Sunday, February 06, 2011

Descartes's Robot; plus: Thomas Aquinas vs. Robot -- to the death!!!

The early prehistory of robots -- and inflatable sex dolls! From Stephen Graukroger, Descartes: an Intellectual Biography (Oxford, 1995), p. 1:
Since the eighteenth century, there has been in circulation a curious story about Descartes. It is said that in later life he was always accompanied in his travels by a mechanical life-sized female doll which, we are told by one source, he himself had constructed 'to show that animals are only machines and have no souls'. He had named the doll after his illegitimate daughter, Francine, and some versions of events have it that she was so lifelike that the two were indistinguishable. Descartes and the doll were evidently inseparable, and he is said to have slept with her encased in a trunk at his side. Once, during a crossing over the Holland Sea some time in the early 1640s, while Descartes was sleeping, the captain of the ship, suspicious about the contents of the trunk, stole into the cabin and opened it. To his horror, he discovered the mechanical monstrosity, dragged her from the trunk and across the decks, and finally managed to throw her into the water. We are not told whether she put up a struggle.

Those who prefer that their great tales not be ruined by truth will want to stop there. Those who think that fiction survives a dusting of dull fact will want to read the next paragraph as well (pp. 1-2):
The story had a wide currency in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at one stage being taken as a theme for a novel by Anatole France. It exists in a number of versions, some of them explicitly fictional, some purporting to be factual, and the detail varies quite considerably from version to version. So far as I can tell, the story originates no early than the eighteenth century, and it received most attention in an era preoccupied with the theories of La Mettrie, the French Enlightenment philosophe who, in his infamous L'Homme Machine (1747), had extended the idea of animals being automata -- developed by Descartes in his L'Homme -- to human beings, offering a materialist account of the mind, and suggesting that Descartes himself had held such a view, but that judicious self-censorship had prevented him making the theory public. There is, in fact, absolutely no evidence that any version of the story is true. Its origins are rather obscure, but by the second half of the eighteenth century it was a propaganda weapon in the fight against La Mettrie's materialism, Descartes himself being seen as the ultimate instigator of this pernicious doctrine. Given this context, the story has all the elements of propaganda, including that favorite propaganda weapon, sexual innuendo, and I have little doubt that it originated as a tool of the eighteenth-century struggle against materialism.

And those with the spirit of a Sub-Sub Librarian, such as myself, will want to read the first footnote, so for your convenience I reproduce it here (from p. 418 of Graukroger):
I first came across this story in print in a recent book on the history of robotics, where it is presented as fact, although no references are given. Investigation showed the story to have had a wide currency between the late eighteenth century and the early decades of this century. For the different versions of the story and their sources see Leonora G. Rosenfield, From Beast-Machine to Man Machine, rev. edn. (New York, 1968), 202-3, and the accompanying notes on p. 236. Descartes is not the first philosopher reputed to have constructed a mechanical companion. Albertus Magnus was said to have had a robot that could move and greet visitors with the salutation Salve! ('How are you!'). Thomas Aquinas, his pupil at the time, is reported to have attacked and broken the gregarious android when he came across it unexpectedly in the night. The story is reported, with references I have not followed up, in G. A. Lindeboom, Descartes and medicine (Amsterdam, 1979), 62.
How like a scholar to hide the Aquinas vs. Robot death match in a footnote like that. It should go in the preview, man: how else do you expect to get buts in the seats eating popcorn?

I'm disappointed that the footnote doesn't mention which of Anatole France's novels is on "the theme" of Descartes's robot (a quick googling indicates that none of his works seem to have been explicitly about Descartes by name). Does anyone happen to know?  [Update: A commentator comes through!  The novel in question is La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque (1893), translated as At the Sign of the Reine Pedauque (1922, available online at the link).  Thanks to B. McCarthy; see his comments below for more on this, as well as the Rosenfield book discussed below.]

Incidentally (more Sub-Subness here) the author of From Beast-Machine to Man Machine seems to have been Leonora C. Rosenfield, not G. as reported by Mr. Graukroger. A quick google indicates that seems to have published as Leonora Cohen Rosenfield (although Amazon, for no discernable reason, lists her as Leonora Davidson Rosenfield). Obviously, given the Cohen -> G. mistake, to say nothing of the obvious omission of the story of the golem from the aforequoted list of "philosophical robot" stories, the only possible interpretation is that Mr. Graukroger is a raving antisemite. These things don't happen by accident, you know.

At any rate, since neither google books nor amazon has a "look inside" feature for Rosenfield's work, my researches must stop here for the moment. Alas. If anyone has a copy of From Beast-Machine to Man-Machine handy, however, please leave any interesting tidbits in the comments.

3 comments:

B. McCarthy said...

Enjoyed this post, thanks! Quite a good summary of different sources for the story, too.

The novel by Anatole France is La Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque (1893), which satirised occultism and included a fabulous subplot in which Descartes' automaton is transformed into a salamander.

The story was told by Bonaventure d'Argonne in Melanges, a miscellaneous collection of literary anecdotes and secret (scandalous) histories, who said he had it from a Cartesian who was defending the philosopher from allegation that Descartes had fathered an illegitimate child, Francine. The anecdote was plucked out of Melanges by Isaac D'Israeli (father of Benjamin Disraeli), who introduced the story to English readers in the widely-read Curiosities of Literature, and made it take off, alarmingly, so that we find it in Edgar Allan Poe, probably as inspiration for Shelley's Frankenstein, and in any look at the world of automatons.

The book by Leonora Cohen Rosenfield is curious. An ex-library copy from the 1960s is on sale for the inexplicable price of $299 on ebay. First published in 1941, it's hard to come by - there's a copy at my University, however, which I plan to browse one day.

B. McCarthy said...

The novel from Anatole France has been translated, and it goes on about the philosopher and the love of the salamander, satirically replacing the automaton with the- salamander: http://archive.org/stream/atsignofreinep00fran#page/96/mode/2up/search/descartes

Stephen said...

Thank you, B. McCarthy! The information is greatly appreciated. (I've updated the post with it.)