous Wikipedia supporters of Meher Baba were keen to elevate a lengthy work entitled Lord Meher, presenting this as reliable fact eclipsing any other version, and more especially, my own book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal. In the troll presentation, an outsider book could only amount to deficient opinion as compared with the surpassing authenticity of a canonical work. Indeed, Meher Baba trolls were known to appear at different Wikipedia articles with the intention of removing non-canonical content. This action occurred even in an instance relating to transcription of antique Zoroastrian history (the Kaivan school), of which they knew nothing whatever. These people even disdained reference to a valid source in the canonical Meher Baba literature, preferring instead an inaccurate passage in Lord Meher.
 
My book included an unprecedented critique of the two major detractors of Meher Baba, primarily Paul Brunton. The latter's book, A Search in Secret India, is still influential after eighty years of circulation. However, my critique (based on factual sources) was early ignored by the Myrtle Beach Centre, and many years later, was merely opinion according to troll assessment. The hostile party on Wikipedia was unintentionally validating the travesty of Brunton’s deviation. Trolls do not read books, but merely debunk them in convenient online graffiti of two or three lines, in this instance supporting ideology of the Meher Baba Centres about canonical works.

The storytelling of Paul Brunton was here effectively justified by the ideological reflex. I had proved that Brunton's hostile report of Meher Baba was unreliable, a factor which serious readers recognised (including some Brunton partisans). However, my substantial critique of Brunton, in troll assessment,  amounted to the mere opinion of an outsider to the canon extolled by the Meher Baba movement. This episode cannot be disregarded, because the troll action was closely linked, via editorship, with the Meher Baba article on Wikipedia. 
 
The multi-volume Lord Meher has seldom been duly analysed. An extensive editorial process was involved. A relatively minor consideration is that Bhau Kalchuri was not the sole author of this work, despite the contrary impression conveyed for over thirty years by devotee media. The Reiter edition of twenty volumes, on all the title pages, presented Kalchuri as the sole author. Feram Workingboxwala was very unpopular, while the American editor and compiler David Fenster was in low profile for many years.
 
Lord Meher does not contain due information about the misrepresented Hindu disciple and donor who lived in England until 1964. This work is not comprehensive, despite the length. A number of passages in Lord Meher identify the followers of Meher Baba as “lovers.”
 
During the mid-1960s, I attended meetings of the London group of Meher Baba supporters. At that time, the subscribers did not refer to themselves as “lovers” of Meher Baba. This identity tag did not become prevalent until 1967, being favoured by the new generation of devotees associated with Pete Townshend and the American influx. The rather more conservative and vintage British devotees called themselves the “friends of Meher Baba.” Although Meher Baba himself used the mystical word “lover,” he did not stipulate that his followers should describe themselves in this manner.

A representative of the older trend was author Charles Purdom  (d.1965), a figure in reaction to some devotee tendencies. Purdom achieved a degree of objectivity that is comparatively rare in religious movements. It would not be fair to place him in the same category as the trolls and storytellers of the Meher Baba movement.
 
Purdom’s preface to his book The God-Man (1964) does not mention the word avatar. The author here says that he has done his best “to maintain the necessary degree of detachment of mind.” Compared with other partisan recommendations, the appraisal of Meher Baba by Charles Purdom is restrained:
 
“I do not think one can find any parallel in modern times with the life of this simple, subtle, innocent, unpredictable, alarming and engrossing man” (Preface, unpaginated). 
 
Over the years, I have found that devotionalism is a distorting factor in relation to the record of Meher Baba. For instance, the attendant dogmatic approach obliterated details of the abovementioned Hindu donor and certain other entities, including myself. I decline to be eliminated by the dogmatists, and will resist misinformation. Democracy is a farce at places like the Myrtle Beach Centre, where a process of suppression has been operative for many years.
 
My interest in Meher Baba applies to ascertaining historical dimensions of his biography, as distinct from the lore and confusion that is too frequently found. I have no interest in promoting exclusivist avatar themes, which evidently encourage some devotees to adopt a status profile as followers of Avatar Meher Baba. I have no interest in promoting “lover” clichés, these also being objectionable in acts of misrepresentation and suppression. The vaunted love can easily become hate campaign.
 
The phase of ascendancy achieved by Pete Townshend, during the 1970s, is perhaps instructive. That rock star became the focus of adulation for numerous new “Baba lovers” in different countries. He has since admitted the limitation of his self-appointed role as a leader and organiser within the Meher Baba movement. Townshend has been honest in a number of ways,  a refreshing contrast with troll activities that presume an unassailable spokesmanship for Meher Baba. Townshend’s own reflection, found at his website,  is relevant here:
 
“What was clear to me in early 1980 was that I could no longer stand as any kind of public representative for Meher Baba with such recent alcohol and drug-abuse problems. Meher Baba Oceanic, the pilgrim centre I had run, had in any case slowed down to a crawl while I descended into self-obsession. Several of my employees there had gone through problems of their own, and some time in 1982 I impolitely sacked everyone.” 
 
These references indicate serious problems. Townshend nearly killed himself on alcohol and drugs. Yet he had been exalted by many devotees even before he created, in 1976, the ill-fated centre known as Meher Baba Oceanic. Townshend was initially influenced by Purdom’s book The God-Man (1964), and describes the author as “an eminent British journalist of the Thirties” (Who I Am, p. 110). That is a contraction of identity, because Purdom was also a garden city pioneer and author, and still leading the London group of “friends” in 1965, only two years before the new wave appeared. Townshend and other “lovers” reversed the sober approach of Purdom into cliché, guitar music, and devotee poetry.
 
The new wave of “lovers” were frequently afflicted by proximity to the drug infraculture, so pervasive in Western countries since the 1960s. In America, many of them were content with such slogans as “Don’t worry be happy.” This theme comprised an acute reductionism, not reflecting Meher Baba’s rather distinctive metaphysical teaching. The happy lovers were averse to complexity.
 
An eccentric rune of the Townshend era was “Baba’s love game.” The rock star and his colleagues were viewed by their own camp as avant-garde representatives of the unique Avatar. Townshend acknowledged the American inspiration of Murshida Ivy Duce, leader of Sufism Reoriented. He was perhaps influenced more by Adi K. Irani (d.1980), the former secretary of Meher Baba, who had gained a limelight role as exegete of the Avataric cause. The love game ended with Townshend’s addiction to large quantities of brandy, accompanied by an afflicting ingestion of cocaine and heroin. His version of “Baba’s Umbrella” was not waterproof.
 
