René Descartes gave us the problem of how the mind interacts with the body in its modern formulation. Essentially, he asked how the incorporeal mind was able to influence the material body. He also pointed out that the mind was influenced by the body, which was a more novel suggestion (and clearly a true one given what we now know about biochemistry). He landed on the pineal gland as the point where the mind and body interact. This turns out to be a simplistic solution and at least incomplete, if not outright wrong.

It seems the most usual solution to the problem these days is to simply eliminate the concept of a mind separate from a body. Therefore our thoughts are something of an illusion that arise from complex operations of the brain, nervous system and hormone secreting glands. Assuming this conception of the mind is acceptable to a thinker, the solution is perfectly serviceable.

But what is the current thinking about the mind-body problem among philosophers who still maintain a separate mind? Are there any dualist philosophers still in existence?

  • Did Descartes accept that the soul does not exist in time and space? Or was Descartes only concerned with the mind and considered the soul to be a separate question? What exactly is meant by "mind" in the context of Descartes? Is this related to "consciousness" or "sentience"? Are these words used with similar meaning in French and English (or even German)? (The meaning of "body" and "soul" is probably the same in different languages, but I'm less sure about the other words.) Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 0:55
  • @Thomas: I'm afraid I've not actually read Descartes except short excepts translated to English. Presumably anyone answering the question will have a better handle on what he meant than I do. (However, I would imagine he started with Cogito ergo sum and reasoned from there.) Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 16:00

3 Answers 3


Wikipedia is brief:

Dualism in modern and contemporary philosophy

The American philosopher Arthur Oncken Lovejoy in his The Revolt Against Dualism (1960) develops a critique of the modern new realism, reproposing a form of dualism based on a "fork of human experience."

Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, founded Journal of the History of Ideas wrote the paper Dualism and Paradox of Reference

His complete works and biography can be accessed here.

On the other hand, Thomas Nagel, of "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (1974) fame is known for his stance against reductionism. In the same wikipedia entry:

In "What is it Like to Be a Bat?", Nagel argues that consciousness has essential to it a subjective character, a what it is like aspect. He states that "an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism." His critics have objected strongly to what they see as a misguided attempt to argue from a perfectly true fact about how one represents the world (trivially, one can only do so from his own point of view) to a false claim about the world, that it somehow has first personal perspectives built into it. On that understanding, Nagel is a conventional dualist about the physical and the mental. This is, however, a misunderstanding: Nagel's point is that there is a constraint on what it is to possess the concept of a mental state, namely, that one be directly acquainted with it. Concepts of mental states are only made available to a thinker who can be acquainted with his/her own states; clearly, the possession and use of physical concepts has no corresponding constraint.

  • Thanks for the answers and especially the links. I don't think this answers the question of how mind and body interact, however. Perhaps the answer is that nobody has proposed answers to the question lately? Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 16:12
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    You are correct Jon it doesn't answer that question. It was an attempt to the question if there are any dualist philosophers still in existence, but it was too long for comment.
    – user1207
    Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 22:26

It is common nowadays to distinguish substance from property dualism. No major philosopher has advocated substance dualism since Descartes himself, but a large number of philosophers have advocated property dualism. This is a view which classifies the properties of objects as being of two kinds, physical and mental, while maintaining monism or quietism about the ultimate nature of substance.

Advocates of this view include Donald Davidson (his theory of Anomalous Monism), Richard Rorty (non-reductive physicalsim), Wilfrid Sellars (in his A Semantical Solution to the Mind Body Problem). They have all argued that there are events which simultaneously have both physical and mental properties, and that these properties are not reducable to one another. All have asserted the ontological identity of properties without asserting epistemological identity. Like Frege's way of differentiating the meaning of two co-referring terms by attributing to each a distinct 'sense', they are suggesting that physical attributes and mental attributes ultimately belong to same entities, but that the very notion of a property or attribute is inseparable from human understanding, i.e. it is epistemic in nature, and hence arises the mind-body problem.

Indeed, of the main schools of thought in philosophy of mind in the last few decades-identity theory (type and token), functionalism and a so-called 'new materialism'- all of them have asserted ontological identity of physical and mental properties while respecting the epistemological irreducibility of physical and mental predicates.

The majority of philosophers asserting views of these kinds would probably accept being called 'non-reductive materialists', i.e. mental properties are physical properties in some metaphysical but conceptually irreducible sense. The mental-physical relation is one of identity for them, so they do not give ontological priority to mind or matter, yet they call themselves 'materialists'. That is because while all objects and events have physical properties, only some of them have mental properties. In that sense, everything is physical, but not everything is mental.

