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Descartes's History Of The Concept Of Mind In The Novel The Meditations On First Philosophy

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Throughout the novel, “The Meditations on First Philosophy” by Rene Descartes goes through a spitital journey of discovering what he believes to be his conception of the mind. The reader is able to see this through all of his meditations and the exploration he takes himself on to reach his final conclusion of the mind and body in meditation six. Each meditation that DescartesN writes touches somewhat on his conception of the mind and his beliefs that follow. In order to understand the conclusion, he reaches in meditation six the reader has to understand the important details he talks about in other meditations. Descartes talks about the mind and the body both as separate entities and how they work together which is dualism. Another important part of the meditations is when Descartes questions his bodies existence as well as his minds existence.

Descartes big take away at the end of his meditations are the emphasis on the mind and what Descartes means by the mind and how the body interacts with the mind. The second meditation is where it becomes clear to the reader where Descartes is heading with his conception of the mind. After Descartes has cleared his minds of all of his previous beliefs and is know to rethink he has ever come to know, he has an epiphany that he can’t even say for sure that he has a mind or a body. Descartes asks himself what kind of thing he is in relation to is existence with the world. He comes to the realization that he is than non-living things because he eats and he has all these parts of what he knows to be a body and he has sense.

He later comes to know that he cannot for sure say he has a body, he just knows what a body is due to his past experiences. Around this time in the novel, he begins to realize that he can also think, that he has a mind and he has thoughts and he can think. Descartes calls himself “a thinking thing” which becomes a huge advancement for him and his conception of mind 1 throughout the meditations. By stating and acknowledging this he believes that he has a mind and he understands what his mind does, the mind “doubts, understand, affirms, denies, wills, refuses but also imagines and senses.” All of these characters are made up of things that he 2 cannot see or touch, they are invisible but they are all ideas and traits that the mind has and does.

Even though he is not able to see these things he knows for certain that his brain has all of these things, he still remains uncertain of whether or not he knows for a fact that he has a body. Descartes believes that he can exist with just his mind, and he does not need a body to carry out all of the functions that the mind does like having senses and attempts to prove this with his wax theory. The human body cannot be proven because we cannot trust the senses which our body gives our mind. This is why Descartes believes that there can be a mind all on it’s own without having a place to live in that we know to understand today as the body.

The next argument that Descartes has for the mind and the body is that idea of separation and this is what separates the mind and the body from being alike. Apart from the body being something physical and what the human eye can see the mind is something that is invisble and doesn’t have any physical qualities to it, it simply just exists. Descartes argues that the body all has separate parts that are clearly visible, you can see the legs, the arms, the neck, and the chest and each part of the body serves a sperate part. The body needs every part in order to work properly and to run smoothly. The body needs to be able to work together in order to survive, it has to be able to work in tandem. This is what Descartes believes separates the mind from the body, the mind does not have separate parts and it is able to work altogether. Descartes did understand that there were separate parts to the mind and each part serves as a function but each part of the mind was able to work separately from the other part, this is what allowed for conflicting thoughts and desires within the mind. The mind is not able to be divided up into sperate parts like the body because the mind and all the parts of the mind all have the same driving force behind them. The mind is trying to reach the same goal and the body it will all work together to get there but it can have conflicting ideas. Desire is the perfect chararistics to be able to explain Descartes theory on the mind and why it is separate from the body. The mind is able to desire conflicting things, the mind can desire to do something bad but the mind at the same time can also desire to do something good end even though these two things are completely separate and each desire is coming from a different place in the mind the mind is still working in conjunction on the fact that it is trying to fill a desire. This is how Decartes argues and explains to himself that the mind and the body are two completely seperate entities.

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As Descartes has already previously stated that the mind is internal and is something that humans can not see and the body is extended, it takes up physical space in the world. Descartes has a strong grip on what the mind does but he is still trying to figure out how he can know for sure that the body exists and what it’s relation is with the mind. This is where Descartes starts to tackle the argument of material things such as imagination and the senses. When talking about imagination that is able to picture whatever he is imagining in his mind and he is able to see it very vividly, even though it is not a real material thing he is seeing. He begins to understand that he is able to imagine things that he has seen before very easily in his mind and the example that he uses is a three-sided triangle in comparison to a 999 sided triangle he cannot see with his “mind’s eye” and this is due to the fact that he has not seen a 999 sided triangle in real life. This results in Descartes realizing that the imaginition is not an essential charismatic of the mind “this power of imagining that is in me, insofar as it differs from the power of understanding, it is not required for my own essence, that is, the essence of my mind.” What Descartes is explaining is that when the mind is trying to understand it looks to itself to be able to grasps concepts. When the mind is trying to imagine it looks to the body to help it gain an in-depth understanding of physical objects in order to compute it to the mind, so the mind is able to imagine.

Trying to understand the sensese and how they relate to the body is still a grey area for Descartes as he is unable to undertsand how the senses work with his body. He is cerain he has a body because he is able to feel things like being in pain, tastes, and sounds. Descartes has come to understand tht these are his sense “I precieve these things better by means of the senses” . This 5 is an important break through for Decartes because he is beginning to understand that he needs his body in pair with his mind to feel things like the sesnse. He is starting to trust his sense more because he sense has led him in the right direction, earlier in his thinking, they lead him to sense that he had a body and all of the parts that composed a body. His sensed him with what he understands to be human attributes like hunger and thirst and feeling like sadness and anger. His sense has also allowed him to distinguish the difference between the sky, the earth, and the seas.

All of these different ideas that is sense have led him to, he understands that the sense comes to him involuntarily, that he cannot control his sense “I knew by experience that these ideas came upon me utterly without my consent.” Descartes understands that the senses cannot be sensed if 6 they are not present, the mind is not able to imagine these since they have to be physically present at the time he is feeling them. To sum, everything up imagination and senses is modes of thought that come from the mind and are also interpreted in the mind. All of these ideas have helped to bring Descartes to his final conclusion of the mind in the sixth meditation. The idea that he comes to about the mind and the body is what he comes to call mind and body dualism. This is the understanding that the mind and the body completely separate of each other but they each have distinct qualities. Descartes also undserstands that the body is the outside force and the mind is what helps perceives senses and feelings. Descartes helps the readers to understand this theory by stating that the body is like a ship and the mind is like the sailor.

The body is the external vessel that exists in the world, and the mind is the non-material thing that controls all of the bodies senses and feelings. To Descartes, the mind is like the sailor and it holds all the control, like a sailor it can be a sailor without a boat based on the knowledge the sailor has, however, the sailor is much more credible when he has a boat. To Descartes, the mind can survive and exist all on its own but the body helps the mind to become more powerful because it helps the mind to imagine more vividly through the bodies eyes. The body helps the mind to feels and understand external sense, the body is needed for the mind to grasp the sense of touch since it is not able to do that on it’s own because Descartes has already pointed out that the mind is not physical it exists in another space. The theory that Descartes has on the mind still exists today he understands that the mind and the brain are separate, but the mind controls higher power ideas that the brain cannot do. He believes that the mind is able to sense and the mind is able to desire, these are not chemical reactions that happen in the brain because they cannot be explained by science they are controlled by the mind. The mind is the driving force behind the body, that is not saying that the mind keeps the body alive, it does not that is what the brain does. The mind is what drives the body through life, it is what gives the body meaning. The mind allows for the body to feel things and have sense which is what separates humans from non-living things.


Descartes, Rene. ​Meditiations on First Philosophy. ​3rd ed. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.

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Descartes’s History Of The Concept Of Mind In The Novel The Meditations On First Philosophy. (2021, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
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