Essay on Descartes and Elisabeth of Bohemia


It is upsetting that Elisabeth held such little regard for her level of intelligence. Her proclamations of “stupidity” on page 68, or “ignorance” on page 72 are both unfortunate and completely unjustified. Throughout their correspondence it is clear that she was much sharper and ‘on point’ than she gave herself credit for, clearly Descartes could see this, and it may explain why he was so evasive in his replies. She saw the fatal flaw in Descartes argument and pursued it relentlessly. From the start she proposed very reasonable – and quite simple -questions; how the immaterial soul (the mind) can move the corporeal body? How can something with mass be moved by something which is mass-less?

We know of three mass-less particles, the most common one being the photons (the light particle). Light can adjust the structure of an object, such as when you put a cube of ice in the sun, the solid becomes a liquid. But it cannot move object A to location C. Light can also not exist without that which creates it; without that which supplies it with energy; without that which gives it being-in-the-world. What is mass-less cannot be causa sui (the cause-of-itself) because that which is mass-less needs a constant supply of energy to keep it in-being.

Descartes never provides a satisfactory answer to Elisabeth, which seems to leave her under the impression – in my opinion – that the reason she cannot seem to understand what Descartes is trying to say is of her own fault. Really, the fault lies in Descartes. Elisabeth has caught him out on a critical issue in his mind-body separation. For Descartes, the mind and body are individual entities, yet somehow in constant interaction. The mind, which is immaterial and contained within the individual. The corporeal body is material and existing within the material world, yet what moves the body is the immaterial entity contained within it: The ‘soul’. This relates to what Descartes proposed that there are three ‘primitive notions’:

  1. The notion of the mind
  2. The notion of the body
  3. The union of the body and the mind

He then states, “to conceive of the union between the two things is to conceive of them as a single thing” (69-70). But what exactly does he find faulty in the idea of the body being a single thing? It does not seem to occur to Descartes that the mind and body may indeed be inseparable, hence why he cannot provide any reason to Elisabeth as to how the immaterial moves the immaterial.

Descartes’ philosophy was best summarised by Nietzsche is Will to Power: “There is a thinking thing: therefore, there is something which thinks’: that is all Descartes’ argumentatio amounts to” (pg. 288). It is on this notion in which Descartes built the mind-body dualism. It is on this notion that Descartes somehow came to the idea that:

“I am a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my whole essence consists of this … I have a body to which I am closely united, yet I have, on the other hand, a distinct idea of myself as purely a thinking, and not an extended, thing.” (Descartes pp.158-9)

From his claim that the human mind being separate from the body, Descartes also proposes that the mind can exist without the body, and that the body is divisible whilst the mind is not. There are two very large claims. The former is only true if you rearrange the words ‘mind’ and ‘body’, when someone dies their body remains in a lifeless state. But the energy source for the mind is thus depleted, the mind ceases to be. As for the latter:

P1)       I can amputate a limb

P2)       I cannot separate a section of my mind

C)       My body is divisible; my mind is not.

The argument is valid, technically. But it does not give any reason whatsoever for it to follow that the mind and body must be distinct from each other. If a limb is amputated from your body, you will still have bouts of pain as if the limb was still there, Descartes himself mentions this phenomenon. It may be countered, “ah, but does this mean that the unconscious part of the mind is unaware the limb is missing and is still under the impression of the existence of the limb?” Not necessarily, the individual is conscious of the limb no longer being there, I refer to Elisabeth on page 72 of the correspondence where she replies to Descartes that she believes that there are properties of the soul in which we don’t know:

“I also find that the senses show me that the soul moves the body, but they teach me nothing … of the way in which it does so. For this reason, I think that there are some properties of the soul, which are unknown to us, which could perhaps overturn what your metaphysical meditations persuaded me of by such good reasoning: The non-extendedness of the soul.”



I don’t feel that Elisabeth is at all convinced of a dualism. Judging by the Lisa Shapiro readings it seems more as if Elisabeth was looking for (like most people with issues such as depression or any other mental illness) a way to separate the unhappy mind from your physical presence. She also seems to be wanting the mind-body dualism to be so but cannot let slide the movement of a body by something with no physical presence.

