Since the very beginnings of philosophic thought, attempts have been made to understand the essence of the human mind and the peculiarities of its relationship with the body. The idea that there could exist certain speculative phenomena which do not necessarily obtain in the reality led the thinkers to the conclusion about the dual nature of the mind and the body. Already in Ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle contemplated intelligence as a faculty of the human mind that is independent of the physical body. Later on, Thomas Aquinas dwelled on that idea developing the so-called trinitarian notion of forms; the culmination in the elaboration of the dualistic theory is the teaching of Rene Descartes. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, the French philosopher sets forth his view of the nature of the mind and the body as completely distinct from each other, since in his opinion it is possible to perceive things independently and the thinking process occurring in the mind does not involve the body as such.
The discussion on the separation of the body and the mind is concentrated in Meditation VI, in which Descartes starts with contemplating the existence of material things at all. Referring to God as an omnipotent creative power that in its almightiness endows human beings with the ability to perceive corporeal objects, Descartes rejects any doubt as to the reality of material objects (264). In fact, according to Descartes, God possesses the ability to create anything that one can clearly and distinctly perceive; and in case of difficulties with conceiving a phenomenon, one is to blame rather the imperfection of human nature than the error of the indisputably perfect superior design (264).
In connection with the faculty of perception, Descartes discusses, compares, and contrasts imagination and “pure intellection, or conception” as the two distinct processes of thinking that are involved in one’s comprehension of the world (265). Imagination is viewed by Descartes as “a certain application of the cognitive faculty […] to a body which is immediately present to it, and which therefore exists”; the process of imagination requires “a special effort of mind” which allows of perceiving the imaginary object with one’s mind’s eye (265–66). On the contrary, intellection does not require any immediate visual representation of the object as it can contemplate the qualities of the object abstracting from its material form. Therefrom stems the idea of a connection between imagination and the body, while the mind does not require any attachment to auxiliary aids and in its cognition “turns in some way upon itself” (Descartes 266).
Since imagination necessarily attaches itself to some kind of body, it appears that the body exists; and yet, Descartes questions this assertion and brings forward another connection supporting the existence of the body. Sense perception is claimed by the philosopher to be the ultimate source of comprehension, as no idea could emerge in one’s imagination without being previously prompted by the results of sense perception (Descartes 268). However, Descartes swiftly refutes his claim of senses as a primary faculty in comprehending the world; he provides examples of the false impression created by perceptional sensations and concludes the frequently erroneous nature of judgments that are based on external senses (268). Departing from the fact that arguments of one’s reason often dissuade one from following the course prompted by natural senses, the philosopher suggests that there might exist a faculty that produced ideas regardless of one’s will (Descartes 269).
This point of reflection is brought to a culmination in Meditation VI, as in his attempt at explaining the mysterious quality that allows for independent generating of ideas Descartes arrives at the notion of the dichotomy of the mind and the body. The first argument in support of this dichotomy is drawn from knowledge. Once again proceeding from the idea of God’s infallibility in his design of the world, Descartes believes that whatever one conceives clearly and distinctly can be produced by God as clear and distinct as it is perceived; therefore, if one can perceive things as different from each other, God created them differently (269). Perceiving himself as an essential thinking being, Descartes opposes his thinking essence to the “unthinking” body and concludes that as he does not ultimately require his body for thinking, his mind (equated to his whole self) is “entirely and truly distinct” from his body and therefore can exist without it (270).
Descartes further reinforces his idea of the distinction of the mind and the body by drawing his arguments from the notion of extension. Envisaging himself as a thinking being on the one hand, and an unextended being, on the other hand, he asserts the body to be unthinking and extended. Since he can perceive the body as unthinking and extended, it means that God created the body characterized by those qualities; and therefore the body is indeed unthinking and extended which makes it entirely different from the thinking and unextended mind. The latter is claimed by Descartes to constitute the essence of the human being who could subsist without the body that is not necessary for the thinking process as such (270).
If the body is not essential for the thinking process, there emerges the issue of its existence altogether and Descartes seeks the solution to this problem in the following speculations. Along with the ability to understand oneself without necessarily involving one’s imagination and sense, it appears critical that to explain imagination and sense one should attribute them to some thinking thing (Descartes 270). Among one’s abilities is the power of movement; but as this power is inherent in extended things only, there must be an extended thing (or the body) as an integral part of one. Therefore, being an already thinking thing, one at the same time is an unthinking thing; and this unthinking ability must be contained in some other substance than mind (or self), taking the shape of either God or an external extended body (Descartes 271). Since God created Descartes with a firm belief that the ideas originating within his mind come from corporeal things, they do so; therefore, material objects, including the body, exist (271). And finally, the necessity of division between the mind and the body is confirmed by the following consideration: as material objects are ultimately perceived by senses, and as, contrary to the mind, senses are an imperfect way of cognizing the reality, the right perception of the truth is formed by the mind only, and not even by the union of the body and the mind (Descartes 272).
With all due respect to the detailed explanations and insights provided by Descartes in his work, one cannot but remark on several obvious fallacies in his arguments. For one thing, the initial idea of Descartes that his true essence is that of incorporeal nature appears unproven. The following therefrom distinction between the mind and the body is the more so groundless: one thing is to say that a thing could exist without physical embodiment, and quite the other is to witness it in reality. In other words, if certain physical properties are not necessarily essential to one but which one still possesses, it does not mean that they are concluded in something different from oneself, or that one’s body is a separate part of one’s essence (Garber 106).
For another thing, the idea of extension that plays a crucial role in the distinction between the body and the mind is also subject to debate. Fairly enough, the body can be viewed as that consisting of easily discernible parts; but it cannot be readily claimed that there does not exist a similar division in the mind. Firstly, neuroscience has demonstrated a direct connection between the properties of the body and the mind (Atkins 9); and even if Descartes was unaware of the first consideration due to the state of contemporary science, there is a second objection which can be observed in simple daily life. The indivisibility of thought is very much prejudiced by the situations when people are ‘in two minds about something: they can simultaneously hold two different opinions of the same fact, situation, or idea. Therefore, the mind cannot be viewed as necessarily undivided and unextended.
Basing his claim of distinction between the mind and the body on their qualities that are rather speculated than proven, Rene Descartes in his work provides grounds for debate over the nature and essence of the human body and mind, and stimulates an inclination to believe that those two sides of human being are nevertheless interconnected and neither of them can lead a comprehensive existence independently from the other.
Atkins, Kim, ed. Self and Subjectivity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005. Print.
Descartes, Rene. “Meditation VI: Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinction between the Mind and Body of Man.” The Method, Meditations and Philosophy of Descartes. Ed. John Veitch. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, Llc, 2005. 264–280. Print.
Garber, Daniel. Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy Through Cartesian Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.