Aquinas and Descartes the Discourse Term Paper

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The classical argument for dualism is made by Rene Descartes ... In his Meditations (first published in 1641). Descartes was writing during the very first stirrings of what was later to become the Enlightenment. Natural (experimental) science was beginning to emerge and was differentiating itself from magical and religious ideas. Descartes (though a religious man) wanted to contribute to this. He was aware that his thought, and that of his contemporaries, was hindered by prejudice. He wanted to eliminate this prejudice and establish certain foundations for knowledge. (The Argument for Mind/Body Dualism)

He embarked on his method of radical doubt and denied everything that was not without absolute certainty. This also included perceptions about the world and body. The method of doubt also extended to the accepted 'truths' of logic and reason. He came to the now famous conclusion that all that could not be doubted was his own existence as a thinking being - 'I think therefore I am' (cogito ergo sum).

To think? Here I find it: thought [it] is; this alone cannot be separated from me ... I do not now admit anything except what necessarily is true. I am therefore strictly only a thinking thing; that is mind, or soul, or understanding or reason ... I am however a true and truly existing thing, but what sort of thing? I have answered; a thing which thinks. (Cottingham J. Stoothoff R. And D. Murdoch I18)

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This method of radical doubt is continued in his critical thought on the relationship between mind and matter. "His argument for this is that it was possible for him to doubt the existence of his body, without doubting his own existence as a thinking being, therefore his existence as a thinking being must be separate from his bodily existence. He must be a mind distinct from a body."

(The Argument for Mind/Body Dualism)

TOPIC: Term Paper on Aquinas and Descartes the Discourse Assignment

The concept of the body for Descartes is related to the idea of extension. Except for mind all other aspects of world and nature extend in time and space. They are therefore mutable and open to the method of skeptical doubt. The body is something which is not fixed but divisible and subject to the laws of physical science. The mind on the other hand is indivisible. It also does not extend into space and is not subject to the laws of physical science. In other words, the body and by extension nature, is open to doubt and cannot be known with the same certainty as the mind. The following table explicates these concepts.



Extends into/occupies space


Is divisible


Obeys the laws of nature

Not subject of nature's laws

We know it by perception

We know it by intuition

It thinks


It is important to realize with what vehemence Descartes rejects the association and identity of mind with body. He in fact denies the body as having any linkage to mind. This is clearly contrary to the views of Aquinas who stressed the interconnection between the two.

I understand all that can be terminated by some figure; that can be contained in some place and fill a space in such a way that any other body is excluded from it; that can be perceived, either by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell; that can be moved in many ways, not of itself, but by something foreign to it by which it is touched and from which it receives the impulse ... I am not this assemblage of limbs called the human body; I am not a thin and penetrating air spread through all these members ... (Descartes 1968: 105)

This understanding of himself as a distinct thinking entity is empathized in his mediation on a natural object such as a piece of wax. He insists that this object is perceived not through the senses but through the mind and through reason. Descartes concludes that:

"What, however, shall I say of this same mind, or of myself? For so far I do not admit that there is in me anything except mind. What, I ask, [of] I who seem to perceive this wax so distinctly? Do I not then know myself not only such more truly, much more certainly, but even much more distinctly and evidently? " (Cottingham J. Stoothoff R., and D. Murdoch 118)

Descartes carries this thought throughout his epistemological argument in which he stresses his knowledge of himself as a thinking being as distinct from the body which an extended substance in the universe and not related to his essence.

... thus, from this very fact, that I know I exist, and that meanwhile I notice nothing else to pertain to my nature or essence, except this alone that I am a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists in this one [thing] that I am a thinking thing. And although probably (or rather, as I will afterward say, certainly) I have a body, which is very closely conjoined to me, because nevertheless on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am only a thinking thing, not extended; and on the other hand, I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as it is only an extended thing, not thinking, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist apart from it. (Cottingham J. Stoothoff R., and D. Murdoch II54)

For Descartes animals and the natural world were little more than mechanical functioning entities which had no relationship to the essence of what it means to be human.

The animal was a pure machine so made by God as to seem to be actuated thinking--consciousness -- but really not so actuated. But if the animals could be thought of as machines, why then was it not possible for human beings to be so conceived also? (Boas 96/97)

This extreme dualism has certain implications which have had a profound effect on modern thought and life -- particularly with reference to the relationship between humanity and the environment.

Cartesian implications

The disparities in worldview between Descartes and Aquinas reflect many of the critical points of conflict in modern thought and society today. There is a plethora of literature pertaining to the after-effects of Cartesian dualism. Many critics claim that Descartes" views initiated a mode of thought and a pattern of modern consciousness that was to include a justification for the industrialization and mechanization of the world. His philosophy is also associated with a denial of the integrity of all life that characterized many of the cultural and social events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In contrast to Aquinas, the Cartesian worldview - to a large extent -- divided human consciousness and laid the foundations for a mode of thought that many claim to have had negative effects: for example, the uncaring attitude towards the environment and the increase in pollution. Of course the blame for many social ills and uncaring actions cannot be directly attributed to Descartes. However, there is a certain amount of truth in the claim that his extreme dualism initiated other processes and philosophies which ultimately divided the human mind from the world around it and also from its own biology.

Gilbert Ryle describes the dualism of Descartes as "the myth of the ghost in the machine." Ryle continues that the body is seen as "a ghost; that is, an immaterial substance. It also describes the body as a machine." (The Argument for Mind/Body) The idea of the body as a machine or as mechanism has a familiar contemporary ring to it; in fact to a large extent it is a concept that forms the foundation of modern medical science -- or such was the case until fairly recently. There are many medical practitioners who have realized that this view can be interpreted as limiting or distorting the human being. Many doctors are resorting to more holistic and natural medical practices. There are also many others who view this dualism in an extremely negative light and see it as one of the causes of both social and psychological ills in the contemporary world.

In short, there really is no social world at all; that is, no world of shared meanings or ideas. Even such things as language are mere 'noises' which private minds each 'interpret' on their own. There is no genuine connection between people. This is extremely problematic from a sociological point-of-view. (ibid)

This dualism is being confronted today on many levels -- especially in the philosophical arena where the poststructuralist and deconstructionist movements have been questioning the validity of a rigid and dualistic interpretation of reality.


Anscombe E. And Geach P. ( Trans) Rene Descartes .'Reply to the Fourth Set of Objections," reprinted in Descartes' Philosophical Writings, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,1971).

Brinton, Crane. Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford, UK:… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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