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International Phenomenological Society

Descartes's Arguments for Mind-Body Distinctness

Author(s): Steven J. Wagner
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 43, No. 4 (Jun., 1983), pp. 499-517
Published by: International Phenomenological Society
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and Phenomenological

Vol. XLIII, No. 4, June i983


of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

I was of threeminds,
Like a tree
In whichthereare threeblackbirds.
Wallace Stevens

Descartes's definitionsof mind as any thingwhich thinksand body as

any extendedthingleftentirelyopen the question of mind-bodyidentity' (AT VII, i6i; HR II, 53).' His negative answer was probably
rootedin a sense of the limitsof mechanisticexplanation(W, -77-85),
but we may guess thathe foundno rigorousargumentalong such lines,
forhis attemptedproofsof dualismproceededquite differently.
Here is
one of the two given in his most carefullyargued work, the Meditations:
. . . because I know that all that I clearlyand distinctlyunderstandcan be made by
God as I understandit,it is enoughthatI can clearlyand distinctly
understandone thing
apart fromanotherforme to be sure thatone is diversefromthe other,because God at
leastcan place themapart; and it does not matterby what power thisis done, forthemto
be judged diverse.And thus,fromthisveryfactthatI know I exist,and meanwhilenotice
nothingclearlyto pertainto mynatureor essence,exceptthisalone, thatI am a thinking

In some passages mind is called a ("real") propertyof body (AT III, 667-68, PL,
138-39; AT VII, 441-4z;
HR II, 254-55). This in some ways veryinsightful
move is
simplyinconsistentwiththe officialposition.That Descartesmade it underconsiderable pressuremay be seen fromhis uncharacteristically
outrageousaccount of where
our idea of gravitycomes fromat HR II, z55.
Referencesare to be decoded as follows.HR = Haldane and Ross, The Philosophical
AT =
Works of Descartes, z vols. (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, I977);
PL = A.
Oeuvres de Descartes, I1 vols.(Paris:Cerf,i897-1913);
Kenny,Descartes: PhilosophicalLetters(Oxford: Clarendon,1970); CB = J.Cottingham, Descartes's Conversationwith Burman (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976); W = M.
Wilson,Descartes (London, Henley and Boston: Routledgeand Kegan Paul, 1978); S
= S. Schiffer,
"Descartes on His Essence," PhilosophicalReview 85, I (January1976).
I will cite AT only in the firstreferenceto a passage.




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thing,I rightlyconclude that my whole essence consistsin this one thing,that I am a

thinkingthing . . . because on the one hand I have a clear and distinctidea of myself,
insofaras I am onlya thinkingthing,not extended,and on theotherhand a distinctidea
of body insofaras it is only an extendedthing,not thinking,it is certainthatI am really
distinctfrommy body and can existwithoutit (AT VII, 78; HR I, i90).

I shall call thisthe separabilityargument(Sep). The otherone I call the

betweenmind and body, in that body is by its nature
. . . thereis a great difference
always divisible,mind however clearlyindivisible.For when I consider my mind, or
no partsin myself,
myselfinsofaras I am just a thinkingthing,I can distinguish
understandmyselfas somethingone and entire. . . . On the otherhand thereis no corporeal or extendedthingwhich I cannot readilydivide in thoughtand which I do not
understandas being divisible.This would be enough to teach me thatmindis
frombody, if I did not know thiswell enoughalready(AT VII, 85-86;
HR I, i96).

One problemabout these-argumentsis theirrelation.While Sep has

been intensivelystudied,Div has been ignored,' which certainlysugin theinterestor forceof thetwo proofs.Yet I will
gestssome difference
argue that theyare essentiallyalike. This is not quite to say that they
have one basic structure,
because mysecond mainpointwill be thatthe
two traditionally
opposed accountsof God's role in Sep are both right.
Deep tensionsled Descartesto offerand confusetwo incompatibleversions of Sep. (I believethatthesame ambiguityarisesin Div, althoughI
will concentrateon the singleformDiv takes at HR I, i96.) So mytask
is at once to unifyDescartes's argumentsand to establishhis fundamental ambivalence.
SectionI introducesboth formsof Sep. thendevelopsthe one found
in the Meditationswith particularattentionto its distinctivepremise
about God's veracity((G')). An analysiswhichmakes (G') equally critical to Div followsin SectionII. SectionIII explainsDescartes's ambiguous presentationof Sep. (G') itselfis rootedin his basic confusion,yet
I conclude by observingthat the use of thispremiserepresentsa profound advance. It is Descartes's announcement that classical
approachesto the mind-bodyproblemfail.

3 For example,Div is not discussedin W, nor in thestandardbooks by Beck (The Meta-

physicsof Descartes [Oxford:Clarendon,i965]), Kenny(Descartes [New York: Random House, i968]), and Williams (Descartes, [New York: Penguin,1978]), nor in
Hooker's anthologyof currentCartesianscholarship(Descartes [Baltimoreand London: JohnsHopkins, 1978]). It is mentionedin S only as an "ancillaryargument."
The worksjust citedprovidea good samplingof criticalapproachesto Sep and conof the two main views of Sep to be contain furtherreferences.Clear representatives
sidered below are S and Hooker, "Descartes's Denial of Mind-Body Identity"in
Hooker, op. cit.; some of the other literatureis more confused. I am, however,
indebtedto all of the literature;will not referto it as oftenas it deserves;and will
economize by assumingpoints I take to have been settledthere,even if theyare still



