The purpose of the following essay is to explore the fundamental aspects of the Descartes` theory on the distinctness of mind and body as formulated in the Sixth Meditation of a philosophical treatise ‘Meditations on the first philosophy’, as well as to present the objections against the Descartes` statement that the mind is distinct from the body. I would also like to briefly summarize the main points of the Sixth Meditation in regard to the existence of material things and the relation between the imagination and the pure intellection.
In the Sixth Meditation “Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body”, Descartes argues that the material things can be the subject of pure mathematics and, therefore, they exist. The author proposes two main arguments which suggest that the material things exist. One of the arguments is based on the faculty of imagination, while the other – on human`s senses. Descartes states that the imagination and the pure intellection or understanding, is essentially different. To prove that, he employs the example of triangle and chiliagon. When one think of a triangle, it is easy to perceive its form and properties in your imagination. However, if you try to visualize a chiliagon, a thousand-sided figure, the imagination will most likely fail to present its mental image. In this case, only the “pure intellection”, by the means of mathematical calculations, will help to perceive its properties.
He believes that the material things are real, mainly because his senses make him believe so. Descartes concludes, that God would be a deceiver if He created humans with senses, but made all the external, independent things illusionary. However, God is not a deceiver, therefore, material things exist.
Descartes concludes that the imagination cannot be an indispensable part of the human`s identity as the “meditator” is still able to exist even without the faculty of imagination. Thus one can assume, that the imagination relies on something other than the mind. The author comes to the conclusion that the imagination has its essence in the body that allows the mind to imagine corporeal objects. During the intellection process or the process of understanding, the mind turns inward on itself – “intellection is the mind understanding itself”. In an imagination, a reverse process occurs: the mind turns towards the body and “intuits in the body something that conforms to the idea either understood by the mind or perceived by senses”. The author admits that he cannot think of any other way which would explain imagination, therefore, he admits the high probability of existence of corporeal bodies. (Descartes)
In the following meditations, Descartes attempts to contemplate on the things that he can perceive through his senses. He clearly realizes that his body is real, and through the senses, he can perceive different feelings and emotions of pleasure, sadness, hunger, etc. This perception extends to the ability to feel and understand the physical properties of other objects, like shape, smell, taste, etc. Naturally, Descartes implies that these perceptions derive from the outside sources which are subject to our observation.
In the concluding part of his meditations, Descartes turns his reflections on the subject of diversity of body and mind. He argues that, in fact, the body and mind are distinct and separate from each other. Each of these entities represents different aspects of human nature. The mind is responsible for the functions which are primarily connected with intellectual activity – knowledge, reason, understanding, ability to draw logical inferences and to analyze the environment and its phenomena. The body, on the other hand, represents the power of imagination, as well as ability of physical perception of objects through the senses. These two fundamental parts of a human being play different roles and perform different functions. The body functions as a kind of object that can perceive the outside world through senses. However, the mind is responsible for the sound judgment and assessment of the information that the body provides it with.
Descartes thinks that the body is not just a vessel of our mind, while the mind itself does the work similar to the job of a pilot or driver. If the body is harmed or in any other way injured, we immediately realize it, and we conceive these injuries as the injury to ourselves. Despite this fact, Descartes still deems the body as a separate thing. He states that the body can be conceived as logically separate from the mind as it is a corporeal object which can be extended, meaning that it has the properties of length, breadth and height. Evidently, this is not the case with the mind. Descartes fairly defines the mind as a non-corporeal and therefore non-separable (non-extended) entity which cannot be categorized in terms of height, breadth or any other property of that kind. In the support of the distinction of body and mind argument, he says that when a man is deprived of a limb or any other part of the body, it influences solely on the integrity of this body and not the mind of that man. (Descartes)
The summary of Descartes` logical conclusions in Sixth Meditation can generally be presented in the following form: if the God created things then it is wise to assume that He made it visible and perceptible to humans. The fact that some objects can exist independently indicates that those things are essentially distinct and different. The author conceives himself as a thinking being who possesses mind, while his body is an extended, corporeal thing which can exist without a mind. These inferences lead to the conclusion that God can create the body independently of the mind, therefore, thinking individual can potentially exist without a physical body.
This logical conclusion inevitably caused objections as to the question of validity of such inferences. Further, I would like to shortly describe the most reasonable objections to that theory.
Descartes` theory on mind and body distinctness (dualism) does not provide us with a clear explanation of the way the unextended mind influences the extended body. Another flaw of that theory is that it does not explain where the mind actually resides. Descartes indicates that the mind might reside in a certain part of the brain, as well as it can be intermingled with the body.
One of the critics of Descartes theory points that, in fact, the argument of Descartes suggests that the mind and body may be distinct, but they are not actually distinct. However, if we take a closer look at Descartes theory, we can see that these two things (body and mind) are considered distinct only if there is a possibility for them to exist independently in separation. In simple words, distinctness does not automatically mean separation.(Wilson, 8)
Johannes Caterus, who was the author of the first set of Objections to Meditations, pointed out an error in the Descartes logical reasoning that if A and B are separate and distinct, that leads to the conclusion that A and B can exist apart from each other. Descartes acknowledges that such things as figure and motion can be understood and conceived separately. However, it would be a mistake to consider those things distinct as, for example, figure cannot exist separately from the extended body. Moreover, in his doctrine of simple natures, Descartes refutes the principle that the things that can be conceived as being distinctly separate are also able to exist independently.
