Category Archives: Duplex Communication

Richard Cumberland and the development of the Cartesian theory of emotions


You’ve probably never heard of philosopher and theologian (also trained in medicine) Richard Cumberland, but he was highly respected in his time, particularly for his work in political philosophy. He had a deep interest in the way the natural world worked and in identifying natural ethical laws. He followed many of his contemporaries in a spending tremendous amount of time and ink arguing against the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (even though he shared Hobbes’ mechanistic bent). But the second most influential philosophy on Cumberland was Descartes’ intricate dualist theory of mind and emotions

Cumberland followed but also improved up on the Cartesian theory but his efforts led thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume to repudiate the cognitive line of thinking on emotions and morality, paving the way for William James’ wholly visceral account at the end of the 19th century.

Descartes’ Influence

Cumberland accepts in principle Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy, is an earnest metaphysical dualist, and is an even more avid student of anatomy and physiology than Descartes. But even as he works to further the general Cartesian project on the nature of the emotions he goes beyond Descartes’ theory in ways that undermine core Cartesian beliefs and set the stage for the twin emergences of fundamentally physiological theories of emotion and the sentimentalist ethics. He did so by intentionally making the physical processes of the body even more central to the creation of emotions than Descartes did, and further clouding the role of a separate mind in generating emotions, even as he worked hard to protect the ‘fact’ that the mind in fact did exist separately.

The first significant improvement over Descartes’ positions and arguments is that he starts from the point of view that we ought to compare the similarities and differences between human and animal anatomy and physiology. This immediately makes him less dependent than Descartes on the concept that the soul makes humans fundamentally different from animals.

This starting point also has the benefit of letting him:

1)    Allow for animal souls, beliefs and emotions

2)    Differ with Descartes on the nature of human will and what it can do

3)    Be seriously concerned with a duplex theory of communication between the brain and the viscera

4)    Start with a basic but well-founded conception of two types of emotions

5)    Argue that, properly harnessed, emotions are a wonderful thing

As I explain these five aspects of Cumberland’s work on the emotions we’ll see the good and the bad in it, understand how it extends and grows out of Descartes’ work, and how it sets the stage for the theories of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, and sentimentalism.

How you to cut up the world

Descartes famously – and wrongly – cuts the world up between bodies-qua-machines and human minds (souls). Cumberland, however, takes a more nuanced approach to his ontology, which gives him what amounts to a quantum leap in theoretical sophistication and explanatory power.

Its so groundbreaking for two reasons: first, he’s willing to take human animal physiology seriously, believing that its not right to just think of our bodies as basically the same sort of machine; second, he groups animals with humans as things with mental lives, which means that the world is cut up between animals and humans on one hand and everything else on the other. This fundamentally alters what he can do when he takes up the nature of emotions.

Human and animal bodies are interesting

Cumberland saw what Descartes either missed or ignored; bodies –animal as well as human – are sources of sensation and perception. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Cumberland seeing that animals sense and perceive much as humans do, but as always we’ll focus on the importance for understanding emotions in ethics.

Recall that Descartes’ first error forced him to pack so many abilities into the soul, and make the soul so different than the body, that he was simply unable to tie the mind and the body together convincingly. With his view of human anatomy, Cumberland avoids a lot of this damage, even if he doesn’t completely escape it.

Cumberland remains a dualist, and his version doesn’t convince anyone that the position is true, but it does also go a long way toward helping him avoid the Second and Third Cartesian errors. That’s because his initial position allows him to account for body-level consciousness, which in turn lets him give up a rudimentary but legitimate account of how there are two types of emotions, and how the brain and viscera, mind and body, communicate via feedback loop.

Cumberland seems fine with thinking of animals as having souls, and so beliefs and emotions of a kind. That’s great, but he’s still a Cartesian in that he sees man as special due to our  “spiritual, incorporeal, godlike” minds. That means he doesn’t completely avoid the First Cartesian error, but he makes a connection between mind and body that Descartes couldn’t nail down and that gives him greater latitude for discussing emotions.

Duplex Communication

Cumberland’s desire to map communication between the brain and heart, along with his advanced-for-the-time knowledge of anatomy and physiology lead him to a dramatic change in the relative importance of the brain compared to the soul; the brain does much more work than in Descartes. If Cumberland can consistently attribute mental work to the brain rather than the soul, he can be said to have a duplex theory of communication between mind and body, something methodologically impossible for Descartes.

But at the very least, he goes beyond Descartes’ view that the soul/mind is a thinking thing that passively receives information, magically manipulates the pineal gland and thereby the body. Cumberland doesn’t see abstract thought as the only function of the soul but still argues that reason, through the emotions it helps beget, has a serious role to play in creating action, and he can offer a physical reason how.

