Noctua 3 (2):239-294 (2016)
AbstractAlthough Descartes’ characterization of the mind has sometimes been seen as too ‘moral’ and too ‘intellectualist’ to serve as a modern notion of consciousness, this article re-establishes the idea that Descartes’ way of doing metaphysics contributed to a novel delineation of the sphere of the mental. Earlier traditions in moral philosophy and religion certainly emphasized both a dualism of mind and body and a contrast between free intellectual activities and forcibly induced passions. Recent scholastic and neo-Stoic philosophical traditions, moreover, drew attention to the disparity between the material and the immaterial, as well as to the possibility of a retreat into the personal realm of one’s own mind. Yet none of these moral and religious assessments of the relation between mind and body were motivated by the purely epistemological interest that we find in Descartes in setting apart a world of consciousness from the world of physics. The present article explains how Descartes made use of specific theological and moral philosophical theories in his own analysis of mental faculties; how he changed the orientation of metaphysics itself in the direction of a phenomenology of the mental; how he never returned to the naive idea of offering a dualist foundation for ethics; and how his mechanicism may have motivated his epistemological transformation of the science of metaphysics. In all these various ways, Descartes inaugurated an understanding of human mental life on the basis of physiological rather than metaphysical considerations, a view of psychology that is related to the experience of human individuals, and a naturalistic characterization of the mind in terms of a domain of consciousness rather than of moral conscience.
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