Descartes and the Mastery of Nature

Richard Kennington.  “Descartes and the Mastery of Nature,” Organism, Medicine and Metaphysics, ed. S. F. Spicker D. Reidel. 1978.


The common judgment is that Francis Bacon is the originator of the concept of “mastery of nature,” which is so indispensable in the technological crisis of this century. Attempts to trace the Baconian concept to anterior origins in Renaissance magic or Christian theology have touched upon but one or two aspects of his argument, which is moreover an indelibly philosophical one. On the other hand, the concept has never proved central to the interpretation of Descartes, the generally acknowledged “founder of modern philosophy.” It is often noted, to be sure, that Descartes in a celebrated passage in Discours VI advocates the replacement of “the speculative philosophy of the schools” by “a practical [philosophy]” which will make us “like masters and owners of nature”. But nowhere else does this phrase, or a similar one, occur in the Cartesian writings, whereas in Bacon’s works the mastery concept is ubiquitous. The Meditations, Descartes’ central philosophic writing, asserts in its title and in its preface, its place in the traditions of speculative “first philosophy” and Christian apologetics. We have no weighty efforts to bring its metaphysical doctrines into significant connection with the mastery concept of the Discours. Historians may observe the importance of scientia proper potentiam for Hobbes, but they do not stress mastery of nature as a thematic goal of modern philosophy. The influence of Baconian “mastery” remains dormant, it is usually held, until the sciences break away from their philosophic parentage, and develop their technological potential — most obviously in the nineteenth century.

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