Thinking: The nature of Descartes’ mental substance

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The signature doctrine of Cartesian metaphysics, the real distinction between mind and body, is a theory of substance. A mind is a substance whose nature is to think; body is a substance the nature of which is to be extended; as a consequence, a mind and its body can be separated one from the other. In the Aristotelian tradition, a substance is, at least initially, defined as a being that other things inhere in or depend on, which does not inhere in or depend on anything else. For Descartes, God is the only such being. A created substance is defined by its relative independence: its existence depends on nothing but the concurrence of God; it inheres in nothing, and other things inhere in it. Minds and bodies have this intermediate metaphysical status. Most important, a mind does not depend for its existence on a body nor does a body depend on a mind. As for things that exist only if they do belong to something – which are variously called “accidents,” “affections,” “qualities,” “attributes,” “acts,” or “modes” – Descartes maintains that the nature of a substance determines the range of modes, as I will say, that can belong to it. It does this with such stringency that no mode of a given substance could possibly inhere in a thing with a different nature. A mind is capable of having thoughts, volitions, sense perceptions, and the like; by contrast, its body is the subject of motion, rest, figures, and various configurations of parts. But that bodies should have thoughts, or minds have shapes, is impossible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDescartes' Meditations
Subtitle of host publicationA Critical Guide
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781139030731
ISBN (Print)9780521111607
StatePublished - Jan 1 2010


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

Cite this

Bolton, M. B. (2010). Thinking: The nature of Descartes’ mental substance. In Descartes' Meditations: A Critical Guide (pp. 64-81). Cambridge University Press.