Cartesian Interactive Trionism

[ I1 ~> I2 <~ I3 ]

§1: classification

§2: differential classification issue: dualism or trionism?

it is customary to classify Descartes as a dualist --- as the archetypal dualist of western civilization, even --- because, at the bedrock level of ultimate explanation, he held that God created two fundamental substances: mind or res cogitans and matter or res extensa. however, the taxonomic scheme used by this catalog counts components rather than substances; and, arguably, this produces a different 'count' --- depending on one's preferred reading of cartesian psychophilosophy.

there are at least two plausible readings of cartesian psychophilosophy such that each reading has its own pronoun schema or structure diagram. one reading is classified as a virtual entity trionism (clan VET within tribe EPO); and, one reading is classified as a conflated entity dualism (clan FID within tribe EO).

§2.1: reading cartesian psychophilosophy as a virtual entity trionism

there are several aspects of Descartes' psychophilosophy that support classification as some form of trionism.

§2.1.1: property sets

just as present-day property dualists theorize that two sets of properties (one mental and one physical) derive from a single substance, matter, Descartes proposed that three sets of properties derive from the two fundamental substances that he recognized. there are:

in contemporary psychophilosophical jargon, Descartes is saying that each of his fundamental substances (matter and mind) contributes a component (body and mind/soul) and a set of properties to the complete human being; and, that a third set of properties emerges from the union of the two components. by way of illustration, one may say that hydrogen has one set of properties and that oxygen has another set of properties and that water, formed from the union of hydrogen and oxygen, has a third set of properties. this is a remarkably modern insight; clearly anticipating present theories that describe consciousness as an emergent property of matter that has achieved a sufficient degree of complexity.

§2.1.2: the emergence of the capacity for sensory experience

the capacity to experience sensory perceptions derives from the interaction of the I1 and the I3; their 'union' and 'intermingling'. without the body there would be no sensory experiences --- not even for god. in the Principles of Philosophy, principle #23 is:

God is not corporeal, and does not perceive through the senses as we do ... [CSM I, 200]

John Cottingham, a cartesian scholar, speculates1 that, if an angel were somehow attached to an otherwise mindless human body, it would experience knowing or understanding (properties of the I3); but, would not experience sensation, a property of the I1.

it is difficult to reconcile such a speculation with Descartes' own speculation, in the Treatise on Man, concerning a machine constructed to resemble the human body. Descartes claimed that if God where to attach a rational soul to the artificial body he would make sure it would experience sensations.

Descartes later acknowledged that animals could experience emotions and passions but not thoughts. since, according to Descartes, animals did not have souls, it is difficult to see why a human body would be required to have a soul in order to experience the sensory experiences that depend on having a body.

* * *

Descartes, it must be said, was not entirely consistent in his explanations; but, at least some this is likely due to the evolution of his position over time. what emerges is the picture of an early psychophilosopher who had a firm grasp of the phenomenology to be explained; a clear understanding of the distinction between experience and that from which it arose; and, who struggled to find a satisfying explanation for the origin of the of the various experiences that he considered.

§2.1.3: interaction: site and mechanism

Descartes proposed that the interaction between I1 and I3 occured at the pineal gland and was mediated by the actions of 'animal spirits'. these animal spirits were a fully corporeal version of the sensitive soul that Campanella used to explain the interaction of I1 and I3. consquently, Descartes has three substance types: mind, matter than is not capable of interacting with mind and the animal spirits that are capable of ineracting with mind.

§2.1.4: twin memory systems

Descartes held that there was an intellectual memory as well as a physical memory. this obscure aspect of cartesian psychophilosophy is necessary to support the doctrine that, after the death of its body, there is a survival of a personal soul with its identity intact. In a letter to his friend Huygens dated October 10, 1642, Descartes writes:

I know that you have a great affection for your family and that the loss of any member of it cannot but be very painful to you. I know also that you have great strength of mind and are well acquanted with all the remedies which can lessen your sorrow. But I cannot refrain from telling you one which I have always found most powerful, not only to enable me to bear the death of those I have loved, but also to prevent me from fearing my own, though I love life as much as anyone. It consists in the consideration of the nature of our souls. I think I know very clearly that they last longer than our bodies, and are destined by nature for pleasures and felicities much greater than those we enjoy in this world. Those who die pass to a sweeter and more tranquil life than ours; I cannot imagine otherwise. We shall go to find them some day, and we shall still remember the past; for we have, in my view, an intellectual memory wich is certainly independent of the body.2

although Descartes goes on to claim that his beliefs concerning the intellectual memory are based on rational arguments rather than religious faith, he doesn't recite those arguments here --- or elsewhere3. nevertheless, for present purposes, the fact that such a claim is made supports the view that Descartes distinguishes rather than conflates the I2 and the I3; for, it follows that the experiencer of memory (or 're-experiencer' of the events that are 'written' to memory) is not the same as the system on which the memory is written).

