Lesson 4: Founding the Modern Project: Cartesian Dualism

A. Basic Themes

Descartes divides the self from the world and posits a dualism of consciousness versus extension. Only through an elaborate proof for God does Descartes regain the world. The status of the proof is quite problematic; in one way it is unnecessary. The world is also regained through pragmatic dealings with the world. The teaching of nature, self-preservation, forces us to come to terms with the external world.

B. Outlines and Study Guides

1. Descartes Meditations III and VI: God and Bodies

    Meditations III
  • Summarize the result of radical doubt.
  • How did he previously look on the world?
  • What is the principal or commonest error about the world?
  • What are the three kinds of ideas in respect to source?
  • Why does nature teach us that ideas of senses are adventitious?
  • What is the "blind impulse"?
  • Recount the proof for God -what are premises? How does he arrive at the conclusion by process of elimination? Does it work? Why or why not?
  • How does he account for sensible images? For mathematical ideas? Extension figure, etc.
  • How does he deal with objection of finite as source for idea of infinite by way of negation?
  • Why does he say that he did not create himself? 355 does this suggest something about God?
  • How does he get the idea of God? What analogy does he use? Does this analogy beg the question one more time? Hint - similarity thesis.
    Meditations VI
  • What is difference between imagination and intellect? E.g. chiliagon.
  • What are three parts of his strategy?
  • What does natural attitude teach him?
  • Why is his faith destroyed in natural attitude?
  • He discovers himself - what is he?
  • What are the faculties for thinking? How take corporeal things now?
  • What are two descriptions for the complex of nature?
  • Key - what is deepest teaching of nature?
  • What else does nature teach the "composite self"?
  • What is the inconsiderate judgment on things?
  • What are the three regions for investigation?
  • What is the purpose of nature's teaching?
  • Why do we need scientific account?
  • How is the sick organism described scientifically? (nature #2) How described from common sense? (nature #1)
  • How might mind and body interact?
  • What is the usefulness of studying brain?

2. Schematic Of Cartesian Philosophy


"Nature teaches that. . body adversely affected when in pain." 
Man as composite of body and soul 
Theoretically misleading 
i.e. similarity thesis 
i.e. existence thesis 
Purposive - benefit and harm, 
pleasure and pain; desire aversion; agreeable disagreeable

Science teaches . . 
Man as machine: extension, body only 
Theoretical correction - reality or true picture 
mathematical, clear and distinct 
only primary qualities - quantitative; 
secondary qualities as subjective 
neutral - no good or evil; things just are and occur by necessity

self-consciousness mind only 
certain and absolute 
strong resolve: dissolve world, opinion 
world - being is relative to me 
the idea is immediate, not things


1. Descartes

"Cogito, ergo sum"; "I knew I was a substance the whole nature or essence of which is only to think."

The essence of body is extension. "A continuous body, or a space indefinitely extended in length, breath, height, depth, which was divisible into various parts, and which might have various figures and sizes, and might be moved or transposed in all sorts of ways."

2. Maritain on Descartes

It remains for us to consider rapidly a third aspect of Descartes' doctrine -- the one which concerns human nature. Cartesian dualism breaks man up into two complete substances, joined to one another no one knows how: on the one hand, the body which is only geometric extension; on the other, the soul which is only thought -- an angel inhabiting a machine and directing it by means of the pineal gland.

I shall not emphasize here the inextricable difficulties into which Descartes has thus' thrown metaphysics and psychology. The soul being only consciousness, the whole unconscious will be henceforth purely corporeal, for a psychological functioning is a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, the conflict between determinism and freedom becomes insoluble. Finally, the interaction of the body and the soul being rendered from then on unintelligible, one must have recourse to the great metaphysical myths of occasionalism, or of pre-established harmony, or of Spinozistic parallelism. An extremist spiritualism, regarding every psychic function as purely spiritual, will precipitate into materialism such sciences as medicine and neurology, which must indeed recognize that the psyche undergoes the consequential effects of body conditions. It is the Cartesian hyperspiritualism which has caused the mass-production of innumerable materialistic physicians rampant in science up to the close of the last century.

But enough of this. What I wanted to indicate was the cultural significance of Cartesian dualism, thought side, and body side.

Thought side. We know the effects of the triumph of this dualism in the second half of the seventeenth century: a theoretical contempt of the body and the senses; nothing worthwhile but pure thought. That means, in fact the triumph of artificial thought and of false intellectualism; for human intellection is living and fresh only when it is centered upon the vigilance of sense perception. The natural roots of our knowledge being cut, a general drying-up in philosophy and culture resulted, a drought for which romantic tears were later to provide only an insufficient remedy.

