Rhetoric 230: Machines and Organisms in Early Modern Thought

Instructor: Prof. David Bates

This seminar will take a close look at how four early modern figures conceptualized human cognition with respect to both the natural body of the organism and the artificial prosthetic of machine technology. Our goal will be to rethink major philosophical works via close readings of selected passages on how human thinking is produced and organized in the body but also through exteriorized supplements. We will open with a discussion of Canguilhem’s “Machine and Organism,” to set the stage for how Aristotle and the new mechanical philosophy opened up new questions about life, technology, and the mind. We will then engage topics such as: Descartes on automata and living bodies, Spinoza on the organism and the “spiritual automaton,” Leibnizian monadology from the dual perspective of nature and artifice, and finally Kant on the relationship between organismic teleology (3rd Critique) and the complex architectonic of cognition as explicated in the Critique of Pure Reason. Readings will be supplemented by selected secondary literature and critical texts. While no familiarity with early modern thought is assumed, it would be a good idea to familiarize oneself with the main lines of argument by using easily accessible resources such as the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of philosophy or the Oxford and Cambridge Handbooks (many of which are available online through the library).

Students may write either a research paper on an early modern figure (not limited to those discussed in class) OR a critical paper examining a modern interpretation of an early modern figure — for example, Deleuze on Leibniz or Hume, Adorno or Heidegger on Kant, Balibar on Spinoza, Derrida on Descartes, and so on. In either case, I would expect a topic to be chosen relatively early in the semester in order for there to be time to do proper research for the paper.

Note that the library database “Past Masters” has the standard edition of the complete works of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant available, with a good selection of translations of the first three under the category “Continental Rationalists,” alongside a selection of translations of Kant’s work. Assignments will be drawn from these texts, with other material and translations provided when needed via bCourses.

The main texts we will be reading from include:

Canguilhem, “Machine and Organism” (1948)

Descartes, Treatise on Man

Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

Descartes, Passions of the Soul

Spinoza, Ethics

Spinoza, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

Leibniz, Monadology

Leibniz, Against Stahl

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Kant, Critique of Judgement

This course fulfills an elective requirement for the DE in REMS.

This course fulfills the “Intellectual History” requirement or an elective requirement for the DE in REMS.