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The evolution of the Cartesian soul

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The evolution of the Cartesian soul
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Saitta, David
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Meditationes de prima philosophia (Descartes, René) ( fast )
Soul ( lcsh )
Soul ( fast )
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theses ( marcgt )
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Includes bibliographical references (leaf 74).
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Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
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by David Saitta.

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Full Text
THE EVOLUTION OF THE CARTESIAN SOUL
by
David Saitta
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, 2004
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
2007


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
David Saitta
has been approved
by
6? 3/o 7
Date


Saitta, David
The Evolution of the Cartesian Soul
Thesis directed by Professor Candice Shelby
ABSTRACT
The Mediations on First Philosophy (1641) is a work of Christian
apologetics that offer proofs for two questions significant to Scholastic
philosophy: does God exist, and is the soul immortal? If, as Descartes
maintains, the senses are an obstacle to the truth, the only available avenue for
indubitable knowledge of the existence of God and the soul is via separation of
the mind from the senses. Descartes distinction between the mind and body
attacks the classic Aristotelian doctrine of the rational soul as the form of the
human body a doctrine also shared by Aristotles Medieval Scholastic
descendents. In particular, Saint Thomas Aquinas conception of the unified
body and soul agrees with Aristotles doctrine; and the doctrine, as it is found in
Thomas, was also held by the Catholic Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne, to
whom Descartes dedicated his Meditations. Yet the thesis of the six
Meditations contradicts the Aristotelian/Thomistic doctrine of the unity of the
body and soul. The unity of the body and soul is eradicated by the first act of
Cartesian doubt. Calling the reliability of the senses into question breaks the
Aristotelian/Scholastic doctrine of the substantial union of the soul and body.
For Descartes, then, the question of the minds affinity with other intellects
arises. According to Thomas, the mind of God and separate substances, or
angels, understand concepts per se, rather than per accidens, or through sense
organs. This mode of understanding is specific to intellectual natures, and the
Cartesian mind, in this respect, derives ultimately from the Thomistic account of
intellects (Divine and angelic) that are not embodied. The mind {ego) perceives
itself, that God exists, and that mind, because it operates independent of the
body, retains its function in spite of the body as such. Hence, in the
Meditations, Descartes depreciation of the material world is intended to


underscore the parallel between the rational mind created by God, and the
rational minds resemblance to the Divine. In asserting that the rational mind
contains an innate idea of an infinite God, Descartes rejects the
Aristotelian/Thomistic proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of
the soul from secondary causes, or efficient causality.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its immediate publication.


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION : ARISTOTLE, THOMAS, AND
DESCARTES
MEDITATIONS........................1
2. DESCARTES ANTI-ARISTOTLEIANISM IN THE
DEDICATORY LETTER TO THE
SORBONNE...........................6
3. DESCARTES CONCEPTION OF MIND VERSUS
THE ARISTOTELIAN CONCEPTION
OF THE SOUL.......................17
4. THE PROBLEM OF DESCARTES TERMINOLOGY
AND THE ATTACK ON THOMAS AND
SCHOLASTICISM IN THE MEDITATIONS...27
5. DESCARTES CONCEPTION OF MIND VERSUS
THE SCHOLASTIC CONCEPTION OF THE
SOUL...............................34
6. THOMAS CONCEPTION OF THE IMMORTALITY
OF THE SOUL........................37
7. THE MINDS SEPARABILITY VERSUS THE
SOULS IMMORTALITY.................42
8. DESCARTES MIND AND THOMAS SEPARATE
SUBSTANCES.........................55
9. THE CORRESPONDENCE OF THE MIND OF GOD
AND THE RATIONAL MIND IN THE
MEDITATIONS........................63
BIBLIOGRAPHY............................73
v


CHAPTER 1
ARISTOTLE, THOMAS, AND DESCARTES MEDITATIONS
In his Discourse on the Method of 1637, Descartes ridicules the
Aristotelian/Thomist maxim, there is nothing in the intellect that is not previously in
the senses. Descartes intended to expose the logical absurdities that follow from
giving sense perception priority in the rational souls operation of understanding:
The reason for this is that they never raise their minds above things which can be
perceived by the senses: they are so used to thinking of things only by imagining
them (a way of thinking specially suited to material things) that whatever is
unimaginable seems to them unintelligible. This is sufficiently obvious from the fact
that even the scholastic philosophers take it as a maxim there is nothing in the
intellect which has not previously been in the senses [Ce qui est assez manifeste de
ce que mesme les Philosophes tienent pour maxime, dans les Escholes, qu 'il n y a
rien dans Ventendement qui n aitpremierement este dan le sens]-, yet it is certain that
the ideas of God and the soul have never been in the senses.1
According to Descartes, the soul knows neither itself, nor God through sense
images because it is not the substantial form of the human body certainly not in the
1 Discourse on the Method, AT VI, 561; CSM 1, p. 129. Compare this passage to Summa Theologica,
q. 75, art. 1: Now life is shown principally by two activities, knowledge and movement. The
philosophers of old, not being able to rise above their imagination, supposed that the principle of these
actions was something corporeal; for they asserted that only bodies were real things, and that what is
not corporeal is nothing. Hence they maintained that the soul is some sort of body. All footnote
citations of Descartes works are as follows: references to Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (eds.),
Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols. (Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1996), are abbreviated as AT;
references to the English edition of Descartes philosophical works, The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes, 3 vols., John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Mardoch, and Anthony Kenny (eds.),
(Cambridge University Press, 1984), are abbreviated as CSM. All footnote citations of Aristotles De
anima refer to Richard McKeon (ed), The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, New York, 1941),
and is abbreviated as DA. All footnote citations of Thomas Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles refer to
James F. Anderson (trans. & ed.), On the Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles, 4 vols.
(Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1956), and is abbreviated as SCG.
1


Aristotelian/Scholastic sense of the soul as the form of the body. Descartes
methodological doubt furnishes him with the requisite conditions for dispensing with
the Aristotelian theory of knowledge that asserts the primacy of sense images in
matters of rational intelligibility.2 If the soul knows nothing through sense-images,
the only available avenue for indubitable knowledge of the existence of God and the
soul is via separation of the mind from the senses [abducere mentem a sensibus]3 to
discover the innate knowledge of the existence of God and the separabilty of the mind
from the body.
Like his Regulae,4 Descartes Meditations become intelligible when read as a
conversation with Aristotle and his Scholastic descendents, such as Scotus, Ockham,
and above all, Aquinas. When Descartes broaches the question of the nature of the
soul in his prefatory letter to the Sorbonne in the Meditations, he has nothing other
than the opening of Aristotles De anima in mind, writing, As regards the soul, many
people have considered that it is not easy to discover [non facile investigari] its
2 Numerous passages in Descartes writings could be cited to show the difference between his thought
and the thought of Thomas on the point of the how the soul knows itself, but let a comparison of two
passages suffice. Thomas writes, Indeed, he [Aristotle] says in Book III of On the Soul that the
possible intellect understands itself as it does other things. For it understands itself through an
intelligible species, by which it is made actual in the genus of intelligible objects. Considered in itself,
it [the soul] is merely in potency in regard to intelligible being; nothing is known according to what it
is potentially, but only as it is actually (SCG, 3, 46, 7, brackets mine).
Now Descartes: I will suppose then, that everything I see is spurious. I will believe that my
memory tells me lies... I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are chimeras.
So what remains true?... Thinking? At last I have discovered it thought; this alone is inseparable
from me... I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or
intellect or reason [sum igitur praecise tantum res cogitans, id est, mens, sive animus, sive intellectus,
sive ratio]..." AT VII, 24, 27; CSM 2, pp.16, 18. Brackets mine.
3 Cf. AT VII, 52; CSM 2, p. 37.
4 Cf. Jean Luc Marions Descartes Grey Ontology (St. Augustines Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2007).
2


nature...5 Aristotles procedure for inquiring into the soul in De anima begins with
what is perceptible and moves to the underlying principle or mechanism that makes
objects intelligible to the mind: ...in the order of investigation the question of what
an agent does [movement] precedes the question, what enables it [i.e., the soul] to do
what it does.6
The completely separable and independent essence of the mind, Descartes
argues, involves two modifications of the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of man as a
rational animal. First, Descartes rejects the Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the
rational soul, whose mode of understanding is through an intelligible species, or
turning toward phantasms [se adphantasmata)]. Second, Descartes rejects the
Aristotelian/Thomistic conception of the substantial union of rational soul and body
by denying not only the verity of the knowledge of species gained through the senses,
but also entertaining the possible non-existence of all bodies. The two latter steps are
necessary for Descartes to affirm the superior epistemological status of the thinking
thing [res cogitans] over extended things [res extensia]. Only the thinking thing
distinguishes the true from the false and uncovers the ontology of the soul in an
intuitive, self-reflexive act (Descartes cogito). Only when the mind is free of
sensory interference can it apprehend the innately contained ideas of the existence of
God and the separabilty of the mind from the body.
5 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4, brackets mine. Cf. DA, To attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one
of the most difficult things in the world, p. 535,402a 10. Cf. Discourse on the Method, But many
are convinced that there is some difficulty in knowing God and even knowing what their soul is, AT
VI, 37; CSM l,p. 129.
6 DA, p. 561,415a 15. Brackets mine.
3


Aristotle and Thomas assert that the soul is the mover of the body. In
contrast, the soul/mind, according to Descartes, is not responsible for the movement
of the body; rather, the minds only operation is thinking. That is the reason why,
after rejecting the Aristotelian/Thomistic account of the soul as the mover of the
body, Descartes chief problem in the Meditations is demonstrating how the soul or
mind is connected to the body. The circulatory system, Descartes argues, is
responsible for the movements of the body; the mind is only aware of the body in
respect to the sensation of pain, or other corporeal necessities, such as the bodys
sensation of hunger or thirst. Aside from the rational minds embodiment in the
human animal, the mind, so to speak, owes nothing to the body, and vice-versa.
Hence, the mind, Descartes, argues, has no need of the bodily senses to grasp the
essential nature of objects. The senses do not think, only the mind does. Thus, the
minds innate ideas of concepts such as the existence of God, the ego, or the essence
of wax need no corresponding tie to objects in the material world (which, for
Descartes, may not even exist). Accordingly, the egos act of existence cannot be
said to depend on the beginning or end of the body to which it is somehow attached.
The very nature of the Cartesian mind is found in its ideas that have no exact
correlative in the material world, such as the existence of God and the separabilty of
the mind from the body.
Like Descartes, Thomas Aquinas obligation to abide by the Catholic
Churchs dogma of the souls immortality required demonstrating that the soul, as the
form of the human body, is separable from the body. Reckoning Christian doctrine
4


with Aristotelian philosophy necessitated Thomas modification to Aristotles
account of the soul in De anima. Because the question of the immortality of the
intellective soul is left open in the Aristotelian account, Thomas argues for the
substantiality of the rational soul per se. On the other hand, Descartes theory of
cognition presupposes the body and senses as being obstacles to the minds
knowledge of the truth. The mind can continue all of its cognitive operations
independent of any contribution from the bodys sense organs because the objects of
cognition do not come without, but from within the mind (only the mind inspects
[inspectum mentus\ or alternately, seel solius mentis inspect io])J Descartes seeks to
demonstrate that the mind alone understands, and that only knowledge contained
innately in the mind is indubitable. Confirmation of this fact is stated explicitly by
Descartes: ...it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist
without it.7 8 The soul as the form of the body [anima corporis forma] of Aristotle
and his Scholastics descendents is eradicated by the first act of Cartesian doubt
calling the reliability of the senses into question. The only operation of the Cartesian
mind, thinking, does not require a substantial union with a particular kind of body, or
a body at all. In spite of his claim that the soul forms a substantial union with the
body, Descartes broke the substantial union.9
7Cf. AT VII, 31;CSM 2, p. 21.
8 AT VII, 78; CSM 2, p.54.
9 Cf. Descartes reply to Arnauld in the Fourth Set of Replies, AT VII, 228ff.; CSM 2, 160ff.
5


CHAPTER TWO
DESCARTES ANTI-ARISTOTLEIANISM IN THE DEDICATORY LETTER TO
THE SORBONNE
To gain the commendation of the Sorbonne for his Meditations, Descartes
required a subtle method of aligning his ostensibly anti-Aristotelian conception of
God and the human soul with the views upheld by the conservative Aristotelians of
the Sorbonne faculty:10
.. .1 have noticed both that you and all other theologians assert that the
existence of God is capable of proof by natural reason, and also that the
inference from Holy Scripture is that the knowledge [cognitional] of God is
easier to acquire than the knowledge we have of many created things...11
Descartes presents his conception of mans knowledge of Gods existence and the
immortality of the soul in an attempt to persuade the theologians that his metaphysics
does not diverge from the main topics of prior systems, but serves to reckon together
and codify all arguments that have been put forward on these issues by the great
10 In a letter to Mersenne of January 28, 1641, Descartes writes in regard to his physics, ...I may tell
you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But
please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I
hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice
that they destroy the principles of Aristotle, AT III, 297-298; CSMK 3, p. 173. Like Aristotles
physics, Descartes physics are founded on his metaphysics; hence, to destroy the principles of
Aristotles physics is to cast doubt on the validity of his metaphysics as well which Descartes does
not fail to do in his Meditations.
11 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3.
6


men. Descartes praises his predecessors arguments as having the force of
demonstrations.12 13 But Descartes claim of upholding orthodoxy in his dedicatory
letter should be considered further alongside the claim he makes in his Letter to
VoetiusP In his letter, Descartes argues that Thomas proofs for the existence of God
have all been found to contain invalid conclusions, and are therefore inconclusive, if
not faulty proofs. If anyone is guilty of Atheism, Descartes declares, Thomas is the
more culpable, pointing out that Thomas proofs for the existence of God have been
disproven, whereas his never can be.
In his letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes strategically combines established
doctrines of the Church with the traditional Scholastic endeavor to generate proofs for
the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. However, in the Meditations, he
ingeniously modifies the purpose of speculative philosophy and natural theology to
support the practical ends of science. It is noteworthy that the Sorbonne letter only
contains one passing mention of science, when, in fact, the purpose of the Meditations
is an attempt to establish a firm foundation upon which to raise the sciences.14
12 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.
13 Cf. AT VIIIB, 176; CSM 3, p. 223.
14 And finally, I was strongly pressed to undertake this task [producing demonstrative proofs for the
existence of God, and that the human mind is distinct from the body] by several people who knew that
I had developed a method for resolving certain difficulties in the sciences... AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.
Brackets mine.
7


