Descartes’s Stove

By | March 12, 2024

Guest post by Hsuan L. Hsu, author of Air Conditioning

Because they were available long before artificial cooling, heating technologies are at the center of many early Western writings that reflect the cultural underpinnings of thermal comfort and air conditioning. Among the most eloquent examples of ambient temperature as a precondition for thought is the little-known story of Descartes’s stove. In his Discourse on Method, published in 1637, the philosopher René Descartes recalls spending the night of November 10, 1619, alone in a quiet poêle—a room heated by a stove, to which he had retreated from the onset of winter. Here, he writes, “I was completely free to converse with myself about my thoughts.” That night, Descartes had three dreams: in the first, a strong wind forced him against a church; in the second, he witnessed a light-filled vision in a room while a storm raged outside; and in the third, he sat at his desk and read in an encyclopedia Quod vitae sectabor iter? [“What road shall I follow in this life?”]. The young philosopher interpreted these dreams as a sign that he should devote his life to unifying the sciences, and he would subsequently attempt this by creating analytic geometry and by developing a philosophical method grounded in rationality—one that he believed would render us “masters and possessors of nature.”[1]

Both of Descartes’s innovations are steeped in dualism, or the belief that the mind is distinct from the body. Analytic geometry represents space as a vacuum oriented by abstract coordinates and occasionally inhabited by bodies, not as an atmosphere already filled with airborne materials of varying composition, density, temperature, and velocity. The stove-heated room offered Descartes a vision of thought isolated from climate: across his three dreams, he becomes increasingly sheltered from the storm outside as he comes closer to discovering his life’s work. Only under conditions of climate control could Descartes begin creating a philosophy grounded in the fiction that the mind could be disentangled from the thinking, breathing body—a body sensitive to atmospheric factors like air quality and ambient temperature. This fiction is refuted by the etymology of “temperature”: derived from the Latin for “mixture,” temperature suggests a body that is blended with its surroundings. How would our understanding of Enlightenment philosophy and its legacies change if we revised Descartes’s famous proposition, I think, therefore I am, to reflect the thermal conditions of a particular approach to thinking: I think in a stove-heated room, therefore I am? Or, perhaps, I think my mind is distinct, therefore I am in a climate-controlled room?

Why have philosophers had so little to say about Descartes’s stove, and so much to say about his dreams, his resolve, and his conception of analytic geography on that winter’s night? Suppressing the agency of the stove makes it easier to tell a simple story about the agency of the individual thinker. But it has made it that much harder to discern the subtle yet powerful ways in which modern air conditioning technologies condition thought, culture, and social experience. While researchers have devoted considerable attention to improving AC technology and studying optimal indoor temperatures, we know comparatively little about the implications of the variable availability of air conditioning across time and space for psychology, health, culture, and socioeconomic inequality. How do air quality and ambient temperature affect people’s moods, relationships, and work experiences? Their life chances? What kinds of thoughts or feelings are enabled by comfortable temperatures, and what thoughts or feelings might be hindered by such comfort?

Descartes’s suppressed dependence on the stove provokes the question at the heart of my book, Air Conditioning: how have social relations, culture, and everyday experiences been quietly shaped by air-conditioning technologies that modify indoor temperatures in some places while intensifying the effects of climate change elsewhere? This question approaches air conditioning not only as a technology for cooling the air, but more generally as a process that conditions human beings by conditioning the air we inhabit. Understanding the air conditioner as an object requires an approach that, like air conditioner emissions, radiates outward—one that follows the consequences of air conditioners not only for the interiors they cool, but for what the novelist Mohsin Hamid calls “the great uncooled”: the vast populations worldwide with little or no access to cooled air, and all too much access to its environmental consequences.

[1] René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald Cress, 4th ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998),7, 35.

Hsuan L. Hsu is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis, USA. He is the author of three books, including The Smell of Risk.

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