Princess Elizabeth and Descartes

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 17 November 2016

Princess Elizabeth and Descartes

In his book “Discourse on Method and Mediations on First Philosophy”, Descartes mentioned the composition of the body and mind. When Princess Elizabeth read his book, she had many questions to give to Descartes, especially about the mind-body interaction. She said in her letter wrote to Descartes “how the soul can determine the spirits of the body to produce voluntary actions. ” (Elizabeth, 11) They wrote letter to each other to ask questions and to answer each other’s questions. As we read along the letter, we can see the questions and answers of both Elizabeth and Descartes are irresistible.

Descartes pointed his theoretical points that “This ‘I’ – that is, the soul, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body; and would not fail to be what it is even if the body did not exist. ” (Descartes) In his explanation, Descartes believed that mind and body are all together. When the mind thinks, it makes the soul reacts as its thought. That is why the theory enters society “I think; therefore, I am. ” (Descartes) After reading that theory, Elizabeth responded that “I beseech you tell me how the soul of man (since it is but a thinking substance) can determine the spirits of the body to produce voluntary actions. (Elizabeth, 11)

She was questioning about how the mind-body can work together and act voluntarily, according to Descartes’s theoretical point. She also explained how she comes up with this question “You entirely exclude extension from your notion of the soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with an immaterial thing. That is why I ask of you a definition of the soul more particular than in your metaphysics – that is to say, for a definition of the substance separate from its action, thought. (Elizabeth, 12) Then, on May 21, 1643, Descartes wrote back to her to answer her question that he found three “primitive notions” which can answer her question. The first thing he mentioned was the body. He said that the body is the only notion of extension “which refer to everything we can conceive. ” (Descartes, 13)

Secondly, he referred to the soul which “are comprised the perceptions of the understanding and the inclinations of the will. ” (Descartes, 13) Lastly, he mentioned the soul and the body when it goes together. He said “the force f the soul for moving the body, and of the body for acting upon the soul by causing its feelings and passions. ” (Descartes, 13) Descartes gave three “primitive notions”: body, soul, body and soul in his explanation of dualism. He said that the soul is responsible for understanding the will and the force of the soul will cause the body to act since the body can conceive everything. Notwithstanding, Elizabeth responded that “…it would be easier for me to concede matter and extension to the soul, than the capacity of moving a body and of being moved, to an immaterial being.

For the first occurred through ‘information’, the spirits that perform the movement would have been intelligent, which you accord nothing corporeal. And though in your metaphysical meditations you show the possibility of the second, it is, however, very difficult to comprehend that a soul, as you have described it, after having had the faculty and habit of reasoning well, can lose all of it on account of some vapors…” (Elizabeth, 16) In general, the entire conversation between Descartes and Princess Elizabeth is talking about the mind-body dualism.

Princess Elizabeth keeps asking question about the mind and body correspondence no matter how Descartes tried to explain. For her question to Descartes, Descartes explained by listing three “primitive notions”: soul, body, soul-body; but it still does not make Princess Elizabeth fully satisfy. In my opinion, Descartes’s answer for Princess Elizabeth’s question is adequate. He explained the mind-body correspondence clearly through his theoretical point of “primitive notions” of soul, body and soul-body.

Each of them has their own part in making the body to produce voluntary actions. In his explanation, he said that the body can conceive everything and the soul comprehends things to make the body reacts. I think it makes sense. Our body is the combination between mind and body. Without the thinking and understanding of the soul, the body cannot perform and vice versa. Mind-body is a perfect combination to create human and their sensation.

Thus, his point of view “I think; therefore, I am” is a perfect answer for Elizabeth’s question. Because of the thinking mind, the body can perform what the mind is thinking. On the other hand, if the body does not conceive what it sees, the mind cannot control the body to act. Both of them have to co-ordinate with each other to construct sensation; and from sensation, it constructs human with action. Not only that, the combination of mind and body is helping people to differentiate the right and the wrong.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 November 2016

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