Ism-itis, or the Vanity of Labels

Nous ne faisons que nous entregloser
The following passage is from the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Descartes and the Pineal Gland (which I discovered at Online Papers). The author is Gert-Jan Lokhorst. After a summary of Descartes’ views on the function of the gland (↓1), Lokhorst concludes with a list of interpretations of Descartes’ position on the relation of mind and body (↓2). I like this passage, because it exhibits, in all its glorious inanity, a certain method in the history of philosophy. What I say here is therefore not directed at Lokhorst in particular. For all I can tell, the last sentence in the passage below may be a bit of deadpan humor.
Here is the conclusion to Lokhorst’s contribution.
  • Descartes was a Scholastic-Aristotelian hylomorphist, who thought that the soul is not a substance but the first actuality or substantial form of the living body (Hoffman 1986, Skirry 2003) [for the references, see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry—D].
  • He was a Platonist who became more and more extreme […]
  • He articulated—or came close to articulating—a trialistic distinction between three primitive categories or notions: extension (body), thought (mind) and the union of body and mind (Cottingham 1985; Cottingham 1986, ch. 5).
  • He was a dualistic interactionist, who thought that the rational soul and the body have a causal influence on each other. […]
  • He was a dualist who denied that causal interactions between the body and the mind are possible and therefore defended “a parallelism in which changes of definite kinds occurrent in the nerves and brains synchronize with certain mental states correlated with them” (Keeling 1963, p. 285).
  • He was, at least to a certain extent, a non-parallelist because he believed that pure actions of the soul, such as doubting, understanding, affirming, denying and willing, can occur without any corresponding or correlated physiological events taking place (Wilson 1978, p. 80; Cottingham 1986, p. 124). […]
  • He was a dualistic occasionalist, just like his early followers Cordemoy (1666) and La Forge (1666) […]
  • He was an epiphenomenalist as far as the passions are concerned: he viewed them as causally ineffectual by-products of brain activity (Lyons 1980, pp. 4–5).
  • He was a supervenientist in the sense that he thought that the will is supervenient to (determined by) the body (Clarke 2003, p. 157).
  • The neurophysiology of the Treatise of man “seems fully consistent […] with a materialistic dual-aspect identity theory of mind and body” (Smith 1998, p. 70).
  • He was a skeptical idealist (Kant 1787, p. 274).
  • He was a covert materialist who hid his true opinion out of fear of the theologians (La Mettrie 1748).
There seem to be only two well-known theories from the history of the philosophy of mind that have not been attributed to him, namely behaviorism and functionalism. But even here one could make a case. According to Hoffman (1986) and Skirry (2003), Descartes accepted Aristotle's theory that the soul is the form of the body. According to Kneale (1963, p. 839), the latter theory was “a sort of behaviourism”. According to Putnam (1975), Nussbaum (1978) and Wilkes (1978), it was similar to contemporary functionalism. By transitivity, one might conclude that Descartes was either a sort of behavorist or a functionalist.
Each of these interpretations agrees with at least some passages in Descartes' writings, but none agrees with all of them. Taken together, they suggest that Descartes' philosophy of mind contains echoes of all theories that had been proposed before him and anticipations of all theories that were developed afterwards: it is a multi-faceted diamond in which all mind-body theories that have ever been proposed are reflected.
What counts as an “interpretation” is the act of recruiting Descartes to an ism. Doing the history of philosophy is a matter of attaching labels correctly. Typically one has a set of labels in advance, based on a map of possible positions (see the incomplete map below). Disputes turn on which label fits best—which is consistent with the greatest number of passages in the author’s œuvre.
Natural history
There is a way of thinking about philosophical texts—old or new—according to which the aim of interpretation is indeed to affix labels. Call this the natural history of philosophy.
Natural History of Philosophy
It is exemplified in works entitled N Theories of … or N Great Ideas. The natural history of philosophy, like the natural history of plants and animals, takes its objects to be species, each of which can be instantiated by many individuals. Species may be bundled into genera. Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, and Descartes are individuals of the genus dualistæ; Aristotle and Thomas are of the species hylomorphistæ.
Philosophers practice natural history all the time (↓3). The “warring sects” template, inherited from antiquity, supplies the content for the brief historical sections in late Aristotelian textbooks. It persists in works like Thomas Stanley’s History of philosophy (1655–1662), which is generally held to be the first general history. In the “History of pure reason” at the end of the first Critique, Kant grandly divides modern philosophy into two sects, Dogmatics and Skeptics, the differences between which are to be aufgehoben by the Critical Philosophy, the sect to end all sects.
As these examples show, natural history is handy for pedagogy and polemics. For the historian it’s of little use, though of course one must take account of the natural histories that one finds in the documents.
