Elizabeth Drummond Young
In her introduction, translator Christina Gschwandtner says that that this work represents ‘the pinnacle of the conversation between Descartes and phenomenology in Marion’s work’. Jean- Luc Marion is a foremost French phenomenologist and it should be no surprise that Descartes is, and has been, a source of great inspiration to him. The father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, used Descartes’ method of doubt which involved the excluding of all but the most certain propositions about the world, as the starting point for his own methodology of the epoche. The main difference between Marion’s earlier writings on Descartes and this book is that in the earlier writings Marion used both Husserl and Heidegger to throw light on an interpretation of Descartes. Here, he is directly engaging with Descartes’ text to show him in the light of contemporary phenomenology, where Marion has been a major contributor over many years.
In this book, which will be his last on Descartes he declares, Marion explores the sixth Meditation as a central concern, but he also relies on textual analyses of other writings, such as The Passions of the Soul. He defends Descartes from the usual criticisms of a straightforward mind/body dualist position, but more importantly gives a reading of Descartes as a modern phenomenologist, with a view of the embodied self as a thinking and feeling being. It is this being which is capable of the ‘passive thought’ referred to in the title of the book.
Marion is keen to explore the relationships between soul/mind and body, and body and flesh as conceived in the phenomenological sense which emerge in the text of the Meditations. The ‘passive thought’ referred to in the title is the thinking that is experienced both by the combined soul/mind and body of the subject( which is not to be considered as a combintion of two primitive notions, but a completely distinct and self- contained third primitive notion) and by the intellectual ego which is able to reflect on itself. (A reminder is useful here that the verb ‘penser’ used in the first version of the famous Cogito had a wider meaning in the 17th century French than strict cognition. It was a verb which covered the experience of emotions, feelings and attitudes, for example). In other writings of his own philosophy, Marion has made much of the distinction between ‘my body’ and ‘my flesh’ and he wants to suggest that this important distinction is also implicit in Descartes’ writings, where the third primitive notion of my whole self is effectively ‘my flesh’. In a further development, Marion, who is known for his key concept ‘the saturated phenomenon’ is able to read examples of such phenomena from Descartes’ Passions of the Soul through this idea of the person as ‘flesh’ combined with the auto-affectivity of the intellectual ego.
In the first chapter, Marion raises the difficulties posed by the sixth Meditation. It seems to stand on its own, rather than being a conclusion or summing up of the previous Meditations. Descartes himself reinforces this idea by suggesting that the first five Meditations and their objections be read together and then, and only then should the reader approach the sixth. The sixth Meditation raises two main issues, the existence of material things in the world exterior to the ‘thinking thing’ on which Descartes has elaborated in earlier Meditations, and the real distinction between the mind and the body and whether there is another notion, a union between these two. Descartes seems to concede that the argument employed in the sixth Meditation is less coherent than in the previous Meditations. Marion wonders whether this is because in the last meditation he has finally faced up to the difficulties posed by his earlier conclusions about the existence of a benevolent God and the separation of body and mind and the implications this might have for this third notion of ‘my whole self’ – the embodied self.
Marion poses the following questions about this sixth Meditation. Firstly, is my body included within the material things whose existence is in question for Descartes? Second, is Descartes trying to establish a distinction between body and mind or a union thereof? Third, what is the nature of this unified thing? Fourth, is the proof given for the existence of material things in the Sixth Meditation of the same nature/quality as those given in earlier Meditations? He sets about answering these questions in the following chapters.
In the second chapter, Marion concentrates on textual analysis to show that Descartes firstly distinguishes knowledge of my body from other bodies (which are part of the group of material things whose existence must be proved). No such proof is required of my body, claims Marion. Further, and importantly for Marion, it is not just the case that Descartes recognises that we have special knowledge of our own body which enables it to be excluded from the doubters’ gaze, it is also the case that my body is in some way part of the ‘thinking subject’ at the heart of the Cogito. Marion concedes that Descartes does not label the first of these distinctions as the difference between body and flesh as modern writers have done. (In fact, Marion suggests that Spinoza may have come close to making this distinction as well as Descartes in nearly explicit terms). There is a further problem in that this distinction between my body and others’ bodies comes near the start of the Sixth Meditation, which puts the structure of Descartes’ argument in a different order from the other Meditations – the conclusion being stated before the argument
Marion has thus distinguished my body with which I have a special relationship (and thus which has a special place in the world and does not form part of the world of material things) from the psychosomatic entity that is the thinking self which is the both my intellect and my flesh. It is this psychosomatic entity which is capable of passive thought. Importantly it is also capable of suffering and principally in registering a lack of bodily needs such as hunger, thirst and so on. The psychosomatic entity needs the body for this to make sense.