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I. The SeparabilityArgument
by applyingGod's "validation"
c & d) ideas, establishedin theFourth
of clear and distinct(henceforth
Meditation,to the c & d conceptionof mind attainedin the Second
Meditation.The main question about Sep can be put in termsof a
trade-off:does Descartes relyon a modest conceptionof mind plus a
strongappeal to God, or does an immodestconceptionof mindenable
himto get by withless theology?Our choice heredependson resolving
an ambiguityin Cartesianclaimsto conceivemindapart frombody,to
conceivehimselfonly as a thinkingthing,and the like.
Descartes's conceptionof mind certainlyincludesthe c & d perceptionthatmindsthink.On the modestconstrual,whichI shall call theA
reading,thatis all thereis to it. Descartes's conceptionis simplysilent
about whethermindsare extended;whileit onlyattributes
extension,to minds,the possibilityof an extendedmind is in no way
ruledout. But accordingto a second reading(B), Descartes'sconception
of mind in the Second Meditationalreadyincludesa c & d perception
that minds are not extendedor that thoughtis the only propertyof
leave Descartes with very
minds. Of course these two interpretations
amounts of work to do in the followingMeditations.Once
bodies are definedas extendedthings,thedistinctionbetweenmindand
body is immediateif mindsare not extended.If thatis what Descartes
perceivesin the Second Meditation,all thatcould remainwould be for
God to assure him of the truthof his c & d perceptions.If, however,
Descartes startswith the more modest conceptionof mind, he must
inferdualismfromthefactthatthisconceptionomitsextension.To this
end he would, it seems,firstneed God's guaranteethatif (undercertain
conditions)I do not see that mindsare extended,each mindis at least
possiblynot a body. Modal principleswould thenlead frompossibleto
actual (or even necessary)non-extension.In this versionof the arguWithout
ment,God does not just validate a perceptionof distinctness.
him,even a perceptionof the objectivepossibilityof unextendedminds
cannot be achieved, and Descartes would have no way to progress
beyonda confessionof ignoranceabout the extensionof minds.
considerableevidencebears on the choice between
Not surprisingly,
as possible
Let us reviewas briefly
thesequite divergentinterpretations.
the argumentsforeach side.
The A readingseems trueto the Meditations.Accordingto the Pref-


I knew
as faras I wasaware,
I shallshowhow,from
thatI wasa thinking
thing... Butinwhatfollows
to myessence,
factthatI knownothing
toit (ATVII,8; HR I, 138).




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And indeed,all Descartessays in the Second Meditationis thatnothing

but thoughtcan thusfarbe knownto belongto him (AT VII, z7; HR I,
I 5z); theFourthMeditationemphasizesagain thatthequestionof dualism is stillopen (AT VII, 59; HR I, I76; cf.,e.g., AT VII, I76; HR II,
64). Descartes'smeaningin the SixthMeditation(HR I, i90) is unclear
by itself,but in the lightof what has gone before,we should read it
roughlyas follows. (I give a closer analysisbelow.) Conceiving"mind
apart frombody" should mean forminga conceptionof mind which
does not attributeextensionto minds. What God then guaranteesis
that minds can exist withoutextension(". . . God at least can place
them apart . . ."); and the actual distinctnessof mind and body is
inferredfromthispossibility.The role of God, then,is to permitDescartes'stransitionfroma limitedconceptionof mindto a modal propositionabout mindand body,fromwhichdualismis supposed to follow
withoutdivineassistance.This is the essenceof the A reading.
I should add thatbesidesfitting
theMeditations,theA readingis also
in linewitha now justlyascendantview of theproblemof theCircle(W
CB xxvi-xxxii).On that view, God is needed to validate only
propositionswe rememberc & d perceivingbut do not so perceive
now. Thus divine veracityis generallynot a premise in Descartes's
proofs.An ordinaryproofresultsin the c & d perceptionof its conclusion, and c & d perceptioncompletelyestablishesa proposition.But on
theB reading,dualismis c & d perceivedin the Second Meditation,yet
fromon high.
stillneeds confirmation
Giventhisevidence,one is temptedto tracethe B readingto wishful
thinkingby latter-daydualists. If mind-bodydistinctnessor propositions entailingit are c & d perceivedin the Second Meditation,Descartes'sgoal of provingthedistinctionbetweenmindand bodyhas been
(or can be) reachedthenand there.Amongotherthings,thepsychology
and theologyof the next two Meditations are entirelyunnecessary.
Since these are some of the most dubious and dated aspects of Cartesianism, someone sympatheticto Descartes's conclusions mightwell
hope that he perceivedmind-bodydistinctness,or at least something
close to it, earlyon, forthe proofleadingto thatperceptionmightstill
be usable or easilyrevised.
There is, however,genuinesupportfortheB reading.Noteworthyin
thisrespectare some passages fromtheFourthReplies (but see also AT
AT VII, i69-70, 444-45; HR II, 59, z56-57; AT
VII, I3; HR I, I40-4I;
III, 477-78; PL Iz5; AT V, i63; CB, z8). Descartes assertstherethat
mind-bodydistinctnesswas already perceivedin the Second Meditation, and that only "hyperbolical"doubts about this conclusionwere
removedin the subsequentdiscussion(AT VII, zz6; HR II, ioi-z). A
fewpages earlier,he claimsto have seen near the startthatit is possible
formindsto exist unextended(AT VII, zi9; HR II, 96-97; cf. HR II,
59), and thiscomes to the same thing.Accordingto the A reading,the