Consider the label ‘Platonist’. In the natural-history sense it is applied to philosophical works exhibiting certain characters, e.g. a propensity to reify abstractions or, as in no. 2 of Lokhorst’s list, the view that the unity of the soul with the body is only the per accidens unity of agent and instrument (the interpretation is attributed to Maritain; see also Voss 1994). The question to which the latter provides an answer was a genuine issue in Descartes’ time, and was indeed commonly associated with the name of Plato, though in the textbooks it is Averroes who bears the brunt of refutation. ‘Platonism’ so used (or “angelism” as Voss calls it) is a convenient abbreviation for a historically effective entity—a mild abstraction from various actual statements on the relation of soul and body. But then it cannot be extended to the whole history of philosophy; it is no longer one of the labels in the cabinet of possible positions on the Mind-Body Problem.
That X calls Y a Z-ist is an act like any other.
Chunks of argument are, to some degree, portable. Descartes’ dream argument is a prime example. One way to state it is: If at this moment I were dreaming then many of my present opinions might be false (for example, that I am sitting in front of a fire in my dressing-gown with a pen in my hand). ‘Dreaming’, ‘opinion’, and ‘false’ don’t seem to be functioning here as technical terms. Though there are many accounts of truth and falsity, the argument seems to provide a reason for doubt no matter which of them you take to be correct.
On this basis it looks reasonable to use the term ‘dream argument’ to refer to particular instances produced perhaps centuries apart. Nevertheless I don’t think the historian has much use for it. Future instances are irrelevant; past instances are relevant only insofar as they stand in some historical relation with Descartes. By ‘historical relation’ I mean that the instance in question can be shown to have been among the causal conditions under which Descartes’ instance was produced. His having read the text that contains the earlier instance would be an obvious case. But it often happens that we must content ourselves with something less decisive—for example, that the instance occurs in a text that was widely read and discussed at the time.
Insofar as there is a chain or network of historically related instances of arguments similar to Descartes’, we have a “historical kind”. It is limited in time and space. Chuang Tzu (fourth century BC: see Chad Hansen, “Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi)”), dozing one afternoon, dreamt he was a butterfly:
I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
Given what we know of the transmission of Chinese philosophy to Europe, it’s unlikely that Chuang Tzu’s text stands in a historical relation to Descartes’. It is a dream argument. But even though it has a role in Chuang Tzu’s version of skepticism, it is not the dream argument, nor is it part of the history of that argument.
There’s no reason not to collect bits of text under some rubric like “dream argument” (see “Your own private Plato”). People have been collecting opinions or wise sayings and arranging them by topic since antiquity (↓4). But of course this isn’t history.
Locke, an assiduous keeper of commonplace books, wrote a “New Method of a Common-Place-Book” (Bibliothèque universelle, 1686; Posthumous works, 1706). It’s not bad. See Richard Yeo, “John Locke's ‘New Method’ of Commonplacing: Managing Memory and Information”, Eighteenth-century thought 2 (2004); abstract. A commonplace book doesn’t pretend to be history. Its texts coexist, like proverbs, in a specious now. Even those that show their age acquire the rhetorical quality of “quaintness” or “medievalness” rather than being sources in the historical sense.
Calling Descartes a supervenientist on the basis of selected texts is like copying those texts into your commonplace book under the rubric “Supervenience”. Handy, perhaps, if you’re writing about supervenience and in need of inspiration. But again, not history. Outside the last twenty years or so “supervenientist” is not historically effective. Philosophers didn’t classify one another in that way; they didn’t respond to the “supervenientism” in each other’s texts except incidentally.
Lokhorst’s list has little interest for the historian (↓5). His conclusion amounts to the truism that, if interpretation proceeds without constraint, people find in texts what they will. Every text, or at least every text whose complexity exceeds some threshold, is a “multi-faceted diamond”. Nothing prevents you from supposing, as La Mettrie does, that Descartes is dissembling, just as nothing in the text of the Bible prevents you from “decoding” it so as to yield prophecies. You can even do so methodically, and your interpretations will thus be “constrained” by the text. The interpretations may well follow, given the method; but the method is perverse (↓6).
Let’s suppose that the historian’s task is to describe certain traces of the past (e.g., texts), or entities inferred from them, and to place the items so described in the context of other such items or entities, with the aim of explaining them—not in Hempelian covering-law fashion, but by making sense of the fact that they appeared when they did. ‘Making sense’ is a placeholder. In the case of authored texts it means exhibiting them as the products of intentional action by agents capable of forming the requisite intentions. The Meditations is a text produced by an agent of Descartes’ sort—educated as he was, living in the philosophical and social environment he lived in, having his interests. We want to know, given Descartes and his situation, if not how this must have come about (which is beyond our capacities), at least how it was possible—not logically, which is trivial, but “humanly”.
Tags like “dualist” may be useful initially in sorting out the texts. ‘Dualist’ here stands in for a particular relation of resemblance. But the fact that Descartes and Malebranche are dualists is of no historical importance unless the resemblance enters into explanation. That Diderot’s Rêve d’Alembert resembles Dennett’s papers in respect of “homuncularism” (i.e. supposing that smart minds are composed of dumber constituents) is only a curiosity: it can have no role in explaining what Diderot did, and only if Dennett read Diderot (or some intellectual descendant thereof) might it have a role in explaining what Dennett did.