A major influence, upon the new wave of Baba lovers, were newsletters dating to the 1960s. These were composed by Mani, the sister of Meher Baba who lived at Meherazad ashram. Mani S. Irani (d.1996) favoured an influential vocabulary of “lovers” and the “Beloved.” The newsletters were regarded as canonical texts at Meher Baba Centres. However, a literary critic said that these writings were gushing and sentimental, not profound. Even some of the happy lovers were worrying that insufficient information about Meher Baba was being conveyed by Mani. They were puzzled to find frequent descriptions of secondary matters. Apologists excused Mani by saying that she was not allowed to describe more about Baba, who was in seclusion. Mani did relay messages from, and some details about, the figurehead, but there are distinct gaps in coverage.
 
Insofar as some basic events were concerned, the Mani “family letters” amounted to a detour. For instance, a more recent and lengthy account of 1960s events provided descriptions very different to those of Mani, including details of how Meher Baba strongly rebuked argumentative mandali, including Mani herself (Kalchuri Fenster 2009). The disparity is too revealing to ignore. Essential traits and methods of Meher Baba (silent since 1925) remained obscure, overlaid by preferences of the far more vocal lovers.
 
Bibliography:
 
Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
Irani, Mani S., 82 Family Letters (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1976).
B. Kalchuri, F. Workingboxwala, D. Fenster et al, Lord Meher (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001).
Kalchuri Fenster, Sheela, Growing up with God (Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2009).
Parks, Ward, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2009).
Purdom, Charles B., Life Over Again (London: Dent, 1951).
--------The God-Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
Shepherd, K. R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).
---------Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Townshend, Pete, Who I Am (London: HarperCollins, 2012).
 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
 
ENTRY no. 66
 
Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Kabbalah and Transmigration

In relation to Spinoza (d.1677), his contemporary Leibniz (d.1716) reported the former's belief in “a sort of Pythagorical transmigration” (Klever 1996:47). This report has tended to be ignored, and sometimes dismissed as an exaggeration. Some reflection is perhaps necessary.

The Leibniz reference can invite associations of Neoplatonism, and also Kabbalist gilgul. However, a substantial problem with the latter subject is the wide variation of Kabbalist belief. Gilgul or transmigration was a common Kabbalist theme, emerging in many writings of the fourteenth century and later.

The Sefer Ha-Bahir is associated with Kabbalist thought. The complexities are pronounced. “The literary production and kabbalistic recension are the products of unidentified circles of medieval, European esotericists” (Sefer Ha-Bahir). The anthology was formerly believed to have appeared in Provence, but is now described in terms of Ashkenaz. Many writers contributed to this text in an ongoing process of editing. The Bahir gained a canonical status amongst Kabbalists in Spain from the thirteenth century.

Ashkenaz is “a geographical and cultural category,” identified with the Rhineland in south Germany, where Jewish pietists were active from the late twelfth century. The Ashkenaz activity was distinct from Provencal Kabbalah and the Catalan or Castilian version (Idel 2011:4).

The Bahir refers to transmigration only in relation to the bodies of men, not to animals. Other early texts refer to transmigration as occurring in all forms of existence, while another theme is that human souls reincarnate into animals. These concepts are also found in other religious and philosophical traditions. The Bahir corpus indicates that transmigration may continue for 1,000 generations (see Scholem, Gilgul). Yet some Kabbalists believed that a soul may reincarnate only three times after the first body.

According to Kabbalah expert Gershom Scholem (d.1982), the Hebrew word gilgul is a translation of tanasukh, the Arabic term for transmigration, and having "the same significance of moving from place to place" (Scholem 1987:188 note 216). The word gilgul is not found in the Bahir, and came into usage "two or three generations" afterwards (ibid:188). No justification for the transmigration theme is given in the Bahir, despite the fact that official Jewish theology completely rejected this doctrine (ibid:191). In the ninth and tenth centuries, Oriental Jews are known to have been subscribers to transmigration, a doctrine also favoured in some Muslim circles prior to orthodox prohibitions (ibid:192).

After several generations, the gilgul doctrine gained influence “with startling rapidity after 1550” (Scholem 1961:283). An elaborate version appeared in the Galli Razaya (Revealed Mysteries), composed in 1552 by an anonymous author. The doctrine then quickly “became an integral part of Jewish popular belief and Jewish folklore” (ibid).

The Kabbalists of Safed cultivated the theme of transmigration in their literature. Safed is a high altitude town in the mountains of Upper Galilee. Safed flourished in the sixteenth century, when many Jewish scholars and mystics migrated there after the expulsion from Spain. Kabbalah now reached a peak in terms of influence.

Rabbi Hayim Vital (d.1620) composed the Sefer Ha-Gilgulim (Book of Transmigrations), his exegesis occurring within the school of Isaac Luria (d.1572). This school became influential in Judaism from about 1630, favouring millenarian themes and reincarnation.

“Transmigration leaves no room at all for the conception of hell” (Scholem 1961:282). Biblical passages were enthusiastically interpreted by Kabbalists in terms of gilgul. Their texts exhibit pronounced contradictions. Some of the concepts reflect religious orthodoxy. Conservative Kabbalists resisted the idea of transmigration into the bodies of women and gentiles, an unorthodox theme favoured by a bold minority.

The prevalence of gilgul doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused new disputes between adherents and critics of Kabbalah.

Meanwhile, Elijah Delmedigo (d.1493) was expressing a theme of philosophical relevance. This Averroist of Crete lived for some years in Italy, and was familiar with events relating to the school of Marsilio Ficino (d.1499). Delmedigo regarded himself as an Aristotelian follower of Maimonides, although he is generally classified as an Averroist. He ended his first work (Treatises on Intellect and Conjunction) by expressing an opinion that the ancient teaching of transmigration harmonised with an Averroist theme ("unicity of the intellect"), in contrast to the traditional religious doctrine of immortality, in which the deceased human was believed to inhabit a permanent heaven or hell.