In the second place, a complete disregard of the affective life. Feeling is no longer anything more than a confused idea. The existence of love and of will as forming a distinct world, having its own life and its own laws in the heaven of the soul, is radically misunderstood. Affectivity will have its revenge. Take for example the present tendencies of psychology, which would submerge everything under affectivism and instinctivism.

In the third place, for Cartesian civilization, man is only thought. "I, that is to say, my thought," said the philosopher. Man has lost his body. Alas! The body has not let go of him. Only the ascetics have the means of scorning the body. The Cartesian contempt for the body is a theorist's illusion. In the end, Freud will turn up with his great sadistic lyricism and claim to reduce man to sexuality and the instinct of death.

Body side. I was saying that the Cartesian man had lost his body: he has delivered it over to the universal mechanism, to the energies of matter regarded as forming a closed world. What have been the results?

First of all, man's body ceases to be regarded as human by essence. Cartesian physicians, iatromechanists or iatrochemists, treat it as an automaton or as a retort. And, in a general way, medicine tends to forget that it is dealing with a being whose life is not only corporeal, but moral and spiritual as well.

This observation ought to be generalized: we leave Descartes himself then, but not the Cartesian spirit. Let us say that in the modern world, everything which is amenable to any (technique) whatever in human life tends to resolve itself into a closed world, separate, independent. Things like politics and economics in particular will become contrivances removed from the specific regulation of the human good; they will cease to be, as the ancient wished, subordinated intrinsically and of themselves, to ethics. With greater reason, speculative science and art, which do not appertain of themselves to the domain of ethics, will impose on man a law which is not his own.

Here is man then, the center of the world, of a world inhuman in every respect, pressing in upon him. Nothing in human life is any longer made to man's measure, to the rhythm of the human heart. The forces he has unleashed, split him asunder.

He wishes to reign nevertheless, and more than ever and over his own nature. But how? By technique alone that is, by means extraneous to himself. Thus we arrive at the great dispute of our age, freedom by technique versus freedom by self-determination.

I should like to put it in this way; there are two ways of looking at man's mastery of himself. Man can become master of his nature by imposing the law of reason aided by grace -- on the universe of his own inner energies. That work, which in itself is a construction in love, requires that our branches be pruned to bear fruit: a process called mortification. Such a morality is an ascetic morality.

What rationalism claims to impose upon us to-day is an entirely different morality, anti-ascetic, exclusively technological. An appropriate technique should permit us to rationalize human life, i.e. to satisfy our desires with the least possible inconvenience, without any interior reform of ourselves. What such a morality subjects to reason are material forces and agents exterior to man, instruments of human life; it is not man, nor human life as such. It does not free man it weakens him, it disarms him, it renders him a slave to all the atoms of the universe, and especially to his own misery and egoism. What remains of man? A consumer crowned by science. This is the final gift, the twentieth century gift of the Cartesian reform.

Techniques is good -- mechanics is good. I disapprove of the spirit of archaism which would suppress the machine and technique. But if mechanics and technique are not mastered, subjected by force to the good of man, that is to say entirely and rigorously subordinated to religious ethics and made instruments of all ascetic morality, humanity is literally lost.

How, then, shall we characterize the cultural significance of Cartesian dualism? To sum up the preceding observations, let us say that this dualism carries along with it both an anthropocentric angelism and materialism of civilization. On the balance-sheet must be written: division of man, rupture of the human life. They began by putting the human self above everything else, an angelic self -- nay, a divine self. It is so perfectly one that no plurality of powers or of faculties is to be distinguished in it! Its substance is the very act of thinking.

This Cartesian man, naturally good in so far as he is reason, will later become the man of Rousseau, naturally good in so far as he is sentiment and instinct, and whom social life and reflection corrupt. He has not further need to perfect himself, to build himself up by his virtues, he has only to blossom forth, to display himself by virtue of sincerity. It is as though one were to tell a fertilized egg to be sincere and not to have hypocrisy to construct its form by its own efforts, through a host of morphogenetic choices and differentiations which cruelly limit its availability.

Finally, I am not forgetting what I pointed out last the beginning: Namely, that it is not a question of destroying all that Descartes has left us; that would be simply absurd. Not only did he bring about considerable progress in the physical and mathematical sciences: not only did he keep many of the ancient treasures -- many more than his offspring have kept; not only did he himself have great intuitions, but what is more, certain developments of primary importance demanded by historical growth of thought were stimulated by his errors; physico- mathematical science was founded, and reflexivity carved out its own domain in philosophy ... The Dream of Descartes


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