chapter  4
20 Pages

The Emergence of the Cartesian Mind

BySUSAN JAMES

In the vast contemporary literature on Descartes there remains a gap between the figure studied by scholars and the one who appears in textbooks. The first is often treated historically and placed in the context of seventeenthcentury intellectual debate. The second is an icon, the father of modern philosophy and the creator of a set of deeply formative questions. Accounts of this iconic Descartes generally emphasise both the sharp division he imposes between a material body and an immaterial soul, and the consequent problem of explaining how the two are related. He thus appears as an advocate of an implausible view, who nevertheless articulated the interesting question of what it would be like to provide a satisfactory analysis of the connection between body and mind. Because such accounts normally take for granted Descartes’ analysis of the borderline between these two entities, they rarely pause to consider how it was arrived at and, by failing to address this question, unselfconsciously reinforce a modern assumption that the mind just is the realm of the mental, that thinking is what it does, and that this is a platitude around which philosophy has always been organised. To put the point differently, iconic accounts direct attention away from the history of the mind, effacing the fact that the Cartesian conception of it was an innovation, aspects of which have since become so generally accepted as to be almost invisible.