Conférence de Lawrence Nolan, The Ontological Status of Descartes’s Mind-Body Union

Conférence de Lawrence NOLAN California State University, Long Beach

The Ontological Status of Descartes’s Mind-Body Union

Some commentators have argued that Descartes is committed to the traditional Aristotelian conception of the human being as a hylomorphic unity or ens per se. This interpretation contradicts Descartes’s official mind-body dualism insofar as it implies that the human being is a third type of substance. It also raises problems about whether minds and bodies constitute genuine substances. As a result, it has been subjected to repeated criticism. While sympathetic with these criticisms, I think that there is something of great philosophical significance that partisans on both sides of this debate have overlooked : Descartes does have an account of the ontological status of the union of mind and body — one that goes beyond their causal interaction — but this account is highly reductive and perfectly consistent with his dualism. I argue that the mind-body union is not a genuine unity, but we ordinarily regard it as one whenever we are not engaged in philosophical meditation. This means the so-called mind-body “union” is merely a conceptual unity, for this way of regarding oneself is irredeemably confused and thus lacks ontological import. One virtue of this way of interpreting Descartes is that it explains some of his otherwise perplexing remarks to Elisabeth, including his much-discussed theory of notions primitives. It also reveals how he can ‘speak with’ the scholastics, and appear to endorse the hylomorphic conception of man, without contradicting his strict dualism

Répondant : Denis KAMBOUCHNER