Setting the table So far we’ve discussed three theories of emotion: visceral – the theory implicit in Homer, pluralist – the theory traceable through Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius, and cognitivist – the Stoic and to an extent Epicurean views. Now that we’ve laid all this ground work, its time to chart the fate of these competing camps in the Modern World. The 17th century was a fascinating age in philosophy and science with luminaries such as Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Kepler, Leibniz, Locke, Newton, Pascal and Spinoza (just to name a few) all flourishing during the period. And none of them was more influential regarding theorizing on the emotions than René Descartes.
Like most of his contemporaries, Descartes was amazed by the advances in empirical research and he, like they, firmly believed that most if not all of the world could be explained in terms of mechanics and mechanisms, a view sometimes called the Mechanist or Mechanistic philosophy. But Descartes and his cohorts were more radical than they might sound today. For example, Descartes claimed to commit himself to breaking from all previous theories of emotion and start thinking on the subject anew. But what he actually did was combine his ardent belief in a strict mind-body dualism, which we just saw in Stoicism with the mechanistic philosophy that dominated his times. There’s certainly novelty there, but it’s not nearly a complete break from the past.
The result of Descartes’ combination of mechanism and dualism was a severely flawed but highly influential theory of emotions. It – unintentionally – turns the mind into the equivalent of the scent that accompanies a cup of coffee, what we in philosophy call an epiphenomenon and makes the emotions and volition almost completely visceral – functions of the internal organs and muscles, and not of the brain. The Cartesian theory of emotions was and remains immensely influential and reaction to it was and is basically two-fold. People either agree with him that mind is some sort of non-physical, but real, thing and then try to fit it into what they know about physiology, or they say, sure that’s the best way to talk about ‘mind’, but it’s a hopelessly bad idea based on total B.S. so we shouldn’t talk about ‘mind’ (and often not emotions, either) as real things at all. I believe, as I’ll explain in a few posts, that this pair of reactions to the Cartesian view were a major influence on the rise of sentimentalism in ethics: basically the idea that we ‘get’ right and wrong in the same way we ‘get’ smells and colors; through a special sense and not through reasoning. And thus they ignore the development of and benefits to the P-A-L view of things. I’ll explain how it came to be that by the end of the 18th Century David Hume, taking the second reaction to the Cartesian view puts forth a full-grown sentimentalist ethical theory in combination with a worked out theory of emotion and cognition that is related pretty closely to the visceral theory of Homer.
I’ll come right out and say what you probably already get – I find the Cartesian theory, and the responses to it, deeply troubling. The fundamental reason I have such a dislike for both Descartes’ and Hume’s theories is that they share a fundamental problem: the want to but cannot drop the cognitive element in emotions and remain coherent. In the end, they slip the cognitive component of emotion back into the visceral account by means of ad hoc concepts and/or mechanisms, moves they are not entitled to, and which makes them at best internally inconsistent and at worst useless. That is, at best these theories have several claims that don’t agree with each other and it may even be that these and other problems make these theories incapable of offering us any positive guidance regarding the nature of thought, emotion, or right and wrong.
The Passions of the Soul
Descartes wrote an entire book dedicated to the nature of the emotions, The Passions of the Soul. In the next few blog posts I’ll explain the theory he puts forth in the book and identify three serious problems for it. I call these “Cartesian Errors” (the phrase is my own, and chosen for obvious reasons, but what I call the ‘first’ error is also the error referred to by the title of the book Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio, though I explain and develop it much more than he did). The Cartesian errors not only make the theory untenable, but worse, Descartes should have known better, and worse still, they became embedded in thinking on the emotions and remain so to the present day. Let’s wrap up this post with a brief introduction to the three Cartesian errors.
The three errors
The first Cartesian error has as much to do with his way of solving problems as it does with his commitment to dualism and the mechanistic philosophy: the belief that ‘mind’ or ‘mental activity’ is pure cognition and that ‘body’ is an unthinking machine, responsive only to pleasure and pain, and having nothing to do with cognition. The second Cartesian error is that his theory irreparably separates emotion from cognition and therefore is forced into an untenable ad hoc distinction between calm and violent passions in order to sneak intelligence into some emotions. As a result of this split, he can’t find much good to say about the emotions as far as ethics is concerned and so basically takes the position that emotions should be eliminated. The third Cartesian error is that the theory cannot explain how the mind and body could have duplex communication, which the P-A-L theory gave an excellent argument for, and which I conclude is a fundamental aspect of the emotions backed up by contemporary research.