Marion considers whether Descartes took for granted the distinction between ‘my body’ and the bodies of others, where ‘my body’ is not just one external object amongst others but stands in a special relationship to me. (By extension, this might mean that my body might form part of the ‘I’ which certainly exists and would give Marion the platform he needs to support the thesis that Descartes has a notion of passive thought which relies on the thinking ‘I’ and the close relationship with my body.) Whether this special relationship is one which can be characterised as the distinction between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ in the fully developed sense as used by many modern philosophers is put on hold at this stage.
Marion claims that there is textual evidence for Descartes recognising the distinction between my body and other external objects such as other bodies in an incomplete early work (early 1630s) ‘The Search for Truth’, which takes the form of a dialogue. Marion suggests that one of the characters, Polyander, sows the seeds for the distinction between doubting that other bodies exist and that my own body exists. ‘I cannot deny absolutely that I have a body’ says Polyander (my italics). He also makes the comment that ‘I am not quite my body’. There is much confusion and ambiguity here as Marion points out, but there is at least not the outright denial that my own body is or might be some part of the ‘I’ which exists conclusively even in the face of familiar arguments such as madness, dreaming and an evil spirit and fashioned by a loving God.
The connection between ‘sensing’ and ‘thinking’ is raised. ‘Sensing’ that it is I that is dreaming or having experiences does not seem to rely on having a body with the five senses (so it might be acceptable to deny the existence of my body in a basic sense) It is certainly more than simply just thinking. This form of sensing leads the ego back to itself, as Marion puts it, to ‘a self-sensing of itself that is more primordial than any sensing of an object’.
Marion concludes that by the time Descartes came to write the Meditations, the distinction between my body and other external bodies was clear to him. Descartes recognised that there is more to putting my body to the sceptical tests than there is to putting other external bodies to such tests. Denying the existence of one’s own body with all the sensory input so close at hand is a much harder task and prone to an admission of folly, rather than the more easily assimilated test that other bodies do not exist. But even if I admit that all the close sensory experience which I might have is as apparent to me in a dream as it is when I am awake, this simply shows that my sensations and feelings which have bodily manifestations are not reliant on the external world. It does not show that the body which has these experiences, which ‘senses’ and ‘feels’ does not itself exist. Marion concludes that it is the external things of the world, the ‘other bodies’ which are put to the sceptical sword, with the sixth Meditation finally confirming (in Marion’s interpretation at least) the my body is a distinct entity from the external things which are being questioned in this Meditation and that my body exists because it partakes in the sensing which is part of the cogito, the thinking ‘I’.
The Cartesian ego is thus not just a thinking thing: it has a multiplicity of modes, states Marion and it is a failure to understand this that has led to an extended misunderstanding of Descartes’ position: it has led to his being the mind/body dualist par excellence of philosophy teaching in the analytic world. The modal multiplicity of the Cartesian ego is made clear when Descartes responds to his self-posed question ‘but what then am I?’ The answer comes back: ‘A things that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling and also imagines and has sensory perceptions’. The doubting was made clear in the first Meditation, understanding in the second, affirming and denying in the third, whilst the fourth deals with the will, the fifth with imagination and the sixth with sensory perception. My body in the sense of meum corpus turns out to be the shape of the Cartesian ego for Marion because it guarantees auto affectivity – the capability for the ego to sense itself.
Marion proceeds in the next chapter to consider how to incorporate this principle of meum corpus (that Descartes recognised as his ‘flesh’ in modern phenomenological terms) with the other two principles (or primitive notions as Marion calls them) which emerge from the Meditations: the thinking ‘ego’ and the existence of God as the first cause: both of these stop the hyperbolic doubt. Meum corpus is the ‘flesh’ which can sense itself (through passive thought rather than ratiocination). Marion charts the history of Descartes’ ego; in the early Rules, the ego is set up as the basis for understanding a science of objects; it is the foundation for acknowledging the existence of the external world. In the later Meditations, the mode of the ego is slightly different: it is an ontic and final principle of the metaphysics of infinity, claims Marion. But with the meum corpus, the ego now becomes capable of passive thought. Marion considers how the meum corpus can be a primitive notion in Descartes’ scheme, when it would seem to rely on an interaction between something immaterial (the mind, soul) interacting with a material body (the body rather than the flesh). Here Marion points to several examples in Descartes’ correspondence where he explains that we know that the mind can interact with the body (give instructions for movement and so on) through experience: we just know that there is a simple basic relationship between our thoughts and what happens to our body. Does this union which is acknowledged by all create a new substance – my flesh? If so, how does that escape the problems engendered by the hyperbolic doubt? There is a difference Descartes concludes between the body which can be described in physical terms as having a certain shape, size and so on and the body which is the matter which is inextricably linked with a man’s soul. (Would an example of the difference be a phantom limb story? On the second description – the body would include the now materially absent limb).
