On Descartes' Passive ThoughtThe Myth of Cartesian Dualism

On Descartes' Passive ThoughtThe Myth of Cartesian Dualism

Jean-Luc Marion

Print publication date: 2018

ISBN: 9780226192581

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Although Descartes is often thought to advocate a strong dualistic split between mind and body, valuing the mind over the body and even doubting the latter’s existence, this careful treatment of the Sixth Meditation, The Passions of the Soul, and Descartes’ letters to Elizabeth and Christina shows that such strict dualism is not supported by the texts. In fact, Descartes draws a distinction between bodies in general (in the external world) and his own body—the flesh or meum corpus—which is so closely connected to the mind as to be indubitable. In this way he anticipates phenomenological distinctions between Körper (body) and Leib (flesh). Descartes speaks of “my body” as a third “primitive notion” (or actually the first), one that uniquely unites soul and body by having each take on characteristics of the other. He also maintains that “sensing” is a kind of “thought,” namely passive thought that receives the impressions given to it. A full account of thinking requires such passive thought. To reduce thinking to pure activity (such as memory or imagination) without also considering its passive modes (sensing) is actually an impoverished account. Descartes’ particular insights on this issue are misread or ignored by many of his followers to the present day. This final exploration into Descartes shows not only the overall coherence of his thought but also the connection between the two types of onto-theo-logical constitutions of Cartesian metaphysics outlined in earlier works (the metaphysics of the cogitatio and that of the causa).