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basic work is done once thispossibilityis established("[I am] surethat

one is diverse from the other, because God at least . . ."), and
althoughDescarteswill stillneed some auxiliarymodal principles(such
as (NE) below) in order correctlyto prove distinctness,
theseare presumablyas available in the Second Meditationas theyare lateron.
In furtherdefenseof the B reading,its rival's agreementwith Descartes's general epistemologyand theologyis reduced by a problem
about the divine guarantee. Since this is a crucial point, I wish to
explainit withcare.
It is of the essence of the Meditationsthat God is no rubberstamp.
The beliefshe validates are supportedby the best possible evidence:
generallyby proof,althoughour beliefin the externalworld is "only"
supposedto be irrefutable
and highlyevident.In all othercases, our job
is to avoid errorbywithholdingassent.Now our confidencein propositionswe c & d perceiveis warrantedjust because c & d perceptionis
the resultof a proof.When my c & d conceptof a certainthingF has
shown me certainproperties,it is thereforeentirelycorrectforGod to
validatemyconceptin the sense of assuringme thatF musthave whateverpropertiesI attributedto it; thosewerejustthepropertiesI demonstratedF to have. For example, I have proved that minds think,so
thoughtis containedin my c & d concept of mind,and it would be
proper for God to assure me that minds are thinkingthings.(Even
thoughI could hardlyfailto recalltheproofof that.)Buttheabsenceof,
say, extensionfrommy c & d concept of, say, mind means only that
(howevercarefullyand clear-headedlyI considerthe matter)I lack a
proofconnectingthispropertyto minds.Nothingmore.I need have no
proofthatmindslack extension.I may even have no shredof an argumentthat mindscan exist withoutit. And of course God has no business guaranteeinga propositionfor which I have not the least argument.So forDescartesto infereven thepossiblenonextensionof minds
froma conception which merelydoes not representthem as being
extendedwould be (and, I think,actuallyis) a fundamentalblunder.
Generalized,it would let Descartes believe whateverhe findshimself
unable to refute.Althoughthis generalizationmightbe restrictedin
orderto block patentlyabsurd results(as will occur in our transition
from(G) to (G') below), it is just irreparablyunreasonable.God cannot,one mightsay, be expectedto validateDescartes'signorance.
This does not reducethe problemsof the B reading,but it does sugeven if the congestthatthe A readingwould not be straightforward
trarypassages in the FourthReplies and elsewherecould be dismissed
or explained away (as theycannot). Anotherpuzzle is that those passages are offeredas elaborationsor paraphrasesof the argumentin the
Meditations- supposedlythebestsourcefortheA reading!So we face
a complexinterpretive
task. We mustexplain whytwo versionsof Sep
appealed to Descartes in spite of theirlack of fitwithhis system,and




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whyhe wouldhavetroubletellingthemapart.As a first

stepI wantto
a precisedevelopment
oftheA reading.Thisis inpartbecausewe
needa carefulstatement
of one or theotherversionofSep in orderto
somekeytextualpoints,butI prefer
theA versionon philosophical grounds.I shallmention
theseat theendofthissection.
I thinkSep (typeA) can taketwosymmetrical
to whichthese

(G) Let R be a c & d conceptionof a kindofthingF. Then

God canmakeanythingofkindF conform
to R. Thatis,God
can makeanythingofkindF haveall and onlythosepropertieswhichFs areperceived
as havingin R. (Cf.HR I, i90.)

Everybodyis extended.

(i.z) I havea c & d conception

failsto attribute
to minds.

Anymindcan existas a thinking,


(I .z), (Q).

(C) No mindis a body.


(G) [Asabove.]
(z.i) Everymindthinks.
(z.z) I havea c & d conception
to bodies.
failsto attribute

Anybodycan existas an extended,


(C) [As above.]

of (i) and (z) is theirinvalidity.
deal withsomelesssubstantive
(AT VII, i6z; HR II, 54) I havestated
(C) andvariouspremises
"body."I havealso toneddownhis first-person
I have
mindsinsteadof "myself"in (i.z) and (C). More importantly,
Descartes'sconcernwiththeessenceofmindand body.Of
coursehe extends(C) to non-actualmindsand bodies,(i.i) and (z.i)
and (i.z) and (z.z) describing
concepBut formypurposes,
tionsof anymindor body,actualor otherwise.
thesimpleformof (C) is moreappropriate.
It avoidssomecomplications,and althoughmuchthesametextualandphilosophical
the modal assumptions
arise eitherway,4my approachhighlights

See S andHooker'sarticlein Hooker,op. cit.Thesearerelevant



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whichDescartes needs even for (C) as I have statedit.

In fact,the main repairsneeded in (i) and (z) involvemodality.(i)
succeeds if and only if extended things cannot exist without being
extended,wherethisholds de re: ifb is extended,it is not possible forb
(in anotherpossible situation) to be unextended.(z) depends on the
analogous assumption about thinkingthings.We may state the two
needed principlesas follows:

Whatever is extended lacks the propertyof being possibly



Whateverthinkslacks thepropertyof beingpossiblyunthinking.

With thesepremisesadded, (C) followsin each case by Leibniz's Law.

What, then,of (NE) and (NT)?
Quite apart fromtheircrucialrole in Sep. thereis no doubt thatDescarteswould accept these principles.The metamorphoses- of minds
intonon-mindsand bodies into non-bodies- theyrule out are entirely
foreignto his scheme.Yet while theyare decidedlynon-trivial,
view is that theyare nowhereclearlyargued foror clearlyassertedas
The best passages on the essencesof mind and body (e.g.,
AT III, 478-79; AT V, I9z-93; PL I5, z3I-3z) are clouded over by an
between(NE) and (NT) on the
to the differences
one hand and theirde dictocounterpartson the other: (i.i) and (z.i)
with "necessarily"prefixed.Descartes does not committhe blunderof
inferring(NE) and (NT) fromtheircounterparts,but he neglectsto
arguethatthoughtand extensionare essential(de re) to mindsand bodof the de
ies respectively,
unless we call the necessityand self-evidence
dicto principlesan argument.I am inclinedto suspect confusionon
these mattersin Descartes, althoughits exact naturecannot be determinedwithouta betterunderstandingof his views on modalitythan is
now available. Let us thereforeadd (NE) and (NT) to Sep withoutfurtherdiscussion,notingforfuturereferencethatthisadditionis reasonable in spiteof Descartes's failureexplicitlyto supplytheseprinciples.
The remainingproblemsabout Sep concerntheinterpretation
of (G).
While the generalidea is thatif myc & d conceptionascribesonlycertainpropertiesto Fs, thenit is at leastpossibleforanyF to have onlythe
propertiesascribed,even God cannot make objects quite so bare.5

5 Descartes'stheoryof theeternaltruthsmayprovidea sensein whichGod reallycan do

(could have done?) anything,but thisis clearlynot to thepoint in Sep. By thattoken,
God could create a thingwithoutits own (so-called) essence,let alone mindwithout
extensionor whatever. (G) describes an abilityGod retains afterhaving fixedthe
actual eternaltruths.Cf. AT VII, 7I; HR I, i85.