Many others have rejected this thesis, and the label 'materialism', and rejected the metaphysical or ontological identity of mental/physical properties, e.g. Jackson, Sprigge, Honderdich. A good summary is in Chalmers 1996 p. 166+. Rejecting materialism implies a strong dualism about properties without saying anything about the ultimate nature of substance, or that every event is physical. The position is close to that of Descartes. Others have adopted a quietism where the ultimate nature of things is unstated (e.g. the so-called 'New Mysterians' such as Colin McGinn actually say the mind-body relationship is ultimately unknowable to the human mind).

Most philosophers would agree not all states or events have mental properties (i.e. some events are purely physical), only some do. Some of these mental events we would characterise as thoughts, having conceptual properties such as an inferential role or a logical syntax. Other mental events are not thoughts, e.g. pain. But for materialist philosophers, all mental events are identical to physical events, i.e. the same event under a different description (e.g. pain is the firing of C-fibres). The key points of interest for all is the conceptual and metaphysical relations between the mental and physical properties of such events. The metaphysical level is usually taken as identity, while the conceptual level is usually characterised as a mutual dependence relation, which is given the name 'supervenience' (Jaegwon Kim writes extensively on this relation).

I tend to think that classifying properties in a dualistic way is in a sense fundamental to our way of thinking about the world, and though it leads to paradox (the mind-body problem), we have no better schema, idealism and materialism notwithstanding.

Tyler Burges' paper Philosophy of Mind: 1950-2000 in his book Foundations of Mind, Philosophical Essays vol. 2 provides an excellent summary of recent philosophy of mind.

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE! Do these views suggest that there can be events which have mental properties but no physical properties? Do all events that have mental properties fall under the label of "thought"? Commented Dec 29, 2011 at 17:31
  • Hmm... I would have imagined that pain has at least as many (if not more) physical properties than mental ones. While there electrical signals of pain must have an effect on the mind, it seems strange that we would say those signals have mental properties since we can measure them like other physical events. Further, some pain events bypass the mind altogether. At any rate, you given me a lot to think about. Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 1:20
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    I updated the answer and deleted out my comments to remove duplication.
    – adrianos
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 11:51

It seems the most usual solution to the problem these days is to simply eliminate the concept of a mind separate from a body. Therefore our thoughts are something of an illusion that arise from complex operations of the brain, nervous system and hormone secreting glands. Assuming this conception of the mind is acceptable to a thinker, the solution is perfectly serviceable

I am not sure if it is indeed as straightforward as you think.

To give you an example, if someone has a brain-stroke (i.e. in laymen terms: the brain suffered (severe) damage) nobody takes the person to the mental-institution or psychiatry but to the hospital.

Also there has been medical operations where part of the brain has been removed, but the patient's memory was not also partially lost.

In many such cases, one would expect that the opposite would happen if your assumption was indeed the case.

I don't think that up-today we know enough about the function of the brain to fully reject this concept of duality/separation which originates from Greek philosophers.

Aristotle on the interaction of mind/body gave a specific example:
If someone is drunk then his personality/psichi also appears altered.
And if someone is under a specific psychological condition i.e. in fear or stress or joy then his body seems to also present relative points to accompany the state of mind.

  • 3
    As a point of reference, I actually believe the mind is separate from the body. The considerations you've mentioned are important one, but many can be explained physically. For instance, scientists believe that the brain carries multiple copies of important memories. (It's actually more complicated than that, but that's the general idea.) Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 17:53
  • I understand what you are saying.But I don't think that the theories that try to explain these observations in a physical manner are so good.I have actually read a case that more than 50% of the brain had to be removed from a patient (as part of a surgical operation) and the patient successfully survived.A strict logician would expect that if more than 50% of the brain was lost, then at least 50% of the subject's memories would be lost as well.This did not happen.The subject had lost various aspect of his persona (of course) but he did not forget anything.
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 18:01
  • The problem with today's science is that it is separated into specific areas and scientists usually do not know many thing except their area of concern.So it is easy to miss such observations when you are a neurologists if you focus on this area and don't view the aspect from the physical or psychological perspective and vice-versa.This did not happen earlier where there was the attempt to be expert in many fields
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 18:03
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    @Jim 50% + of the brain removed? I'm finding that hard to believe. Can you cite the reading? You've got me interested.
    – MGZero
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 21:15
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    @MGZero, people undergo hemispherectomies from time to time -- which by definition involves the loss of roughly 50% of the brain. (And sometimes more, since the right hemisphere is larger than the left in some individuals.) Apparently patients often recover with only minor side-effects when the operation is performed at a young age.
    – senderle
    Commented May 21, 2014 at 13:38

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