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Hist. Sci.

, xliv (2006)


Jean-Francois Gauvin
Harvard University

Descartes's whole "project of self-instruction", we learn in Part VI of the Discours

de la methode, "is suffering because of the need for innumerable observations
which I cannot possibly make without the help of others [sans l'aide d'autrui]".'
Scholars have investigated the epistemic role of observations and experiments in
Cartesian natural philosophy, but few have considered these "others" fit to assist
Descartes in his quest for truth.' Yet Descartes is quite adamant as to from whom
it is that he wants help:
True, as regards observations which may help in [natural philosophy], one man
could not possibly make them all. But also he could not usefully employ other
hands than his own, except those of artisans, or such persons as he could pay, who
would be led by the hope of gain (a most effective motive) to do precisely what
he ordered them to do. For voluntary helpers, who might offer to help him from
curiosity or a desire to learn, usually promise more than they achieve and make
fine proposals which never come to anything. In addition, they would inevitably
wish to be rewarded by having certain difficulties explained to them, or at any
rate by compliments and useless conversation, which could not but waste a lot
of [the natural philosopher's] time.'
Taken literally, this quotation from the Discours de la methode establishes the status
of artisans as a docile main d'ceuvre, whose mechanical skills should help uncover,
under the tutelage of natural philosophers, nature's deepest secrets." Volontaires, or
honnetes curieux, are given even less credit here, perceived as a nuisance rather than
the source and authority of knowledge - in contrast to Robert Boyle's conception
of gentlemanly science.' Is it the whole story? Are Cartesian artisans coarse "invis-
ible technicians", the experienced hands of natural philosophers?" Could artisans
somehow encourage or inspire the latter?
Artisans and experimental practices have become in the last twenty years or so a
hot topic of interest among scholars of early modern natural philosophy. Hardly any,
however, have investigated what artisans really meant to so-called rational philoso-
phers iJ. la Rene Descartes.' I hope to demonstrate in the first three parts of the article
that artisans, at least for a short period of time, were more than rough and mindless
helping hands for Descartes. I believe they held an important epistemic function that
initially supported the very foundation of Cartesian knowledge, namely the mathesis
universalis. Descartes, I explain, saw in the early 1620s an inherent order in the
practice of simple metiers. Yet such order, unveiled in the Regula: ad directionem
ingenii, was not encountered in the hands-on practices themselves. Method was found
beyond the specific gestes of artisans - beyond the uniqueness of each individual

0073-2753/06/4402-0187/$10.00 © 2006 Science History Publications Ltd


ars. Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu I argue that Descartes may have seen some sort of
structured discipline within artisanal habitus. He discovered the unity of practice that
explained theoretically - rationally - how artisans built machines and manufactured
goods, assuming early in life that artisans were endowed with some sort of an dme
reglee (orderly soul), an innate and orderly reason guiding manual work.
Descartes, however, started to question the artisan's inherent structured order as
soon as he landed in Paris in the mid-1620s. Before then, never once did he team
up with artisans - although he examined how they worked. Theoretical assertions
were based mostly on dialogues with natural philosophers (inclined towards the
mechanical arts like Isaac Beeckman) and on idiosyncratic observations made during
his European tour. When Descartes arrived in Paris and began to study optics in the
company of real artisans, his opinion of them wavered. Artisans, including his protege
Jean Ferrier, did not demonstrate the intrinsic dme reglee he thought he had previ-
ously contemplated. The artisanal trope guiding hitherto the notion of mathesis had
to be replaced by something displaying even more order, i.e. machines in the form of
automata. Following D. Graham Burnett's insightful essay, I will show in the fourth
part of the article that the Dioptrique was in fact a treatise written to put in order the
activity of the mechanical arts. Machines, according to Descartes, ought to resemble
natural philosophical ideas; their design, consequently, needed to be generated by
the method. Systematizing the mechanical arts thus ensured that the artisan's dme
deregLee would never misconstrue the creation of an orderly soul.
The Discours de La methode and its essays, I believe, sought to dominate both the
mind and the body of early modem individuals. In the final section of the article, I
conjecture that through the trope of machinelike order, Descartes's method became
an instrument of authority. The method aimed not only at the production of rational
and mechanical knowledge, but perhaps more importantly at fashioning a new ideal
Man, one that could serve adequately both the State and scientia. Descartes's goal
(not unlike Francis Bacon's) was to forge a novum organum, a new kind of "instru-
ment" to replace the old peripatetic one. The method was thus a conceptual organon,
a multifaceted instrument of authority created to act on the socio-cultural as well as
on the natural philosophical fields of knowledge. The method, in other words, was
designed to create honnetes hommes; it was Descartes's timely response to the rise
of French absolutism.


Artisans and Cartesian rational knowledge give the impression of an unusual pair.
The first rule of the Regula: ad directionem ingenii in fact questions the very role
artisans play in Descartes's philosophy. Rule I opposes widening the established
(and essentially artisanal) use of habitus to the realm of scientia. Habitus, i.e. the
"bodily aptitude and practice" of artisans, first and foremost secures proficiency in
individual arts; it is connected to the uniqueness of ars, each and every art requir-
ing a set of bodily deftness and movements (gestes) ordinarily distinct from one
artisanal practice to another," Yet Aristotle developed this conception of art into a

habitus scientiarum, a notion to which Aquinas, Suarez, and Eustachius a Sancto

Paulo's philosophies adhered, fragmenting scientia into a multiplicity of independ-
ent knowledge-components, each imposing its own special intellectual skills and
training. Akin to the various arts, every science - knowledge - is created unique
and is said to possess its proper system of principles in order to ensure logical and
coherent deductive links between objects of a same genus." The Aristotelian model
of an ideal science thus involved, by definition, a collection of principles that were
non-transferable to any other science, just as habitus was exclusive to either the
farmer or the cithara player in Descartes's well-known example.'?
Descartes argued forcefully in Rule I against the generalization of habitus because
"the knowledge of one truth does not, like skill in one art, hinder us from discovering
another; on the contrary it helps us". Descartes instead gave credence in Rule I to the
unity of scientia, i.e. to the idea of an interconnectedness of knowledge commensurate
with the universal wisdom." Hence, to liken the artisan's habitus to scientia was
sterile and vain "since what makes us stray from the correct way of seeking the truth
is chiefly our ignoring the general end of universal wisdom and directing our studies
towards some particular ends" .12 Rather, it should be "acknowledged that all the sci-
ences are so closely interconnected that it is much easier to learn them all together
than to separate one from the other". To seek true knowledge, therefore, one must
avoid the study of particular sciences and try instead to "increase the natural light
of his reason", which will not only help solve this or that scholastic problem, but
also show the will "what decision it ought to make in each of life's contingencies". 13
In contrast to the multiplicity of arts there was only one science for Descartes, one
universal knowledge guided by an all-encompassing wisdom, In other words, habitus
was to the uniqueness of ars what wisdom was to the unity of scientia:"
Although the character of habitus is unequivocal in Rule I, I suggest it was not
utterly useless and purposeless to the Cartesian method of knowledge production.
Looking beyond the uniqueness of habitus, to the higher ground of methodology, one
can witness how artisanal practices actually bring to light Descartes's epistemology of
rational knowledge, namely the concept of order underpinning the Cartesian method,
The method is rarely described as a bona fide logic of practice. As such the method
- not yet a metaphysics in the Regula: - takes place prior to any theoretical or
experimental activity of natural philosophy; it lies at the foundation of all Cartesian
knowledge. 15 Within the method are embedded a series of well-defined logical rules
one has to learn and - more importantly -learn to follow; being familiar with them
does not guarantee success on the path to true knowledge. Consequently one has to
practise, to train in the method, because without practice it remains a mere jeu de
l' esprit. Descartes wrote that the method consisted "more in practice than theory",
and that the ultimate aim of the Discours de fa methode was to uncover "a practical
philosophy which might replace the speculative philosophy taught in the schools". 16
Accordingly, the four-rule method unveiled in the Discours - summarizing the
Regula:- was not to be taught but rather was to be continually exercised, Descartes
himself being compelled to "practice [it] constantly ... in order to strengthen myself

more and more in its use".'?

This emphasis on practice was not merely rhetorical; through such a practical
philosophy the power and action of all things would be known "as distinctly as we
know the various crafts of our artisans". 18 Although Descartes belittled habitus as a
legitimate approach of knowledge production, he found an inherent logic beyond the
observable gestures of artisans, an artisanallogic that could help natural philosophers
to acquire a universal method. Descartes explained in Rules IX and X of the Regula:
"how we can make our employment of intuitus and deductio more skilful", and by
the same token "how to cultivate two special mental faculties, viz. perspicacity [per-
spicacitas] in the distinct intuition of particular things and discernment [sagacitas]
in the methodical deduction of one thing from another". 19 Perspicacitas is linked to
intuitus, the certain experientia of Rule III, as the natural mental ability to concen-
trate "upon the most insignificant and easiest of matters" and to focus intensively "to
acquire the habit of intuiting the truth distinctly and clearly". Descartes contended
that "[s]ome people of course are born with a much greater aptitude for this sort of
insight than others; but our minds can become much better equipped for it through
method and practice". Artisans, for instance, "who engage in delicate operations, and
are used to fixing their eyes on a single point, acquire through practice the ability to
make perfect distinctions between things, however minute and delicate"."
Perspicacitas was not a bodily disposition acquired through time and hands-on
practice: it was rather a mental faculty innate to every thinking being. Artisans were
not the only people endowed with such a power of perception. 21 However, according
to Descartes, their habitus - the ability, for instance, to fix one's eyes on a single
point - illustrated best how to attune one's own inherent perspicacitas. Echoing
Renaissance humanists who urged natural philosophers to enter the craftsman's
workshops and study the practice of their trade, Descartes suggested that the capac-
ity to distinguish the most minute and delicate of things - to intuit the common
simple natures - is strengthened by the action of artisanal practices." The gestural
knowledge of artisans could not lead by itself to the production of ideas, yet it could
exhibit courses of action that guided the mind towards scientia.
Regarding sagacitas, Descartes's other constitutive mental faculty, Rule X
stipulates that in order to acquire it one should "methodically survey even the most
insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display or presuppose
order". In line with perspicacitas, sagacitas - the mental skill to exercise deductio
- can be aptly brought to light from the arts and crafts:
Since not all minds have such a natural disposition to puzzle things out by their
own exertions, the message of this Rule is that we must not take up the more
difficult and arduous issues immediately, but must first tackle the simplest and
least exalted arts, and especially those in which order prevails - such as weaving
and carpet-making, or the more feminine arts of embroidery, in which threads
are interwoven in an infinitely varied pattern. Number-games and any games
involving arithmetic, and the like, belong here. It is surprising how much all these
activities exercise our minds, provided of course we discover them for ourselves

