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Home Between Natural History and Experimental Method. Descartes and Botany



Abstract. Botanical studies were slow to be influenced by experimental method, since the learned were immersed in the demanding work of collecting, observing, listing, and describing. The transition to ‘modern science’ was therefore delayed, for natural history prevailed at the expense of experimentation. Although Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) experimental method also concerned natural history and botany, his programmatic reformation of science was underdeveloped and incomplete.
The other champion of early modern philosophy, René Descartes (1596-1650), rejected natural history and grounded his science on intellectual evidence, the converse of Bacon’s natural philosophy. The object of this paper is to understand whether or not Descartes’ science includes botany within the order of reason, reducing its variety into a grey ontology. Some pages of a lesser known manuscript where Descartes jotted down notes about plants, the Excerpta Anatomica, allow a reconstruction of his botanical work against the natural historical endeavours of his contemporaries. Do Descartes’ botanical studies methodically include botany within science: handling botany beyond natural history, providing it with theoretical frame and direction, postulating causes and explaining effects, and eventually adhering to his physical laws of nature and to his mechanical physiology?

Keywords: Descartes, Method, Experience, Enumeration, Induction, Natural History, Botany, Mechanics, Physiology, Life Principle

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