Monday, August 8, 2011

Mind and body in Descartes' 2nd Meditation

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mind and body in Descartes' 2nd Meditation
Date: 9 March 2004 13:47

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your e-mail of 29 February, with your third timed University of London BA essay, in response to the question, 'Descartes insisted that he did not argue that the mind is distinct from the body until the Sixth Meditation. What, then, does the Second Meditation contribute to his argument for the claim that mind and body are distinct substances?'

Your first paragraph gives the impression that Descartes refers to Aristotle in Meditation 2 (of course, he doesn't, although he does refer to Archimedes). It is important when writing an answer to a textual question like this one that you distinguish what can be gathered from the text -- based on what the author actually says -- and any illuminating interpretations that might be placed upon what the author says.

One simple way to do this is to separate paragraphs which talk about what the author of the text says, from paragraphs which offer your interpretation. (E.g. 'At this point, Descartes is alluding to Aristotle's account of the soul...', or 'Descartes' notion of seeings which can exist in the absence of anything seen involves the notion of a logically private object in Wittgenstein's sense...'.)

Although it is fully acceptable to mention Aristotle in an answer to this question, your references are too allusive to make much of a contribution to the argument. Based on what you say, the reader would have very little idea of the difference between the Cartesian and Aristotelian approaches to defining the soul.

In all fairness, you do refer to the claim that Descartes 'reverses [the] procedure... whereby the human intellect proceeds from knowledge of objects to knowledge of acts and only thence to knowledge of its powers and essence... by proceeding from knowledge of the mind's essence, thought, to knowledge of its various acts.' But I have some difficulty in understanding what this means. You haven't said anything which would enable me to form a picture of what this difference between the two procedures amounts to in practice.

Descartes is talking about the soul as thinking thing, whose nature is discovered by reflection on the various properties which necessarily belong to that thing. He contrasts a body, such as a piece of wax, as a physical thing, whose properties you would think are known a posteriori, not a priori. Yet it seems that Descartes is not happy with this. He wants to say that knowledge of mind and knowledge of body both involve the same procedure of a priori deduction from a concept -- the concept of a thinking thing, or the concept of an extended thing. Whatever else we come to discover about physical objects would not count as 'knowledge' according to this strict approach.

The beeswax passage is notoriously difficult to interpret. Yet understanding this passage is clearly central to understanding Meditation 2.

We have the concept of a thinking thing. We also have the concept of an extended thing. A priori reflections on these two concepts yields two sets of attributes, the mental and the physical. Why isn't this enough, on its own, to establish that mind is distinct from body? What more is needed?

You say, 'Before he can prove a real distinction of mind and body he needs to put to rest the deceiving God hypothesis which casts aspersions on all his beliefs, including the cogito, and is necessary to show that our clear and distinct perceptions are true.'

This is plausible, but it doesn't fully convince me. It would have been perfectly possible for Descartes to have worked into Meditation 2 the argument that the essential properties discovered by a priori reflection on the nature of mind and body form two disjoint sets. Either there exists, as a matter of empirical fact, a physical universe or not. Either way, mind is distinct from body.

Why doesn't he? It would spoil the climax. As a composition, it makes a lot more sense to hold back the biggest result to the end, rather than telegraph it. Of course, one can't be sure of any claim made on the basis of philosophical argument if there is any possibility that the evil demon exists, but that applies to everything Descartes says at this point.

There is one new idea that appears in Meditation 6, the idea of God's power to separate any two things A and B which are logically distinct. I have always interpreted this as a mere rhetorical flourish. But perhaps I'm wrong about this.

Difficult to know how an examiner would mark this essay because I myself am not sure what would be the model answer!

All the best,

Geoffrey