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Machines in the Garden

Jessica Riskin
Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Stuc!J if Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts
2010

What does it mean to be alive and conscious: an aware, thinking creature? Using life-like machines to discuss animation and consciousness is a major cultural preoccupation of the early twenty-first century; but few realize that this practice stretches back to the middle of the seventeenth century, and that actual lifelike machines, which peopled the landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe, shaped this philosophical tradition from its inception. By the early 1630s, when René Descartes argued that animals and humans, apart from their capacity to reason, were automata, European towns and villages were positively humming with mechanical vitality, and mechanical images of living creatures had been ubiquitous for several centuries. Descartes and other seventeenth-century mechanists were therefore able to invoke a plethora of animal- and human-like machines. These machines fell into two main categories: the great many devices to be found in churches and cathedrals, and the automatic hydraulic amusements on the grounds of palaces and wealthy estates.