In his reply to Caterus, Descartes emphasizes the distinction between complete and incomplete beings: (Wilson, 9)
“As to the matter of formal distinction . . . I briefly say that it does not differ from 'a modal one, and extends only to incomplete beings, which I have accurately distinguished from complete [beings], for which [distinction] it indeed suffices that one [being] is conceived distinctly and separately from another by intellectual abstraction from a thing inadequately conceived, not however so distinctly and separately that we understand one or the other [being] as if an entity in itself and distinct from all others. But for the latter to be the case a real distinction is always required.”.(Adam, Tanner, 120)
Further, Descartes gives an example in which he supports the abovementioned position. He states that the distinction between the motion and figure of the body has a formal nature. Descartes argues that he can conceive the motion separately from the figure, as well as the figure separately from the motion. However, he admits that it would be impossible to imagine the figure and motion as absolutely separate from the entity (body) in which they reside. .(Wilson, 10)
This important observation, along with the objection of Caterus, led to the alteration of the principle of the mind-body distinction. Descartes concluded that we should conceive the body and mind not as distinct entities, but as a complete and independent beings, which must mutually be denied in all properties in which they pertain to each other. Therefore, the original statement about the separation of A and B should be rephrased: in order to establish that A is truly distinct from B, one must conceive A as being “completely” and clearly separate from B.
Antoine Arnold in the Fourth Objection concurs with the necessity of complete knowledge in the context of mind-body distinctness. Arnold states that the argument will be deemed valid and logically consistent only if our perception of us as thinking beings is comprehensive and complete. His opinion implies the existence of a certain degree of doubt. We always preserve a possibility of error in the assumptions about the true essence of humans. Descartes formulated the doubts of Arnold in the following question: ” "Where did I begin to demonstrate how it follows from the fact that I know nothing else to belong to my essence except that I am a thinking being, it follows that nothing else does truly belong to it?"(Adam, Tannery, 219) To that question Descartes answers that although he realizes that there a lot of things within him that he has not grasped with his mind yet, the knowledge that is already presented to him is sufficient for the identification of himself as a thinking being.
Descartes also notes that it is potentially difficult to produce the exhaustive and comprehensive knowledge. However, it is essential to prove the facts that make that knowledge complete. .(Wilson, 11-12)
Gassendi objects the theory on the grounds that Descartes fails to demonstrate the actual difference between our understanding of the world by the means of pure intellection and its perception by the means of senses. Gassendi stresses the importance of a clear explanation of the actual difference between how our mind and our brain works. Moreover, Gassendi argues that the mind is an indispensable part of the body. The mind develops, deteriorates and eventually dies along with the body – one cannot exist without the other – leading us to the conclusion that these entities are essentially one and whole.(Bennet, 135)
The “Meditations” of Descartes, at the time of its publishing, caused contentions among philosophers and scholars. Descartes had to employ the method of “objection – reply” on order to give an opportunity for the philosophers of the time to express their positions in regard to his reflections and theories. One of the strongest objections to the mind-body dualism of the Descartes was expressed by the Dutch theologian Johannes Caterus. Caterus has found an error in the logical assumption which could lead to the refutation of the mind-body theory of Descartes. Caterus successfully argued that the mere “distinctness” of entities (in our case, these entities are mind and body) does not indicate the fact that they can exist apart from each other.
More fundamental evidence must be presented in order to establish the separation and independence of these entities. That is why Descartes had to use the ideas of complete and incomplete beings. As a result, he argued that the mind and body must be considered to be “complete” and independent parts of human nature.
Another sound objection of the Descartes theory was proposed by Gassendi. He seriously doubted the validity of the “mind and body distinctness” doctrine. Gassendi states that Descartes,
in the argumentation of his theory, fails to explain how the way the mind operates is essentially different form the way the brain operates. This observation is apt in the course of the objection of the Descartes theory as it points at the possible fault of his argumentations. If indeed the way the mind operates is not different from the way the brain works, it would prove an opposite point; in fact, the mind and body are not separate and distinct, all the more, they cannot exist apart from each other. This conclusion proves the idea that the mind and body comprise an integral entity that can exist only as whole and inseparable being. The brain, as the organ of the body, plays the role of the sanctuary for the mind and if this sanctuary is in any way damaged, it will lead to the unfortunate consequences for the mind itself.Needless to say that if this point is successfully proven, a serious doubt will be cast the whole Descartes` theory of mind and body dualism.
- The Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation 6 ‘On the existence of material things, and of the real distinction between the mind and body of man”, John Veitch translation, 1901. Available online at:
- Wilson, D.M. (1976) ‘The Epistemological Argument for Mind-Body Distinctness’ Nous, Vol.10, No1: pp.3-15.
- Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris: Leopold
- Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, Jonathan Bennet, 2007
Available online at: