It has been generally accepted that Descartes is the scholar behind the birth of the modern philosophy. Cottingham (3) argues that this was because of two reasons. First, Descartes had differed with the early philosopher, Aristotle’s work that was the most prevalent during his time. Second, is because he took a step higher by developing and promoting new science based on mechanics. He had differed with the scholastic philosophy for two major reasons. Stephene (5) observes that Descartes had argued that the methodologies of these traditional philosophers left chances for doubt because they majorly relied on sensation as the force behind the generation of all knowledge. The second thing was that, Descartes was interested in replacing the earlier philosophers’ approach which had been focusing on the scientific based causal models with mechanistic model which he felt was more modern in his time.

Broughton and Carriero (289) note that Descartes made attempts of addressing the issues that had been addressed by these philosophers through the approach of doubt. In his strategy, he considered false beliefs whose lack of truth could be proved by any slight doubt. They note that his method of searching for truth was therefore widely accepted as unprejudiced. At this point the philosopher began to establish things that would be beyond any kind of doubt when he came up with the simple reasoning that no one could doubt the fact that “I exist” which according to him is a certain truth. At this point, Descartes began to prove the idea that the God really exists and he can never be a deceiver. This is what formed the foundation of his philosophical arguments (Cottingham 253).

He then continued to build his philosophy as he readdressed what he perceived as false believes that were going on. He developed new believes which include the fact that there is a world of bodies which is external to the mind, the duality of the mind and the body, and finally his mechanical model of physics which was built on geometrical ideas (Stephene 5). This is an indication that Descartes also differed with the earlier philosophers because he was looking forward to replacing the earlier systems which had been based on the causal explanations that were final with the new mechanistic principles. Stephene (6) notes that he used these new principles to explain the how plant, animal and human bodies as well as the sensation and the passions operate. This write up will provide Descartes philosophical explanations of the mind and the body and their relations.

A Brief Overview of Descartes Life

According to Cottingham (3), Descartes was born in the year1596 in Touraine village, the country of France, the today’s La Haye-Descartes. His mother had died when he was just 13 months old while his father died in 1604 exposing him to a life of struggle. He attended college at La Fleche after which he entered the University of Poitiers in the year 1615 where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in laws. After the completion of his degree, Descartes joined the Army of Prince Maurice. However, Cottingham (5) notes that he never served in the army for a long duration as he, in 1619, claimed of having a dream of a call from God to unravel certain truth. During his life in Holland, he wrote a number of books. However it is noted that he became famous as a philosopher during the later part of his life, probably the last decade.

Descartes on the Mind and the Body

Descartes’ perception of the mind is well captured in his famous work of reasoning the cognito, ergo sum in which he was looking forward to establishing an absolute truth.  These words mean “I think therefore I am” (Almog 4). This idea was coming when all believes which had been based on the human senses had failed to hold significant level of certainty. Examples of these believes include: human have bodies which have sense organs – a belief that was falsified based on such unanswered questions as “whether the falsehood which is suggested by this belief meant that human does not exist at all?”. Stephene (7) notes that Descartes had emphasized that this can never be the case for whenever one convinces himself or herself that he had had false believes, then there is the “I” which had been convinced.

He reasoned that even if the belief would have resulted from a deception by the evil demon, it is obvious the one must have been in existence to allow the occurrence of the deception. Almog (4) argues that this means that Descartes’ statement that “I exist” is most likely to be true especially in occasions that it is said or conceived in the mind by an individual. According to him, the argument by Descartes was that, by a simple fact that human thinks irrespective of whether what is being thought about holds some truth in it or not, it certainly points to the fact that there had been something that was involved in performing that activity. This is what he calls the “I” which makes him insist that the existence of the “I” is unquestionable (Cottingham 257). He therefore took this as an absolute truth and used it to come up with other facts which according to him were also absolute truths.

