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Reinterpreting Descartes on the Notion of the Union of Mind and Body JANET BROUGHTON RUTH MATTERN What does IDescartesJ understand, 1 ask, by the union of the mind and the body? What clear and distinct conception has he got of thought in most intimate connection with a certain particle of extended matter.'? Truly 1 should like him to explain his union through its proximate cause. But he had so distinct a conception of mind being distinct from body, that he could not assign any particular cause of the union between the two, or of the mind itself, but was obliged to have recourse to the cause of the whole universe, that is to God. Spinoza, Ethics, Preface to Part V !. DESCARTES'S VIEWOF MIND-BODYINTERACTION is obscure; but his notion of mind-body union, which is supposed to shed light on interaction, seems instead to cast a shadow of its own. In 1643, Princess Elizabeth asked Descartes how mind, thinking and unextended, could interact with body, extended and unthinking; in his response Descartes appeals to the "primitive" notion of the union of mind and body. Difficult as it is to see how this notion of union could illuminate interaction, it is even more difficult to see how there could be such a primitive notion at all. Descartes says that a primitive notion is conceptually independent of other notions. But how can the notion of the union of mind and body be independent of the notion of mind and the notion of body? In what follows we will offer a new interpretation of the crucial primitive-notions passage in Descartes's letter to Elizabeth, an interpretation designed to show how the notion of the union of mind and body could be primitive. Although we will not go on to explore the connection between union and interaction, we hope in this paper to prepare the way for such an investigation. A helpful framework for posing and clarifying the problem we wish to solve is provided by Daisie Radner's provocative article "Descartes' Notion of the Union of Mind and Body."' In section II we will distinguish several versions of Radner's We wish to thank Professor Margaret D. Wilson and Ellen Pearlman, of Princeton University, for their useful comments on an earlier version of this paper; and we are grateful, too, for help from the Journal referees. Journal of the tlistory of Philosophy 9 (1971): 159-170. [23] 24 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY contention that for Descartes union cannot be primitive. 2 In sections III through V we will reinterpret the primitive-notions passage in the correspondence with Elizabeth in such a way that we can defend Descartes against Radner's criticisms. We will try to show in section VI why that passage might engender misinterpretation in the first place. Finally, in section VII we will sketch the larger task to which Radner's paper and ours are only preliminaries. II. Why does Radner think that mind-body union is problematic for Descartes? She first formulates the difficulty with this question: "If two substances have different natures, how can there be a union of these substances which is itself a simple nature? ''3 This question suggests that Radner is attributing to Descartes the problematic claim that (a) Some particular compound entities--the human beings composed of minds and bodies--are simple natures. The supposition that Radner is in fact attributing this position to Descartes is supported by her later remark that the unity which is formed from two things which are in themselves complete is a unity of composition .... the unity of mind and body is a unity of composition. But it is also, as we have seen, a simple nature. Can something which is a unity of composition also be a simple nature, unanalysable into components? It seems not. 4 There is, however, another way to read these two quotations from Radner. She sometimes treats simple natures as essences or attributes, as when she writes that "a simple nature is an essence which we 'behold as primary and existing per se'. ''5 So perhaps she is also criticizing Descartes for holding that (b) Some particular compound entities--the human beings composed of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 23-32
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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