After completing the readings for this week, draft a 6–8-page paper. This assignment will be completed in three parts, so you may want

Assignment 2: The Mind/Body Problem

After completing the readings for this week, draft a 6–8-page paper. This assignment will be completed in three parts, so you may want to use section headers to organize your paper. Remember to explain the theories you reference with supporting citations to the textbook and online lectures before contrasting them, utilizing correct APA format. You may want to use examples to illustrate your understanding of key ideas in each theory. Use this APA Citation Helper as a convenient reference for properly citing resources.

  1. Address the following in your paper: Mind/Body Dualism: Compare/contrast Cartesian rationalism and at least one version of empiricism. You may draw upon your analysis of the Cartesian Method in this week’s discussion assignment. Remember to explain the key ideas associated with each theory. Be specific as to which version of empiricism is the focus of your analysis. (2–3 pages)
  2. Responses to the Mind/Body Problem: Compare/contrast Kantian Idealism and Phenomenology and explain how each attempts to respond to/resolve the mind/body problem encountered both by empiricists and rationalists. (2–3 pages)
  3. Evaluate and Respond: Once you have explained the relevant theories and the philosophical challenges of the mind/body dualism, present your own philosophical response to this epistemological problem. In your response, consider how/whether your own views are similar to the theories you discussed in parts one and two (2–3 pages.)

Assignment 2 Grading Criteria

Maximum Points

Compared/contrasted Cartesian rationalism with at least one version of empiricism. Cited support for the interpretation from the text and online lectures.


Compared/contrasted Kantian idealism with phenomenology as they relate to the mind/body problem. Cited support for the interpretation from the text and online lectures.


Presented your own philosophical response to the mind/body problem and compared them to the theories presented above.


Used correct grammar, and spelling, and APA citation.






Text(s), Chapters and Readings



From your textbook, Roots of Wisdom: A Tapestry of Philosophical Traditions:

Reality is the Eternal Realm and Natural World, The Nature of Spiritual Reality

Lecture notes:

Rationalism—The Cartesian Method

We will begin our discussion of epistemology with Cartesian rationalism. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French mathematician who agreed with Plato and the early theologians about the importance of reason. However, he found that his predecessors often established their ideas upon what he took to be a somewhat shaky and uncertain foundation. Thus, he begins his own project by recognizing that everything he thinks he knows could be the result of sense experience (which can deceive us, as when we think the road is wet when in fact it is only a trick of light) or inherited ideas (which may be true, but also have not been verified). In other words, Descartes begins his project with the somewhat revolutionary idea that we may not know anything at all with any certainty.

Thus, Descartes decides to strip away all of his beliefs until the only ones that remain are the ones that absolutely cannot be doubted. Once these core beliefs are established, he reasons that he can build all future beliefs upon these bedrock pieces of knowledge. To do this stripping away, he uses a series of increasingly strong metaphysical doubts. We’ll discuss what happens to his pursuit of knowledge shortly, but for now, let’s take a look at the system he came up with to guide his inquiry: the Cartesian Method

Discourse on Method presents the four precepts that characterize the Cartesian Method:

Never accept anything as true anything that can be doubted. Even a remote doubt is sufficient to require that a belief/assertion be examined.

Divide ideas/beliefs about which one is uncertain into as many parts as possible (i.e., divide and conquer)

Proceed to examine each section of knowledge/belief step-by-step, even if these beliefs/ideas are not generally considered to follow from one another.

Be exhaustive! Review all beliefs for clarity and coherence.

His Meditations on First Philosophy details his system in action. In this text, he claims to establish not only that he exists but, also that God exists! Let’s see how he attempts to accomplish this.

