Descartes’s Skull Sent Back to School

descartesHow sweet the irony of it! A row has broken out about recent plans to transfer the skull of René Descartes back to his school in France. The irony of the story is that Descartes was a dualist. He proposed that the mind and the body were two separate things.

In his treatise of the subject, Meditations, Descartes wrote, “I have found by experience that the senses sometimes deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those that have deceived us even once.” He went on to argue that even statements such as, “I am sitting here by the fire,” may be false since one could be dreaming or hallucinating. In short, the only certainty of existence one could logically hold to be true was that being consciously aware of one’s own thinking was proof of existence. Hence his now famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I am thinking, therefore I am”). For Descartes, the mind and the body where two separate entities.

I am not a dualist. I believe the mind is a product of the body or more specifically, the brain. To paraphrase Minsky and Pinker, “The mind is what the brain does.” So I find this story about fighting over the ownership of Descartes’s skull really quite amusing, as Descartes would have quite happily dispensed with his earthly remains. Not to mention the fact that the rest of Descartes’s skeleton lies in the Parisian Church of Saint Germain des Près and no one is certain that the skull really belongs to the great philosopher. 


Filed under Weird Story of the Week

7 responses to “Descartes’s Skull Sent Back to School

  1. kvond

    Now if we only had a fight over Descartes’ pineal gland, floating in a 17th century beaker, then we would really have something.

    It should be pointed out though, despite the irony of substance dualism and a fight over the skull, Descartes did theorize that the thoughts or impressions of a pregnant woman could imprint themselves as birthmarks on the baby, in a kind of fantastic photo-develoment process. So, perhaps after all, even under Descartes theory his skull could have some remarkable evidence for what he was thinking, and how he thought, impressed upon it.

  2. brucehood

    Really.. that’s fascinating kvond.

    I have blogged in the past about how we revere the remains of the deceased… even fingers bones (see religious relics). I think this reflects psychological essentialism that I talk about in ‘SuperSense’ where we infer an invisible supernatural property to material objects.

    I must go look up that Descartes story… thanks.


  3. kvond

    Interesting. I believe that this quality is due to the projective and interpretive ground by which we “read” the causal effects upon object, through the imagination of their “report” of a certain kind of experience. All objects are “animate” in this epistemic sense. We inhabit objects, even their histories, just as we read them. This not all that we do, but it may very well be the ground upon which all our other readings occur. The “invisible supernatural property” is nothing more than FEELING or sensing/imagining how hard a rock is when one sees it hit by a hammer. This indeed produces a kind of psychological esssentialism, but it such affective reading occurs far below the threshold of propositional thought. It is affect-rich, at least how I see it.

  4. brucehood

    Yes…. I agree kvond, people often can’t say exactly what it is that attracts or repels them to artifacts…but they have a ‘vibe’ or a gut feeling. This is what I mean by a supersense. As in many situations, our reason is guided by intuitions and feelings that we can’t necessarily articulate.

  5. We should all be so fought over in life as in death — doesn’t that make super sense? Thanks for visiting my tiny blog. Linda 🙂

  6. alittleclarity

    I loved the original post (I agree Descartes might have been bemused at the irony). But the discussion in comments is proving even more intriguing. I’m looking forward to the book, and to more discussion of the supersense.

  7. Very interesting post!
    What interested me more was not the (foolish?) row but the story behind Cogito ergo sum. Thanks.
    Haven’t read Pinker yet – still trying to make sense of Shadows of the Mind by Penrose.

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