(31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650)
Was Descartes a ‘Cartesian Dualist’?
Implications for Psychotherapy
Inner Circle Seminar No. 225
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
How many who use these terms have read Descartes? What do these terms really mean? And does it matter, anyway? Isn’t this a matter of dry, pedantic detail?
Surely, all we need to know, as compassionate ‘clinicians’, is that Descartes said mind and body were distinct while Merleau-Ponty, for example, said they were intertwined? Or that Descartes started a myth that mind and body were like ‘a ghost in a machine’, which Gilbert Ryle challenged? Isn’t that enough for busy practising psychotherapists whose heart is in the right place and who relate in a ‘holistic’ way to their clients?
Unfortunately, no; it is not enough. Neither of these well-known ‘facts’ about Descartes is true. He did say that mind (or soul) ‘is really distinct from the body’; however, he insisted that it is not ‘as a pilot in a ship’ but, rather, ‘intimately joined and united with the body in order to have feelings and appetites like ours, and so constitute a real man’.
The very term ‘clinician’, which psychotherapists love to call themselves, begs all the questions their ‘non-Cartesianism’ is supposed to answer. They say Szasz was a ‘Cartesian dualist’ because he didn’t believe in ‘mental illness’. That would seem to presuppose that Descartes, too, didn’t believe in ‘mental illness’.
But he did. He wrote in Discourse on Method that in science and medicine we could become ‘masters and possessors of nature’ (a phrase that horrified Heidegger). In particular, he wrote, ‘the mind is so dependent upon the humours and the condition of the organs of the body that ... we might rid ourselves of an infinity of maladies of body as well as of mind ... if we had sufficient understanding of the causes and of all the remedies which nature has provided’. Does this not, at first glance, appear to contradict Descartes’s fundamental assertion that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are distinct substances?
Again, although there are disagreements between the great existential and phenomenological philosophers and psychotherapists (Husserl, Heidegger, Binswanger, Boss, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Szasz, Laing, Esterson), and they routinely accuse each other of ‘Cartesian dualism’, they would all agree with Husserl’s account (in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology) of the dehumanisation resulting from ‘splitting the world’ into two ‘worlds’: ‘nature’, studied by ‘natural sciences’ (such as physics), and the ‘psychic world’, studied by ‘human sciences’ (such as psychology), but improperly applying the methods proper to natural science to both. This splitting and this dehumanisation are real, and do indeed constitute a crisis, as Husserl says; but why does he claim they ‘stem’ from ‘Cartesian dualism’?.
It seems certain that those who casually label others ‘Cartesian dualists’ have not even noticed, far less reconciled, this and other apparent contradictions. It is only possible to use this language intelligently, and have some hope of reconciling the contradictions, if one has some idea of what Descartes’s dualism really was. Was it what most psychotherapists think of as ‘Cartesian dualism’?
Was Descartes a ‘Cartesian dualist’?
Katherine J. Morris, Fellow in Philosophy at
To transcend the dualism that does reign in our time requires, first of all, that we understand it. This means distinguishing it, if necessary, both from what is today carelessly called ‘Cartesian dualism’ and from Descartes’s actual dualism. Katherine Morris will be our reliable guide. No question will be too simple to ask her. Often the most apparently naive questions lead to what is deepest. In this seminar, as in all Inner Circle Seminars, the essence is dialogue. Your contribution to this debate will be welcome.
Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £120, others £150, some bursaries; coffee, tea, biscuits, mineral water included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857 +44 (0) 7809 433 250
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