In Meditation One, “Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called into Doubt,” Descartes begins by proclaiming that he is going to question everything he knows by questioning the founding principles of his beliefs. The first belief he doubts is that in the infallibility of his senses. He is worried that life could be a dream or, worse, a deception put on by an evil god. Of course, Descartes claims to be a man of faith, and the Christian God in whom Descartes believes would never deceive him in this way. Still, he is questioning all his beliefs, including those based on faith. Thus, his next step is to suppose the worst: What if God is the opposite of what I am inclined to believe, and he created life such that it is an illusion that I buy wholeheartedly as reality? This might mean that I have no body, and that the world as I know it does not exist. (This is similar to what the cave dweller in Plato’s Republic realizes when he leaves the cave, but even more extreme: Descartes is entertaining the notion that not only might we be wrong about the nature of ourselves and what we perceive to be real, but we may not exist at all!)

The Self as a Thinking Thing

Rationalism: The Self Exists as a Thinking Thing

In Meditation Two, “Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That it is Better Known Than the Body,” Descartes continues this line of inquiry. Suppose everything I see is false? In other words, what if the only certainty is that nothing is certain? If so, the very fact of my own existence could also be a deception. But this is logically impossible; for deception to exist, there must be a being who is deceived. So I know I exist. But what am I? Descartes says that the Self who is capable of being deceived is a thinking thing. Everything I think I know about my body could turn out to be a dream, but at the very least I now know for certain that the self is a thing that doubts (because he has doubted all of his beliefs) but also a thing that comes to understand and affirm/deny what is doubted. I am also a thing that senses, insofar as sensing is nothing other than thinking. In fact, it seems like the corporeal is the most real and, yet, our senses can deceive us. His example of this is candle wax. When I look at a new candle, it appears to be a hard and cold pillar. If I light it and go away for awhile, I may come back and find nothing but a pile of hot wax. How do I know that the candle has become the pile of wax? Descartes concludes that it is our mind, not our senses, that give us the ability to understand that the candle and the wax are one and the same. In other words, what we think we see with our eyes we really determine via our judgment.

Rationalism—Does God Exist?

In Meditation Three, “Concerning God, That He Exists,” Descartes then turns to the question of how we are able to distinguish true judgments from false ones. He used to assume that there were things existing outside of him, and that he was capable of distinguishing true judgments about those things from false ones. But since he now doubts the infallibility of sense experience, now all he can affirm with certainty is that ideas of things exist. Thus, there must be a being who only makes correct judgments. That being is God. Yet as of yet Descartes has not been able to demonstrate that God is not deceptive.

To distinguish true judgments from false ones, he must group his thoughts into certain classes and inquire into the truth and falsity of these classes. There are “ideas” (man, chimeras, the sky, an angel, God). Ideas cannot be false, even if they do not correspond to real things. Then there are volitions, affects, and judgments. This is what sometimes gets called the correspondence theory of truth. The idea here is that there is an objectively present world that is wholly perceived by God as the ultimate knower. However, at this point in the Meditations Descartes is still concerned that God might be deceiving us into believing that a false world is the real one. For example, I may look at the sun and reason that it appears small because it is millions of miles away, but there is not certain justification for this belief. The sun could be a tiny flashlight being turned on and off by a deceptive God! Thus, what Descartes is really doing in the Third Meditation is dispelling his doubts about the nature of God in order to be able to conclude that human beings have the ability to make true judgments about the relationship between our ideas about the world and the world itself because of our capacity to reason.

This leads him to the distinction between objective reality and formal reality. Reality within ideas is objective reality—that is, something exists objectively in the intellect through an idea. All ideas are true, even if they do not exist in formal reality. Judgments about the relationship between objective and formal reality, on the other hand, are subjective. Eventually, there must be an idea whose archetypical formal cause contains all the reality that is in the idea merely objective. The Self that is a thinking thing knows that it is not self-causing, and thus something cannot come out of nothing. Furthermore, something perfect cannot come from something less perfect. But ideas of corporeal things contain nothing so great that it could not be the product of human imagination. This is material falsity, i.e. I imagine a non-thing as if it were a thing.

Formal falsity, on the other hand, applies when my judgment about the nature of a thing is wrong, but not insofar as the thing exists. Thus, Descartes reasons that all of his beliefs could be materially false (i.e., could have come from his imagination rather than reality) except for the idea of God. As a finite substance, a human being can only have caused ideas of other finite substances to exist as ideas in the mind. Since I have the idea of God as greater than me, as the cause of everything in the world including me, then God must exist.

