Friday, 1 January 2016

Descartes and Dualism. Katherine Morris conducts Inner Circle Seminar 225 (22 May 2016)

René Descartes
(31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650)
Katherine Morris

Descartes’s Dualism:
Was Descartes a ‘Cartesian Dualist’?
Implications for Psychotherapy

Katherine Morris
Inner Circle Seminar No. 225
introduced by
Anthony Stadlen
Sunday 22 May 2016
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Is there a single psychotherapist today who would want to be known as ‘Cartesian’? ‘Cartesian’ is what others are. Nobody believes in labels, but labelling oneself ‘non-’ or ‘post-Cartesian’ has become an indispensable way to signal one’s virtue.

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 didnt 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 Husserls account (in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenologyof 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 Mansfield College, Oxford University, does not think so. She is an expert not only on Descartes, but also on Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein. She and her late colleague Gordon Baker, in their pathbreaking book, Descartes' Dualism (1996), identified four main doctrines which Anglo-American philosophers, confidently but ignorantly, attribute to Descartes as ‘Cartesian dualism’. Today, 20 years on, she will explain in detail what Descartes actually said, and will extend her argument by showing that, as I have sketched above, existential and phenomenological philosophers and therapists attribute to Descartes yet another doctrine which they term ‘Cartesian dualism’ but which was not his.

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.

Venue: ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
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 Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel:  +44 (0) 20 8888 6857  +44 (0) 7809 433 250 
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and universities.

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