Descartes, René (1596–1650)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

10. Philosophical psychology and morals

Morality was a concern of Descartes’ in a variety of texts. In the third part of his Discourse he presents what he calls a ‘provisional morality’, a morality to govern our behaviour while we are in the process of revising our beliefs and coming to certainty. In the tree of philosophy in the Preface to the French edition of the Principles, morals is listed as one of the fruits of the tree, along with medicine and mechanics. It is also a theme in the letters he exchanged with the Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia in the mid-1640s, together with another concern – the passions, what they are and, more importantly, how to control them. These themes are intertwined again in Descartes’ last major work, the Passions of the Soul (1649).

In one of the letters that serves as a preface to the Passions, Descartes announces that he will treat the passions ‘only as a natural philosopher [en physicien], and not as a rhetorician or even as a moral philosopher’. Accordingly, the bulk of the Passions is taken up with detailed accounts of what the passions are, and how they arise from the connection between the human body and the human mind. As Descartes conceived them, the passions are grouped with sensation and imagination, perceptions of the mind that arise from external impulses. In this respect, Descartes differed radically from the Aristotelian scholastic philosophers who attached the passions to the appetitive faculty rather than the perceptive. But though grouped with other perceptions, the ones that concern Descartes in this treatise are a special group of perceptions, ‘those whose effects we feel as being in the soul itself, and for which we do not normally know any proximate cause to which we can refer them’, those ‘which are caused, maintained, and strengthened by some movement of the spirits’ (Passions: §§25, 27). (The ‘spirits’ in question are the animal spirits, a fluid matter that played a major role in Descartes’ biology.) The principal effect of the passions is to ‘move and dispose the soul to want the things for which they prepare the body. Thus the feeling of fear moves the soul to want to flee, that of courage to want to fight’ and so on (Passions: §40). As with sensations, the passions of the soul play a role in the preservation of the mind – body union: ‘The function of all the passions consists solely in this, that they dispose our soul to want the things which nature deems useful for us, and to persist in this volition; and the same agitation of the spirits which normally causes the passions also disposes the body to make movements which help us to attain these things’ (Passions: §52).

For the schoolmen, the passions pertained to the appetitive faculty, and were principally organized around a distinction between the ‘irascible’ and the ‘concupiscent’ appetites. Descartes, however, was attempting to fashion a conception of the passions based on a very different conception of the soul, one in which there is no distinction among appetites (Passions: §68). His categorization of the passions was based on a list of six primitive passions, which pertain to the perceptive rather than to the appetitive faculty: wonder, desire, love and hatred, joy and sadness –‘all the others are either composed from some of these six or they are species of them’ (Passions:§69). Much of his attention in the short book is directed at accounts of what each of these basic passions is, what it feels like and its physiological causes and effects in the body, and how all the other passions can be understood in terms of the six basic ones.

But although Descartes presents himself as examining the passions ‘en physicien’, there is a moral dimension to the discussion as well. Part of the motivation for the examination of the passions is their control. While the passions, like everything given to us by God, can contribute to our well-being, they can also be excessive and must be controlled (Passions: §211). While the passions are not under our direct control, by understanding what they are and how they are caused we can learn indirect means for controlling them (Passions: §§45–50; 211). This, Descartes asserts, is the ‘chief use of wisdom, [which] lies in its teaching us to be masters of our passions and to control them with such skill that the evils which they cause are quite bearable, and even become a source of joy’ (Passions: §212). Important in this process is what Descartes calls génénerosité, best translated as ‘nobility’. Générosité is the knowledge that all that belongs to us, properly speaking, is our own free will, and the resolution to use it well, ‘that is, never to lack the will to undertake and carry out whatever one judges to be best’ (Passions: §53). Understood in this way, générosité is both a passion (an immediate feeling) and a virtue (‘a habit of the soul which disposes it to have certain thoughts’) (Passions: §§160–1). The person who has générosité ‘has very little esteem for everything that depends on others’, and as a result, Descartes claims, is able to control their passions (Passions:§156).

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. Philosophical psychology and morals. Descartes, René (1596–1650), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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