Home About us Editorial board Search Ahead of print Current issue Archives Submit article Instructions Subscribe Contact us Login 
  • Users Online:710
  • Home
  • Print this page
  • Email this page

 Table of Contents  
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 126-128

Rene descartes: Colossus of binaries – real or perceived?

Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Kottayam, Kerala, India

Date of Web Publication16-Jun-2017

Correspondence Address:
Sandeep Alex
Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Kottayam, Kerala
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/amhs.amhs_49_17

Rights and Permissions

Rene Descartes lived in the 17th century and is considered as the father of Western philosophy. He is generally credited with popularizing the concept of mind–body dualism. Cartesian dualism cannot be interpreted devoid of its historical origins. This article attempts to contextualize Descartes for students of medicine by reviewing the historical background of his formulations, its impact then and now, current relevance of mind–body dichotomy, and the controversies surrounding the concept.

Keywords: Cogito ergo sum, dogma, mind–body dualism

How to cite this article:
Alex S. Rene descartes: Colossus of binaries – real or perceived?. Arch Med Health Sci 2017;5:126-8

How to cite this URL:
Alex S. Rene descartes: Colossus of binaries – real or perceived?. Arch Med Health Sci [serial online] 2017 [cited 2022 Aug 9];5:126-8. Available from: https://www.amhsjournal.org/text.asp?2017/5/1/126/208201

  Introduction Top

Cogito ergo sum, so declared Rene Descartes, the foremost Western Philosopher of his era. The three short Latin words translating into English as “I think therefore I am.” It had an impact on science and philosophy of Western world far beyond than would have probably been imagined by Descartes himself and divided the timeline of Western philosophy to that as before and after him.

  Historical Background Top

Descartes could not have lived at a better time. Europe had emerged from the dark ages; it was colonizing distant lands and foreign people, and continent was getting wealthier. Winds of change were sweeping across Europe, and science was leading the charge and was its greatest beneficiary. Seventeenth century Europe witnessed new discoveries in all areas of science led by Isaac Newton in physics, Thomas Willis in anatomy, Galileo and Kepler in astronomy, William Harvey in physiology, and Robert Boyle in chemistry, to name a few.[1]

Philosophical and scientific ideas married to religious dogmas conceptualized many centuries back, though were once emancipating was now blocking progress of humankind. These fossilized ideas were being swept away in a tidal wave of new scientific discoveries. Time was propitiously right for Rene Descartes. Europe was in the throes of a revolution not in the streets or the palaces but in its universities and laboratories. Its enforcers were not the milling crowds but were the venerable scientists. Scientific revolution was in full swing, and Rene Descartes was of course there in attendance as one of its leading lights.

  Current Relevance of Rene Descartes Top

Chronicling Descartes; Philosopher, Scientist, and Mathematician all rolled into one is beyond the scope of this article. More than three and a half centuries have elapsed since his death, but we can still experience the reverberations of scientific enterprise he had set free and the resultant controversies in its wake. Here, an attempt is made to contextualize Descartes, to history of medicine and particularly to psychiatry and neurology. An unfair treatment one must confess since his seminal works is in philosophy and mathematics.

Rene Descartes still divides people. He still evokes strong responses in students of history of medicine and psychiatry. People either deify him or cast him as persona non grata for his proposition of mind–body dualism which according to some has been a stumbling block in understanding human behavior in all its splendor.

So who was Descartes? How was his life and times? What was his contribution to scientific thought? How come a man whose principal interest was not medicine could so influence its history? Why he still evokes strong emotions even three and a half centuries after his death? Is he a real talismanic figure or someone from the distant past whose views are often repeated just to spice up the current controversies?