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Three sortsof exceptionsto (G) are side issues forus: I believethat

God mustadd propertiesguaranteedby sheerlogic (thinking-or-laughing), "transcendental"properties(e.g., duration),and negativeproperties (such as being unextended,in the case of mind). But even apart
fromthese,God cannot,forexample,make thoughtthe only property
of a mind.What thinksmustthinkin particularways,and althoughthe
contentsof a mind God makes may change frommomentto moment,
he must always supply it with determinatethoughts.More generally,
he mustgiveit what Deswhen God givessomethinga certainproperty,
cartes calls modes of that propertyunless, unlike thoughtand extension, it is alreadyentirely"specific."6Modes of positivepropertiesare
positiveproperties,so we need a special clause to allow theiradditionto
the F made in conformity
with R. We mightthus offerthe following
to clarify(G).

Given a c & d conception R representinga certainkind of

thingF just as having propertiesf,
., fn,God makes a
thing a conform to R if and only if he makes a have
f15 * * * Xfn and no further






modes of fI,


logical consequencesof propertiesadded under(d1)-(d3).


It is worthnotingthat (d3) does not let God add extensionto a c & d

conceivedmindor thoughtto a c & d conceivedbody,because neither
thoughtnor extensioncan be a mode of the other. Any attributeof
whicha propertyis a mode is alreadycontainedin a c & d conceptof
the mode (AT VIII, 350, 354-55; HR I, 436, 440), yetthe conceptsof
extensionand thoughtdo not involveeach other(AT VII, 443; HR II,
z55; AT III, 4z0-zI; PL, io9)7
Thereis one morepointto be coveredbeforeI can presenta finalversion of Sep. In discussions subsequentto the Meditations,Descartes
explainsthat (G) holds only when R is complete,thatis, not obtained
by attendingonlyto certainelementsof a richerconception.For example, I mayabstractfroma c & d conceptionof a moving,extendedbody
by focusingjust on its being in motion,but I may not theninferthat
God can make somethingunextendedmove. In the case at hand, Des6

This does not hold forthe shapeless,sizelesswhole of res extensa.See W, i66-68. For
op. cit.,pp. 14-z6.
moreon modes,see S, 21-z3, z6, andWilliams,
PrinciplesI, 53 permitstoo easy a proofof dualismfromthe factthatthoughtis not a
mode of extension,or thatextensionis not one of thought.Descartesmusthave seen
that the conjunctionof this Principlewith his theoryof modes begs the question in
favorof dualism.


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carteswants the conceptionsin (i.z) and (z.z) to be "full,"not formed

by abstractingfrom a concept of mind which includes extensionor
from a concept of body which includes thought (AT VII, izo-zi,
HR II, zz-z3, 97-99; AT III, 474-77 (thebestexposition);

AT IV, izo;



Now thisrestriction
seemsnot to be

worthdwellingon, since the conceptsof body and mindformedin the

Meditationsare obviouslynot supposed to be abstractions.But in view
of some recentliterature(particularly
a fewremarksare in
W, I9I-97),
The problemis thatDescartes'snotionof completenessis infectedby
the basic ambiguityin his presentationof Sep. It is clear fromthe passages cited that my conceptionof mindjust as thinkingis completeif,
forany propertyp besides thought,I can doubt whethermindshave p
(S, 40).8 This is "completeness"because nothingseems to be missing
frommy concept.I need add-no furtherpropertiesin orderto forma
coherentconceptof a kind of thing.Now the questionis whetherDescartestakesconceivingmindin thisway to amountto seeingthatminds
can existwiththought(and modes thereof)as theironlyproperty.That
is, when I see nothingmissingfrommyconcept,do I ipso factosee that
what I conceiveneeds no otherproperties?The textsseem to vacillate,
and withgood reason. The choice hereis just the choice betweentheA
and B readings.Proponentsof thelatterwill fastenon thepassgeswhich
suggestthat a complete concept of mind has directmodal content,
because with such a conceptDescartescould take the key step to (I.3)
in the Second Meditation.But all the evidenceforthe A readingcounts
of completeness,and some of the passages
againstthis interpretation
about completenessseem to lend independentsupportto theA reading.
So the problemof understandingcompletenessis just the problemof
Sep. and Descartes's remarkson thisnotiondo not alter
the basics of the account I have alreadydeveloped.They call onlyfora
of (G), whichis incorporatedintothefollowingrestatements

of (i) and (z).9


(G') Let R be a complete,c & d conceptionof a kindof thing

F. Then God can make any thingof kindF conformto R (in
the sense of definition(D)).

Everybodyis extended.


I have a complete,c & d conception


thoughtand failsto attributeextensionto minds.

doubtis meant.
Also,p must
9 Onemight
lookfora notion
thetwoI have
I havebeen
theA andBreadings.
a coherent




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(3.3) Anymindcan existas a thinking,
of possibly
(NE) Whateveris extendedlacks the property
(C) No mindis a body.

(G') [Asabove.]