and not from others. For, since nothing in these activities remains hidden and
they are totally adapted to human cognitive capacities, they present us in the
most distinct way with innumerable instances of order, each one different from
the other, yet all regular, Human discernment [sagacitas] consists almost entirely
in the proper observance of such order."
Sagacitas directly followed perspicacitas: it was the crucial mental faculty that
put in series what perspicacitas had discovered. If perspicacitas, which aimed at
"attentively noting in all things that which is absolute in the highest degree", is truly
the "whole secret of the art", sagacitas was indispensable in figuring out the chain
of inferences from the most absolute to the most relative of things." And to create
flawless chains of inferences Descartes knew no better way "than by accustoming
ourselves to reflecting with some discernment [cum quddam sagacitate refiectere] on
the minute details of the things we have already perceived". 25 Referring once again to
the most unassuming of artisans reinforced the epistemic connection between what
lay beyond habitus and the way minds should be disciplined."
Descartes's artisanal knowledge-making model diverged from the scholastic weap-
ons of choice, syllogisms. To rid philosophy of unproven truth-producing premises,
he created a new method inspired by a general and inherent logic of practice found
within habitus. Although the School's training in syllogism was better than nothing
(given that it exercised the minds of the young - which without guidance "might
head towards a precipice"), Descartes refocused the scholar's attention on the artisanal
practices, on the things that were "perfectly known and incapable of being doubted". 27
The method, Descartes explained,
cannot go so far as to teach us how to perform the actual operations of intuitus
and deductio, since these are the simplest of all and quite basic. If our intellect
were not already able to perform them, it would not comprehend any ofthe rules
of the method, however easy they might be."
The Cartesian method did not teach how to use intuitus and deductio, both being
natural abilities. The method was rather created to instruct how mastery of these two
innate powers could be achieved. This meant the introduction, use and continual
exercise of matter-of-fact mental faculties such as perspicacitas and sagacitas, their
proficiency drawing from basic mathematics and down-to-earth artisanal practices.
Artisanal practices, however, were not to be studied for their own sake, but as
exemplary practices of the method. Take, for instance, blacksmithing. If first deprived
of all the instruments of his trade, the blacksmith - like any artisan exercising a
self-supporting mechanical art - initially uses either a hard rock or an unformed
mass of iron as an anvil, a stone as a hammer, pincers made of wood, and other rudi-
mentary tools he might need to begin working. Of course, he will not start making
swords, helmets, and metallic artefacts immediately, but rather will fabricate an
anvil, all sorts of hammers, pincers and metallic tools necessary to his trade. Only
then will the blacksmith be in a position to undertake the production of commodi-
ties. This example taken from Rule VIII teaches that unmethodical and inconsistent

operations should be proscribed for the creation of merchandise - or the solution

of mathematical problems and the determination of philosophical disputes." Here
Descartes did not emphasize the blacksmith's bodily skills in making tools, swords
or helmets - and he certainly did not try to improve those skills per se. Rather,
he focused on the blacksmith's working method and orderly approach towards the
production of materials. The method, seen through the eyes of this mechanical art,
becomes an unbroken "mechanical" thinking process, one that is methodical and
intended for a specific goal. Nothing is left to chance, random practices or acciden-
tal judgements." In this well-known example, producing Cartesian knowledge and
producing artisanal goods look as though they fundamentally came from one and the
same logic of practice, the function of an ordered thinking process.


The question of order is undeniably one of the most important in the Regula: and the
Discours. In fact, it underlies the Cartesian logic of practice: "The whole method
consists entirely in the ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must
concentrate our mind's eye if we are to discover some truth."!' The above example
of the blacksmith (jorgeron in French) is by no mean random: if we cannot discern
an apparent order, we have mentally to forge one (sed tamen aliquemfingemus, or
{forger un ordre) by the power of cogitatio." Rule IV of the Regula: accounts for
)the full meaning of order, embedded in the concept of mathesis universalis and
established as the bedrock of Descartes's logic of practice. Since the study of Jean-
Paul Weber, Rule IV is often divided into two parts." The rule is said to have been
written at two different times and to bear two different purposes: the question and
search for certainty through a method in IV-A (1619), and the establishment of an
even more general mathesis as the universal - and mathematical- way to certain
knowledge in IV-B (1628). Jean-Luc Marion, however, has convincingly shown that
this dichotomy is merely apparent. What unites the methodical search for certainty to
the mathematical model of knowledge is the more abstract notion of the mathematicite
of mathematics, the intrinsic order of mathematics. The Cartesian mathesis, contrary
to what is generally believed, is not grounded in mathematics per se, but rather in a
universal abstraction articulated from the orderly nature of mathematics. Descartes
in Rule IV is trying to stretch truth and certainty beyond the realm of mathematics,
to the entire body of human knowledge (scientia). As he explained in the same rule,
"When I considered the matter more closely, I came to see that the exclusive con-
cern of mathesis [ad Mathesim] is with questions of order or measure and that it is
irrelevant whether the measure in question involves numbers, shapes, stars, sounds,
or any other object whatever"." Mathematics here "merely" served the purpose of
acquiring this science of order: it did not epitomize it."
Descartes was thus looking for a new way to establish on a solid philosophical
foundation both non-mathematical (causal) and mathematical (intellectual) objects.
This is the chief objective of Rule IV: to achieve the unity of knowledge." To do
so he required more than mathematics: he needed to uncover the abstract notion of

mathematicite within non-mathematical objects. Rule II makes this exact assertion,

claiming that "in seeking the right path of truth we ought to concern ourselves only
with objects which admit of as much certainty as the demonstration of arithmetic
and geometry"." I believe Descartes found the path towards the mathematicite of
non-mathematical objects within the sphere of habitus.
Because Descartes wanted to deal with non-mathematical objects, he could not
fully dispose of habitus. Habitus itself, for instance, meant the bodily disposition of
artisans and musicians to produce specific knowledge. Habitus and its gestural knowl-
edge, for Descartes, was unique to each ars. But as we have seen with the example
of the blacksmith, the contemplation of mechanical arts permitted the revelation of
a general built-in procedure, a structured discipline that was not pure rational think-
ing, yet not a completely disorganized way of creation. He saw in this structured
discipline orderly systems without specific ends, yet not at all chaotic or governed
by the mere fortune of the hands." For example, Descartes witnessed in weavers
and embroiderers something similar to "an infinite yet strictly limited generative
capacity" emanating from some calculated regularities; as an explicit sign of order,
they conditioned the artisan's work habits." Artisans' know-how was to some extent
organized because it followed a structured discipline moulded by regulated practices.
As long as it administered order - as in the case of blacksmiths and weavers - such
a structured discipline could be drawn upon to invent a series of epistemic steps
leading to the more fundamental mathesis. These steps in the field of the mechani-
cal arts could be understood as structural exercises, an overall pedagogical strategy
that went further than a trial-and-error training system. Descartes's close attention
to object-oriented structural exercises could well explain why the Cartesian notions
of perspicacitas - to find the most absolute of things - and sagacitas - to put
into series - designed to train the mind in the method were illustrated by both the
mathematical disciplines and the mechanical arts."
What Descartes dismissed back in Rule I was not habitus, per se, but rather the
uniqueness of art, the fact that specific gestes must be learnt for each art. Looking
beyond the bodily dispositions of habitus, beyond the uniqueness of the artisanal
techniques, we find a structured discipline leading to one and the same internal logic
of practice. Although each art has its own techniques, the structured discipline found
within habitus is based on a unity of practice, a theoretical framework suitable for all
matters of art. It is through this abstract and more general understanding of habitus
- the mathematicite of non-mathematical objects - that Descartes fashioned to a
certain extent the unity of practice found in the mathesis universalis. Ars and scientia
are not as alienated in Cartesian knowledge as they are usually thought to be.


In La recherche de fa verite Descartes points out that "enough truth can be known
in each subject to satisfy amply the curiosity of orderly souls [ames regfees]".41 The
pursuit of knowledge must be guided by an orderly soul, which ought not search for
"those simple [and textual] forms of knowledge which can be acquired without any

process of reasoning, such as languages, history, geography and in general any subject
which rests on experience alone" but should rather inquire into "ordinary facts about
which everyone has heard" - and which artisans are thoroughly accustomed to."
Taking a closer look at Descartes's early writings, the artisan emerges under a more
nuanced and fundamental light. In fact, I claim, the artisan in the Regula? should not
be seen as an amenable aide but rather as a powerful epistemic model to the produc-
tion of rational knowledge. Remarkably enough, some of the most unassuming and
mechanical artisans are converted into archetypal models of rational discipline and
orderly thoughts. However, it is the concept of artisan and artisanal practices that
characterizes the Cartesian method. The artisan as genuine homofaber is transformed
in Descartes's writings into an idealization, a disembodied epistemic metaphor
compelled by order. The body techniques, the gestural knowledge of practices are
completely dropped and superseded by an abstract rationalization, an dme reglee,
which communicates a new theoretical understanding of the practice of natural phi-
losophy." The Cartesian artisan becomes not so much "invisible" as "virtual".
The chief characteristic of Cartesian artisans is unquestionably their condition
of being "properly mechanic" individuals." Descartes (so far as I know) always
used in French, in published and unpublished texts, the word 'artisan' rather than
'artiste' in identifying craftsmen. This distinction is clearly not arbitrary and denotes
another epistemic dichotomy between forms of learning and, ultimately, the nature
of knowledge ascertained. Socially and etymologically speaking, artisan and artiste
meant essentially the same thing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (both
derived from the Latin artifex}.45 To Descartes, however, an 'artiste' was and remained
someone who dealt with the Grand Art, or alchemy, one of these "false sciences" for
which he knew enough about "to be liable not to be deceived" by their promises."
Marin Mersenne believed that such artistes were in a position to assist natural philoso-
phers, although his confidence they would eventually do so was low." Nonetheless,
behind the substantive 'artisan', Descartes recommended we look specifically at the
mechanical arts and their practitioners - not at alchemists and Paracelsians - in
order to acquire an orderly soul.
The Cartesian artisan, therefore, was not guided by an "epistemology of the
hunt". Unconstrained by a pure perception of order, this "venatic methodology", as
described by William Eamon, is "a kind of practical intelligence based upon acquired
skill, experience, subtle wit, and quick judgement: in short, cunning"." The venatic
methodology was needed, it was believed, to chase the signs and clues, the signatures
of substances and materials, so as to pick the scent and as a result uncover these
secrets - the modern facts - "tucked snugly in under the blanket of scientia",
Cunning, or metis as it was known to the Greeks, supplanted orderly thoughts.t? In
Descartes's judgement, artistes rather than artisans possessed and exercised such
a metis; one could say they were endowed with an time dereglee. When Descartes
contemplated artisans in the early l620s he saw something completely different: no
venatio, no conjectural knowledge, no cunning, only a pure and uncompromising
order in their logic of practice.

The "idea of artisan" is of course not original to Descartes. In the Platonic tradi-
tion the Creator of the world and man was symbolized by a craftsman - namely
a Demiurge - imposing order onto Nature from the universal chaos, Socrates, in
Plato's dialogue Gorgias, asserted the relevance of artisans in enlightening such a
tale of creation:
The craftsmen having their eye on their task do not select and apply to it at
random what they apply; rather they see to it that their work comes to have a
definite form [eidos]. For instance, painters, house builders, shipwrights, and all
other craftsmen whomever you wish to choose, place all things in some order
and compel one part to suit another and to harmonize with it until the whole
thing as they fashion it has order and beautiful organization.
Artisans, trying to reach ideal Forms, systematized the mechanical arts as the
Demiurge did with Nature's matter. Order was thus inherent neither in the arts nor
in Nature: it was imposed from outside, from an external cause, from a demiourgos.
In the Aristotelian tradition, conversely, Nature herself followed an orderly purpose.
Nature's own innate craftsmanship turned into the attribute to which artisans were
now referred: ars imitatur naturam. Whereas Aristotle used the artisan as a powerful
analogy to illustrate, confirm, and justify nature's modus operandi, Plato's Demiurge
qua craftsman was a full-blown epistemic representation of nature as a machine,
orderly built like any other invention from the mechanical arts."
For Descartes Nature could not act as a model leading to the mathesis. The mathesis
was instead at the origins of the "grande mecanique de la nature". Rediscovering the
mathesis (suppressed "with a kind of pernicious cunning" from the writings of the
Ancients, as artisans customarily do with their own inventions") is to uncover how
the universe was built and set in motion - the great Cartesian fables of Le monde
and L'homme. Art did not imitate nature; art and nature were rather guided by a
more general mathesis. According to Descartes, anyone endowed with this science
of order would not have to struggle bodily with matter and ars. Such a struggle with
reality was indicative of a disorder in knowledge-making practices, Artisans and
artistes labouring, toiling in the workshops, manipulating and transforming matter
through sweat, bums, grease, and heat "practised knowing ... that constituted a bodily
engagement with nature". To Descartes, it merely gave them the illusion of acquiring
a first-hand understanding of reality. This "artisanal epistemology", epitomized by
the practices of alchemy, and especially by the writings of Paracelsus, went against
the approach of an orderly soul.52 The Cartesian dme reglee was concerned only with
strategies inculcated by the mathematicite of the mathesis, which was not derived
from the gestural knowledge of artisanal practices but from the inbuilt structured
discipline of habitus.
Take another of Descartes's paradigmatic examples from the Regula; weaving.
The choice of this craft is historically charged and once again not taken randomly. In
France, after the devastation caused by the Wars of Religion, the Bourbon economic
restoration instigated by Henry IV was wholly felt within the textile industry. In

