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Essay Descartes Mind And Body Argument Notes

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'Does Descartes give any good arguments in the Meditations for distinguishing mind and body?' The 'real distinction' between mind and body in the Meditations centres around Meditations II and VI. In Meditation VI Descartes outlines his major argument for the distinction, using foundations that had in part been laid in Meditation II. The title question asks us to consider whether the arguments Descartes lays out are 'good', which we can take to mean, more specifically, 'sound', and equally, we can understand 'distinguishing mind and body' to mean Descartes' ultimate aim of proving that one's mind and one's body are two distinctly separate substances. Central to the essay, then, will be a presentation of Descartes' main argument for the distinction, an elucidation of the various aspects or implications of the argument that require clarification, and an assessment of why the argument ultimately fails. The groundwork for Descartes' principle mind-body argument in the Meditations was laid in his argument on a similar theme in the Discourse on Method. In the Discourse, Descartes argues that the mind can be known to be a substance distinct from the body by reference to the fact that the existence of the material world can be doubted, while the existence of the mind, as at least a thinking thing, cannot. This argument is, however, obviously fallacious, as Hatfield's 'Zorro' analogy indicates1:

1. I cannot doubt the existence of Zorro, since he is standing in front of me.

2. I can doubt the existence of Don Diego: for all I know, he might have died suddenly, very recently.

3. Therefore, Zorro cannot be Don Diego. This argument clearly does not work, since it is epistemically possible that Zorro and Don Diego are the same person, and by the same token, Descartes' argument fails. In Meditations, then, Descartes attempted to prepare a more robust argument, looking to strengthen his position by attempting to show that one can move from 'I am not aware of anything that belongs to my essence other than thought' to 'it is a fact that nothing else besides thought belongs to my essence'. The way he attempts to do this is informed by the problem that he faces, that 'the gap between subjective cognition and objective reality, once acknowledged, is not easily closed 2'. So, in Meditations, Descartes sets out to bridge this very gap. To do this, Descartes needs to show that there is some objective indicator of certainty, to justify the leap from the position that we arrive at in the second Meditation, that since we cannot doubt our own existence as a thinking thing but can doubt the existence of the external world, our concepts at least seem to present mind and body as distinct, to proving as fact that the two actually are distinct. This objective indicator Descartes attempts to find in the fifth Meditation, by arguing that ideas regarding different properties of external, material objects fall into different categories, and that some of these ideas, such as ideas about duration, extension and movement, cannot be misconstrued in a way that makes them false. For example, no matter what combination of mathematical properties one understands or utilises, the angles of a triangle will always add up to 180 degrees. These sort of ideas Descartes places into the category of 'clear and distinct' understanding. In the fourth Meditation also, Descartes appears to imply a similar notion, that 'everything that we clearly and distinctly 1

G Hatfield, Descartes and the Meditations, London (2003), p247 J Cottingham, Cartesian Dualism: Theology, Metaphysics and Science, in J Cottingham (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, Cambridge (1998), p245 2

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