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Psycho-Physical Union: The Problem of the Person in Descartes

  • Murray Lewis Miles (a1)


The problem of the person may be described as the crux of Descartes' philosophy in the fairly obvious literal sense that it is the point of intersection of the two chief axes of the system, the Philosophy of Nature and the Philosophy of Mind. The actual, if not professed aim of the former is the ousting of the occult powers and faculties of Scholastic-Aristotelian physics by the mechanical concept of force or action-by-contact. The chief tenet of the latter is that mind, whose essence is thinking, is clearly and distinctly conceivable apart from matter, the essence of which is extension. From this, by an illicit inference which need not concern us further, Descartes concludes that the mind is “really distinct” from matter, that is, a substance capable of existing apart from body in its own right. Where these two lines of thought meet, the problem of the person constitutes itself in the following manner.



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1 All references are to the edition of Adam and Tannery, by volume, page, and line number.

2 Descartes, Discours de la Methode. Texte et commentaire par Gilson, Etienne (Paris: Librarie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1947), 431435.

3 Cf. de Anima, II, 1, 413a, 8f.

4 Summa contra Gentiles, Bk. II, chap. 57.

5 According to Gilson, , Etudes sur le rôle de la philosophie médiévale dans la formation du système cartésien (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1930), 174. Cf. the letter to Mersenne, January 1630 (I, 109).

6 Gilson, ibid. Letter to Mersenne, April 5, 1632 (I, 234).

7 On the scholastic sense of “real” in the expression “real quality” and its misinterpretation by Descartes, see Gilson, Etudes, 170. On the epithet “substantial” cf. the last paragraph but one before this note and Gilson, Etudes, 159, n. 1. For the wholly different construction put upon it by Descartes see 162 of the last-named work and the paper by Hoenen, , “Descartes's Mechanicism”, in Doney, , ed., Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967), 360ff.

8 Gilson, Etudes, 163; Hoenen, ibid.

9 Gilson, Commentaire, 234; Smith, Kemp, New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes (New York: Russel & Russel, 1966), 159; Beck, L. J., The Metaphysics of Descartes: A Study of the Meditations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 272 and 274.

10 More's letters of December 11, 1648, and of March 5, July 23, and October 21, 1649, to the first three of which Descartes replied, range over a wide variety of topics and are amply illustrative of the great disparities between Platonism and Cartesian dualism. Only that of March 5, 1649 treats specifically de coniunctione animae cum corpore (V, 313), though it has nothing to add, so far as I can see, on the pivotal issue of substantial versus accidental union.

11 VII, 4237f.

12 VII, 44519 and 44423 respectively.

13 Cf. Summa Theologica, I, 89, 1.

14 Ibid., I, 25, 1.

15 Cf. ibid., I, 118, 2.

17 Commentaire, 433–435.

18 To Elizabeth, May 21, 1643 (III, 667); to Arnauld, July 29, 1648 (V, 222); Replies to the Sixth Objections, VII, 441f.

19 Cf. II, 746f: qualitates omnes, & formas, a quibus abhorreo ….

20 Cf., for example, the contribution of Ayer, A. J. to the B.B.C.'s Philosophers' Symposium published under the titleThe Physical Basis of Mind, ed. Laslett, P. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1950).

21 An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding (Bobbs-Merill edition), 172.

22 Ibid., 84.

23 New Studies, 147.

24 Ibid. My italics.

25 Descartes himself seems not to speak of action per informationem, although Kemp Smith quotes him (New Studies, 149, n. 2) as saying (VII, 1611–3) that images depicted in the phantasy “inform the mind” upon its applying itself to that part of the brain where they are depicted (mentem ipsam in illam cerebri partem conversant “informant”). My italics. Elizabeth, interestingly, does use the term, or its French equivalent, but only to express her conviction that this will not serve to make Descartes' position any more intelligible. Cf. her reply to Descartes' first letter, III, 6851–6. With her remark that for the action to take place par information the spirit which initiates it would have to be intelligent, compare Descartes' own assertion that just this is implied by the doctrine of substantial forms, which thus betrays a confusion of what belongs properly to body with what belongs to the mind (VII, 44220–26).

26 Beck, Metaphysics, 273.

27 IX–1, 21317–23. Beck's translation (ibid., 273).

28 Ibid., 273, n. 3.

29 V, 2232–10. The reference to “little souls” is found in a letter to Mersenne (III, 6486).

30 Beck, Metaphysics, 273.

31 Ibid., 275.

32 It is easy enough to find parallels for this ambivalence about the clear and distinct conception of body in Descartes' writings, although the idea remains difficult to interpret clearly. When speaking of the unaided intellect he has in mind, I believe, the bare notions of extension, figure, and motion in general which, in the Second Meditation (VII, 343f), he assigned to pure understanding. In the other connection he is thinking presumably of all the particular axioms, theorems, formulae and equations which constitute the body of pure mathematics. Their origin he assigned in the Fifth Meditation (VII, 6323–25) to the faculty of imagination, to whose operations, however, the general notions of extension and its modes remain basic.

33 III, 66725: “un attouchement reel d'une superficie contre une autre”.

Psycho-Physical Union: The Problem of the Person in Descartes

  • Murray Lewis Miles (a1)


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