Descartes’ Dualism
(Extract from Chapter “Modern Philosophy: The Age of the Gentleman”)

by Albert William Levi

Descartes's first principle is the existence of consciousness and his last metaphysical act is the establishment or deduction of physical bodies in motion; and the coexistence of these two provides that unresolved dualism which is both the failure and the most characteristic feature of his system. It is a system haunted by the contrast between res cogitans and res extensa, between the "immaterial or metaphysical things" which people his metaphysics, and the "corporeal or physical things" which inhabit his science. And these difficulties, metaphysical and physical, coalesce in the problem of the human self, which, although it is essentially a "thing that thinks," is yet experienced as attached to a body so that we must perceive that it is a composite of mind and body. Yet the consistent interaction between these two has remained one of the unresolved riddles of the Cartesian system.

The whole of the sixth Meditation is an attempt to set forth this dualism and to canvass its difficulties. We are assured of the existence of material things by the faculty of sensory imagination; yet this power of imagination (since it differs from the power of understanding which is of the essence of the mind) is no "necessary" element in man's nature. As mind can exist without body, so intellectual understanding can exist without imagination—the former, in fact, as the agent of both self‑knowledge and mathematical knowledge, can provide reliable epistemic contents (clear and distinct ideas) and therefore "certainty" in a fashion that can never be guaranteed by the latter (which is only capable of "probability"). Another interesting consequence also follows. Although the understanding alone is capable of producing certain theoretical knowledge, the perceptions of sense, "having been placed within me by nature merely for the purpose of signifying to my mind what things are beneficial or hurtful to the composite whole of which it forms a part," become the practical guides to bodily action at the very moment in which they are deprived of epistemic certainty. As we might have learned from the Discourse and its separation of the search for theoretical certainty from the conventional and conservative acceptance of a provisional moral code to govern interim practical behavior, Descartes's separation of the mind and the body likewise entails a profound separation of the theoretical and the practical—of the values of knowledge and the values of action. And this too is capable of sociological interpretation along the lines which (in The Quest for Certainty) have constituted Dewey's critique of Plato.

It is nothing so crude as the distinction between the laboring classes and the classes of lordly leisure, although it bears some relationship to it. There is an age­-old association of thinking and knowing with immaterial and spiritual and "metaphysical" principles, and of all practical activity in the arts and crafts with “things" and with "brute matter." But a latent contempt for matter and the corporeal and the glorification of spirituality and mind are far from self-­explanatory. And it is especially paradoxical for Descartes, who separates thinking and knowing from intimate connection with physical objects, while, as we shall see, at the same time pressing for the whole‑hearted adoption of experimental method in the natural sciences. It is true that Descartes, like Plato, is a mathematician, and that this leads to a quest for epistemic certainty based on the idealization of a mathematical and intrinsically deductive model. Descartes's exaltation of pure mind above the contingency of the corporeal is undeniably connected with "the quest for a certainty which shall be absolute and unshakable," but the quiet achievement of the mathematician is at the same time materially dependent upon that upper-class independence and privacy of which I have previously spoken. Just three years after the publication of the Meditations Descartes, addressing the city of Utrecht to obtain justice and protection against Voetius's virulent charges against him, put at the head of his letter: "Reply of the Gentleman René Descartes, Lord of Perron," and the self‑esteem so registered is not totally irrelevant to a metaphysical doctrine which holds that the quest for complete certainty can be fulfilled in pure knowing alone. With those, like Descartes, to whom the process of pure thinking is overwhelmingly congenial, and who have the leisure and the aptitude—indeed the genius—to pursue their preference, the satisfactions attending knowledge are unalloyed—untangled in the risks of overt action and the perplexities of decisive moral choice. In such a favorable and permissive setting, it is not difficult to understand how thought can be alleged to be a purely "inner" activity, intrinsic to a "mind" complete and sufficient unto itself.