Beauvais alone, 700 to 800 looms were continuously in operation, employing roughly
half of the city's population in the first half the seventeenth century. Dijon was even
more important as a ville drapante, surpassed only by the several new manufactures
opening at that time in the Parisian region." Interestingly enough, the technological
design of the horizontal loom had not changed significantly since its introduction
in the twelfth century. This technical revolution was significant for at least one
medieval philosopher. Five centuries before Descartes's birth, weaving became one
of Hugh of St Victor's archetypes of the mechanical arts, inspired from the trivium
and quadrivium of the liberal arts. Hugh argued in his Didascalicon for a division
between ratio (wisdom, order) and administratio (actual practices) in the mechanical
arts, maintaining that a ratio of mechanical origins should also be regarded as an
integral part of philosophy." Descartes, half a millennium later, similarly saw ratio
- not just the actual gestes of administratio - behind the mechanical arts, what
we associated with the structured discipline of habitus.
Weavers on their looms in fact did not bodily struggle with the machine and the
fabric, as Descartes may have himself noticed. In fact, such bodily struggles would
have resulted in a poor quality in the manufactured goods, since everything about
mechanical weaving was governed by a strict order of procedure and the smooth,
continuous and regular movements of the couple man/woman-machine (mostly
women until the fifteenth century). (Notice here two fundamental concepts of the
Regula: order [Rule IV] and regular and uninterrupted motion [Rule VII].) To
achieve the best quality of draperies, weavers had to become one with the machine,
as if they were just another link in the great chain (tela) driving the looms. (This
body-machine symbiosis was so manifest that weavers were often called telier in
old French and teler in old English.) The body or hands-on experience of weavers
did not by itself guarantee excellence; one needed to look instead at the orderly and
uninterrupted movements of the body-machine entity taken as a whole. Weavers in
Descartes's observation and contemplation became an abstraction of order owing to
their symbiosis with a mechanical device. Their orderly souls thus emanated naturally
from the technology of weaving. 55
Although Descartes skilfully used the artisan as a rhetorical trope, there is no indi-
cation he himself ever dabbled with crafts or worked with artisans before his optical
days in Paris in the mid-1620s. 56 We know that when he left the College La Fleche to
travel around Europe, to find knowledge "in the great book of the world", he mixed
"with people of diverse temperaments and ranks [diuerses humeurs & conditions]",
which no doubt suggests some acquaintances with artisans and instrument makers."
In Holland, particularly, the collective embarrassment of riches and the Baconian
style of natural philosophy caught his eyes." There, during his well-known stay with
Isaac Beeckman in 1618, he realized that scientia and ars should not be subordinated
to one another; he recognized that both were needed in concert to reveal the true
nature of the world." As the first "physico-mathematici" in Europe, Beeckman and
Descartes claimed, they tried - in the hydrostatic manuscript for example - to
unify the mathematical study of nature with true ontological, corpuscular-mechanical,

causes. Trained in the candle making and water-conduit laying trades, Beeckman
was able to theorize his hands-on knowledge ofthe mechanical arts in order to raise
to the realm of concepts the operations of artisans and machines. "What Beeckman
was demanding in natural philosophy was the application of the criteria of mean-
ingful communication between mechanical artisans - the appeal to a pictorial or
imaginable structure of parts whose motions are controlled within a putative theory
of mechanics."? Beeckman gave the initial impetus to Descartes's later contention
that the mechanical arts could function as a methodological guideline for the purpose
of discovering the laws of nature.
Before leaving Holland, Descartes invented his proportional compass, this simple
instrument that altered how he thought about mathematics.?' In Germany a few
months later, he did more than remain in his "stove-heated room" and dream about
a mirabilis scientite fundamenta: he sought the company of mathematicians such as
Johannes Faulhaber and Peter Roth, and most probably conferred with the instrument
makers and mathematical practitioners Benjamin Bramer and Jost Btirgi. 62 Late in
the 1610s Descartes adopted a mathematical practice that was by no means strange,
nor unrewarding to those searching for the foundation of a new natural philosophy.
It has been for the last twenty years Jim Bennett's contention that the mechanical
philosophy was not solely an intellectual construction, but something that was founded
with the help of "mechanics", those whose job focused on applying the mathemati-
cal sciences. Bennett demonstrates how the practical mathematical sciences were
transformed, through the use of instruments, into legitimate natural philosophical
knowledge. In describing this contract between practice and knowledge, Bennett
has recently drawn on the notion of 'virtue' to encompass both integrity and effec-
tiveness of action. As he explains, "the integrity of the grounding of an instrument
or of a practical technique in geometrical science ensures its efficiency as well as
the certainty of its results". In this context, both instrument and operator become
grounded in the mathematical sciences. "In a sense", Bennett continues, "mathemat-
ics is 'embodied', in instrument and operator; it is founded on a science rendered
applicable through virtuous instruments and through codes of practice mastered by
the expert practitioner". In other words, late sixteenth-century mechanics stood for
an epistemic culture that comprised mathematical practitioners, their instruments and
the scientia of geometry." Descartes's idea of artisans endowed with orderly souls
has to some extent a foundation in this late Renaissance epistemic culture.
Descartes employed to his advantage the trope of artisans (whether weavers or
blacksmiths) because their ratio appeared universal, reaching the mathematicite of
mathematics. Descartes's few years spent in Paris in the mid-1620s, however, would
significantly modify this methodological point of view. He soon shifted his portrayal of
artisans; he began to see them as individuals possessing unreliable bodily dispositions,
in serious need of a rigorous rational training in the logic of practice. This change of
heart was due to Descartes's direct dealings (at long last) with artisans.


Descartes's most celebrated achievement during his Parisian sojourn in the mid-1620s
was the elaboration of the law of refraction, demonstrating that the anaclastic line was
Kepler's hyperboloid. How he discovered the sine law has been the subject of several
conjectures over the past two decades.v' For our purpose we need only to emphasize
the fact that Descartes was lucky enough to study with possibly one of the best Paris-
ian geometres and optical practitioners of the time, the bourgeois Claude Mydorge.
Mersenne thought approvingly of Mydorge as a mathematician and draughtsman,
praising the latter many times in the second book of his Questiones celeberrimce in
Genesim, dedicated to conic sections and the fabrication of mirrors." Optics and
mirrors piqued Mydorge's curiosity for intellectual reasons as well as for concerns
regarding his social status. Mirrors of all kinds were a rare luxury before 1630, highly
regarded and expensive objects for the aristocracy in contact with the French court.
It is probably no exaggeration to say that Mydorge spent as much as 100,000 ecus
towards the manufacture of countless mirrors and lenses - considering it was not
uncommon to hear of people who had ruined themselves buying richly decorated
mirrors of all sizes." Besides natural philosophy, extravagance of that kind served
well Mydorge's noblesse de robe's inclination towards social climbing contra blue-
blood landed gentry. In fact, he became such a master at polishing mirrors that one of
Mersenne's early correspondents asked whether the Tresorier de France would agree
to pass on the secret of his art. Although Mydorge was a genuine honnete homme
- and thus not inclined to hide his expertise as would an artisan - a secret like
this was too good to be shared, not so much for profit as for esteem and honour."
Whatever Mydorge's chief motivation, his effort at producing such fancy objects of
high Parisian fashion was central to Descartes's later formulation and proof of the
sine law." Alongside Mydorge was an instrument maker well known in Mersenne's
circle, and who worked with the premier ingenieur du roy Jacques Aleaume in the
early 1620s.69 It was, of course, Jean Ferrier, Descartes's most famous artisan."
According to Adrian Baillet, Ferrier was adroit and highly esteemed by Parisian
This Ferrier mentioned by M. Descartes, probably introduced to him through
Mydorge, was not a simple artisan who only knew how to move his hands. He
understood the theory of his occupation and knew optics and mechanics as well
as any College Royal professor. He was not totally unfamiliar with the rest of
mathematics, and in spite of his status he was welcomed in the circles of savants
as if he were one of their own."
Ferrier, Descartes and Mydorge drew, cut, and hand-polished lenses (hyperbolic
included) as early as 1626. Their endeavour was reported by Mersenne to Robert
Cornier, who replied that Ferrier's ability as a craftsman would most certainly be
tested." We know from a much later letter to Constantijn Huygens that Descartes,
thanks to Mydorge's draughtsmanship and Ferrier's technical skill, shaped around
1627 a hyperbolic lens that provided proof of the law of refraction." Although

Mydorge's drawing and mathematical proficiency were never doubted by either

Mersenne or Descartes, Ferrier's skills as a mecanicien were, as Cornier had antici-
pated, thoroughly tested and eventually questioned.
Before Descartes landed in Paris, Mersenne had already criticized in Questiones
in Genesim the ability of artisans to manufacture good mirrors and lenses." Des-
cartes too became dissatisfied with the artisans' craftsmanship, which did not meet
his early expectations. Hence he allegedly trained in the art of lens grinding a few
Parisian tourneurs, a know-how he seemed to have mastered, according to Baillet."
Following the relationships between Descartes, Ferrier and other Dutch and French
artisans in regard to the mechanized production of hyperbolic lenses, one can identify
a significant break regarding the epistemic value previously attributed by Descartes to
these same artisans. In a recent monograph, D. Graham Burnett persuasively shows
that although the project of making telescopes may have itself initiated "a new form
of cooperation" between artisans and savants, the mechanization of lens making
"can be understood as an effort to end this new and interdependent relationship"."
In Descartes's mind the artisan - including Ferrier - changed from an ideal meta-
phor of order to a down-to-earth and mundane Jacques Metius, the Dutch optician
described at the beginning of the Dioptrique who stumbled upon the discovery of
the telescope through sheer metis. Whether Ferrier's failure as an instrument maker
was due to psychological distress or to his ambition of becoming an honnete homme
through a royal nomination at the Galerie du Louvre did not matter to Descartes in
the end. What Descartes ultimately recognized in Ferrier and others was the simple
fact that artisans in general were in need of a well-developed method."
The invention and manufacture of a mechanized lens-making machine compelled
Descartes to reconsider his conviction that the artisan was an epistemic metaphor
exemplifying a logical and disciplined orderly soul: exit the inherently methodical
artisan that guided his initial notion of mathesis. The "rational" artisan no longer
was prevalent in his philosophical argument. He needed a new metaphor, one that
would essentially be more structured and logical - like a machine. Burnett is here
more relevant than ever when he claims that "In Descartes's view the shortcomings
of craftsmen lay in their being insufficiently mechanical: they were not entirely
scrutable in mechanical terms, and therefore the path to perfected lens making lay
in the mechanization of the craftsman, more automation, and the alienation of the
hand of the artisan". 78
Because it was simply unbearable to think that an invention si vtile & si admirable
as the telescope was solely due to naked cunning and hands-on experience, Descartes's
Dioptrique, which he began writing in the early 1630s, became the rational response
to the artisan's lack of method." Although the Dioptrique may look like a manual of
technical instruction aimed at producing telescopes, it should be considered above
all as a work inculcating the method." The essay, furthermore, was not intended for
a hypothetical iiberartisan - as Bruce Eastwood argues - but was rather meant
for artisans tout court, to those ames dereglees populating the mechanical arts." The
Dioptrique was written in such a way that it established precisely how the mechanical

