The “teaching of nature” in Descartes’ Soul Doctrine

Richard Kennington.  “The “teaching of nature” in Descartes’ Soul Doctrine,” On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, ed. P. Kraus and F. Hunt. Lexington Books. 2004.


Descartes initiated the modern interpretation of the soul in the Meditations, as is generally conceded. Of all Cartesian doctrines,his account of the soul has received the least examination. One reason for this neglect is that the major changes he effected have become taken for granted, even by his critics. According to the dominant pre-modern tradition of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the medievals, the soul is responsible for two functions, or classes of functions–life or motion, and awareness, discerning, or thinking. This pre-modern notion of the soul was remarkably neutral to metaphysical differences: even Lucretius attributed the two functions to una natura, the union of animus and anima. The two function theory was usually combined with the assertion that the soul has parts, standing in various relations of rule and subordination?best known to us perhaps from Plato in Rep. IV. With Descartes the soul performs one function only. It is exclusively a “thinking thing,” a mind, or a “consciousness”; and it is “one and single” or without parts. After Descartes it is hard to name a thinker of the first rank, of whatever metaphysical or anti-metaphysical posture, who has sought to restore to the soul either this internal structure, or its original “organic” meaning as responsible for life and motion and “worldly” activity. In these decisive respects we are entitled to speak of the modern soul as having its own metaphysical neutrality. Beginning with Nietzsche’s charge that “Descartes is superficial,” the most passionate critics of”Cartesianism,” in one or more of its

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