Was Descartes a Cartesian?
Rene Descartes, in
Meditations, is the best known exponent of the theory of
that material and mental substances
are distinct entities.
From his own speculation, he developed what is now called Cartesian
Dualism. This is explained separately, but the basic idea is that mental
substances were not extended in space, and that material substances were
composed of pure extension in space. Minds, though unextended, were thought to
exist at specific places, namely, Descartes thought, in the human pineal gland.
Physicists now longer believe that substances in nature are so simply
characterised as this, but Cartesian Dualism has become the most widely known
formulation of dualism. Widely known, and these days, widely despised!
'Cartesianism' as a doctrine has taken on a life of its own as a position
that few people want to defend, but, paradoxically, is widely believed to be
held by `other people' (especially ones opponents!).
John Paley, in a recent editorial,
explores some of these paradoxes in the modern acceptance and rejection of
Dualism by Baker and Morris (reviewed
here by Steven
Very often it is misrepresented. For example, very many ills of modern thought and practice are attributed to the
separation of body and mind that resulted from this particular conception.
Animals, for example, were not thought to have mentality, but to be like
machines. Affections in the body, for another example, were not allowed to be
related to mentality as such.
However, Descartes believed that 'affections in the body' were just that: in
the body and not in the mind.
From the Nadler review
above, we have the following comparisons
of legend and a new reading:
The Cartesian Legend
The "Two Worlds View": there is a
private, inner world of mental objects that parallels the public, outer world of
physical things. The inner world is a world of 'ideas': the outer world, a world
of bodies. The mind is identified with consciousness.
Anything that we would now call a
'state of consciousness' or subjective experience—concepts, beliefs, sense
perceptions, bodily appetites, pains, pleasures, emotions, etc.—qualifies as a cogitatio
and is placed by Descartes in the mind.
The Legend misconstrues the
central opposition within Descartes's dualism by setting up a contrast between
consciousness and clockwork.
- The body is thus nothing but an
unconscious, insentient machine, "a complicated bit of clockwork". Any being
not endowed with a human soul—and this includes all non-human
animals—therefore lacks consciousness, even sentience.
- There is union and interaction of the
two substances in a human being.
Bodily events are the real efficient causes of mental events (such as
sensations) and mental events (such as volitions) are the real efficient
causes of bodily motions.
What Descartes advocated, it is now argued:
- Descartes held that
there are two
(finite) substances, each with its own modifications. Thinking or having a
thought is not an object or thing in a mental world, but a mode of a
substance. It is, in fact, an activity or operation.
- The mind, they argue, is thought;
it is intellectus, the rational soul. The activities of the mind,
therefore, are all modalities of rational thinking: judgements, in effect, and
thus propositional. Any non-cognitive event is a non-mental event. Having a
sense-perception, therefore, is not to
have some qualium or sense-datum hovering before the introspective soul. It
just is to have a thought with a particular content, and the content
describes a possible state of the body ('my eyes are being stimulated by
light', for instance). To feel pain (again, in the restricted sense) is to
believe or think or judge that one's body is in a certain condition.
- The true dichotomy is between
rationality and sentience, or the moral/intellectual and the animal.
- Non-human animate bodies (and, in
theory, even the human body without the soul) are sentient, conscious bodies.
While they may not be capable of thinking (since they lack soul), they are
capable of feeling and consciousness, in sum, of all those processes which do
not require rationality. Brutes do not have conscientia
(the self-knowledge that rational beings have of their actions) and thus
they are not moral agents, but "they do share with human beings many of the
things now called 'states of consciousness' "
- The mind-body relationship is not
one of efficient causal interaction. What their mutual relationship
does consist in can be called "occasionalist interaction". Motions in the
brain "occasion" the soul to have (i.e., to efficiently cause or generate in
itself) certain perceptions, while the mind's volitional activities are the
occasion for certain bodily movements.
Other papers discussing Des Cartes and Cartesianism:
- Nima Bassiri,
Material translations in the Cartesian brain (cc)
- Moncef Berhouma,
Beyond the pineal
gland assumption: A neuroanatomical appraisal of dualism in Descartes’
- Theodore Brown,
Cartesian Dualism and Psychosomatics (cc)
- Andrea Christofidou,
Descartes' Dualism: Correcting Some Misconceptions
- Gary Hatfield,
The Passions of the soul and Descartes’s machine psychology (cc)
- John Hawthorne,
Cartesian Dualism (cc)
- Wayne Martin, Descartes and
the Phenomenological Tradition
- Peter McLaughlin,
Descartes on Mind-Body Interaction and the Conservation of Motion (cc)
- William Millar,
An Inquiry into Several Beliefes Held by Man regarding the Antomical Site of
the Soul (cc)
- Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra,
Substance Dualism and His Independence Conception of Substance
- Marleen Rozemond, Descartes,
Mind-Body Union, and Holenmerism (cc)