Foundations for Descartes' Metaphysics of the Self

Dissertation, University of Michigan (1990)

Descartes denied that he was essentially extended and affirmed that he was really distinct from his body. He based these metaphysical conclusions on premises about what he could clearly and distinctly conceive about himself. In the Fourth Set of Objections Arnauld challenged these inferences from de re conceivability claims to de re possibility claims. Arnauld argued that a conception must be "complete and adequate," as well as "clear and distinct," to provide an epistemically secure foundation for a conclusion about what is metaphysically possible. ;In the Fourth Set of Replies Descartes accepted that de re conceivability claims must be governed by epistemic strictures of this sort. He conceded that we can conclude that two substances are really distinct only if each of them can be clearly and distinctly understood to be a "complete" thing on the basis of a conception that has not been rendered "inadequate" by an "abstraction of the intellect." To assess the foundations that Descartes provides for his metaphysics of the self we must first explicate these two notions. ;ion is the cognitive operation that we use when we frame a new concept by prescinding from some of the properties which comprise an existent concept. Descartes frames the concept of a thinking thing by abstracting from the concept of an embodied human being. To justify this act of abstraction, Descartes must demonstrate that it satisfies the normative constraints that govern the operation of abstraction. ;To do this, Descartes must show that the abstraction in question respects the superordination relations that obtain among the properties that comprise the original concept. That is, he must demonstrate that a thinking thing is an individual thing. Descartes did not explicitly develop a theory of individual things, but it is possible to excavate a rudimentary ontology of individual things from within his corpus. Given this ontology, we can explain why Descartes can frame the concept of thinking thing within the framework of one of the constraints that govern abstraction and why a thinking thing can be classified as a "complete" thing
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