Category Archives: Materialism

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

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.