Sunday, November 15, 2009

Montaigne, Dualism and Christianity

I was reading Montaigne's essay On Presumption, and was struck by his rejection of the distinction between mind (or, more properly, soul) and body, which is something of a favorite of certain philosophers, poor fellows.  I was impressed by the fact that he argued that such a distinction cannot even be properly sustained without the use of "hypocritcal monkey tricks" (why monkey?).

For some reason, I thought that someone of his time would be inclined to make the distinction.  I thought the rejection of such dualisms was more of a modern point of view.  Dewey, for example, famously rejected the many dualisms which litter the philosophical landscape.  I've personally felt that those who profess dualism are being in some respects disingenuous as their conduct in life belies the dualisms they cling to, so I had a certain sympathy with Montaigne's view that they rely on hypocritical tricks, though as noted above I'm not sure they are monkey tricks, whatever that's intended to mean.

Montaigne also writes that the rejection of the soul-body distinction is very Christian, which I confess also took me by surprise.  This is due to what used to be called the "resurrection of the body" (who can guess what it is called now?) which it is believed will happen in due time, at least according to the Catholic Credo.  Soul and perfect body reunite for eternity.

I thought the rejection of dualism was a modern tendency, prompted in part by the development of the sciences.  It's a bit humbling to encounter it in Montaigne, backed up by Catholic doctrine.  Nothing new under the sun, indeed.


  1. Dualism was popularised by Descartes as a response to materialism. When he used the physics of his time to analyse how the light in his eyes could actually be "seen" he was left with a conundrum: there would need to be a perfect geometric point in the brain where the "seeing" took place. Descartes called this "unextended place" the Res Cogitans. He thought this point was the soul and it would obviously need to be supernatural.

    So Dualism is a reaction to a constraint within materialism: if you analyse perception according to a materialist theory of the world you will need to introduce a supernatural point to do the "seeing"! You might be interested in Materialists should read this first and Dualism is a physical problem.