Descartes, for example, makes the distinction between body and mind by recognizing the body as an idea born from 'extension' and the mind as an idea born from 'consciousness'. He further recognizes 'extension' as that which is made up of geometric properties, and 'consciousness' as that made up of thought -- both of which (presumably) existed before we did, and thus we were born to them.

I am curious how we were able to make these initial distinctions, however. Because in understanding what the body is, we must first understand the body as a property of extension, and thus distinguished from the property of consciousness. And then to do this, we must also recognize the properties of geometry, and be able to distinguish them from the properties of thought. Presumably, this would keep going: we would need to distinguish between shapes and features of those shapes in order to understand what geometry encompasses, for example.

I am wondering if there exists a philosophical answer (or attempted answer) to understand what came before our very first distinction. What then led us to inevitably make that first distinction? Perhaps the 'tertiary qualities' that Descartes discusses (pleasure, pain, etc.) motivated us towards or away from certain objects, thus inevitably creating distinctions in our minds?

  • Is this about interpreting / critiquing Descartes or is it meant more generally? If more generally, do you want an answer from philosophy (or is it potentially off-topic and seeking say a purely cognitive science explanation)?
    – virmaior
    Mar 11, 2016 at 8:53
  • @virmaior I am looking for a general answer from philosophy. Mar 11, 2016 at 18:44

4 Answers 4


Today the question is more empirical than philosophical. Conceptual distinctions, contra Descartes, are based on perceptual ones, disembodied mind is a fantasy after the fact. According to Maddy, "the ability to perceive a primitive distinction between a figure and its background is inborn in humans and many laboratory animals. The structure of the retina is probably responsible for the presence of this conceptual information in the human perceptual state, as such a connection has been demonstrated in the case of the frog". In other words, figure/background distinction is an old evolutionary adaptation, and for humans nothing comes before it. This somewhat relaxes Kant's contention that initial manifold of sensation is wholly undifferentiated, but as it turns out not by much.

"Beyond this fairly simple level, however, the evidence is that the capacity to acquire perceptual beliefs of the familiar sort is not present at birth. Psychologists talk of a phenomenon called "identity" in perception. A figure is seen with identity if it is immediately seen as similar to some other figures but dissimilar to others (that is, as falling in some categories but not in others), and it is easily recalled, recognized, or named". This identity recognition is what lies behind differentiation of sensations into distinct unities we call objects. Apparently this type of processing is developmentally acquired, i.e. children learn at young age to differentiate into objects rather than into spectral harmonics say, from their interaction with adults. This is confirmed by experiments, described by Hebb, on people blind from birth, who later acquired eyesight:"Investigators (of vision following operation for congenital cataract) are unanimous in reporting that the perception of a square, circle, or triangle, or of sphere or cube, is very poor. To see one of these as a whole object, with distinctive characteristics immediately evident, is not possible for a long period. The most intelligent and best motivated patient has to seek corners painstakingly even to distinguish a triangle from a circle".

Philosophical attempts to extract "the first distinction" were popular among monistic metaphysical system builders of old, such as Plotinus, Fichte and Hegel. Plotinus writes "The principle of all things is the monad or unit; arising from this monad, the undefined dyad or two serves as material substratum to the monad, which is cause; from the monad and undefined dyad spring numbers". In Fichte's system I posits not-I as a condition of the possibility of self-consciousness, etc. In hindsight it is transparent that "the first principle", be it monad or I, on its own is barren, and the proponents help themselves to their a posteriori empirical experience to conjure up "the first distinction" rather than extract it from the principle "intrinsically".


In my opinion, Kant is right, in that we are born with certain innate conceptual ideas. These innate conceptual ideas may give us the idea of distinction.

Kant had his "categories of understanding":


These include negation, limitation and plurality. Maybe some combination of these is what you're looking for. I don't know if Kant's specific categories are correct. But imo, we need something like this for the possibility of knowledge to exist in the first place. So we need some notion of distinction, in order to take two sets of sense-data, and have the thought that one is different from the other.

The notion of distinction isn't in the sense-data itself.


The answer depends very much on the particular cosmology. Just for fun, one may consider the Taoist cosmology. In the Taoist cosmology, everything is the Dao. At first there are no distinctions in the Dao, a state known as wuji. The actual translation of wuji is "without ridgepole," and it is a Dao where yin and yang are completely undifferentiated and there is no distinction between objects. The next state in their cosmology is taiji, which translates as "great ridgepole." The best description I can give for this state is that there is a single object that has "oneness," with limitless potential, but yin and yang are still undifferentiated. This could be considered the first distinction. After that point, yin and yang become differentiated (though entwined). The general direction of Taoism was to seek to become less differentiated, working ones' way back to the wuji state.


This is a good example of a question in philosophy that is impossible to answer plausibly without looking at evolution. Without life, there's nothing and no one to make distinctions. Now, there are people who make distinctions, between "mind" and "body", for instance. What happened in between? The ability to make distinctions is an evolved trait, just as our ability to walk is. There's no point in the evolution of life where you can point and say "that is the first distinction that was made". So the question is more or less meaningless.

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