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Cartesian Memory

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 35, Number 3, July 1997
pp. 375-393 | 10.1353/hph.1997.0046

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Cartesian Memory RICHARDJOYCE THE ROLE OF MEMORY in Descartes's work is nearly always discussed by philoso- phers in reference to the "method of doubt," the Cartesian Circle, and its employment in the Meditations and the Discourse.' When one casts a wider net over the Cartesian corpus, however, one finds an interesting distinction at work -- Descartes believes in two forms of memory: the corporeal and the intellectual. The distinction is apparent early in his writings, even hinted at in the Rules; 2 it is, however, never explicitly mentioned in any work which he published, and one must look to his correspondence, mostly from the last decade of his life. In this paper I wish to address two entwined questions: "What is the nature of the intellectual memory?" and "Why, given the exis- tence of another theory of memory operating in his work, does Descartes need the intellectual memory?" As a preliminary I should state that to some degree my pursuit of answers will be speculative; Descartes's statements on this topic are so brief and imprecise that if we eschewed conjecture altogether there would be little hope of progress. I intend to demonstrate, however, that his remarks do provide a sufficient basis to suggest how these questions should be answered. In section ~ I will examine a number of hypothetical answers, eliminating two of them in the course of discussion. Ultimately, I will argue that while Descartes does offer empirical reasons in favor of positing an intel- ,Outside the "Cartesian Circle literature" (see footnote 43), I have found that very little attention has been paid to Descartes's treatment of memory. For exceptions see P. Landormy's "La m6moire corporelle et la m6moire intellectuelle dans la philosophie de Descartes," Bibliotheque du Congr~s International de Philosophie. Vol. lV. Histoire de la Philosophie (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 19o2); L. J. Beck's The Method of Descartes -- A Study of the "Regulae'" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 195~), 12o-~6; J. Morris's "Pattern Recognition in Descartes' Automata," Isis 6o (1969); and l~. Gilson's Index Scolastico-Cart~sien (Paris: J. Vrin, 1979), 175-79. ' Rule i z (AT X 416, CSM I 43): "But memory is no different from imagination -- at least the memory which is corporeal and similar to the one which animals possess" (implying that there is some noncorporeal faculty of memory as well). All Descartes-quotes are from the J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, A. Kenny volumes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). The three volumes are designated CSM I, CSM II, and CSMK, respectively. I also employ the C. Adam and P. Tannery numbering (Oeuvres de Descartes [Librairie Cerf, 19o4] ). [375] 376 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 35:3 JULY 1997 lectual memory in addition to the corporeal memory, it is his philosophical program -- his rationalist epistemology -- that is the true driving force. As a preparation to this inquiry I will outline Descartes's theory of corporeal mem- ory; my objective is to establish that Descartes held that a purely mechanistic, soulless system is capable of having a memory faculty. It is in light of this conclusion that the question, "Why, then, do we need posit another type of memory?" comes naturally to our attention. I. THE CORPOREAL MEMORY Descartes gives a somewhat crude account of a purely corporeal, mechanistic memory. Sensory perception consists in movement being transmitted from the world onto sensory receptor sites, which "pull" nerve fibres in various ways, and thereby influence the brain. This pulling of nerve fibres stimulates the release of animal spirits from the reservoir in the brain, within which the pineal gland is suspended. The animal spirits (distilled from blood coming from the heart) pass into different parts of the brain in accordance with the way the brain has been tugged by nerves. The departure of spirits occurs in different configurations, and different patterns cause different thoughts in the conscious soul which interfaces with the gland. The animal spirits move from the brain into the efferent nervous system where they can affect move- ment of the muscles. When the brain particles3 are set in motion, they leave an impression of that motion. In the future, brain particles will be disposed to move...



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