She met Descartes during one of his visits to The Hague. They discussed mathematics and philosophy. She surprised him by providing an answer to an intriguing geometrical problem, and expressed her interest in his metaphysical theories. As she examined these more thoroughly in the context of her daily life, however, she began to question his sharp dualism between mind and body.
Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate (also known as Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia) is remembered as the woman who challenged the French philosopher René Descartes to re-examine his assertions on the separation of mind and body. While she never received a satisfying answer to all of her questions, she inspired him to reconsider some of his positions and to revise his view on human passions.
She was born on December 26, 1618 in Heidelberg, in today’s Germany. It was the first year of the devastating Thirty Years War, and her life was marked with troubles from the start.
Her parents, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and Elisabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, were at that time struggling as rulers of Bohemia. In 1620, they were forced to exile to the Netherlands, leaving Elisabeth and her older brothers, Henry Frederick and Charles, with their paternal grandmother, Louise Juliana of Nassau (daughter of the legendary William of Orange). By this time, Louise had found refuge with her daughter Elisabeth Charlotte, married to George William of Brandeburg
Louise raised the children according to the Reformed convictions and gave them a solid early education. When Elisabeth joined her parents at age nine, she found that her family had increased by eight more children. Four more followed later, for a total of thirteen.
Troubles continued. In 1629, her brother Henry Frederick died in a drowning accident. Three years later, her father died unexpectedly of a plague, leaving the family poverty-stricken. Her mother took bravely the helm, leading the family for thirty more years, while never dismantling the black drapes of mourning from her rooms.