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Rene Descartes' Dualism Mistake (Essay Sample)

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The paper is a critique of Rene Descartes's dualistic conception on human person.

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Rene Descartes’ Dualism Mistake
By, Henry Nabea
Abstract
In his Philosophical Psychology, Rene Descartes conceived human beings as being composed of two independent substances, i.e. body and soul. But a critical analysis of this dualistic conception of human nature shows that Descartes claim is false and untenable. This paper critically analysis Rene Descartes’ dualistic conception of human nature by comparing Descartes position with the views of other scholars in Philosophy, who have differed with him. At the end of the paper, a conclusion is given based on the arguments adduced to support the thesis of the paper.
Descartes’ Dualism Mistake
The problem of the relationship between the body and the soul is one of the main philosophical problems in the history of Philosophy. Philosophers, since the time of Aristotle up to the contemporary time, are dividend on how really, soul and body are related. In modern period, Rene Descartes is credited for having systematized the debate, and thus provoked a lot of interest in the debate. Descartes conception of the relationship between the body and the soul was perfectly in line with his dualistic conception of reality. In his Metaphysics, Descartes conceived reality has being composed of two substances: Thought and Extension. Descartes defined a substance as, that which can exist on its own, without depending on any other thing for its existence (cRyle, n.d). Following this dualistic conception of reality, Descartes saw human beings as being composed of two substances, i.e., the soul (thought) and the body (extension). However, Descartes understood the essence of human person not as a composite of body and soul, but rather as soul (thought only). So, according to Descartes, the body is not a part of a human nature, but it is necessary united to the souls to help the soul in perceiving external realities. But this dualistic view of mankind has received a lot of oppositions since the time of Descartes. A critical analysis of Descartes dualistic conception of human nature shows that, Descartes is grossly mistaken on this view.
The main argument that clearly shows that Descartes is wrong in his dualistic conception of the nature of human person is the fact that a logical analysis of Descartes claim shows that Descartes, actually, contradicted himself. Descartes began his argument by, first, asserting what a substance is, i.e., something that is self-existent. Descartes then proceeded to argue that human being’s essence is thought since one cannot doubt their own thinking self. In supporting his claim, Descartes contended that while we can, actually, doubt about whether we really have bodies or not, we cannot possibly doubt whether we are doubting. And on this basis, Descartes concluded that the essence of human beings is their thinking self or simply thought. Having concluded that the essence of human being is thought, Descartes proceeded to argue that apart from his thinking self, human beings also, have an extended body. And in supporting his claim he argued that since we can clearly and distinctly conceive ourselves as having extended bodies that interact and perceive external realities, it is true, therefore, that we, indeed, have extended bodies. And to answer the question of what is the importance of our bodies to our souls; Descartes contended that our bodies aid our souls in perceiving or sensing the external, extended realities. Descartes contradicted himself on this issue, by claiming that the soul as a substance is self-existent, and then proceeding to claim that the soul needs the body in order to interact and to perceive external realities. Descartes clearly contradicted himself. If the soul as a substance is self-existent, then the soul would not need the body for any reason. This logical contradiction shows that Descartes dualistic conception of reality is wrong and cannot be sustained logically. Once you claim that the soul does not need any other thing for its existence, then to be consistent, you should argue that the body is not necessary at all to human soul. But this claim is obviously untenable because from experience, as human beings, we know that we are not simply walking souls, and we know that once we die and our bodies disintegrate and cease to exist, we no longer continue to exist physically as human beings. This fact shows our bodies are, indeed, vital and essential part of human nature. It is impossible to consistently argue that the nature of human beings is either soul only or body only. But Rene Descartes advanced a strong argument in support of his dualistic conception of human nature and to support his claim that human nature is thought only. The following is the strongest argument advanced by Descartes in support of his dualistic conception of human nature.
Rene Descartes rightly argued that body and soul are distinct realities. The body is extended and is subject to physical laws, while the soul is not extended and it is, therefore, not subject to physical laws. On this ground, Descartes contended that these two constitutive elements of human beings are two different substances. Descartes argued that the two constitutive elements of human beings should not be understood as one entity because it is not possible for an extended body to merge with unextended soul to form one entity. And to explain how the two constitutive elements of human person interact, Descartes argued that the human body and the human soul interact at the pineal gland, in the head. Descartes further argued that since it is not possible to doubt one’s existence, while it is indeed possible to doubt whether one has an extended body or not, the essential substance of a human person is the soul or thought. Descartes claimed that a human being can exist without the body but cannot exist without the soul. In concluding his argument, Descartes argued that since it is not possible for an extended body to merge with unextended thought, human beings therefore are composed of two substances: thought and extension. In his argument, Descartes did not, however, account for how unextended soul/thought can interact with extended body, which is subject to physical laws. This argument is the strongest argument that Rene Descartes advanced in support of his dualistic conception of human beings.
At a cursory glance, Descartes argument seems to make a lot of sense. His claim that unextended soul and an extended body cannot merge to form one entity, seems to be true. However, a critical analysis of Descartes dualistic conception of human person shows that Descartes is mistaken and wrong in his view of human nature. To begin with, Descartes claim that human body and the human soul are distinct substances, able to exist independently of each other, is false. Descartes misconception of the human person can be traced to his understanding of the essential nature of the human person as being thought only. The methodic doubt that Descartes employed in his Philosophy had made him believe that the essence of human person is thought. This made Descartes conclude that thought is a substance on its own, and that thought can exist independently of the body. But Descartes could not account for how and why the human body and the human soul interact at the pineal gland if the two are able to exist independently of each other. The fact that the human body and the human soul interact in a number of ways shows that the two constitutive elements of human person are not independent of each other. If human body and human soul were different substances as Descartes claims, then there would be no need of interaction between the two substances of the human person. The fact that human beings’ body and soul interact in fundamental ways means that human body and human soul are not complete substances, but rather, the two incomplete elements, together, form a complete whole, human being. This fact is corroborated by the fact that when body and soul are separated, i.e. in death; the life of the deceased person comes to an end. Aware of this fact, Aristotle conceived human person as being composed of two incomplete elements, i.e. body and soul (Aristotle on the soul, web). Aristotle analogically viewed the soul of a human being as the form of human person, while he viewed the body of the human person as the matter of the human person. Just as form and matter, in extended realities, cannot exist independently of each other, so also in human being’s life, the human soul and the human body cannot exist independently of each other. For Aristotle, it is only when the two constitutive elements of the human person, body and soul, come together that we can have a complete human life. Aristotle’s view on this issue makes more sense than Descartes’ view because Aristotle’s position does not raise the problem of how an extended human body and unextended human soul interact. Also, Aristotle’s ...
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