Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Roger Ariew, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Douglas Jesseph, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Alex Levine, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Colin Heydt, Ph.D.


Mechanism, Medicine, Microcosm, 17th Century


This dissertation addresses the heartbeat and the systems of natural philosophy that were used to explain it in the 17th century. Thus, I work in two domains of explanation. The first domain is physiology, in which William Harvey correctly ordered the heart’s systolic and diastolic motions, while René Descartes incorrectly reversed them. By looking at Harvey and Descartes’ more complete physiological models I reconsider the controversy that spun out of their divergent accounts. The second domain is the junction of physics and metaphysics, representing the frameworks of natural philosophy behind physiology. I argue that Harvey’s physiology was correct while his supporting principles were “wrong,” and Descartes’ physiology was incorrect while his supporting principles were “right.” Thus, my thesis is that Harvey was “right” but perhaps for the wrong reasons, while Descartes was “wrong” but perhaps for the right reasons. Of course, this judgement is made from a contemporary perspective. By using a contextualist approach to history, I aim to show how the controversy between Harvey and Descartes resolved in Nicolas Steno, when he discovered that the heart is a muscle.