Large Questions

The Phenomenon of Life

by Hans Jonas
Harper & Row, 303 pp., $6.00

The Knower and the Known

by Marjorie Grene
Basic Books, 283 pp., $6.00

The Identity of Man

by J. Bronowski
Natural History Press, 107 pp., $3.95

Whether man is a part of nature or not is one of the largest and most persistent problems of philosophy, and unlike many philosophical problems it is a matter about which every moderately reflective person is likely to have an opinion. Most people, like most philosophers, are dualists, believing, with Descartes, that there are two distinct kinds of thing in the world that are wholly irreducible to each other; on the one hand subjects and acts of consciousness, infallibly known to introspection, and on the other spatially extended physical objects, including the human body, imparting motion to one another by impact.

Dualism has many interesting consequences. It makes the personal survival of bodily death intelligible by extricating the soul from the collapse of the body. It encourages a more or less ascetic kind of morality which calls for the control by the higher, spiritual aspect of a person over the lower passions of the body. It implies that the methods of inquiry which have given us, through natural science, an ever-increasing mastery over our environment cannot be successfully applied to men and the societies they compose.

Gilbert Ryle, the most trenchant of contemporary anti-dualists, has suggested that the widespread acceptance of this way of looking at things is the responsibility of Descartes and that if only his sophisticated conceptual mistakes were exposed we could settle down to a straightforward all-embracing naturalism which would see men as just one kind of common object, distinguished only by the relative complexity and variety of their behavior. This is too parochial an explanation for a belief that is part of our second nature. Descartes’ dualism is only a more lucid and unequivocal version of the dualism of Christianity, arrived at by the Fathers of the Church through superimposing the philosophy of Plato on elementary Christian beliefs. Furthermore the distinction of mind and body is not even a Western, let alone a Christian, monopoly, being present in all the major religions.

THE ANTI-CARTESIANISM of philosophers like Ryle and Wittgenstein turns out to be less far-reaching than it seemed at first, for dualism, in another guise, survives it. Shown the door in its Cartesian outfit, it is readmitted when decently clothed in more or less Kantian garments. Man’s uniqueness in the world arises from the fact that he is a rational agent. His actions are not natural events that can be causally explained. As the deeds of a rational, language-using being, they have to be understood and not just perceived and correlated like the movements of a machine.

Dualism has suffered a series of wounds in the last hundred years from developments in natural science that have been more debilitating than the arguments of analytic philosophers. A violent glancing blow was administered by Darwinism when it demonstrated the continuity of man with the rest of the animal creation (Descartes saw animals as machines). Experimental psychology and the social sciences have suggested that man is a subject for causal inquiry, though as much perhaps by their …

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Letters

Large Questions August 18, 1966

Eristic Trickery July 28, 1966