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Descartes’ Philosophical Thoughts on Body and Soul

It is generally accepted that man is binary in his structure; he consists of a soul and a body. According to this notion, the soul is the invisible, inner spiritual part, while the body is its outer, apparent one. The dependence of these two elements has long been proved and challenged by numerous philosophers. Rene Descartes was the first to make a significant distinction between these concepts by making them completely independent. He departed considerably from the former tradition in interpreting their connection, recognizing that not only does the soul influence the body, but the shape can also affect the state of the soul tangibly.

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This argument is rational and has many premises and explanations regarding the laws of chemistry and physics. In considering the nature of the body, Descartes appealed directly to the mechanical-hydraulic model. In his view, nerves transmit excitement like fluid through pipes, and muscles and tendons are similar to engines and springs. On the other hand, the soul is filled with the will and affects, the passions, which dispose it of those things for which the body is prepared. The soul is immaterial (that is, it does not consist of any matter), but it is capable of consciousness and thought, thus providing information about the outside world (Hatfield 444). However, the thinking, feeling, and free-will mind must somehow influence the body and perceive the responses. If an intention is born in the soul, for example, to move from one place to another, this desire is carried out by the body’s muscles, tendons, and nerves. Similarly, suppose the body is exposed to a stimulus (light or heat, for example). In that case, the mind perceives and processes the sensory data and decides on the appropriate response.

To formulate his concept of the interaction between soul and body, Descartes needed to find some physical organ in which they could combine. Following a long philosophical tradition, he considered the soul simple in structure, with no constituent parts inside; it could only interact with a separate bodily organ. According to his conviction, such a place must be located in the brain because experimental data showed that impressions move from the periphery to the mind and, vice versa, all movement impulses emanate from it. Such a structure became the pineal body or spite, which was considered the meeting place of the soul and form (Hatfield 450). This interaction can also be described in a typically mechanistic manner: the creature’s juices moving through the neural tubes are imprinted in a certain way in the pineal body, and on this basis, the mind creates sensual images and perceptions.

According to Descartes, all possible things constitute two separately functioning and independent of each other (but not of God who created them) substances — spiritual and corporeal. However, at the same time, the criterion the philosopher chose to differentiate between functions is, in part, subjective. He clearly distinguished between the concepts of substance and attributes. He characterized the theory of matter as one that needs only the ordinary assistance of God. In contrast, attributes cannot exist without material, as they are their qualities. These things are cognized in their basic attributes; for bodies, such attributes are the extension; for souls, they are considering (Hatfield 454). This position cannot be regarded as true, for it is impossible to determine with certainty how rational such judgments are.

Moreover, the philosopher himself had doubts and contradictory thoughts concerning the two substances’ incompatibility and their direct dependence. On the one hand, he tried to prove that the body has a great influence on the soul and vice versa. However, on the other hand, he also believed that the soul could exist on its own (Hatfield 456). These elements seem independent, but the extent of their mutual influence can be questioned. Such contradictions led one to challenge the validity of the concept, after which it was often disputed and counter-arguments.

Princess Elisabeth appealed to Descartes’ arguments and corresponded with him. She asked the philosopher to explain how the human soul, which she considered only a substance, could influence the physical body to perform deliberate actions. At the same time, the royalty firmly insisted that the phenomenon of movement was through an impulse causing a state of motion. Thus, Elizabeth wrote, that Descartes completely excludes spatial dimensions from the idea of the soul. She also demonstrates that physical contact as one of the modes of bodily movement cannot be non-material (Urban 230). In this way, Elizabeth criticized the reason for the interaction between the material body and the immaterial soul (mind).

Descartes admitted that she produced a fair question and provided her with such answers. Descartes argues that any human conceptions of body and soul are primitive. Thus, the average person cannot comprehend the principles of activity of the two interrelated substances and may ascribe incorrect properties to them. Thus, he explains that Elizabeth tries to imagine how the soul affects the body, on the example of how one physical object influences another. Moreover, this is already a mistake because the nature of the soul is not a physical object (Hatfield 443). At the same time, Descartes describes that the princess has made the error based on Aristotle’s philosophy concerning the fact that physical objects are attracted to the center of the Earth because of their weight. That is, according to the philosopher, the interaction of soul and body must be viewed on an immaterial level.

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In her response, Elizabeth writes that the analogy with the Earth’s gravitational force cannot explain the interaction of soul and body. Probably the similarity should have looked like this: according to Aristotle’s model, the center of the Earth is the point toward which a physical object moves by nature (Urban 230). According to Descartes’ principle, the soul is the purpose by which the body moves by nature. Although Descartes rejects a teleological interpretation of the action of material things relative to the Earth, teleology does present a way of showing the movement of the body related to the soul. In any case, although Descartes himself does not explicitly say so, it seems to me to be a way of understanding it that describes why he finds the analogy of weight useful at all.

Thus, I support Descartes’ answer; it seems to me that his answer further comments on the differences between human conceptions of soul, body, and the union between the couple. He addresses the traditional distinction between intellect or understanding, imagination, and the senses. He says that the soul is known only by reason, the body by reason along with imagination, and the union between the two by idea along with imagination and the senses (Hatfield 445). The concept here is that the relationship of the union between soul and body is evident in the attributes that, according to Descartes, neither soul nor body can have separately. For example, appetites, emotions, and sensations exist only when the spiritual and the bodily enter into a relationship. Thus, I fully support Descartes in arguing that people need to rely on the experience of bodily sensations, and affective states, not just intellect and imagination, to properly understand the causal relationship between soul and body.

It seems to me that the counter-argument to Descartes’ main postulate is that the connection seems mysterious to me. I do not understand whether to consider it simply to the intellect or to the intellect and imagination (Urban 231). It is also unclear to me what role a person’s situational feelings play here. My suggestions are certainly interesting, but that does not mean that convincing. If Descartes had meant only that, from the point of view of phenomenology, the close connection between soul and body seems perfectly obvious and natural, he would certainly have been right. My question is not about the soul and body interacting, but rather how they could do so, considering that Descartes claims about the nature of each. As I have already expressed in support of the philosopher, the real problem with Descartes’ position is not that he has difficulty explaining how the soul and body interact. He argues that they are two separate substances that work together to support human functioning.

Works Cited

Hatfield, Gary. “Descartes: New Thoughts on the Senses.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, vol. 25, no. 3, 2017, pp. 443-464.

Urban, Elizabeth. “On Matters of Mind and Body: Regarding Descartes.” Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 63, no. 2, 2018, pp. 228-240.

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