The Self According to Rene Descartes

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  • 0:01 Descartes
  • 0:35 Dualism
  • 1:08 Sense of Self
  • 1:50 Ryle
  • 2:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will discuss Rene Descartes's ideas about the self and consciousness. In doing this, we will define dualism and discuss the critiques offered by Gilbert Ryle.


There are a few declarations we all just seem to know. There's 'No taxation without representation,' there's 'We're gonna need a bigger boat!', and there's 'I think, therefore I am.' Since this lesson is about Descartes and his concept of self, we're going to hone in on the whole 'I think, therefore I am' proclamation.

As one of the most famous philosophers of all time, Rene Descartes is considered by the West to be the 'Father of Modern Philosophy.' Along with his contributions to math and the sciences, Descartes is firmly linked to dualism, a concept he discusses in his work, Meditations on First Philosophy.


To explain, dualism is the concept that reality or existence is divided into two parts. When discussing dualism in the context of humanity, this division is between the mind and the physical body. In other words, the mind is separate from the empirically studied, physical attributes of the body. To state it differently, dualism tells us that the mind is part of the unseen world. You can't prod it with a needle or hear it with a stethoscope, but it still exists. It's just a separate reality.

Sense of Self

With its properties that seem to escape all natural laws, Descartes believed this rather ethereal mind holds the seat of consciousness. It's where we find our sentiments, our drive, our understanding, and our passions. In short, all that we really are, or our identity, comes from the mind. As Descartes so aptly put it, 'I think, therefore I am!'

Now, even though Descartes is still rather respected in the halls of philosophy, several people have some pretty derogatory things to say about his dualism. To these critics, the mind is just another word for a bunch of chemical reactions going on between the body and the brain.

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