Delmedigo was referring, via unicity of the intellect, to a teaching of Ibn Rushd, alias Averroes (d.1198), who maintained that only the intellectual part of the soul is immortal. In this perspective, at the death of the physical body, the "intellect" rejoins the Active Intellect, losing the personality attaching to the body. That doctrine, possessing Aristotelian associations, was resented by orthodox Christianity. This Averroist theme was condemned at Paris in the late thirteenth century. That event involved the prohibition of many philosophical texts deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic clergy.

Delmedigo was apparently more sympathetic to Kabbalist transmigration than to Neoplatonism. However, his strongly rationalist approach was critical of persons whom he considered to be "pseudo-savants" of his time, meaning “the sham Kabbalists of the new school, not the genuine ones of the older and more authentic school” (Ross 2011).

Delmedigo’s subsequent letter to Pico della Mirandola (d.1494), dating to 1486, expresses an aversion to Pico’s confidence in the “Platonically corrupted Kabbalah” (ibid).

Delmedigo’s Behinat Hadat (Examination of Religion) features a strong critique of the Ficino school of Florence, to which Pico della Mirandola was affiliated. Ficino and others were enthusiastic about alchemy and magic. Delmedigo did not agree with their Kabbalist theurgy, which he evidently regarded as an aberration.
 
The Behinat comprised “a refutation of the Neoplatonic philosophy of Ficino and his circle, and of Christian doctrine in general, for which reason it was heavily censored when first printed in 1629” (Solomon 2015:127).

Censorship removed all the anti-Christian passages from the Behinat, creating confusion about the subject of criticism. Three and a half centuries later, due scholarship established that the main target of criticism was the Ficino school, and not Jewish Kabbalah. The Ficino Academy was basically Neoplatonist, with an extension in Christian Kabbalah and magic.
 
Spinoza (1632-77) is now believed to have read the Behinat, which he acquired for his personal library (Fraenkel 2012:207ff). Whether he knew anything more about Delmedigo is uncertain. A possibility is that his own critical reference to Kabbalist triflers may follow on from Delmedigo. 

A contemporary of Delmedigo was Yitzhaq Abravanel (1437-1508), who is noted for a philosophical justification of gilgul. Abravanel was a prominent figure of the Spanish Jewish community before and after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Exiled in Italy, he was receptive to the contemporary Renaissance Neoplatonism. Abravanel also promoted gilgul, although his sources were more in the Renaissance idiom than the Kabbalist original. He is thought to have been a student of Ficino’s output.
 
Bibliography:

Fraenkel, Carlos, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Guetta, Alessandro,  “The Immortality of the Soul and Opening Up to the Christian World” (80-115) in I. Zinguer, A. Melamed, and Z. Shalev, eds., Hebraic Aspects of the Renaissance: Sources and Encounters (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Idel, Moshe, Kabbalah in Italy, 1280-1510: A Survey (Yale University Press, 2011).
Klever, W. N. A., "Spinoza's life and works" (13-60) in D. Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Ross, Jacob J., Sefer Behinat Hadat of Elijah Del-Medigo (Tel Aviv: Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, 1984).
Samuel, Gabriella, The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopaedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2007).
Scholem, Gershom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1946; New York: Schocken, 1961).
Scholem, Gershom, Origins of the Kabbalah (Princeton University Press, 1987).
Solomon, Norman, Historical Dictionary of Judaism (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 65

Copyright  ©  2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Philosophy of Spinoza


Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632-77) was born at Amsterdam into a Portuguese Jewish merchant family. While still a young man, he was banished from the Sephardic community in Amsterdam, apparently because of his heretical views. He lived in the Christian world as an artisan, grinding optical lenses. His Ethics eventually became a classic of Western philosophy. 
 
A sceptical idea is associated with Spinoza’s early years at Amsterdam (Nadler 2002), i.e., the soul is mortal and dies with the body. In contrast, Maimonides and Gersonides (both Aristotelians) believed that the soul can live on after death, while retaining only intellectual faculties. Avoidance of “personal immortality” and damnation bears a close resemblance to the “acquired intellect” theory expressed many centuries earlier by Alexander of Aphrodisias. (1) 
 
The Ethics is proof that Spinoza was not a sceptical materialist. He was scorned and hailed as an atheist for generations, even though he clearly stated that nothing exists in the universe but God. His “naturalist metaphysics” is not the easiest subject to comprehend. Varying contemporary interpretations are in evidence. (2) The diversity in this respect is notorious. “There seem to be as many Spinozas as there are audiences seeking to appropriate him for their philosophical, political, or religious ends” (Nadler 2014:2). Caution is evidently required. 
 
“In philosophy Spinoza is said to be a Cartesian, a Hobbesian, a Platonist, an Aristotelian, a Stoic, and a Machiavellian, among other persuasions. He is also a socialist, a Zionist, an anarchist, a Jeffersonian republican, the source of the Radical Enlightenment, and so on.” (Nadler 2014:2) 
 
Spinoza was early identified with Kabbalism, as found in two books by Johann G. Wachter dating to 1699 and 1706. (3) More recent commentators prefer Maimonides as a point of orientation, while some affinities have been charted with other medieval Jewish authors like Hasdai Crescas (Manekin 2014). Both Crescas (4) and Spinoza were determinists. Spinoza did not accept freewill, and rejected beliefs in divine reward and punishment.
 
The Ethics is not a Kabbalistic text, and exhibits the framework of a mathematical treatise, conveying a strong rationalist complexion to the argument. Nevertheless, there are very substantial differences from Descartes, with whom the Neo-Cartesian  author is so often associated. 
 
Spinoza radically altered the Cartesian perspective by rejecting the three-substance view. (5) There is only one substance in the Spinozan universe, and everything is God. His well known phrase “God, or Nature” (Deus, sive Natura) is easily subject to misreadings.
 
Spinoza was averse to anthropomorphism, avoiding what he considered to be superstitions. (6) Spinoza did not believe in miracles, (7) and was in reaction to the Calvinist preachers who routinely invoked “the will of God” and related clauses as a judgment against heretics. His exposition avoided creationism. Human beings are caught in a system of cause and effect that is independent of any divine providence.
 
