Poor old René! The butt of Ryle’s little joke and maligned to this day. But rightly so? Surely, versed in the up-to-date Hobbesean scientific method of his day he was as rational a reductionist as the most respectable modern philosopher of mind. So why did he publish his dualist account of mind and body? To my mind the answer lies in the influence of the Church and the long arm of the Inquisition (cue Dan Brown?).
Descartes’ contemporary critic Antoine Arnauld, writing in the Fourth Set of Objections to the Meditations said,
“It seems that [Descartes’] argument [that mind can exist apart from body] proves too much and takes us back to the Platonic view... that nothing corporeal belongs to our essence, so that man is merely a vehicle to the soul – a view which gives rise to the definition of a human being as anima corpore utens” (‘a soul which makes use of a body’).1
Descartes objected to this criticism by saying that in the Meditations he had proved “that the mind is substantially united with the body”.2 One of Descartes’ ‘disciples’, Regius had represented that Descartes’ view was that a human was an ens per accidens, a contingent entity which just happens to come into existence when a soul is joined to a body. Descartes’ rejoinder was strong, “you could scarcely have said anything more objectionable or provocative”. Continuing,
“The mind is united in real and substantial manner to the body [...] we perceive that sensations such as pain are not pure thoughts of a mind distinct from a body, but confused perceptions of a mind really united to a body. For if an angel were in a human body, it would not have sensations as we do, but would simply perceive the motions which are caused by external objects, and in this way would differ from a genuine human being.” 3
In asserting that a human being is an ens per se, Descartes seems to be drawing a distinction between the notional concept of a ‘pure mind’ (an angel) and the situation which actually obtains in real people.
It is worth speculating on why someone who was as rational a reductionist as Descartes allowed his work to be published in a form which can be described as ambiguous or equivocal. Ryle himself is quite helpful here. He acknowledges that Descartes was writing at a time when there were “widespread anxieties about the implications of seventeenth-century mechanics” when “Stoic-Augustinian theories of the will were embedded in the Calvinist doctrines of sin and grace; Platonic and Aristotelian theories of the intellect shaped the orthodox doctrines of the immortality of the soul.”4 Which is to say that ‘the Church’ took a particular stance on these issues – a stance which had led to Galileo’s trial and imprisonment. Descartes was aware of Galileo’s fall from grace. Writing in November 1633 to Mersenne of Galileo’s World System,
“I was told that [...] all the copies had been burnt at Rome and that Galileo had been convicted and fined. I was so astonished at this that I almost decided to burn all my papers, or at least to let no-one see them.”5 He goes on to say that he would not wish to publish a single word that the Church would disapprove of, preferring to suppress it rather than publish it in a mutilated form.6
It is at least worth inquiring whether his published works were ‘mutilated’ in order to deflect criticism or worse from the Church.
1 Quoted by Cottingham, J. in Monk, R. and Raphael, F. (Eds.) The Great Philosophers, (2001) London, Phoenix Publishing, p.123. 2 Ibid. 3 Ibid. p.124 4 Ryle, p.147, quoted in Crawford, S. (2010) Aspects of Mind, Milton Keynes, The Open University. 5 Descartes, quoted in Cottingham, 2001, p.104. 6 Ibid.
I am a philosopher, painter and musicologist. I have a first class honours degree in music and philosophy and I am presently working on my MA on 'musical meaning'. I live on the Atlantic Coast of west Wales, which is as close as I can get to the Anglo-American tradition without getting my feet wet. My novelist wife Christine Stovell lives here too.