Whew! The last word on the Second Error!

Last time I finished up by saying that because of his interests and assumptions, Descartes was unable to reach the conclusion he wanted, that emotions are purely mental, and that he looked to be forced into one of two other conclusions: 1) that emotions can exist without mental content, or that emotions can exist without the soul; or 2) that his theory contradicts his assumptions because it’s actually lends itself fairly well to defending the idea that emotions must be a type of thought and must have a physiological basis.

Let’s have one last closer look. At the very beginning of his book (A1) he explains emotions are “passive events” that happen to the person/soul, but are specifically referring to the person who they happen to. This fits well with his theory of how perception of things like pictures works. However, he also determined that what emotions are made from and how they are made is completely explainable by mechanistic physiology! To put it super-briefly, though he fixes the “home” of emotions in the soul, it is the body and memory that do nearly all, possibly even all, the work of supplying the mental/belief content necessary to start the physical processes that are emotional actions and reactions. This is actually pretty brilliant, but it was a disaster for his beliefs. So he had to find a way out, a way to show that emotions are perfomances of the mind and could not possibly be performances of the body.

To flesh it out a little more, lets look at how fear would work (A38): he explains that the movements of the body that “accompany” the emotions do not depend on the soul, all that is required to put a passion in the soul is the proper course of certain chemicals towards the nerves in the heart. From there they can then strike the nerves that make the legs move – and sustain the action – which automatically causes movements in the pineal gland, which causes the soul to “feel and perceive” that we are fleeing from danger. This process can be started by a learned response (as a child you saw a bear eat your dog, now you see a bear and you run), or by “dispositions of the organs” (think reflexes or innate behaviors (flinching when you believe you see a snake, even if its a stick). That is, in a word, bodily volition.

Descartes goes on to explain (A40) that the emotions mainly incite and dispose the soul to will things for which the passions already are preparing the body. To me, that sounds like a rubber stamp, not an instigator.

Perhaps worse, this sort of explanation leads to a very hard question – in what sense is fear a mental object? How is it cognition, the thing that only the soul/mind can do? Consider – don’t animals “fear”? If they do, and they don’t have souls/minds, how is that possible? (Descartes would say they don’ t have souls and don’t fear). But beyond that, we’ve seen that in some cases the body can start and sustain an emotion, like fear, without any direct influence of the soul. So whatever mental content they have is included in them by means other than the soul!

Remember, on Descartes’ view, the body is supposed to have absolutely no part in cognition, yet the first two Cartesian errors have already exposed that instead, he’s nearly made the mind/soul impotent or redundant, a position that we’ll see later fits easily with Sentimentalism in ethics.

While Descartes is making these points, he also tries to tie on a couple of saving moves: 1) He argues that the pineal gland is really where emotions are felt, even though they feel like they are happening in our body (A33-34), and 2) he argues that the only use of the emotions is to inspire volition/will in the soul (A52). If these two things were right, he’d be making a decent case that the emotions provide the initial motivation for volitions, create them and sustain them. BUT at the same time he is denying #2, saying that the emotions incite a “will for” doing actions they already prepare the body to do, and #1 is very hard to believe (much less prove).

To conclude, bodily voliton exists: In at least some cases the body is already performing and doing what needs to be done in emotion-situations, as well as in day-to-day actions, just from an image in the brain (“bear”) + either learned responses or human nature, and though he wants it to be that the souls is ultimately the “decider”, it really seems to be a lot less involved than that. Descartes’ theory has two arguments smashing into eachother – one explaining how the emotions are of the body, and the soul is irrelevant, and another concurrently arguing that the body is merely the substratum on which the emotions of the soul perform.


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