Descartes on Emotions, Reason, and the Adaptive Unconscious: The Pioneer Behind the Caricature

The 17th-century philosopher René Descartes’s radical new understanding of psychological phenomena is usually presented very inaccurately in psychological literature.

Abstract

Two extreme examples are Damasio’s (1994) Descartes’ Error and Wilson’s (2002) Strangers to Ourselves. These two much-cited books contrast the “great” philosopher’s naive mistakes with recent research on, respectively, the relation among emotions, reason, and the brain (Damasio) and the adaptive functions of unconscious processes (Wilson). Both authors do that without referring to either Descartes’s voluminous works on physiology and psychology or the extensive historical research on his works. This article shows that these distinguished scholars’ influential books are historically very misleading. Contrary to what they claim, most of Descartes’s many explanations of psychological phenomena are embodied. He was in particular engaged in understanding the relation among emotions, reason, and the brain. According to the models of understanding Descartes put forward in the 1640s, the author argues that Descartes’s Vision would have been an appropriate title for Damasio’s book. Wilson contrasts throughout his book new insights from recent research on the adaptive unconscious with the familiar caricature of Descartes’s views in the psychological literature. The author shows that Descartes, in fact, to a large extent anticipated Wilson’s argumentation for the necessity of the adaptive unconscious. He concludes that Descartes should be considered the pioneer behind many of the models of understanding presented in Wilson’s book. The author substantiates his conclusions by explicitly contrasting the argumentation and views in Descartes’s own writings with Damasio’s and Wilson’s many incorrect claims.

History of Psychology, 2018, doi.org/10.1037/hop0000109

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Published Nov. 5, 2018 7:00 AM