Nicolaus Steno and the Cartesian Brain

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Kevin Jang


Nicolaus Steno, René Descartes, History of Medicine, Cartesian, Neuroanatomy


Widely regarded as the founder of modern Western Philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650) sought to look beyond the established Aristotelian traditions. His mechanistic interpretations of cerebral anatomy in L’homme (Treatise on Man) were heavily scrutinised by contemporary scholars. Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686), one of the most renowned Danish anatomists of the Scientific Revolution, launched powerful criticisms on Descartes’ anatomical errors. This paper examines the contributions of Steno and Descartes to the intellectual evolution of neuroanatomy from late antiquity to the Renaissance. In particular, the paper explores Steno’s classic, Discours sur l’anatomie du cerveau (The Discourse on the Anatomy of the Brain) to shed light on his reception of Cartesian philosophy.

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