God Enables Understanding

Rationalism: God Enables Human Understanding

As we have seen thus far, for Descartes’ knowledge is predicated on determining what things are in their nature (i.e., the essence of things) by beginning from a state of absolute doubt and determining what can be said of a being’s nature with absolute certainty. He uses the phrase the “light of nature” to refer to what we can know about beings with absolute certainty, and what therefore can be deduced from that knowledge. He uses the term in Meditation Three in reference to the ideas. Ideas by their nature have objective modes of being. Causes of ideas by their nature have formal modes of being. Therefore, “by the light of nature” it is clear that ideas can fall short of their formal causes, but they cannot exceed the perfection of said causes. This is important, because it will eventually support his argument for the idea of God as sufficient proof for the existence of God.

Having established that God exists as a perfect and infinite being, in Meditation Four, “Concerning the True and the False,” Descartes turns to the nature of the Self and God. The Cartesian “God” is sort of a stand-in for what exceeds human wisdom in many theological and philosophical accounts, and is used by Descartes both as first cause and as a kind of all-knowing ultimate subject who justifies the possibility of human knowledge. As we have seen, Descartes is demolishing the house of knowledge and building it from scratch, and the foundation of the new house of certainty is the existence of God as first cause. This was not a new idea; both the Greeks and monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have an understanding of a divine cause for all that is.

What makes the Cartesian approach different is that he is attempting to prove something specific about the nature of God via reason rather than asserting it as a matter of faith. Thus, Descartes says that God-as-first-cause-of-everything-finite-and-imperfect must be infinite and perfect, and that a perfect God would not need to deceive his/her/its creations in order to amuse him/her/itself. In other words, he argues that the idea of perfection is logically inconsistent with the idea of having a deceptive nature. Thus, a non-deceptive God must exist and, therefore, we are capable of making true judgments about ourselves and the world around us. This is what is often referred to as the Cartesian mind/ body dualism, in that the mind rather than the body is the source of knowledge and understanding.

By virtue of being created by God, humans cannot be deceived or tricked; but because we are also finite, we are capable of making mistakes. But why would God make us imperfect? We can never know this for certain, but Descartes argues that our failure to discern the divine purpose does not mean that God does not exist. For example, something could be imperfect as an isolated event, yet be the most perfect in the context of the universe as a whole.

Rationalism—Mind Body Dualism

Just because the human intellect is less perfect than God’s, it does not follow that the same is true of the will. (The will is that aspect of human nature that drives us toward or away from something without being influenced by an external force.) In other words, human beings have free will and understanding; human error occurs when one extends the will even to those things which we do not understand. Still, if we hold off on making judgments until we can perceive what is true with sufficient clarity, we avoid such errors. Hence it is an incorrect use of freedom to pass judgment when perceptions are unclear and uncertain. In other words, Descartes concludes:

There can be both free will and God.

We can attain correct knowledge about ourselves and the world if we are careful to never judge anything that we do not clearly and distinctly understand.

True to his own method, in Meditation Five, “Concerning the Essence of Material Things, and Again Concerning God, That He Exists,” Descartes returns to those things which he came to doubt in the previous meditations, and tries to free himself from said doubts. Things one imagines may not exist, but they cannot be nothing. Think about dinosaurs, for instance. These creatures no longer exist, yet we know all kinds of things about the nature of particular dinosaurs. This is because we have knowledge of their essence. That is to say, though they may not be in reality any longer, they still have distinct natures. This is the existence-essence distinction that we see inverted in existentialism: the essence of a thing is eternal and unchanging, while its existence is determined by its essence. God is the one idea in whom existence is inseparable from essence. I am not free to think God without existence, for existence is perfection, and the idea of God contains that of God as perfect.

Finally, Descartes returns to material things in Meditation Six, “Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body.” Armed with his new certainty about the nature of God and the self, Descartes asserts that material things exist, insofar as we can:

perceive them as objects of pure mathematics, and

the perfect, infinite, non-deceptive God in his proof is capable of bringing them about.