  Brief Biography Top

Born in La Haye en Touraine in France on March 31, 1596, Descartes studied at the Jesuit College for graduation and then studied at the University of Poitiers earning a Baccalaureat and Licence in Canon and Civil law [Figure 1]. He then joined military which was his ambition and while stationed in Neuberg had three “visions” which convinced him that pursuit of science would be a central part of his life's work. Descartes left the army and embarked on a quest, for him a lifelong quest of true wisdom and knowledge. It was a journey which saw him publish major treatises in philosophy and mathematics. He traveled across Europe and was a much sought-after figure in most of the royal courts. Queen Christina of Sweden invited Descartes to her court in 1649, to instruct her on matters of science where he died on February 11, 1650, after contracting pneumonia before completing his assignment [Figure 2].
Figure 1: Rene Descartes

Click here to view
Figure 2: Detail from Christina of Sweden and her Court , showing the Queen and Descartes, by Pierre- Louis Dumesnil the Younger ( 1698- 1781) in the Chateau de Versailles, France (Photo : Bridgeman Art Library)

Click here to view

  Concept of Mind–body Dualism and Its Origins Top

Mind–body dualism or Cartesian dualism after its most celebrated proponent represents the metaphysical stance that mind and body are separate entities each with its own distinctive nature. The concept had its origins in ancient times but had its rebirth in the 17th century with Rene Descartes. He neatly divided res cogitans, the “thinking thing” the mind and “nonthinking thing” the brain and body, res extensa.

According to him, human beings consisted of two unlike substances which could not exist in unity. Mind was unextended and immaterial whereas body was extended and material. Mind was capable of thought while the body was not. The former was not subject to mechanical laws while the latter could be. According to Descartes, a person lives through two collateral histories, one comprising of what happens in and to the body, the other consisting of what happens in and to his mind, the events in the first history are events in the physical world, those in the second are events in the mental world.

Cartesian dualism came about just like all other path-breaking ideas because it was the need of the hour. It provided a critical quantum leap for science of the day. Orthodox religious views of mind–body relationship prevalent in Europe then, were holding the medical science hostage to it. According to the prevailing dogma, human beings were spiritual beings, and body and the soul were one. Diseases were due to sinful thoughts and behavior or collective wrongdoing. It was even held that for soul to ascend to heaven, the earthly body should remain intact, with resultant religious prohibition of human cadaveric dissection, a serious offense punishable by even death. In one master stroke, Descartes dehyphenated “immortal” soul and the “mortal” body. He demystified the body and handed it over to anatomists and physiologists who were only too happy to oblige. The matters of the soul were left to priests and practitioners of religion.[2]

Medicine was set free and embarked on an inexorable course of finding evidence; evidence for etiopathogenesis of illnesses of the body and devising treatments for the same. It brought astounding improvements in the field of medical science and brought us to where we stand today. But did it come at a price? Did Rene Descartes make an error?

  Cartesian Dualism: Liberating or Enslaving? Top

Rene Descartes was a master reductionist. In his “Rules for Guiding One's Intelligence in searching for the Truth,” a book published nearly half a century after his death, Descartes posits that “if we were to understand a question perfectly, it must be abstracted from every superfluous concept, reduced to its most simple form and divided by enumeration into the smallest parts possible.”

Logical, impersonal, and unbiased thought deliberately unsympathetic and looking for truth always did wonders to study of physics, chemistry, and astronomy and by its very success established itself as the Holy Grail of science. To be counted as real science, other fields of science too will have to subject themselves to same level of scrutiny. It was a task too high or too restrictive for social and behavioral sciences, and a liberating idea for science including most of modern medicine became a millstone for behavioral science.

If we apply analytical reductionist approach to medicine, human beings will have to be viewed as biological organisms to be understood by examining their constituent parts using principles of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. Any deviation from the biological norm resulted in disease. This overtly mechanistic approach though effective in physical medicine made it less humane and simplistic. It took away the person-centric practices which was the hallmark of medicine across the centuries and which still continues in alternate systems of medicine. Modern medicine still finds it difficult to reconcile to the fact that how patients views regarding their own illness alter treatment response and prognosis.

