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LibrlSt 721: Special Topics in Liberal Studies
Margaret Atherton, Professor of Philosophy

'The Mind that Sees': Exploring the Development of a Psycho-Physical Self in European Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

List of Readings (partial)
Rene Descartes, Meditations, Treatise on Man
Nicholas Malebranche, The Search after Truth
Baruch Spinoza, Ethics
John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding
Abbe de Condillac, Treatise on Sensations
Denis Diderot, Letters on the Blind

Course Description

Rene Descartes has acquired a certain notoriety within the history of thought as the man who invented the Real Distinction between mind and body, and with it, a conceptualization of persons as disembodied minds. Such a conceptualization is supposed to stress the rational nature of human mental life at the expense of our sensitive and emotional or passionate life. More recent scholarship has suggested that this popular contemporary picture of Descartes' contribution to thought does not do full justice, either to the more nuanced and less one-sided views that Descartes developed about the relationship between mind and body, or to the extent of Descartes' influence in subsequent accounts of human cognitive, perceptual or emotional life. One obvious but often overlooked point is that the theological doctrine of the immortality of the soul required a theory of a disembodied intellect centuries before Descartes. But, more important for subsequent accounts are two crucial aspects of Descartes' theorizing: his mind-body distinction permitted the development of a strictly corporeal physiology, and his insistence on the fact of the mind-body union encouraged the construction of a psycho-physical model of human mentality with respect to sensation, and the passions and emotions.

In this course, we will first spend some time getting clear on the nature of Descartes' own approach to the mind and the mind-body union, and then trace the history of its influence through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both in thinkers for whom Descartes' influence is powerful, such as Malebranche and Spinoza, as well as in thinkers who are not typically thought to be Cartesian, such as Locke, Berkeley, Condillac, Diderot and Reid. We will be paying particular attention to the confluence of influences-theological, scientific, and metaphysical-that go into the development of a theory of a cognitive being. We will also consider the extent to which the debates of the past continue to shape our understanding of ourselves as cognitive, perceiving, emotive creatures who are both mind and body.

Wednesday, 6:20-9:00 pm

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