Thesis Info

Thesis Title
Machine Metaphysics: Descartes, the Mechanization of Life, and the Dawn of the Posthuman
Andres Vaccari
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
Macquarie University
Thesis Supervisor
Dr. John Sutton
Supervisor e-mail
John.Sutton AT
Other Supervisor(s)
Dr. Jean-Philippe Deranty
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
Languages Familiar to Author
English, Spanish
URL where full thesis can be found
posthumanism, Descartes, science and technology studies, machine, organism, life sciences, scientific revolution, physiology, medicine, biology
Abstract: 200-500 words
One of the defining features of posthumanism is the problematization of the ontological boundaries between organism and machine, nature and art, the living and the technological—the metaphysical counterpart to a real world proliferation of hybrids, natural-artificial entities such as cyborgs, artificial life, and genetically modified foods and animals. Although perceived to be a recent phenomenon, the roots of posthumanism can be traced to the seventeenth century, to Descartes’ introduction of the machine metaphor in the life sciences (physiology, medicine and biology) in his Traité de l’homme (first published in 1662). Descartes is the mythical cradle of rational humanism; yet the Cartesian human is made possible by an ontological shift that can only be described as already posthuman. In Descartes’ metaphysics, the immanent world of matter embraces physics, biology and technology, blurring the difference between these forms of knowledge. I trace the complex rhetorical and theatrical staging of the body-machine in L’homme through three main dimensions: ontological, disciplinary and representational / epistemological, examining the various aspects of the machine (automaton, optical illusion, object of spectacle and knowledge, among others) as it articulates Descartes’ theory of life. The machine is firstly a metaphysical ploy, predicating a monistic, immanent identity across the whole of nature (or extension); this is accompanied by a concerted overturning of the ontological priority of nature over ‘art’. In turn, if the world is a machine, it means that it can be understood as such; the metaphysical aspect is followed by a disciplinary rearrangement in which mechanics is elevated to a new place in knowledge (as an exemplar of how geometrical / mathematical thinking can be applied to physics). Finally, there is an epistemological and representational aspect: the perceptual apparatus is conceived as a machine, and epistemology grounded on a ‘machine semiosis’ ruling the passage of motions along mechanisms. It seems, then, that a high-order metaphysical and disciplinary shift preceded the real world integration of organisms and machines (in a wide range of industrial, scientific, and military contexts) in the centuries that followed Descartes. But although the posthumanist shift is metaphysical, the genesis of the body-machine can be traced to a dense material-cultural network of early modern technologies: automata spectacles, the microscope, perspective representation, anatomical theatres, machine treatises, engineering problems, etc. Thus, although we can speak of a historical break or rupture, from another angle the body-machine is continuous and commensurable with its cultural and technoscientific milieu. Although my main focus is on the history of the life sciences, the Cartesian mechanization of life cuts through a number of dimensions, such as the notion of ‘extended’ or distributed mind, uncanny simulation, the blurring of science and science fiction, anxieties about technological control, and the technological enhancement of bodily and perceptual powers. Overall, I intend here to treat Descartes as an outstanding philosopher of technology, an aspect of his thought that is not usually considered.