“The Ethics is an ambitious and multifaceted work.... Despite a dearth of explicit references to past thinkers, the book exhibits enormous erudition. Spinoza’s knowledge of classical, medieval, Renaissance, and modern authors – pagan, Christian, and Jewish – is evident throughout. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Maimonides, Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes (among others) all belong to the intellectual background of this work. At the same time, it is one of the most radically original treatises in the history of philosophy. It is also one of the most difficult.” (8) 
 
Tracking the influences upon Spinoza is relevant. His account of the world “is possibly the strongest statement of pantheism of the time with no sign of mystical overtones” (Popkin:81). His pantheism emerges as an x factor. Pantheism is an eighteenth century word, and refers to a doctrine in which God is identified with nature. Spinoza is known to have read mystical versions of pantheism available in his time. According to the late Richard H. Popkin, this means three possible sources of pantheism, one of these being a confirmed influence upon Spinoza.
 
Firstly, the sixteenth century poet Leone Ebreo (d.1523), a Spanish Jew whose Dialoghi di Amore has been described as Neoplatonist. Ebreo (Abrabanel) gave expression to “two of Spinoza’s great goals in intellectual life: that of seeing the world in the aspect of eternity and that of achieving the intellectual love of God.” (9)
 
Secondly, the tragic figure of Giordano Bruno (d.1600), who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Bruno is strongly associated with Hermetic lore, a factor in Renaissance thought which was opposed by Marin Mersenne, a Catholic churchman and the major correspondent of Descartes. Spinoza was not a Hermetic enthusiast, but he may well have been sympathetic to the fate of a heretic.
 
Thirdly, Spinoza “may have been attracted to the philosophical kabbalism of Herrera or at least was willing to use something of it without taking anything from what he regarded as the lunatic fringe of kabbalism.” (10) This possibility is associated with the strong transition in the Ethics to what Spinoza called the third kind of knowledge, meaning intuitive apprehension (scientia intuitiva). In contrast, the first and second kinds of knowledge are sensory experience (or imagination) and reason.
 
Some writers affirm that Spinozan “intuitive” knowledge is something deductive or reductive. This is not conclusive evidence. Spinoza says: “From this kind of [intuitive] knowledge there arises the greatest satisfaction of mind there can be, that is, joy” (Curley 1996:175). He also supplies the consideration of: “how much more powerful it [intuitive knowledge] is than the universal knowledge I have called knowledge of the second kind” (ibid:177). What perishes with the body is the first kind of knowledge, which “is of no moment in relation to what remains” (ibid:178). This is why cultivation of the second and third kinds of knowledge is so important, transcending the sensory world and resisting disintegration. 
 
Spinoza means that the sensory imagination does not remain after death, whereas the refined mind does endure. This is related to his theme that the affects (i.e., affections of the body) and emotions can be controlled by the mind, or “power of the intellect.”
 
On the basis of the first two kinds of knowledge, Spinoza might appear to be an exceptional Cartesian, and alternatively, a logical panpsychist. Yet he was evidently aiming at something that is not found in the Cartesian repertory. He also did not agree with the Kabbala occultists. “Spinoza really objected to the people who were finding all sorts of divine clues in the numerology, typography, and diacritical signs in the biblical text” (Popkin 2004:82). These fantasies were distractions from the third kind of knowledge, which has been interpreted as “the culmination of the human quest for understanding that is only reached at the end of one’s philosophical journey, the intellectual love of God” (ibid:96).
 
The pedigree of amor Dei intellectualis is complex. The phrase is elevated in Ethics Part Five, and has been shown to derive from the treatment by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed. The terminology involved is traced to the sequence of Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Maimonides, Gersonides, and thus to Spinoza, who is credited with making the strongest effort to endow this concept with philosophical clarity (Harvey 2014). The theme of an intellectual passion goes back even earlier, and is associated with Aristotle.
 
Platonist influences have been invoked via scientia intuitiva. This means Plotinus, Renaissance Platonists like Ficino and Ebreo, and the eclectic Herrera. Spinoza owned a Spanish version of Ebreo’s Dialoghi, and he attended Talmud school in the same synagogue frequented by Herrera. The accusation is made that diverse interpretations of Spinoza’s “naturalised” philosophy have failed to understand Platonist elements, which were so pervasively influential in his day (Zovko PDF:1-2). 
 
Although Spinoza was pitched against orthodox religious dogma, he was nothing of a sceptic. His outlook was “possibly the furthest removed from scepticism of any of the new philosophies of the seventeenth century.” (11) 
 
Spinoza did not finish the Ethics until 1675. In the early 1660s, he was visited at Rijnsburg by Henry Oldenburg, who was to become the prestigious Secretary of the Royal Society. Their correspondence continued until the end of Spinoza’s life, although Oldenburg became resentful that the Jewish thinker rejected Christian beliefs involving supernatural events. Spinoza did respect Jesus, but did not view him in the conventional religious manner. (12)
 
The wealthy patron of Oldenburg was Sir Robert Boyle (d.1691), a chemist, and considered to be one of the greatest scientists in Britain. Oldenburg was eager to put Spinoza in epistolary contact with Boyle. This arrangement did not work as he had imagined. Five letters between Boyle and Spinoza, with Oldenburg as intermediary, give indication of strong differences. Oldenburg sent Spinoza a copy of Boyle’s Physiological Essays (1661). Spinoza responded by strongly criticising Boyle’s interpretation of his experiments on fluidity and firmness, and on nitre. This has been considered impertinent by empiricists and critics. However, “we ought to look afresh at Spinoza’s insistence on the epistemological insufficiencies of the experimental way.” (13) 
 
Spinoza was not an empiricist in the manner of Descartes. He did not trust the increasing vogue for experiments, even though he did take an interest in what was occurring in different countries. He had some scientific ballast in his familiarity with lenses and microscopes, components of which he made and assembled as a type of artisan. Spinoza had grasped that experiments did not always prove what the experimenters claimed, and his attitude tended to be very dismissive. He made a pointed criticism (in his correspondence with Oldenburg) of Francis Bacon, whose inductionism was here considered to be lacking in rational depth.
 
Unlike Descartes, Spinoza was not a vivisectionist. Boyle was an advocate of vivisection, a practice favoured within the Royal Society. Nevertheless, Spinoza’s view about animals is not satisfactory. An argument is available in Sharp 2011. Many other commentators provide only brief remarks. “Spinoza, contrary to Descartes, sees the modal complex that constitutes a being as both physical and mental” (Popkin 2004:96).” A significant factor needs attention: “Spinoza is, of course, a panpsychist – for him each thing is animate to some degree” (Della Rocca 1996:194).
 