(4.z) I have a complete,
c & d conception
and failsto attribute
to bodies.
(4.3) Anybody'canexistas an extended,
of possiblybeing
(NT) Whateverthinkslacks theproperty
(C) [As above.]
Of coursethisis onlyone faceofSep (remember
theB version).I find
foritsvisionof twofundamental
pointswhichI hopeare at
leastplausible,althoughI cannotsupportthemhere.
(i) Thereis simply
out extension
or eventellsus thatwhatthinksis possiblyunextended.
do not
thereis no directwayto concludethatextended
or neednotthink.
is not
(ii) To forma concept,
howeverclear,ofmindonlyas thinking
at all to see thepossibility
mind.One mightevensay
ofan unextended
ofwhatis (objectively)
to knowledge
possibleis so bigthatwe needGod's helpto takeit.
I counttheseamongDescartes'sbestinsights
and wouldjudgetheir
of failureto appreciate
depthby thepersistence
own appreciation
is tenuous.It disappearsin theB version,whereat
of mindsis inferred
at once,groundlesslyinmyview.How Descartescouldspoilhisownideais thestoryof
SectionIII. First,letus considerSep's neglected
II. The Divisibility
I gatherthatDiv is usuallyreadlikethis:


Everybodyis divisible.

(5.z) Everymindis indivisible.

(C) No mindis a body.


is givenintheFifthMeditation.



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He is sometimes
heldto arguefromtheintrospected
ownsoul.'0Butthatone shouldbe able to introspect
is most
and Descartes'sdiscussions
do notsuggest
His usual objectsof introspection
are "ideas" and faculties
is quitesomething
(e.g.,AT VII, 53-54; HR I, I72), and simplicity
Besides,an appealto introspection
is hardto discernat HR I, i96 and
(AT VII, I3; HR I, I4i; AT XI, 35i; HR I, 345; AT
is a moreor lessdirectintuiVII, 5zo; HR II, 3I3). Another
tionof(5.z). This,however,
wouldsaddleDescarteswitha claimto c &
d perception
whichis unlikely
evenbyhis standards.
How couldindivisibility
possiblyseemto followjustfromthedefinition
of mindas a
thing?One wouldhaveto wonderwhyDescartesbothersto
arguefordualismat all. Thereis also a moresubtletextualproblem
here.If (C) followsfromtwo immediate
itemsof c & d perception
(5.z)), Div wouldbe farmorestraightforward
thanSep (particu((5.I),
larlyas on HR I, i90). Therewouldbe littlechancethenofexplaining
whySep evenappears,letalonewhyitreceives
routesto (5.z) are therefore
(The othersI haveheardin
A fresh
look at Div in theSixthMeditation
seemsto be in order.
we maybeginanyreconstruction
witha premiseaboutthe
ofbody.We shallseethatdepending
on exactlyhowwe cast
ofbodiesmaybe usefulevenfor
formof (C), unlikein (5) or in theparallelcasesof (3. I)

and(4.i). Thus:

everybodyis divisible.

For our purposes,incidentally,

it is merelyconfusing
to understand
in spiteofthemodalsuffix.
itselfas a modalproperty,
Descartesdoes not distinguish
and accepting
willallowan easierexposition
Descartes'snextstepis that"whenI considermymind. . . I can
no partsin myself
but clearlyunderstand
as somemyself
thisneednotbe a declarathingone and entire."Takenquiteliterally,
Descartesseemsjustto be sayingthathisconcept
of minddoes notrevealanyparts.Theymaybe there(although
rulethatout),butat leastas faras Descartesunderstandsthemind,he seesno division.

? See, e.g.,H. Heimsoeth,

Atom,Seele,Monade (Wiesbaden:AkademiederWissenCamschaften
Press,I974), chapter5. Bennett,
I findhisdiscussion
Div withrealrespect,




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I admitthatDescartes'swordingalone does not dictatethisinterpretation.But thisway he does nothave too easy an intuitionof theindivisibilityof minds,so thereis no dangerthatDiv will be simplerthanSep.
What I am in factproposing,of course,is thatthe argumentsformindin the SixthMeditationare at bottomalike. In argubody distinctness
ment(3) a certainproperty,extension,is attributedto bodies, and we
thennote thatit does not belongto minds- as faras we can tell,anyway. (Analogouslyfor argument(4).) (6.i) attributeddivisibilityto
bodies, and Descartes's next observationis thatthispropertydoes not
visiblybelong to minds. Again the concept of mind involvedmust be
clear,distinct,and complete.Thus,

I have a complete,c & d conceptionwhichattributes

and failsto attributedivisibility
to minds.

If thismuchis right,Div also relieson


[as usual,]

whichwith (6.z) yields


Anymindcan existas a thinking,

It is truethat (G') and (6.3) are absentfromHR I, i96. But it is also

truethatDescartesmerelysaysthatwhat is statedthere,(6.i) and (6.z),
would sufficefor the constructionof an alternativeto Sep. He can
expectthereaderto remember(G') (or (G)) froma fewpages back, and
he can affordnot to finishthe argumentsincehe has alreadygivena full
proofof (C) along analogous lines. Indeed,Descartes'ssketchinesssupThe lack of a fullpresentationof Div is underportsmyinterpretation.
standableifthe argumentwould exactlyparallelone alreadygiven.And
I findtheanalogybetweenmyrepresentations
of Sep (at HR I, i90) and
Div an attractiveresultwhichadds to theindependentsupportforeach.
Our nextproblemis thatmind-bodydistinctness
does not yetfollow.
We need to know that no body can exist withoutbeing divisible.One
expedientis to borrow (NE) from Sep. although given our present
wording it is convenientto rewritethis principle. Relying on the
equivalenceof bodies and extendedthings:

Everybody lacks thepropertyof possiblynot beinga body.

Now this,plus the (de dicto) necessarydivisibility

of bodies assertedin
(6.I) yields

Everybody lacks thepropertyof possiblybeingindivisible.



No mindis a body.