Because Descartes physics derives entirely from his metaphysics,15 he is able
to sidestep the fact that his speculative metaphysics overturns the speculative physics
of Aristotle. The two main points Descartes addresses in his dedicatory epistle to the
Meditations are proving the existence of God and demonstrating the immortality of
the soul. He frames the latter problems in terms of the historical search for definitive
philosophic proofs. If the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are
provable, then atheism and religious skepticism can be combated with an assurance of
victory.16 Descartes project of providing a firm metaphysical foundation for the
sciences is carried out according to the established template of the Scholastic
philosophers, consisting of a synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian
theology. But by taking a reductionist approach to the history of philosophy, and
indeed to the act of philosophizing itself, Descartes is able to critique and sweep aside
15 In a letter to Mersenne of November 11, 1640, Descartes discusses some possible difficulties in the
Sorbonnes reception of his Meditations, which he refers to as his metaphysics, due to controversies
that might arise concerning certain other projected publications: It might also hold up the approbation
of the Sorbonne, which I want, and which I think may be very useful for my purposes, for I must tell
you that the little book on metaphysics which I sent you contains all the principles of my physics. (AT
III, 233; CSMK 3, p. 157).
16 What I have done is to take merely the principle and most important arguments and develop them
in such a way that I would now venture to put them forward as very certain and evident
demonstrations. I will add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the
possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones. (AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4).
Contra the materialistic view of the soul propounded by early natural philosophers, Descartes
briefly alludes to such claims in the Second Meditation: But as to the nature of this soul, either I did
not think about this or else I imagined it to be something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which
permeated my more solid parts. (AT VII, 26; CSM 2, p. 17).
Cf. SCG 2,49: 11: This, then, does away with the error of the early natural philosophers who
supposed that no substance exists except the corporeal, and who therefore said that the soul is a body,
either fire or water or air, or something of the kind.
Cf. DA, p. 540-542 (405a 5-505b 30) for Aristotles review of his predecessors opinions of
the soul as either an element, or constructed out of the elements. The respective summaries of the
opinions of early natural philosophers found in the writings of Descartes and Aquinas are an obvious
echo of remarks made in Aristotles treatise on the soul.
8


the writings of his Scholastic predecessors with his claims of logical soundness and
indubitability for his respective proofs in the Meditations.11
Descartes conception of one universal science, whose roots are metaphysics,
the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other
sciences...,18 requires that the method used for augmenting the sciences be single, in
order for truth to be demonstrated in a systematic order. The indemonstrability of
Aristotles first principles for reasoning is transformed, under the auspices of the
Cartesian method, into the test of indubitability for arriving at epistemological
certainty in derived propositions. Descartes synthesis of speculative metaphysics
and Christian theology differs from the Scholastics metaphysics and theology in the
respect that the aim of discovering a method to derive indubitable metaphysical
principles to augment the sciences was never present for Scholastic philosophers. For
Descartes, the theological imperative to demonstrate the existence of God and the
immortality of the soul developed out of a rationale opposed to the
Aristotelian/Scholastic concept of theoria (the contemplation of truth) as the utmost
goal of philosophizing.19 17 18 19
17 I do not think that the diversity of the opinions of the scholastics makes their philosophy difficult to
refute. It is easy to overturn the foundations on which they all agree, and once that has been done, all
their disagreements over detail will seem foolish. (AT III, 232; CSMK 3, p. 156).
18 Fifth Set of Objections, AT VIID; CSM 1, 186.
19 Cf. Nicomachean Ethics, ...the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be
contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this [contemplation] must
be most of the nature of happiness, p. 1104 (1178b 20). Brackets mine. Cf. SCG 1, 1:2: The
ultimate end of the universe must... be the good of an intellect. This good is truth. Truth must
consequently be the ultimate end of the whole universe, and the consideration of the wise man aims
principally at truth.
9


The philosophers of Antiquity commonly divided human activity into two
spheres derived from two modes of understanding: the active life, derived from
opinion, or subjective experience, and the contemplative life, derived from the
minds rational faculty to apprehend objective concepts and objects. For Aristotle,
life begins in the sphere of practical activity and ends in the act of philosophic
contemplation of the unmoved Divine. For Aristotle as well as Thomas, metaphysics
is the most logical and objective of the sciences, and crowns the investigation of
being as being. The other sciences, which take practical activity as their end, are
naturally inferior to metaphysics, and form a basis for the rational investigation of the
Diving, i.e., God.
Descartes accepts the premise that metaphysics is superior to all the other
sciences. Yet metaphysics is, as he calls it, the roots of his system, and not the
speculative crown that metaphysics represent to Aristotle and Thomas. Philosophy,
for Descartes, need no longer be speculative; first principles need no longer be sought
for their own sake. The tradition of speculative philosophy is no longer viable in the
scope of a theoretical philosophy with practical ends. For Descartes, the end of
philosophy is not the science of the search for first principle or, the speculative
exploration of Divine attributes. Rather, the practical end of philosophy is the project
of applying indubitable principles to formulate and discover practical aids to remedy
the ills of human existence. In his Discourse on the Method, Descartes states that
raising the sciences on a rational and indubitable foundation will recapture for man
10


the position he once owned in the Garden of Eden the master and proprietor of
nature.
By replacing speculative philosophy with practical philosophy, Descartes
rejects not only the contemplation of truth as the goal of philosophic activity, but
takes religious and philosophical skepticism as his chief enemy from the beginning,
rather than the thought of Aristotle and the Scholastics.20 Descartes held that the
proofs found in the writings of the Schoolmen for the existence of God and the
immortality of the soul failed to attain their objective, and amounted in the end to a
mere demonstrations that the truths of faith and the truths of reason do not lie in
opposition to each other. Such demonstrations, Descartes held, were insufficient to
combat the tendency in the 17th century toward atheism and religious skepticism. The
only sufficient criterion for the test of indubitable knowledge is the minds perception
of truth that impresses itself with such force and vivacity that the mind cannot help
but assent to the validity of the proposition (e.g., that God exists). According to
Descartes, only such truths are what the mind perceives clearly and distinctly. All
other families of propositions fall within the realm of Aristotles indemonstrable first
principles and Thomas secondary causes.
In his Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes presents his Meditations
to the Dean and Doctors as a work of Christian apologetics. However, he is not
forthcoming about his incendiary goal of demolishing the whole of the Aristotelian
20 Cf. Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy. Modem Philosophy: Descartes to Leibniz,
volume 4 (Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1960), p. 80.
11


metaphysics, physics, and psychology. Descartes principle of methodological
doubt [rationem dubitandi] functions as a tool for overturning what Aristotle and his
Medieval Scholastic followers took for granted the reliability of the rational souls
knowledge of the material world acquired through the senses.21 In the 17th century,
Aristotelianism and Thomism predominated among the faculty members of the
Sorbonne. According to the prevailing Aristotelian doctrine in the Schools, the first
principle of mans knowledge is the sensible apprehension of objects in the material
world. The sensible apprehension of objects depends upon the sensible object
received by the agent intellect via the phantasm, or image. Without the sensible
object, neither the agent nor the possible intellect could be, in a sense, activated.
Without the particulars of sense knowledge, the intellects abstraction from particular
objects to grasp the intelligible species could never take place. Cognition as such
would be impossible for Aristotles man. Except as a peripheral question, neither
Aristotle nor any Scholastic philosopher prior to Descartes ever took seriously the
question of the reliability of sense perception as a conduit of genuine knowledge.
21 It should be noted that, in regard to his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes desire to have his
textbook adopted and instituted into the Jesuit educational programme led him to soften his tone
concerning the anti-Aristotelian and anti-Scholastic positions found in such works as his Discourse on
the Method (1637) and Meditations (1641). Writing to his former teacher, Charlet, in regard to the
contents of his Principles in October 1644, Descartes states that, I know that people have thought my
views were new; yet they will see here that I do not use any principles which were not accepted by
Aristotle and by all those who have ever concerned themselves with philosophy. People have also
imagined that my aim was to refute the received views of the Schools, and to try to render them
absurd; but they will see that I do not discuss them any more than I would if I had never learnt them
(AT IV, 141; CSMK 3, p. 238); and four months later, again writing to Charlet, Descartes expresses
his wish that his textbook would serve effectively to explain the truths of the faith without, moreover,
contradicting the writings of Aristotle (AT IV, 157; CSMK 3, p. 240).
12


Descartes begins his Meditations by inquiring into whether the rational mind
is capable of a type of purely rational mental activity comparable to Aristotles
conception of contemplation [theoria]. To do so, however, Descartes reverses
Aristotles procedure for inquiring into the nature of the soul. To see how this is
done, it is necessary to point out that Aristotle does not begin his inquiry into the
nature of the soul with cognition, since thought itself is neither perceptible, nor is it
an intelligible species that takes itself as its own object. In other words, Aristotles
account of the rational soul does not begin with a demonstration of rationality.
Philosophy begins, according to Aristotle, by setting out principles that, for the
rational mind requiring material particulars to abstract universals from, are
indemonstrable principles. The famous principle of non-contradiction is one
example of Aristotles indemonstrable first principles.
In the Sixth Meditation, Cartesian philosophys crowing project of the
mastery of nature ends up where Aristotles philosophic project (in De anima)
begins. Descartes last chapter in the Meditations gives an account of the movement
and activity of the animal possessing a rational mind. The purpose of his account is
twofold: first, to developing cures for the infirmities of the body to which the mind is
attached as a pilot in his ship; second, Descartes hoped to raise man through the 22
22 Cf. Aristotles Metaphysics: There are... some who raise a difficulty by asking, who is to be the
judge of the healthy man, and in general who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions. But
such inquiries are like puzzling over the question whether we are now asleep or awake. And all such
questions have the same meaning. These people demand that a reason shall be given for everything;
for they seek a starting-point, and they seek to get this by demonstration, while it is obvious from their
actions that they have no conviction. But their mistake is what we have stated it to be; they seek a
reason for things for which no reason can be given; for the starting-point of demonstration is not
demonstration, p. 747-748 (1011a 1- 15).
13


development of the sciences to the status of the master and proprietor of nature.
Descartes theory of the separabilty of the mind and body stands in opposition to his
theory of the substantial union of the mind and body, which, he writes, is not merely
the relation of mover to the thing moved, but a relation where the mind and body are
very closely joined so as to form a unit. Translated into the Aristotelian
vocabulary, the Cartesian theory of cognition states that the universal or essential
nature of an object is known prior to, and more easily, than the particular material
object in the world grasped through the corporeal senses. The first principle of
knowledge, according to Descartes, is not objects in the material world or concepts
that abide the principle of non-contradiction. Rather, the first principles of
knowledge are contained in the innate ideas that the mind has of all objects, including
God and the self, independent of all sensory perceptions. These principles, Descartes
holds, are indubitable, and therefore more logically consistent than Aristotles
indemonstrable first principles that seem to assert the priority of the objects of
knowledge over the knower.
In the Dedicatory Letter of the Meditations, Descartes argument from the
Bible regarding the minds intuitive or innate knowledge of the existence of God
implicitly corroborates the argument given in the Meditations for why the souls
nature is easily discovered. The minds innate idea of God is demonstrable from the
essence of the mind itself, which, as an incorporeal thinking substance, is entirely
distinct and separable in its operations from the body and its senses. Descartes 23
23 Sixth Meditation, AT VII 81; CSM 2, p. 56.
14


celebrated phrase, sed solius mentis inspectio, or the mind alone inspects, reverses
the Aristotelian order of operation by which the rational soul understands external
objects. To meditate, according to Descartes, is to detach the mind from the senses,
because the sensory-dependent body is an obstacle to knowing the truth.24 25
Descartes sought to align his proofs for the existence of God and the
immortality of the soul with the long-accepted proofs of his Scholastic predecessors.
In his dedication, Descartes calls his addressees attention to the fact that his project
of proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul corresponds to the
traditional Scholastic enterprise. Further, Descartes cites the eighth session of the
Lateran Council held under Pope Leo X (.Apostolici Regiminis, 1513) to legitimize
his philosophical investigation into the existence of God and the human rational soul.
By adopting Leo Xs mandate for Christian philosophers to refute the arguments of
24 Cf. Sixth Meditation, AT VII 82-83; CSM 2, p. 57: For knowledge of the truth about such things
[the intellects examination of its ideas of essences] seems to belong to the mind alone, not to the
combination of mind and body. Brackets mine.
25 Since in our days (and we painfully bring this up) the sower of cockle, ancient enemy of the human
race, has dared to disseminate and advance in the field of the Lord a number of pernicious errors
always rejected by the faithful, especially concerning the nature of the rational soul, namely, that it is
mortal, or one in all men, and some rashly philosophizing affirmed that this is true at least according to
philosophy, in our desire to offer suitable remedies against a plague of this kind, with the approval of
this holy Council, we condemn and reject all who assert that [1] the intellectual soul is mortal, or [2] is
one in all men, and those who cast doubt on these truths, since it [the soul] is not only truly in itself and
essentially the form of the human body [forma corporis], as was defined in the canon of Pope
CLEMENT V our predecessor of happy memory published in the (general) Council of VIENNE but it
is also multiple according to the multitude of bodies into which it is infused, multiplied, and to be
multiplied... And since [3] truth never contradicts truth, we declare every assertion contrary to the truth
of illumined faith to be altogether false; and, that it may not be permitted to dogmatize otherwise, we
strictly forbid it, and we declare that all who adhere to errors of this kind are to be shunned and to be
punished as detestable and abominable infidels who disseminate most damnable heresies and who
weaken the Catholic faith. Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum De Rebus Fidei
Et Morum, ed. By Henricus Denzinger, # 738.
15


irreligious philosophers who hold that the soul dies along with the body,26
Descartes hoped to gain the commendation of the Sorbonnes Aristotelian/Thomist
faculty members.
Be that as it may, Descartes mission as a philosophical apologist for the truth
of Christian doctrine involved more than simply upholding the tenets of the Faith
with rational arguments, as there was nothing innovative in doing so. The sense that
Aristotelian philosophy was a stagnant body of knowledge prompted Descartes to
look afresh at the foundations of philosophy. In making Thomas Aquinas its
representative theologian, the Church had implicitly Christianized the thought of
Thomas master, Aristotle. Descartes considered the alliance of Christian and pagan
philosophy to be hazardous to the central doctrines of Christianity. Making Christian
philosophy dependent in crucial ways on the philosophic principles and reasoning of
a pagan philosopher left the Faith vulnerable to the attacks of atheist and religious
skeptics.27 In his Meditations, Descartes hoped to free Christian philosophy from the
bonds of Aristotelian philosophy by abrogating its epistemic foundations. By framing
the traditional questions of philosophy in a Christian context, Descartes hoped to
secure an indubitable foundation for the two main tenets of Christian philosophy: that
God exists and that the soul is immortal. Descartes demand for an undiluted
foundation for religion set the stage for a new philosophy that depended on neither
sense perception, nor the dogmas of Aristotelian Scholasticism.
26 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.
27 In 1613, Aquaviva, the General of the Jesuit order, renewed the Societys commitment to Thomas
theology.
16