Spinoza reflected that sentience is not unique to humans. “After we know the origin of the mind, we cannot in any way doubt that the lower animals feel things” (Ethics 3p57s). However, he has been criticised for stating: “The law against killing animals is based more on empty superstition and unmanly compassion than sound reason” (Ethics 4p37s1). The related tenet of using animals “at our pleasure” is not the most ethical. One analysis of this drawback concludes that the argument is valid, but relying heavily on premises that most would be likely to reject (Grey 2013:380). A flaw in Spinozan reasoning is evident.

Overall, there are some discrepancies, ambiguities, and obscurities evident in the Ethics. A well known criticism is that Spinoza, in contrast to Maimonides, elevated self-esteem as the consequence of employing reason, relegating the humility emphasised by the predecessor (Ethics 4p52 and p53). The context relates to his observation that “the mob is terrifying,” and therefore the prophets recommended humility and other religious traits for non-philosophers (4p54s).
 
A different kind of work is the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), defending freedom of speech and belief. (14) This treatise infuriated the Dutch Reformed Church, meaning the Calvinists. Opponents regarded the Tractatus as “a book forged in hell.” Contemporary analysis reveals this text as being the first to argue that intrinsic religion is independent of theology and liturgical rites, and that religious leaders should not be governors of a modern state (Nadler 2011).
 
The campaign launched against Spinoza was never systematic enough to achieve total suppression, but was nevertheless “sufficiently effective to compel Spinoza to adopt the furtive methods of a more or less clandestine author” (Israel 1996:4-5). The Ethics was completed in this oppressive situation, but not published. 
 
In November 1676, Leibniz visited The Hague and there discussed philosophy with Spinoza on several occasions. Leibniz was shown the unpublished manuscript of Ethics (or parts of this). “Although there is no written record of their conversation, it seems likely that these discussions were among the most rewarding in the whole history of philosophy.” (15) However, Spinoza was apparently at first suspicious of motivation in this case. “The worldly Leibniz was the court intellectual par excellence” (Nadler 1999:341). By comparison, Spinoza was a retiring and independent philosopher with no inclination to a celebrity vocation.
 
A note by Leibniz relays what he was told about Spinoza by the German mathematician Tschirnhaus, a personal contact of the Jewish philosopher. This note includes the information: 
 
“He [Spinoza] thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge he calls intuitive, of which only a few are conscious.... He believes [in] a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that minds go from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher.” (16) 
 
This reference indicates that Spinoza believed in a form of reincarnation. We have no further details of his very obscure outlook in that respect. Transmigration was a Neoplatonist doctrine, and also a theme of Kabbalists in the vocabulary of gilgul. Yet there were different versions of gilgul, and also many popular superstitions attaching. Spinoza is more generally associated with a “parallelism” of the mind and body. In Ethics Part 2, the mind appears to be inseparable from the body, but Part 5 conveys a different perspective. Spinoza affirms: “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal” (Ethics 5p23). Recent commentators have remarked: 
 
“The extent to which the mind is eternal seems to depend on what the human mind does during its embodied existence. The more one knows intuitively, the greater is the eternal part of one’s mind.” (Koistinen and Viljanen 2009:22)
 
As to the significance of the meetings between Leibniz and Spinoza, there is no known sequel. Western philosophy was thereafter increasingly restricted to the academic circuit, and the outlook was generally rather more confined than that of either the polymathic Leibniz or the pansychist Spinoza. 
 
Notes: 

(1)  Adler 2014. Alexander was a Peripatetic whose “views challenged the monotheistic tradition of belief in personal immortality” (ibid:15). Spinoza is thought to have been influenced by the Aristotelian theme, as mediated within the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The challenge is associated with the perspective of “God exists but only philosophically,” attributed to Spinoza and Juan de Prado in Christian sources. Cf. Popkin 2004: 23-4, 42-3, who queries the Nadler version and says that Spinoza was “moving in a more metaphysical direction” in his later years. Papers of the Spanish Inquisition depict Spinoza and Prado voicing, in 1659, the abovementioned affirmation of a philosophical God. See also Nadler 1999:135-8; Nadler 2011:7-12. Nadler 2002 argues that a crucial feature of Spinoza’s thought was his denial of personal immortality, here inferred as the reason for excommunication. Cf. the review by Martin Lin, who adds that other commentators, such as Alan Donagan and H. A. Wolfson, believed Spinoza to have a “robust notion” of personal immortality. 
 
(2) The suggestion has been made that Spinoza was an arrogant misogynist, and also a homosexual (Gullan-Whur 1998:142-3). The author of this theory composed a critical biography of Spinoza, advertised by a publisher in terms of: “This new approach demolishes the myth that Spinoza was a lofty ascetic.” A counter can be found in Shepherd 2005, chapter 35. An “ascetic” issue is involved here via Spinoza’s contention at the end of Ethics: “It is clear how much the wise man is capable of, and how much more powerful he is than one who is ignorant and is driven only by lust” (Curley 1996:180). Spinoza has been criticised by some writers for the controversial reference to women in his unfinished Political Treatise. Cf. the lenient tone in Gatens 2009, a feminist work of considerable sophistication.

(3) Wachter was a Protestant theologian familiar with Kabbalah. In his first book he attacked Spinoza and the Kabbalah, but revised his hostile opinion in the Elucidarius Cabalisticus (1706). Wachter urged that Kabbalah influenced Spinoza (Brown 2006:244-5). Wachter’s second book is “a philosophically unconvincing interpretation of Spinozism,” based on firsthand knowledge of sources, but compromised by an intention to reconcile Spinozism with Christian doctrine (Vassanyi 2011:224-233). Leibniz soon after read Wachter’s second book and refuted Spinoza (ibid:233-240).

(4) See Harvey 1998. Hasdai Crescas (1340-1410/11) was a Spanish anti-Aristotelian whose philosophical work Or Hashem (The Light of the Lord) opposed formulations of Maimonides.

(5) Numerous commentators state that Spinoza was influenced by Descartes. Some terminology does converge, but in terms of ideation, there are pronounced differences. Spinoza early composed a reworking of the Principles of Philosophy by Descartes, an incomplete version which “does not reflect the format of the original” (Gabbey 1996:155). This discrepancy has been viewed as indicating Spinoza’s dissatisfaction with the Cartesian format. In the subsequent Ethics, Spinoza goes far beyond Cartesian maxims. In that work, Spinoza refers to “the celebrated Descartes,” and says they both “believed that the mind has absolute power over its own actions” (Curley 1996:69). Nevertheless, the same passage disagrees with Descartes about the human affects. In this respect, Descartes “showed nothing but the cleverness of his understanding” (ibid). Spinoza also strongly criticises the theory of Descartes about the pineal gland (ibid:161-2).

