Descartes’ android daughter

Ever heard of Descartes’ android daughter? This is from an essay I’m finishing up this week:

“It is a defining mark of Descartes’ modernity that his texts are haunted by life-like machines. And not only his texts. Beginning in the late 18th century, sources claim that Descartes built a young-girl-like machine in a desperate bid to replicate his only child, Francine, who was born (out of wedlock, but recognized by him) in 1635, and who died of scarlet fever in 1640. When the rumor of Descartes’ android first appears in 1699, however, in a text by a Carthusian monk (and a Cartesian), Bonaventure d’Argonne, it is clear that the philosopher made it ‘to prove demonstratively that animals’ – this is d’Argonne – ‘are nothing but highly complex machines.’”

nineteenth century automaton baby doll

(My source here is Minsoo Kang, “The Mechanical Daughter of Rene Descartes: The Origin and History of an Intellectual Fable,” Modern Intellectual History 14 (2017), 633–60, at 642–49.)

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