To distinguish those things that exist from those that do not and to establish the primacy of the mind over the sensations of the body, Descartes sets out to draw a distinction between pure intellection and imagination. The knowledge that comes from pure intellection (such as the conclusion that God is perfect and non-deceptive) is always true, whereas imagination:

requires additional effort,

is not a required part of the essence of my mind, and

depends on something distinct from me. 

Thus, material things must exist, albeit not necessarily in the way I sense them. For instance, you may think the horse at which we are both looking is brown, while I may think it is auburn, but this disagreement about the nature of the horse does not mean that it does not exist. The assertion of the existence of the horse and other things we perceive through the senses, however, will never be as secure as those that come from pure intellection. Furthermore, in establishing that the self both exists and is capable of knowing reality via reason, Descartes introduced another metaphysical conundrum. If the mind and body are comprised of distinct substances, how do they communicate with one another? In other words, how is the mind able to receive and make sense of what is perceived by the senses?

Some Rationalist Responses

Some Rationalist Responses to the Mind/Body Problem

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), argued that the mind-body problem is not a problem at all, because they are not in fact two distinct substances. Instead, mind/thinking and body/extension are both attributes of God rather than distinct substances. Thus, human minds are finite modifications of the divine mind; likewise, human bodies are finite versions of the infinite divine characteristic of extension. In other words, the suggestion is that the world is the body of God, just as human bodies are the extended aspect of the mind. The suggestion that God has a body does solve the mind/body problem, but raises a whole host of theological and metaphysical problems on its own, including the problem of God having a body.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) also attempted to resolve the mind/body problem by identifying a single substance, but instead of considering the primary substance to be God, he referred to the monad. (A monad is an active, nonmaterial, purposefully-acting substance that is neither created nor capable of being destroyed.)The body is a collection of monads, as is the mind. The difference is that some monads are more rational and perceptive than others, which accounts for the differences between a human being and, for example, a tree. These monads do not actually interact but, rather, act in accordance with a divine harmony that God set up at the time of creation. Despite their dependence on a divine harmonizer, Leibniz’s monads are remarkably similar to the idea of energy in modern particle physics.

Anne Finch (1631-1678) may have influenced Leibniz. While she only published one work of philosophy, she also spoke of monads, although her version includes both physical and spiritual qualities. For Finch, matter and spirit exist on the same continuum but at different levels. In other words, spirit/mind and matter/body differ in terms of amounts of differences in grade, not essence. Human beings can either rise to the higher levels of spirit or remain mired in matter.

Empiricism—John Locke

Of course, the mind/body problem is arguably a Western one, in that it is grounded in the association of mind with spirit/soul and of both of these attributes with the divine, as we see in the dualistic metaphysics we discussed in Week 2. Even within the West, however, we see some approaches that do not differentiate quite so stringently between the mind and the body. The scientific revolution that inspired Descartes also gave rise to an epistemology that was decidedly more grounded in observable nature: empiricism.

John Locke (1632-1704) was a British empiricist who explored many of the same themes as Descartes, although his conclusions about the nature of the self and of knowledge were quite different. Whereas Descartes believed that we come to know the world and ourselves through thinking, Locke believed that knowledge is based on our awareness of sense experience coupled with our memories of previous sense experience. In short, it is our ability to sort through our experience using reason, not our thinking minds alone, that leads to knowledge.

Descartes and Locke


Scientific Perspective


Knowledge comes from reason



Scientific Perspective


Knowledge comes from sense experience


For Locke, the self is better thought of as the consciousness of this process of thinking about our experience. By rejecting the idea that there are innate ideas discernible via pure intellection, Locke’s theory solved one of the problems Descartes was ultimately unable to fully resolve: If the mind and body are separate, how do they communicate with one another? Instead, he argued that the mind is a blank slate that begins to get imprinted with sensations as soon as we are born. These sensations give rise to ideas about the primary qualities of the objects we experience. Remember the wax example from our discussion of Cartesian philosophy? Well, Locke agrees with Descartes that we can know that the candle and the pile of melted wax are the same, but disagrees as to why. Locke argues that there are primary qualities of objects (extension, figure, and mobility) and secondary qualities. Primary qualities do not change depending upon how and when they are perceived. For example, wax can be shaped into a candle and then melt, but the primary qualities (size, the inability to move, etc.) do not change. In other words, primary qualities exist in the object; secondary qualities exist in the mind. 

