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ELH 67.2 (2000) 399-431

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"Damnéd Custom . . . Habits Devil": Shakespeare's Hamlet, Anti-Dualism, and the Early Modern Philosophy of Mind

Paul A. Cefalu *

While recent decades have shown remarkable advances in the philosophy of mind and our understanding of consciousness, most contributions coming from the analytic philosophical tradition have left the historical origins and development of the mind/body problem untended, taking for granted that the founding moment of the modern mind/body problem is that of Cartesian dualism. When theorists do make brief forays into pre-Cartesian, early modern mind/body theories, these explorations reveal just how little has been systematically said on the subject of early modern philosophical psychology. For instance, Hilary Putnam draws on C. S. Lewis's dated study of medieval and Renaissance literature, The Discarded Image (1964), to describe the difference between late medieval and mid-seventeenth-century theories of the mind/body relationship. Putnam writes, "In the earlier way of thinking, the mind was thought of as acting on the 'spirit' which in turn acted on 'matter' and spirit was not thought of as totally immaterial. 'Spirit' was just the in-between sort of stuff that the medieval philosophers' tendency to introduce in-betweens between any two adjacent terms in the series of kinds of being naturally led them to postulate." 1

I will return to Putnam's account of the mind/matter problem later in this paper. What Putnam's reference to Lewis's cursory treatment of the pre-Cartesian theory of pneuma shows is simply the lack of any thorough account of the post-medieval, pre-Cartesian philosophy of mind. In discussions of the history of philosophical psychology, most philosophers leap from Aristotle's hylomorphic theory of the soul to seventeenth-century dualism, sometimes interposing a brief account of the Thomistic or Scotian theory of the soul and its relations to Cartesianism. 2 The editors of the Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind acknowledge the importance and neglect of any sustained account of the Renaissance precursors to the mind/body problem when they suggest, after a brief comment on the relevance to modern dualism of Pietro Pomponazzi's De immortalitate animae, that Cartesianism had its [End Page 399] progenitors both in the Platonic-Augustinian tradition and in Renaissance naturalism, and that "either way it emerges out of a rich and complex past, the study of which promises to yield historical and philosophical insights." 3 The one rigorous account we do have of Renaissance philosophical psychology is Richard Popkin's important work on skepticism, although Popkin is predominantly interested in the skeptical forerunners of Cartesianism and in a vibrant strain of early modern mitigated skepticism resembling modern-day pragmatism. 4

In the following pages I do not attempt to offer a systematic account of Renaissance philosophical psychology. Rather I look briefly at some modern and pre-modern theories of the mind--those of Gilbert Ryle, Putnam, Augustine, Pomponazzi, and Jeremy Taylor--in order to suggest first that Renaissance philosophy and theology held theories of the mind that resemble modern-day anti-dualistic accounts of behaviorism and functionalism, and second that Shakespeare's Hamlet is implicated in this behaviorist-functionalist tradition rather than in the innatist tradition into which it has usually been placed. I argue that part of the reason that Hamlet's critics have assumed that Hamlet is preoccupied with inspecting the contents of his private self is that they have mistaken the obsession shown by Hamlet's peers in the play to "pluck out" Hamlet's "mystery" for what is usually described as Hamlet's own inner gaze. 5 Critics have conflated the third-person statements about Hamlet's mental states with Hamlet's first-person reports, reports which aim to understand the role of behavior, habit, and custom in knowing and acting, rather than to explore any Cartesian theater of the mind. I will suggest that for most of the play Hamlet is a radical Rylean behaviorist, inasmuch as he believes mental phenomena and predicates gain meaning only when they...


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