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Althoughthis versionof Div seems acceptable,it leaves Descartes

with no argumentfor the indivisibility
of minds. To fixthis we may
replace (NB) by

Whatever is divisible lacks the propertyof possibly being


Now indivisibilityfollows with the help of (6.3). (6.i) then yields

mind-bodydistinctness.In fact, the "necessarily" in (6. i) can be
droppedifwe use (ND), witha gain in symmetry
betweenSep and Div.
I suggestedin connectionwith(NE) and (NT) thatDescartesis sometimesconfusedor sloppy about modality.If so, the line betweentacit
assumptionsand gaps in his argumentsmay be hard to draw. Although
it is interesting
to ask how well Descartes saw the need for (ND) or
(NB) in Div and how he mighthave defendedthem,I do not muchcare
whethertheiraddition is the discoveryor the creationof a Cartesian
argument.What reallymattersto me is thatthe conclusionis reached
from(6.z) and (G') and that (ND) or (NB) is needed forvalidity.That
and to establishthe
sufficesto avoid the faultsof otherinterpretations
kinshipbetweenDiv and Sep.
The most seriousobjectionto myinterpretation
concernsits fitwith
passages outsidetheSixthMeditation.In theSynopsisDescarteswrites:
Forwe cannotconceive
. . .we understand
no mindexceptas indivisible.
anymindas we can ofthesmallest
ofall bodies . . . (AT VII, I3; HR I, I4I; cf.HR I,

This suggestsas a premiseforDiv not (6.z), but somethinglike:

(INC) A dividedmindis inconceivable.
A complex set of questionsnow arises:

Is (INC) strongerthan (6.z)?


Is it strongenough to let Descartes manage without(G') or

without(ND) or (NB)?


If so, are theretwo formsof Div or is (6) just an incorrect



If Div does take two forms,is the one with (INC) analogous
to the B formof Sep as (6) is analogous to the A form?

One mightthinkthat if the answer to (a) is "yes," (6) is just wrong,

since the Synopsispassage is plainly an intendedparaphrase of the
argumentat HR I, i96. But we know fromSep thatDescartes'sreport
of his own argumentmightbe questionable.Otherwisewe could as well
reason that since (6.z) is plausiblya literalreadingof the text,while
(INC) is somewhatunclear,the lattershould be glossed by the former.





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5 II

The equivalenceof (INC) and (6.z), however,cannot be assumed.This

makes the task of interpretation
quite hard, and the followingremarks
are intendedonly as a preliminary
A first,importantpoint about (INC) is that it does not assertthe
of a dividedmind.Descartesinfersimpossibility
not from
but only from(somethinglike?) a reductioad absurdum: ". . . I have neverjudged anythingto be impossiblefor [God],
forme distinctly
unlessit was contradictory
to conceiveit" (HR I, I85).
thisis not unnatural.On a reasonableview,conceivability
varieswith our conceptsor beliefs,so that what is inconceivablenow
may laterseem possible or even true.Quick inferencesfrominconceivabilityto impossibilityare perhapsto be avoided, and Descartescould
be rightnot to rule out dividedmindson the strengthof (INC) alone.
This leaves it unclearjust what (INC) means. In orderto make progress,however,let us plausiblyassume that it is strongerthan (6.z) in
expressingDescartes's inabilityto see that mental divisibilityis even
possible,let alone thatit obtains. (This would mean thathe also cannot
see thatextensionis possible,but thatseemsperfectly
II, 3I3).)



My (complete, c & d) conception of mind does not show

me thata dividedmindis possible.

With this we reach the heart of the matter.It is clear that (INCP) is
strongerthan (6.z), but if it is even roughlythe sense of (INC), thenas
far as I can see, Descartes still gets nowhere without (G'). Nothing
about how thingsobjectivelyare follows fromhis inabilityto see or
conceiveanything;thisis just the gap that (G') bridges.If thisis right,
thenit is less criticalwhetherDiv beginswith(6.z) as opposed to (INC)
because (G'), the most characteristicfeatureof Descartes's reasoning,
is thereeitherway. But thereis one interesting
(INCP) and
(G') would give Descartes:
(6.3 a) Anymindcan existas a thinkingthingwhichis not evenpossiblydivisible.
Readers may verifythat (assumingeven the weaker formof (6.i)) (C)
can now be reachedwithsomethingconsiderablysimplerthan (ND) or
(NB)." The use of (INCP) would thereforeminimizethe dangers of
Descartes'simplicitrelianceon modal principles.
We now have thefollowingpicture.Thereare two versionsof Div in
in thatone protheMeditations,alike in theiruse of (G') and different
makes a
ceeds froma somewhatstrongerpremise.But this difference
only at a point (the introductionof (ND) or somethinganal-

If we interpret
Descartes'smodaltalkvia standardpossibleworldssemantics,



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ogous) whichDescartestypicallyslidesover anyway.No wonder,then,

thathe failsto distinguishthetwo versions.I believethatcertainfactors
mightalso facilitatea confusionbetween(6.z) and (INCP) themselves.
But I shall not enterinto thesenow or into variousotherquestionsleft
open in the past few pages.'2 I am contentto have given a reading
whichmakes reasonablesense and displaysthe kinshipof Div and Sep.
I have some confidencethatwhateverrepairsor amendmentsmightbe
requiredwill not erase that kinship,so that the viewpointnow to be
developedwill illuminateboth arguments,althoughI shall speak principallyof Sep.
To beginto untangleDescartes'sconfusionsabout Sep. let us reviewthe
basic problemsforeach versionof the argument.
The B version,we may recall,beginswithfalseoptimism.Descartes
reads at least possible nonextensionoffof his c & d conceptof mind,
when he knows full well (in his bettermoments)that his concept of
mindis initiallyjust silentabout themind-bodyrelation.Descartesthen
compoundshis bad startwithan inconsistency.
Insteadof acceptinghis
c & d perceptionas proofthat mindscan exist unextended,he adds a
divinevalidationof thisproposition.Actually,thispartof the argument
does no positiveharm- having(supposedly)c & d perceivedthe possible nonextensionof minds,Descartes should simplyproceed without
the unnecessaryreferenceto God. But by appealing to God for the
completionof a step already taken, Descartes betrayshis own confusion.
UnlesstheB versionallows Descartesan immediatec & d perception
that minds are actuallyunextended,it also shares with the A version
whateverproblemsthe use of (NE) and its ilk involves.I do not, however,wish to dwell on these. They are outsidethe focusof thispaper;
besides, it would be an enormous achievementfor Descartes even to
establishpossible nonextension.'
of thenaturesof mindand body
Notable hereis Descartes'stalk about the contrariety
in connectionwithDiv (HR I, I4I; CB, A8),whichI neglectbecause it clearlyplaysno
partin theSixthMeditation.Anotherquestionis whetherI have made Sep and Div too
equal to explain Descartes's favoritismtowards the former.This one has a relatively
in Sep. and Descartes
easy answer: (6.z) was more controversialthan its counterparts
completed his defense only in the Passions of the Soul. (I discuss this issue in
in Philosophyand Phenomenologi"Descarteson the Partsof the Soul," forthcoming

cal Research.)