This has implications for how we think about the knowing subject as well. For example, as you read these lectures, you may be conscious of yourself as thinking about the differences between rationalism and empiricism. If you have an itch, you become conscious of your body. However, consider what happens when we are engaging in everyday activities such as driving or eating. Are we always conscious of ourselves experiencing the world? If not, does that mean we only exist when we are thinking about ourselves as existing? Where do we “go” when we aren’t actively engaged in conscious reflection about our experience? Does the self as consciousness persist over time?

It was on the basis of such questions that Locke disputed the traditional idea that the self is a single, coherent substance. Instead, he argued that substance is constantly in flux. For example, we shed hair and skin every day, and the hair and skin you had as a child is completely gone. Similarly, your hand is now a part of your self, and yet, if you were to lose it in an accident, you would not cease to be who you are. Thus, the self is unified only by conscious awareness and memory. In other words, as long as you are conscious of yourself and have memories of such self-consciousness, you have a self. Furthermore, the body plays a key role in personal identity, because the body allows us to experience the world.

Empiricism—Berkeley and Hume

George Berkeley (1685-1753) agreed with Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities, yet he believed that both qualities exist in the perceiver. In other words, things outside the mind only exist insofar as they are being perceived. Of course, this raises some very troubling questions. If every human being on Earth were asleep at the same time, does this mean that no one and no things exist since they are not currently objects of perception? Berkeley’s solution is a remarkably Cartesian one: he introduces God as the constant perceiver. In other words, God is the Ultimate Knower who sees everything and justifies the existence of all that is perceived only piecemeal by human beings. Of course, this idea of God does not come from empirical observation, so Berkeley does not get any further than Locke or Descartes in solving the problem of how, and whether, we can know ourselves and the world around us. Problems like this are precisely why empiricists like David Hume set forth such skeptical views about the self and knowledge.

David Hume (1711-1776), unlike Locke and Berkeley, adhered rigorously to empiricist principles. As a result, he developed a skeptical view of what human beings can know about reality. For instance, he did not accept the idea of innate ideas and did not believe in God. Hume agreed with Locke that knowledge comes from sense experience. However, unlike Locke, he limited what we can know to what we can derive from experience directly. There are two basic ways we seek to understand and interpret reality: impressions and ideas. Impressions are the lively and vivid basic sensations of our experience, such as pain, pleasure, temperature, and so forth. Ideas, on the other hand, are copies of these impressions. In other words, they are the thoughts that are based on the reality of sensation. It is important to note that for Hume, ideas must be based upon empiricism in order to be considered, because by empiricism’s own terms all knowledge is derived from experience. Thus, we cannot have an impression of our self, because we do not experience it as a whole. The self is also not an idea, because all ideas are grounded in impressions in one way or another. I can have an impression of my reflection in the mirror, or the feeling of being in my body, but this is a far cry from the cumulative memory and self-consciousness that gave rise to the idea of the self in Lockean empiricism. Thus, according to Hume we cannot say with any certainty that we have a self at all.

 Hume thus divided human inquiry into two modes known as “Hume’s Fork”: Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact. The “Relations of Ideas” mode encompasses what human beings can know for certain, as these are self-evident or true by definition. As such, it is a short list. For example, we can know that 2 plus 2 equals 4 with certainty. Matters of fact, on the other hand, are descriptions of the world around us derived solely from experience (past and present), and as such are always open to evaluation and revision. For example, the claim that the sky is blue or that you have an essay due this week is a matter of fact that may inform our actions, but it is also far from certain knowledge insofar as it is based upon perception and is not demonstratively or inherently true with utter certainty.

