Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–1680) is best known for her correspondence with René Descartes.
For the latest episode in our NEH-supported Wise Women series, we’re exploring the life and thought of 17th-century philosopher-princess Elisabeth of Bohemia. These days, she’s most famous for her correspondence with René Descartes, in which she raised several objections to his mind-body dualism.
For Descartes, the body is material and extended in space, but it can’t think or feel; meanwhile the mind thinks and feels, but it’s purely spiritual and doesn’t occupy space. That brings up a pretty big question: if mind and body are totally different substances, how do they interact?
Suppose I wake up in the morning and decide to drink a nice cup of tea. That thought causes my body to move. Then after I’ve had my cup of tea, I’m a whole lot more clear-headed. So now my body is influencing my mind! Elisabeth wondered what exactly was going there, and asked Descartes “how the soul of a person (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about bodily actions.”
Descartes did have an answer… of sorts. He said there’s not just the body and the mind; there’s also the union of those two things. And the union can want tea, and drink the tea, and feel clear-headed. Problem solved!
Unsurprisingly, Elisabeth did not think the problem solved at all, and basically accused Descartes of hand-waving (in a very diplomatic, princess-y way, of course). She said she knew that the soul moves the body, but wanted him to show her how.
Descartes had an answer for that too… but alas, it’s even worse. He said that when you drop a rock, it moves downwards, towards the Earth. So that means the Earth is moving the rock without touching it. And if the Earth can do stuff like that, why can’t the soul move the body without touching it?
That’s all very well, Elisabeth responded, but we don’t know how the Earth pulls all those rocks towards it. (Newton hadn’t been hit on the head by that apocryphal apple yet.) So Descartes was just explaining one thing he didn't understand using another thing he don’t understand, and we’re none the wiser about how the mind moves the body.
Even to this day, people are still arguing about that question. A lot of us seem to believe we have souls that are somewhat separate from our bodies. That’s why a movie like Freaky Friday makes intuitive sense to us. Something weird happens and two characters swap bodies—that can only happen if minds and bodies are separate things. And it's the same thing for many religious beliefs like reincarnation, immortality, or guardian angels: the idea that our minds can continue to exist without our body is very Cartesian. Maybe we all need to read Elizabeth’s letters. Screenwriters included!
And it’s not just her ideas about the mind and body that have left a lasting impact. Princess Elisabeth was interested in mathematics, governance, the emotions, and whole lot else; she corresponded with all kinds of intellectual figures about all kinds of topics, always with interesting things to say. We'll hear more about all of that from our guest, Lisa Shapiro from McGill University, translator of Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Women and Early Modern European Philosophy.