HomeLiterature Study GuidesMeditations On First Philosophy With Objections And RepliesSixth Meditation Of The Existence Of Material Things And The Real Distinction Between Mind And Body Summary

Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Study Guide

René Descartes

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Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Sixth Meditation: Of the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body | Summary



On the assumption the Meditator knows his existence and essence (he is and he thinks), has successfully argued for the existence and essence of God, the inviolability of clear and distinct ideas, the nature of the intellect and will, and the essence of material things, he is now in a position to prove the reality of an external world. In so doing he will satisfy the skeptical doubts that have driven him onward since the First Meditation.

The Fifth Meditation established the geometric essence of material things. In the Sixth Meditation the Meditator has a clear and distinct idea of material things as "the object of pure mathematics," capable of existing—there is no contradiction involved in thinking this to be the case.

The approach to finally bridging the gap between idea and object—between a mind-dependent entity and one that exists independently of the mind—begins with the examination of the difference between imagination and "pure intellection." To imagine is to picture, as the Meditator suggests happens when contemplating the three lines of a triangle. It is not possible, on the other hand, to picture a thousand-sided figure (a chiliogon), but the Meditator can contemplate it with the same understanding as he has of the triangle.

The imagination, then, is not exclusively or even essentially a mental faculty—it depends on something other than the Meditator's mind. The Meditator knows even if he lacked it, nothing about what he is would change. Consequently, he concludes, "The imagination depends on something distinct from me." More specifically, the faculty of imagination turns outward, to picture bodies, while "the mind, while it understands, turns itself in some way towards itself, and gazes on one of the ideas that are contained within itself." The function of the imagination strongly suggests, therefore, that bodies exist. As a picturing faculty, the imagination effectively looks at objects and allows the mind to form mental pictures. That suggests something is "there" to be pictured.

In the First Meditation, however, the purported certainty of immediate sensations was challenged by the possibilities of madness and dreaming. Now the Meditator revisits the ways in which sensation—joined with the images provided by the imagination—can deceive. This is followed by the fact that the Meditator now knows much more about himself and God, which leads him to conclude that not all his previous doubts are justified.

The Meditator recognizes in himself a passive faculty for receiving ideas of sensation. Like other faculties, it must be in a substance, and there are three possibilities: the Meditator himself; God; or bodies. It cannot be in the Meditator, since the ideas of sensation simply impinge on him—he does not generate them. Moreover, as they simply arrive they are not a function of his understanding, which is crucial to his status as a thinking thing. In addition the faculty is not in God. After all, the Meditator has a "great inclination" to think the ideas come from an external source, and God is not a deceiver—it is not he who provides them. Consequently, the Meditator's ideas of corporeal things come from corporeal things, which have the ability to produce ideas of sensation in him.

It may be the case that bodies are not exactly as the Meditator senses them to be. At the same time, however, "at least all those properties are in them that I clearly and distinctly understand." This does not mean he does not make errors, such as one can make when one feels a phantom pain in a limb that has been amputated. Because the mind and body interact by way of a small part of the brain (the pineal gland), there may be misfires of communication between the senses and the mind.

The Meditator concludes he is both distinct from his body and can exist without it. This conclusion is derived from the following: the God-guaranteed certainty of clear and distinct ideas; his essence as a thinking thing; his distinct idea of bodies as extended, but not thinking, things; and his faculties of sensation and imagination, which, along with other faculties, "cannot be understood ... without some substance in which to inhere." This substance, however, cannot be a thinking substance, since they include "some measure of extension" but not intellection. Mind and body are clearly and distinctly understood apart from each other. Consequently, they are really distinct. The Meditator can clearly and distinctly understand his mind apart from his body and vice versa. The mind is a nonextended thinking thing while the body is an extended nonthinking thing.

Of course, some of the Meditator's ideas are obviously false, such as that the sun is as small as a quarter, or that a stick viewed in water is broken. The Meditator argues these are beliefs based on prejudices and unexamined assumptions. They are to be differentiated from those beliefs based on natural instincts, such as hunger, pain, and so forth. In this case nature "teaches" him—in the former case he has simply developed bad habits. He then addresses the objection that nature is not always correct, as in the case of feeling thirst when one has dropsy (edema, or the accumulation of fluid in an organ). His response is that nature's instruction is limited, but he is still better off feeling thirsty, for example, when appropriate, than not feeling thirst when he is dehydrated.

Finally, the Meditator concludes that the dream hypothesis is "ridiculous." Waking life is threaded together by continuity and memory. Neither of these is the case with dreams, which are almost entirely inconsistent. The Meditator cannot only trust his senses to a certain extent, but he can be confident his judgments about waking and dreaming are correct. Both his clear and distinct ideas, and the fact God is not a deceiver, ensure this is the case.


The introduction of the imagination in the Sixth Meditation shows how Descartes conceives of bodies. It is an aid to understanding them but is not essential to it, as the chiliogon example reveals. This analysis moves Descartes forward in the direction of securing the existence of corporeal things and distinguishing mind from body. As two metaphysically distinct substances—mind is indivisible and immaterial while body is divisible and material—they are related but not the same.

A major problem posed by Descartes's mind-body dualism is how mind and body can interact. They are, after all, two metaphysically distinct substances. Many commentators are unsatisfied with Descartes's solution that the two somehow interact via the pineal gland. Others are equally unsatisfied with the distinction in the first place. Some of Descartes's contemporaries tried to offer a different account of the interaction, and the problem persists for contemporary thinkers and scientists alike.

Here Descartes also secures the veracity of his judgment that dreaming and waking states are distinct. This is based not only on the consistency of events and thoughts in waking versus dreaming states but also on the fact that memory connects past and present in waking states, and significantly when those are interrupted by sleep, while this is not the case with dreams. Finally, the fact that God is not a deceiver ensures that the judgment about this distinction—particularly that waking is more real than dreaming—is correct.

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