The fetus was able to think and was conscious of doing so, Descartes claimed in his Response to Antoine Arnauld's Objection to the Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641). This essay traces the fortunes of the cogitating fetus in Descartes's published works and correspondence, showing that he eventually came to use the example of the fetus to exemplify what he meant by the “union” of mind and body. Although Descartes is usually considered a dualist, particularly in feminist criticism, he took for granted that we experience ourselves as mind/body composites. The fetus presented an extreme version of the experiences devolving from mind/body union. Far from suggesting that fetuses, like born human beings, were individuals (as they are portrayed in pro-life rhetoric), Descartes invited his readers to consider that born human beings, like fetuses, comprised embodied minds, connected to and in varying degrees dependent on other people. This investigation of the “fetal subject” in Cartesian metaphysics reveals a relational side to the Cartesian “cogito,” a surprising revelation insofar as Descartes often takes the blame (or credit--depending on one's adherence to liberal ideals) for providing the foundations of an individualistic conception of personhood.

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