arts should be carried out; it showed that building complex machines should no longer
be a matter of one's cunning or hands-on experience. The Dioptrique was meant to
instruct in the mechanical arts Descartes's new and universal logic - his method.
Back in 1626 Cornier believed that Descartes would never find the law of refraction
if he did not reason out first how to make telescopes of all focal lengths. 82 Descartes
of course thought (and said) otherwise, and the explanation of refraction is found in
the second discourse of the Dioptrique, right after the nature of light and well before
the art of telescope making. His procedure thus reflected his entire philosophy of the
order of reasons: from the nature of light to the law of refraction, he then proceeded
to the working of the eye, the ability to see in general, how to perfect the latter with
artificial lenses, and finally how mechanically to build telescope (and microscope)
lenses free of spherical aberration. The lens-grinding machine - or any other
machine for that matter - was the very last thing an artisan should worry about;
without a comprehensive understanding of the problem at hand, artisans reverted
back to a craftsmanship based on the dreadful metis - back, in other words, to the
modus operandi of the Dutch Metius. What Descartes was trying to accomplish in
the Dioptrique had nothing to do with late Renaissance engineering, whose famous
yet mostly artistic theatres of machines depicted extravagant mechanisms and rarely
offered theoretical guidelines on how to make and study them." The Dioptrique
- not unlike Salomon de Caus's Les raisons des forces movvantes (Frankfurt,
1615) - was a contrario an effort to bring to the order of discourse what ought to
regulate and organize the artisanal practices. The telescope here became a powerful
emblem of the necessity to carry out a thorough re-examination of the mechanical
arts. The Cartesian telescope should consequently be understood as the by-product
of a methodical mechanical art put to its perfection.
At the apex of the Dioptrique the lens-grinding machine bore the burden of the
proof of the Cartesian method. If no one could make the machine work, no hyper-
bolic lens could be produced; with no lenses the truthfulness of the Cartesian optical
science could not be demonstrated; and without the latter demonstration, the whole
Cartesian method was put in jeopardy. No wonder Descartes always held a defen-
sive stance regarding the fabrication of this machine. Already in 1630 he believed
his machine was conceptually sound and emphasized that building it came down
essentially to Ferrier's skills. In like fashion, towards the end of the Discours de fa
methode he wanted his readers to understand and remember that if "artisans are not
immediately able to put into operation the invention explained in the Dioptrique, I
do not think it can on that account be said to be defective". A year later he was again
on the defensive when he learnt from Mersenne that Girard Desargues was discuss-
ing with Cardinal de Richelieu the opportunity to exploit on a grand scale the part
of Dioptrique pertaining to the mechanical manufacture of hyperbolic lenses. Flat-
tered by the idea, Descartes nevertheless worried that if the artisans assigned to this
task were not under his immediate supervision they would be unsuccessful and, in
consequence, he could be held responsible for their failing. 84 He knew that if artisans
did not succeed in making hyperbolic lenses with the lens-grinding machine, this

failure would not be seen as a mere imperfection of the mechanical design: it would
be acknowledged as a collapse of the Cartesian method.
Although no other instrument in the Cartesian corpus equalled the lens-grind-
ing machine in authority, mechanical apparatuses were never far from Descartes's
mind." To Golius, for example, he described a measuring instrument of his invention
to prove experimentally the authenticity of the law of refraction, giving sufficient
details (a drawing included) to build it." Descartes also tried over time to improve
weight-driven clocks, to assess an Archimedean screw invented by a Dutch engi-
neer, and to perfect an apparatus he saw in Leucheron's (Van Etten's) Recreations
mathematiques describing an arquebus shooting a lead ball vertically - which, after
many trials, it was said, did not fall back on earth." Even the study of rainbows in
the essay Meteores rested heavily on the material culture of rainbow fountain making
set in seventeenth-century courtly gardens." What made the lens-grinding machine
distinctive came from the fact that Descartes used it to prove a simple truth: the strict
organization of knowledge required to build this machine demonstrated the Carte-
sian method. The artisan had been supplanted by another metaphor, encompassing
this time the inbuilt order of levers and gears - the order of mechanism. Descartes
was teaching a new and universal habitus, one based on the rational and mechanical
attributes of the method. The lens-grinding machine became in this context more than
an artisan's tool: it became an epistemological instrument; better yet, an example
of "thing knowledge", an object fully embodying the Cartesian mechanization of
knowledge. 89


In a comment made on the motion of individual particles with regard to the overall
structure of celestial matter, Descartes declares to Burman that although "the entire
system [of the universe] is in a state of equilibrium",
[it] is a very difficult thing to conceive of, because it is a mathematical and
mechanical truth. We are not sufficiently accustomed to thinking of machines,
and this has been the source of nearly all error in philosophy."
By now, and for close to two decades, Descartes had abolished artisans as the epis-
temic emblem of order and replaced them with the more visual and tactile mechani-
cal order of machines. This "mechanical tum" was so compelling that, as Graham
Burnett tentatively illustrates, a closer connection between the mechanically produced
hyperbolic lenses of the Dioptrique and the mind's eyes' "metaphysical lens" - or
hyperbolic doubt - found in the Meditations could be entertained without too much
of a stretch." The machine in the end did not only supplant the artisan; it ultimately
incarnated Cartesian metaphysics and natural philosophy. The concept of machine
became that of an object of knowledge.
This, I believe, should be taken literally. In the Sidereus nuncius, for instance,
Galileo did not mention the telescope by name, referring instead to "the instrument
[organum] with the benefit of which [great things of nature] make themselves manifest

to our sight"." It is not unusual here for Galileo to speak of a mechanical instrument
as an organon - a thing that serves a specific purpose - following the traditional
Aristotelian definition of the word. Where Descartes distanced himself from Galileo
and other natural philosophers, however, was in the explicit and episternic connection
he made between an artificial and a natural organon; between a mechanical instru-
ment and a bodily organ."
In the Dioptrique the correlation between mechanization and organon was firmly
established. In the essay Descartes compared the same telescope to an "organe
exterieur", an organon or instrument that could be put over another external organ,
namely the human eye." For Descartes it was a simple matter of joining together
two mechanical organs, the telescope and the human eye - the latter, as claimed
by Kepler already, being nothing more than another machine, a camera obscurai"
More mechanization here meant a sure path towards perfection, in this case the per-
fection of vision. The telescope, moreover, was not unlike Descartes's compasses
found in the Geometric. Both were mechanical extensions of corporeal organs (eye
and hand) that served the purpose of achieving a kind of knowledge otherwise unat-
tainable - heavenly phenomena and complex mechanical curves respectively. That
knowledge could never be intuited with any other "natural" organ; it could not be
made certain without these special mechanical prostheses. Instruments, or mechanical
organa, could therefore be added to bodily senses in order to achieve clear and distinct
knowledge." The telescope and compass were in this context mechanical addenda
that could be likened to Ambroise Pare's famous artificial hand: once attached to
the body, they became whole with it - reminiscent of the weavers and their looms
previously mentioned; they were fully integrated, incorporated, and acted as if they
were an original part of the body, a "natural organon","
This multiplication of mechanisms - organa - was not a problem but a virtue
in Cartesian natural philosophy. When Huygens reported to Descartes in Septem-
ber 1637 that an Amsterdam tourneur could build the lens-grinding machine with
fewer contrivances than depicted in the Dioptrique, Descartes was left unconvinced.
Although such an outcome would be received with enthusiasm, he strongly believed
his machine did not need less but more mechanical contrivances, things omitted in
the original description but easy to discover with experience." Artisans' and engi-
neers' habitus told them otherwise, however, i.e. fewer moving parts was better as
regards applied mechanics. It was, for example, Salomon de Cans's chief assumption.
He criticized late Renaissance engineers like Besson and Ramelli for their overly
mechanized machines: they may look good on paper, but in reality would simply not
work (or be practical) because the operational ratio of time over the number of geared
wheels had been extended too much." Yet for Descartes, more mechanization meant
only one thing: one was approaching Nature's perfection. The difference between
God's machines and human-built machines was no longer a difference in degree,
but a difference in quantity; although His machines are composed of more parts,
tinier parts and more intricate parts, the act of creation itself - and our mechanical
understanding of creation - is identical to both our and God's machines. Only the

incommensurable number of parts in God's machines keeps the power of the summum
Artifex beyond our reach and comprehension. 100
The human body understood as a system of mechanical organa circles back to the
notion of habitus. Habitus can be translated in both French and English as disposi-
tion, and inasmuch as reason was Descartes's sole universal instrument, the human
body as a machine was composed and ordered according to the particular disposi-
tion des organes, each organon properly positioned in the body and responsible for
a specific task or action. 101 This instrumental conception of the human body arose
in the early 1630s in Descartes's L'homme, at the same time he began to repudiate
the artisan as his knowledge-making epistemic metaphor. In this treatise on man
Descartes supposed our material incarnation to be nothing else than a statue or
machine - and it was how Descartes meant it to be depicted.!" It was designed by
God in such a way that "inside it all the parts required to make it walk, eat, breathe,
and indeed to imitate all those of our functions which can be imagined to proceed
from matter and to depend solely on the disposition of our organs" .103 The world on
which this machine lived, Descartes's Monde, written around the same time, was no
different. All the particles were sorted out and reorganized from the original chaos
into a perfectly pre-disposed order. And the motion of these particles, while given
a rectilinear mouvemens by God, was repeatedly curved or irregular owing to "the
various dispositions of matter". 104 The disposition of matter and organs in the world
and in the human body respectively displayed the importance of organization (from
organon) in Descartes's natural philosophy. In other words, Descartes was organ-
izing all of knowledge, scientia; he was imposing order on the universe.
Although automata (and particularly clocks) epitomized in early modern Europe
the supreme qualities of regularity, order, and harmony, Descartes's original impetus
to mechanize the body in imitation of his well-ordered method may not have natu-
rally occurred from the contemplation of automated figures in the grottoes of the
royal gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, as is usually assumed.t'" One, I believe,
has to look for a much broader picture, specifically the rise of French absolutism. In
France, scholars such as Jean Bodin and Charles Loyseau wrote influential treatises
emphasizing the socio-political and cultural advantages of a disciplined and well-
organized state during and after the devastating Wars of Religion. "In all things there
must be order, for the sake of decorum and for their control", reasoned Loyseau in
the very first sentence of his treatise. 106 The clergy and royal authorities strove from
the late sixteenth century onward to impose a sense of order over a chaotic popular
culture by attempting to control the mind and body of the menu peuple. Drawing on
Michel Foucault's "political technology ofthe body", Robert Muchembled describes
how the state began a repression of the body centring on sexual conducts, the social
mastery of one's own body - how to become an honnete homme - and the penal
system. Such disciplining of the body and personal behaviour became an essential
element of the early modern "civilizing process" described in Norbert Elias's cel-
ebrated work. The clergy, in a similar fashion, came down hard on witchcraft, popular
fetes, and such credulous mentality as an effective way to shape and thus control the

mind of simple people. Religious morality and complete obedience to a father figure
- family patriarch, king, God - became effective means of enforcing a measure of
civil order. Mind and body were no longer the private property of beings in ancien
regime France. Individuals became social bodies, inseparable from the royal and
religious authorities of the kingdom. 107
In the microcosm of artisanal life a similar fashioning of body and mind took
place. One of Henry IV's conseillers, Barthelemy Laffemas, maintained in the
early seventeenth century that order actually reigned in the French manufactures
before the disintegration of the state's royal authority caused by the religious wars.
To improve commerce the King needed to restore "to their past perfection" the
drapery and dye manufactures. 108 A discipline of labour was seen as essential to the
success of any artisanal practice. Hence the key for master guildsmen was control
over skill, both its meaning and its possession: skill had to be made synonymous
with discipline and subordination. Training apprentices was not the only task of a
master: the transmission of trade values was as important. Artisanal habitus was as
much a result of hands-on training as it was indoctrination to the specific attitude
of a community. To become a master an apprentice had to show his/her mind and
body were appropriately moulded. Skill, as James Farr insightfully notes, "was as
much a cultural construct articulating boundaries of a community defined by status
and a sense of difference as an indicator of the economic capacity of a worker". 109
Discipline and subordination of skills, both for the body and the mind, facilitated the
establishment of order within guild society. This is why the so-called "masters by
letters", individuals nominated by royal instances without producing a masterpiece
-like the Galerie du Louvre's artisans - were scorned by master guildsmen. Their
displeasure was not so much built around the fact that masters of letters' skills were
often questionable, but rather that their socially-constructed authority as legitimate
masters was undermined. The challenging and expensive process of creating a chef-
d'ceuvre was actually about value and skill subordination of future trade masters
rather than skill credentials per se. 110
An orderly soul structured around the Cartesian method required above all an
organized body, one that acted as a material instrument, a suitable organon. Through
methodical order, Descartes sought to incorporate a new (absolute) way of know-
ing into early modern bodies. His organon - his method or knowledge-producing
instrument - generated a logic of practice in both natural philosophy and the
mechanical arts, ordering mental and manual skills of philosophers and artisans
towards the act of creating ideas and machines. I have argued that the method as
exhibited in the Dioptrique was the key in bringing forth a rational foundation for the
mechanical arts, and therefore in building exact instruments and machines. Owing
to the method, instruments (or "bodily" parts) could be designed and built in such
a way as to enhance natural abilities, skills, and habitus of living organs; instru-
ments, organa, were mechanically upgrading the human body to a higher degree
of perfection. III The method had a foot in both the realm of rational philosophy
and in the machine world. It was neither pure thought nor vile mechanique alone:

it was both at the same time.

