Thursday, September 28, 2023

Elisabeth of Bohemia 1, Descartes 0

I'm loving reading the 1643 correspondence between Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes! I'm embarrassed to confess that I hadn't read it before now; the standard Cottingham et al. edition presents only selections from Descartes' side. I'd seen quotes of Elisabeth, but not the whole exchange as it played out. Elisabeth's letters are gems. She has Descartes on the ropes, and she puts her concerns so plainly and sensibly (in Bennett's translation; I haven't attempted to read the antique French). You can practically feel Descartes squirming against her objections. I have a clear and distinct idea of Descartes ducking and dodging!

Here's my (somewhat cheeky) summary, with comments and evaluation at the end.

Elisabeth, May 6, 1643:

I'm so ignorant and you're so learned! Here's what I don't understand about your view: How can an immaterial soul, simply by thinking, possibly cause a bodily action?


it seems that how a thing moves depends solely on (i) how much it is pushed, (ii) the manner in which it is pushed, or (iii) the surface-texture and shape of the thing that pushes it. The first two of those require contact between the two things, and the third requires that the causally active thing be extended [i.e., occupy a region of space]. Your notion of the soul entirely excludes extension, and it appears to me that an immaterial thing can't possibly touch anything else.

Also, if, as you say, thinking is the essential property of human souls, what about unborn children and people who have fainted, who presumably have souls without thinking?

René, May 21, 1643:

Admittedly in my writings I talk much more about the fact that the soul thinks than about the question of how it is united with the body. This idea of the union of the soul and the body is basic and can be understood only through itself. It's so easy to get confused by using your imagination or trying to apply notions that aren't appropriate to the case!

For a comparison, however, think about how the weight of a rock moves it downwards. One might (mistakenly, I hope later to show) think of weight as a "real quality" about which we know nothing except that it has the power to move the body toward the centre of the earth. The soul's power to move the body is analogous.

Elisabeth, June 10, 1643:

Please forgive my stupidity! I wish I had the time to develop your level of expertise. But why should I be persuaded that an immaterial soul can move a material body by this analogy to weight? If we think in terms of the old idea of weight, why shouldn't we then conclude by your reasoning that things move downward due to the power of immaterial causes? I can't conceive of "what is immaterial" except negatively as "what is not material" and as what can't enter into causal relations with matter. I'd rather concede that the soul is material than that an immaterial thing could move a body.

René, May 28, 1643:

This matter of the soul's union with the body is a very dark affair when it comes from the intellect (whether alone or aided by the imagination). People who just use their senses, in the ordinary course of life, have no doubt that the soul moves the body. We shouldn't spend too much time in intellectual thinking. In fact,

I never spend more than a few hours a day in the thoughts involving the imagination, or more than a few hours a year on thoughts that involve the intellect alone. I give all the rest of my time to the relaxation of the senses and the repose of the mind.

The human mind can't clearly conceive the soul's distinctness from the body and its union with the body simultaneously. The comparison with weight was imperfect, but without philosophizing everyone knows that they have body and thought and that thought can move the body.

But since you remark that it is easier to attribute matter and extension to the soul than to credit it with the capacity to move and be moved by the body without having matter, please feel free to attribute this matter and extension to the soul -- because that's what it is to conceive it as united to the body.

Still, once you do this, you'll find that matter is not thought because the matter has a definite location, excluding other matter. But again, thinking too much about metaphysics is harmful.

Elisabeth, July 1, 1643:

I hope my letters aren't troubling you.

I find from your letter that the senses show me that the soul moves the body, but as for how it does so, the senses tell me nothing about that, any more than the intellect and imagination do. This leads me to think that the soul has properties that we don't know -- which might overturn your doctrine... that the soul is not extended.

As you have emphasized in your writings, all our errors come from our forming judgments about things we don't perceive well enough. Since we can't perceive how the soul moves the body, I am left with my initial doubt, that is, my thinking that perhaps after all the soul is extended.

There is no record of a reply by Descartes.


Zing! Elisabeth shows up so much better than Descartes in this exchange. She immediately homes in on the historically most important (and continuing) objection to Cartesian substance dualism: the question of how, if at all, an immaterial soul and a material object could causally interact. She efficiently and elegantly formulates a version of the principle of "the causal closure of the physical", according to which material events can only be caused by other material events, connecting that idea both with Descartes' denial that the soul is extended in space and with the view, widely accepted by early modern philosophers before Newton, that physical causation requires direct physical contact (no "action at a distance"). Jaegwon Kim notes (2011, p. 49) that hers might be the first causal argument for a materialist view of the mind. To top it off, she poses an excellent objection (from fetuses and fainting spells) to the idea that thinking is essential to having a soul.

Descartes' reply by analogy to weight is weak. As Elisabeth notes, it doesn't really answer the question of how the process is supposed to work for souls. Descartes' own theory of weight (articulated the subsequent year in Principles of Philosophy, dedicated to Elisabeth) involves action by contact (light particles spinning off the rotating Earth shoot up, displacing heavier particles down: IV.20-24). At best, Descartes is saying that the false, old idea of weight didn't involve contact, so why not think souls can also have influence without contact? Elisabeth's reply implicitly suggests a dilemma: If downward motion is by contact, then weight is not an example of how causation without contact is possible. If downward motion is not by contact, then shouldn't we think (absurdly?) that things move down due to the action of immaterial souls? She also notes that "immaterial" just seems to be a negative idea, not something we can form a clear, positive conception of.