What about the possible nonmentalityof bodies expressedby (2.3) and (4.3)? One
mighttake it to be obvious anyway,so that (4.I), (4.3), and (NT) allow Descartesa
proofof dualismwhich avoids (G'). But aside fromthe factthatin thiscontext(NT)
(4.3) is not so easilyhad. Descarteswould rightly
would be virtuallyquestion-begging,
but ifall a methodicaldoubterhas to go on are his c &
regard(4.3) as uncontroversial,
d conceptsof thoughtand extension,theproofof (4.3) would be just as remarkableas




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5I 3

In the A version,(G') is at once the mostinteresting

premiseand the
obvious weakness. I have already explained the fundamentalconflict
between (G') and the proper role of God in Descartes's system.It is
also worthnotingthe price Descartespays to insulate(G') fromcounterexamples.The problemlies with (d3) of (D) in SectionI. This clause,
it seems, restrictsapplicationsof (G') to provingmind-bodydistinctness,and whilethatmightbe consideredapplicationenough,it is a disappointinglimitationof what looked like a powerfulprinciplefor
obtainingmodal results.
To see this,suppose we want to use (G') to show thata can lack a
propertyF which is absent fromour c & d conceptionof a. If F is
thoughtor extension,a mustbe a body or a mind,and we are proving
nothingnew. If F is a mode of thought,a cannotbe a mind:ifa were a
mind,(d3) would tell us that in makinga conformto our conception,
God could add modes of thought,so we could not be assured that a
could existwithoutF. So a mustbe a body, but we alreadyknow that
bodies can lack thoughts.Similarly,ifF is a mode of extension,a must
be a mind,and again the use of (G') only yieldsa familiarresult.Of
coursethesituationis somewhatmorecomplicatedifthereare (created)
substancesbesides minds and bodies, but in any case Descartes could
not use (G') to show that I mightnot have red hair or not be thinking
about Vienna. I suspect that this leaves his epistemologyof modal
If (G') is short on applications it is also more or less immuneto
counterexampleswhichdo not beg the questionof mind-bodydistinctness. It clear nonethelessthat (G') is objectionableforessenof
tiallythosereasonswhichsetit at odds withthegeneralepistemology
theMeditations.We have no businessbelievingthatsomethingcan lack
whateverpropertieswe do not findessentialto it at a givenmoment,no
matter how clear and distinctour understandingof the concepts
involvedmightbe, and God has no businessvalidatingsuch beliefs.'4
Withthiswe returnto theproblemsI raisednear theoutset.It is in a
way understandablefor Descartes to offertwo versionsof Sep. since
each avoids (some of) the objections facingthe other. But still,how
could he fail to tell his argumentsapart? And how could he overlook
the twindifficulties
about the divineguarantee- thatproperlyunderstood it is insufficient
to make the A versionwork and unnecessaryin


one of (3.3). So forDescartestherewould be littleto choose betweenforms(3) and (4)

of the A version.
This is the point of a famous example of Arnauld's (AT VII, zoi-z; HR II, 83). Of
Descartes'sthreereplies(AT VII, 2z4-z5; HR II, ioo-ioi), I thinkthe firstrestson a
bad misconstrualof the example,the second is eitherwrongor inapplicable,and the
thirdboils down to an appeal to (d3) (it is in factone of the best textualsources for
thatclause). But since the repliestake some unraveling,withthe end resultbeingonly
(d3) and defeatin the matterof principle,I shall
Descartes'svictoryon the technicality
spend-notimeon themhere.



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the B version?I believe that a singleconfusionexplains thesepuzzles.

The distinctionscrucialto Sep are between:

a (complete) c & d conception of minds which does not

attributeextensionto them,


a c & d perceptionthatmindsneed not be extended,


a c & d perceptionthatmindsare unextended,

and Descartes'streatmentof dualism is largelythe productof running
thesetogether.We alreadyknow that (i) is the startingpoint forthe A
version(in form(3)), while the B versioncan startwith (iii) or with(ii)
(fromwhich (iii) followsby (NE)). The assimilationof (i) to (ii) or (iii)
givesthetwo versionsseeminglyidenticalfirststeps.Now this
in turninducesthe further
conflationof (G') withthe divineguarantee.
God would be a deceiverif mindswere necessarilyextendedin spiteof
(ii); if (i) is misreadas (ii), then the principlewhich assures Descartes
that minds can be extendedif he has (i) can be identifiedwith what
would guaranteethe same conclusiongiventhe conception(ii). (Similarlyfor(i) and (iii).) This is whyDescartesmistakes(G') foran expression of God's veracity,and hencewhyeach versionof Sep appears as no
moreto himthanan applicationof the divineguaranteeto a c & d perceptionof "mind apart frombody."
To explain the apparentlegitimacyof (G') in the A versionis not to
explain why the B version also invokes God's benevolence.Here I
believewe findDescartesat his mostconfused.When he slipsintotheB
version,thinkinghe has not materiallychangedthe argument,a misapplicationof theguaranteeis the nearestthingto his use of (G') in theA
version.Of coursethismakes no sense; but we can now understandthe
of Descartes's position.He needs to overlookthe difference
between(i) and (ii) to accept (G') in the firstplace, but once the difference is gone (G') is unnecessary- the independenceof mind from
body can be c & d perceivedwithoutGod's help. Yet Descartescannot
just abandon (G') and stickto the B version,withor withouta premise
about divine veracity,because he continuesto sense that (i), which
entailsdependenceon (G'), is all he is entitledto. The vacillationwe
have foundis builtinto the heartof Descartes's reasoning.
Confusionbetween (i) and (ii) or (iii) is promotedby Descartes's
To be sure,
notoriouslyimagisticapproach to mental representation.
his "ideas" are nonphysical,and it is unclearwhetheranyof themare in
any sensementalimages,but various familiarweaknessesof his philosophy can be traced to an imagisticmodel of thought.Notably, Descartes mishandlesthe distinctionbetween concepts and propositions,




