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Descartes and Dualism

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Rene Descartes is best known for his concept of distinguishing the person in relation to the thinking mind.  The body was only an extension used by the mind to better facilitate existence in this realm.  While Descartes is not the only philosopher that touted this concept, he used his concept of dualism even before he explained it in detail.  In fact, the separation of body and mind is shown in many of his meditations, especially in Meditation VI in which case he begins to describe his theory of dualism.

Meditation VI states “…because I know that all which I clearly and distinctly conceive can be produced by God exactly as I conceive it, it is sufficient that I am able clearly and distinctly to conceive one thing apart from another…” as the basic foundation that the mind or “I” am a thinking entity and the body is a non-thinking extension or appendage (Knight, 1908 pg 157).  Throughout this paragraph the argument seems to focus on the fact that the mind is separate from body.  His concept runs that the mind is the essence of the individual, or the personality and nature of that individual.  The body is a non-thinking extended entity that houses the mind.  The paragraph ends with the fact Descartes believes that because his mind can conceive itself and separately conceive the body; then the two are mutually exclusive and can survive without the other (Knight, 1908; Skirry, 2008; Skirry, 2008).

While he continues on in this theme, the prior information and arguments create a few discrepancies in the separation of mind and body as he discusses the relationship between the bodily sensations and the intellect of perception.  He begins by explaining that the mind can conceive any object and therefore believe in the truth of the concept, but only from experience and sensation can the perception through the body can the object be verified as real and tangible.  These sensations are required to completely understand the object.  He uses the example of the triangle.  An individual knows it is a triangle because it has three sides, even though two people understand this concept, their perception of a triangle may be different in size and shape.  One could think of an obtuse triangle, while the other sees in their mind a right angle triangle.  Because both people understand the concept of the triangle, until they visually see the shape their conceived perceptions may be different.  He follows this idea with other shapes that are not readily available for visual stimuli, such as the chiliogon.  It is to have one thousand sides and while the mind can understand this concept, it cannot see the shape or fathom how the shape would look (Knight, 1908).

The way in which Descartes clarifies this discrepancy is that God has created the objects, and sensations for use of the mind, and that the mind can only understand these objects and sensations through the use of the body.  The body is like a catalyst of the sensation that is given to the mind to comprehend and understand.  It is also obvious that the mind is like a “pilot” of the body and is therefore responsible for the maintenance of the “vessel” (Knight, 1908, pg. 160). This does give some credence to the separation of mind and body, but it also proves that the two separate entities are necessary for one another to understand the world around them (Skirry, 2008; Skirry, 2008).

After reading this passage of Meditation VI it seems that Descartes is working through his own dilemma on the mind-body theory.  It is in its infancy and he is still working through the concepts.  He starts with both the mind and body working together through sensations and perceptions, and then separates the two as individual entities, and follows again stating that the two are joined and needed to understand the world.  At this point, Descartes cannot give a viable response to the separation of mind and body, since he continually pulls the two together and creates a scenario that both are needed.  This does not mean that the two could work separate from one another only that neither can understand the world completely without the help of the other.  The mind can perceive but cannot experience; the body can experience, but not perceive.  It is only through the marriage of both that perception and experience lead to intelligence.


Descartes, R. (1908). Meditation VI: Of the existence of material things and the real distinction between the mind and body of man. Philosophical Classics For English Readers. William Knight (ed.).  London: William Blackwood & Sons.

Skirry, J. (2008). Descartes: An overview. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Retrieved January 30, 2009 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/descarte.htm#H7.

Skirry, J. (2008). Descartes: The mind-body distinction. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Retrieved January 30, 2009 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/descmind.htm#SH3a.

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