Descartes desired to reorganize thinking and hands-on practices, and consequently
to oversee how natural philosophers created ideas and artisans manipulated matter.
He wanted to ensure, more exactly to control the acquisition of knowledge. Yet the
method was not only beneficial to natural philosophy. Matthew Jones has convincingly
shown that Descartes's Geometric - the essay that best epitomizes the Cartesian
method - was a sophisticated system of "spiritual exercises" aimed at cultivating
one's self, at finding a better - and orderly - way of life through the practice of
higher mathematics (to examine oneself geometrically Mersenne would say).!" As a
universal generator of orderly souls the method thus suggested one fundamental socio-
cultural outcome: based on the inherent bon sens of mankind, Descartes's method
became a constraining yet multifaceted pedagogical instrument, a pedagogical tool
or organon that could shape any individual into an honnete hommel" According to
Peter Dear, Descartes used the notion of mechanization to establish the criteria of
intelligibility in natural philosophy, and from the latter, to observe how it constrained
bodily behaviours. Governing one's own passions came down to exerting control
over one's own body. Descartes wanted in short to understand in mechanical terms
the movement involved in the civilizing process of absolutism. I 14 In this context,
the man-machine concept was an attempt to embody the Cartesian method into the
emergent early modem social body.
Consonant with Francis Bacon's novum organum, Descartes's organon can ulti-
mately be understood as an instrument that "more or less equalises intellects, and
leaves little opportunity for superiority, since it achieves everything by most certain
rules and forms of proof" ."5 By fully ordering and constraining knowledge-making
processes (both body and mind) anyone, embracing the right method, could become
a lord and master of Nature - in other words an honnete homme. Descartes, reach-
ing to a wide-ranging audience, made sure no one would be left out of his natural
philosophical civilizing process.!" In the end, Descartes's most famous opus was,
among many other things, a universal book of civilite.


I would like to express my warmest thanks to all who were willing to share ideas with
me in the course of the several draftings of this article, especially Ann Blair, Lorraine
Daston, Daniel Garber, Daniel Marg6csy, and Alison Simmons. I am particularly
grateful to Mario Biagioli and Rob Iliffe for their insightful comments and encourage-
ments ever since I offered ill-defined thoughts at the Harvard University Workshop
on Instruments and Material Culture of Early Modem Science, 17 April 2004.

Quotations from Descartes are taken from tEuvres de Descartes, ed. by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery,
new edn (II vols, Paris, 1996), and are cited in the form: AT vi, 33-45. English translations are taken
from The philosophical writings ofDescartes, trans!. by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald
Murdoch (3 vols, Cambridge and New York, 1984-1991), and are cited in the form: CSM i, 123-35.

I. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 75; CSM i, 149.

2. On the role of observations and experiments, see Daniel Garber, "Descartes and experiment in
the Discourse and Essays", in his Descartes embodied: Reading Cartesian philosophy through
Cartesian science (Cambridge, 2001), 85-110; Ralph M. Blake, "The role of experience in
Descartes' theory of method (I)", The philosophical review, xxxviii (1929), 125-43; Blake,
"The role of experience in Descartes' theory of method (II)", The philosophical review, xxxviii
(1929), 201-18; Alan Gewirtz, "Experience and the non-mathematical in the Cartesian method",
Journal ofthe history ofideas, ii (1941), 183-210; Desmond M. Clarke, Descartes's philosophy
ofscience (Manchester, c. 1982); Spyros Sakeilariadis, "Descartes's use of empirical data to test
hypotheses", Isis, Ixxiii (1982), 68-76.
3. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 72-73; CSM i, 148.
4. Money sometimes was not a good enough incentive to hold artisans in check. When the time came,
for instance, to engrave the plates for the Discours and Essais, Descartes and his printer made sure
the engraver would not leave without giving an address or procrastinate for too long. The only
way to enforce their wish was to keep this engraver (Franz Schooten the younger) "under house
arrest": "Celui qui les taille [the plates] me contente assez, et Ie libraire Ie tient en son logis, de
peur qu'il ne lui echappe", Descartes to Constantijn Huygens, 30 October 1636, AT i, 614.
5. Steven Shapin, A social history of truth: Civility and science in seventeenth-century England
(Chicago and London, 1994). I have contended elsewhere that volontaires, although unhelpful
in producing knowledge per se, were Descartes's vectors of knowledge dissemination; they were
the ones who Descartes trusted would make his philosophy known. J.-F. Gauvin, "Volontaires
and artisans in Descartes's natural philosophy", unpublished manuscript presented at the History
of Science Society annual meeting, Cambridge, MA, 21 November 2003.
6. Shapin, A social history oftruth (ref. 5), chap. 8.
7. J. A. Bennett, "The mechanic's philosophy and the mechanical philosophy", History ofscience, xxiv
(1986), 1-28. Pamela O. Long, "Power, patronage, and the authorship of ars: From mechanical
know-how to mechanical knowledge in the last scribal age", Isis, lxxxviii (1997),1-41; Long,
Openness, secrecy, authorship: Technical arts and the culture ofknowledge from Antiquity to the
Renaissance (Baltimore, 2001), esp. chaps. 6-7; Paula Findlen, Possessing nature: Museums,
collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy (Berkeley, 1994); Lorraine Daston and
Katharine Park, Wonders and the order of nature, 1150-1750 (New York, 1998); Deborah
Harkness, Neighborhoods of science: Knowledge and practice in Francis Bacon's London,
1560-1620 (forthcoming); Pamela H. Smith, The body ofthe artisan: Art and experience in the
Scientific Revolution (Chicago and London, 2004). On the latter see the essay review by Bruce T.
Moran, "Knowing how and knowing that: Artisans, bodies, and natural knowledge in the Scientific
Revolution", Studies in the history and philosophy ofscience, xxxvi (2005), 577-85.
8. As Descartes explains, "for one man cannot turn his hand to both farming and harp-playing [cithara],
or to several different tasks of this kind, as easily as he can to just one of them". Descartes, Regula!
ad directionem ingenii, AT x, 359-60; CSM i, 9.
9. "Habituum autem varia sunt genera, alii enim sunt animi, alii vero corporis." Eustachius a Sancto
Paulo, Summa phllosophica quadripartita (2 vols, Lyons, 1609), ii, 121. See Etienne Gilson,
Index scolastico-cartesien (Paris, 1912), s.v. habitus. Descartes, Regles utiles et claires pour
la direction de l'esprit en la recherche de la verite, ed. and transl, by Jean-Luc Marion (The
Hague, 1977), 90-91.
10. "Arithmetical demonstration and the other sciences likewise possess, each of them, their own
genera; so that if the demonstration is to pass from one sphere to another, the genus must be
either absolutely or to some extent the same. Ifthis is not so, transference is clearly impossible,
because the extreme and the middle terms must be drawn from the same genus: otherwise, as

predicated, they will not be essential and will thus be accidents," Aristotle, Posterior analytics
1.7, The Internet Classics Archives (, accessed on 3 August 2005). A very good
discussion is found in Peter Dear, Discipline and experience: The mathematical way in the
Scientific Revolution (Chicago and London, 1995), 36-46.
II. On the interconnectedness of knowledge as one of the central components of Descartes's project,
Daniel Garber, Descartes's metaphysical physics (Chicago and London, 1992).
12. Descartes, Regular, AT x, 359--61; CSM i, 9-10 for the quotes.
13. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 361; CSM i, 10.
14. On the uniqueness of ars and unity of scientia, Jean-Luc Marion, Sur l'ontologie grise de Descartes:
Science cartesienne et sa voir aristotelicien dans les Regula', 2nd edn (Paris, 1981), 25-30.
15. Marion suggests that the Regula: contain the seeds of the Cartesian metaphysics as found in the
Meditations, but it does not then unfold because Descartes was unable properly to order the
intellectual simple natures with the common simple natures. Jean-Luc Marion, "Cartesian
metaphysics and the role of the simple natures", in The Cambridge companion to Descartes,
ed. by John Cottingham (Cambridge, 1992), 115-39.
16. Descartes to Marin Mersenne, March 16317, AT i, 349. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi,
61; CSM i, 142. In a very insightful analysis of Descartes 's famous anaclastic line, Daniel Garber
shows how the programmatic statement of the method can be reconciled with a theory of practice.
Following this example closely, Garber explains that what the method gives is a "workable
procedure for discovering an appropriate path" between the reductive steps the knower has to
take from a question asked to the actual intuitus, in this case, of a potentia naturalis. From there,
the constructive steps (deductions) take us back to the question asked, for which we are now
in possession of certain knowledge. Garber, Descartes's metaphysical physics (ref. II), 35-36
(emphasis in original). For a very helpful diagram, see Garber, "Descartes and experiment in the
Discourse and Essays", in Descartes embodied (ref. 2), 85-110, p. 100.
17. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 22; CSM i, 122. Descartes emphasizes the same point
a few pages later: "Moreover, I continued practising the method I had prescribed for myself.
Besides taking care in general to conduct all my thoughts according to its rules, I set aside some
hours now and again to apply it more particularly to mathematical problems" (AT vi, 29; CSM
i, 125). See also Descartes, Regles utiles et claires pour la direction de l'esprit (ref. 9), 208. A
more detailed and somewhat similar analysis is given in Peter A. Schouls, Descartes and the
possibility ofscience (Ithaca and London, 2000), 63-91.
18. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 61--62; CSM i, 142-3.
19. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 400; CSM i, 33.
20. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 400--2; CSM i, 33-34.
21. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 371; CSM i, 16. Descartes maintains that "the power of judging well and of
distinguishing the true from the false - which is what we properly call 'good sense' or 'reason'
- is naturally equal in all men". Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 2; CSM i, III.
22. The classic reference remains Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, technology, and the arts in the early modern
era, transl. by Salvator Attanasio (New York, 1970). A more sophisticated analysis has recently
been published by Smith, The body of the artisan (ref. 7).
23. Descartes, Regula: AT x, 404; CSM i, 35.
24. Descartes, Regula, AT x, 382; CSM i, 22.
25. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 384; CSM i, 23.
26. According to Jean-Luc Marion, Descartes would have used in French the word 'adresse' - and
not 'sagacite'; which is close to 'perspicacite' - to designate this mental faculty, a word the
natural philosopher happily applied to both mechanical and mental skills. For instance, "il faut
de I' adresse et de l'habitude pour faire et pour ajusterles machines que j' ai decrites", and "savoir

joindre I'adresse de la main a celie de l'esprit", Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 77