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5I 5

which infectsthe theoryof c & d perceptionand leads to problems

about assertionand proof,and he has difficulties
show up, for example, in the theoryof "privations"(AT VII, 43-46;
HR I, i64-66). In thislight,troubleabout (i)-(iii) is not surprising.To
be clear on the differencesbetween these and on what, if anything,
"validation" would amountto in each case, one needs some command
of the concepts-propositions
distinctionand of the mechanicsof negation. (One mightalso note thatimagisticviews of thoughthave trouble
handlingmodal content.This is relevantnot just to (i)-(iii) but also to
(6.z) and (INC).) Without much elaboratingon these points,let me
indicateone naturalway forDescartes to get himselfinto trouble.
Descartestakes the idea of x to be x itselfas it exists("objectively")
in the understanding:when I have an idea, what my idea representsis
righttherein mymind,even ifit existsnowhereelse. Thus ideas are not
just imagesor replicasbut thingsthemselvesexistingin a special way.'5
Now the slide from(i) to (ii) is particularlyeasy on such a view. Suppose I have the c & d idea describedin (i). This meansthatwhat is represented,a mind, exists in my understanding.' Clearly this mind
thinks,since thatbelongsboth to its essenceand to myconceptof it. Is
it also extended?The answer ought to be that this is indeterminate,
because my concept leaves the question of extensionopen. But that is
hard forDescartes to allow. The mindthatexistsin myunderstanding
must,it seems,eitherbe extendedor not, and one may easily suppose
that since I do not attributeextensionto minds,this mind mustexist
withoutextension.Descartescould thenconcludethatanymindhe may
thinkof can existwithoutextension,whichyields(ii).
I am acutelyaware of havingjust suppressedvariousproblemswithin
Descartes'stheoryof mentalrepresentation.
But I thoughtit important
to explaineven briefly
how he could confound(i) and (ii) (or,by similar
reasoning,(iii)). Even thoughhis conductof his argumentsgivesample
independentevidenceforthis error,Descartes's procedureonly makes
good sense once we see it as a productof his system.We need not,incidentally,suppose thathe explicitlyreasonedas describedin theprecedbetween
ingparagraph.It is enoughthatwhen it came to discriminating
several more or less subtlydifferent
mental acts, Descartes's view of
thoughtcould encourage a confusionwhich must have been tempting

Is See especiallyMeditationsIII and V, passim,which draw on medievalsources.A particularlyfinediscussionof some aspects of Descartes's positionhere is in W, I07-I9.
Kenny,op. cit.,pp. 146-56 is also helpful.
i6 The relationbetweenideas of particularmindsand of mind generally
is actuallyvery
problematicin Descartes,but I thinkI can make mypointwithoutgettinginvolvedin



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This completesmyanalysis.AlthoughI hope to have conveyedsome

of Descartes's ingenuity,I like to thinkthatmy effortswill help lay to
restthe fashion- perhaps alreadyyesterday'sfashion- of tryingto
support Cartesian dualism along Cartesian lines. Too much in Descartes depends on thingsthat are too far wrong. Indeed, his deepest
contributionmay be to comfortthe enemy: argumentsbased on (G')
are near admissionsof defeat.The essence of Descartes's strategyis to
or indivisibility
prove immateriality
fromthe absence of argumentsto
thecontrary;I speculatethathe took thisnegativeapproachbecause he
foundnone better.Descartes's effortsto formulate,refine,and defend
Sep show ample awareness of the difficulties
his proof strategyfaced,
and he surelywould have preferred
a morestraightforward
one had any
seemedacceptable.Perhapsthe historicalplace of the SixthMeditation
should thenbe reconsidered.Descartes,I believe,is quietlyannouncing
thefailureof "positive" demonstrations(or refutations)
of dualismand
at least insofaras-theyproceed fromthe kindsof considerationsabout thoughtand matterinvokedby earlierphilosophers.In this
respectDescartes anticipatessome of Kant's discussionsof the soul in
the Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, Kant, in adding a general
theoryof whyin a sense the natureof the soul cannotbe establishedat
all, says much more. But I would claim that his additions combine
withsome of his mostunfortunate
anycase, Descartes'srejectionof classical argumentsabout thesoul is a
decisivestep which,should one care to call him the fatherof modern
to jusphilosophy,would serveas well as any of his otherachievements
tifythe title.That his own approach also failsis secondary.
I thusconcludewithan unusualview of what is bestin thearguments
I have discussed.Frommyown pointof view it is not theirconclusions,
because I believethat dualism is false and with it the simplicitythesis.
Nor is it Descartes's admittedlycleverstrategy.Rather,in fallingback
on (G') Descartescame as close as a dualistcan to sayingthatthereare
no good ways to prove dualism. Obviouslythatwas not his intention.
Butit is stillhis insight.Ifthisis a strangelegacyfortheeponymof dualism,it also confirmsthe depthand fertility
of his mind.'7


and Margaret
I thankWrightNeely,StephenSchiffer,
For theircomments
I havecited.




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