Descartes’ ‘Treatise of Man’

Rene Descartes’ “Treatise of Man” is my favorite work of the 35 in “Brain Localization: Images and ideas through 500 years, an exhibit of rare books” currently on display in the library’s Glaser Gallery. According to “Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine, #627,” “it was the first European textbook on physiology” and noteworthy for its “first descriptive statement of voluntary action which bears a recognizable resemblance to the modern concept of reflex action.” I like it best because the story behind the book is fascinating, and the physiological illustrations show brain localization.

According to the background in Thomas S. Hall’s 1972 English translation, “Treatise of Man” is the second surviving part of Descartes’ “The World.” Descartes wrote to his friend and constant correspondent, Marin Mersenne on April 5, 1632, about “The World,” saying it was “a general description of the stars, the heavens, and the earth” as well as bodies on the earth. A few months later, Descartes wrote to Mersenne again:

“In my ‘World,’ I shall speak somewhat more of man than I had thought to before, because I shall try to explain all his principal functions. I have already written about those that pertain to Life, such as the digestion of food, the beating of the pulse, the distribution of nutrients and the five senses. Now I am dissecting the heads of different animals in order to explain what imagination, memory, etc. consist of. I have seen the book [Harvey’s] ‘De motu cordis’ of which you spoke to me earlier, and find I differ a little from his opinion which I saw only after having finished writing about this matter.”

Descartes spent four years preparing two parts of “The World” and had two other parts planned. However, Galileo’s troubles with the Inquisition influenced him, so he did not publish them during his lifetime. The first Latin edition appeared in 1662, 12 years after Descartes’ death, in an “imperfect Latin translation by Florentius Schuyl.” Becker Library has a variant of this very first edition. Schuyl also drew the illustrations, which are spectacular copper engravings. Notable are  the anatomical drawings of the heart Figure 1-4,  a flap anatomy of the heart (Figure 1), a physiological drawing incorporating Harvey’s ideas on the paths of blood circulation through the heart to the brain and male reproductive organs (page 14, Fig. 5), and the best drawing of the anatomy of the brain published to that date. The physiological copper plate engravings of Descartes’ ideas on the brain and nervous system’s control of the respiratory, digestive (page 27) and visual system (page 99) are striking.

Meanwhile, Claude Clerselier, Descartes’ literary executor was editing the first French edition published two years later in 1664. Clerselier thought Schuyl to be a talented artist, but he thought Schuyl’s illustrations were not sufficiently integrated with Descartes’ rather dense text. He retained Descartes’ copperplate engraving of the anatomy of the brain, but nothing else. His new and allegedly inferior woodcuts of physiology are strikingly effective in clarifying the English translation. They illustrate the visual, olfactory, touch (pain) and other sensory systems.

Stephen Nadler’s 2017 article focuses on illustrations of the Clerselier edition, but also compares these to Schuyl’s edition (1662) and reveals the identities of four illustrators. Cornelis Huyberts drew the original illustrations for Descartes “Treatise of Man.” However, when Clerselier contacted Huyberts, he failed to produce them as promised, so Clerselier solicited new illustrations. Gerard van Gutschoven, a physician, anatomist, and mathematician who knew Descartes personally, and Daniel de La Forge, a medical doctor from Saumur, France who was well versed in Cartesian philosophy, both agreed to create the new illustrations. Clerselier made a competition of the project. He wanted schematics rather anatomical drawings. In the end, the 1664 edition included one drawing by Descartes, six by La Forge, and the rest were by Gutschoven.



Descartes, Rene.  (1662). Renatus des Cartes De homine: Figuris et Latinitate donus a Florentio Schuyl. Apud Franciscum Moyardum & Petrum Leffen: Lugduni Batavorum. Retrieved from

Descartes, Rene. (1677). Tractaus de homine et de formatione foetus quorum prior notis perpetuis Ludovici de La Forge, M.D., illustratur. – Amstelodami : Apud Danielem Elseverium.

Descartes, Rene. (1677). L’Homme de René Descartes, et la formation du foetus, avec les remarques de Louis de la Forge. A quoy l’on a ajouté le Monde ou traité de la lumière du mesme auteur. . Paris: Chez Charles Angot. Retrieved from

Descartes, Rene. (1972). Treatise of man ; French text with translation and commentary by Thomas Steele Hall. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jeremy Norman & Co. (1991). The Haskell F. Norman Library of science and medicine / by Diana H. Hook & Jeremy M. Norman. San Francisco: Jeremy Norman & Co.

Nadler, S. (2017). 12. The art of Cartesianism: the illustrations of Clerselier’s edition of Descartes’s Traite de l’homme (1664). In Descartes’ Treatise on Man and its Reception edited by Delphine Antoin-Mahut, Stephen Gaukroger. Springer. Google Books:

Wilkin, Rebecca M. (2003) Figuring the Dead Descartes. Representations, Vol. 83, No 1, page 38-66.