CHAPTER 3
DESCARTES CONCEPTION OF MIND VERSUS THE ARISTOTELIAN
CONCEPTION OF THE SOUL
The publication of Gilbert Ryles The Concept of Mind (1949) originated the
analytic approach to Cartesian thought. Unfortunately, analytic commentators of
Descartes writings take little account of the historical background of the 17th century
in formulating their interpretations; nor do they give little more than a sign of
acquaintance or interest in the writings of Thomas or the Scholastic philosophers.
Such interpretations have little to offer the historian of philosophy. Commentary that
ignores the anti-Aristotelian/Thomist position of the Meditations arrives at
conclusions that are conceptually dazzling, but ultimately refer only back to
themselves, rather than the historical sources of Descartes writings. The validity of
Descartes arguments have been borne out or disproven according to the whims of
Historys mistress, lady Fortune. The internal logical consistency or inconsistency of
Descartes Meditations does not illuminate the main themes or reason for his writing
the book. No does the analytic approach consider for whom Descartes wrote the
book. An historian of philosophy might fruitfully beg Aristotles question, were the
Meditations persuasive to Descartes contemporaries? Descartes aimed to construct a
17


metaphysics that did not depend on the Aristotelian account of material reality or the
speculative metaphysics and dogmas of the Schools. To do so, he had to contend
with the prevailing thought of the Schools, which happened to be principally
Aristotelian/Thomist. Reducing the status of Cartesian metaphysics to a sterile series
of mental acts of consciousness misses Descartes dual point that a metaphysical
foundation must first be in place in order to generate indubitable scientific principles.
Only after a system of metaphysics is in place can the programme originating in the
writings of Francis Bacon, viz., making man the master and proprietor of nature, be
realized.
In the Sixth Meditation, Descartes demonstration of the separabilty of the
mind/soul from the body consists precisely in the clarity and distinctness of the
perception of what belongs to the essence of thinking things [res cogitans].
Regarding extended things [res extensia], the same clarity of perception does not
apply. Extended things are perceived only distinctly, which is to say, not essentially.
The meditators essence consists in absolutely nothing else than that he is a
thinking thing...28 Descartes cancels Aristotles formulation of the soul as the form
of the body, which assumes the givenness of the objects of perception, in his
demonstration of the incorporeal existence of mind/soul as being more clearly and
distinctly known than the existence of objects extended in space and perceived by the
corporeal senses. In Aristotelian teleological thought, the difficulty in giving an
account of the soul lies with the process and methods of investigation: beginning with
28 Sixth Meditation, AT VII, 78; CSM 2, p. 54.
18


sensible perception of particulars, the faculty or ordering principle (soul) is abstracted
from observing the respective activities of sentient beings. Conversely, in order to
determine the existence and nature of the soul, the Cartesian method bypasses the
information gathered through the senses and inquires instead into the origin of the
minds ideas, which are divided into three types: adventitious, composite, and innate.
Turning to the Aristotelian conception of the soul, in De anima II, Aristotle
formulates his doctrine of cognition through abstraction as, the soul never thinks
without an image.29 In other words, the intellect, whether human or animal, is
activated by sense images, and neither cognizes nor wills prior to the minds
reception of sense data. Like the sensitive soul of animals, Aristotles third type of
soul, the rational soul, is dependent on the image, or phantasm, gathered by means of
the senses. The rational souls faculty for abstract cognition is activated by sense
images and impressions. Considering the operations of the rational soul (movement,
sense perception, abstraction), the cognizing activity of the potential intellect called
abstraction cannot take place without the object of thought having first passed
through the agent intellect, whose activity is the passive reception of sense data.
However, for its abstract cognitive operations, the rational soul is exempt from further
dependence on sense impressions. Insofar as the rational soul neither grows nor
senses as such, its operation of abstraction from sense images does not dependent on
further contribution from the bodys sense organs.
29 Nihil sine phantasmate intelligit anima: Cf. DA, p. 594 (43lal6).
19


Aristotles proof for the soul begins with evidence derived from motion in the
order of corporeal being, such as the fact that animals possess the power of self-
movement and growth. The empirical fact of motion is requisite to all of Aristotles
claims about the soul. If nothing were in motion, as in the static world of
Parmenides, the senses would have no purpose for existing, as there would be nothing
to sense. Thus Aristotle states that the senses primary reason for existing is to
convey images of objects in motion to the passive intellect. Abstraction of images
from the passive intellect are understood by the active intellect, the faculty of the
mind responsible for rational thought. On the basis of movement, Aristotle causally
deduces the formal principle from the material principle. For example, creatures that
grow and reproduce must themselves be animated by some kind of mover, which
Aristotle tells us is the soul. Moving creatures are animated by two of Aristotles
three types of soul: the nutritive and sensitive. The existence of the soul proven from
the evidence of motion in the sensible world is a naturalized account of the soul.
Because objects are intelligible, sense perception has, for Aristotle, the nature and
value of a principle of knowledge. Consequently, to gain any certain knowledge of
what the essential nature and properties of the soul are, the operations of the senses
must be considered.
In response to Aristotle and his Scholastic followers, Descartes treatment of
the soul in the Meditations begins with the question of what, if anything, can be
known with any epistemological certainty, and proceeds by applying the
methodological doubt to everything dubitable by the light of valid reasoning (propter
20


30
validas & meditates rationes). The possibility of material objects serving as the
source of the first principle of metaphysical knowledge is rejected, and the project of
discovering a source of indubitable knowledge on which to found the sciences is
directed toward the discovery of the innate cognitive perceptions of God and the ego.
The methodological doubt and the hypothesis of the malin genie, detailed in the first
two Meditations, furnishes Descartes with the necessary conditions for abrogating
any theory of knowledge that asserts the primacy of sense images in matters of
rational intelligibility. Descartes argument against the soul as the form of the body
reverses the Aristotelian/Scholastic axiomatic sense of the soul as the form of the
body [anima corporis forma]. According to Descartes, information or data derived
from sense-images is subject to the methodological doubt precisely because the soul
is understood to be something other than the substantial form of the body. Hence,
any dependence on the senses to confirm the truth or falsity of ideas must be forsworn
at the outset if the criterion for telling the true from the erroneous has premises more
robust than a posteriori.30 3I If the soul cannot know anything through sense-images,
30 First Meditation, AT VII, 21; CSM 2, p. 14.
31 Numerous passages in Descartes writings could be cited to show the difference between his thought
and the thought of Thomas on the point of the how the soul knows itself, but let this suffice: Indeed,
he [Aristotle] says in Book III of On the Soul that the possible intellect understands itself as it does
other things. For it understands itself through an intelligible species, by which it is made actual in the
genus of intelligible objects. Considered in itself, it [the soul] is merely in potency in regard to
intelligible being; nothing is known according to what it is potentially, but only as it is actually
(SCG, 3,46, 7, brackets mine).
Compare to Descartes in the Second Meditation: I will suppose then, that everything I see is
spurious. I will believe that my memory tells me lies... I have no senses. Body, shape, extension,
movement and place are chimeras. So what remains true?... Thinking? At last I have discovered it
thought; this alone is inseparable from me... I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that
is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect or reason [sum igitur praecise tantum res cogitans, id est,
mens, sive animus, sive intellectus, sive ratio]... (AT VII, 24, 27; CSM 2, pp.16,18, emphasis and
brackets mine).
21


the only available avenue for indubitable knowledge, particularly indubitable
knowledge of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, is through
separating the mind from the senses.
In the Second Meditation, Descartes phrase, the mind alone inspects32
represents a kind of pastiche of Aristotles definition of the soul in De anima II,
where the soul defined as the form of a natural body having life potentially within it
(or capable of living).33 Aristotles formulation precludes the question of whether
the soul and body are one which question, he concludes, is as meaningless as
inquiring whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.34 The
view of the wax as inseparable from the stamp given to it assumes, by analogy, that
that which organizes (soul), and that which is organized (body) cannot be
distinguished. In two ways the Aristotelian rational soul is inseparable from the
body: first, because the soul is the form of the body; and second, because the soul
depends on the corporeal sense faculties in order to satisfy the goal, or telos toward
which its operations of growth, nutrition and reasoning tend.
When Descartes exposes a quantity of beeswax to fire, the intention is to
distinguish two separate modes of perception, sensuous and cognitive, and thus argue
for why the demonstration of the distinction between the soul/mind and the body is
necessary. The perceptible stamp of the beeswax remains even once its
32 AT VII, 31; CSM, p. 21.
33 DA, p. 555 (412a 20).
34 DA, p. 555 (412b 5 ff.).
22


recognizable qualities have been altered by exposure to the fire; viz., its taste,
fragrance, odor, figure, sound, &c., are not done away with because the essence of the
beeswax is not contained in any of its innumerable accidental properties. Descartes
states, the perception I have of it [wax, or any material object] is a case not of vision
or touch or imagination nor has it ever been, despite previous appearances but
of purely mental scrutiny [sed solius mentis inspection.. ,35 Objects, such as the
beeswax, can be sensed; but the corporeal senses do not think. Hence, the ideas
of objects perceived by the mind cannot bear any relation to the properties of objects
perceived by the corporeal senses: perception derives not from their [objects] being
touched or seen but from their being understood.36
Moving from the idea that the mind alone inspects the essence of objects,
Descartes is in a position to inquire into the essence of the rational soul. If the mind
alone knows objects through their essences, the mind can presumably inspect itself, or
perceive its own essential nature. I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and
more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else,37 Descartes
concludes. He then overturns the common sense opinion that the bodies which we
touch and see are perceived aright by the senses.38 The mind or soul grasps the
35 AT VII, 31; CSM 2, p. 21. Brackets mine.
36 AT VII, 34; CSM 2, p.22. Brackets mine.
37 AT VII, 34; CSM 2, pp. 22-23.
38 Second Meditation: But what about the attributes I assigned to the soul? Nutrition or movement?
Since now I do not have a body, these are mere fabrications. Sense perception? This surely does not
occur without a body, and besides, when asleep I appeared to perceive through the senses many things
which I afterwards realized I did not perceive through the senses at all. (AT VII, 27; CSM 2, p. 18).
23


essential nature of material objects without the aid of the corporeal senses. Thus, a
question considered by Aristotle to have a self-evident answer, namely, whether the
soul and body are joined in an interdependent relation, is considered in Descartes
inquiry into perception to have been given a less than satisfactory answer.
In the case of man, according to Aristotle, rationality is not a superficial
addition to animality, but rather comprises a substantial union proper to man alone.39
Aquinas account of the soul follows Aristotles on this point, maintaining that, it is
with respect to the intellective soul that we are said to be men;40 41 to the sensitive soul,
animals', to the nutritive soul, living beings.4' Descartes attack on Aristotle in the
Meditations first addresses, and then overturns specific Aristotelian doctrines with the
intention of starving out the roots of Aristotelian first philosophy by destroying its
branches namely, the somatic and psychic doctrines associated with Aristotles
39 Cf. De anima, Since then the complex here is the living thing, the body cannot be the actuality of
the soul; it is the soul which is the actuality of a certain kind of body, p. 559 (414a 15).
40 Second Meditation: What then did I formerly think I was? A man. But what is a man? Shall I say
a rational animal? No; for then I should have to inquire what an animal is, what rationality is, and in
this way one question would lead me down the slope to harder ones... (AT VII, 25; CSM 2, p. 17).
41 SCG, 2, 58, 3. Italics in original. In a letter in May of 1641, Descartes issued the following
statement to Regius regarding how, while retaining the Aristotelian soul vocabulary, the soul of man
is to be properly understood and defended against the criticism of their common rival, Voetius, a
staunch Aristotelian and theologian at the University of Utrecht: There is only one soul in human
beings, the rational soul: for no actions can be reckoned human unless they depend on reason. The
vegetative power and the power of moving the body, which are called the vegetative and sensory souls
in plants and animals, exist also in human beings; but in the case of human beings they should not be
called souls, because they are not the first principle of their actions, and they belong to a totally
different genus from the rational soul... And since the mind, or rational soul, is distinct from the body,
&c., it is with good reason that it alone is called the soul. (AT III, 371; CSMK 3, p. 182, italics in
original).
Cf. Thomas Aquinas, It is manifest that not every principle of vital action is a soul, for then
the eye would be a soul, as it is a principle of vision; and the same might be applied to other
instruments of the soul. But it is the first principle of life which we call the soul. (Summa Theologica,
Q. 75, art. 1, answer).
24


conception of man. Aristotles doctrine that states, the soul never thinks without an
image is connected in every respect with the doctrine of the soul as the form of the
body, and with his conception of man as a rational animal.
Descartes does not recognize the validity or the self-evident empirical nature
of Aristotles first principles. On the contrary, his refutation in the Second
Meditation of the Aristotelian doctrine that the soul never thinks without an image
sets up a reductio ad absurdum chain of reasoning that destroys Aristotles
conception of man by calling into question the reliability of the senses to convey any
true knowledge to the understanding. If Descartes rephrased Aristotles doctrine of
cognition, it might have read something like, the soul knows nothing through the
medium of an image. Indeed, the meditator discovers that the minds essential
understanding of objects only resembles the world of material objects.42
Accordingly, Descartes infers that what is called having sensory perceptions is
strictly just... thinking.43
42 What has been called the similarity thesis is first presented in the Second Meditation experiment
involving the minds clear perception of the wax, even after it has been melted, and undergone other
alterations to its appearance. Further specific proof for the similarity thesis is elaborated in the Third
Meditation.
43 Second Meditation, AT VII, 29; CSM 2, p. 19. The original Latin of the passage runs as follows:
Idem denique ego sum qui sentio, sive qui res corporeas tanquam per sensus animadverto: videlicet
jam lucem video, strepitum audio, calorem sentio. Falsa haec sunt, dormio enim. At certe videre
videor, audire, calescere. Hocfalsum esse non potest; hoc est proprie quod in me sentire appellatur;
atque hoc praecise sic sumptum nihil aliud est quam cogitare.
Compare DA, wherein Aristotle distinguishes sense from sense organ: By sense,
Aristotle means what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the
matter. This must be conceived of as taking place in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the
impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold... in a similar way the sense is affected by what is
coloured or flavoured or sounding, but it is indifferent what in each case the substance is; what alone
matters is what quality it has, i.e. in what ratio its constituents are combined, ((p. 580 (424a 18-23).
Italics in original)).
25


