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Descartes and the Real Distinction Essay

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Descartes' formulation of what he calls the “Real Distinction” has proved foundational to our modern concepts of being and consciousness. His contention has irreversibly influenced the fields of psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and others while cementing into the popular consciousness the notion of a definite dichotomy between the mind and the body. In this paper, I will flesh out what Descartes' meant by the term “real distinction,” discuss the arguments he uses in its' defense, and then argue myself that this distinction between mind and body (at least as Descartes frames it) goes much too far, and that it is a much more viable probability to believe that mind and body are actually intertwined, one and the same.

Descartes' Conception of, and Arguments for, the Real Distinction
A modern, casual observer on a skim of the Meditations may be simple enough to conclude that, by virtue of its rather appended appearances, curiously scattered throughout the sixth and final meditation, Descartes' concept of the real distinction is just that, an appended curiosity of little consequence in Descartes' argument. Yet, when we flip back to the front of the work, we realize that its full title is, in fact, Meditations on First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between the Soul and the Body Are Demonstrated. Clearly, then, Descartes found a great deal of value in this seemingly tacked-on discovery. So what exactly did Descartes mean by the “real distinction?” Simply stated, it is Descartes' distinction between the mind and the body. The two, he believes, are substances that can be separated completely (at least in conception), such that a mind can persist without a body, and vice versa. Descartes elaborates tw...


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...the mind is completely non-thinking, then it is also completely non-existing. Without the body, the mind cannot exist. Additionally, according to Descartes own definition that substances that cannot be explained without recourse to another are actually the same substance, it is a natural conclusion that since mind cannot be explained without the body, the two are actually the same substance, and there is no real distinction. This means that, returning to the question of “At what point does the mind fuse with the body?” we can now see that the mind and the body come into being simultaneously by virtue of the fact that they are only one being, either casting doubt on Descartes' use of the principle of sufficient reason, or suggesting that God inseparably fuses mind and body at the exact moment of conception. Either way, there is no place for Descartes' real distinction.


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