The Passions of the soul and Descartes’s machine psychology

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 38 (1):1-35 (2007)
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Descartes developed an elaborate theory of animal physiology that he used to explain functionally organized, situationally adapted behavior in both human and nonhuman animals. Although he restricted true mentality to the human soul, I argue that he developed a purely mechanistic (or material) ‘psychology’ of sensory, motor, and low-level cognitive functions. In effect, he sought to mechanize the offices of the Aristotelian sensitive soul. He described the basic mechanisms in the Treatise on man, which he summarized in the Discourse. However, the Passions of the soul contains his most ambitious claims for purely material brain processes. These claims arise in abstract discussions of the functions of the passions and in illustrations of those functions. Accordingly, after providing an intellectual context for Descartes’s theory of the passions, especially by comparison with that of Tho- mas Aquinas, I examine its ‘machine psychology’, including the role of habituation and association. I contend that Descartes put forth what may reasonably be called a ‘psychology’ of the unensouled animal body and, correspondingly, of the human body when the soul does not intervene. He thus conceptually distinguished a mechanistically explicable sensory and motor psychology, common to nonhuman and human animals, from true mentality involving higher cognition and volition and requiring (in his view) an immaterial mind.



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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania

References found in this work

Leviathan.Thomas Hobbes - 1651 - New York: Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Leviathan.Thomas Hobbes - 2006 - In Aloysius Martinich, Fritz Allhoff & Anand Vaidya (eds.), Early Modern Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary. Blackwell.

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