In the First Meditation, Descartes hypothesis of the evil genius [malin genie
in the French edition] raises Pyrrhonian skepticism to a new pitch of intensity.44 If it
were the case that all knowledge, and the faculties for acquiring and judging
knowledge, were under the influence of some malicious deceiver of the utmost
power [summe potens], the minds criterion for examining its ideas, and the source
of its ideas is open to question on every conceivable level, and at every point. The
force of Descartes argument lies in the fact that it would be impossible for the mind
to know or tell if it were under the control of a most powerful deceiver. The
Aristotelian theory of cognition, which emphasizes the primacy of the individual
senses and their particular objects in the process of coming to know, has no defense
against Cartesian skepticism. Descartes cogito necessarily has neither a basis in, nor
any reference to the world of material particulars. In the Second Meditation, Aristotle
and his 17th century adherents are parodied by Descartes in such questions as, What
then did I formerly think I was? A man. But what is a man?, what is an animal?,
and what is rationality? Descartes concludes that he does not now have the time
to waste on subtleties of this kind.45 Under Descartes hypothetical circumstance,
grounds for discovering any epistemological certainty are theoretically impossible.
44 Cf. Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford University Press,
New York, New York, 2003, revised and expanded edition): But the next level [of doubting], the
demon hypothesis, is much more effective in revealing the uncertainty of all that we think we know.
This possibility discloses the full force of skepticism in the most striking fashion, and unveils a basis
for doubting apparently never dreamed of before... The overwhelming consequences of a belief in
demonism, of a skepticism with regard to our faculties themselves, were clear to Descartes, p. 148.
45 Second Meditation, AT VII, 25; CSM 2, p. 17. Both Erasmus, in his Praise of Folly, and Montaigne
in his Essays, had previously parodied the subtleties of Scholastic philosophy in similar ways to
those later employed by Descartes.
26


CHAPTER 4
THE PROBLEM OF DESCARTES TERMINOLOGY AND THE ATTACK
ON THOMAS AND SCHLASTICISM IN THE MEDITATIONS
27


In the Meditations, the doctrine of the cogito, flanked by the doctrine of the
mind alone inspects, represents a thoroughgoing epistemic critique of the
Aristotelian empiricist doctrine of the soul never thinks without an image. That
Descartes overturned centuries of philosophical reliance on Aristotelian physics and
metaphysics is well documented in the literature of the history of ideas. What is less
obvious is whether Descartes attack on the philosophy of Aristotle in the Meditations
was meant as a covert attack on the philosophy of St. Thomas.46 We can ask whether
Descartes self-professed intention of offering the Meditations to the Dean and
Doctors of the Sorbonne as work in the grand Scholastic tradition of giving
demonstrative proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul can be
taken at face value.
In both the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method, Descartes attack on
Aristotelian realism is waged, in part, through the terminology he adopts to
undermine the claims of Aristotelian philosophy. For example, certain recognizable
Aristotelian phrases and terms occur in the Meditations, such as rational animal,
power of self movement, common sense, nutrition, and imagination.
Descartes technical use of these terms and phrases were no doubt adopted for either
one or both of the following reasons. First, the term imagination and the phrase
46 There is little question that Descartes knew the writings of Thomas Aquinas. In a letter to Mersenne
on the 25th of December 1639, Descartes writes, I have here a Summa of St. Thomas and the Bible
that I brought from France (AT II, 630; CSMK 3, p. 142). From what is stated here, the question then
arises, which Summa does Descartes refer to? The editors of a recent edition of Descartes letters
(CSMK) name the Summa Theologiae in a footnote, but how likely is it that Descartes was willing to
undergo the toil of conveying with him a work of such unconstrained proportion? A more likely
candidate is that Descartes second-most sacred companion on his travels was Thomas Summa Contra
Gentiles, a work whose size could be constrained to the proportions of a single volume, as extant
editions from the 17lh century attest.
28


rational animal are characteristic of the language of the Scholastic opponents
Descartes is attempting to refute. By employing the Aristotelian language, Descartes
caricatures his opponents views. The second reason that Descartes adopts the
Aristotelian terminology, particularly in the Second and Sixth Meditation, is likely
because of the fact that no other terminological apparatus was available in the 17th
century. Moreover, the philosophical tradition frowned upon the invention or
introduction of novel terms for the sake of novelty. As previous commentators have
noted, Descartes terminology in the Meditations contains next to nothing in the way
of novelty. Only his unique redefining of the battery of pre-existing Ancient and
Scholastic terms can be said to be original. Descartes acceptance of what the
primary goals of philosophy are, as well as the standard array of terminology, as
handed down from both the Ancients and their Scholastic descendants, is explicitly
present in the Meditations.
Even Descartes earliest commentators and critics recognized his subversive
use of Aristotelian/Scholastic terminology in the Meditations. When Descartes
topples Aristotelian realism in the Second Meditation by demonstrating that the
nature of the soul/mind can be asserted as an object of knowledge prior to the
knowledge of bodies, he is attacking the classic Aristotelian doctrine of the soul
never thinks without an image. As a close reader of the writings of Aristotle,
Descartes was likely acquainted with the phrase, the soul never thinks without an
image. However, when the Meditations and the Discourse on the Method are
searched for the classic Aristotelian phrase, one finds that Descartes never uses the
29


phrase as it occurs in Aristotles writings. In the fourth partition of the Discourse on
the Method, Descartes has instead rendered into French a Scholastic variant of
Aristotles phrase: ...there is nothing in the intellect which has not previously been
in the senses [qu'il ny a rien dans Ventendement qui n aitpremierement este dan le
sens].M1 Again, in the Sixth Meditation we find it worded thus: In this way I easily
convinced myself that I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously
had in sensation [facile mihi persuadebam nullam plane me habere in intellectu,
AQ
quam non prius habuissem in sensu]. In the latter two examples, Descartes
employs what previous commentators have noted to be a Scholastic variation on
Aristotles phrase.47 48 49 As these commentators indicate, a likely source for the variation
used by Descartes is the writings of St. Thomas.
In Thomass writings we find a variation on Aristotles phrase that silently
introduces the terminological and verbal modifications that Descartes was to later
adapt into his writings: There is nothing in the intellect that is not previously in the
senses [nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu].50 Although Thomas
47 Third Set of Objections with Replies, AT VI, 37; CSM 1, p. 129.
48 Sixth Meditation, AT VII, 75; CSM 2, p.52.
49 In the Fifth Set of Objections, Gassendi accuses Descartes of denying the maxim, Whatever is in
the intellect must previously have existed in the senses, Cf. CSM 2, p.186. CSMs third footnote on
the page accounts for this phrase thus: A standard slogan of empiricist philosophers: it is attributed by
Aquinas to Aristotle.
50 Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones de veritate, Q. 2, art. 3, obj. 1. Cf. Meditation Six: In addition, I
remembered that the use of my senses had come first, while the use of my reason came only later; and
I saw that the ideas which I formed myself were less vivid than those which I perceived with the senses
and were, for the most part, made up of elements of sensory ideas. In this way I easily convinced
myself that / had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation [facile mihi
persuadebam nullam plane me habere in intellectu, quam non prius habuissem in sensu]. (AT VII,
75-76; CSM 2, p. 52. Italics and brackets mine).
30


nuances the phrasing of the established idiom, he does so without corrupting
Aristotles empirical doctrine. The question arises: if, in his Discourse on the Method
and the Meditations, Descartes use of the phrase as it occurs in Aquinas writings is
deliberate, is it meant as a shrewd critique of the Doctor angelicus? Does Descartes
inadvertently strike a blow at the foundation of Catholic orthodoxy by refuting
Aristotle via the doctrines of Thomas?
To the extent to which Thomas conception of the soul agrees with or derives
from Aristotles account of the soul, this is the conception of the soul Descartes
attacks in the Second Meditation. However, Descartes proof for the separabilty of
the mind from the body, or of the minds self-subsisting nature, agrees with Thomas
account of the separable soul, on the point that both are an affirmative answer to the
Christian theological imperative to uphold the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
We may point out, however, that the theological imperative to argue for the souls
immortality was not present for Aristotle as it was for Thomas. While there are
passages in De anima that seem to promote the idea of the rational soul possessing an
immortal nature, other passages clearly associate the mortality of the body with the
mortality of the soul.51 Yet in De anima Aristotle states that, that while the faculty
51 The following provisional collection of five passages from De anima (and following the order in
which they appear in the text) are a collection of passages frequently referred to by Scholastic
philosophers regarding the possibility of the soul as mortal and the possibility of the soul as immortal:
1. What we mean is not that the movement is in the soul, but that sometimes it terminates in
the soul and sometimes starts from it, sensation e. g. coming from without inwards, and reminiscence
starting from the soul and termination with movements, actual or residual, in the sense organs. The
case of mind is different; it seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be
incapable of being destroyed. If it could be destroyed at all, it would be under the blunting influence
of old age... [but] The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle, as
occurs in drunkenness or disease. Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual
31


of sensation is dependent on the body, mind is separable from it.52 It was a matter of
dispute among the Scholastics whether Aristotle meant that the intellect only engages
in operations in which the body has no part, as when he writes that, .some [parts of
apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassable.
Thinking, loving, and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has it.
This is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they were activities not of mind, but of
the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassable, DA p.
548, (408b 15-30), Brackets mine (Cf. SCG. 2, 79, 12, for Thomas notice of the latter passage in
Aristotle).
In his Passions of the Soul, Descartes depends on Aristotles account of the cause of the
bodys death: ...let us note that death never occurs through the absence of the soul [because the soul
can be separated from the body without harm coming to either], but only because one of the principal
parts of the body decays, AT XI, 330-331; CSM 1, p. 329;
2. We must not understand by that which is potentially capable of living what has lost the
soul it had, but only what still retains it... Consequently, while waking is an actuality in a sense
corresponding to the cutting and the seeing, the soul is actuality in the sense corresponding to the
power of sight and the power in the tool; the body corresponds to what exists in potentiality; as the
pupil plus the body constitutes the animal. From this it indubitably follows that the soul is inseparable
from its body, or at any rate that certain parts of it are (if it has parts) for the actuality of some of
them is nothing but the actualities of their bodily parts. Yet some may be separable because they are
not the actualities of any body at all, DA p. 556 (412b, 25- 413a 1-6);
3. We have no evidence as yet about mind or the power to think; it seems to be a widely
different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable; it alone is capable of
existence in isolation from all other psychic powers. All the other parts of the soul, it is evident from
what we have said, are, in spite of certain statements to the contrary, incapable of separate existence
though, of course, distinguishable by definition, DA p. 558 (413b 24-29); Cf. SCG, 2, 82, 7;
4. Observation of the sense-organs and their employment reveals a distinction between the
impassibility of the sensitive and that of the intellective faculty. After strong stimulation of a sense we
are less able to exercise it than before, as in the case of a loud sound we cannot hear easily
immediately after... but in the case of mind, thought about an object that is highly intelligible renders
it more and not less able afterwards to think objects that are less intelligible: the reason is that while
the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it, DA p. 590, 429a 25-
429b 5;
5. When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing
more: this alone is immortal and eternal... mind in this sense is impassable... and without it nothing
thinks, DA, p. 592 (430a 20-25); Cf. SCG, 2, 83, 6.
52 DA p. 590 (429b, 4-5). In his commentary on De anima, Thomas, writing against the position of
Averroes, maintains that, It is astonishing... how carelessly [the proponents of this position] went
wrong because of his saying that intellect is separated since the meaning of this word is available
from his text: intellect is called separated because it does not have an organ as a sense does. And that
can be true because the human soul in virtue of its superior status surpasses the capability of corporeal
matter and cannot be wholly encompassed by it. That is why it is endowed with an action that
corporeal matter has no share in, and because of this its power for that action has no corporeal organ.
And that is how intellect is separated, Thomas Aquinas, A Commentary on Aristotles De anima,
translated by Robert Pasnau (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1999), p. 350. Brackets
and italics in original.
32


the soul] may be separable because they are not the actualities of any body at all.53
Also open to dispute among the Scholastic philosophers was Aristotles opinion on
whether the rational soul could be classed as a substantial form: When mind is set
free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this
alone is immortal and eternal... mind in this sense is impassable... and without it
nothing thinks.54
In any case, the question whether the soul survives the bodys death, and
whether the rational or intellectual soul is mortal or immortal necessitated Thomas
chief modification to the Aristotelian conception of the soul. Indeed, Thomas
modification involved altering the ontological status of the rational soul, thus
disengaging it from the questions of mortality and substantiality. The soul, according
to Aristotle, is a faculty55 of thought that makes up a substantial form only when
united to the matter of the human body. In Thomas account of the rational soul, he
argues that the soul itself is a substantial form in its own right. That is, the
intellective soul is non-destructible, self-subsisting and immortal by definition. Yet
the conversion of a rational faculty of thought into an intellectual substance does not
resolve the inherent difficulties in how the separable soul operates after the death of
the body, since Thomas retains the Aristotelian doctrine that there is nothing in the
53 DA p. 556 (413a, 5). Brackets mine.
54 DA p. 592 (430a, 20-25).
55 Cf. DA, If thinking is like perceiving, it must be either a process in which the soul is acted upon by
what is capable of being thought, or a process different from but analogous to that. The thinking part
of the soul must therefore be, while impassable, capable of receiving the form of an object; that is,
must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object. Mind must be
related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible, p.589 (429a, 15).
33


