Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1631

René Descartes was a man who made of his life a quest for certainty, a quest which led him to the discovery of a new approach to knowledge. This method he summarized in his twenty-one RULES FOR THE DIRECTION OF THE MIND. In THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL ,...

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René Descartes was a man who made of his life a quest for certainty, a quest which led him to the discovery of a new approach to knowledge. This method he summarized in his twenty-one RULES FOR THE DIRECTION OF THE MIND. In THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL, Descartes, late in his life, turned his attention to the human emotions; this book is the result of his applications of his rational method to an analysis of the causes, varieties, and significance of emotions. Descartes wrote this study during the winter of 1645-1646; it was not published, however, until a short time before his death in 1650. During his lifetime Descartes’ books had only small sales and were a source of disappointment to their author. But under the prodding of friends and royal patrons, including Queen Christina of Sweden and Princess Elizabeth of the Palatine, he finally agreed to the publication of this, the last book to appear before his death.

Descartes saw mind and body as being completely distinct; he also saw that sense perception requires an interaction of mind and body. He came to believe that the emotions, as well as sense perception, were the result of interaction between the body and the mind. The causes of the emotions, or, as he called them, the passions, were not, he came to believe, solely in the brain but in all parts of the body, insofar as the various parts of the body serve for the production of blood and what he called the animal spirits. These animal spirits he believed to be very subtle portions of the blood, material bodies of extreme minuteness, which move very quickly through the body and are produced, for the most part, in the brain. The animal spirits, as well as perceptions, can cause the actual movements of the body, thought Descartes. The seat of the soul he located in the pineal gland, between the two hemispheres of the brain; the spirits move from the pineal gland, he believed, through the nerves, act upon the animal spirits already in the body’s system, and thus cause movements in the muscular and skeletal portions of the body.

The first part of Descartes’ study, consisting of fifty “articles,” or paragraphs, discusses the physiology of man, explains the seat of the soul, and discusses the general nature of the passions, or emotions. In this section of the book Descartes concludes that both desires and emotions proceed from the soul, noting that while some desires are the result of the body others are the result of the soul, such as the desire to love God. In this section, too, Descartes tries to show why he believes that every soul, despite the degrees of strength in souls, can exercise absolute control over the emotions of the particular human being. Such power to control the individual is, of course, a logical necessity if the individual is to be held responsible for his thoughts, emotions, and acts.

Because he was a rationalist, Descartes believed that to analyze and to understand the passions is a first step in being able to control them. Therefore, the second part of THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL is an examination of the emotions. He enumerates and analyzes a long list of passions, but he suggests that there are six basic, or primitive, passions from which the others derive; the six he lists are wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy, and sadness. Other passions, claims Descartes, are species of these six or combinations of them. He suggests that the utility of the passions is that they fortify and perpetuate thoughts in the soul which it ought to preserve, thoughts which might disappear if they were not strengthened by emotion. Two ways exist, however, in which the emotions can be detrimental: one is that thoughts can be fortified more than is necessary or desirable; the other is that thoughts unworthy of retention by the soul are fortified, and so retained, by emotion. For example, maintains Descartes, wonder can be marvelous in inclining the individual to study the sciences. On the other hand, he points out, as we progress in the study of science we must replace mere wonder with special reflection. For unless we learn to reflect upon what is new in our experience, rather than simply wonder about it, we shall, suggests Descartes, have finally only a blind curiosity which leads us from novelty to novelty without ever acquiring any real knowledge about anything; things of no importance can then come to arrest one’s attention as readily as those things which ought to have careful investigation.

Part two of Descartes’ study consists of ninety-eight “articles,” or paragraphs. In Article XC, “That which springs from delight,” he discusses the desire human beings have for another person, of the opposite sex. He notes that at a certain age nature causes us to entertain certain impressions in the brain that an individual of the other sex is the other half of a whole, of which we are half. This inclination for another individual, which seems the greatest of all imaginable goods at a certain time of life, is usually called love, though it is really a delight, says Descartes, and he notes that it has strange effects upon human beings and that these effects provide the principal materials for poets and writers of romances.

Having explained the six primitive passions as the genera, of which the other passions are species, using biological terminology, Descartes goes on in Part Three of THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL to discuss specific passions, such as esteem and disdain. He acknowledges that these two names often signify passionless opinions, but he points out that these opinions, which are reflections of value judgments, are often the sources of emotions to which we have not given specific names. For example, in this section he treats of (in addition to disdain and esteem) envy, pity, jealousy, anger, gratitude, and impudence. Part of the treatment is the result of observation, as in Article CC. In that article he notes that persons who grow pale in anger are usually to be feared more than those who become flushed while angry. Those who flush, he suggests, use expression and words to show their anger, while those who become pale hold themselves in and make up their minds to vengeance at a later time.

Throughout this section there are strong ethical undertones, for Descartes always writes from the standpoint that the soul can at least learn to control the emotions and the actions of the body which flow from them. This ethical side to his work is made explicit in the last two articles, Article CCXI, “A general remedy against the passions,” and CCXII, “That it is on them alone that all the good and evil of this life depends.” The best reason for his explanation of the passions, says Descartes, is that knowing them helps us to control and conquer the emotions, and thus enables us to fear them less. By understanding the natural faults that arise from the interaction of the mind and body we can learn to overcome those faults. Thus we can learn, he suggests, how to enable the soul to control the body in such a way that the evils which the passions cause are bearable. Further, we may even learn to find joy in our emotions.

Such an analysis of the passions and their causes is, from a historical viewpoint, at least, a strongly scientific approach to emotions and the ethical problems related to them. But, as in all his thought, Descartes alleges an interaction of mind and body, an interaction of two distinct substances. This distinction between the two is required by what philosophers have called the Cartesian compromise. One unanswered question left by Descartes is how these distinct substances, the mind and the body, can operate causally in both emotion and perception. Descartes failed to follow his own important rule for suspending judgment when he chose to make the pineal gland the point of interaction: he had no real evidence for making that decision. Further, he failed to see that a problem arises when any organ is made the seat of something, like the soul, that does not have the property of extension. In addition, he overlooks the fact that the soul, by his own admission, is immaterial; and yet he says that the immaterial soul can act, does act, on the human body by contact, even though an immaterial essence cannot make such a contact.

A larger philosophical problem is, of course, overlooked by Descartes, a problem which greatly interferes with the seriousness with which later generations could view his work. Interaction of soul and body, if a fact, seems to bring mind back into the mechanistic world. Descartes was trying throughout his philosophical career to make a place for both religious views and scientific views. He hoped to find a synthesis which would do justice to what he saw as the universal mechanism of the world about mankind and, at the same time, would recognize a place for mankind’s sense of human values and freedom. THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL fails to allow that synthesis, though Descartes apparently hoped it would not fail: he was willing to allow passion to be entangled in the material universe, but believed he could exempt will from such an involvement. He admitted that perception involves the material universe, but he wanted to make thought a pure activity of the soul, absolved from interaction with the body or the world about the body. In this book on human emotions, as in his other works, Descartes failed to provide a dualism which could prevent a conflict between the claims of physics on the one hand and theology on the other.

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