Elisabeth's response forces Descartes concede that we can't in fact think clearly and distinctly about these matters. This is a major concession, given the centrality of the standard of "clear and distinct" ideas to Descartes' philosophy. He comes off almost as a mysterian! He also seems to partly retract what is perhaps the most central idea in his dualist metaphysics -- that the soul does not have extension. Elisabeth should feel free to attribute matter and extension to the soul, after all! Indeed, in saying that attributing matter and extension is "what it is to conceive [the soul] as united to the body", Descartes seriously muddies the interpretation of his positive view about the nature of souls.

It's also worth noting that Descartes entirely ignores Elisabeth's excellent fetus and fainting question.

I had previously been familiar with Descartes' famous quote that he spends no more than a few hours a year on thoughts involving the intellect alone; but reading the full exchange provides interesting context. His aim in saying that is to convince Elisabeth not to put too much energy into objecting to his account of how the soul works.

Understandably, Elisabeth is dissatisfied. She even gestures (though not in so many words) toward Descartes' methodological self-contradiction: Descartes famously says that philosophizing requires that we have clear ideas and that our errors all arise from failure to do so -- yet here he is, saying that there's an issue at the core of his metaphysics about which it's not possible to think clearly! Shouldn't he admit, then, that on this very point he's liable to be mistaken?

If Descartes attempted a further reply, the reply is lost. Their later correspondence treats other issues.

The whole correspondence is just 15 pages, so I'd encourage you to read it yourself. This summary necessarily omits interesting detail and nuance. In this exchange, Elisabeth is by far the better philosopher.

[image source]


Bram Vaassen said...

Sounds about right! I’ve heard it said that Descartes seems to have a regularity or counterfactualist theory of causation in mind in his responses to Elisabeth. I’m no Descartes scholar, but from the excerpts of the letters I had read before, that seems like a very charitable reading of his ‘squirmings’.

However, as a matter of shameless marketing, I do think that the causal arguments against dualism (unfortunately) have less pull today than they had back then. In the wake of regularity theories and counterfactualist theories, it turns out that causation is so cheap that the interaction problem and exclusion problems can be addressed fairly straightforwardly.

Read all about it, folks!

SelfAwarePatterns said...

Elisabeth was obviously a clear thinker. But, ironically given her gender, as a princes, she may also have been something of a privileged one. Anil Seth, in his book a couple of years ago, mentioned that Descartes may have taken certain positions he didn't necessarily believe in order to keep the church off his back, like the idea that humans had souls while animals didn't. (Seth notes the story of Julien Offray de La Mettrie as an example of what happened when someone didn't play that game.)

I had actually forgotten about Seth's point until reading your summary here. Descartes' responses sound like they may have been almost purposely weak. Like maybe he's telling her, "Listen, it's just best not to go there." Maybe he can't come out in written communication and say the real reason, so he just tries to move the conversation onto other things.

Granted, it's all speculation. It might explain why an otherwise brilliant thinker appeared to have such blind spots. Of course, they might have just been real blind spots.

Howie said...

If Descartes believed he had an immaterial soul what behaviors other than writing ineffective letters would indicate that belief?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Bram: Yes, I suspect that's an excessively charitable read. And shoot, you've figured out causation?! :-) Thanks for the link.

SelfAware: I tend to be skeptical of such theories as overly charitable, unless there's clear textual basis. I tend to favor more superficial readings. This is plausibly a case where you poke at Descartes and discover that there's less under the surface than you might have guessed. (I think that's often true of philosophers.)

Howie: Writing engaging essays also works!

Howie said...

Do we know much about Elisabeth other than these letters?
Did she engage with other intellectual figures?
Did she knwo Mersenne or Hobbes?
She sounds like a materialist and a free thinker?

Lisa said...

Howie (and others) might find this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy of interest:

Howard said...

@ self aware patterns

Presuming Descartes hid heretical views from the church- first, the nature of his actual views on the soul must have seeped somehow out and second, did not states such as France nationalized their churches in early modern Europe watering down the power to surveil and coerce?

Christian Carrozzo said...

I teach the Correspondence in my POM class as assigned reading just after the Meditations. Questions about their exchanges also appear in my students' first exam. Elisabeth basically introduces the interaction problem.

Thomas said...

Interesting, thanks! I know the city where she lived and I knew about her Descartes connection, but I just thought it was a case of a bored arostocrat writing celebrities and never looked into that.Thanks too to Lisa for the interesting link.

chinaphil said...

So... I want to put this up against the view you were suggesting about the ability of philosophers to come up with innovative ideas that expand the intellectual space.
Because I think Descartes was wrong, and yet I think he created a hugely productive idea. Identifying problems with it has been one of the driving forces of philosophy since then!
So the fact that she was able to identify the basic problems with Cartesian dualism is good; and his responses do sound completely ineffectual; but... I dunno. I feel like I might have said the same as Elisabeth if I heard about his ideas, and I feel like we were both missing something.

Arnold said...

Are abbeys and monastery first principle (meta) philosophy...
...for practicing in passive active conditions...

Towards understanding gender...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

chinaphil: Yes, Descartes' ideas were so fruitful in producing further work in reaction. The Meditations is one of the great works of philosophy. In *this exchange* Elisabeth does better philosophy, and I wonder what she might have produced if she had more opportunity.