February 17, 2021

Cavendish and Plato on Parts of the Mind

some rational Parts, may in one composed figure, have opposite actions; As for example, the Mind of man may be divided, so as to hate one person, and love another: nay, hate and love one and the same person, for several things, at the same time: as also, rejoice and grieve at the same time. For example; A Man has two Sons, one is kill'd in the Warrs, and the other comes home with victory and honour; the Father grieves for the slain Son, and rejoices for the victorious Son: for, the Mind being material, is dividable as well as composable; and therefore its Parts may as well oppose each other, as agree.

Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 2nd ed. (1668), ch. 1.35, p. 172

According to a famous argument found in Plato's Republic, the soul (mind) must have three parts in order to explain the disagreements and disorders of the soul. According to an equally famous argument, which is a bit difficult to find in Plato's Phaedo but traces its historical origin to that text, the soul is simple (not made of parts) and immaterial and therefore cannot be broken into pieces or dissolved as a body can be. Therefore, the soul is immortal. (It is not difficult to see how later readers got this argument out of Plato's Phaedo, but this is not precisely the argument that Plato is explicitly making.)

It is not difficult to see the conflict between these two arguments. I will not worry here about how this conflict might be resolved, or what Plato might really have thought. I want, instead, to talk about Margaret Cavendish's response to the conflict between these two Plato-derived lines of thought.

In the quote above, read literally, Cavendish simply assumes that the mind is material, and uses this fact to explain internal conflicts. But note that the conflicts in question are not of the sort that can easily be explained by Plato's tripartite soul. There is here no conflict between, for instance, money-loving and wisdom-loving impulses. Rather, one and the same general impulse of the mind (e.g., fatherly love) is divided against itself.

In Cavendish's view, this fact is well explained by (panpsychist) materialism. The different bits that make up the (material) mind have opposing tendencies, and this applies to the mental aspects as well as the physical aspects. On the other hand, as Plato himself recognized, if the mind were absolutely simple it could not have this kind of division against itself at all. Further, the relatively limited kind of internal division suggested by Plato fails to account for the complexity of the phenomena. On the other hand, a material mind, made up of a huge number of material parts capable of opposing one another, does accord with the complex phenomena. Hence, although on the surface level of the text, the materiality of the mind is simply assumed, when read against the backdrop of these well-known ideas derived from Plato, there is clearly an argument for this position here.

Reading against this backdrop has another consequence, however. None of Cavendish's readers could have failed to note her explicit assertion that the mind is dividable. Given the enormous importance attributed to the argument from the simplicity—and consequent indivisibility—of the soul in the arguments of natural theology in the period, Cavendish's remark here would likely be read as an argument that there is no afterlife. If the soul is divisible then, most likely, the soul is destroyed (decomposed) when the body is. Cavendish occasionally mentions a 'spiritual soul' known only to (revealed) theology, which she says she will not discuss in her philosophy. But, true to her word, she doesn't discuss it!

Finally, I want to note an interesting feature of Cavendish's (implicit) argument relative to discussions of panpsychism today. It is usually thought that the most serious problems for panpsychism are the various forms of the combination problem, that is, how the mental states of the various parts can possibly add up to a mental state of the whole. Cavendish never seems to see this as a problem, and this passage helps to explain why. Cavendish thinks that the idea that my mental states are made up of smaller mental states (which may be attributed to my material parts) is true to the phenomenology. We do not experience ourselves as unified in the way proponents of the simplicity of the soul like to think. Rather, we experience different thoughts, impulses, and attitudes coming from different directions in our minds. On Cavendish's account, the italicized phrase may be perfectly literal!

Posted by Kenny at February 17, 2021 6:07 PM
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