Myth of the Objective Observer

Human skepticism is somewhat different from Cartesian doubt, in that Hume does not seem to be interested or invested in achieving utter certainty. Instead, he is interested in describing our experiences, tracing them to their cause, and highlighting the uncertainty with which any such so-called matters of fact should be approached.

 Consider the cultural ideal of female chastity, for instance, which was considered to be a natural aspect of femininity in Hume’s day. Hume argues that female chastity was in fact a social construct designed to assure men that the children they were raising were in fact their own, and which has been practiced so long that both women and men believe it to be part of female nature (1896, sec. XII). Hume is not arguing that the claims we make about gender and other aspects of human experience and culture are wrong; rather, like Socrates, he is simply arguing that we can never have the certainty the modern rationalists sought, and should thus stay attentive when the claims we make about the world around us have outlived their usefulness. The best we can do is engage in an ongoing examination of our sense perceptions, including the values, beliefs, social customs, and biological factors that stem from them.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and others accepted Hume’s skepticism and concluded that a claim about reality can only be considered meaningful if it is either self-evident (like much of mathematics) or can be empirically verified (at least in theory). This view is known as logical positivism. Wittgenstein thus dismissed traditional metaphysics and much of art and philosophy as nonsensical, in that such descriptions/interpretations of reality cannot sustain the rigors of logical analysis. Remember our discussion of mythos and logos in Week 2? Well, for Wittgenstein, only the most careful and rigorous logos are epistemologically significant and can produce a meaningful claim about the nature of reality. Mythos (including art but also emotion-based accounts and any philosophy not based on logic or strict empiricism) are meaningless.

Of course, logical positivism assumes two things:

A knowing subject is capable of perceiving the world in an unbiased, value-neutral way.

Emotions and art are not capable of yielding any meaning about ourselves or the universe.

These assumptions are what contemporary philosopher Alison Jagger refers to the “myth of the objective observer.” Jagger argues that the claims we make about the world are always influenced by the personal and cultural values to which we adhere. For example, consider attempts to justify slavery in America by way of pseudo-scientific claims that white people are morally and intellectually superior to people of color. These beliefs are clearly based on racial bias and have since come to be rejected by the scientific community as empirically false, since they were based on highly select data and dubious methods. Thus, reason can be just as murky and biased as emotion. Instead of prioritizing reason over emotion, Jagger argues that we should instead think these modes of being as interdependent and recognize that there is no such thing as a value-neutral, wholly objective view of the world.

Many non-Western, traditional, and post-modern philosophers take a similar approach; for instance, S.A. Mwanahewa of Uganda sets forth a critique of the idea that logic is value-neutral and advocates for a recognition of the artistic dimension of science and logic as well as the logic inherent in art and philosophy. Similarly, Taoism, which offers an alternative to the dualistic account of reality of Western metaphysics, seeks to balance the seemingly opposite forces of reality (which Taoism calls yin and yang). Rather than posit the more logical, active yang aspects of reality as superior to the passive receptivity of yin, we might do well to recognize that these are two sides of the same coin, and seek to balance these forces accordingly.   

Yin and Yang Definitions: Yin and yang are the two complementary and interdependent aspects of the Tao. Yang refers to the active principle of life, including activity, logic, and linear thinking. Yin refers to the state of rest, receptivity, and creativity.


Hume, D. (1896) A treatise of human nature.L.A. Selby-Bigge, (Ed.). Oxford, England: Clarendon. Retrieved from

Kant’s Copernican Revolution

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) saw Hume’s skepticism as too extreme and set forth to settle the battle between rationalism and empiricism. Kant decided to synthesize rationalism and empiricism by demonstrating that both experience and reason play a role in knowledge. Kant agreed with Hume that knowledge begins in sensation. He then went on to assert that knowledge ultimately comes to us via the understanding that structures and organizes sense data. Think about it this way: If the world of sense experience is all of the data that passes through your computer, your understanding is the operating system that makes sense of all of the data and allows you to access it.