(6) Spinoza complains that people often compare the power of God with the power of kings. He urges that “no one will be able to perceive rightly the things I maintain unless he takes great care not to confuse God’s power with the human power or right of kings” (Curley 1996:34).
 
(7)  A well known passage occurs in the Appendix to Part 1 of Ethics, where Spinoza is more direct about superstition and popular religion. “One who seeks the true causes of [ostensible] miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered an impious heretic and denounced as such by those whom the people honour as interpreters” (Curley 1996:29).
 
(8) Nadler 1999:226, referring to the “Euclidean architecture of definitions, axioms, postulates, propositions, scholia, and corollaries” for which the Ethics is famous. The geometrical method is daunting for those unacquainted with the format, but has been argued in terms of an advantage, bearing “an intimate relationship to the content of Spinoza’s metaphysics and epistemology” (ibid).

(9)  Popkin 2004:18. Spinoza made much of “the intellectual love of God,” especially evocative in one of his scholia found in Ethics: “From this we clearly understand wherein our salvation, or blessedness, or freedom, consists, namely, in a constant and eternal love of God, or in God’s love for men” (Curley 1996:176). Some writers continue to portray Spinoza as an atheist.
 
(10)  Popkin 2004:81, and referring to the pantheism arising from the Luria school, which became known in Amsterdam through the medium of Abraham Cohen Herrera (d.1635). In the Ethics, Spinoza is seen to have employed some terminology from Herrera’s Kabbalistic work Puerta del Cielo (ibid:19,81). Popkin also suggests that a further possible influence was Jacob Boehme, whose mystical doctrine attracted much interest from seventeenth century intellectuals. However, there has been a stronger tendency to associate Spinoza with Kabbalistic influences. For a relevant investigation, see Harvey 2007, which focuses upon the work of Moshe Idel, a leading scholar of Kabbalism. “Idel’s Spinoza is not a Kabbalist, but a Jewish philosopher influenced by the medieval Hebrew speculative tradition” (ibid:92). According to Harvey, the arguments of Idel “deserve to be considered seriously” (ibid). See also Idel 1988:20,67, in relation to amor Dei intellectualis.

(11)  Popkin 2004:95, affirming that Spinoza “started his system at the point that others were trying to attain after they overcame the skeptical menace.”
 
(12)  See Fraenkel 2012:213ff, referring to Spinoza’s philosophical reinterpretation of Christianity, and viewing his well known critique of religion and scripture as a secondary project.
 
(13)  Gabbey 1996:180. Spinoza evidently believed that sensory knowledge is unreliable, belonging to the imagination (meaning his first kind of knowledge). Whereas the knowledge of causes is the domain of intellect (ibid:177). One pro-Boyle reflection is expressed in terms of: “Few of Spinoza’s specific scientific conclusions, either deductively or experimentally derived, are thought to be of scientific interest” (Gullan-Whur 1998:117).

(14)  See Melamed and Rosenthal 2010. The editorial introduction warns that the Tractatus is a difficult book for the modern reader, especially the philosopher. Spinoza here discusses at length historical and Biblical matters. He was writing for savants, not the general public.
 
(15)  Jolley 2005:18. Cf. Nadler 1999:340-342, who says: “Their long discussions covered a variety of important philosophical, political, and scientific topics, including the problems inherent in Descartes’s laws of motion and recent events in the Dutch Republic.” Cf. Antognazza 2009:168-9, 177-178, observing that by January 1675, Tschirnhaus had met Spinoza at least once, their contact continuing through correspondence. Leibniz had previously read and disapproved of some parts of the Tractatus. Leibniz “would continue to respect him [Spinoza] as a person even as he disagreed with him as a philosopher” (ibid:168). A year after their meetings, Leibniz wrote in a letter that the metaphysics of Spinoza was “strange and full of paradoxes” (ibid:178).
 
(16)  Klever 1996:46-47. Baron Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus was a Cartesian, described by Klever as one of the best friends of Spinoza. “Tschirnhaus credits Spinoza – and this is completely new in comparison with other sources – with a kind of Pythagoreanism, implying that souls in a certain sense transmigrate from one form of matter to another” (ibid:47). Professor Klever adds: “It is likely that the comparison with Pythagoras’s transmigration theory originates from Spinoza himself” (ibid).

Bibliography:

Adler, Jacob, “Mortality of the soul from Alexander of Aphrodisias to Spinoza” (13-35) in S. Nadler, ed., Spinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 
Antognazza, Maria Rosa, Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Brown, Stuart, and Fox, N. J., Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006).
 
Curley, Edwin, trans., Ethics (London: Penguin, 1996).
 
Della Rocca, Michael, “Spinoza’s metaphysical psychology” (192-266) in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 
Fraenkel, Carlos, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion, and Autonomy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 
Gabbey, Alan, “Spinoza’s natural science and methodology” (142-191) in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 
Gatens, Moira, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Benedict Spinoza (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).
 
Grey, John, “Use Them at Our Pleasure: Spinoza on Animal Ethics,” History of Philosophy Quarterly (2013) 30(4):367-388.

Gullan-Whur, Margaret, Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza (London: Jonathan Cape, 1998).
 
Harvey, Warren Zev, Physics and Metaphysics in Hasdai Crescas (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1998).
 
Harvey, Warren Zev, “Idel on Spinoza,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies (2007) 6 (18):88-94.
 
Harvey, Warren Zev, “Ishq, hesheq, and amor Dei intellectualis” (96-107) in S. Nadler, ed., Spinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 
Idel, Moshe, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah (State University of New York Press, 1988).
 
Israel, Jonathan, “The Banning of Spinoza’s Works in the Dutch Republic (1670-1678)” (3-14) in W. V. Bunge and W. Klever, eds., Disguised and Overt Spinozism Around 1700 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996).
 
Jolley, Nicholas, Leibniz (New York: Routledge, 2005).
 
