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What is the meaning of the phrase a wisp in the ether? Here is the whole paragraph:

But Descartes believed Galen's explanation for humans as similar to sheep could not be reconciled with the notion that humans were created in God's image. He thought the mind stood separate from the physical body as a wisp in the ether that could act on the body.

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Did you look up the definitions of the words already? –  simchona Sep 3 '11 at 5:11
    
@simchona, yes I did. I would be very happy to delete my question if it is already a widely known phrase among the native speaker. I just need more explanation. –  kiraz Sep 3 '11 at 5:17
    
I didn't mean to make you feel like this wasn't a valid question. I just wanted to make sure that you had done some research on your own, so that the question was on putting it all together. –  simchona Sep 3 '11 at 16:37
    
I understood, thanks for warning me. –  kiraz Sep 3 '11 at 19:24
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

I don't know how widely used it is as a phrase (I don't think I've heard or seen it before), but it is fairly clear what it means.

Wisp is a very slight trace (wisp of smoke), or minute quantity (wisp of hair), or otherwise almost invisible (will-o'-wisp).

Ether would probably be better written æther and refers not to the family of chemical compounds but to the all encompassing substance that the Michelson-Morley experiment proved did not exist (some hundreds of years after Descartes time, of course).

Therefore, 'the mind stood separate from the physical body as a wisp in the æether' refers to the mind being like a will-o'-wisp that cannot really be seen, but can influence the body. Mind is qualitatively different from the body, yet undetectable except through its effect on the body.

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that is all I need. Thank you very much. The translator of the book translated wisp as stack. I am editing the text now (for another language), It seemed very confusing with the meaning of stack. –  kiraz Sep 3 '11 at 5:56
    
I can't think how you would derive 'stack' from 'wisp'; it seems a very odd translation, and would indeed be confusing. –  Jonathan Leffler Sep 3 '11 at 6:17
    
thanks again. Do you think something like shadow in the ether would be close to the meaning? –  kiraz Sep 3 '11 at 6:30
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Close, but a shadow can imply a solid body (and a light source) casting it, whereas a wisp denies solidity. 'Gossamer' has some of the right connotations; 'ghost' or 'spirit' or 'phantom' have some of the right connotations. Maybe 'like a phantom in the æther' might work, if you can translate 'phantom' well. –  Jonathan Leffler Sep 3 '11 at 6:47
    
well, I'll do my best. it is not that easy either :) thanks again, and again. –  kiraz Sep 3 '11 at 6:53
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