For Kant, epistemology is first philosophy; that is to say, reason must critically examine itself and its own powers as a means of laying the groundwork for all other modes of philosophy (such as ethics, as we will see in Week 5 when we discuss Kantian deontology). This conviction motivates his text, The Critique of Pure Reason. In this text, Kant establishes the boundaries and principles of reason as determinations that can be made a priori (knowledge that is independent of experience). According to Kant, all knowledge is determined by reason, and therefore pure reason must be examined before any other knowledge can be admitted (such as knowledge of the sensible).

Kant then distinguishes a priori from knowledge that is acquired a posteriori (knowledge derived from experience). These two kinds of knowledge taken together form what Kant refers to as the unity of consciousness. Metaphysical principles can only be established through a priori synthetic judgments, such as the judgment that there is one infinite space. Furthermore, Kant distinguishes synthetic from analytic judgments, insofar as analytic judgments are grounded in perspective, whereas synthetic judgments are objective.

This leads to Kant’s self-proclaimed “Copernican Revolution.” Just as Copernicus revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos by pointing out that the Earth rotates around the Sun rather than vice versa, Kant delved into how objects might themselves conform to our representations rather than considering whether our representation conforms to the thing in-itself, a posteriori. In other words, we don’t revolve around things; things revolve around us. This doesn’t mean that we create objects or anything silly like that. Kant simply thought that we would learn more about our own faculties of representation by examining how those faculties relate to what is being represented rather than to the objects of representation.

Furthermore, such an examination might reveal to us something determinative about objects, at least insofar as these objects are considered phenomena (objects of experience). This is not to say that objects are reducible to their phenomenal representations; in fact, Kant posited a noumenal realm beyond the phenomenal that consists of things-in-themselves beyond what we know of them. Still, we intuit these things; in fact, Kant asserts that there are two pure forms of intuition: space, which structures all outer representations, and time, which structures all inner representations.

Still, even when structured by the pure forms of intuition, sensible representations alone do not give way to knowledge; knowledge can only come when sensible representations are grasped in concepts and combined with judgment. Judgment requires both concepts and intuitions. Thus, humans by their very nature may require pure concepts of the understanding, or “categories.” This led to his table of all possible a priori forms of judgment:

Quantity: universal, particular, singular

Relation: categorical, hypothetical, disjunctive

Modality: problematic (those that express logical possibility), assertoric, apodictic (those that express logical necessity)

The table gives Kant a clue as to the categories, which include reality, negation, limitation; unity, plurality, totality; inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community; possibility-impossibility; existence/non-existence, and necessity-contingency. However, the categories are less certain than the forms of judgment.

Thus, unlike Hume and Locke, Kant claims that the self is not an object of consciousness. Instead, the self is the subject that is conscious of itself, as well as the world around it. As such, Kant’s self is also more complex than the Cartesian self, because it is in a constant state of synthesizing experience with transcendental rules to construct a coherent reality. Finally, like Socrates, Plato, Hume, and the logical positivists, Kant recognizes that there are limits to what human beings can know. We can make judgments about how well our concepts map onto the noumenal realm, but we have no way of knowing for certain whether our judgments are correct


Phenomenology offers another alternative to the empiricism/rationalism debate by rejecting the mind/body dualism and focusing on lived experience as the foundation for what we know. Phenomenology as a theory is derived from descriptions of experience, rather than being a theory we construct and then apply to experience.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) a German philosopher and phenomenologist, claimed that the mind/body dualism that is the basis for the disagreement between rationalism and empiricism is actually not consistent with how we think and experience the world, insofar as we experience the mind and the body as one entity. His starting point is to question what he refers to as the natural standpoint that is the foundation of mind-body dualism, i.e., the assumption that there is an objectively present reality external to our own mind just waiting to be perceived and understood.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) agreed, and proclaimed that the self is simply lived bodily experience. While Merleau-Ponty took issue with some of the ideas generally associated with the existentialist movement (such as Marxism), his views are consistent with many of the ideas of existentialism to which we have already been introduced, including the idea that existence precedes essence and that human beings are both subjects who encounter the world and objects of the perceptions of other beings. Merleau-Ponty challenged the division of mind and body that is included in rationalism, empiricism, and Kantian idealism, developing instead an account of the knowing subject as always already an embodied one. Thus, there is no autonomous mind that helps the body organize sense data and/or is subject to deception and distraction by the body; we cannot ‘get outside’ consciousness and examine the world objectively.