mind that was not previously in the senses. In sum, the active and possible intellect,
and the bodily sense organs on which the soul depends for the delivery of its proper
object are inseparably connected.
CHAPTER 5
DESCARTES CONCEPTION OF MIND VERSUS THE SCHOLASTIC
CONCEPTION OF THE SOUL
The question of the souls immortality in Descartes Meditations is a
reiteration of a long-standing theme of the Scholastics. The means by which
Descartes goes about proving the immortality of the soul constitutes a departure from
the accepted convention of either lending ultimate support and authority to a rational
proof of the souls immortality. In his Sorbonne letter, Descartes cites relevant
passages from Scripture and rejects the teaching that no rational proof of the souls
34


immortality is available to the natural light of reason alone, as did Duns Scotus and
William of Ockham. In any case, no Scholastic discussion of the souls immortality
ever sought to supplant the doctrine of immortality that the Church maintained is
revealed through the Scriptures, and held as a verity of religion by faith alone.
Scholastic proofs adduced for the existence of God or the immortality of the soul
were demonstrated a posteriori to the belief that God exists and that the soul is
indeed immortal that is, these proofs assume the validity of what they have yet to
prove.
Descartes demonstration of the existence of God in the Third Meditation is an
a priori proof that precludes the presupposition of any long-standing opinion that
there is an omnipotent God, and proceeds from the starting point that everything
said about God is a fiction, including his existence.56 Similarly, Descartes proof for
the separabilty of the mind from the body in the Second Meditation begins with the
meditators categorically doubting the existence of all extended bodies in order to
uncover, in the order of being, the nature of the soul per se.
The investigation of the soul, under the respective considerations of Aristotle
and his Scholastic followers, had traditionally begun with sensible particulars,
applying an inductive method of examination to such phenomena as the perceptible
self-movement of living things, and proceeding to inquiring as to the cause of
movement.57 The somatic psychology of Aristotle and the Scholastic philosophers
56 First Meditation, AT VII 21; CSM 2, p. 14.
57 For Aristotles account of movement, Cf. DA, p. 542-544 (405b 30-406b 30).
35


offers a naturalized account of the soul. As the form of the body, the soul of man is a
rational faculty that depends on the senses apprehension of material particulars in
order to operate. Knowledge, in this sense, is essentially embodied, and in De anima,
Aristotle writes that the soul has been justly referred to as the place of forms,58 on
account of the fact that the rational intellect has no organ, and hence no operation
apart from the medium of the phantasms intuited by the sense organs.
According to Aristotles account of the soul, the nature of the substantial
union of the soul and body is a union of such a kind that the corruption of the
instantiated soul cannot occur without corruption coming to the body as well, and
vice-versa. Platos celebrated metaphorical image of the relation between the soul
and body as a sailor in a ship is a negative example in Aristotles usage, for the union
between soul and body is not such that the soul directs the movements of the
automaton body in which it is emprisoned.59 What connects the soul and body in
Aristotles account, and in Thomas account as well, is the fact that the intellectual
soul requires the faculties of imagination and sensation in order to operate, and
imagination and sensation are carried out through corporeal organs; hence, as Thomas
58 DA, p. 590 (429a 25).
59 Cf. DA: Further, we have no light on the problem whether the soul may not be the actuality of its
body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship, p. 556 (413a 5). In SCG 2,57:2,
Aquinas invokes the image of a sailor and a ship to illustrate a point in his discussion of the soul.
Aquinas, rebutting Platos claim of the divisibility of body and soul, writes: Accordingly, Plato and
his followers asserted that the intellectual soul is not united to the body as form to matter, but only as
mover to movable, for Plato said that the soul is in the body as a sailor in a ship. Descartes, too,
harkens back to both Aristotle and Aquinas when he reprises the example of the sailor and the ship in
his Meditations: Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, and so on, that I
am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and,
as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit. (AT VII, 8: CSM II, p. 56).
36


puts it, the formal principle, the soul, and the material principle, the body, are joined
together in the unity of one act of being.60
CHAPTER 6
THOMAS CONCEPTION OF THE IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL
For Descartes, the emphasis in the Sixth Meditation is on the problem of how
the soul is joined to the body, and stands in contrast to the operations of the pure
understanding (Meditation Two), where the mind is shown to function independent of
any attachment to a body, and is thus by definition separable. For Thomas, the soul is
joined in a substantial union with the body, and the existence of bodies is self-evident,
60 SCG 2, 68: 3.
37


and therefore indubitable.61 Regarding the question of the souls immortality,
Thomas emphasizes the issue of the souls separabilty from the body. The
intellectual soul first needs to be demonstrated as substantial per se. Substantiality,
according to Aristotle, is tantamount to self-subsistence and impassibility, and the
status of substantiality that Thomas grants to the intellectual soul provides the
gateway for his proof of the souls immortality.
Generally, then, the difference between Descartes revival in the Meditations
of the question of immortality addressed by Thomas and other the other Scholastic
philosophers is the question of how the souls immortality can be demonstrated.
Descartes agrees with the Scholastic philosophers about the immortality of the soul.
The point at which Descartes diverges from Thomas and the Scholastics is in method
rather than principle. The meditative exercise of withdrawing the mind from the
senses is an epistemological method that neither Aquinas nor any other Scholastic
61 Etienne Gilson addresses the claims of various modern commentators who maintained that the
realism of Aristotle and Thomas was founded on some form of critique of knowledge, or in other
words, founded upon some indisputable starting point akin to the Cartesian categorical doubt, which
then necessitated the discovery of some kind of harbinger of the Cartesian cogito. Having
supposedly discovered in the writings of Aristotle and Thomas a legitimizing source for the categorical
doubt and the cogito, proceeded on the assumption that the elements of categorical doubt and the
cogito exist in the writings of Aristotle and Thomas, adopted the Cartesian method as a starting point
for an otherwise Aristotelian/Thomist type of realism. Gilson writes: These two methods
[Aristotelian/Thomist realism and the Cartesian methodological doubt and cogito] disagree in so many
respects that they are totally incompatible, as was the case with Aristotle and his predecessors. For
Aristotle and St. Thomas, the first principle is at work even in the most humble of true judgments, and
when metaphysics has progressed to the point that it is a fitting crown for all the other sciences it does
not set itself up as the sole starting point from which the rest of the sciences must be deduced if they
are to have any validity... In Descartes philosophy, however, nobody may use the first principle
without having consciously considered it. This is so true, in fact, that until this is done, every science,
even mathematics, must be considered doubtful... (Thomist Realism & the Critique of Knowledge,
translated by Mark A. Wauck, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1996), p. 74. Brackets mine).
38


philosopher ever employed to arrive at the conclusion that the intellectual soul is
separable from the body, and that God exists.
The efforts of Thomas Aquinas to solve Aristotles open question of the
immortality of the soul involved modifying two notable doctrines of Aristotle. The
first point, that the soul is the form of the body, argues that the soul and the body
form a substantial composite that cannot be split apart or corrupted without
destruction coming to the whole. Hence, neither the body nor the soul is self-
subsisting, due to the function of each being wholly dependent on the other part for its
respective operation. Briefly then, the rational soul that animates the human body,
and the sense organs of the human body that supply the rational soul with phantasms,
from which operation all intellectual knowledge derives, are co-constitutive. Man, in
the last analysis, is human on the condition that he comprises a particular substantial
combination of rationality and animality.
It follows from this that decay in the function of the sense organs, or the total
demise of the body, erects an insuperable barrier between the operation of the rational
soul, and the sense object upon which its operation depends. There is indeed nothing
for the rational soul to think without the senses first receiving the phantasm of a
sensible object. On two counts, then, it would seem that the soul could not
legitimately be a substance by definition; first, by virtue of the material nature of the
sense organs, and second, by virtue of the phantasms origination in corporeal
objects.
39


Thomas begins to resolve the question of the souls apparent mortality by
establishing the souls subsistence thus:
I answer that, it must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual
operation, which we call the soul of man, is a principle both incorporeal and
subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can know all corporeal
things. Now, whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own
nature, because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything
else... Now every body has its own determinate nature. Therefore it is impossible
for the intellectual principle to be a body. It is also impossible for it to understand by
means of a bodily organ, since the determinate nature of that organ would likewise
impede knowledge of all bodies...62
A number of important points are asserted here. First, Thomas writes that the
substantial composite of the body and soul (the soul being the form of the body) is
separable. Second, he asserts that this separation does not impede the action of the
intellective operation of the soul. Last, it follows from this that the operation of the
bodily senses that the gathering of phantasms is not essentially prior to the operation
of the intellectual soul. Following Aristotle, Thomas proceeds to elaborate the
separabilty of the intellectual soul from the body by making a crucial distinction
between the operations of the soul that are dependent on the senses, and those
operations of the soul in which the corporeal sense organs have no part, such as
understanding and willing:
Therefore the intellectual principle, which we call the mind or the intellect [mens vel
intellects], has essentially an operation in which the body does not share. Now only
that which subsists in itself can have an operation in itself. For nothing can operate
but what is actual, and so a thing operates according as it is... We must conclude,
therefore, that the human soul, which is called intellect or mind, is something
incorporeal and subsistent.63
62ST Q. 75, art. 2, answer.
63ST Q. 75, art. 2, answer.
40


Sense images are the first principle of the intellectual souls knowledge, but the action
of the intellectual soul is rendered neither substantial nor mortal according to the
mode by which it wills and understands; rather, this is precisely the point by which
the intellectual soul is known to be separable and self-subsisting after the death of the
body.64 Thomas likens the per se mode of understanding in the separated soul to a
similar mode of understanding found in separate substances. The separated soul, like
the separate substance, receives a more abundant influx of those objects known
only by the pure understanding, and furthermore, Thomas asserts that,
...the more the soul is freed from preoccupation with its body, the more fit does it
become for understanding higher things... Consequently, when the soul shall be
completely separated from the body, it will be perfectly likened to separate
substances in its mode of understanding, and will receive their influx abundantly.65
This fragment provides an outline of the intellectual soul in a state of separation from
the body; but a disembodied state is not the existence proper to the intellectual soul,
defined as such, and Thomas points out that the existence of the intellectual soul
neither predates its being united to a body, nor will it subsist apart from the body
without end, but it will instead be clothed once more with an imperishable body; and
in this is the separated soul wholly distinctive in its mode of being from separate
substances.66
64 Cf. SCG 2, 80-81, 11: ...that no operation can remain in the soul when separated from the body, we
declare to be false, in view of the fact that those operations do remain which are not exercised through
organs. Such are the operations of understanding and willingItalics mine.
65 SCG 2, 80-81, 12.
66 Cf., SCG 2, 83, 10: Now, that which is by accident is always posterior to that which is through
itself. It is therefore becoming to the soul to be united to the body before being separated from it. The
soul, then, was not created before the body to which it is united, cf. 4, 79, 10: ...the souls of men are
immortal. They persist, then, after their bodies, released from their bodies. It is also clear... that the
41


CHAPTER 7
THE MINDS SEPARABILITY VERSUS THE SOULS IMMORTALITY
Concerning the survival of the incorporeal soul after the dissolution of the
body, Aristotle does not give a consistent opinion in De anima, except on the point
that the rational soul is capable of existence [i.e., functioning] in isolation from all
other psychic powers [i.e., those faculties of the soul involving such things as
soul is naturally united to the body, for in its essence it is the form of the body. It is, then, contrary to
the nature of the soul to be without the body. But nothing that is contrary to nature can be perpetual.
Perpetually, then, the soul will not be without the body. Since, then, it persists perpetually, it must
once again be united to the body; and this is to rise again.
42


nutrition and sensation].67 68 The demonstrable fact that the rational soul engages in
operations such as calculation, speculation and contemplation, in which the body has
no share, is not tantamount to the Thomistic claim that the soul has an existence
not merely an operation entirely independent of the body that it is the form or
actuality of. If the human intellectual soul, as the actuality of the human body,
possesses operations that are in no way dependent on the bodys operations, then it
follows that the intellectual soul is capable of continuing its operation of intellectual
apprehension (intelligere corrumpitur) after the dissolution of the body.
67 DA, p. 558 (413b 25). Cf. DA, p. 548 (408b 24): The incapacity of old age is due to an affection
not of the soul but of its vehicle... Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual
apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassable.
Cf. AT XI, 330-331; CSM 1, pp. 329-330: ...let us note that death never occurs through
the absence of the soul, but only because one the principal parts of the body decays. And let
us recognize that the difference between the body of a living man and that of a dead man is
just like the difference between, on the one hand, a watch or other automaton (that is, a self-
moving machine) when it is wound up and contains in itself the corporeal principle of the
movements for which it is designed, together with everything else required for its operation;
and, on the other hand, the same watch or machine when it is broken and the principle of its
movement ceases to be active.
Regarding Aristotles opinion of the immortality of the soul in De anima, and how those
opinions formed a basis for debate among Christian philosophers C.F. Fowler notes that, His
[Aristotles] enigmatic comments throughout the De anima on the possibility of the survival of the
human soul only added to the difficulties for his Christian followers and gave rise to the various
schools of interpretation. Descartes On the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of Christian
Doctrine (International Archive of the History of Ideas, 160; Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht,
Boston, London, 1999). p. 80. Brackets mine.
68 Cf., SCG 2, 68:12: Above all these forms [nutritive and sensitive souls], however, is a form like to
higher substances even in respect of the kind of knowledge proper to it, namely, understanding. This
form, then, is capable of an operation which is accomplished without any bodily organ at all. And this
form is the intellective soul; for understanding is not effected though any bodily organ. That is why
this principle, the intellective soul by which man understands and which transcends the condition of
corporeal matter, must not be wholly encompassed or imbedded in matter... This is proved by its
intellectual operation, wherein corporeal matter has no part. But since the human souls act of
understanding needs powers namely, imagination and sense which function through bodily
organs, this itself shows that the soul is naturally united to the body in order to complete the human
species.
43