But there is also something more, and it springs from the paradox to which we have previously called attention: that the pioneer in mathematical physics and experimental science is also profoundly influenced by the residues of medieval thought. Anselm's ontological argument, the Thomistic principle of hierarchy, the Augustinian lumen naturale and theory of the will, all appear at one time or another in the writings of Descartes, and, although it would be a complete distortion to say that he valued medieval theology for its own sake, or even that the metaphysics he propounded (including the existence of God and an immortal soul) was meant to be independent of a justification of natural knowledge, nevertheless his dependence upon medieval foundations is not irrelevant, and he claimed an orthodoxy in religious belief which was taken in good faith by many, if not all, of his contemporaries.

The founding, then, of a physical science upon a spiritual metaphysics is dualistic and problematic, but it does enable one to have it both ways—to look back conservatively to a religious age, and to look forward hopefully to a millenium of applied technological science. In this respect Descartes is exemplary of the great problems of modern—that is to say, of seventeenth‑ and eighteenth‑century—philosophy, and of the general class of intellectuals of this period, torn between the claims of past and future. Dewey has stated it precisely:

Since science has made the trouble, the cure ought to be found in an examination of the nature of knowledge, of the conditions which make science possible. If the conditions of the possibility of knowledge can be shown to be of an ideal and rational character, then, so it has been thought, the loss of an idealistic cosmology in physics can be readily borne. The physical world can be surrendered to matter and mechanism, since we are assured that matter and mechanism have their foundation in immaterial mind. Such has been the characteristic course of modern spiritualistic philosophies since the time of Kant; indeed, since that of Descartes, who first felt the poignancy of the problem involved in reconciling the conclusions of science with traditional religious and moral beliefs.

It would certainly go too far to say that Descartes was consciously aware of the problem of "reconciling the conclusions of science with traditional religious and moral beliefs." This is the way the history of philosophy looks back upon an age to understand it better than it understood itself. But the presuppositions of "an age of faith" were Descartes's presuppositions also, and his constructive efforts to found the science of the natural world, which was probably his deepest philosophical commitment, are never independent of those medieval elements which are so insidious just because the mind of the time cannot perceive any horizon other than that bounded by their principles of transcendence. And that is why Descartes is so emblematic of the whole social dilemma and climate of opinion of the seventeenth century.

It is always important to distinguish between "a philosophy," which is the work of one individual, expressing his experience and his thought, and "a conception of the world" (Dilthey called it a Weltanschauung or a Weltbild; Lucien Goldmann, following him, a vision du monde), which is more the work of an epoch, a civilization, or a period in history. Descartes produced a philosophy which is at the same time a conception of the world, because the dualisms which haunt his thought are little more than the dilemmas of his age. And this is why it has been so tempting—particularly to his French Marxist interpreters—to see his dialectical contradictions as simple images of his social world. If Descartes is at once an idealist and a materialist (an idealist in metaphysics, a mechanistic materialist in science), this is but a mark of his genius and a sign of his time. For dualism is always a compromise, an accommodation, and a dilemma. And the Cartesian dualism too is a compromise within the realm of mind perfectly expressing the dilemma of the epoch. The seventeenth century lies between a dying feudalism and a rising bourgeoisie, between faith and science, theology and rational criticism, and this is perfectly expressed through that curious mixture in Descartes himself of prudence and audacity, timidity and assertiveness, impertinence and discretion, which are to be found so conspicuously in his response to the institutions of his time, in the letters he addresses to his contemporaries, and in the prefaces and prefatory materials of his major published works.

Descartes's modus vivendi was meant to be profoundly critical, and yet acceptable to powerful officials, to the established order, and to the major intellects of his time; that is to say, to savants and to free‑thinkers as well as to priests, professors, and princesses. There is a sense then in which the Discourse on Method announces modern civilization: it is secular, individualistic, technological, and rationalistic all at once; but it is also medieval, conservative, metaphysical, and aristocratic in tone. It lies between two worlds, as Dewey noted, and like the Meditations is the expression of a series of dichotomies which are to become even more pronounced, exaggerated, and scandalous in Kant.

SOURCE: Levi, Albert William. Philosophy as Social Expression (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), chapter 4, "Modern Philosophy: The Age of the Gentleman: Descartes," extract: pp. 215-219.

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