“At the very least, it makes one abandon the contradiction of the scholastics’, that it – the soul– is both as a whole in the whole body, and as a whole in each of its parts” (Elisabeth pp. 72)

Instead of outright declaring her disbelief in Descartes, she continued to try and press him for an answer on something which he could provide no satisfactory reply. There is a clear determination for a wanting Descartes to be correct, nobody would persist with such patience without some underlying reason, some desire, for that person to be correct.

Given Elisabeth’s state of mind, the comfort that she felt from corresponding with Descartes’, the persistence in seeking an answer to her main question and the way she tended to insult herself in her letters; it would not seem out of place to consider what she was seeking in Cartesian dualism was not just a conversation with another, with someone who cares. In my own experience, the bond with an ‘Other’ is – funnily enough – only one part of a dualism.

People who are suffering with depression are inclined to connect with someone in possession of something they are unconsciously seeking. They are in search of something that will provide a way to leave behind, separate or heal that damaged part of their mind. Elisabeth’s connection with Descartes can be explained through the same problem in which they endeavored to solve, the missing piece of Descartes dualism.

  1. Companionship. This is the material aspect of the dualism, the substitute for body. This is what we could consider the ‘physical plane’ which a normal, everyday friendship exists.
  2. Desire. The immaterial aspect which is not always present but also hidden. Contradictory in the same way Descartes’ dualism is contradictory, however, the dualism contains no physical component proper. Desire is symbolic, much like Jacques Lacan’s ‘big Other’ it is always present, but Elisabeth and Descartes are not directly aware of it.

Descartes gave Elisabeth companionship which she of course appreciated and felt grateful for. Elisabeth sent the letter with the question in which she desired an answer, but it is not that simple. Instead of mere disappointment at Descartes not giving her the answer she hoped, or directly telling him that he cannot justify his theory. She continued to urge him for an answer she would have realised Descartes did not have. She put down herself, insulted her intelligence and decried her ‘stupidity’ (page 68). She felt that she must not be smart enough to understand. Descartes responded with compliments, attempts at cheering her up, as a kind-hearted companion does.

Depression is an emptiness; a feeling of something (or many things) is missing. And so, you cling to what sparks an interest, something you hope will give you purpose. Sometimes what you cling to is the wrong thing, sometimes what you cling to turns out to be something that will make you feel worse.

The problem is, you don’t know how to let it go. It is broken, like me. It is now your archetype, your world centres on fixing the unfixable, it will now drag you down with it. Your car won’t start, the engine has seized. It is broken like me… It is me, I must fix it… You become compelled, nothing else matters anymore but that fixation. Every other part of your life gets put aside.

Companionship and desire are the dualism in the psyche when you encounter a person whom becomes the fixation of your depression. The fixation is not necessarily that person, they are the object which holds the remedy to your damaged soul. I don’t mean object in the sense that a psychopath may refer to a man or woman as ‘it’ as opposed to a person. Elisabeth views Descartes as the friend whose Dasein is the bearer of a problem she must solve. Descartes is the Riddler to Elisabeth’s Batman.


Click here to help me continue making more frequent content 😊

One comment

  1. Thanks for this. There is much to consider here. The main stuff of it, I sense, cuts too close to these bones of mine. I feel safer engaging with more familiar themes addressed here. I feel very drawn to Cartesian dualism and the broader idea that the mind/soul is independent of physical laws and the laws of men. I can’t say precisely why this notion has such strong appeal but I suspect I am incapable of letting go of it. I am 55 and it is only recently that I have begun to entertain the possibility that this may, in fact, not be the case. But I don’t know. What concerns me more is Descarte’s assertion that what he is (and what we are) is that which thinks. We are not. That we are a thing that thinks seems self-evident. That we seem hell-bent on reducing ourselves to merely that seems a cause for dreadful alarm. I suspect there was a time when we realised plainly that we could not be so reduced and it seems probable that the fallacy that we can be is a prime culprit in much of our contemporary suffering. It seems possible to read Descarte’s project as an attempt to give rational foundation to what was his axiomatic credo. He seems to present us with a journey of an explorative mind. Was there really a journey at all? More delusional than disingenuous I’d say.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s