In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas arrives at conclusions about the
human intellectual soul that are contrary to the views of Aristotle. Thomas iterates
Aristotles conception of the soul that has no operation apart from the body:
Further, if the soul were something subsistent, it would have some operation apart
from the body. But it has no operation apart from the body, not even that of
understanding; for the act of understanding does not take place without a phantasm,
which cannot exist apart from the body.69
Thomas offers two solutions to the problem of how the soul in a state of separation
from the body operates. Thomas first answer situates the problem in a specifically
Christian context: the resurrection of the body and the reuniting of body and soul is a
tenet of the orthodox Christian faith, and Thomas was bound to uphold its truth.70
The second answer, also supporting the resurrection of the body, is found in Thomas
demonstration:
.. .the soul is naturally united to the body, for in its essence it is the form of the body.
It is then contrary to the nature of the soul to be without the body. But nothing
which is contrary to nature can be perpetual. Perpetually, then, the soul will not be
without the body. Since, then, it persists perpetually, it must once again be united to
the body; and this is to rise again. Therefore, the immortality of souls seems to
demand a resurrection of bodies.71
Considering that the dubitability of the evidence obtained through the senses calls
into question the validity of any proof presupposing the reliability of the senses (such
as Thomas proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul),
Descartes considered finding indisputable proofs for the existence of God and the
69 Summa Theologica, Q. 75, art. 4, obj. 3.
70 Cf., SCG 4, 79; 1 for Thomas theological argument for the resurrection.
71 SCG, 4, 79:10.
44


separabilty of the soul from the body of particular importance.72 Descartes maintains
that such a posteriori proofs are inconclusive because mans knowledge of
ontological objects is made to depend on the perception of the fallible senses as the
first principle of knowledge.
In his letter to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne, Descartes claims that
the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are prime examples of subjects
where demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy rather than
theology; and further,
...that the only reason why many irreligious people are unwilling to believe that God
exists and that the human mind is distinct from the body [mentemque humanam a
corpore distingui] is the alleged fact that no one has hitherto been able to
demonstrate these points.73
That no prior proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is
immune to contradiction or refutation is precisely what Descartes is claiming to be
the case, stating that, I would add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon
they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better
ones.74
However, a rational proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the
soul would invalidate the necessity for Gods participation in revealing Himself to
72 Cf. AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4: In his Dedicatory Letter, Descartes asserts that, I think there is no more
useful service to be rendered in philosophy than to conduct a careful search, once and for all, for the
best of these arguments [for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul], and to set them out
so precisely and clearly as to produce for the future a general agreement that they amount to
demonstrative proofs. Brackets mine.
73 AT VII, 3: CSM 2,
74 AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4.
45


man. Nor would the souls survival or salvation require Gods grace or intervention
after the death of the body. Aquinas was particularly aware of the fideistic dimension
to the question of the souls immortality. If the self-subsistence of the soul could be
conclusively demonstrated, then Gods act of preserving the soul after the body dies
would be rendered unnecessary, since the soul would invariably be immortal, and
would not need divine support to secure its subsistence.75
In the dedicatory epistle to the Sorbonne, Descartes maintains that man's
rational knowledge of the true distinction of the mind and body is an antecedent
evident enough to validly deduce the souls immortality as a consequent, without any
further recourse to the Scriptures or the teaching of the Church.76 In a letter to
Mersenne on December 24, 1640, roughly four months before the Meditations
received its finishing touches, Descartes responded to Mersennes disappointment at
not finding the immortality of the soul demonstrated as promised in the proofs of his
Meditations:
You say that I have not said a word about the immortality of the soul. You should
not be surprised. I could not prove that God could not annihilate the soul, but only
that it is by nature entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not bound
75 In order for the philosophical proof for the immortality of the soul to be consistent with the Churchs
doctrine, Aquinas postulated that God would have to act in order to preserve the soul after the death of
the body: Separated souls know some singulars but not all (even those that are temporally present).
For evidence on this we should consider that there are two modes of understanding. One is by
abstraction from sense images, and in this manner singulars cannot be known by the intellect
directly... The other manner of understanding is by the infusion of species [per influentiam specierum]
by God, and according to this manner the intellect can know singulars... immaterial substances can
know singulars by way of species which are participated likenesses of the divine essence, ST, la, 89,
4, reply; pp. 149-151. Brackets mine.
76 What I have done is to take merely the principle and most important arguments [i.e., the existence
of God and the immortality of the soul] and develop them in such a way that I would now venture to
put them forward as very certain and evident demonstrations. (AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4. Brackets
mine).
46


by nature to die with it. This is all that is required as a foundation for religion, and is
all that I had any intention of proving.77
As a theological matter, the immortality of the soul is guaranteed by an act of faith in
what the divinely revealed Scriptures declare to be true, rather than reasons
discovery that the soul persists after the death of the body. Descartes statement that
a philosophical demonstration that the operations of the mind are distinct from the
mechanical operations of the body does not violate or infringe upon the domain of the
souls immortality as a religious doctrine held by faith. As the doctrines of the
Church command the faithful to believe without rational or visible proof, Descartes
reproach of Mersenne for his improbable expectation that the Meditations would
contain a certain proof that God could not annihilate the soul is in accord with the
doctrinal mystery of the souls immortality.
Philosophically, Descartes justifies the consequent that the soul is not bound
by nature to die with the body with his demonstration in the Second Meditation of
the minds separabilty from the body. Descartes is not ignorant that since the souls
77 CSMK 3, p. 163, emphasis mine. Cf. the Second Set of Objections compiled by Mersenne:
Seventhly, you say not one word about the immortality of the human mind. Yet this is something you
should have taken special care to prove and demonstrate... (AT VII 128; CSM 2, p. 91; italics in
original).
Regarding Mersennes expectations of Descartes giving a demonstration in the Meditations of
the immortality of the soul, in his study of Descartes contribution to the 17th century procedure of
giving philosophic demonstrations of the souls immortality, C. F. Fowler points out that, ...in
Mersennes text [Quaestiones in Genesim, 1623] the desired conclusion is that the soul does not die
with the dissolution of the body, and that this is equivalent to its being immortal by nature. This is
exactly how Descartes would sometimes choose to describe his demonstration of the real distinction...
this is one of the ways in which Descartes expressed the contribution of the Meditations to the
demonstration of immortality. In his letter to Mersenne in December 1640 he insisted that he had
simply proven that the soul is by nature entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not
bound to die with it. These expressions are perfectly in accord with Mersennes 1623 presentation of
the ratio physicus. Descartes had every reason to expect that Mersenne and others trained in the
scholastic system would accept the validity of the flow of his demonstration. (Fowler 1999, pp. 207-
208. Brackets mine; italics in original).
47


immortality is a religious question of fundamental doctrinal importance. However,
the issue of whether God can or cannot annihilate the soul is ultimately a theological
concern that goes beyond what is required as a foundation for religion. According
to Descartes, a foundation for religion is simply no more than adherence to the tenets
and doctrines as established by the Church. In his letter to Mersenne in December
1640, Descartes addresses a charge regarding to what extent the immortality of the
soul can be demonstrated in light of mans necessarily incomplete knowledge of the
infinite will and mind of God:
...you [Mersenne] go on to say that it does not follow from the fact that the soul is
distinct from the body that it is immortal, since it could still be claimed that God
gave it such a nature that its duration comes to an end simultaneously with the end of
the bodys life. Here / admit that 1 cannot refute what you say. For I do not take it
upon myself to try to use the power of human reason to settle any of those matters
78
which depend on the free will of God.
The consideration given so far to those features of the Cartesian doctrine of
the minds separabilty from the body, and the fact that the doctrine was a reaction to
Scholasticism, open up the question of whose conception of the separated soul
Descartes account better corroborates. Aristotle claims in De anima that mind is
separable from the body, but what status it holds after the death of the body is
ambiguous. Thomas deduces the immortality of the soul from the fact that it is
separable from the body. The answer to this question does not lie in the novelty of
the idea of the souls separabilty from the body, for this idea is common to Aristotle,
Aquinas and Descartes. The answer lies in Descartes hesitancy to attach to his 78
78 Second Set of Replies, AT VII, 153; CSM 2, pp. 108-109. Brackets and italics mine.
48


doctrine of the minds separabilty from the body the immortality of the soul as a
necessary or a logical consequent.
Even though Descartes account of the soul in the Meditations agrees with
Aquinas account of the soul on the point that the Churchs dogma of the immortality
of the soul established a necessary starting point for both philosophers, the vision of
the human soul in the Meditations is a secularized one, stripped of its sacred origins
and theological definition. Under Descartes considerations, the beatitude of the soul
is not a necessary consequence of its separabilty from the body any more than that the
soul be the individuating or animating principle of any specific kind of body. The
rational mind could just as easily be housed in the body of an ass, as in Apuleius
Metamorphoses.
Descartes proof for the separabilty of the mind from the body contains a
nominalistic tendency wholly lacking in Thomas account of the separated soul.79 In
the Synopsis of the Meditations, Descartes maintains that the premises that lead to
the conclusion that the soul is immortal depend on an account of the whole of
physics, which, in Aristotles and Thomas minds, includes final causes. In the
Fourth Meditation, Descartes states,
79 Cf. William of Ockhams opinion concerning the intellective soul as the form of the body, and his
opinion concerning its supposed incorruptibility: ...I maintain that if we understand by intellective
soul an immaterial and incorruptible form which exists entire in the entire body and entire in each
part, it cannot be evidently know by reason or experience that [1] such a form exists in us, nor [2] that
the understanding proper to such a substance exists in us, nor [3] that such a soul is the form of the
body. Whatever the Philosopher thought of this does not now concern me, because it seems that he
remains doubtful about it whenever he speaks of it. These three things are only matters of belief.
(Philosophical Writings: A Selection, translated and edited by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M. [Hackett
Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1990], p. 142). Numbered brackets mine.
49


For since I know that my own nature is very weak and limited, whereas the nature of
God is immense, incomprehensible and infinite, I also know without more ado that
he is capable of countless things whose causes are beyond my knowledge. And for
this reason alone / consider the customary search for final causes to be totally
useless in ph\sics\ there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of
80
investigating the [impenetrable] purposes of God.
If we read the fragment from the Synopsis into the passage from the Fourth
Meditation, it becomes apparent why a demonstration of the immortality of the soul is
impossible. The nature of such a demonstration would mean answering the question
of why the soul is not by nature bound to die with the body, which would be the same
as grasping the final cause, or end, of the soul separated from the body.
In the Second Meditation, the souls separabilty from the body is accounted
for from within the order of essential causality in a way strikingly similar to the
means by which the meditator in the Third Meditation proves the existence of God
from the essential order of causation. This in turn accounts for the reason why the
meditator is able to perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the
o 1
same faculty which enables me to perceive myself. Descartes pays no mind to the
reasons for why the soul is separable from the body, only the means of how it is, or
can be known to be separable, which he demonstrates in the Second Meditation with
the example of the wax. In his thought experiment, the essential nature of the wax is 80 81
80 AT VII, 55; CSM 2, p. 39. Italics mine; brackets in original. The Latin original runs as follows:
Dum haec perpendo attentius, occurrit primd non mihi esse mirandum, si quaedam a Deo fiant
quorum rationes non intelligam; nec de ejus existentia ideo esse dubitandum, qudd forte quaedam alia
esse experiar, quae quare vel quomodo ab illo facta sint non comprehendo. Cum enim jam sciam
naturam meam esse valde infirmam & limitatam, Dei autem naturam esse immensam,
incomprehensibilem, infinitam, ex hoc satis etiam scio innumerabilia ilium posse quorum causas
ignorem; atque ob hanc unicam rationem totum illud causarum genus, quod a fine peti solet, in rebus
Physicis nullum usum habere existimo; non enim absque temeritate me puto posse investigare fines
Dei.
81 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35.
50


82
perceived by detaching the mind from the senses (abducere mentem ad sensibus),
and the experiment concludes with the doctrine that the mind alone inspects (sed
Q-5
solius mentis inspectio) the essential nature of objects as ideas.
However, there is no account in the Meditations of the final cause of the mind
separated from the body. Descartes gives his reason: I have tried not to put down
anything which I could not precisely demonstrate.82 83 84 The ideas innate in the mind are
secondary to God, who is the first cause in the order of causes. Descartes
characterizes all ideas as secondary causes throughout the Meditations. The case with
Descartes proposition that the investigation of final causes in physics is useless
covers the same ground as the inscrutable futures of Thomas separated soul. To give
an account of final causes in physics would be probing into the infinite and
incomprehensible nature of God. If man is incapable of accomplishing that, then his
knowledge of how the soul will subsist in a future state can be illuminated no further.
Descartes regarded the defense of the dogma of the immortal soul of man as a
theological responsibility more than a philosophical one. That the soul of man is
imperishable is a teaching and dogma of the Church known by the light of Scriptural
revelation, and held to be true by the light of faith alone. Descartes demonstrative
proof in the Second Meditation that the soul is not bound by nature to die with the
body can never amount to an indubitable guarantee that the soul is not bound by
82 First Meditation, AT VII, 18, 52; CSM 2, pp. 17, 37.
83 Second Meditation, AT VII, 31; CSM 2, p. 21.
84 Synopsis of the Meditations, AT VII, 13; CSM 2, p. 9.
51


nature to die with the body. The rational soul is not necessarily immortal, but it is, as
Descartes demonstrates, separable. Considered independent of its Scriptural and
theological underpinnings, the doctrine of the separabilty of the mind from the body
is a doctrine no more specifically Christian than the proof for the existence of God as
an innate idea in the mind in the Third Meditation is the same God as that of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When confronted with the theological implications of his philosophic
doctrines, Descartes expressed little more than diffidence towards spinning out the
theological implications of the philosophic doctrines established in his Meditations.85
He was aware that he would have show how the principles of his philosophy could
either establish that the truths of faith and the truths of reason are not mutually
contradictory, or that his philosophy lends explanatory support to the type of
theological issues where it is notoriously difficult to reconcile philosophy to
theology,86 such as the doctrine of transubstantiation in the Eucharist. As a
theological matter, the immortality of the soul is not guaranteed by the powers of
reasons discovery that the soul persists after the death of the body. The doctrine of
85 Cf. Sixth Set of Replies: As for the passages cited from Scripture, I do not regard it as my job to
comment on them, except when they seem to be in conflict with an opinion that is particular to me.
For when the Scriptures are invoked against opinions which are common to all Christians... I should
be afraid of being accused of arrogance if I did not choose to be content with the replies already
discovered by others, rather than thinking up new answers of my own. For I have never become
involved in theological studies except in so far as they contributed to my private instruction, nor am I
conscious of having so much divine grace within me that I feel a vocation for such sacred studies. So I
hereby declare that in the future I will refuse to comment on questions of this kind; but I will make an
exception just this once, to avoid giving anyone an excuse to think that I am keeping silent because I
cannot give an adequate explanation of the passages cited. (AT VII, 428-429; CSM 2, p. 289).
86 Letter to Father Dinet, AT VII, 581; CSM 2, p. 392.
52


the immortality of the soul is, properly speaking, an act of faith in what the divinely
revealed Scriptures declare to be true. Descartes statement that a philosophical
demonstration of the fact that the operations of the mind are distinct from the
mechanical operations of the body does not violate or infringe upon the domain of the
souls immortality as a religious doctrine held by faith. As the doctrines of the
Church command the faithful to believe without rational or visible proof, Descartes
reproach of Mersenne for his improbable expectation that the Meditations would
contain a certain proof that God could not annihilate the soul is in accord with the
doctrinal mystery of the souls immortality.
Philosophically, Descartes justifies the consequent that the soul is not bound
by nature to die with the body with his demonstration in the Second Meditation of
the minds separabilty from the body, reminding Mersenne that since the souls
immortality is a religious question of foundational importance doctrinally. For
Descartes, however, the issue of whether God can or can not annihilate the soul was
ultimately a theological concern that goes beyond what is required as a foundation
for religion, which is simply no more than adherence to the tenets and doctrines as
established by the Church.
The Churchs doctrine of the souls immortality, as derived from the teaching
of Thomas, underwent a radical transformation in the Cartesian synthesis of the
Scholastic doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the epistemic critique of
knowledge. In the Synopsis of the Meditations, Descartes asks his readers not to
mistake his proof for the minds separabilty from the body as a demonstration of
53


premises that he does not endeavor to prove. These premises are those which lead to
the conclusion that the soul is immortal, and which depend for their validity on an
account of the whole of physics, or, in other words, the clear knowledge that
absolutely all substances, or things which must be created by God in order to exist,
are by their nature incorruptible and cannot ever cease to exist unless they are reduced
to nothingness by Gods denying his concurrence to them.87
87 Synopsis, AT VII, 14; CSM 2, p. 10.
54


