Category Archives: Second Cartesian error

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.


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.