Deborah J. Brown, Descartes and the Passionate Mind, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 231pp., $85.00 (hbk), ISBN 0521857287.
Lisa Shapiro of Simon Frasier University Reviews Deborah J. Brown's Descartes and the Passionate Mind
Brown pivots her discussion on the fulcrum of the interpretive questions surrounding the notion of material falsity Descartes introduces in the Third Meditation as a matter of representing a non-thing as if it were a thing. Key to understanding this puzzling notion is Descartes's account of mental representation. Brown offers an account of the representationality of body-caused thoughts by drawing on the notion of referring Descartes employs in his discussion of both sensations and passions in the Passions of the Soul. The passions, according to Brown, "represent the soul as affected in a certain way by some external thing" (103). They are both perceptions of good and evil of certain things and wantings that things be a certain way. Insofar as they represent these wantings, the passions move us to action. Because the passions involve experiencing the soul as moved, we cannot be wrong about them: we are moved, and cannot be wrong that we are moved in the way we are. And so, in Brown's view, passions cannot represent things as non-things, and so cannot be materially false; the notion applies only to sensations. Brown goes on, using a referring-based account of sensory representation, to offer an account of how sensations are materially false. Much of the success of Brown's argument hangs on how her account of representationality of the passions maps on to the representational content/phenomenal content distinction of the previous chapter. Perhaps the passions cannot be materially false in their phenomenal content, but what about their representational content? Can they not represent something as good (or bad) which is not valuable at all? Would this count as representing a non-thing as a thing? These questions are not addressed. Equally, it seems clear that some sensory perceptions also move us to action -- we want to drink when we are thirsty and eat when we are hungry. Are these internal sensations, as Descartes sometimes calls them, also not materially false for the reason that Brown argues the passions are not? Or would Brown want to claim that they are sensations associated with desires, which are passions?
In Chapter 5, Brown tackles the problem of the metaphysical status of the Cartesian human being -- a union of mind and body -- in the face of Descartes's dualism. Brown approaches this question from the claim in the very first article of the Passions that "the action and the passion do not cease to be always one and the same thing which has two names on account of the two different subjects to which one can refer it." (11:328) Brown argues that this claim does not entail that bodily states (actions) and mental states (passions) are numerically identical, although they might not be really distinct. In Brown's view, the Cartesian human being manifests an ontological dependence of mind and body without yet making of them a single substance. Furthermore, this ontological dependence is a proper causal one, and not merely occasionalist. The argument against Paul Hoffman's notion of straddling modes, buttressing his view that the human being is a substance, is an interesting one. What is not clear is whether, in Brown's view, there is more to the mind-body union than their causal connection.The remainder of the book turns to the broadly ethical concerns, the action-orientation that Brown takes to be the key to understanding Descartes's account.