Descartes aimed to give an account of the whole of physics, and thereby
establish the immutability of the laws governing the universe. However, in order to
accomplish this, Descartes needed to prove, as he endeavors to do in the Meditations,
that God, while not bound to abide by the laws that He has instantiated in creation, is
not a deceiver, and therefore will not alter or change laws He has established. The
clarity and distinctness of the minds perceptions of its own ideas is the benchmark
for determining that not only does God exist, but also that the mind is separable from
the body. Recalling Descartes letter to Mersenne in December 24, 1640, we can
conclude that what is at stake in an irrefutable proof of the souls immortality is
whether the soul is by nature immortal, and without any need for God to lend His
concurrence for it to survive, or whether the soul does require Gods intervention to
survive. Descartes concedes that the survival of the soul after the death of the body
presents too large a task for philosophy to accomplish:
I could not prove that God could not annihilate the soul, but only that it is by nature
entirely distinct from the body, and consequently it is not bound by nature to die with
88 AT III, 266; CSMK 3, p. 163.
55


CHAPTER 8
DESCARTES MIND AND THOMAS SEPARATE SUBSTANCES
Descartes doctrine of the minds innate knowledge of essences states that the
mind or understanding knows or inspects those ideas that are innate within it.89
Accordingly, once the soul is separated from the body, its mode of understanding90 is
not mediated or impeded by anything external to it. On the contrary, according to
Thomas, the intellectual soul depends on intelligibles taken from sensible things in
order to activate the understanding, or possible intellect.91 However, when in a state
of separation from the body, the soul
will understand through itself, in the manner of substances which in their being are
totally separate from bodies... And from those substances... the separated soul will
be able to receive a more abundant influx, productive of a more perfect
understanding on its own part.92
89 Cf. Sixth Meditation, AT VII, 73; CSM 2, p. 51: When the mind understands, it in some way turns
towards itself and inspects one of the ideas which are within it...
901.e., through itself, or per se.
91 SCG 2,91:5.
92 SCG 2, 80-81: 12.
56


Since Aristotle did not consider the rational soul to be a substance in its own right,93 it
was a necessary precondition of Thomas ontology to demonstrate that the soul is a
substance. Thomas accepted Aristotles doctrine of the soul as the form of the body,
as well as his doctrine that the body and soul are united in a substantial union; the
question that remained for Thomas was, how is it possible to divide an indivisible
substantial union without corruption coming to the whole? Thomas answer was this:
while the body is itself divisible, being a composite of matter and form with many
accidental parts and qualities, the intellectual substance, which is not composed of
matter and form, is indivisible since all corruption occurs through the separation of
form from matter.94 When the intellectual soul is separated from the body, its
substantial character, its per se unity, persists in the same respect that roundness is in
a circle through itself, but is by accident in a coin; so that the existence of a non-
round coin is possible; whereas it is impossible for a circle not to be round.95
In Thomas Summa Contra Gentiles, the discussion of separate substances
(angels) comes right after his considerations concerning the union of the human body
to the intellective, or rational soul. Thomas discussion of separate substances treats
93 Cf. DA: Among substances are by general consent reckoned bodies and especially natural bodies;
for they are the principles of all other bodies. Of natural bodies some have life in them, others not; by
life we mean self-nutrition and growth (with its correlative decay). It follows that every natural body
which has life in it is a substance in the sense of a composite. But since it is also a body of such and
such a kind, viz. having life, the body cannot be soul; the body is the subject or matter, not what is
attributed to it. Hence the soul must be a substance in the sense of a form of a natural body having life
potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality [or consummation] of a
body as above characterized, p. 555 (412a 12- 22). First italicized phrase and brackets mine.
94 SCG 2, 55: 2.
95 SCG 2, 55: 3.
57


the question of whether a form can exist apart from matter; and if so, what sort of
nature that form would have:
That which is by itself [per se] must be prior, in the order of being, to that which is
by accident [per accidens]-, incorporeal intellectual substances [or separate
substances] exist per se, while material being exists per accidens; there must exist
intellectual substances, prior in nature to souls, which, by virtue of the nature of their
being, enjoy a higher substantial form without participation in a lower material
. 96
nature.
A comparison of Descartes rational soul to Thomas separate substances can
be made under the following points. First, Descartes rational soul differs in the order
of existence from Thomas separate substance in the respective degrees of perfection
accorded them by their Creator. The rational mind of man is the highest grade of
intelligence accorded to the sphere of corporeal nature. The intellect of separate
substances is more perfect than mans intellect, yet they are less perfect than the
intellect of God in the sphere of intellectual nature. In the case of man, angels, and
God, the difference in intellect is one of quantity as measured by infinity. Mans
rational mind is to an angels as a finite nature is to an infinite nature; and the intellect
of angels is distinct from the intellect of God, again, magnified by an infinity. Hence,
intellect in the order of existence can be measured on a scalar magnitude of
perfection, from highest to lowest.
The second point of comparison of Descartes rational soul to Thomas
separate substances comes from Descartes hypothetical consideration of an angel
joined to a human body. Writing to Regius, Descartes states that, if an angel were in
a human body, he would not have sensations as we do... The reason that an angel in
96 SCG 2, 91:3. Brackets mine.
58


a human body would no have sensation is because of the distinction between the
rational soul and Thomas separate substance, namely, the respective mode of
understanding that each enjoys, but does not share with the other. The nature of the
act of understanding in rational soul and separate substance can be distinguished in
terms of their respective objects. Separate substances apprehend intellectual things
because they are intellectual natures; they do not uncover the intelligible buried in the
sensible by means of abstraction, which is the mode of the rational soul inhering in a
material nature. The respective mode of understanding of the rational soul and the
separate substance is marked by the difference between discursive reasoning and a
priori reasoning. An intellectual nature does not acquire a sensitive soul merely by
means of accident, and vice versa. Sensation in the human body is a necessary
component for the rational souls mode of understanding, because sensation is the
means of the rational souls acquiring its object, viz., intelligibles, by means of
phantasms. Accidental properties inhering in matter individuate things, and the task
of the rational soul is to abstract from material particulars in order to make them
intelligible to itself. The perception of a plenary of distinct objects does not amount
to categorical knowledge; that is to say, knowledge of universals. Thus, sense
perception is the first principle of human understanding, and via a series of channels,
we come to knowledge of things per se, or free of matter. The mode of understanding
for angels, on the other hand, is not discursive or subject to the vicissitudes of
corporeal organs, but rather a perception of intelligibles per se. Thomas states that
angels know material things, and further, that they know particular material things.
59


But this scale of intellective competence is not vertical; rather it is descending. The
higher species (i.e., a specific kind of intellectual nature) must contain in some way,
and to a greater degree of perfection, what is contained in the lower (e.g., a form in
material nature). Whatever exists in material substance in a material way is present to
intellectual substance in an intelligible way. Accordingly, angels, and God for that
matter, do not require corporeal sense organs in order to know particular material
things. Because there is no principle in nature that unites an intellective nature whose
mode of understanding is pure to an intellective nature whose mode of understanding
depends on bodily senses, it is unnecessary, as it is impossible for an angel to dwell in
a body.
Thomas rational soul in a state of separation from the human body does not
make a good parallel to the embodied/disembodied Cartesian mind for the following
two reasons. First, God must preserve the separated soul after the death of the body.
Without Divine support to conserve it, the separate soul has no more way of existing
than members of either the vegetative or the nutritive category of soul. Second,
Thomas separated souls require an influx of divine species to understand. In other
words, to know anything at all, separated souls require images that come from
something besides material objects of perception. God must both conserve and feed
images to the human mind after the death of the body. Consider Thomas own
comparisons of separated souls to separate substances:
To exist apart from bodies is an accidental competence on the part of souls, since
they are naturally the form of bodies this indicates that intellectual substance is
neither equivalent to the rational soul of man, since it does not inhere in any material
60


form, nor, on the contrary, do souls, after the body dies, qualify as substance
97
occupying a corresponding division of existence to that of intellectual substances.
The characteristic act of intellectual substances is the act of understanding; we can
specify the nature of this act from its object: things can be grasped by the intellect
insofar as they are free from matter. Separate substances apprehend intellectual
things because they are intellectual natures; they do not uncover the intelligible
98
buried in the sensible by means of abstraction.
Concerning the origin of the Cartesian mind, Thomas separated souls bear a certain
likeness to Descartes concept of mind, but fail to explain many characteristic
features of the Cartesian mind, such as the fact that the rational mind does not require
external objects of perception to know anything. The noetic contents of the Cartesian
mind are not activated by external objects of perception. The Cartesian mind
understands all concepts per se, without mediation, and it does not cease to
understand when in either a temporary or a permanent state of separation from the
body.
We have shown that Descartes rational mind is comparable to something like
Aristotles rational soul turned inside out. To find a likely source for the origin of the
Cartesian mind, another source closely allied to Aristotles rational mind must be
considered Thomas separate substances (otherwise known as angels"). The
superior correspondence of Thomas separate substances to Descartes concept of
mind can be seen in Thomas contrast between the separated soul and the separate
substances respective mode of understanding: 97 98 99
97SCG 2,91:4.
98 SCG 2, 97:2.
99 It should be noted that Thomas uses the term separate substances throughout his Summa Contra
Gentiles, but employs the term angel in the similar discussion in his Summa Theologica.
61


The operation of understanding exercised through a corporeal organ is an imperfect
means by which to understand. The substance of a thing must be commensurate to
its operation, and understanding is the only proper operation of an intellectual
substance... intellectual substances have no need of a body to apprehend their object
[i.e., insofar as intelligibles are taken from material things, the faculty of
understanding is imperfect, as is the case with the rational soul]. The proper objects
of intellectual substance are things that in their very nature are intelligible, or things
that are intelligible in themselves. In contrast, objects grasped by rational souls are
things known by the intellect through the intermediary means of phantasms [i.e.,
images of objects of sense perception] received through sense organs. So, things in
this way are not known through themselves, but through abstraction [i.e.,
conceptually].100
Accordingly, Thomas himself argues that his separate substances are not equivalent to
Aristotles rational soul. Separate substances are not formed of a compound of soul
and body, while the rational soul, as Aristotle defines it, is always the form of the
human body. Thomas separate substances bear a far greater likeness to the Cartesian
mind in the respect that separate substances understand all essences directly (thus,
they know material things101 and singulars as well102), and they understand without
100 SCG 2, 91:10. Brackets mine.
101 Cf. SCG 2: 99:3: The higher species [i.e., intellectual substances] must contain in some way, and
to a greater degree of perfection, what is contained in the lower [i.e., material substance]; since
intellectual substance is above corporeal substance, it follows that whatever exists in corporeal
substance in a material way is present to separate substance in an intelligible way; for that which is in
something is in it according to the mode of that in which it is [i.e., that which understands to that which
is the object of the understanding].
Cf. ibid. 99:7: The thing understood is present in the intellect according to its likeness, and according
to the perfection of the one who understands it the tree outside the soul, understood by abstraction,
is not the perfection of the possible intellect [i.e., the active intellect]. The likeness of the material
thing exists in the intellectual substance immaterially, not according to material substance; it exists
according to the mode of understanding [i.e., intellectual understanding] and the mode of perfection
[i.e., the degree of conceptual understanding]. Brackets mine.
102 Cf. SCG 2, 100:3: Whatever lies in the competence of a lower power, a higher power can also do,
and in a higher way. The lower power operates through many instruments; and the lower the grade of
intelligence, the more numerous must its ways of knowing be. Separate substances have a greater
compactness and unity than both composite and material substances for instance, the intellect in
man apprehends a diverse genera of sense objects through the senses, so the rational soul is cognizant
of singulars and universals through sense and intellect; the intellect of the separate substance, on the
other hand, knows singulars and universals in a higher way since the mode of understanding is not
diverse or multiplied, but understood through the intellect only. Italics mine.
62


Divine mediation. From here we can draw the further parallel of the Cartesian mind
to the Divine mind.
63


CHAPTER NINE
THE CORRESPONDENCE OF THE MIND OF GOD AND THE RATIONAL
MIND IN THE MEDITATIONS
In order to build a case in his letter to the Sorbonne for the proof for the
existence of God he gives in the Third Meditation, Descartes draws on Biblical
citations that assert mans knowledge of the existence of God to be manifest.
Indeed, Descartes proof for the separabilty of the soul from the body in the Second
Meditation hinges dialectically on his proof for the existence of God as an innate idea
of the mind in the Third Meditation.103 Descartes substitution of the Scholastic term
soul with the term mind is present in the Sorbonne letter, and so too is his
doctrine of innate ideas: everything that may be known of God through the
103 Cf. footnote 3 in CSM 2, p. 10, where the additional phrase from the French translation of the
Meditations, ...or the soul of man, for I make no distinction between them, is noted in relation to the
passage from the original text that reads, And it follows from this that while the body can very easily
perish, the mind is immortal by its very nature.
C.F. Fowler notes Descartes predominant use of the term mens over the terms anima,
animus, ingenium, and spiritus in the Meditations to describe the human soul (Fowler 1999, pp.
161-175). Fowler concludes with the observation that, The novelty of the Cartesian notion of the
human soul was highlighted by a refusal of the traditional vocabulary and the deliberate choice of the
word mens," ibid., p. 186.
64


