Aristotle and Descartes on Human Person

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Descartes Meditations begun by attempting to doubt everything then moved on to build up from that to those few things which we can know with certainty. These mediations were written during the time when the recognized sciences were Aristotelian; therefore, it implies that the philosophy of science that prevailed was also Aristotelian.  Descartes mediation on Aristotle’s philosophical thoughts exposes flaws in Aristotelian philosophy of science initially.  For instance, Descartes exposes that in Aristotelian philosophy of science, an explanation is a syllogism in the sense that an observed fact of the form A is C is shown to be necessary by premises of the form A is B and B is C, where B is the middle term that connects A and C. for example of a such argument can be:

All men are mortal; James is a man; therefore, James is mortal.

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 In this case therefore, it can be deduced that the premises of the syllogism are more evident than the conclusion. Descartes regarded this kind of Aristotelian explanations are to some extend false and are uninformative. He further, calls to question physics explanations of Aristotle based on the responses made for the simple questions. For example, in examining response given to the following questions:

Question 1: Why do apples fall from the boughs of trees?

                                     Answer 1: Because apples are terrestrial things and terrestrial things tend to move toward the centre of the   Earth

 Question 2: Why do the stars in the sky form the patterns we identify as constellations night after night?

 Answer 2: Because stars are celestial bodies and the heavens are unchanging

The explanation or answer taught by Aristotle to the questions above such as terrestrial and celestial terms are not explanatory categories in Cartesian physics and thus cannot be employed to give a compelling explanation to a philosophical problem. And also it is false to explain that the heavens are unchanging which is far from being an explanandum in physics. Such doubts helped Descartes to build up from that to those few things which we can know with certainty. This provides a basis on which Descartes calls into question traditional claims in his Meditations.

In conducting his anti-Aristotelian campaign by reviewing the scientific subjects, Descartes conducts this campaign as captured in his mediations on first philosophy.  First, Descartes criticize Aristotelian physics, especially celestial physics or astronomy that Aristotle’s explanation was based on the qualities of heat and cold, wet and dry. But according to Descartes questioning of the explanation, he suggests that its ultimate explanatory concepts ought to be based on extension, shape, motion, and position. If the explanatory concept is grounded that way in his views, then explanations shall be based on reason rather than sense as the main cognitive capacity underlying science.

Furthermore, his mediations of the Existence of Material Things and of the Real distinction between the Soul and Body of Man resulted to an idea of the human as essentially spiritual, as opposed to one entity but temporarily connected to a material body, which knows that this perceptions are valid because God is no deceiver. The question about God existence, he amplifies that we know about God because we couldn’t have even the concept of so perfect a being unless God had put it into us. He compares this to a mark of the craftsman on his work, thus, implying craft work is made by a craftsman and without existence of craftsman, and craft work can not exist. While his mediation of the Things which may be brought within the Sphere of the Doubtful he claims that isn’t more than saying that “I know what I know”, and “I think because Am” whereby he goes further and justify this by saying “one of the things I know is a benevolent God” The mediations to a greater extend forms the basis for the foundation of modern philosophy, in the sense that the questions raised by Descartes were right for its time, but today they can serve only as a basis of helping philosophers on discovering how to answer.

The Cartesian mind-body dualism

In addition to that, Descartes mediation on the Cartesian mind-body dualism that he offers in place of traditional understandings is central to controversy between Aristotle and Descartes on the Person and its implication for the human person. Descartes advance the idea that mind and body are distinctly separate but interconnected. He starts his argument by advancing the notion that there is great difference between the body and mind in the sense that mind is indivisible while the body is by nature always divisible. Although, the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, mind can not be distinguished into any part. This can well be illustrated by the fact that when any part of the body such as a hand or leg for that matter is removed, nothing is removed from the mind represented by such faculties as thinking, understanding and feeling.

Therefore, Descartes’ doctrine of the difference entity between the body and mind has an implication to understanding of the human person. Given that human body and mind is separate, Descartes suggests that the two are interconnected. The argument put forward, is that it’s that faculties of imagination and feeling cannot be conceived apart from the body, meaning that mind can not be operational without the intelligent substance in which they reside. While at the same time faculties like change of position can only be conceived as being attached to corporeal substance, thus, this follows that there is an active faculty capable of forming and producing ideas within a human person. But this active faculty resides in some substance different from the body.

As a consequence of Descartes ideas, it means that human person has body and mind interconnected but exists in separate state in the sense that body as a corporeal objects can readily be divided into parts while mind can not, which alone teach that the mind or soul is entirely different from the body. To further reiterate on the distinction, it is common wisdom that mind does not receive impressions from the body directly but from the brain. However, it should be noted that most sensory nerves that transmit pulses pass through body organs to the brain for interpretation. Therefore, in the event some parts of the body can feel excited as though it’s a leg or had feeling pain. But, it should be distinguished that it’s the mind that is excited to remove the part affected from the evil of the pain. This interconnection serves the purpose of conservation of the body.

The interpretive notion means that the Cartesian mind-body dualism advanced by Descartes can be compared to a functioning computer. Whereby, the hardware houses the software that runs the computer programs and that both are important in relation to each other. Descartes thus concludes that nature lessons of sensations of pain, hunger and thirst, imply that human person is not only lodged in body as a pilot in a ship, but so closely united to it that it seem to compose with it one whole. Because if that were not the case, when the body is hurt, human person as a thinking creature, would not feel and it will be the way the sailor sees the damage to his vessel that is not part of.


Donald, A. C. (1998), Discourse on method; and: Meditations on first philosophy By René Descartes: Hackett Publishing.

David, M. D. (2006), Briefly, Descartes’ Meditations on first philosophy: London, SCM-Canterbury Press Ltd.

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