The Nature of the Mind and Its Ideas

Therefore, Descartes’s next assignment was to come up with an explanation to the nature of the mind. In his work, he started by asking himself a question of “What am I?”  In answering this question, Broughton and Carriero (290) observe that Descartes first seeks to disqualify the belief on man as a rational animal that had been advanced by the traditional scholars. Descartes raised issues with the technicality of defining what “rational” and “animal” are. He came up with a definition that man is a thinking mind and that it has such ability as to allow him to doubt something, deny something, and have a will among other abilities (Broughton, and Carriero 290). According to Descartes, the intellectual perception and volition defines the nature that the mind takes while the faculties of the mind include imagination and sensation. He argued that both imagination and sensation are also partly united with the body, but they are weak as faculties of the mind compared to will and intellect. This is because they cannot perform unless there is a body (Broughton, and Carriero 290).

Cottingham (7) also notes that Descartes also claimed that the “I” or the mind in this case can never be extended. He therefore argued that because one of the characteristics of the body is its ability to stretch, the mind can therefore not be a body in itself. He therefore reasons that the mind is instead an immaterial thing. According to Descartes, human beings are therefore immaterial things and this poses both intellect and will as faculties making it able to think.

Cottingham (97) notes that Descartes perceived the mind as a substance which has various ideas as its modes of thinking. Descartes had argued that being a substance the mind does not need any other thing to enable its existence. He then reasons that this can only be applicable to God who exists in his own essence though it can also be applicable to other creatures based on their qualifications (Broughton 289). According to Descartes, the fact that the mind does not require anything to exist except to concur with God makes it qualify as a substance. On the other hand, he states that ideas simply represent different ways of thinking and therefore fail to be qualified as substances. Equally, he ruled out the possibility of modes being substances by the fact that modes are simply expressed as the ideas of the mind. He noted that ideas can only exist after concurring with God, which according to his earlier explanation is basically a created substance with thinking ability. Consequently, Descartes concluded that the mind is an immaterial but a thinking substance with modes of thinking represented in its ideas (Cottingham 97).

Descartes went ahead to give three different categories of ideas. These include the fabricated, adventitious, and the innate ideas. According to him, the fabricated ideas represent the simple inventions that take place in the mind. Such ideas are therefore controlled by the mind which can both examine and set them aside whenever it wills. Equally, Cottingham (97) notes that Descartes had argued that it is also possible for their internal content to be changed. On the other hand adventitious ideas represent various sensations that are produced by material thing that exists outside the mind. Contrary to fabrications, Descartes had argued that these ideas can never be set aside whenever one wills. Additionally, their internal content also cannot be affected by the manipulation of the mind. He gave an example of one standing just next to an open fire reasoning that such an individual will have to feel the effect of heat as heat and cannot be able to set it aside or to have the feeling of another thing other than the heat (Cottingham 97). 

According to Descartes, the innate ideas are those which are normally fed into the mind by God during the creation. Though, the innate ideas can also be examined and set aside if there is will, one can never manipulate their internal contents (Cottingham 253). He gave an example of the geometrical idea using the case of a triangle which even though its idea can be examined and be set aside at will, the internal content that makes it a figure characterized with three sides can never be manipulated.

The Mind and the Body

Almog (3) notes that Descartes had claimed that the mind is well known compared to the body. In his illustration, Descartes had examined a piece of wax that had just been removed from a honey comb. He had sensed the taste of the honey and the scents of different flowers in the comb. He used his findings from the simple illustration to prove that the senses were able to perceive given qualities of the wax like its smell. He realized that whenever the wax is moved nearer to fire, it loses all the sensible qualities. His argument was that the lost of its shape, smell and the other characteristics does not change the fact that it is wax. He further argues that this fact must have been warranted by the fact that the wax must have contained something which nature cannot change.

