And is awfully kind.

“Again, and on another point raised by the critics, the relation of soul and body in Descartes is often badly misunderstood.  There is indeed a most radical distinction between them, the distinction between the material and the immaterial, the divisible and the indivisible.  But Descartes devotes immense energies, especially in his later work, to charting their intrinsically close relation, insisting that the soul resides quite locatably in the pineal gland.  Earlier, in Meditation VI, he had underscored:  ‘I am not lodged in jmy body only as a pilot in a vessel, I am very closely united with it.’  And he was very aware, very bothered, that his account of how, precisely, the mind and the body interacted was possibly the weakest and most problematic link in his system.”

That’s about as sympathetic a reading of Descartes as you’ll ever see, which is rather refreshing.

She also points to The Cloud of Unknowing as a 14th century text that foreshadows Descartes’ understanding of the individual.  Modernity may not be only his fault after all.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. True, it is refreshing. But I’m still enraptured by Thomas Torrance’s grand narrative of Platonic-Augustinian-Cartesian-Kantian dualism, sowing the seeds for contemporary Western skepticism. Sure, the theory is a bit too neat, but the grandeur of the Reformed-Barthian vision of God, as an alternative, is very attractive and makes a lot of sense.


  2. Kevin,

    I’m a woeful wannabe who hasn’t yet read Torrance. I’m still catching up by trying to read as much Barth as I can.

    That said, I’m pretty interested in recovering the Platonic-Augustinian tradition for theology (I’ll stop there). Webster actually had some kind things to say about it in the Q&A after one of the Kantzer lectures. If you haven’t listened to them, they are worth the time.



  3. Matt,

    I’ve listened to the lectures, and, moreover, Webster was a former professor mine. I did an MTh. in Systematic Theology at Aberdeen.

    Keep-up with the Barth! I highly recommend that, before reading Torrance, you should listen to his Belfast lectures, which can be found on the links page of my blog. The lectures are difficult (as with everything by Torrance) but highly enjoyable. I’ve listened to them several times now.


  4. >> Modernity may not be only his fault after all.

    Definitely not. See Edwin Burtt’s “The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science”.

    Though this is hyperbole, it is still worth saying that it is not without reason that he is called the “Father of Moderm Philosophy” and it is not being unfair to critique his views on that basis. I may be wrong, but I’m not aware of too many people advancing the argument that the title is undeserved. He is critiqued and he is ignored (unwisely), but I don’t know of many trying to dethrone him for another. People in his position get a lot of either praise or blame, but people defensive about criticism that surrounds him by taking a “poor little Father of Modern Philosophy” viewpoint aren’t going to get a lot of sympathy. However, critiquing the critics is always good -that’s how we learn.

    Though Descartes is badly misunderstood, his most incisive and interesting critics are not among them. Gilson did his doctoral thesis on him, and he characterized the view as “mathematicism”. The beliefs of the real Descartes, as opposed to the “iconic Descartes” are are really quite a jolt. Descartes was not a skeptic. The Meditations is all about his mechanical metaphysics project, not epistemology any more than what the former entails for the latter. The Scholastics understood the primacy of metaphysics and so did Descartes as its self-avowed enemy. See “History of the Mind-Body Problem” by Crane and Patterson.

    As far as Coakley citing the “pilot and the ship” passage or people generally citing any number of other passages with various manner and degree of possible psychological import (she implies he was “very bothered” that his account of mind and body might not represent an intimate union), I suppose by such opaque psychological cues one could read into him anything one wishes. In this case the question is how intimate a connection between mind and body do we need so that we can be confident that the two are not related as the sailor to his ship? You’d never hear Aristotle or Aquinas worrying about whether their accounts had sufficiently accounted for anthropological unity. Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?


  5. >> True, it is refreshing.

    Why do you find it refreshing? Do you find it to be a closer correspondence to the truth?


  6. Please include attribution of the original source of this work (my blog) instead of passing it off as your own.


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