Scriptures, including mans knowledge of Gods existence, ...can be demonstrated
by reasoning which has no other source than our own mind.,,m
Descartes curious phrase, no other source than our own mind, introduces a
subtle shift in his argument to the Sorbonne Dean and Doctors. Mans empirical
knowledge of the existence of God, according to Thomas and his 17th century
adherents at the Sorbonne, is derived from Gods sensible effects throughout His
creation. Under the idealist auspices of the Cartesian method, Thomas empiricism is
abrogated to the realm of a fiction of the mind. According to Descartes, the minds
knowledge of Gods existence is not discursive. According to Descartes, the
Aristotelian/Thomistic claim that the minds knowledge of the existence of God can
be derived from His sensible effects is a fallacy in the order of knowledge. The
corporeal organs of sense only sense what is sensible; and God, who is incorporeal,
cannot be apprehended in His existence through the corporeal senses. The
dubitability of the objects of sense perception undermines the validity of knowledge
derived from the material world. If mans knowledge of the existence of God is
drawn from sensible effects, then the existence of God can be called into doubt
through the same channels by which His existence was asserted. Famously,
Descartes does precisely this in his Mediations. Yet what was taken as evidence of
Descartes atheist-skepticism by his critics was in reality Descartes rejection of
Aristotle and Thomas rational soul that understands itself though the senses in favor 104
104 AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3. Brackets and italics mine. The Latin original is as follows: ...videmur
admoneri ea omnia quae de Deo sciri possunt, rationibus non aliunde petitis quam ab ipsamet nostra
mente posse ostendi
65


of the undiluted rational mind. The question of how good a Catholic was Descartes
becomes clear when it is realized that the answer has nothing to do with religion, and
everything to do with competition between schools of thought. Competition between
the Aristotelian and Platonist/neo-Platonist schools of thought was extremely wide-
ranging in the 17th century. The Churchs shadow over intellectual life has been
equally over-exaggerated by both commentators and historians of philosophy. In
1641, Descartes celebrated the birth of his mechanical man animated by William
Harveys discovery of the heart that pumps blood. Such a conception of man
represented a triumph over Aristotles rational soul animated by the fantasy of
phantasia, not a victory over the claims of mans revealed religion.
Of the three types of intellect treated in Descartes writings (Divine, angelic,
and human), it is the Divine mind that most closely parallels the ego of the
Meditations. Like the Divine mind, the Cartesian mind requires no medium, sensory
or otherwise, to be activated. The ego, like the Divine mind, knows its essence
directly. As opposed to the Aristotelian soul, the ego has no need of sensory or
bodily organs to transmit images to the agent, or passive intellect. Nor does the
Cartesian ego require universal forms, as do Thomas angelic minds. Because no
image is necessary to activate the Cartesian ego, it does not traverse, as do
Thomas separate substances, the ontological distance from potentiality to
actuality.105 Nor is the Cartesian mind divided into the agent intellect and potential
105 Mind is, in a sense, whatever is potentially thinkable, because in actuality it is nothing until it has
thought. Cf. DA III. 429a24: before mind thinks, it is not actually any real thing; and, 429a22: it
follows that mind too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, than that of having a
certain capacity.
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intellect. The Cartesian mind is always actual in the same way the Divine mind is,
but in a finite, as opposed to an infinite sense. The ego is always, first and foremost,
an act or intuition of existence, and is in act prior to any conscious mental act. The
Cartesian mind, unlike the Aristotelian God that is thought thinking itself, is
actualized before it thinks itself. One might ask what thought thinking itself was
before it thought of itself. Finally, the Cartesian mind does not require a body (and
therefore the external world) to be.
The nature of the ideas innate in the Cartesian mind (God, the ego, wax) are
all encompassing, in the sense that the mind has an idea of all essences. In other
words, the mind does not require the particulars of sense perception to grasp universal
concepts. Logic, for instance, is not based on the particulars of sense, but on concepts
reducible to mathematical or physical principles and properties. Cartesian mans act
of being thinking is not a bodily act. The self, or the mind, is not individuated
by matter, whereas material objects are. The Cartesian mind knows the same
universals as the Divine mind, but the difference is that the Cartesian mind is
embodied, and thus subject to error:
..so long as I think only of God, and turn my whole attention to him. I can find no
cause of error or falsity. But when I turn back to myself, I know by experience that I
am prone to countless errors.106
In terms of further limitation, the mind is created by God, as Descartes states in the
Third Mediation; Cartesian mans act of being is not an act of self-creation,107 but an
106 AT VII, 56; CSM 2, p. 38.
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intuition of the self and an understanding of the essential nature of all things (e.g.,
Descartes experiment with the wax in the Second Mediation). In this respect,
Descartes proof for the existence of God from the principle of causality in the Third
Meditation is the only way of measuring the powers of rationality and the contents of
the mind that has a rational understanding of all things.
The approximate identity of the Cartesian mind with the Divine mind is
further underscored by Descartes emphasis on the ease with which the existence of
God is thinkable. To discover as it were the existence of God, Descartes substitutes
the chain of causes in the sensible order for the chain of causes in the order of ideas.
That the existence of God, according to Descartes, is more self-evident than the
existence of the sensible world contradicts the Aristotelian/Thomist conception of the
intellectual soul, which apprehends its object via the simple class of objects that
Aquinas refers to as sensible by accident, or objects which are intelligible in
themselves. Thomas argues that mans knowledge of the existence of God,
In the Third Meditation, Descartes inquires as to whether or not the idea of a being more
perfect than himself must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect, and
examines the possibility of whether he himself, who has such an idea of a more perfect being, could
exist if no such being existed:
For whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself, presumably, or from my
parents, or from some beings less perfect than God... Yet if I derived my existence from myself, then I
should neither doubt nor want, nor lack anything at all; for I should have given myself all the
perfections of which I have any idea, and thus I should myself be God... And if I had derived my
existence from myself, which is a greater achievement [than to emerge out of nothing], I should
certainly not have denied myself the knowledge in question... [i.e., the knowledge of the many things
of which he is ignorant, such as his origin] (AT VII, 48; CSM 2, p. 33).
The logic of the argument for self-creation mirrors the terrifying logic of the deus deceptor, in
which all knowledge is made absurd and impossible, and all manifestations of Gods goodness are
inverted so as to seem absurd and unjust.
108 Cf. SCG 2, 77: 2: ...the intellectual soul itself remains potential with respect to the determinate
likeness of things that can be known by us, namely, the natures of sensible things. It is the phantasms
which present these determinate sensible natures to us. But these phantasms have not yet acquired
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deriving from the order of created things, points to the necessity of His existence as
the first cause of the material world, and the requirement that there exist in the
universe intellectual creatures that bear a likeness to its source, according to its being
and its nature, wherein it enjoys a certain perfection.* 109
In the Third Meditation, the necessity of the minds a priori knowledge of the
existence of God is deduced from the infinite nature of God. Descartes argues that
the rational mind possesses the idea of an infinite being; the rational mind is finite,
hence the finite minds idea of an infinite being must have a source outside of itself.
Because a finite mind cannot generate the idea of an infinite being, it stands to reason
that God put the idea of Himself in the rational mind. There is no other means,
Descartes argues, by which a finite mind could be in possession of the idea of an
infinite being.110 Descartes maintains that,
.. .the mere fact that God created me is a very strong basis for believing that I am
somehow made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive that likeness, which
includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive
myself.111
The proposition that the mind is made in Gods image and likeness rests upon the
assumption that the mind possesses judgment, rationality, and will in other words,
intelligible actuality, since they are likenesses of sensible things even as to material conditions, which
are the individual properties, and, moreover, the phantasms exist in material organs.
109 SCG, 2,46: 2.
110 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35: ...when I turn my minds eye on upon myself, I
understand that I am a thing which is incomplete and dependent on another and which aspires without
limit to even greater and better things; but I also understand at the same time that he on whom I depend
has within him all those greater things, not just indefinitely and potentially but actually an infinitely,
and hence that he is God.
111 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2. p. 35.
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those communicable attributes that God possesses infinitely and perfectly, and the
human mind to a limited and finite degree. Because the meditator perceives both God
and the ego through the same faculty (the understanding), what is predicated of God
(infinity and perfection)112 is also predicated of the mind, but to a diminished degree
of perfection.113 The intuitive assertion of the cogito is ego cogito, ego sum; je
pense done je suis; I think, therefore I am. The parallel of his philosophical doctrine
to Gods answer to Moses on Mount Sinai was probably not lost on Descartes. After
all, the title of his Le Monde de M. Descartes ou le traite de la lumiere, too, was
intended as a reference to the command of God Himself, on the first day of the world,
Let there be light!
In the final analysis, the Cartesian mind is not identical to the Divine mind,
but bears a similarity to it in the same respect that the minds idea of extension only
bears a similarity to extended things. An analogous parallel can be found in the
cognitive lacuna that divides Thomas Divine mind from his separate substances, the
angels. We can formulate a tripartite ontological lacuna in Descartes distinction of
the thinking thing as such, and extended things as such; second, his distinction
1,2 The fact that man is created in the likeness or image of an infinite and perfect God has its
parallel in: 1) infinite the human will that extends indefinitely; 2) perfection the minds reflexive
apprehension of clear and distinct ideas.
113 Cf. Third Meditation, AT VII, 42; CSM 2, p. 29: And although one idea may perhaps originate
from another, there cannot be an infinite regress here; eventually one must reach a primary idea, the
cause of which will be like an archetype which contains formally [and in fact] all the reality [or
perfection] which is present only objectively [or representatively] in the idea. So it is clear to me, by
the natural light, that the ideas in me are like [pictures, or] images which can easily fall short of the
perfection of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more
perfect. Brackets in original.
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between the minds ideas of extended things, and extended things as such; and third,
his account of the minds idea of God, and God as such.
The rational mind is, as Descartes phrases it after Augustine, caught between
being and nothingness. The lacuna between the minds ideas of essences and
material objects existing in time and space is the same ontological lacuna that obtains
between being and non-being. What commentators term the similarity thesis refers
to the objects of sense experience bearing a similarity to the minds ideas of objects
of perception; the two are not identical, and therefore not dependent on one another
for their respective operations. The body is a mechanism that functions on the
circulation of blood, performing all of the same movements even if there is no mind
in it. Hence, the lacuna between the rational mind and the body-machine is identical
to the lack of correspondence between being and non-being as such.
Like Thomas separate substances, the Cartesian mind is caused by the Divine
mind, and reflects the Divine mind in an imperfect, finite way. The difference
between the modes of being enjoyed by God, who possesses both an infinite will and
mind, and the limited faculties and powers enjoyed by man is such that no essence
can belong univocally to both God and his creatures.114 What can be predicated
essentially of man depends, according to Descartes, on the rational clarity by which
the truth is perceived by the mind. No actions, Descartes claims, can be reckoned
human unless they depend on reason.115
114 Sixth Set of Replies, AT VII, 433; CSM 2, p. 292.
115 AT III, 371; CSM 3, p. 182.
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The distinction again applies in the case of the ontological lacuna between the
rational mind and the Divine mind. What is predicated of the rational mind, such as
the minds knowledge of the truth or falsity of ideas, cannot likewise be predicated of
the Divine nature. The mind and will of God is free in the absolute sense, and beyond
truth and falsity. Thus, the limitless will and power of God enjoys an indifference to
the created and uncreated as such. God, considered as an infinite, perfect
substance,116 determines the order of things to be such for no other reason than that
He wills it to be so. In the Sixth Set of Replies Descartes states, the way in which it
[viz., the freedom of the will] exists in God is quite different from the way in which it
exists in us. Descartes admission that he could not demonstrate that God could not
annihilate the soul stems from his conception of the absolute freedom of an infinite
God.
Gods freedom derives from His absolute indifference, or in Descartes words,
it is impossible to imagine that anything is thought of in the divine intellect as good
or true... prior to the decision of the divine will to make it so...there is no priority of
116 On God considered as infinitus or substantia infinita, Cf. Descartes letter to Clerselier of 23 April,
1649: By infinite substance I mean a substance which has actually infinite and immense, true and
real perfections. This is not an accident added to the notion of substance, but the real essence of
substance taken absolutely and bounded by no defects; these defects, in respect of substance, are
accidents; but infinity or infinitude is not. It should be observed that I never use the word infinite to
signify the mere lack of limits... but to signify a real thing, which is incomparably greater than all
those which are in some way limited. (AT V, 355-356; CSMK 3, p. 377).
On God considered as ens summe perfectum, Cf. Third Meditation: By God I mean the
very being the idea of whom is within me, that is, the possessor of all the perfections which I cannot
grasp, but can somehow reach in my thought, who is subject to no defects whatsoever. (AT VII, 52;
CSM 2, p. 35).
On the incompatibility of Descartes two principle definitions of God (substantia infinita and
ens summe perfectum), and some erudite observations on Descartes Scholastic sources for his notions
of the infinity and perfection of the Divine nature, see Jean-Luc Marions, The Essential Incoherence
of Descartes Definition of Divinity, trans. by Frederick P. Van de Pitte, in Essays on Descartes
Meditations, ed. by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (University of California Press, Berkley, 1986).
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order, or nature, or... rationally determined reason [that] impelled him to choose one
thing rather than another.117 Lastly, the rational mind is distinguished from the
Divine mind in the respect that the rational mind perceives concepts that are
immutably true, while the Divine mind, the infinite, perfect, incomprehensible118
originator of all is omni potens, and above rationality. Rationality is by definition a
property of finite creatures that observe rules and operate according to mechanistic
laws. Gods essence, according to Descartes, is not identical to the universal laws of
mechanics; Gods essence consists of a will of inexhaustible power, hence the
cause or reason why he requires no cause.119
117 Sixth Set of Replies, AT VII, 431-432; CSM 2, p. 291. Brackets mine.
118 Cf. Reply to Objections V (AT VII, 368; CSM 2, p. 254).
119 Cf. Reply to Objections V (AT VII, 236; CSM 2, p. 165).
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