Mental Acts and Mechanistic Psychology in Descartes' Passions

In Neil Robertson, Gordon McOuat & Tom Vinci (eds.), Descartes and the Modern. Cambridge Scholars Press. pp. 49-71 (2008)
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This chapter examines the mechanistic psychology of Descartes in the _Passions_, while also drawing on the _Treatise on Man_. It develops the idea of a Cartesian “psychology” that relies on purely bodily mechanisms by showing that he explained some behaviorally appropriate responses through bodily mechanisms alone and that he envisioned the tailoring of such responses to environmental circumstances through a purely corporeal “memory.” An animal’s adjustment of behavior as caused by recurring patterns of sensory stimulation falls under the notion of “learning,” behavioristically conceived. Indeed, Descartes’s animal-machine hypothesis may well be a distant ancestor to Watsonian behaviorism, via T. H. Huxley (1884). The final two sections of the chapter take stock of what psychological capacities Descartes ascribed to mind, body, or both, and consider those capacities that we might now plausibly construe as being explicable by nonmentalistic mechanisms as opposed to those that at present remain unreducedly mentalistic. This chapter derives from a lecture delivered at the University of King's College (Halifax, Nova Scotia) as part of a year-long series on Descartes and the Modern. The lecture series was co-sponsored by the programs in History of Science and Early Modern and Contemporary Studies.

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Gary Hatfield
University of Pennsylvania


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