Category Archives: Cognition

Cumberland on the role of anatomy and physiology in emotion and thought

Cumberland examines the human body from three angles; that of the anatomist, the physician and the psychologist. The first focuses on the organized nature of the body, the second at its liability to preventable and curable “distempers”, and the third focuses on the relation of the mind to the body.

The Brain

His work in all these facets tells him that there are aspects of human bodies that allow it to strengthen the imagination and memory far beyond animal imagination and memory.

The first thing is how large the human brain is relative to the body when compared with other animals. Because of this and because all the nerves come from either the brain or the spinal marrow, he thinks the brain can exert a tremendous amount of control on action, and he thinks “all voluntary motion is directed and governed by the brain”.

He also thinks that our first apprehension of things is passive and therefore necessary. So, for example, what we see when we open our eyes can’t be anything but what it is. And he thinks the same goes for our desire for good and aversion from evil: the mind is innately, constantly working – understanding, choosing, refusing, deciding – moving the body to get what it wants. The brain lets us observe sensible objects and better understand which ones are good or evil, and, through a process then not yet understood by science, the nervous system relays messages to the brain, assisting the imagination and memory and to the body, aiding muscles and nerves to allow motion.

Now, what would seem to follow from this is that the soul does not “direct and govern” voluntary motions of the body unless it governs the brain directly. And as we saw with Descartes, trying to explain that is a very tall order, but he tries.

He expects that science will one day explain the workings of the nervous system but he cautions that it can’t explain everything; specifically he thinks it is impossible that we could ever reduce the workings of the mind to the “mechanical powers of matter and motion”. In fact, he thinks the more we learn about the nature of the brain, “the more we shall despair of the possibility of explaining the operations of the mind by its motions”. In other words, our mental lives are not reducible to mechanical talk.

At the basis of this belief is his commitment to dualism. He as sure as Descartes was that the mind, not the brain, can in the end control its reactions to sensations. But he doesn’t give any reasons that should convince us that this is true. Instead, his deep study qua anatomist and physician recommend us that the mind may just be unnecessary and irrelevant in understanding thought and emotions. For all his advances, our hero is just as guilty of the First Cartesian Error as Descartes.

Beyond the Brain

The internal organs in our chest cavity, the viscera, also have tremendous influence in “governing” and “determining” of emotion to seek the good of others rather than hurting them. Basically, he thinks the structure of our bodies serves as a continual reminder to very strictly govern our emotions. He goes so far as to say that the only reason we obey laws of nature and the source of every virtue is that we can govern the emotions that we use in “settling or securing every man’s property”.

Due to the amazing connectivity and back-and-forth communication between the viscera and the brain, the heart, diaphragm, etc, via the nervous system, they affected in various ways by violent emotions about good or evil. (And believe me, he gets into some detail about how this might actually work!). Its similar in all the other kinds of emotion; the heart and other viscera are more moved by the influence of a more powerful brain than animals are. Animals have emotions, but ours are much stronger.

Furthermore, the heart is the fountain of all the pleasures we enjoy, so any passions that help or hinder it “more powerfully” in us than in animals “necessarily affects” us more than them. Specifically, two properties peculiar to human bodies (I’ll spare the details) that allow for communication between the viscera give us the ability to better effect diligent government of the passions, along with the motivation to do so.

All this might remind you of the Homeric theory, and I agree they’re quite similar, but lets not jump to the conclusion that Cumberland is really a confused visceral theorist. Instead, he thinks that the peculiarities of human anatomy and physiology actually suggest that the mind’s province is to “diligently attend the helm committed to its care, and to steer it skillfully”. (This is reminiscent of Descartes sailor/ship metaphor in Meditation VI).

An even stronger point against viewing Cumberland as a visceral theorist is the previously stated claim that “the strongest passions are employed regarding the selling of private property…because nothing moves men more strongly”, meaning that concepts, beliefs and expectations play a huge role in the passions, or at least in a certain type. The “conceptions of the brain affect the heart”.

What these passages also show is a deep understanding of the importance of duplex communication between the brain and the rest of the body, which I’ve said numerous times is critically important.


So in the end, Cumberland more or less escapes the Second and Third Cartesian Errors and its mostly his falling to the First Cartesian Error that keeps me from listing him as part of the P-A-L progression. And like Descartes, Cumberland finds himself confused in the end as to whether and how the emotions are physiological phenomena or phenomena of an impalpable mind. This confusion makes fuzzy the role of the soul in our mental lives and emotions much in the same way it was by Descartes, though in a more ‘agreeable’, scientifically more rigorous way.

I’d also point out that his methodology as a philosopher is a little troubling, as in many places he’s utterly confident that scientific advancement simply will fill in gaps in his theory while at the same time he insists that such advancement will not undermine his other fervently held belief, that the mind is not physical and really can control our emotional responses to sensory phenomena. I might even argue that this is a weak version of the Second Cartesian error.

But for our purposes, the most important takeaways are:

1)    Cumberland should be credited for further solidifying the methodological point that the physiology of the body is absolutely fundamental to the nature of the emotions, even to the exclusion of the metaphysically distinct ‘soul’.

2)    Cumberland keeps at the core of his theory the idea that the mind’s role is important and only partially independent of the body.

3)    He is seriously confused about just what role the metaphysically separate soul he so strongly insists on has in mentality to the point that he is guilty of the same incoherence as Descartes.

4)    His confusions make it unclear whether he is a cognitivist or a sentimentalist about morality, a general issue we’re about to spend a lot of time on.