§2.2: reading cartesian psychophilosophy as a conflated entity dualism

the claim that Descartes was a dualist at the component level is based on the allegation that Descartes conflated the I2 and the I3 --- in other words, that Descartes' personal version of cartesian psychophilosophy is a conflated entity dualism.

§2.2.1: the allegation of conflation

Chalmers clearly presents the allegation that Descartes conflated the I2 and the I3:

The phenomenal and the psychological aspects of mind have a long history of being conflated. Rene Descartes may have been partly responsible for this. With his notorious doctrine that the mind is transparent to itself, he came close to identifying the mental with the phenomenal.4

this allegation seems to stem from the following passage:

As to the fact that there can be nothing in the mind, insofar as it is a thinking thing, of which it is not aware, this seems to me to be self-evident. For there is nothing that we can understand to be in the mind, regarded in this way, that is not a thought or dependent on a thought. If it were not a thought or dependent on a thought it would not belong to the mind *qua* thinking thing; and we can not have any thought of which we are not aware at the very moment when it is in us.5

there are at least two defenses to the conflation allegation:

  1. the counter-argument that Descartes sought to distinguish rather than conflate the I2 and the I3
  2. the counter-argument that the allegation of conflation was accurate as to a phase of Descartes' psychophilosophy which he subsequently outgrew.
§2.2.1.1: defense 1: that Descartes distinguished the I2 and the I3

however, we must remember that Descartes defined 'thinking' the way we currently define 'experiencing'; and, thus, in this passage he is claiming that the mind, insofar as it is an experiencer, an I2, contains nothing of which it is not aware. this does seem to be self-evidently true when said of the self-aware experiencer. I2 can not have an experience of which I2 am unaware while I2 am experiencing it. one could argue, therefore, that Descartes is making an effort to distinguish the mind as immaterial entity, the I3, from mind insofar as it is the experiencing entity, the experiencer, the I2.

§2.2.1.2: defense 2: Descartes outgrew the conflation of the I2 and the I3

as discussed in my translation of the cogito into HE, it is traditional to suggest that Descartes' conflation of the I2 and the I3 occurred during the moment of insight, during the initial intuition of what would become Descartes' first principle: cogito ergo sum.

cartesian scholar, Edward G. Ballard, presents this version of the conflation allegation:

Descartes understood the cogito sum to report not merely an occasion of empirical self-consciousness but the intuitive apprehension of an essence in time. The nature and extent of this apprehension may be open to significant question. However, at least, Descartes held that the ego of the cogito truly apprehends the union of its essence and existence and can abstract the criterion of truth from this apprehension.6

Ballard's language could hardly be more clear; and, is easily translated into the first-person triplicate of HE:

of course, if this allegation is true; the, the cogito would be translated into HE as: ( I1 ≡ I2 ) experience; therefore, ( I1 ≡ I2 ) have being.

in my first meditation, I2 have followed this, the conventional interpretation, and focused on the pervasive ambiguity in Descartes' useage of 'existence', 'being' and related words. if Descartes went astray here, at the beginning, he was insufficiently skeptical; and, I2 showed how one could deny 'I3 experience; therefore, I3 have being' without denying 'I2 experience; therefore, I2 am'.

but, the question remains: did Descartes, if fact, go astray here; or, is the allegation that he did so merely the conventional wisdom prevailing among commentators?7

as the analysis in the previous section suggests, if we take Descartes at his word concerning the definition of 'thinking' as 'experiencing'; then, the conflation of the I2 and the I3 --- if it occurred at all --- came later. it was more of a conclusion than an assumption or an intuition.

in any event, the passages cited in support of the claim that Descartes derived three sets of properties from his two fundamental substances occur after the meditations were published; and, since they represent a view that does not conflated the I2 and the I3, provide evidence that Descartes outgrew the alleged conflation --- if there was any conflation at all.

§2.3: conclusion

on balance, it would seem that the bulk of the evidence supports classification of cartesian psychophilosophy as an interactive trionism.


[1]: Cottingham, John. 1985. "Cartesian trialism". Mind. 94:218-230. [Back]

[2]: CSMK, 215-6 [Back]

[3]: the scattered fragments of Descartes' comments on the intellectual or spiritual memory are gathered and discussed in Davenport, Anne A. 2005. What the Soul Remembers: Intellectual Memory in Descartes. New Arcadia Review (published by the Boston College Honors Program). Vol 3. full text [Back]

[4]: Chalmers, David J. 1996. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford university Press. p. 12. [Back]

[5]: CSM II, p. 171 [Back]

[6]: Ballard, Edward G. 1957. Descartes' Revision of the Cartesian Dualism. The Philosophical Quarterly. 7(28):249-259. [Back]

[7]: as many muckracking journalists have suggested when hauling politicians before the court of public opinion, the issue is 'what did she know and when did she know it'. [Back]