An Examination of the Idea of Cartesian Dualism in Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes

Categories: Rene Descartes

In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes presents his “divisibility argument” for mind-body dualism, or Cartesian Dualism, by using the idea that the mind and body have different properties and are therefore two separate and distinct things. In this essay, I will state the argument and its premises, and through critical analyzing, contend that this argument cannot be accepted as true, with the fault mainly lying in the second premise: the mind’s indivisibility.

Descartes’ “Cogito Argument”, which can be summed up by saying “I think, therefore I am,” can generally be accepted as a successful argument to prove one’s existence.

It’s hard to doubt your own existence, or mind, because without your mind it becomes impossible to doubt in the first place. His “divisibility argument,” one of the ideas that serves as the backbone for Cartesian Dualism, isn’t quite as strong. On page 86 of his “Sixth Meditation,” Descartes observes “a great difference between the mind and the body,” particularly that the “body is by its very nature divisible,” but that “the mind is utterly indivisible,” (Descartes 86).

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In summation, the divisibility argument is as follows:

I can divide my body into separate parts

I cannot divide my mind into separate parts

Therefore, my mind and body are separate from each other

The logic of the argument itself is supported by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and his “identity of indiscernibles” principle, which states that if object A has property F and object B does not have property F, then objects A and B are not the same.

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In this scenario, we have objects A and B being the mind and body, respectively, and property F being divisibility. Descartes also presents an idea of interconnectivity between the mind and body by using the example of being thirsty. “There arises a certain dryness in the throat” when one needs to drink (Descartes 89). Through the nerves in the throat, the brain is alerted of dehydration, but it is the mind that decides to drink. Through this, the mind and body work together to keep the person healthy. Though this exemplifies the connection between the mind and body, Descartes also recognizes that “if a foot or arm” where to be taken from the body, “nothing has thereby been taken away from the mind,” thus clarifying that they don’t affect one another at all times (Descartes 86). Considering all of this, I find the argument itself to be solid, as it is hard to deny its logical sense.

The first premise seems acceptable as well. It is true that the body is separated into many distinct parts such as the hands, feet, arms, legs, torso etc. It is also true that removing some of these parts does not change the essence of the original body. A body without feet does not function as well, but it is still, nevertheless, a body, thus making an “divisible” an appropriate descriptive property. This is true with any corporeal thing. You can imagine a chair and split it up into its various parts, such as the feet, cushion, legs, and back, or you can slice it right down the middle, all without changing its essence as a chair, though an undoubtedly useless one.

I do not, however, agree with the second premise, that of the mind’s indivisibility. Descartes claims that the part of the mind that wills, understands, and is conscious of sensory perceptions “is one and the same,” (Descartes 86). It is this reasoning that I find mistaken, specifically the oneness and unanimity of the mind. This is not to say that I believe in its divisibility either, but rather I accept the fact that the mind, and how we view it, is an imagined construct. Merriam-Webster defines “mind” as “the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels, and remembers”. This definition speaks to the mind’s abstract nature. It is not a definite, physical, thing, but rather a term used to encapsulate those things to which we don’t feel an organic machine, our brain, is capable of. It is, in the end, a human created idea. Because of this, each person can have a different view of what the mind is. This inability to define the mind with any degree of certainty, makes Descartes’ second premise merely an assumption, or at the very least, a statement of his opinion and view on what a “mind” is. Descartes cannot present aspects of an imaginary construct as universally true, because those aspects can be changed on the whim of the imaginer. I could, for example, state that the mind is made up of parts that reason, parts that feel, and parts that remember. I could then state that somehow losing the part of my mind that gives me the ability to feel emotions merely makes me lose that ability, but that it does not change the fact that I still possess a mind that can reason and remember. No one could not prove me right or wrong, as the incorporeal mind cannot be experimented on to find the truth. In addition, oftentimes, we have conflicting thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Does this not suggest that the mind is made up of different, sometimes incompatible, parts? It is the mind’s indefinability, not its indivisibility, which makes this premise faulty and thus leads me to reject the divisibility argument as a whole.

Descartes presents many arguments in support of Cartesian Dualism, such as the doubt or “subjective argument”, which claims that one can doubt they have a body (whether through the act of dreaming or being tricked by an evil, deceitful demon), but cannot doubt they have a mind (proved by the Cogito Argument). Using Leibniz’s Law, I accept and agree with the logical sense of the argument, as well as the first premise. Nevertheless, I contend, that the argument as a whole isn’t completely solid, by proposing that the second premise, the mind’s indivisibility, is incorrect because the mind has no definite structure and its level of divisibility cannot be universally defined. Perhaps it is, however, as close as one can get to a solid argument when discussing the relationship between the mind and body, as the mind’s incorporeal and unexplainable nature leave it a constant enigma in the realm of philosophy.

Works Cited

  1. Descartes, Rene, (1640/1996), Meditations on First Philosophy, J. Cottingham (trans.)
  2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Forrest, Peter, “The Identity of Indiscernibles”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/identity-indiscernible/>. “mind.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2013. URL = <http://www.merriam webster.com/dictionary/mind> Web. 27 September 2013.

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An Examination of the Idea of Cartesian Dualism in Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes. (2021, Sep 16). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/an-examination-of-the-idea-of-cartesian-dualism-in-meditations-on-first-philosophy-by-rene-descartes-essay

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