PHL302 Background

Ports of Call


Descartes 3

The Ascent from the Foundation:
Minds and Bodies

First Sightings

Readings for this part of your journey

We are skipping much of Meditation III and IV, For this first unit you will be reading Meditations V and VI

In this unit of the course we will be considering Descartes ascent from the foundation of certain truths known by reason established in Meditation II, back up through the truths of mathematics known by reason to truths of the imagination and finally truths about the external world. This ascent parallels the descent of Meditation I. In this case, instead of focusing on the propositions of reason or imagination which are most often false, Descartes reverses his procedure and focuses on those propostions which are most likely to be true. It is for this reason that he moves from mathematical truths known by reason, to those known by the imagination, to those which apply to the world of sense. He distingishes which truths about the external world are likely to reliable and which are not, and ends by giving a criterion for distinguishing between dreaming and waking consciousness.

Descartes also wants to complete the proof of the real distinction of the mind and body begun in Meditation II. Descartes holds that the mind and the body are essentially different kinds of substances which causally relate to one another. This distinction played a remarkable role in philosophical thought over the next three hundred years. The difficulties of this position created what has come to be known as "the mind body problem." One of the most famous aspects of Descartes' dualism, is that he treats the body mechanistically. He is thought to have regarded animals as machines, and to have thought that human beings (because they had souls) were fundamentally different from animals or machines. In the Background section we will consider Descartes' life after writing the Medtiations and continue with the discussion of other issues in the Commentary section.


Descartes' Life and Work after the Meditations

The Meditations brought Descartes considerable prominence in the European intellectual community. He was a major, though quite controversial intellectual force. He had both supporters and detractors, and converts both ways. Antoine Arnauld, who wrote one of the sets of objections to the Meditations, largely came to agree with Descartes. After the Meditations, Descartes produced The Principles of Philosophy in 1644, the most complete statement of his mature philosophy and of the Cartesian system in general. Part 1 explains Descartes metaphysical views. Part II gives a detailed exposition of the principles of Cartesian physics. Part III applies those principles of physics to give a detailed explanation of the universe, and Part IV deals with a wide variety of terrestrial phenomena. Two more parts were planned, to deal with plants and animals and man, but were not completed. In 1648 Descartes published "Notes against a Program" -- a response to a pamphlet published anonymously by Henricus Regius, Professor of Medicine at the University of Utrecht. Regius had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Descartes. But when Regius published his Foundations of Physics Descartes complained that Regius had shamelessly used unpublished papers of Descartes to which he had access and had distorted Descartes' ideas. The "Notes" both illustrate the kind of academic controversies in which Descartes was involved during this decade, but also provides some insight into his views about mind and his doctrine of innate ideas.

Descartes last work Les Passions de l'áme was written as a result of the correspondence which Descartes carried on with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. The work was written in French, and published in Amsterdam and Paris in 1649. This work (like the Principles) is composed of a large number of short articles. Princess Elisabeth had raised the question of how the soul could interact with the body in 1643. In response to Elisabeth's questions, Descartes wrote a short work which developed into the Passions of the Soul. The work is a combination of psychology, physiology and ethics, and contains Descartes' theory of two way causal interaction via the pineal gland.

Two months before the publication of the Passions Descartes set sail for Stockholm, Sweden, at the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden. Descartes' death in Stockholm of pneumonia, has regularly been attributed to the rigors of the Swedish climate and the fact that Descartes (no early riser) was sometimes required to give the Queen lessons as early as five in the morning. However unpleasant these conditions may have been, it seems plain that Descartes acquired his fatal malady not from them, but as a result of nursing his friend the French ambassador (who had pneumonia) back to health.


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