- On Descartes' Passive Thought by Jean-Luc Marion
There is something silly in the popular trope "Philosopher–X is not a Philosopher–Xian!" One reads "Aristotle is not an Aristotelian!" or "Kant is not a Kantian!" and sighs. A book on Descartes subtitled "The Myth of Cartesian Dualism" seems to fall exactly into this category. Fortunately, Jean-Luc Marion is incapable of writing anything silly, and this book basically does the impossible, convincing one that while Descartes was a dualist, all the myth surrounding such dualism is just that: myth. These are bold historical as well as interpretive claims. Nevertheless, Marion pulls them off magisterially.
The book is a self-styled final work in a distinguished series of treatises on Descartes. For the past forty years, Marion has been revising and rejuvenating our understanding of Descartes, but always with an intense historical sensitivity. This final work promises two things: (1) a fresh and coherent understanding of Descartes's notion of the union of body and soul, and (2) an overall interpretation of the coherence of Descartes's entire metaphysical project through such an understanding. I think he succeeds spectacularly on the first and leaves more to be said about the second. [End Page 616]
After an excellent introduction by Christina Gschwandtner situating Marion's Cartesian scholarship, and an introduction to the main claims of the book, Marion begins in chapter 1 with the "Scandal of Philosophy"—Descartes's supposed inability to prove the existence of external things in Meditation VI. After examining Kantian and other critiques of Descartes's argument, Marion asks whether Descartes has been understood by his critics.
Chapter 2 answers in the negative, for his interpreters, then and now, have missed a crucial distinction: that between "my body" (meum corpus; Leib) and other "bodies" (alia corpora; Körper). Although it is tempting to see this distinction as a phenomenological hijacking of Descartes by Husserl and Heidegger, and although Marion uses both in his interpretation thereof, Marion first marshals Descartes's own texts on the distinction and spends the rest of the book proving this reading. The key is in the title of the book: "Passive Thought." Marion shows that whenever Descartes, at least from 1641 onward, lists the activities of the mind (mens), he always includes a passive element: sensing. Sensing is a mode of thinking, connecting my body to my mind in a way that mediates the external world (res extensa) and the thinking thing (res cogitans). Chapter 3 shows that meum corpus is as indubitable as mens for Descartes, since sensing is a mode of thinking, and sensing requires meum corpus. In fact, meum corpus is the condition of the possibility of doubt, therefore doubly indubitable. This union of mens and meum corpus means that the traditional picture of mind–body dualism in Descartes is actually a description of angelic, not human, constitution. Chapter 4 closely examines the indubitability of meum corpus and the passive thinking it involves in Descartes's "third primitive notion": the union of body and soul. Marion shows that instead of trying to understand the union through either body or soul, res extensa or res cogitans, Descartes always thinks the union "from itself." It is not a terminus ad quem, but a terminus a quo, what Marion calls a "fact of reason" and certified by personal experience. Nevertheless, the union is not a third substance, but is the complete form of the mens in all its modalities: thinking both actively andpassively as an embodied ego.
In chapter 5 Marion argues that Descartes's use of substantia in his late correspondence clouds matters since the union of body and soul is substantial but not a substance. This distinction strikes me as crucial: Cartesian dualism is not a myth per se, but only as misunderstood to exclude embodied thinking. The union of soul and body is still activated through the mens, but this mens includes meum corpus as an essential element of the res cogitans. The soul is no longer solus in...