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Imagine yourself sitting on an old, wooden bench in a desolate field. It is late in


the afternoon and the light of the day is slowly fading from blue to grey, from
grey to pink and from pink to orange. A hundred yards from where you are
sitting you notice a square boxing ring. It seems strange to you to see this
foreign object in the seemingly empty space, and you sweep the hair from your
eyes to take a better look. You are able to make out two figures, standing at
opposing corners of the ring. One stands tall and straight, barely moving, except
for the whisper of a silvery cloak that hovers behind him. The other limbers up,
his shoulders are shrugged as he ambles around, throwing his weight from foot
to foot.
You watch them like this for several minutes, and as the sky glows orange the
two figures become silhouettes. Slowly, many more figures begin to surround the
boxing ring. Some appear to be shouting, although you cannot hear the words
that leave their mouths. Others take out wads of notepaper and pencils, and
then pause to contemplate the figures in the ring as if they might begin to
sketch them.
The night draws on, and you are enveloped in darkness. You continue to stare,
quite intrigued, at the huddle of people in the distance. You realise you can no
longer identify the initial occupants of the ring, nor can you distinguish the
individuals within the crowd. Your eyes become tired from straining to see in the
poor light, and you decide to give in and let them close just for a moment. But
you are quickly drifting off to sleep, and you are no longer aware of where you
are and what surrounds you. You are returning, to a private world within.

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This essay will discuss the philosophical ideas of Ren Descartes and Sigmund
Freud and their understanding of the relationship between body and mind. It will
first draw attention to the importance of a philosophy of the body, before
outlining the relevant theories of Descartes and Freud. This essay will then
contemplate what it means to be a subject in todays world, and finds that while
an awareness of the mind and its capacities is important, it is Freuds bodycentral approach that provides a more appropriate philosophy for understanding
ones self in contemporary society.
The body is studied in a number of academic arenas and yet it has arguably
remained a conceptual blind spot in mainstream philosophical thought (Grosz,
1994: 3). Despite its integral role in our daily lives, and its subsequent power in
forming our identities, it has long been subordinated to the elusive matters of
mind and soul. It has been Descartes legacy that the human subject ought to be
divided, into the two distinctly opposed characteristics of mind and body. This
concept has had considerable influence not only in highbrow philosophy, but in
the common mans perception of himself as a subject in contemporary society.
Our education systems reflect this view, with the constructions of mind studied
almost exclusively in the social sciences, and the body in the so called health
sciences (Grosz, 1994: 8). But perhaps this interpretation has become out dated,
superseded by modern philosophy and the considerable developments in
science? And are such ideas, of a body subordinated to the mind, beneficial to
human kind, and the ways in which we choose to live? This essay will attempt to
address such questions.

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Descartes (1596-1650) was an influential French philosopher and mathematician.
His studies in the area of the philosophy of mind focus largely on the separation
of the soul from nature and physical extension. Descartes identifies two unique
and mutually exclusive substances of the mind and body, which inhabit their own
self-contained spheres and are only able to interact through the animal spirits
that travel between them. In his work, Descartes juxtaposes this immortal,
rational mind against the mortal and deceitful corporeality of the body an
arguably unfair distinction which has left a considerable impression upon modern
academia. In fairness to Descartes, his view of the body does grow to soften in
his later philosophies, in particular his correspondence with Princess Elizabeth in
the years before his death. However, it is his earlier works which are most
commonly studied and referenced, which take a firm dualist stance.
The Meditations, written in 1641, are a reflection of the reasoning behind
Descartes dualism and provide an intriguing insight into the beliefs and values
he holds as a philosopher. Descartes begins by questioning all that he thinks to
be true, in order to ascertain that which he can rely upon as accurate knowledge.
His notions of a soul that is distinct from the body are evident throughout the
Meditations, and in this way Descartes can be seen to actively deduce from this
knowledge an epistemology which substantiates this. In light of his premises,
Descartes starts by examining the knowledge that is perceived through the body,
in particular, by the senses. In conclusion Descartes establishes that the senses
are quite capable of deceit, and that he can readily imagine a world in which
everything that he perceives through the senses is nothing but an illusion.
However, Descartes is left unsettled by this deduction, and in identifying what it
means to think and have thoughts, realises that the mind also has a capacity to
know and perceive things that is separate from the body. In his second
meditation, Descartes uses a wax analogy, whereby he demonstrates that he
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knows the matter to be wax in both liquid and solid forms, despite it appearing
entirely different to his senses (Descartes, 2005: 32). He attributes this
understanding to a higher rationale of the mind, which can be seen to further
subordinate the body.
In his later work, The Passions of the Soul (1649), and in his correspondence with
Princess Elizabeth (from 1644), Descartes articulates his ideas further. The
philosophy of his later life, undoubtedly influenced by the critical questions
posed by Princess Elizabeth, is more rounded, articulate and applicable to
modern society. The detail and time spent on outlining the complex connections
between body and mind, and the intricate concept of the animal spirits,
strengthens Descartes arguments and satisfies societys increasing thirst for a
scientific-style

analysis.

