Descartes's Theory of Mind

Descartes's Theory of Mind

Descartes's Theory of Mind

Descartes's Theory of Mind

Synopsis

Descartes is commonly read as the paradigm defender of substance dualism, a theory caricatured by Ryle as the 'dogma of the ghost in the machine'. On this reading, mind and body are defined in such a way that they have no common properties that might help explain how they interact, and it istherefore impossible to provide any account of precisely those features of human experience that this 'theory' was meant to explain. Thus Descartes proposed an obvious dead-end and almost any beginner in philosophy can diagnose where he went wrong. Apart from its intrinsic implausibility, Desmond Clarke offers good reasons for thinking that this cannot have been Descartes's view. Descartes was an unrelenting critic of what Scholastics called 'substantial forms'. One cannot explain how we succed in thinking by saying, simply, that we have athinking faculty. Cartesian objections to forms apply equally to substances. Descartes also argued that we know nothing about substances apart from their properties, so that substances are not available as independent explanatory entities. Finally, Descartes's own efforts to explain sensations,memory, imagination or the passions all involve rather speculative accounts of how the brain and the central nervous system work. Clarke's compelling and important new reading shows that a failure to engage with Descartes's scientific work leads to a wholesale misunderstanding of his theory of mind. It will be of great interest to scholars and students of Descartes, and throughout the philosophies of mind and science.

Excerpt

There is a standard account of Cartesian dualism that is so familiar that it almost needs no introduction. According to this account, human beings are composed of two distinct substances, a material substance and an immaterial substance, and the latter is a necessary and sufficient condition for (most) mental events. Despite its familiarity and longevity, however, there are good reasons to doubt that Descartes ever proposed such a theory as an explanation of the human mind. The most fundamental reason for doubting the standard account was made explicit in one of Hobbes's objections to the Meditations. The English philosopher had been convinced that Descartes was an unrelenting critic of the style of explanation used by scholastic philosophers, and he drew the conclusion that such explanations are irremediably flawed even in metaphysics. Hobbes was therefore understandably surprised to find that, when attempting to explain how we think, Descartes seemed to revert to precisely the kind of faculties and powers that he had categorically rejected in natural philosophy: 'If Descartes were to show that the agent who understands is identical with the understanding, we would return to the scholastic way of speaking: the understanding understands, vision sees, the will wills, and, according to the best analogy, walking—or at least the faculty of walking—walks' (vii. 177). Although I later argue that Descartes did not in fact make this mistake, Hobbes's caution is an appropriate response to what I think is a plausible misreading of the Meditations. He deserves recognition as the first to object that, if faculties are non-explanatory in natural philosophy, they cannot do any genuine explanatory work in philosophizing about human minds or God.

The second reason for reconsidering the standard account is the almost universally acknowledged failure of this kind of Cartesian dualism. Generations of students in introductory courses in philosophy of mind have sharpened their critical skills by refuting the position caricatured by Gilbert Ryle (1949 : 17) in the memorable phrase 'the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine'. According to the standard account, the two substances of which we are composed have no properties in common, or at least none that is relevant to explaining their interaction. Nonetheless, these substances seem to interact when some of our thoughts cause bodily motions or when external stimuli cause us to have perceptions, although we cannot understand how such interaction is possible.

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