  Impact on Psychiatry: Descartes' Error? Top

Descartes legacy to psychiatry is complex and needs nuanced reading. Detractors will point out to the difficulties encountered by Western psychiatry after the advent of dualism. The profound impact of this dualistic thinking is best addressed through the prism of two historical developments. The first one is concerned with the way neurology and psychiatry developed. Neurology dealt with disorders of the human mind/brain system (HMBS) that produced consistent neuropathological findings while psychiatry got what was left. By extension of logic, disorders were either organic (brain based) or functional (mind based) creating the organic-functional conundrum. The second one was the arrival of digital computer. The HMBS was understood as an information processing system directly analogous to a digital computer. The brain is the hardware while mind was the software.

The effects of functional-organic dichotomy have been pernicious. Disorders are either organic/hardware or functional/software problems. The “either“/“or” ness is particularly troublesome for comprehensive patient care. An example would be how psychiatry and neurology grappled with concept of hysteria. Psychiatry did respond to the challenge by adopting biopsychosocial model of etiology for mental illnesses and by developing psychosomatics as a subbranch. However, even now, a satisfactory solution eludes us.[3]

  Descartes' Defense Top

Many keen students of Descartes posit that he is unfairly maligned as the progenitor of mind–body dualism when in fact, such ideas were already present in Western philosophy since the time of Plato. It is also pointed out there is a discrepancy between historical Descartes and the mythical one.[4] The former one, based on his own writings has conciliatory stands on mind–body dichotomy while the latter one is a larger than life figure evolved over a period of time on the basis of interpretations by later day detractors who stood to gain more traction for their own postulates by straight-jacketing Descartes.

Rather than severing mind from the body, Descartes joined them closely together in an intimate interdependency. In meditation VI, “Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinctions between the Soul and Body of Man,” Descartes argues at length that the soul is not only “lodged in the body” as a “pilot in a vessel” but is very closely united to it and so to speak so intermingled with it that soul and body seem to compose one whole. Moreover, in the Passions of the Soul, Descartes describes a series of states of mind which are immediate consequences of preceding or simultaneous alterations of the body.

It is even contended in Descartes' defense that he chose the phrase cogito ergo sum as a deliberate misrepresentation to accommodate for the prevailing religious sentiments. The inscription Descartes chose for his tombstone was a quote he used frequently: “Bene qui latuit, bene vixit,” from Ovid's Tristia 3.4.25 translated as “He who hid well, lived well.” However, it remains a view that is hotly contested and unproven.[5]

  Final Perspectives Top

Mind–body dualism still exerts its influence in classification, research, and treatment of diseases. Current stakeholders for and against Cartesian dichotomy hold on to their positions. Neuroscientists still keep on trying to unravel the mystery of mind as brain hardware in action leaving aside psychosocial determinants while their counterparts in human psychology focus on the latter completely ignoring the neurons, molecules, neurotransmitters, and receptors which are so essential for the mind software to function. Cartesian dualism is getting perpetuated in the 21st century in a mutated form.

Perhaps, we must again take solace in Descartes and not judge us or him too harshly as he so eloquently put “I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery.” The father of Western philosophy continues to kindle binary perceptions, either real or perceived.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Descartes R. Discourse on Method and Related Writings, trans. Clark DM. New York: Penguin Classics; 2003.  Back to cited text no. 1
Mehta N. Mind – Body dualism: A critique from health perspective. In: Singh AR, Singh SA, editors. Brain, Mind and Consciousness: An International, Interdisciplinary Perspective. Vol. 9. New York: MSM; 2011. p. 202-9.  Back to cited text no. 2
Kendler KS. The dappled nature of causes of psychiatric illness: Replacing the organic-functional/hardware-software dichotomy with empirically based pluralism. Mol Psychiatry 2012;17:377-88.  Back to cited text no. 3
Brown TM. Cartesian dualism and psychosomatics. Psychosomatics 1989;30:322-31.  Back to cited text no. 4
Damasio AR. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Book; 1994.  Back to cited text no. 5


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]


Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
Access Statistics
Email Alert *
Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)

  In this article
Historical Backg...
Current Relevanc...
Brief Biography
Concept of Mind&...
Cartesian Dualis...
Impact on Psychi...
Descartes' D...
Final Perspectives
Article Figures

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded278    
    Comments [Add]    

Recommend this journal