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Descartes’s Substance Dualism

In brief, Cartesian dualism claims that a human is composed of two separate substances: body and soul. The body is a physical entity subject to the usual laws of physics, and the soul is an immaterial substance not subject to the usual laws of physics. Another term for Cartesian dualism could be mind-body or person-body dualism. This version is named after the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

He is often considered to be the founder of modern philosophy and is thought to be the first philosopher since Aristotle not to accept current systems and foundations laid by his predecessors in his attempt to complete a philosophic relationship of the body and soul. This paper aims to discuss the Cartesian substance dualism and attempts to answer the following question: if Cartesian dualism is correct, why is there a body? Descartes is most famous for his dictum ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’) which he elaborated in his Principia Philosophiae.

In Descartes’ time period epistemology was beginning to become in question. He therefore decided to use skepticism to question everything he knew. Descartes took to “reject as absolutely false” everything in regard to which he “could imagine the least ground of doubt” (101). Descartes said he could think of himself without a body, but could not think of himself without a mind. There must then be two parts of a person. One can touch their body, so this must be one part. One can think, so this must be the other part.

For Descartes, the mind, not the body, is the essential part of the human. Descartes said, “I can doubt that my body exists; I cannot doubt that I exist; therefore my body is not essential to my existence” (153) Descartes’ dualism does not contain the disdain for the body which is seen in forms of Platonism and Gnosticism. Despite this he does see the body as an unnecessary component of the human that happens to be present. In other words, Descartes did believe “in actual fact a human being is an intimate union of mind and body” (Malcolm 5).

In this sense, Descartes philosophy of the mind/soul and body exists in the theoretical and not the practical, Kevin Corcoran does an excellent job of explaining the logicality of Descartes’s argument of why man is primarily a thinking/immaterial substance: Assumption: Properties are necessarily had or owned. 1. There are two kinds of properties (mental/thinking and material/nonthinking). 2. A single thing can have properties of only one sort. 3. Therefore, there are two kinds of substances (mental and material). 4. I am essentially a thinking substance. 5. Therefore, I am a mental (i.

e. , immaterial) substance (Corcoran 22-23). The basic understanding which most have concerning Cartesian dualism is that Descartes begins by contending that it is conceivable that the mind could exist without the body. He then takes the next logical step from saying that it is conceivable for the mind to exist without the body to saying that it is possible for the mind to exist without the body (Rozemond 1). Though this is true and this concept will be discussed in this section, Rozemond argues that it is not the fundamental proposition of Descartes’ dualism.

His dualism does not exist only in possibility; “instead, crucial to the argument is Descartes’s conception of substance, including important claims about the relationship between the nature or essence of a substance and the properties it can have” (Rozemond 1) Cartesian dualism has had its share of defenders within contemporary scholarship and philosophy. The view has certainly been modified somewhat since Descartes. To begin with, one can see that a corporeal substance is not necessary for existence. The most obvious example of this would be for one to understand God as being spirit.

What Cartesian dualism adds this discussion is important. Descartes provides one explanation of why the soul of a person is able to survive in a disembodied state. If Cartesian dualism is correct, why is there a body? Is it just by happenstance that the human has a body? Cartesian dualist Frank Dilley notes, “Souls need bodies in order to gather information and to interact with other souls, and it may well be that bodies are needed for souls to develop” (146). He goes on to note that since bodies and souls are connected, it is understandable why they become so interconnected during physical life.

There are several points at which Cartesian dualism could be critiqued. One way in which Descartes disagrees with this thesis is that he believed souls, but not bodies to be specially created by God (Corcoran 26). He believed that when the body and soul are interacting properly, one soul will be interacting with one body. This has caused Descartes’s philosophy to fall under many historical critiques because of its belief that the body is not as important as the soul. Why one would be led to believe that the body does have meaning and value in the sight of God? If this is the case, then the body should also have meaning and value.

Cartesian dualism does come close to Platonic dualism in its emphasis upon the mind or the soul being the primary substance of the human. Scholarship is divided, and Cartesian dualists often try to distance themselves in some areas from Platonic dualism, whereas Thomistic dualists often accuse Cartesian dualists as coming too close to Platonic dualism (Foster). In philosophy of mind, substance dualism is almost always thought to be the only alternative to physicalist theories. The majority of analytic philosophers, however, look with contempt upon their dualistic competitors.

As Daniel Dennett remarks, “it is widely granted these days that dualism is not a serious view to contend with, but rather a cliff over which to push one’s opponents. . . .” (252) There has been, however, a sort of resurgence of dualistic theories since Dennett wrote those words. Even with this resurgence, however, most analytic philosophers of mind still do not take dualistic theories very seriously. As John Searle claims, “Dualism in any form is today generally regarded as out of the question because it is assumed to be inconsistent with the scientific world view” (3)

So, while metaphysical or substance dualism (which maintains the body and mind are substantially separate) is no longer considered seriously by philosophers, practices and structures based on dualized understandings have not disappeared. Dualism continues to impact daily life. Mind remains effectively divided from body and a variety of theories and practices hold evidence that dualism remains a part of the social imagination. Works Cited Corcoran, Kevin. Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006. Descartes, Rene. E. Haldane, and G. Ross, eds.

Philosophical Works: Discourse on Method. New York, Dover: 1955. Dilley, Frank B. “Taking Consciousness Seriously: A Defense of Cartesian Dualism,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 55. 3 (June, 2004): 135-53. Dennett, Daniel. “Current Issues in the Philosophy of Mind,” American Philosophical Quarterly 15 (1978): 250- 273 Foster, John. The ImmaterialSelf: A Defence of the Cartesian Dualist Conception of the Mind. New York: Routledge, 1991. Malcolm, Norman. Problems of Mind: Descartes to Wittgenstein. New York: Harper and Row, 1971. Rozemond, Marleen. Descartes’s Dualism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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