Two types of Emotion

Cumberland identifies two types of emotion, The first, ‘passions’, are the intense feeling about or the intense force with, the vehemence with which we do – or refuse to do – things. The second type, which he calls ‘emotion’, are the visible disturbances of the body that go along with the passions.

To understand how emotion and passion relate, I’ll explain how Cumberland views cognition and volition, but for now let’s just say that the will is a function of the mind, different than abstract thinking, it is the agent for the thing that does the ‘real work’, and the strong feeling one has about the actions.

Emotions can be Wonderful 

Finally, unlike Descartes, Cumberland believes that properly harnessed emotions are necessary for being moral. One reason for this is a basic disagreement with Stoicism. As he explains, mankind would be better off “left to the sentiments of nature” instead of being forced into a “hardened virtue” that doesn’t recognize that the passions are “divine and gracious…divine virtues, if their objects be things divine” and allowing for sympathy with our fellow man.

Next time we’ll unpack this a bit more and then move on to the rise of sentimentalism.

The Final Word on Descartes Three Errors

Descartes’ theory of the emotions along with his Stoic tendencies pressure him to recommend that the emotions are fully controllable by the mind. In fact, he goes so far as to say that failing to eliminate them is wrong.

As we’ve explained, Descartes argued that only our thoughts are completely in our power. So that would mean that emotions better be thoughts. If they aren’t, if they’re more like natural appetites or drives, such as for food or sex, then they wouldn’t be under our control.

As he was so interested in providing a materialist, or physical-system explanation of how the mind and body work, Descartes recast the struggle between the natural appetites and the will as a battle between movements of the pineal gland caused by chemicals (body-caused) on the one hand and movements of the pineal gland caused by the will. (soul-caused). In this set up, there are no “parts” of the mind, nothing in the soul to compete against will-guided-by-reason, not even the emotions.

So the Passions of the Soul ends with Descartes trying to explain how some people could completely stop their emotions. But this goal doesn’t really follow from what he argues. The story he tells is that people with stronger souls can more easily “naturally conquer” the emotions. Think of it in terms of a video game – a character like Ryu from Street Fighter can fire an energy blast:

A hadouken, perhaps a useful visualization of the idea behind Descartes' 'emotion-battles'.

Some souls can naturally muster strong than average blasts, and these blasts are typically stronger than the normal blast from an emotion, and so overpower them. But some people can’t or won’t test the strength of their soul in such a battle, they never make their will go head-to-head, blast against blast. Instead, these weaker people try to find a way to manipulate the emotion’s own blast by forcing themselves to have a second emotion. The experience of having two emotions attack each other; if you are ‘attacked’ by sadness, you can attack back with anger, and hopefully they will cancel each other out. So Descartes is saying that a lot of people don’t really conquer or completely eliminate their emotion(s), they don’t totally undermine the emotion that was causing them a problem, they become in a way more emotional in order to deflect the worse emotion.

But the proper weapons of the will, the ones you’re supposed to fight and destroy your emotions with, are “firm and decisive judgments concerning the knowledge of good and evil, which [the soul] has resolved to follow in conducting the actions of its life”. I guess you can think of them as shields protecting the soul from emotions.

Weak people, or people with weak souls –weak in a literal physical/chemical sense it seems –have wills that don’t decide to follow these judgments. Instead they allow these souls continually allow themselves to be carried away by whatever passions are present, even as they oppose one another. This twisting and turning of the soul – again, somehow in a literal sense, make a soul “enslaved and unhappy”.

But Descartes doesn’t think weak people, weak-will souls, are so weak that they are doomed. For him, no soul is so weak that it cannot, when well guided, have absolute power over its passions. The way to do so is to undo the damage done by bad associations – one must undo the connections between specific thoughts in the soul and the movements in the pineal gland that lead to them, and replace them with others by repetition or habituation. So training yourself to have specific thoughts in response to certain chemical reactions in your brain will lead you to be a better behaved person and eliminate your emotions.

Now, we’ve got the whole story and we can better see how this fails as coherent explanation of the emotions. Its not so bad that Descartes’ attempt to explain the emotions way off on the science, its more that its internal problems historically lead other thinkers to start thinking it is hopeless to have a strongly ‘cognitive’ component to emotions and to try to explain it all in terms of physiology and feeling. The worst part, though, is that both his successors and his detractors continually repeat his errors.

In the next series of posts I’ll show you how throughout the 17th and 18th century both pro-cognitivist thinkers such as Richard Cumberland and various ‘visceral theory’ thinkers make the Cartesian errors and how this leads to 19th century thinkers favoring expressivist ethics and purely physiological theories of emotion. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I think this was a huge mistake.

Next up – Richard Cumberland, a Cartesian who knew wayyyy more about the body than Descartes.

Richard Cumberland: philosopher, theologian and expert in anatomy for the 17th century