Descartes

addresses

the

issue

of

mind-body

interactionism, stressing that it is not sufficient that mind should be lodged in the
body as if it were driving a machine, but that the substances of mind and body
are bound by a complex union of shared and referred sensations and perceptions
(Descartes, 1967: 172). Their primary connection can be seen to be the animal
spirits of which Descartes gives a detailed explanation in The Passions.
The animal spirits form an integral feature in Descartes philosophy as they
provide a point of interaction between the distinctly separate substances of mind
and body. The animal spirits are thought to mediate this relationship within the
body, in travelling to and from the pineal gland, which Descartes considers to be
the principle seat of the soul. Descartes argues that the soul can directly
influence these animal spirits, which subsequently travel throughout the body
and are able to affect the bodily state (Descartes, 1985: 337). The conceptual
idea of a rational mind or soul is significant for Descartes, as his philosophy rests
on the assumption of a supreme God. He proposes that the notion of a God-

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given, immortal soul persuades the human subject to live virtuously (Descartes,
1967: 172).

Despite a number of conceptual flaws, Descartes notion of a dualism between


mind and body has had a considerable influence on the world of philosophy. The
philosophy of the mind and the philosophy of the body have since become hotly
debated in this realm. It may be interesting now to contrast the views of
Descartes with those of Baruch Spinoza, a monist writing in the 1660s and
1670s. Spinoza offers an alternate view on the mind and body relationship,
ultimately

rejecting

Descartes

dualist

philosophy.

For

Spinoza,

the

two

substances of mind and body are one and the same, in contrast to Descartes
view that they are entirely separate and incompatible. In order to articulate this,
Grosz employs the analogy of a coin with two sides, each of which are
expressions of the same, singular substance (Grosz, 1994: 11).
The philosophical ideas of Spinoza are perhaps more palatable for modern,
secular society, than the more traditional and religiously based views of
Descartes. Spinoza contends that there can only be one substance, which he
claims is God or Nature. Critics may argue that this theory lacks complexity,
and is a simple escape of the dualist dilemma of interactionism. However this
essay proposes that Spinozas ideas were highly sophisticated and indicative of
the scholars that would write centuries later. Spinoza began to recognise the
importance of the body and its physicality, and did not herald the mind and soul
as Descartes had done prior. Instead, Spinoza claims the mind is the idea of the
body to the exact degree that the body is an extension of the mind (Grosz,
1994: 12). Further, Spinozas work is perhaps compatible with theories of
evolution as animals, plants and even inorganic materials are also believed to
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have souls. Human superiority therefore exists as a result of a more complex
physical make-up, rather than an elite, God-given soul. Our minds, and our
capacities to reason and act rationally, are hence a capacity we achieve through
the sophisticated evolution of our bodies.

This emphasis on the body and the capacities of the brain is also highly relevant
in the work of Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud (1956-1939). Writing
considerably later than Descartes and Spinoza, Freud had the advantage of
significant developments in science, which enabled him to understand the body
in more detail. Freud is perhaps most well known as the father of psychiatry,
and for his work on the unconscious mind. In striking contrast to Descartes who
believed that there is nothing more easy to know than [the] mind (Descartes,
2005: 33), Freud frequently refers to the mind as the unknown (Ferrell, 1996: 7).
This idea is linked with Freuds theory of conversion, in which thoughts and
feelings are repressed by the mind and then represented within the body in a
different form. Such repression is thought to occur regularly and to a significant
extent, without the awareness of the human subject. This notion is discussed in a
number of Freuds case studies and provides an intriguing insight into Freuds
own philosophy of the body and mind.
Freud contemplates that both our minds and bodies often think without out own
conscious awareness of them doing so. Uncovering such thoughts, repressed by
the concept of the super-ego, is at the forefront of Freuds practise of
psychoanalysis. While Freud accepts that such repression plays an important part
in the functioning of society, he argues that when it occurs in excess it can have
a significant impact of the minds and bodies of humankind. For Freud, these
desires and needs of the body are important in the formation of our identities,
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and in this way it is necessary to investigate their true scope.