From this illustration, Descartes reasoned that all the sensations have some level of judgment and that a judgment is a mental mode. Almog (3) notes that based on this fact, Descartes argued that all kinds of sensation are in some way mental modes and that the level of knowledge that humans can have concerning given substance is directly determined by the number of modes that can be discovered in that substance. He based his argument that there is much knowledge of the mind compared to the body on these premises. He also argued that whatever could not be changed by subjecting the wax to fire was its extension in terms of its length, depth, and even the breadth. He notes that these changes can only be perceived by the mind and not the body. In this illustration, both the shape and the size of the wax changed because they were the extension modes. On the other hand, the constituent extension of the wax permitting the judgment that the body remained the same after the wax had been removed from fire as it was before. What changed were only those qualities that can be sensed.

Descartes was thus trying to prove that people should never rely on the images that can be sensed as the sources of knowledge. He instead emphasized the need for people to think without the assistance of images. To him, this is the best way that human can understand those things which they have failed to represent accurately like the existence of God and the mind. In summary, Descartes was thus of the strong opinion that mental things which are immaterial can be clearly known and can therefore provide better knowledge compared to that which can be provided by the extended things (Almog 4). 

The Relationship between the Mind and the Body

Descartes identified both the real distinction between the body and the mind and the problem that relates to the study of the two.  On the issue of the distinction, Almog (3) notes that Descartes emphasized that there is a big distinction between the mind and the body. In his argument, Descartes had noted that it is only possible to know the distinction when all the substances in question can individually be understood. He also argued that the ability to understand clearly with distinctions between various things demonstrates the ability of God in making the understood (Cottingham 253).

Descartes therefore notes that the mind possesses certain qualities which are not portrayed by the body. For example, Almog (4) notes Descartes’ argument that the mind is a substance and can clearly be understood without the intervention of another. Additionally he noted that God had the power of creating a mental substance on its own. These arguments point out that Descartes believed that there is a possibility of both the mind and the soul existing on their own without having to be embodied (Almog 4).

He further elaborated that the mind is a thing that can not extend while the body can extend and at the same time has no ability to think on its own. He therefore argued that by the fact that the body and the mind are opposite to one another, they can be understood separately. According to Descartes, this perception must be true, for any falsehood will raise the issue of the possibility of God being a deceiver according to him can never be true. Almog (4) argues that Descartes’ argument therefore leaves no room for doubt given that his premises had pointed out that the certainty of this knowledge can never be questioned. Additionally, his knowledge that God is able to create the mind and the body in a way that allows a clear and distinct understanding of either of them shows that both the mind and the body can exist without each other.

Additionally, Almog (4) points out that Descartes had claimed that the body can be divided into various parts while the mind just represents a simple but a complete thing in itself. According to his argument, the mind is not made up of various parts like is the case with the body and it is therefore indivisible. He therefore concludes that the two have different nature arguing that if it was otherwise then it would mean having the same thing which on one hand can be divided while on the other hand cannot be divided, something that is never possible. This means the two must be having different natures for it would have been impossible for them to be understood differently. These premises put together point to the conclusion that there is a possibility that God could have created either the soul or the body without the other (Almog 4).

The Mind-Body Problem

The difficulty therefore arises because there are certain occasions when the body begins to be moved by the will. An example is a case in which a student wants to ask a question in a class. Such a student will have to raise his/her arm to be easily identified by the teacher. The question is therefore how two substances with entirely different forms of nature interact to bring about such actions (Almog 4). The concern here is that the mind is not able to cause the body to move without having a contact with it and the mind cannot be extended and therefore has no surface to make the contact possible. Therefore how can the mind cause something with which it does not have contact to move? However, Almog (4) has noted the argument by other scholars that there is a casual interaction between the body and the mind. This means that the two poses something in common unlike Descartes had explained.


In conclusion, the paper has pointed out why Descartes can possibly be referred to as the father of modern philosophy. Irrespective of the contradictions surrounding his contributions, the views of Descartes have remained to be of great influence on the modern philosophers. 

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