Animals do not feel pain and are automata. This view is commonly attributed to Descartes. And I would agree that in his philosophy no other conclusion makes sense.

But still, I want to distinguish between his own words and something that has to be inferred.

Where did Descartes himself state this view directly and unequivocally, if at all?

  • Typos, added tags, and expanded the title.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 22:54

2 Answers 2


I don't believe Descartes makes the assertion that animals don't experience pain.

He argues that they are machines and have no soul etc, but simple experiments (which he did) would show that they experience pain.

Please note that I am speaking of thought, and not of life or sensation. I do not deny life to animals, since I regard it as consisting simply in the heat of the heart; and I do not even deny sensation, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ.


The question is where he draws the line between bodily "sensation" and mental(soul) "feeling"

It's fine to cause the "sensation" of pain in animals because they are simply machines and have no moral agency.

They don't have the "feeling" of pain because they have no mind. But "feeling" here means the soul consciously thinking about the "sensation" in some muddled dualist way. Not the common meaning of "owch! I feel pain!"

  • +1 From what I see here, given the vigor in which he confronts their biological similarities and superficial similarity in aptitudes, especially addressing the viscera, I'd say this is spot on!
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 14:25
  • he argues that they are machines did he state that verbatim or is it something inferred?
    – viuser
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 13:20
  • I think that paper I link basically covers your exact question in lots of detail. 'Discourse of Method Part V he says that the animal body, “As a machine which, having been made by the hand of God, is incomparable better ordered . . . than any of those … invented by human beings”'
    – Ewan
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 13:22
  • @Ewan that’s inferred, too. The full quote is: “Such persons will look upon this body as a machine made by the hands of God, which is incomparably better arranged, and adequate to movements more admirable than is any machine of human invention.” So no.
    – viuser
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 18:35
  • it looks like you have changed the question since i wrote this answer
    – Ewan
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 7:53

Short Answer

There's a number of passages that might qualify, and not being an expert on Cartesian thinking, I'll cite a passage from Part 5 on Discourse on Method more specifically from the Barnes and Nobles version. On page 50 noting emphasis mine:

[T]here are no men so dull and stupid...incapable of... mak[ing] their thoughts understood; and that on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect or happily circumstanced, which can do the like. Nor does this inability arise from want of organs: for we observe that magpies and parrots can utter words ourselves, and are yet unable to speak as we do, that is, so as to show that they understand what they say... And this proves not only that the brutes have less reason than man, but that they have none at all: for we see that very little is required to enable a person to speak; and since a certain inequality of capacity is observable among animals of the same species... it is incredible that the most perfect ape or parrot... should not in this be equal to the most stupid infant of its kind, or at least to one that was crackbrained... And we ought not to confound speech with the natural movements which indicate the passions, and can be imitated by machines as well as manifested by animals... they are destitute of reason, and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs: thus it is seen, that a clock composed only of wheels and weights can number the hours and measure time more exactly than we with all our skill.

I trimmed out some of his arguments, but here we can see the core that Descartes very thoroughly compares animals to machines and automata as he described earlier in the text.

See also Descartes argument on animals (PhilSE).

  • Did Descartes give an argument for equating "reason" with subjective experience/consciousness, or did he not really talk about the latter distinct from the former?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 0:36
  • @Hypnosifl I believe one can read his rejection of man as a logical animal tantamount to endorsing the view that God's influence on the intersection of the brain and mind was unique to people. Thus, a monkey might even decide, but lacked the soul, which I think was the source of the mind. But Im no expert. This question even took me awhile to find the passage. I'll poke my head into the Encyclopedia of Philosophy a little later to see what is said in Consciousness.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 1:37
  • @Hypnosifl Okay. According to "Consciousness" (EoP), "Descartes... always described the states we now call conscious as states that one is conscious of... because [believing introspection was complete], they saw no need to use the term conscious to mark a distinction." The article goes on to raise the conscious/unconscious dichotomy recognized later under Freud, etc. Which is consistent with Cartesianism and rationalism more broadly construed.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 14:29
  • Thanks. I wonder if he believed being "conscious of" a mental state required reason, or if he would allow animals to be conscious of a mental state like pain even if they lacked reason?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 21:21

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