Access provided by St. Josephs College Descartes and the Algebra of Soul Review of Descartes: An Intellectual Biography and Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain Paul Miers Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. 499 pages. Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.
New York: Putnam, 1995. 312 pages. Descartes' error, Antonio Damasio tells us, was his belief in 'the abyssal separation between body and mind... ' (250). As Damasio notes, there are certainly many specific 'errors' in Descartes' writings -- that heat causes the circulation of the blood, for example, or that movement is translated instantaneously through the plenum from one object to another -- but all these notions have been 'corrected' by subsequent theory in ways that we can imagine Descartes himself might easily accept. The 'abyssal separation' persists as the central clich'e of modern philosophy because we do not yet agree on a solution, and Descartes serves as the convenient scapegoat for those who want to argue for the reduction of mind to matter.
Damasio himself is part of a new generation of neuroscientist's who, using the framework of connection ism or neural network theory, think they posses a solution to the mind / body [End Page 943] problem. The actual object of his attack is thus not so much Descartes but those cognitive psychologists who have defined themselves in terms of a Cartesian 'nativism' or doctrine of innate elements of knowledge not derived from sensation. None of these 'nativists' literally believes in mind/ body dualism, but insofar as they cling to the central functionalist dogma that mind can be instantiated in any physical system they de facto treat mind as something that can be considered apart from embodiment, and they embrace, more or less, an overtly Cartesian methodology, which Jerry Fodor has called 'methodological solipsism.' 1 To read Damasio's critique alongside Stephen Gaukroger's remarkably rich intellectual biography of Descartes, however, is to realize that Damasio could just as aptly have titled his book 'Descartes' Vision.' As Gaukroger points out, Descartes was reviled during his lifetime and for a century after his death not for his dualism but for his materialism. Only when the history of philosophy was rewritten in the nineteenth century as the story of epistemology did Descartes come to bear the double designation of being both the 'father' of modern philosophy and the ranking nativist who visited upon us the catastrophic separation of mind from body and of reason from emotion. These labels are essentially caricatures that distort the actual complexity of what Descartes struggled to work out in his cognitive theory. Gaukroger reconstructs this struggle for us, sometimes on a month-by-month basis, showing how Descartes shuttled back and forth between an account of the body and the pursuit of the mind.
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Damasio's method of using brain-damaged patients in Iowa City to model neural networks is simply a high-tech and well-funded extension of Descartes's daily trips to a butcher shop in Amsterdam to collect animal parts for dissection. That Descartes came to believe that the incorporeal soul was linked to the material body through an obscure gland buried in the brain too often overshadows the fact that this hypothesis presumes that cerebral architecture matters and that accounts of emotions and memory can be directly linked to that architecture. If Cartesianism is contested ground in the current battle between the and the, then it is of more than historical interest to understand the actual context for Descartes' work. The story Gaukroger tells, particularly with regard to Descartes' early attempt to construct a cognitive philosophy, suggests that connection ism rather than is the true inheritor of the Cartesian project. Furthermore, a case can be made for the claim that sometime between 1626 and 1628 Descartes hit on a mathematical account of mental representation that anticipates the central paradigm for neural computation used in connection ism. Descartes is [End Page 944] forced to abandon this line of thought in his later work because, as Gaukroger argues, he had pushed his model far beyond the limits of both the mathematical theory and the experimental evidence available to him.
The idea behind the model, however, is never repudiated and remains as the underwriting for his subsequent accounts of cognition.