In such

investigation, Freud uncovers that the mind can be seen as a deputy to the body,
an elaboration or developmental consequence that has occurred to gain
satisfaction for bodily needs (Freud, 1957: 8). Therefore, the body is both the
creator and the subject of the mind, an idea that is in direct opposition to the
philosophy of Descartes.

Experiencing life from the point of view of a human subject is a complex, exciting
and perhaps indistinguishable involvement. From the perspective of a dualist,
like Descartes, the body is not of great significance. Instead, much care and
attention must be given to the mind and soul, as they are an immortal and
virtuous representation of God. In his later life, it is likely that Descartes own
experience of his body evolved through his interaction with Princess Elizabeth
and in his growing recognition of the capacities of the body. However it is unlikely
he ever felt and understood his own intimate connection with his body as
Spinoza and Freud did. While an understanding of the mind and the internal,
metaphysical realm of the self is important, an appreciation of the body and its
astonishing abilities is also crucial.
The work of Spinoza still remains highly relevant to the human subject living in
todays society. His monism promotes a care for the mind and body as a whole,
and does not subordinate one to the other. Whether or not Spinozas philosophy
is indicative of modern scientific beliefs is perhaps unimportant with regard to
the positive message his theory provides. Spicker recognises that Spinozas
central interest was not a doctrine of organism but a metaphysical foundation
for psychology and ethics (Spicker, 1970: 54). In this way, Spinozas concept

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of Nature and his idea that we all have some form of soul persuades the reader
to critically reflect on the ways in which we engage with life.
With the benefit of living during the 20 th Century, it is likely that the philosophy of
Freud is most applicable to the notion of what it means to be a subject in todays
world. Freuds focus on the body and the inner workings of the brain are a
reflection of the dominant scientific rationale of the past 200 years. As we are
constantly reminded of our immortality it is arguable that is important to
recognise this and contemplate what it means to ultimately experience a finite
corporeality. While it is Freudian theory that appears to be the most applicable in
the sense of the research question, it perhaps is not as compatible with
philosophical reflection as is the work of Descartes and Spinoza. For Descartes
and Spinoza, a scientific foundation is not as significant, therefore allowing
greater exploration of the imagination on these topics.

In conclusion, this essay hopes to investigate and portray the philosophical


importance of mind and body. The vehicle in which we experience life ought to
be lovingly cared for, from both a physical and philosophical perspective. How we
understand this vehicle and the ways in which we should care for it is likely to be
the subject of ongoing debate as our knowledge of its substance evolves. It is
important then, to continue to critically reflect on what it means to be a subject
in todays world, with reference to many theorists on the topic.

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A note on the opening story: The opening few paragraphs of this essay are
intended to intrigue the reader and provide for a moment of reflection. I hope to
position the reader in the place of myself, as an objective participant in the
philosophies of Descartes and Freud. From a distance, the reader is able to
envisage the scope of their arguments, which are simplistically translated
through the descriptions of their corporeality in the boxing ring. The growing
crowd that begins to surround them are intended to portray the many voices in
this field, some shouting their objections, and others merely carrying on their
ideas. The symbolism of the fading light is representative of the confusion and
complexity of the issues involved in the philosophy of mind and body, and it is
also intended to promote an active reflection on such matters. While we have a
growing scientific knowledge of the body, the mind remains somewhat of a
perplexity, on which we must form our own ideas through both the observation
of others and in self-reflection.

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References

Descartes, Ren (1967), Mind as Distinct from Body, The Philosophical Works
of Descartes, Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: PP 168-172.
Descartes, Ren (1985), The Passions, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes,
Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: PP 328-404.
Descartes, Ren, Second Meditation, in Tiffany Atkinsons (ed.) (2005), The
Body. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Ferrell, Body, Passion in Theory. Routledge, London: PP 7-18.
Freud, Sigmund (1957), Instincts and their Vicissitudes, The Standard Edition of
the Complete Physiological Works of Sigmund Freud. The Hogarth Press, London:
PP 117-140.
Freud, Sigmund, A case of hysteria: Fraulein Elisabeth Von R, in Tiffany
Atkinsons (ed.) (2005), The Body. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Grosz, Elizabeth (1994), Refiguring Bodies, And Volatile Bodies: Towards a
corporeal Feminism. Allen & Unwin, New South Wales: PP 3-24
Lloyd, Genevieve (2008), The Philosopher and the Princess: Descartes and the
Philosophical Life, Providence Lost. Harvard University Press, Cambridge: PP
160-190.
Spicker, Stuart F. (1970), The Philosophy of the Body: rejections of Cartesian
dualism. Quadrangle Books, Chicago.
Wilson, Elizabeth A. (2004), The Brain in the Gut, Psychosomatic: feminism and
the neurological body. Durham, Duke University Press: PP 31-47.

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