The Pineal Gland in Cartesianism
Tad Schmaltz (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Tad Schmaltz (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

March 7, 2022, 5:00pm - 7:00pm
CREMT, Ca' Foscari University, Venice



  • European Commission, Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 892794


University of Venice
University of Venice

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Venue: online Zoom meeting

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Zoom meeting ID: 845 7164 0858; Passcode: gMi180


The prominent seventeenth-century anatomist Nicolaus Steno claimed that the dispute over the thesis in Descartes that the pineal gland serves as the seat of the soul was “the most famous in our century.” In this presentation, I consider the fate of this thesis in Cartesianism. I begin with a brief tour of the premodern history of the anatomy of the brain that focuses on the rejection in Galen of an ancient version of the position that the pineal gland controls the flow of the "animal spirits" in the brain. Then I consider the distinctive identification in Descartes of the pineal gland with the “common sense” in the brain responsible for sensory cognition. Such an identification was for a short time a defining feature of post-Descartes Cartesian discussions of the brain. Note, though: for a short time. More particularly, the imperative among Descartes’s followers to defend his pineal gland thesis was effective mainly in the 1650s and ’60s. By the end of the 1670s, the thesis had been discarded even by committed proponents of Descartes’s mechanistic physiology. I propose some reasons for the rise and rapid fall of Descartes’s own account of the pineal gland.

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