The Descartes & Princess Elisabeth Correspondence

Primary Texts:

Ed. Atherton, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period. Hackett 1994. ISBN: 0872202593 (p. 8-21) (though the correspondence is also available elsewhere, including electronically at

Secondary Texts for Instructor:

Lisa Shapiro. “Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Suggested Courses:

History of Modern Philosophy, Intro to Philosophy


Elisabeth objects to Descartes’ dualism by positing the “interaction problem”--since Descartes subscribes to the mechanical philosophy (that matter must be moved mechanically--through pushing or pulling), she argues that the soul (which is immaterial) cannot move the body since it cannot push or pull.

Discussion Questions (with answers):

  1. What do you think of the tone of the letters? Notice anything interesting?

This question gives students a chance to think about the relationship between Elis and Descartes (one of friendship, but with obvious social distinctions since Elis is royalty) and some feminist issues (given that Elis explains she is often too busy with her duties to write or do philosophy).

  1. What is Elisabeth asking of Descartes on p. 11-12 (from “I beseech you tell me how…” to the end of that letter)? How might you rephrase this in the form of an objection?

Elisabeth asks: how does the soul move the body if one is material and the other immaterial? The idea is that a body can only be moved by some kind of physical contact, but an immaterial thing can’t make contact. Similarly, how can the body effect the soul if the only way bodies can affect things is by contact (or at least is somehow dependent on the figure of the thing).

Objection: If the soul and body are distinct insofar as one is material and the other is immaterial, then the soul cannot move the body (nor can the body effect the soul).

  1. How does Descartes answer (see p. 13-15)?

13-14: Soul doesn’t move the body in the same way one body moves another.

Body -> extension (figure/movement)

Soul -> thought (perceptions/will)

Body + soul -> their union (force of soul to move body/ force of body to cause feelings/passions)

To think about union, can’t use attributes that belong to body or soul alone

It’s a primitive notion that we learn from direct experience: 14-15 analogy with weight: force of moving body toward earth w/o touching (mechanistic phil) is wrong for body, but modeled on how soul moves body.

  1. Are you satisfied with this answer? Is Elisabeth? (see p. 16)

No. Elisabeth notes that since weight example is impossible (for bodies) (according to D, there is no “motion at a distance”, it actually illustrates her points—makes body/soul connection even more mysterious!

  1. What alternative does Elisabeth suggest (p. 16 bottom)?

physicalism: that the soul is physical; or possibly some kind of animism, that there are intelligent bodies/spirits.

  1. Descartes tries to clarify his response. He says, “to conceive the union existing between two things is to conceive them as one thing alone” (18). What does that mean and how does it help answer Elisabeth’s question?

We only know the union obscurely by understanding, even as aided by the imagination; know it better through the senses (or maybe some kind of direct experience of thought moving the body and of the soul feeling what happens to body)--no one doubts that the soul moves the body.

To conceive the union is to conceive them as one thing--when we think of the soul moving the body, we are really thinking of their union, and therefore as one thing--not two different things interacting.

19: it’s hard to conceive the body and soul as one, but also distinct (since conceiving of two things as both separate, but also as the same)

  1. On 19 toward the bottom, it looks like Descartes says to go ahead and conceive of the soul as material (“please freely attribute this matter and this extension to the soul”), but then he goes on to say that “the extension of this matter is of another nature than the extension of this thought.” What’s going on here? What point is Descartes making?

To attribute matter/extension to soul is nothing but to conceive it united to the body

  1. In the final letter, Elisabeth reiterates her real point. What is that point? Did Descartes answer it? If yes, how? If not, how might he? What’s Elisabeth’s resolution (p. 21)?

She says that she’s concerned with HOW the soul moves the body. She doesn’t think that D has answered that at all. He’s just said it’s primitive, we know THAT it does.

Her resolution: extension isn’t necessary to the soul, but belongs to some function of it, though a non-essential one?


In Introductory classes, I also assign the short story “They’re Made out of Meat” by Terry Bisson:


Liz Goodnick (Metropolitan State University of Denver)