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Aristotle versus Descartes on the Self: Body and Soul

Updated on May 29, 2016
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Patrick has been working as a freelance writer for the past 3 years

Rene Descartes

father of modern philosophy
father of modern philosophy | Source

Philosophy of the Self

Are we our bodies? Our brains? Our minds/consciousness? This has been the question philosophers have been asking for a long time with a range of arguments being put forward in an attempt to give an answer. Do you suppose we have a good answer yet?

Regardless of the varying views about the self, most philosophers will agree that with the definition that the self is a sort of inner being/principle, which is essential to, but not identical, with the person as a whole.

Let’s see what some philosophers have to say about it

According to Aristotle, the soul is the core essence of any living being. However, rejected the idea of the soul having a separate existence. In his opinion therefore, the self was composed of both the soul and the body as a single entity.

Descartes disagrees with Aristotle and believes that the body and soul are two different entities, where the soul, being the self, inhabits the body, and can continue to exist even without the body. Although the molecules that make the body may change, Descartes feels that the mind/soul/self remains the same and can exist independent of the body. This perspective suggests that the self is what determined by the soul/mind The difference between the two theories is that while the Aristotle felt that the body and soul were bound and connected to each other, Descartes was of the opinion that the body was simply an extension of the real self (mind- soul- self). According to Descartes therefore, it is possible to transfer the “self” from one body to the next given that it is composed of the mind/soul and is separate from the body. If it was possible to transfer the brain, and thus mind of one individual to the body of another, then the self would remain to be that of the new mind.

Descartes' argument is very simple and straightforward. He presents three basic premises to try and prove that the body and soul are two different entities.

Premises of his argument;

  • I can doubt that my body exists,
  • I cannot doubt that I exist as a thinking thing,
  • I am a thinking thing, and therefore I am not identical with my body,

This is truly a very sound argument that is logical and safe to accept. He uses his arguments to prove or disapprove what we really know, and ultimately proves that thinking is the only thing that we can prove. This therefore makes a person (the self) a thinking being. This also goes to show that the thinking being, which in this case is the self, can be moved to another body, and remain unchanged. However, Descartes is unable to show how the two interact for the soul to direct the body, which introduces a problem to his argument.

Contrary to this view, Aristotle argued the soul to be a form of the body with the body being matter. He goes on to give an example: using a number of ideas to prove his argument.

The Axe example:

Aristotle explains that if it was an actual living thing, then the body of the axe would be made of metal and wood while its soul would be its capacity chop (what makes it an axe).

Wood and Metal – Body

The ability to chop- Soul

The eye example:

If the eye was an animal according to Aristotle, then its soul would be sight. Although Aristotle also presents an important perspective, his examples shows that there is some difference between the body and soul. Although he is not a dualist, this argument also suggests that the body and soul are distinct to some extent given that the part of the example representing the soul gives the body some identity or life, thus allowing it to be identified as it is.

So what can we conclude?

When the brain, or part of the brain of one individual is introduced into the body of another individual, even though the two may be of different genders, then the self in this case is that of the brain part despite the fact that it has a new body. This is to mean that the body of the individual is not, and does not contribute to the self of the person. Although we can describe an individual by their physical appearances, it is a fact that one is known by his or her personality, which is their real self. In the absence of the thinking being (mind-soul-self) the body would be described simply as that - a body, but not a person. By adding to Descartes notion as Leibniz did, we can continue to argue that;

  • My body has the property of being that I can doubt its (body) existence,
  • I (the thinking thing) lack the property of being and thus I can doubt my own existence,
  • In the event that two things are identical, they have exact same properties,
  • In conclusion, I, the thinking being, am not identical with my body,

The Self

The body-soul problem is essentially the basis of the "self" argument. I'm sure you agree...So depending on which side you take, or what your beliefs are on the body-soul duality, you have to wonder what the "self" is really composed of. Consider the following scenario;

A brain is successfully implanted in a healthy body, which brings the being to life.

Who would the being be? would this be a completely new being without any recollection of the past or would this person be that of the brain (mind)?. It is my opinion that the mind, and therefore consciousness that constitutes the self. In this case therefore, the self would be that of the mind.

Let me know what you think in the poll below


The "self"

The self would be?

See results

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