Klever, W. N. A., “Spinoza’s life and works” in Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
 
Koistinen, Olli, and Viljanen, Valtteri, “Introduction” (1-25) in Koistinen, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
 
Manekin, Charles, “Spinoza and the determinist tradition in medieval Jewish philosophy” (36-58) in S. Nadler, ed., Spinoza and Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 
Melamed, Yitzhak Y., and Rosenthal, M. A., eds., Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise: A Critical Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
 
Nadler, Steven, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
 
Nadler, Steven, Spinoza’s Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind (Oxford University Press, 2002).
 
Nadler, Steven, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2011).
 
Popkin, Richard H., Spinoza (Oxford: Oneworld, 2004).
 
Sharp, Hasana, “Animal Affects: Spinoza and the Frontiers of the Human” in Journal for Critical Animal Studies (2011) Vol. 9 Issue 1/2. Online PDF.
 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and Other Subjects (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
 
Vassanyi, Miklos, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy (Springer: Dordrecht, 2011).
 
Zovko, Marie-Elise, Understanding Geometric Method: Hypothetical Dialectic in Proclus, Abraham Cohen Herrera and Baruch D. Spinoza (online PDF).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 64

Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Descartes and Vivisection




Rene Descartes (1596-1650) opposed the traditional Scholastic philosophy of the universities, which then harboured an approach rooted in Aristotelianism as interpreted by the Christian Schoolmen. The Scholastics tended to identify their version of Aristotle with the Bible, maintaining that support for their exegesis was to be found in Biblical text. Any refutation of Aristotle was thereby equivalent to blasphemy.
 
Descartes was born at La Haye, near Poitiers. His father was one of the landed gentry of France, and in a social situation where the clergy held prodigious political power alongside royalty. Descartes studied law at the University of Poitiers, and gained a degree. However, he  did not pursue the career of a lawyer. Instead he enlisted in the army, moving to the Netherlands, and later Germany. After leaving military service, he lived a retiring existence in the Netherlands, at places including Amsterdam and Leiden.
 
His major correspondent was Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), a theologian in contact with scientists and philosophers throughout Europe, and who was a basic source of news for Descartes. The latter at first tended to take mathematics as the model for knowledge, an avenue demonstrated in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind. However, his basic field of endeavour is sometimes described in terms of natural philosophy, a subject contrasting with theology. He developed a version of cosmology, employing a mechanistic physics.
 
In 1637, Descartes published in French three scientific essays on optics, geometry, and meteorology. He was bypassing scholastic Latin. He also published in French his Discourse on Method. In this work Descartes elevated the “light of reason,” credited with the ability to distinguish between truth and falsity. That Discourse also emphasised a major difference between animals and humans; the distinction has since become a major source of disagreement. Descartes presumed an absence of mind in animals, and compared them to clock mechanisms.
 
In 1641 he published in Latin his Meditations on the First Philosophy, and this became his most famous work. That book aroused objections from leading scholars and theologians; the author was basically in friction with Scholastic philosophy. Employing a “method of doubt,” Descartes professed to arrive at certainty about his own mental existence and that of God. He supplied proofs for the existence of God, but these were treated as atheism by some theologians. His opponents included Calvinists
 
In 1644 appeared his Latin work Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), which restates his version of metaphysics and also his mechanistic physics. Descartes was in conflict with the Jesuit theologians or Late Scholastics, e.g., Francisco Suarez. He was effectively pitched against Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. In 1648, the curators of Leiden University confirmed their decision that only Aristotelian philosophy could be taught in their precincts. Professors in that establishment were forbidden to mention the name of Descartes.
 
The commentator has to be fair to the subject while observing his defects. Descartes was a mechanist who believed that he had evolved a perfect rationalism. This can be strongly queried, and especially in view of the crude empiricism that emerges in the record of his activities. 

“He even arranged [in 1646] for the slaughter of a pregnant cow so that he could examine the foetus at an early stage of its development.” (Clarke 2006:332) 

Such actions were part of his insensitive approach to the issue of animal consciousness, encapsulated to some extent by his notorious theme that “animals are machines.” Descartes has been described as a pioneer of vivisection; he was by no means the only one. 
 
His ideas on this subject reflected theological dogmas that animals had no soul. He was also in conflict with the trend of scepticism represented by Montaigne. From another angle, an English royalist, namely William Cavendish, in 1646 sent a letter to Descartes about the apparent ability of animals to think. The recipient made what appears to have been a reluctant concession (Clarke 2006:336), but this was in his final years, and did not alter his basic standpoint. 
 
The Cartesian version of “cosmology” was not comprehensive, but acutely reductionist. His earlier letter to Plempius in February 1638 affords proof that he practised vivisection (Cottingham 1991:79-85). Descartes here described his vivisection of a living rabbit. Descartes also “wrote in correspondence that the mechanical understanding of animals absolved people of any guilt for killing and eating animals” (Animal Consciousness). His category of belief was very convenient for vivisectionists. The “scientific” followers of Descartes, meaning Cartesians, have been criticised as the brutal precursors of laboratory practices, which continue to masquerade as a perfect empirical science confounding the subject of animal ethics
 
Jesuits at this period may also have practised vivisection; certain references have been debated. A systematic approach to the theories of Descartes, on the part of his posthumous followers, led to much confusion. This party were reacting to religious censorship and Jesuit opposition.

Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) was an influential neo-Cartesian mechanist who argued on religious grounds that animals lacked a soul and were incapable of pain or suffering, therefore being beyond any moral consideration. Some commentators express uncertainty as to whether Descartes himself believed this (Boden 2006:72). Yet the latter performed animal experiments, and recommended others to do so (ibid). 
 
Descartes ascribed sentience to animals, but in contrast to Aristotelians, he explained sentience in mechanistic terms, eschewing concepts of a “sensitive” soul (ibid:72). 
 
In his Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes stated that the divine gift of the soul distinguished humans from animals, even though all of these beings were machines. Scientists found in his writings a reason to discount the behavioural response of animals to vivisection (Monamy 2009:10-11). 
 
