Template:Descartes In the treatise Passions of the Soul (Les passions de l'âme), the last of Descartes' published work, completed in 1649 and dedicated to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, the author contributes to a long tradition of theorizing "the passions." The passions were experiences often equated with or labeled as precursors to what are commonly called "emotions" in the Modern period. However, significant differences exist between what a passion putatively was and what an emotion allegedly is. For example, the passions, as suggested by the etymology of the word, were passive in nature; that is to say the experience of a passion was always caused by an object external to the subject. An emotion, as it is commonly rendered in both contemporary psychological discourse as well as popular culture, is usually explained as an event internal to, or taking place within, a subject. Therefore, an emotion is produced by the subject while a passion is suffered by the subject. While these two points of view are not mutually exclusive, the difference is notable. Desire for example, is not a choice, yet it is also not experienced by the object of desire.

In the Passions of the Soul, Descartes defines these phenomena as follows: "[P]erceptions or sensations or excitations of the soul which are referred to it in particular and which are caused, maintained, and strengthened by some movement of the spirits."[1] The "spirits" mentioned here are the "animal spirits" central to Descartes's account of physiology. They function similarly to how the medical establishment now understands the nervous system. Descartes explains that the animal spirits are produced by the blood and are responsible for stimulating the body's movement. By affecting the muscles, for example, the animal spirits "move the body in all the different ways in which it can be moved."[2]

Notable precursors to Descartes that articulated their own theories of the passions include St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Hobbes.

The relations between sadness and laughterEdit

The work also subtly discusses the relations between sadness and laughter.[3] Articles 124-7 are specifically devoted to laughter. Article 125 says: "Now although Laughter might seem to be one of the principal signs of Joy, ... we find by experience that when we are extraordinarily joyful the subject of that joy never makes us break into laughter, and we cannot even be incited to it by some other cause so easily as when we are sad."[4]

See alsoEdit


  1. Hackett English edition, trans. Stephen H. Voss, 1989, p. 34
  2. Hackett English edition, trans. Stephen H. Voss, 1989, p. 24
  3. M A Allardyce Nicoll An Introduction to Dramatic Theory, The relations of tragedy and comedy, p.24
  4. article 125. English translation by Stephen H. Voss. Original French: "Or, encore qu’il semble que le ris soit un des principaux signes de la joie, ... on trouve par expérience que lorsqu’on est extraordinairement joyeux, jamais le sujet de cette joie ne fait qu’on éclate de rire, et même on ne peut pas si aisément y être invité par quelque autre cause, que lorsqu’on est triste."

External linksEdit

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