Some philosophers have argued that species don’t have essences. I tend to think that philosophical positions and concepts are even worse off in that respect. But even supposing that there is a timeless network of Positions linked by implication-arrows, I don’t think it would do the historian much good. Acts of writing might, for all I know, instantiate or participate in Positions or Arguments; but in trying to explain the work of Descartes, that possibility is of no use to me. Going further with this would require a long discussion, so I’ll stop here.
(↑1) Anyone really interested in the question will be better off looking at Lokhorst and Kaitaro 2001.
(↑2) The list includes some inaccuracies.
  • (ad 1) To hold that the soul is the substantial form of the body is not to deny that it is a substance. The Jesuits who taught Descartes held, as did most Aristotelians in the period, that substantial form and prime matter are substances. They are “incomplete” substances that in the ordinary course of nature do not exist except as the two components of a complete substance. But by the absolute power of God they can exist apart from one another; they are therefore (in Cartesian terms) really distinct.
    Descartes, furthermore, has little patience with the Aristotelian distinction between actus and potentia. A Cartesian soul is not the actuality of anything. Descartes used the term “substantial form” in reference to the soul by way of expressing, in the terms of the Schools, his view that the human being—a human “intimately joined” with a body resembling our own—is truly one thing, an ens per se and not an ens per accidens, as Regius (to whom Descartes addresses his lengthiest remarks on the soul as form) had proposed.
  • (ad 3) Descartes didn’t “come close” to distinguishing among three primitive notions. He explicitly does so in a letter to Elisabeth. Cottingham’s contribution is to hold that to the three notions there correspond in Descartes’ ontology three distinct substances: mind, body, and the union. Versions of that view are found already in Gilson, Jean Wahl, and Gueroult (see Rodis-Lewis L’Œuvre de Descartes 2:543n29 and 1:353).
    (I find it implausible. The primary motivation is to take account of Descartes’ view, insisted on in his letters to Regius, that the human being is an ens per se; it must be admitted that he has no place for such an ens in the ontology of the Principles. The mind and body can each exist even when they are not united, and so even when the union does not exist; they are therefore not modes of the union. The union, insofar as we do understand it, we understand to be incapable of existing apart from the mind or the body; it is therefore not a substance according to the definition of ‘substance’ in the Principles. It looks as if it were a mode of both the mind and the body; in that respect it is analogous to the boundary between two contiguous bodies, which would seem to be a mode of both. Paul Hoffman has argued that in both cases we have “straddling” modes, modes of two substances at once. The definition of ‘mode’ does not preclude this; but in Descartes’ usual way of speaking sensations and passions, which arise from the union, are “affections” of the mind, not the body, that are said to be caused by, or occur on the occasion of, motions of or figures in the body.)
  • (ad 11 and 12) I don’t think there are passages that “agree” with the interpretations of La Mettrie or Kant. La Mettrie’s interpretation presupposes that the texts won’t bear out his reading. Kant, in the “Refutation of Idealism”, takes Descartes to be a skeptical or problematic idealist because he thinks that the arguments in Med. 3 and 6 for the existence of God and res extensa don’t work. This is like saying that Anselm was an agnostic because the ontological argument fails.
(↑3) Fodor 1985 is a fine example.
(↑4) Peter of Lombard’s Sentences (Latin text at Bibliotheca Augustana) is an example. Lombard gathered together texts on more or less standard questions in theology and arranged them systematically. This proved useful; the Sentences became the teaching text in schools throughout Europe. Thomas’s Summa theologiæ was likewise, according to its “Prooemium”, a systematically arranged collection of disputed questions for the use of those undertaking the study of theology.
(↑5) Lokhorst’s list would be a starting point for a history of the reception of Descartes’ philosophy. See, for example, Wundt 1953, Brands 1982.
(↑6) At Stanford I once came across a Kabbalistic interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. The author marshalled all sorts of evidence for his claim; but it was out of contention from the start. See the first chapter of Elkins 1999 for a wonderful example of perversity in the interpretation of paintings.
Brands, Hartmut 1982. »Cogito ergo sum«. Interpretationen von Kant bis Nietzsche. Freiburg/München: Karl Alber, 1982. (Alber-Broschur Philosophie)
Elkins, James 1999. Why are our pictures puzzles?. Routledge, 1999.
Fodor, Jerry A. 1985. Fodor’s guide to mental representation: the intelligent Auntie’s vade mecum. Mind 94, 1985, pp. 76-100. Also in A Theory of content and other essays (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1990) and several anthologies.
Lokhorst, G.J.C. & Timo T. Kaitaro 2001. The originality of Descartes’ theory about the pineal gland. Journal for the History of the Neurosciences 10.1: 6–18. Available online.
Maritain, Jacques 1932. Le songe de Descartes. Paris: R. A. Correa, 1932.
Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève 1971. L’Œuvre de Descartes. Paris: J. Vrin, 1971. (À la recherche de la vérité)
Voss, Stephen 1994. Descartes: The End of anthropology. In: John Cottingham, ed., Reason, Will and Sensation (Oxford, 1994).
Wundt, M. 1953. “Wandlungen des Descartes-Bildes”. Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 7(1953):315–325.

LinkJuly 6, 2005 in History of Philosophy