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VIENSSENS’S COPY OF DESCARTES’ LES PRINCIPES

DESCARTES, René [VIEUSSENS, Raymond]. Les Principes de la Philosophie. Escrits en Latin, par René Descartes. Et traduits en François par un de ses Amis. Revues, & corrigez en cette derniere Edition. Paris, Bobin & Le Gras, 1668.

4to [22.4 x 16.9], (55), 477 pp, (2). With 22 full-page woodcuts (1 folding) and 70 woodcut illustrations in text. Ink ownership inscription of Raymond Vieussens to front pastedown & shelf mark on front free endpaper. Bound in contemporary French calf, spine in six compartments with gilt florets and title; some wear to boards but generally an excellent copy, clean and fresh.

$11,500

Scarce edition of Descartes’ magnum opus, bearing the manuscript ex-libris of Raymond Vieussens (1635-1715), Royal Physician to Louis XIV and an important anatomist in his own right. Drawing directly on the dualistic theories of Descartes, Vieussens became fascinated by the actions of the heart and of the brain in particular. “In his speculations on physiology, Vieussens drew inspiration from both the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes and the iatrochemical ideas of F. de la Boë (Sylvius). He believed that he had demonstrated the existence of the nervous fluid.” (DSB)

“Without Descartes, the seventeenth-century mechanization of physiological conceptions would have been inconceivable,” notes the DSB, “…No other great philosopher, except perhaps Aristotle, can have spent so much time in expermintal observation. According to Baillet, over several years he studied anatomy, dissected and vivisected embryos of birds and cattle, and went on to study chemistry. His correspondence from the Netherlands described dissections of dogs, cats, rabbits, cod, and mackerel; eyes, livers, and hearts obtained from an abattoir…”. Descartes’ magnum opus, his Principia Philosophiae, presented to the world the purest expression of his mechanist vision of the universe, seized upon eagerly by later anatomists such as Thomas Willis, Nicolas Steno, and, as is evident from the present copy, Raymond Vieussens.

Intended to replace the Aristotelian texts used in universities with a curriculum based on physical and immutable laws of nature, Descartes’ Principles, especially in its French editions, comes replete with numerous plates of his famous swirling vortices as well as discussions of the Copernican system. Curiously, as C. F. Fowler has noted, a direct reference to the Principia is lacking from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of 1664 which otherwise banned most of Descartes’ works – although a blanket clause is also given, “and the philosophical works of same author”. Evidently the decree of the Catholic Church disuaded neither French publishers from printing the work nor the Royal Physician from purchasing it!

In particular, Veussens seems to have been inspired by the Cartesian concept of cerebral localization; but while Descartes considered the pineal body to be the seat of animal spirits and the soul, Veussens regarded the corpora striata as the seat of the imagination. “Inspired by both Descartes's mechanistic and the iatrochemical philosophies, Vieussens studied the white matter of the brain by tracing the path of its fibers” (Schlager & Lauer), eventually providing us with an early description of the brain's centrum semiovale, sometimes referred to as Vieussens' centrum. Following his well-received Neurographica Universalis (1685), the Royal Physician issued his Traité nouveau des Liqeurs de Corps Humain (1705) in which he describes the three Cartesian elements in detail and their functions within the body.


* Guilbert, “Les Principes” (13); cf also Schlager & Lauer (eds), Science and Its Times 3 (Gale, 2001), p. 154; Fowler, Descartes on the human soul: philosophy and the demands of Christian doctrine (Kluwer, 1999), pp 8-10. For the impact of Descartes’ philosophy see PMM 129.

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