Consider our earlier example of looking at a mirage on the road that appears to be water. Once this experience occurs, we are capable of breaking it down in either empiricist or rationalist terms. For instance, Locke might say that while it looks like water, my memory of what I have learned both about the way light impacts appearance and my previous experience of realizing the pavement is dry allow me to recognize it as mirage. Descartes would cite it as yet another example of how our senses can deceive us. Yet Merleau-Ponty would point out that neither pure experience nor pure intellection were a part of one’s consciousness at the moment of experiencing the mirage; instead, we lived that experience as an embodied subject that both attempts to make sense of what we have seen and is also a part of what we experience. Furthermore, we may bring all manner of other perceptions to the experience. We might recall a fond memory of counting mirages on a road trip as a child, or remember the first time we realized that light could make dry pavement seem wet. We might not be conscious of it as a mirage at all until we drive through and realize there was not a splash. Regardless, we experience such phenomena not as neutral objective observers, but as beings who are a part of what we experience and attempt to understand in the world.

Philosophy and Critical Thinking

Of course, just because we may lack pure objectivity and neutrality, this does not mean that we abandon all attempts to set forth reasonable arguments. One approach to making such arguments is critical thinking. Most people have a philosophy of life; that is, a set of beliefs that informs and guides our lives. On the other hand, thinking philosophically is an ongoing process that requires us to think critically about our beliefs in order to ensure that they are reasonable, that they take any bias into account, and that they foster human flourishing.

We don’t necessarily need a formal method to engage in critical thinking; in fact, many of us think critically every day when we consider the best choices for our careers, our families, and ourselves. However, it can be helpful to have a method to start with, particularly when we are asking some of the more open-ended questions about the nature of human existence. Thus, we will take a moment to review the critical-thinking model.

Critical thinking can be understood as involving five key steps that, taken together, help us to think philosophically. First, identify your point of view. This is where “having a philosophy” comes into play. For example, you might have a particular view about a current event, or a belief in the nature of God. You might find it helpful to state your initial assertion by completing the first part of the following thesis sentence: “I believe (or don’t believe) [insert point of view].”

Second, identify reasons that support your point of view. These reasons can come from a variety of sources. For example, there might be scientific facts, statistics, expert opinions, and experiences that support your view. These reasons are the second part of your thesis statement: “I believe (or don’t believe) [insert point of view] because [insert reasons].”

Third, consider other points of view, or counter-arguments. Think about what you find persuasive about these counter-arguments, as well as how you might argue against them. Try to keep an open mind. Remember, we are engaging in critical thinking, not trying to win an argument.

Fourth, arrive at a conclusion. It may be different than the belief or point of view you started with. As you searched for reasons that support your belief or point of view, you may have also come across reasons that challenge your beliefs. Don’t hide from these challenges. Remember, critical thinking requires us to examine and even question our beliefs. If you find yourself more persuaded by the other points of view than your own, don’t despair! Unlike a formal debate, the kinds of arguments we make while engaging in critical thinking are open to revision.

Last, consider the consequences. Critical thinking is an ongoing process, so it is important to identify questions for further thinking and to wonder about factors and circumstances that might change your view about a particular question.


This week, we began with an overview of the philosophical area of study called epistemology. We looked at the foundations of rationalism in Cartesian philosophy and contrasted rationalism and empiricism. We talked about the mind-body problem that is a part of both approaches and discussed some attempts to resolve it. We also looked at some alternatives to these epistemological approaches, including Kantian philosophy and phenomenology. Finally, we looked at a model for critical thinking.

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