Lecture Supplement on The Descartes-Elizabeth Correspondence

Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. Introduction:

At the end of the Meditations we have mind (both ours and that of the deity), extended substance, and the body-mind composite. Of the first two we can have certain knowledge, but of the third our understanding is far from clear. Descartes' correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia [1618-1680] helps point to the problems which this third "primitive notion" raise for Descartes.1  In her "Cartesian Passions: The Ultimate Incoherence," Marjorie Grene maintains that:

...at the time he published the Discourse Descartes did hold a consistent if erroneous view of the nature of (other) animals, and of human beings, that it was Princess Elizabeth who urged him to reflect in detail about the life of the emotions, that this led him into a confusion from which he found—indeed, I would argue, could have found—no egress within the framework of his own physics and metaphysics, even had he not succumbed so early to the rigors of the Swedish winter.2

It was the Princess Elizabeth who forced him to face the more concrete problems of mind-body interaction, the impracticality of his naive mathematician's vision and its uncomfortable consequences. If we look at the correspondence on her side as well as his we find this conclusion irresistible....her questions about Descartes's efforts to deal with concrete problems of mind-body interaction, though always couched in a context of the utmost admiration and respect, were so telling as to compel him to reveal, willy-nilly, the nest of puzzles entangled in the compulsions of practice, which his mathematician's understanding, together with the relatively easy circumstances of his life, had so far allowed him to evade.3

2. The Correspondence:4

[May 6, 1643]

11 Elisabeth asks Descartes to explain how the soul can "determine the spirits of the body to produce voluntary actions." She notes that determinations of motion requires an impulsion and, hence requires either contact or extension. She clearly indicates that these can not apply in the case of mental "determination."   

-Here, of course, she is working (as was Descartes) within the framework of Galilean mechanics—the dominant physical theory of the era. [May 21, 1643] 13 Descartes replies that the explanation is to be found in a discussion of three "primitive notions:"
  -13-15 he distinguishes bodies, souls [minds], and body-souls [body-minds] and claims that each of these "notions" cannot be explained "...except through itself."
[June 10, 1643] 16 Elisabeth responds that he has not explained things yet (and she is surely right here):
  -16-17 "...it would be easier for me to concede matter and extension to the soul, than the capacity of moving a body and of being moved, to an immaterial being. For, if the first occurred through `information', the spirits that perform the movement would have to be intelligent, which you accord to nothing corporeal. And although in your metaphysical meditations you show the possibility of the second, it is, however, very difficult to comprehend that a soul, as you have described it, after having had the faculty and habit of reasoning well, can lose all of it on account of some vapors...."
[June 28, 1643] 18 Descartes tries to elaborate regarding the three primitive "notions:"
  -soul is properly conceived by the understanding alone,

-bodies are properly conceived by understanding aided by the imagination,

-unions of bodies and souls are properly explained by the senses.

-19 He notes, however, that the proper understanding of the "union" is difficult.

[July 1, 1643] 21 Elisabeth responds that "I too find that the senses show me that the soul moves the body; but they fail to teach me (any more than the understanding and the imagination) the manner in which she does it. And, in regard to that, I think there are unknown properties in the soul that might suffice to reverse what your metaphysical meditations, with such good reasons, persuaded me concerning her inextension. And this doubt seems founded upon the rule you lay down there in speaking of the true and the false—namely, that all our errors occur from forming judgments about what we do not sufficiently perceive. Although extension is not necessary to thought, yet not being contradictory to it, it will be able to belong to some other function of the soul less essential to her." (end)

3. Further Comments on the Body-Mind:

In his The Passions of the Soul [1649], which Descartes dedicated to Princess Elizabeth, he tries to elaborate upon his view of the relationship. There he maintains that it is in the pineal gland that the mind and body interact:

...although the soul is joined to the whole body, there is yet in that a certain part in which it exercises its functions more particularly than in all the others; and it is usually believed that this part is the brain, or possibly the heart: the brain, because it is apparently in it that we experience the passions. But, in examining the matter with care, it seems as though I had clearly ascertained that the part of the body in which the soul exercises its functions immediately is in nowise the heart, nor the whole of the brain, but merely the most inward of all its parts, to wit, a certain very small gland which is situated in the middle of its substance and so suspended above the duct whereby the animal spirits in its anterior cavities have communication with those in the posterior, that the slightest movements which take place it may alter very greatly the course of these spirits; and reciprocally that the smallest changes which occur in the course of the spirits may do much to change the movements of this gland.5

Let us then conceive here that the soul has its principal seat in the little gland which exists in the middle of the brain, from whence it radiates forth through all the remainder of the body by means of the animal spirits, nerves, and even the blood, which, participating in the impressions of the spirits, can carry them by the arteries into all the members. And reconciling what has been said above about the machine of our body, i.e. that the little filaments of our nerves are so distributed in all its parts, that on the occasion of the diverse movements which are there excited by sensible objects, they open in diverse ways the pores of the brain, which causes the animal spirits contained in these cavities to enter in diverse ways into the muscles, by which means they can move the members in all the different ways in which they are capable of being moved...let us here add that the small gland which is the main seat of the soul is so suspended between the cavities which contain the spirits that it can be moved by them in as many different ways as there are sensible diversities in the object, but that it may also be moved in diverse ways by the soul, whose nature is such that it receives in itself as many diverse impressions....6

This may sound utterly foolish to anyone who has had even a rudimentary acquaintance with "human anatomy," but it is important to note that William Harvey's A Disquisition on the Circulation of the Blood (which proved that blood was pumped through the body by the heart) was published in 1615, that Descartes did ground-breaking anatomical research (discovering and showing that muscles worked in pairs with one "retracting" and the other "relaxing" in each movement), and that Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity was still more than a hundred years in the future [1751] (and thus the mechanism by which the nerves worked could not be clear). Descartes' account of the interaction of mind and body, then may not have seemed as obviously false then as it does now. Nonetheless, his account of the union of the mind and body does not seem to answer Elizabeth's objections.

This problem, of course, is with us today.

Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

1 Cf., Descartes' letter to Elizabeth on May 21, 1643.  It can be found in Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, ed. Margaret Atherton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), pp. 12-15.  Cf., p. 13 for his discussion of the mind, body and union of the two as three "primitive notions." 

2 Marjorie Grene, "Cartesian Passions: The Ultimate Incoherence," in her Descartes (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1985), pp. 23-52, p. 35. 

3 Ibid., p. 41. 

4 These notes are to selections of the correspondence in Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, ed. Margaret Atherton, op. cit., pp. 9-21.

5 Descartes, The Passions of the Soul I XXXI, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. 1, trans. and eds. E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1969), pp. 347-348.

6 Ibid., I XXXIV, p., 347. 

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