PRINCESS ELISABETH OF BOHEMIA (1618-1680)
Said Descartes, “There’s a powerful gland
Where the mind feeds the brain each command.”
But Elisabeth said,
“How that works in the head
Is causation I can't understand."
Note: Descartes's dualism commits him to the view that a human being is composed of an immaterial mind and a material body. For Descartes, the human mind is not situated relative to the body in the way that a captain is situated relative to her ship: rather there is an intimate connection or union between mind and body. At the same time, Descartes insists that the mind can cause the body to act in certain ways (often as the result of an act of will) and that the body can cause mental events (such as pains and other sensations). Descartes hypothesized that the locus of mind-body interaction is the brain, specifically a small central area of the brain, the pineal gland. In what may be the most famous philosophical correspondence ever penned, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, well trained in classics and philosophy in her youth (nicknamed “The Greek” by her siblings), placed Cartesian interactionism under the microscope, and found it wanting. She pointed out to Descartes, in the plainest possible terms, that motion in matter must be produced by contact, that contact involves parts of surfaces coming together, and hence that motion produced in or by an immaterial substance is precluded. In response to Elisabeth’s unpretentious criticisms, Descartes tries various stratagems, each more desperate (and pretentious) than the next. In the midst of all this mansplaining, Elisabeth keeps her head, remaining unconvinced to the end, a model of clarity, honesty, and intelligence.