and Descartes to Huygens, I November 1635, AT i, 330, respectively. Descartes, Regles utiles
et claires pour la direction de l'esprit (ref. 9), 208-9.
27. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 362-4; CSM i, 10-11. In the Discours Descartes mentions that he did
not "cease to value the exercises done in the Schools". Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT
vi, 5; CSM i, 113.
28. Descartes, Regular, AT x, 372; CSM i, 16.
29. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 397; CSM i, 31.
30. The "continuous and wholly uninterrupted sweep of thought" refers to Rule VII and is part of
Descartes's theory of order. On the mechanical thinking process, this could explain some of
Descartes's strange assertions like: "Ce qui cadre beaucoup avec ma maniere de philosopher, et
qui revient merveilleusement a toutes les experiences rnecaniques que j' ai faites de la nature a
ce sujet", Descartes to Villebressieu, summer 1631, AT i, 217. See also Descartes to Froidmont,
3 October 1637, AT i, 410-1. Descartes, Regles utiles et claires pour la direction de l'esprit
(ref. 9), 204.
31. Descartes, Regula, AT x, 379; CSM i, 20.
32. Descartes, Regula, AT x, 404; CSM i, 35, where it is translated as "to invent an order". For a complete
discussion see Marion, Sur l'ontologie grise de Descartes (ref. 14),71-78.
33. Jean-Paul Weber, La constitution du texte des Regula: (Paris, 1964). See also John Schuster,
"Descartes' mathesis universalis, 1619-1628", in Descartes, philosophy, mathematics and
physics, ed. by Stephen Gaukroger (Brighton, 1980),41-96.
34. Descartes, Regula, AT x, 377-8; CSM i, 19. Marion, Sur l'ontologie grise de Descartes (ref. 14),
55-69, is by far the most sophisticated and persuasive analysis of the mathesis universalis.
35. This point is made in Rule XIV of the Regula: "For the Rules which I am about to expound are
much more readily employed in the study of these sciences [arithmetic and geometry] (where
they are all that is needed) than in any other sort of problem. Moreover, these Rules are so
useful in the pursuit of deeper wisdom that I have no hesitation in saying that this part of our
method was designed not for the sake of mathematical problems; our intention was, rather, that
the mathematical problems should be studied almost exclusively for the sake of the excellent
practice which they give us in the method", Descartes, Regula; AT x, 442; CSM i, 58-59. The
science of order produced by the mathesis universalis represents Michel Foucault's seventeenth-
century shift of episteme. Foucault acknowledges that order does not necessarily mean an all-out
mathematization of knowledge. Foucault, Les mots et les choses: Une archeologie des sciences
humaines (Paris, 1966,2001),71.
36. Rule IV should be understood as Descartes's response to the intellectual clash between the Jesuits
Benito Pereira and Christopher Clavius regarding the epistemology of mathematics. Descartes's
mathesis universalis is neither Pereira's philosophia prima nor Clavius's attempt at defending
the philosophical status of mathematics. The mathesis is a highly developed philosophical blend
between two traditions found within the Society of Jesus. Edouard Mehl, Descartes en Allemagne,
1619-1620: Le contexte allemand de l'elaboration de la science cartesienne (Strasbourg, 2001),
243-61. Dear, Discipline and experience (ref. 10),32-46.
37. Descartes, Regula; AT x, 366; CSM i, 12-13. Marion, Sur l'ontologie grise de Descartes (ref. 14),
42: "L' apparente contradiction ... du privilege prealablement reconnu aux seules mathematiques,
plus qu'une incoherence, traduit Ie coup de force et !'intention profonde des Regula: mettre au
jour, aI' encontre de la constante aristotelicienne, OU certitude et 'physique' restent inversement
proportionnelles, des objets non-mathematiques (et done 'physique') propres a fournir Ie meme
degre (voire un plus grand) de certitude, que n'en fournit l'objet des mathernatiques; considerer
comme certain un objet non-rnathematique: telle est la tache que se fixent les Regula, au terme
de la seconde [regie]."

38. I follow here the theoretical idea of structures structurees et structurantes of Pierre Bourdieu, Le
sens pratique (Paris, 1980), 88-89.
39. Bourdieu, Le sens pratique (ref. 38), 92. Regarding weaving and other simple arts, "they present us
in the most distinct way with innumerable instances of order, each one different from the other,
yet all regular", Descartes, Regula; AT x, 404; CSM i, 35.
40. On exercices structuraux Bourdieu, Le sens pratique (ref. 38), 126. Interestingly enough,
perspicacitas and sagacitas as exercices structuraux for the mind find a correspondence in the
mechanical arts that not even Francis Bacon dared contemplate. To him "The human mind is
misled by looking at what is done in the mechanical arts, in which bodies are entirely changed by
composition and separation, into supposing that something similar also happens in the universal
nature of things", Francis Bacon, The new organon, ed. by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne
(Cambridge, 2000), aphorism LXVI, 53.
41. Descartes, La recherche de la verite, AT x, 500; CSM ii, 402.
42. Descartes, La recherche de la verite, AT x, 502-3; CSM ii, 403-4.
43. The literature on this topic is rich. See, for instance, Marcel Mauss, "Body techniques", in Sociology
and psychology: Essays, ed. by Ben Brewster (London, 1979), 97-135, and Otto Siburn,
"Reworking the mechanical value of heat: Instruments of precision and gestures of accuracy in
early Victorian England", Studies in history and philosophy of science, xxvi (1995), 73-106.
44. Charles Loyseau, A treatise of orders and plain dignities, ed. and transl. by Howell A. Lloyd
(Cambridge, 1994 [161OJ), 179-81. Some tradesmen such as "apothecaries, goldsmiths, jewellers,
haberdashers, wholesalers, drapers, hosiers, and others like them", gained some prominence
because their crafts involved commerce. The latter artisans, who called themselves "honourable
men" and "bourgeois", were morally superior to other tradesmen whose metiers "consist]ed] rather
in physical labour than in commercial activity or in shrewdness of mind". Mere manual labourers
were almost by definition the basest artisans of them all since "there is no worse occupation
than to have no occupation". To qualify as a honnete homme an artisan had to leave the manual
labour almost entirely to others, thus transforming himself into a merchant.
45. See Jean Nicot, Thresor de la langue francoise (1606), where one can read under artisan: "Artisan.
ouArtiste, Artifex, Opifex". L'Academic Francaise made the distinction we are accustomed to use
today only in 1762: "artiste, ce1uiqui travaille dans un art oil Ie genie et la main doivent concourir
(un peintre, un architecte sont des artistes); l'artisan est un ouvrier dans un art mecanique, un
homme de metier", Le Grand Robert de la langue francaise, ed. by Alain Rey, s. v. artisan. For an
historical analysis of this significant shift, Larry Shiner, The invention ofart: A cultural history
(Chicago and London, 2001), 99-120. Jean de La Fontaine, for instance, in one of his fables
- Le lion abattu par l'homme - used 'artisan' to describe a painter.
46. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 9; CSM i, 115. In the Furetiere and Academic Francaise
dictionaries, 'artiste' is used especially to portray alchemists. In the Middle Ages, it became
common to name "artistes" (or sometimes artiens) those who studied the liberal arts - scholars
en devenir - and "artifex" those who practised the mechanical arts. Shiner, The invention of
art (ref. 46), 30.
47. "Ce que I' on pourroit desirer d' eux [Peripateticiens] (au cas qu' ils voulussent ayder 11 establir la vraye
Philosophie) consiste seulement 11 dresser des memoires fidelles des leurs obseruations, & de
leurs experiences: ce qu'il ne faut pas esperer iusqu'a ce que les honnestes hommes s'employent
11 cet art, & iusques 11 ce que les Artistes & Operateurs ayent quitte I' imagination de la poudre de
projection, de la Magnesie des sages, & de la pierre Philosophique", Mersenne, Qvestions inovyes,
ov recreation des sravans (Paris, 1634; facsimile Stuttgart, 1972), Question xxviii, 126-7.
48. William Eamon, Science and the secrets of nature: Books of secrets in medieval and early modern
culture (Princeton, 1994), 281.
49. Eamon, Science and the secrets of nature (ref. 48), 284. On the concept of metis more generally,

Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vemant, Les ruses de I 'intelligence: La metis des Grecs (Paris,
50. Friedrich Solmsen, "Nature as craftsman in Greek thought", Journal of the history of ideas, xxiv
(1963),473-96 (Plato, Gorgias, 503e, quoted on p. 484). See also Bertrand Gille, Les mecaniciens
grecs: La naissance de la technologie (Paris, 1980). On Aristotle and his legacy, Smith, The
body of the artisan (ref. 7).
51. Descartes, Regula, AT x, 375-7; CSM i, 18-19.
52. Smith, The body of the artisan (ref. 7), esp. chaps 4 and 5 (quote on p. 142).
53. Pierre Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 a 1730: Contribution a l'histoire sociale de la
France du XVlle siecle (Paris, 1960),281-2,585. Pierre Deyon, "Variations de la production
textile aux XVIe et XVile siecles", Annales: Economies, societes, civilisations, xviii (1963),
921-55. James R. Farr, Hand of honor: Artisans and their world in Dijon, 1550-1650 (Ithaca
and London, 1988). Henri Heller, Labour. science and technology in France, 1500-1620
(Cambridge, 1996), chap. 6.
54. Roger Baron, Science et sagesse chez Hugues de Saint- Victor (Paris, 1957),60--87.
55. Dominique Cardon, La draperie au Moyen Age: Essor d'une grande industrie europeenne (Paris,
1999),416-17,539---63. See also Giorgio Israel, "Des Regula 11 la Geometric", Revue d'histoire
des sciences, Ii (1998), 183-236, where he discusses the role of weaving in Descartes's
56. According to Adrien Baillet, if Descartes had been raised in a condition allowing him to become
an artisan, he would have been a skilful one because, we learn, he had in his youth a particular
inclination for the arts. Like so many other such claims made by Baillet this one could be utterly
wrong, or at best a misinterpretation. Adrien Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (2 vols, Paris,
1691), i, 35. Genevieve Rodis-Lewis believes Baillet has his chronology wrong here, and that this
remark should be associated to a much later phase in Descartes's life: Rodis-Lewis, "Descartes'
life and the development of his philosophy", in The Cambridge companion to Descartes (ref.
15),21-57, p. 26. Descartes himself often contradicts Baillet's assertion. He said, for instance,
that he was born without any manual abilities: "pour moy ... i' estois venu au monde sans mains."
Descartes to ***, [Nov.-Dec. 1638?], AT ii, 452.
57. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 9; CSM i, 115. On the role of travel during the early modem
period, see the remarkable opus by Daniel Roche, Humeurs vagabondes: De la circulation des
hommes et de l'utilite des voyages (Paris, 2003).
58. Simon Schama, The embarrassment ofriches: An interpretation ofDutch culture in the Golden Age
(New York, 1997). On Dutch Baconianism, Svetlana Alpers, The art of describing: Dutch art
in the seventeenth century (Chicago, 1983), esp. chap. I. Smith, The body of the artisan (ref.
7), esp. chaps. 5 and 6.
59. This is first thing Beeckman writes down in his Journal:"Qureritur cur artes inter se non sint
subordinate...." On the importance of both scientia and ars, he also writes down on the first page
of the Journal: "Ad excitandum artium studium illud maxime faceret, si immunitates alicujus
vectigalis etc. ijs qui Euclidis Elementa intelligerent, promitterentur. Quibus bene intellectis,
pauci cetera studia negligerent, etiam in medijs occupationibus mechanicis," Isaac Beeckman,
Journal tenu par Isaac Beeckman de 1604 a1634, ed. by Cornelis de Waard (4 vols, The Hague,
1939-53), i, I.
60. Stephen Gaukroger and John Schuster, "The hydrodynamic paradox and the origins of Cartesian
dynamics", Studies in the history and philosophy ofscience, xxiii (2002), 535-72, p. 552. For a
general appraisal of the Beeckrnan-Descartes relationship, Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An
intellectual biography (Oxford, 1995), chap. 3; Klaas van Berkel, "Descartes' debt to Beeckman:
Inspiration, cooperation, conflict", in Descartes' natural philosophy, ed. by Stephen Gaukroger,
John Schuster, and John Sutton (London, 2000), 46-59. The classic work on Beeckman remains