Its fair to say Cumberland has a stronger feel for these confusions, but he still has them. At the least we can say that though he is a partisan of Cartesian philosophy of emotions, he seriously advances that project.


Cumberland on perception and thought

Perception and thought is Mechanistic

Like most philosophers of his time, Cumberland admired the mechanistic philosophy, and he was also committed to the truth of free will and substance dualism. Like Descartes, he found that these positions are incredibly difficult to mesh consistently.

Cumberland has high hopes for what science can show us, even saying that all of what we can learn about moral philosophy “is ultimately resolved into observations of nature that are known by the experience of all, or into conclusions acknowledged and established by true natural science”. That is, experimental physics and psychology are fundamental to our learning about morality. We’ll see this nestle at the core of visceral theories of emotion and leading eventually to the prominence of sentimentalism in moral theory.

There are four claims in particular Cumberland makes that we need to note because of their ramifications for how perception, cognition and the emotions work, and how we come to understand right and wrong.

The claims:

1)    Natural science shows that the laws of motion account for every thing that impacts our senses, which he refers to as impressions.

2)    Matter produces impressions so they are natural effects

3)    When we perceive in our imagination (our mind’s eye) that two or more impressions are making a coherent individual thing, we perceive that both impressions are made upon us by the same cause.

4)    The reasons or causes that allow us to apprehend things placed in our imagination, or perceive things as being connected, or to be self aware happen naturally and necessarily because the imagination is presented with perceptions and the mind has an “intrinsic, natural faultless inclination towards observing things placed before it.”

The basic idea is that the world outside is responsible for creating the ideas in our mind. The measurable motions of matter produce thoughts and even our awareness of ourselves. All our behaviors – and emotions – are caused necessarily by the mind’s doing what it naturally does when it is presented with things.

What he tries to establish is that the way our minds work means we get necessary truths by thinking about the real world. Much like Descartes said, when things are clearly presented to our minds, our minds will necessarily make certain conclusions about those things. He argues that even though science hasn’t yet revealed to us how to predict all the changes in our bodies due to external stimuli, everything but the free will can be reduced to calculations about physical properties.

Because of that it will necessarily follow that we’ll have certain emotional responses to the impressions our senses give our minds. Cumberland is trying to set it up so that the mind, aside from just the bodily mechanism, adds something to the picture, but in the end we’ll see he doesn’t quite get there.

But we are a combination of Mind + Body

Though Cumberland is a Cartesian dualist, his conception explains the differences between man and animal and body and soul very differently; in short man is “an animal with a mind”.

There are two ways or modes to consider the distinction between mind and body – abstractly or theoretically and in vivo or ‘in the flesh’, so to speak.

His abstract argument is straightforward: to be conscious there has to be a specific, discrete/individual, coherent subject that has the thoughts, memories, perceptions, etc. His argument for it is also very simple:

  1. To be conscious there has to be a specific, individual (discrete), coherent subject that has the thoughts, memories, perceptions, etc that are the hallmark of consciousness
  2. Anything made of matter always consists of separate and distinct parts so matter is divisible, not discrete
  3. Because of (2), no system made up of matter, regardless of how its organized, could ever be an individual conscious being
  4. Because of (3), no organized system of matter could be an individual person or subject

In short: it makes no sense to talk about anything being conscious if there is no specific, particular locus; the ‘experiencer’ and a system of matter can’t be a specific locus because it’s a system of parts, not an individual thing.

But if that’s the argument, how does it play out “in vivo”? Cumberland starts by accepting that humans and animals share the ability sense the world around them, and by the same basic mechanisms: impressions enter the organs, are transmitted to the brain via nerves, and depending on circumstances, there is transmission to various muscles and organs.

But, the power of ‘distinctly perceiving” impressions is “peculiar to the human mind”. Only human mind (soul) – not senses, nerves and brains – can understand concepts such as the fact that the image in one’s retina is not the same thing as the object in the world, and know a things size, how it is moving, etc, because he doesn’t see how it would be possible for any “corporeal substance” to be able to separate out these sorts of facts and distinctions, compare them to each other and distinguish between them.

All this is fairly close to Descartes’ views, so it won’t be a surprise to see he defines ‘mind’ in a way similar (but importantly different) to him as well:

Cumberland says mind is understanding + will. The understanding aspect is responsible for things like comparing, judging, reasoning, the ability to be methodical, and to remember all these things. And the object of the understanding is truth, while the object of the will is good.

The will is choosing and refusing, and the vehemence with which you do so. You see the vehemence of what you will by the passion (emotion) with which you do it, above and beyond merely the ‘disturbance’ of the body that happens when you will. So the power of the soul is the combination of the power to understand and to will.

From the two major components of mind, he explains we get five powers, which really boil down to the ability to get knowledge of abstract concepts (specifically God), and to decide on what is properly moral, properly socialized action.

Briefly, they are:

  1. Right reasoning
  2. Understanding
    1. Understanding universal ideas (e.g. ‘Human nature’) and the judgments or propositions that come out of them or disagree with them
    2. Understanding what actions, generally speaking, will agree with those true universal ideas. – – and the ability to use language to express the ideas and volitions
  3. Knowledge of number, measure and weights
  4. The ability to see order and to make things organized
  5. The power to raise, stop and moderate emotions, and to direct them to desire greater good and avoid greater evil than what any other animal is capable of knowing.

The power of the soul “immediately” lets us keep ourselves from succumbing to any sudden rush of passion and to conform our behavior to laws, and therefore to live in civil society, which animals can’t do, though they can have some level of emotion.

Next time we’ll look more deeply at the anatomy and physiology