Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Teaching of Nature and the Nature of Man in Descartes' Passions De L'ame

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Teaching of Nature and the Nature of Man in Descartes' Passions De L'ame

Article excerpt

I

DESCARTES IS USUALLY CREDITED WITH THE INAUGURATION of modern philosophy. This inauguration consists in a mathematical-mechanical understanding of physics and a concern with human self-consciousness. The Passions of the Soul treats, however, fleetingly, that being which can be regarded as both an object of the mathematical physicist and of the speculative philosopher--"de toute la nature de l'homme."(1) The peculiarity, if not uniqueness, of this subject, who is discontinuous with the rest of nature,(2) implies that Descartes' words in the preface--"mon dessein n'a pas est d'expliquer les Passions en Orateur, ny mesme en Philosophe moral, mais seulement en Physicien"(3)--cannot be wholly accurate, if only because man is not simply a physical being in the Cartesian sense. Cartesian physics does away with the final cause an explanation in physics: yet the final cause, the end, is fundamental to any discussion of desire, which is essentially futural, that is, goal directed or purposive.(4) And it is only by virtue of desire that any action results from the passions of the soul.(5) It is thus not simply efficient causation that regulates the activity of man taken as a whole: Descartes speaks of "le machine de nostre corps" but not of "la machine qui est rhomme."(6)

To a certain degree, according to the Passions, our bodies are moved by sensible objects or by internal peculiarities of bodily composition "en mesme facon que le mouvement d'une montre est produit par la seule force de son ressort et la figure de ses roues."(7) But before discussing Descartes' qualification to this assertion--"tous les mouvmens que nous faisons sans que nostre volonte y contribue"(8)--it will be worthwhile to examine the above image itself more closely.

The comparison of the motions of the human body with those of a clock in article 16 had been made earlier, in article 6, after the distinction between soul and body had been made,(9) the respective functions of each mentioned,(10) and the "error of believing that the soul gives motion and heat to the body"(11) set right. Article 6 purports to deal with the difference between a living and a dead body. Death is always caused by the corruption of some principal part or parts of the body. The difference between the living body of a man and the dead body of a man is the same as that between a clock when wound up, having within itself "le principe corporel des mouvemens pour lequels elle est instituee," and the same clock when broken, where "le principe corporel de son mouvement cesse d'agir."(12) We note, first, that Descartes distinguishes here between living and dead bodies, but not between living and nonliving bodies, a distinction already implicitly denied in article 4.(13) Secondly, it must be noted that the difference between a living and a dead body has nothing to do with its "obedience to laws of nature" or, as Descartes observes in the Sixth Meditation, with a "corruption of its nature." A dropsical body observes the same laws of nature as a healthy body, just as a poorly made clock observes the same laws as a well-made one. In the case of the clock, however, when well-made it "satisfait entierement au desir de l'ouvrier,"(14) which a poorly made or broken clock does not.(15) Hence in the Passions the living body is like the well-made clock, making the motions for which it is "instituted," while the dead body is like the broken clock in which the principle of these motions has ceased to function.

This article of The Passions of the Soul takes this thought no further: in discussing it, however, we shall, and the treatment in the Meditations takes it further as well, if only one step. To say that a sick body's nature is corrupted is to be involved in a consideration or denomination extrinsic to body itself, which "ne signifie rien qui se retrouve dans la chose dont elle se dit."(16) A broken clock does not fulfill its function or purpose, which we know because we either have made it or it has been made for us, for human beings. …

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