In the fourth and fifth chapters, Marion explains that this notion of meum corpus – this special union between the soul and the body forming the third primitive notion – is not obvious or even admissible to Descartes’ readers, because Descartes did not have the metaphysical vocabulary to describe it – it had not been developed. In particular, the scholastic term substantia causes problems. Marion claims that whilst Descartes is forced into using substantia in getting his idea of this primitive notion across to interlocutors such as Hobbes and Gassendi, it simply gets him into problems. Descartes wants to start with the meum corpus as a primitive notion, not one which can be arrived at through using the traditional scholastic vocabulary. In the end, he is forced back into using simple explanations and vocabulary, as in the following key explanation of the meum corpus:
‘The body does not think, except under the heading of corpus humanum taken on in the union. The res cogitans would not think if it did not also think passively, thus it would not think truly and completely in all of its modes, if it did not also think in the union.’ (173)
Marion’s final chapter extends the discussion of passive thought by his reading and discussion of Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul. Passive thought comes to be important in both moral and theological themes, suggest Marion. In this work, Descartes moves on from the traditional scholastic view of the passions, which arrive unbidden to act upon us in both a bodily and mental way. Any form of Stoicism would normally seek to repress the passions, but Descartes seeks to consider the passions as part of an early development of virtue ethics. Two sorts of passive thought are involved, according to Marion. The first involves the meum corpus which acts upon our minds so that our thinking selves do not just have ‘willed thoughts’ but passive thoughts too, which enable us to imagine, doubt and so on. We also ‘sense ourselves’ through this union of the thinking self and the meum corpus.
The second sort of passive thought is one which takes place entirely within the thinking self, although the effects of this thought will be felt throughout the whole of the extended self to include the meum corpus. Marion examines this in the context of Descartes’ analysis of the virtue of generosity.
Marion claims that Descartes’ view of this virtue relies on passive thinking. Generosity involves a recognition of the good activities of the will and a reflection on the self; a form of self-esteem and auto-affectivity, which is then followed by the recognition that this is a universal trait, so that we come to have esteem for others. Generosity is then fostered by this realisation. Indeed, passions can become ‘habits of virtue’ which can rely on this passive thought and are given a physiological support derived from meum corpus. We feel good when we do good, in short.
This self-reflection as passive thought has an important role to play in love, claims Marion. (Readers of Marion’s The Erotic Phenomenon will recognise themes here). Once we have a ‘fix’ on ourselves through self- reflection, we can begin to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole (joined with the object of our love).We can assess how much of ourselves to give to this greater whole and also learn to care for this new ‘whole’ (perhaps we could consider it the relationship formed between two people who love each other) rather more than we care for ourselves.
Marion’s book is not an easy read. The translation into English is awkward (not necessarily the fault of the translator – Marion’s style does not move easily from French idiom to English). There are many long quotations in Latin in the body of the text and footnotes are extensive and plentiful. If Descartes’ argument is hard to follow in the Sixth meditation, so is Marion’s interpretation. Many of the themes in the book are covered more coherently and helpfully in anglophone philosophy (For example, in several articles in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes’ Meditations or by the philosopher John Cottingham to whom Marion refers).
Marion has the original idea of turning Descartes into a thoroughly modern phenomenologist, however. He achieves this through his suggestion that Descartes has an idea of the self as ‘flesh’ or meum corpus, which takes in information from the outside world at all levels and this can be used both in the ordinary way of life and, as Marion makes clear in the last chapter, for the development of virtue as well. The discussion of Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul in the last chapter is an interesting development of Marion’s idea of passive thought, using not only the notion of the ‘flesh’, but also extending the idea of the thinking self so that it too is capable of passive thought. Norman Kemp Smith in his book New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes (1952) titled the final chapter of his survey of Descartes ‘Descartes as Pioneer’. Marion certainly would agree that Descartes was a pioneer with a modern conception of the self, providing plenty of material for modern day phenomenologists and personalist philosophers alike.