The Self-Body Problem in Descartes and Malebranche

Dissertation, Harvard University (2014)

Colin Chamberlain
Temple University
Descartes and Malebranche often seem to argue that the self is identical to an immaterial thinking substance distinct from the body. But there are also many passages where they insist that the body is part of the self. This means that Descartes and Malebranche have a problem, since they seem to endorse three mutually inconsistent propositions: I am an immaterial thinking thing. Immaterial things don't have bodily parts. I include my body as part of myself. I call this puzzle the self-body problem. It is a problem about understanding how we - the immaterial thinking subjects who engage in the self-reflective project of the Meditations - can incorporate our bodies into ourselves. I argue that Descartes and Malebranche have an elegant solution to this inconsistency. On my interpretation, the Cartesian self is not identical to an immaterial thinking substance. Rather, the Cartesian self is a variably constituted being that has different parts at different times and in different possible situations. Sometimes the self exists with both an immaterial thinking part and a bodily part. Other times it exists with only an immaterial part. The immaterial part is essential to the self, the bodily part is not. When Descartes and Malebranche say that I am immaterial, what they really mean is that I essentially have an immaterial part. But that is consistent with the claim that my body is part of myself
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