Klaas Van Berkel, Isaac Beeckman (/588-1637) en de mechanisering van het wereldbeeld
(Amsterdam, 1983), see pp. 217-35 for the role of technology in Beeckman's thinking,
61. Gaukroger, Descartes (ref. 60), 92-103. John A. Schuster, "Descartes and the scientific revolution,
1618-1634: An interpretation", Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 1977, i, 117-27. Henk
J. M. Bos, "On the representation of curves in Descartes' Geometric", Archives for the history
of exact sciences, xxiv (1981), 295-338. Michel Serfati, "Les compas cartesiens", Archives de
philosophie, Ivi (1993),197-230.
62. Baillet, La vie de M. Des-cartes (ref. 56), i, 67-70 on meeting the two mathematicians. On Bramer
and his instruments, Descartes, Cogitationes privata, AT x, 241-2. The best analysis of Descartes
in Germany and the significance of this sojourn is Mehl, Descartes en Allemagne (ref. 36). See
also William R. Shea, The magic ofnumbers and motion: The scientific career ofRene Descartes
(Canton, MA, 1991), 103-7.
63. Bennett, "The mechanics' philosophy and the mechanical philosophy" (ref. 7); J. A. Bennett,
"Geometry in context in the sixteenth century: The view from the museum", Early science and
medicine, vii (2002), 214-30, pp. 229-30. On epistemic culture see Karin Knorr-Cetina, Epistemic
cultures: How the sciences make knowledge (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1999).
64. The best accounts are Gaukroger, Descartes (ref. 60), 135-86; John A. Schuster, "Descartes opticien:
The construction of the law of refraction and the manufacture of its physical rationales", in
Gaukroger, Schuster and Sutton (eds), Descartes's natural philosophy (ref. 60), 258-312; Shea,
The magic of numbers and motion (ref. 62), 149-63. See A. 1. Sabra, Theories of light from
Descartes to Newton (Cambridge, 1981), 93-135 for Fermat's criticisms.
65. Drawing accurate parabolic mirrors held no secrets for Mydorge, judging from a letter sent by
Robert Cornier to Mersenne, one of the Minim's early correspondents: "I do not know of any
other means of making parabolic mirrors beyond those with which you are acquainted, especially
since you have the paper of Mr. Mydorge who knows all that can be known on the matter. I can
only tell you that Mr. [Guillaume] Le Vasseur says that he has found an absolutely certain way
by the sines. But I cannot say more since I do not yet know how he goes about it." Cornier to
Mersenne, 18 August [1625], in Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne, religieux minime,
ed. by Cornelis de Waard (17 vols, Paris, 1933-88), i, 260-1; quoted in Shea, The magic of
numbers and motion (ref. 62), 150. This Le Vasseur was an instrument-maker from Rouen,
well-known in the region for his work in navigation and map-making. Cornier to Mersenne, 16
January 1626: "Je vous envoie Ie billet tel que Le Vasseur me I'a envoye pour responce a ce que
vous me demandies des longitudes et latitudes", Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne, i,
332; see also ibid., 242-3. His method of drawing parabolic shapes "by the sines" most likely
has nothing to do with Descartes's (and Mydorge's) later determination of the sine law for the
refraction of light. Snel (in the 1620s) and Harriot (c. 1598) found the same law of refraction,
but both were unknown to Descartes.
66. Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, Histoire du miroir (Paris, 1994), 31-39. At the end of the century mirrors
became common objects of consumption for the noblesse and bourgeoisie alike. On Mydorge's
disbursement, Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (ref. 56), ii, 326.
67. Cornier to Mersenne, 16 January 1626: "Ce que vous me mandes de l'excellence des miroirs de
M' Midorge, me faiet souvenir de vous prier de me mander si c' est de sa facon et, si ainsi est,
quelle en est la matiere et la dose." Cornier to Mersenne, 27 Jauary 1626: "Je vous remercie de
toute mon affection de la peone que vous prenes am' expliquer les miroirs de M' Midorge et ses
opinions. J' euse bien desire scavoir son poli, mais puisqu' il se Ie reserve, it n' en fault point parler.
J' en scay quelques uns qui sont bons et dont j'ay veu I' effect qui, je croy, se peut conduire a une
grande perfection." Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne (ref. 65), i, 331, 354.
68. On Mydorge's importance for Descartes as an instrument maker cum natural philosopher, Baillet
writes: "Rien au monde ne luy fut plus utile que ces verres pour connoitre & pour expliquer,

comme il a fait depuis dans sa Dioptrique, la nature de la lumiere, de la vision, & de la refraction.
M. Mydorge luy en fit faire de paraboliques & d'hyperboliques, d'ovales & d'elliptiques. Et
comme il avoit la main aussi sure & aussi delicate que I'esprit subtil, il voulut decrire luy-
meme les hyperboles & les ellipses. C' est ce qui fut d'un secours merveilleux 11 M. Descartes
non seulement pour mieux comprendre qu' il n' avoit fait jusqu' alors la nature de l' ellipse & de
l'hyperbole, leur propriete touchant les refractions, la rnaniere dont on doit les decrire; mais
encore pour se con firmer dans plusieurs belles decouvertes qu'il avoit deja faites auparavant
touchant la lumiere, & les moyens de perfectionner la vision." Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-
Cartes (ref. 56), i, 149-50.
69. When Aleaume passed away late in 1627, Peiresc feared for his manuscripts (some of which written
by Viete) and instruments. Peiresc thus suggested on 8 January 1628 that "l'instrument [the
compass] que luy avoit faict Ferrier pour descrire la ligne necessaire 11 la convexite desdictes
lunettes et miroirs convexes, et les verres et miroirs qu 'il en avoit essayez ... il faudroit que cela
passast par les mains de M' Midorge, tresorier de France ... lequel seul je cognois en ce pais Ie plus
approchant de la curiosite de feu M' Alleaume et de sa doctrine et prattique aux mathematiques
et mechaniques,' Quoted in Mersenne, Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne (ref. 65), i,
617. See also Cornier to Mersenne, 24 December [1627]: "Je croy que M' Midorge ne se sera
pas oublie dans la vendue de M' Alleaume", ibid., 613.
70. Ferrier's first name is sometimes questioned. Maurice Daumas (Les instruments scientifiques aux
XVII' et XVIII' siecles (Paris, 1953), 98) suggests it is Guillaume, basing his assertion on the
nineteenth-century French instrument maker Camille Sebastien Nachet. Yet Jean-Baptiste Morin
in a 1634 publication refers to Ferrier as "D. Ioannes Ferrier, instrumentorum mathematicorum
sollertissimus et accuratissimus fabrefactor". I use this latter information in naming Ferrier.
Morin is quoted in Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne (ref. 65), i, 516.
71. Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (ref. 56), i, 151.
72. Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March 1626, in Mersenne, Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne (ref.
65), i, 420. This part of the letter refers, according to the editors of the Correspondance, to a letter
sent by Mydorge to Mersenne regarding the hyperbolic or elliptical shape of the anaclastic line.
Mydorge to Mersenne, [February-March 1626?], in ibid., i, 404-15. For a discussion of the dating
of this letter, Gaukroger, Descartes (ref. 60),438-39 (note 26). Regarding Ferrier and parabolic
mirrors, Cornier continues: "II [Ferrier] diet une chose merveilleuse, qu'une si petite partie de
parabole brusle avec effect si loing. Car d' ordinaire, pour brusler de loing, estant necessaire
d'avoir une portion d'une grande circonference, cela est si plat en petit volume qu'il demeure
avec tres peu de force", Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne (ref. 65), i, 420. Descartes
will later say that it is impossible for a miroir ardent to bum at a distance of one league (lieue)
unless the mirror is over twelve metres ("plus de six toises") across, even if it had been the work
of an Angel. Descartes to Mersenne, January 1630, AT i, 109-10. Mersenne discusses this topic
in Qvestions inovyes (ref. 47), Question xxxv. On the history (legend) of Archimedes's great
burning mirrors, D. L. Simms, "Archimedes and the burning mirrors of Syracuse", Technology
and culture, xviii (1977),1-24.
73. Descartes to Huygens, [December 1635], AT i, 335-7.
74. "Quid ita, nunquid hujuscemodi operibus utilissimis caremus, quia multi, qui has lineas repererunt,
eas aeterno silentio involvunt, ne quando alicui proficiant." Quoted in Correspondance du Pere
Marin Mersenne (ref. 65), i, 299.
75. "[Descartes] devint luy-rneme en tres peu de terns un grand maitre dans l'art de tailler les verres:
& comme l'industrie des Mathernaticiens se trouve souvent inutile par la faute des Ouvriers
dont l'adresse ne repond pas tofijours 11 I'esprit des Auteurs qui les font travailler, il s'appliqua
particulierement 11 former la main de quelques Tourneurs qu'il trouva les plus experts, & les
mieux disposez 11 ce travail. En quoy il eut la satisfaction de voir Ie succez de ses soins avant

que de sortir de la France pour se retirer en Hollande", Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes
(ref. 56). i, 150.
76. D. Graham Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest: Lens making machines andtheir significance
in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia. 2005). 36. On Descartes. Ferrier and artisans. see also
Shea. The magic ofnumbers and motion (ref. 62). 151-8. 191-201; Giulia Belgioioso, "Descartes
e gli artigiani", in La biografia intellettuale di Rene Descartes attraverso la Correspondance, ed.
by Jean-Robert Arrnogathe, Giulia Belgioioso, and Carlo Vinti (Naples. 1999), 113-65.
77. Descartes is not insensitive to Ferrier's problems. which he associates with some sort of psychological
unrest: "Apres tout. ie plains fort M'. Ferrier & voudrois bien pouuoir, sans trop d'incomrnodite,
soulager sa mauuaise fortune; car ilia merite meilleure, & je ne connois en luy de deffaut,
sinon qu'il ne fait jamais son conte sur Ie pie des choses presentes, mais seulement de celles
qu'il espere ou qui sont passees, & qu'il a vne certaine irresolution qui l'empesche d'executer
ce qu'il entreprend. Ie lui ay rebattu presque la mesme chose en toutes les lettres que ie luy ai
ecrittes; mais vous auez plus de prudence que moy, pour scauoir ce qu'il faut dire & conseiller",
Descartes to Mersenne, [18 March 1630]. AT i, 132. Ferrier's lack of mechanical skills may have
been caused by a too strong inclination towards pure mathematics: "[Lja douceur qu'il [Ferrier]
avoit trouvee dans la meditation. & dans les entretiens des Mathematiciens, avoit beaucoup
dirninue en luy I'habitude du travail [manuel]", Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes (ref. 56),
i, 186. In a letter Ferrier sent to Descartes, he mentions indeed how much he wants to "taste"
and "comprehend" the "true foundations of science" from scholars such as Descartes "tant i' ay
d' ambition de me faire connoistre par quelque chose au dela du commun", Ferrier to Descartes.
26 October 1629. AT i. 51.
78. Burnett. Descartes and the hyperbolic quest (ref. 76). 36.
79. Descartes to Golius, [January 1632], AT i, 234--5, where Descartes mentions he will send the first
part of his Dioptrique that deals with refraction, without the philosophy.
80. Philippe Hamou, La mutation du visible: Essai sur la portee epistemologique des instruments
d'optique au XVII' siecle (2 vols, Villeneuve D'Ascq (Nord), 1999), i, 239-88.
81. Bruce Stansfield Eastwood. "Descartes on refraction: Scientific versus rhetorical method". Isis.
Ixxv (1984), 481-502.
82. "Au surplusje ne croy pas que vostre mathematicien [Descartes], quelqu'habile homme qu'il soit,
puisse bien donner des raisons des refractions jusques a ce qu'il ait enseigne de faire des lunetes
de Hollande par raison et reglement en telle longueur que I' on vouldra. Car en cela git un des
plus grands secrets des refractions a mon advis .,.", Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March 1626. in
Correspondance du Pere Marin Mersenne (ref. 65). i, 420.
83. It is interesting to note that the theoretical portion of Jacques Besson's Theatrum instrumentorum
machinarum (Orleans. 1569) was never published. yet is developed in the manuscript version
(British Library) of the work. Alex Keller. "A manuscript version of Jacques Besson's book of
machines. with his unpublished principles of mechanics". in On the pre-modern technology
and science: Studies in honour of Lynn White, Jr., ed. by B. S. Hall and D. C. West (Malibu.
84. Descartes to Ferrier. [2 December 1630], AT i, 185. Descartes. Discours de la methode. AT vi. 77;
CSM i, ISO. Descartes to Mersenne, [25 January 1638?].AT i. 5OG-I; Daumas, Les instruments
scientifiques aux XVII' et XVIII' siecles (ref. 70). 99; Baillet, La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes
(ref. 56), i, 320-1.
85. Descartes is fully aware that precise instrument making is of the utmost importance to natural
philosophy. Instruments can be used, for instance. to ascertain the number. velocity. and shape
of sunspots and to know how the air refracts the light from the stars, and whether it also affects
the light from the Moon. Descartes to Mersenne, January 1630. AT i, 113: "Mais ces choses la
requierent des instrumens si iustes ... :'

