Christianity and Cartesianism

In the second lesson of his book Two Lessons on Animal and Man, Gilbert Simondon begins to trace what he regards as the beginnings of a substantial break from the thinking of Antiquity, which came in the form of a marked focus on spirituality, in particular Christianity and the development of Cartesianism. During these years, thinkers such as St. Augustine, Descartes, and Malebranche would work on the idea that there is a particular ‘interiority’ that is peculiar to man, and thus separates him from animal life:

… the intervention of the doctrine of spiritual activity, starting with Christianity, but much more still at the interior of Cartesianism, constitutes a dichotomous opposition, an opposition that affirms two distinct natures and not merely two levels. (p.59)

The Apologists to St. Thomas

Simondon notes that the Apologists, Tatian, Arnobius and Lactantius, were concerned with creating an ‘extremely powerful ethical dualism’ that would seek to establish Christian ethics not just between animal and man, but between Christian and non-Christian. St Augustine reaffirmed the idea that animals have souls that are comparable to humans, yet to St Augustine these are ‘sensitive souls’; souls that can suffer and dream but are essentially acting purely out of instinct. St Thomas also denied the concept of reason in animal life, yet argued that animals in some respect had intentions, i.e. ‘distant ends for which they work, and which are consciously perceived by them’.

The Renaissance

Next, during the period of the Renaissance, came a ‘a renewal in the relation between the animal and human psyche’. Simondon argues that this interest was driven by a desire to avenge the dualism of the Apologists in order to restore the importance of the animal Psyche ‘in order to teach us lessons’. Giordano Bruno describes an all ecompassing theory of animation which leads simondon to refer to him as ‘one of the most powerful philosophers of the Renaissance’:

According to his doctrine, animation, which is to say life, is not merely a fact for beings at the scale of life as we know it, but can also be a fact for stars … life can exist in elements where we don’t believe it to exist …  To this extent, it is certain that animals … should not be considered inferior beings or caricatures of man. (p.67)

St Francis of Assisi took up this theme of harmonious unity by positing the notion of the Great Being. Animals are part of the entirety of Creation and thus, in their own way, adore and honor God. Montaigne also rejected the dualism of animal and man, and thus adopted a monist perspective by observing that all psychical faculties in animals are the same as those existing in man. For Montaigne animals are superior because they do not have to pose the question of knowing what to choose since they act out of instinct, an instinct that can’t make mistakes.

Yet, this move signals a break in the previous thinking; in stating that animals did not have to pose the question of knowing, the supposition is that rationality is fundamentally different to instinct, which, in Simondon’s words, ‘is the door to dualism’ which will lead us to Descartes and Malebranche.

Descartes and Malebranche

…according to Descartes, animals possess neither intelligence nor instinct. The animal is a machine, an automaton … Descartes is the first who said animal behaviours are not instinctive… they are mechanical. (p.73)

So, as Simondon describes, animals act not out of instinct, something that could at least be comparable to man, but out of pure automatism of the body; they do not operate on a psychological frequency any more than machines do. Animals are, thus, res extensa, without consciousness and without interiority whereas humans are res cogitans.

Similarly, Malebranche took up the Cartesian doctrine in one of it’s strictest forms, he argues that animals cannot suffer, desire, or know anything whatsoever, however he puts forward a touching theological explanation for this:

…animals cannot suffer, because pain is the result of original sin, and nowhere is it said that animals ate the forbidden fruit, and as a result, animals cannot suffer, it would be an injustice towards them because they did not commit this sin. (p.77)

To Simondon this doctrine is ‘excessive, bizarre, scandalous’ however he argues that it was Cartesianism that dialectically paved the way for 19th-20th century science to study human behavior. Descartes was the necessary stepping stone for out modern understanding of animality (which of course is still highly debated).

Bousset and La Fontaine

Simondon concludes with a brief outline of these two lesser known thinkers. Bousset, a German theologian, argued vehemently against Cartesianism, stating that ‘Man is an animal. We have the experience of what is inside us and what comes from reflection and reason. The grandest, most complete being is man. And man is an animal.’ This argument essentially tries to reconcile Cartesianism with the thinking of St Thomas.

La Fontaine similarly defended the animal kingdom through his fable-like poems, considering it to have been violated by systematic thinking and Simondon quotes a substantial portion of his poem ‘Address to Madame de la Sabliere’ which can be found here.

So what we have in this short book is a critique of the notion that ‘what is newer is better’, and the idea that we have witnessed progress in human thinking in regards to the relationship between animal and man is severely challenged through this dialectical journey; a journey which explores and questions both critically and imaginatively the foundational assumptions that underpin concept formation in both psychology and philosophy, revealing stories and influences that, in some cases, both disciplines may have initially ignored.

It’s a great shame that there is not more of Simondon’s work translated into English but this book gives us a small insight into the mind of one the most under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century.

Part 1: Antiquity


6 thoughts on “Two Lessons on Animal and Man, 2: Christianity and Cartesianism

  1. Pingback: Two Lessons on Animal and Man, 1: Antiquity | Blue Labyrinths

  2. Pingback: Two Lessons on Animal and Man: Christianity and Cartesianism | Reddit Spy

  3. Sorry Matt I accidentally deleted your comment on my post Struggle on my blog. I messed up again by posting my apologies on one of your posts which was actually a reblog of someone else’s post. It is pretty obvious that I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to navigating this space so forgive me. Again I like your blog and I learn allot from it. Cheers!!


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