A generally received idea is that Descartes followed no tradition, and was committed to accept only what he learned firsthand. He was actually following the tradition of Vesalius in relation to dissection. The successors of Vesalius at Padua university had engaged in vivisection; the Fabrica of Vesalius has been shown to include this favoured practice. Descartes was also in support of conventional Christian doctrines about salvation of the soul, in which animals were not celebrated. His mechanist version of the universe was later proved erroneous. His physics transpired to be inadequate, and a major anatomical theory came under criticism: 
“Descartes tried to explain most of our mental life in terms of processes involving the pineal gland, but the details remained unclear, even in his own eyes.” (Stanford Encyclopaedia
In 1629 he relocated to Amsterdam, then a new centre of anatomy, a rather fashionable Renaissance subject which he embraced. Descartes lived for a period in the Kalverstraat quarter, inhabited by butchers, and regularly visited the butcher stalls. While reading the works of Vesalius, he would purchase animal carcases, and carry these back to his flat for dissection. In a letter of 1639, and after moving to other places, he told Mersenne that he had spent much time in dissection for eleven years (Sawday 1995:147ff; McCance 2013:48-9). Such activities are questionable in the pursuit of a viable philosophy, despite the associations of a scientific revolution. Descartes was basically an empiricist, although gaining disproportionate fame as a deductivist, an avenue in which he was at some disadvantage via his estrangement from nature.
 
In 1632, Descartes wrote to Mersenne: “I am now dissecting the heads of various animals, so that I can explain what imagination, memory, etc. consist in” (Gaukroger 2000). His bland assumption, in respect of explanation, may be regarded as imaginative rather than anything more profound. 
 
Descartes was preoccupied with both human and animal corpses and made “many post-mortem dissections.” He frequently visited abattoirs and the gallows (criminals were dissected after hanging). Not knowing where to stop, he followed the example of William Harvey (1578-1657) in vivisecting a few animals: fishes, eels, and a hare (Boden 2006:61). He describes the vivisection of a dog in his Description of the Human Body and of All Its Functions. Descartes does not there say that he performed the operation, but some commentators have very feasibly construed that he did. Arguing against Harvey, the philosopher scientist affirms: "If you slice off the pointed end of the heart in a live dog, and insert a finger into one of the cavities..." (Cottingham 1985:317). The passage can easily offend dog lovers.
 
“There is no point in denying that Descartes’ vivisection and ill-treatment of animals is disgraceful” (Grayling 2006:159). The issue does not stop there. 
 
According to Richard Dawkins, Descartes “stood in a long tradition of vivisectionists including Galen and Vesalius, and he was followed by William Harvey and many others” (On Vivisection). His inspirer Vesalius was keen on both the dissection of human corpses and animal vivisection. Vesalius (1514-64) authored the influential De humani corporis fabrica (1543). The word vivisection was not invented until 1702, and the earlier word dissection can be equivocal in context. Some reports state that the ancient Greek practitioners Herophilus and Erasistratus vivisected (live) human beings in their version of anatomy at Alexandria. Celsus and Tertullian relate that Herophilus (335-280 BC) vivisected at least 600 live prisoners.

As a philosopher, Descartes ought to have been more resistant to fashionable cruelty of the leisured scientist class in his time. His inclination to the contrary places him in the same category as reprehensible 1660s events: thirty vivisections were conducted in the presence of assembled members of the Royal Society in London. 
 
A well known report of brutal and callous Cartesians at the Port Royal school “may not be trustworthy.” That account was written years after the supposed events described, and the author regarded Cartesianism as a blasphemy. However, there are other reports of animal experiments in the late seventeenth century, along with implications that Cartesian mechanists made no attempt to minimise animal suffering, believing that this was an illusion (Boden 2006:72-3). 
 
Vivisection increased substantially as a consequence of Cartesian doctrine, and was avidly practised by the Royal Society. This organisation was founded by a group of scientists who included Robert Boyle (1627-91) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703). Their crimes are on record, including the injection of poisons, ever since a favoured device of  laboratory personnel. Dogs, sheep, and other animals were the victims. Hooke is known to have vivisected a dog in 1667, and in this respect was a blood brother of Descartes.
 
Hooke’s prestigious colleague Robert Boyle was an ardent defender of vivisection, and viewed critics as sentimentalists. How tough and supremely insensitive the empiricists were. The objectors were here viewed as “a discouraging impediment to the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God” (Boden 2006:73). 
 
The empire of man here considered so desirable was strongly convergent with the developing inclinations for a colonial empire. The successors of the Romans (and the abominations of Galen) were eager to assert their scientific superiority over the supposed barbarians in the East (and the Americas). The superiority, and the declared achievements, can be strongly questioned. The mechanist use of brute force is no proof of cultural redemption. 
 
Boyle was a hero of the empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). The vivisectionist outlook evidently did influence Locke to some extent. An episode is reported, dating to the 1650s, of how he skinned a frog to prove circulation of blood. Though a mere scratch compared to agonies devised by the Royal Society, this detail may afford some reason to doubt Locke’s overall ability to chart the dimensions of human understanding in an empiricist straitjacket. 
 
A century after Boyle, the essayist Samuel Johnson (d.1784) complained about the “arts of torture” practised by some medical men, whose favoured pastime was “to nail dogs to tables and open them alive” (Boden 2006:73). Johnson was an opponent of slavery and a lover of cats. Elite members of the Royal Society continued experiments on live frogs, dogs, and horses. In more humane channels, the English gained a contradictory reputation as horse lovers.  The clergyman Stephen Hales (1677-1761) was a partisan of Newtonian science at Cambridge. In 1714 he conducted dubious experiments on horses and dogs, and was elected a Fellow of the approving Royal Society in 1718. He afterwards turned his attention to plants and philanthropy, but continued to be praised for bleeding a sheep to death while measuring heartbeat. 

Not until the 1870s was official action taken to limit disturbing laboratory practices. The continuation was not considered satisfactory by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, founded in that same decade. 
 
Bibliography: Boden, Margaret A., Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science Vol. 1 (Oxford University Press, 2006); Clarke, Desmond M., Descartes: A Biography (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Cottingham, John, et al, trans., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (3 vols, Cambridge University Press, 1985-91); Gaukroger, Stephen, et al, eds., Descartes’ Natural Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2000); Grayling, A. C., Descartes (2005; London: Simon and Schuster, 2006); McCance, Dawn, Critical Animal Studies: An Introduction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013); Monamy, Vaughan, Experimentation: A Guide to the Issues (2000; second edn, Cambridge University Press, 2009); Sawday, Jonathan, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (Abingdon: Routledge, 1995); Shepherd, web article Rene Descartes Philosopher and Scientist (bibliography). 

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 63 

Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.