86. Descartes to Golius, [2 February 1632], AT i, 236-40. "Ie ne doute point que vous ne puissies
trouuer plusieurs autres inuentions meilleures que celie cy pour faire la mesme experience, si
vous prenes la peine d'en chercher; mais pource que ie scay que vous aues beaucoup d'autres
occupations, I'ay creu que si vous n'y auies pas encore pense, ie vous soulagerois peut-estre
d'autant ..." (ibid., 240).
87. Arthur H. Schrynemakers, "Descartes and the weight-driven chain-clock", Isis, Ix (1969), 233-6. On
the Archimedean screw, Descartes to Huygens, 15 November 1643, AT iv, 761-6. According to
Leucheron, the experiment was done many times with the same result. Descartes does not doubt the
outcome per se, but still believes it is worth exploring further. Mersenne asked someone to do the
experiment with an arquebuze, giving again the same result as in the Recreations mathematiques.
Descartes, however, is not convinced and does not judge it sufficient to draw certain knowledge
from it (quelque chose de certain). He therefore suggests doing the experiment again with an
instrument of his own design, using a cannon always kept in the upright position by a system of
pulleys. Descartes to Mersenne, [April 1634], AT i, 287; Descartes to Mersenne, 15 May 1634,
AT i, 293-94. The choice of a cannon that could support a cannonball of 30 to 40 pounds is better
because the iron from which it is made does not melt as easily as the lead ball from the arquebus;
and moreover such a big ball would be found more easily if it came back to earth.
88. Descartes uses these fashionable machines to investigate the phenomenon, as well as to relocate
wonder from garden engineers to natural philosophers, thus displacing a "science of miracles"
from simple technical achievements to the knowledge of mathematics and mechanical philosophy.
Simon Werrett, "Wonders never cease: Descartes's Meteores and the rainbow fountain", The
Britishjournalfor the history of science, xxxiv (2001),129-47.
89. Davis Baird, Thing knowledge: A philosophy of scientific instruments (Berkeley, 2004). Burnett,
Descartes and the hyperbolic quest (ref. 76), 132, for the association of the lens-grinding machine
to an "epistemological instrument". On the philosophy of instrumentation, Hans Radder (ed.),
The philosophy of scientific experimentation (Pittsburgh, 2003).
90. Descartes to Burman, ATv, 174. English translation in John Cottingham (ed.), Descartes' conversation
with Burman (Oxford, 1976),44, §73.
91. Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest (ref. 76), 125-32.
92. Ga1ileo Galilei, Sidereus nuncius, in Le opere di Galileo Galilei, ed. by Antonio Favaro (20 vols,
Florence, 1890-1909), iii, 53-96, p. 59. For the English translation, Galileo, Side reus nuncius or
The sidereal messenger, transl. by Albert van HeIden (Chicago and London, 1989), 35.
93. A very good analysis of organon qua instrument is given by Don Bates, "Machina ex Deo: William
Harvey and the meaning of instrument",]ournal ofthe history ofideas, Ixi (2000), 577-93. See
also Dennis Des Chene, Spirits and clocks: Machine and organism in Descartes (Ithaca and
London, 2001), 89-95 for an analysis of Suarez's notion of instrument.
94. "Si bien qu'il ne nous reste a considerer que les organes exterieurs, entre lesquels ie comprens toutes
les parties transparentes de I' ceil, aussy bien que tous les autres cors qu' on peut mettre entre luy
& l'obiet", Descartes, Dioptrique, AT vi, 148.
95. Descartes, Dioptrique, AT vi, 114-17.
96. Matthew L. Jones argues somewhat similarly when he writes that Descartes's compasses "offered the
crucial heuristic, a material propaedeutic, for Descartes' [s] revised account of mathematics freed
from memory and subject to a criterion of graspable unity. A simple mathematical instrument
became the model and exemplar of the knowledge of Descartes's new subject, the one supposedly
so removed from the material", Jones, "Descartes's geometry as spiritual exercise", Critical
inquiry, xxviii (2001), 40-71, p. 61.
97. Ambroise Pare, Les ceuvresde M. Ambroise Pare conseiller;et premier chirurgien du roy (Paris, 1598),
chap. 22, "Des moyens & artifices d'adiouster ce qui defaut naturellement ou par accident".
98. Huygens to Descartes, 8 September 1637, AT i, 395-96: "Mais comme il [Ie tourneur d' Amsterdam]

est homme industrieux en matiere de mouuemens mechaniques, il presume de venir a bout de

vostre inuention a beaucoup moins de facon, En effect, it produit des choses si estranges par des
petites machines de deux liards, que si ce n'estoit vous, Monsieur, i'espererois qu'il abregeroit
de quelque chose ce que vous auez desseigne pour arriuer a la perfection de ces verres; nous
verrons ce qui arriuera, & vous en rendrons compte." Descartes to Huygens, 5 October 1637,AT
i, 433: "Mais puisqu'il vous plaist en scauoir mon opinion, ie vous diray franchement que tant
s'en faut que i'espere qu'il en viene a bout, auec des machines qui ayent moins de facon que la
miene, qu' au contraire ie me persuade qu' on y doit encore adiouster diuerses choses, que i' ay
omises, mais que ie croy n'estre point si difficiles a inuenter que l'vsage ne les enseigne."
99. "[M]ais pour reuenir aceux qui ont eu cognoissance des Machines mouuantes & Hidrauliques, peu
en ont escrit de nostre temps, bien est vray, que Jacob Besson, Augustin Ramelly, & quelques
autres ont mis en lumiere quelques Machines par eux inventees sur Ie papier, mais peu d'icelles
peuuent auoir aucun effect, & ont creu, que par vne multiplication de rolies dentelees, lesdites
machines auroient effect, selon leur pensee, & n' ont pas considere, que ladite multiplication est
Iiee auec Ie temps, comme il sera monstre en son lieu ...", Salomon de Caus, Les Raisons des
forces movvantes Auec diuerses Machines tant vtilles que plaisantes Aus quelies sont adioints
plusieurs debeings de grotes et fontaines (Frankfurt, 1615), n.p., Epistre au Lecteur. De Caus
gives an example (Theoresme XVT) of a machine to raise weights made of six geared wheels of
increasing size. Although, theoretically, multiplying the number of wheels can expand infinitely
the load a machine can lift, in this theorem de Caus calculates that a worker would have to turn
the crank 2,985,984 times to cause the sixth and biggest wheel to make a single revolution.
Assuming this worker could turn the crank 10,000 times a day, it would still take 298 days for
the sixth wheel to complete one revolution!
100. Des Chene, Spirits and clocks (ref. 93), 101-2.
101. Descartes, Discours de la methode, AT vi, 57; CSM i, 140. See also Descartes, Regles utiles et
claires pour la direction de l'esprit (ref. 9), 89-91.
102. On the representation of bodily parts in Descartes's first two posthumous editions of the treatise on
man, Rebecca M. Wilkin, "Figuring the dead Descartes: Claude Clerselier's Homme de Rene
Descartes (1664)", Representations, Ixxxiii (2003), 38-66.
103. Descartes, L'homme, AT xi, 120; CSM i, 99.
104. Descartes, Le monde, AT xi, 34--35, 46-47; quotation, CSM i, 97.
105. Gaukroger, Descartes (ref. 60), 63-64. Werrett, "Wonders never cease" (ref. 88). On clocks see Otto
Mayr, Authority, liberty & automatic machinery in early modern Europe (Baltimore and London,
1986), and Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, The history of the hour: Clocks and modern temporal
orders, trans!. by Thomas Dunlap (Chicago and London, 1996), esp. chap. 8.
106. Loyseau, A treatise of orders and plain dignities (ref. 44), 5.
107. Robert Muchembled, Culture populaire et culture des elites dans la France mode me (XV-XVII/'
steele), 2nd edn (Paris, 1991), 225-85. Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison
(Paris, 1975), esp. 159-227. Norbert Elias, The civilizing process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic
investigations, rev. edn (Oxford and Malden, MA, 2000). An interesting criticism of Elias's thesis
is found in Hans Peter Duerr, Nudite et pudeur: Le mythe du processus de civilisation, trans!'
by Veronique Bodin and Jacqueline Pincemin (Paris, 1998). Such a radical rationalization of
the state and social life can only be understood in the light of the disorders created by the Wars
of Religion. See, for instance, Denis Crouzet, Les Guerriers de Dieu: La violence au temps des
troubles de religion, vers 1525-vers 1610 (2 vols, Seyssel, 1990), ii, 624, and Mack P. Holt, The
French wars of religion, 1562-1629 (Cambridge, 1995), 210--16. One of the most interesting
sociological studies on this topic is Pierre Bourdieu, Meditations pascaliennes, rev. edn (Paris,
2003), 185-234: "Les injonctions sociales les plus serieuses s'adressent non a I'intellect mais
au corps" (p. 204).

108. Barthelemy de Laffemas, Reiglement general pour dresser les manufactures en ce royaulme
(Paris, 1603), where he wrote: "Le defaut de nos polices a perverti l'ordre qui s'observoit, tant
ala fabrique des manufactures qu'a I'effet de tout ce qui en depend ...." Hence the King had
to reestablish the "manufactures de draperie et de teintures en leur legalite, bonte et perfection
anciennes". Quoted in Emile Levasseur, Histoire des classes ouvrieres et de I 'industrie en France
avant 1789 (2 vols, Paris, 1900-1), ii, 155. Contemporary to Laffemas, Antoine de Monchrestien
comes to an identical conclusion in 1615 when he says that "Le plus Royal exercice que peuvent
prendre Vos Majestes c'est de ramener a I'ordre ce qui est detraque, De regler et distinguer les
Arts tombez en une monstrueuse confusion", Monchrestien, Traicte de l'ceconomie politique,
ed. by Francois Billacois (Geneva, 1999),66.
109. James R. Farr, "Cultural analysis and early modem artisans", in The artisan and the European
town, 1500-1900, ed. by Geoffrey Crossick (Aldershot, 1997),56-74, p. 67.
110. For "masters of letters", Loyseau, A treatise of orders and plain dignities (ref. 44), 226. For how
"unfair" was the production of masterpieces, Levasseur, Histoire des classes ouvrieres et de
l'industrie en France avant 1789 (ref. 108), ii, 141.
Ill. Neil M. Ribe pointedly argues that nature in the end "is not a source of standards but is itself
subject to the higher standard of Cartesian rationality", Ribe, "Cartesian optics and the mastery
of nature", Isis, lxxxviii (1997), 42-61, p. 53.
112. Matthew L. Jones, "Descartes's geometry as spiritual exercise" (ref. 96). Mersenne, Qvestions
inovyes (ref. 47), Question xii, 45-46.
113. Descartes's universal bon sens is the very first assertion he makes in the Discours de la methode.
On Descartes's philosophy of education in general, Daniel Garber, "Descartes, or the cultivation
of the intellect", in Descartes embodied (ref. 2), 277-95.
114. Peter Dear, "A mechanical microcosm: Bodily passions, good manners, and Cartesian mechanism",
in Science incarnate: Historical embodiments ofnatural knowledge, ed. by Christopher Lawrence
and Steven Shapin (Chicago and London, 1998),51-82.
115. Bacon, The new organon (ref. 40), Aphorism CXXII, 95.
116. On Descartes's audience generally. Jean-Pierre Cavaille, "Descartes stratege de la destination", XVII'
siecle, clxxvii (1992), 551-9; Cavaille, '''Le plus eloquent philosophe des demiers temps': Les
strategies d'auteur de Rene Descartes", Annales: Histoire, sciences sociales, 1994,349-67.