The Soul: René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637)


“In the next place, I attentively examined what I was and as I observed that I could suppose that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place in which I might be; but that I could not therefore suppose that I was not; and that, on the contrary, from the very circumstance that I thought to doubt of the truth of other things, it most clearly and certainly followed that I was; while, on the other hand, if I had only ceased to think, although all the other objects which I had ever imagined had been in reality existent, I would have had no reason to believe that I existed; I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that “I,” that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is.

After this I inquired in general into what is essential to the truth and certainty of a proposition; for since I had discovered one which I knew to be true, I thought that I must likewise be able to discover the ground of this certitude. And as I observed that in the words I think, therefore I am, there is nothing at all which gives me assurance of their truth beyond this, that I see very clearly that in order to think it is necessary to exist, I concluded that I might take, as a general rule, the principle, that all the things which we very clearly and distinctly conceive are true, only observing, however, that there is some difficulty in rightly determining the objects which we distinctly conceive.”



This gobbet is an extract from the philosophical book Discourse on Method (1637) written by Descartes who throughout questions the existence and matter of the soul.[1] Whilst the intended audience is certainly for like-minded intellects for educational purposes, due to the musing tone of the text it can also be reasoned that Descartes perhaps wrote this initially for personal solidification and organisation of his own thoughts into a coherent theory. Descartes was a mathematician, scientist, and natural philosopher, with a particular focus the significance of universal laws and creating modern mind-body insights.[2]



Throughout the extract, Descartes takes a sceptical approach to each argument, contradicting his own thoughts. Despite doubt perhaps being considered as a weakness, Descartes uses this to his advantage to assume that as he is doubting, he therefore exists, concluding the extract with the statement ‘I think, therefore I am’ with a high degree of certainty as this is the only fact about the soul which can truly be determined by oneself as a general rule and concept. His scepticism and search for the truth arguably stems from his scientific nature and desire for hard evidence. His methods therefore could be unreliable as this type of evidence is unattainable due to the subjective nature of the soul and one’s manner of thinking.

To further criticise this work, one could argue that this proves the existence of the individual in question’s soul only, as confirming the existence of other human being’s souls is impossible as we cannot know their thoughts which – or even if they are thinking, which prevents confirmation of their existence, suggesting to an extent that others only exist in our imagination without that confirmation.

This argument is contrary to the works of Aristotle whose philosophy on the soul Descartes was educated upon. Aristotle instead argued that everything living has a soul which in turn certifies their existence.[3] Furthermore the two differ in opinion as Descartes reasons that we only exist in thinking, our body is not us, arguing that the soul is both inside yet detached from the body, whereas Aristotle previously argued that the soul was dependent on the body to experience the senses of and express emotions – without a body the soul would not be able to recognise these. For the purpose of this block and module, Descartes extract fits into the debate on the nature of the soul’s existence from an early modernist perspective, and the significance of this on attitudes towards the self.


Overall Descartes work here is significant, he is considered to be a ‘father of modern philosophy’ and a reformer of knowledge,[4] fitting within the Renaissance period whereby advance in scientific and intellectual thinking was prominent. This is key as major breakthroughs in educational advancement relied on one challenging the ideas of those who came before them. If Descartes had not challenged Aristotle, then we would be lacking the variety of perspectives on metaphysical issues such as the soul. His legacy of work continued to be taught after death which would become the basis of shaping the basis of modern philosophical debate on the matter of the soul.[5]



Aristotle, De anima (On the Soul), Book II, Chapter 2

Descartes, René. Discourse on Method (1637)

Goodreads, Discourse on Method, [viewed: 01.01.2017]

Skirry, Justin.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), [viewed: 9.11.2016]

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, René Descartes, [last updated: 10.01.2014] [viewed: 31.12.2016]

[1] Goodreads, Discourse on Method, [viewed: 01.01.2017]

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, René Descartes, [last updated: 10.01.2014] [viewed: 31.12.2016]

[3] Aristotle, De anima (On the Soul), Book II, Chapter 2

[4] Justin Skirry, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), [viewed: 9.11.2016]

[5] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, René Descartes, [last updated: 10.01.2014] [viewed: 31.12.2016]

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