Tag Archives: mind

René Descartes — an apology

Recent posts on this blog may have given the unwary reader the impression that Monsieur Descartes was an outdated Platonist with pagan ideas of a  free-floating soul taking up a short-term tenancy in the body during its current incarnation. We may have seemed to imply that Descartes’ dualism means that mind and body are distinct to the extent that their co-occurrence in a single person was little more than a happy coincidence and that as disembodied minds, we are free to desert our bodies at will.

A more careful reading of the Sixth Meditation has now been brought to our attention the following passage:

Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and , as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. If this were no so, I , who am nothing but a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body was was hurt, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, just as a sailor perceives by sight if anything in his ship is broken (AT VII 81).

Clearly, this embodied Descartes not merely accepts but asserts the orthodox view (endorsed by the sainted Aquinas) that the body is more than just a vehicle for the soul – this latter view erroneously held by Plato. We can only apologise and lay the blame squarely at the feet of the notorious Cartesian Duellists (sic), a shady terror network that has as its sole aim sowing the seeds of discord and disharmony in a despicable attempt to divide minds from bodies everywhere.

And if further proof were needed that Descartes is not a dualist (in this sense), here is a diagram drawn by Descartes himself, illustrating the connection between perception and action.

Descartes' diagram

Descartes' very non-Cartesian image of the union of mind and body

Soul searching

I am having trouble getting finished my essay on Plato’s tripartite soul — the idea that the soul is a trio of reason, spirit and appetite. Is it because my reasoning part is being overpowered by my appetitive part that would much rather drink wine, snack, blog, surf the web or (evil of evils) go on facebook? I also find that it’s much more appetising to read a paper by that witty, American philosopher, David Lewis than another detailed interpretation of The Republic, debating what a particular pronoun in some particular sentence refers to.

In fact this wouldn’t faze Plato who according to A.W. Price would allow that  non-physiological appetites could arise from that very part of the soul characterised as encompassing our  paradigmatic bodily desires like thirst, hunger and sexual desire. But there’s a vital difference between this kind of casual flirting with philosophy and the  more serious commitment that is the prerogative of reason. Price comments:

A love of philosophy will count as an appetite if it is pursued just for fun, and not (which is harder work) out of a passion for truth. This seems a complication to be welcomed. (Mental Conflict,p. 63, italics mine)

So now the third part of my soul, spirit, chimes in, rebuking myself for my indolence, “What do you think you are doing, playing around, committing your ill-formed ideas to a blog when you should be pouring over the Phaedrus, preferably in the original Greek?.” But being the seat of not only shame but indignation, spirit confusingly does an about face and leaps to my defence, “How could Truth be hiding in dry textual commentaries, splitting hairs over correct interpretations? Sod this, I’m off to read Julian Baggini on Dan Dennett. But not before I pour myself another glass of  Kendermanns Organic 2007. Wait a minute. Who let appetite in here?”

And so it goes on and it’s no wonder that I get so little done when everything has to be agreed upon by a committee of three and at least one, if not two of them are liable to sub-divide yet further.

I bet Descartes never had this problem. For René the mind was a unity, “utterly indivisible”, “single and complete”. In the Sixth Meditation he tells us that

the faculties of willing, of understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these cannot be termed parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, and understands and has sensory perceptions.

Bodies on the other hand can easily be divided into parts. You can even lop bits of them off. So, Descartes reasons, the mind is completely different from the body.

But wait a minute, now we’ve got another, albeit different division,  a spirit which can be willing only to be frustrated because the flesh is weak. Whatever way you look at it, unity of purpose is really rather elusive. A bit like knowledge really.