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René Descartes

This is an excerpt from History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity by R. Scott Kretchmar, Mark Dyreson, Matthew Liewellyn, and John Gleaves.

Historical Profile


René Descartes: mathematician, scientist, philosopher - called the
René Descartes: mathematician, scientist, philosopher - called the "father" of Western philosophy.
Library of Congress LC-USZ62-61365


"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things,"urged René Descartes (1596 - 1650), one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. In many ways, Descartes (pronounced like "day cart") embodied the ideal Renaissance Man even as he also stands as the grandfather of modernity. Born in La Haye en Touraine, France, Descartes eventually entered university to follow in his father’s footsteps in law and politics. Like many students of his day, Descartes studied the classical Greek scholars Plato and Aristotle. He also discovered the works of Galileo, which inspired the curious thinker to pursue studies in mathematics and physics. After pioneering work in analytic geometry, Descartes became a "natural philosopher," or what we would today call a natural scientist. From his study of the natural world, Descartes graduated to philosophical inquiry. His scientific work led him to believe that the natural world contained both material and immaterial substances.


Behind all of this inquiry, Descartes persisted in methodological doubt, which requires us to doubt things that we believe to be true and rebuild knowledge from what we know to be true. Such doubting led Descartes to assert that his only certainty was that he existed as a doubting or thinking being. This line of thought resulted in his pithy conclusion "I think, therefore I am." Descartes’ interest in the mind and the laws that affect thinking, and in the body and the laws that affect physical machines, continued to fuel his interest in philosophy, anatomy and physiology throughout his life. If he were alive today, Descartes would likely find a comfortable niche in modern kinesiology departments. Indeed, darting between anatomy labs, field research, and philosophy seminars, Descartes’ cross-disciplinary interests anticipated the route that contemporary kinesiology scholarship now travels.


Value Dualism


Like substance dualism, value dualism assumes that the mind and body are distinct substances. Where the two differ, however, is that value dualism claims that one substance is more important than the other. Which substance receives top billing? For value dualists, it is the mind. They justify this position with a number of reasons. First, in many cases, we can see that a person’s body lives on but that his or her mind is not present, as in patients who are anesthetized or in a coma. Without the mind present, a person’s body appears to be only a shadow of the real person. Second, many European philosophers associated the mind with a spiritual soul. As you will read later, Protestant reformers embraced value dualism’s rejection of the body, which they viewed as a source of corruption, whereas the soul was eternal. Why spend time on the pleasures and pursuits of the body, an organism that will decay back into dust, when nonphysical substances will last forever? Moreover, philosophers could see how bodies break down with age and injury even as minds remain sharp. Thus, while eyes lose their vision or ears lose their hearing, the mind persists in its ability to reason and discern truth. Third, value dualists often identified the mind, with its capability for rational thought, as marking an important distinction between humans and animals. Though many animals possessed greater physical abilities, humans’ minds allowed them to triumph over nature.


You may already see some flaws in this reasoning (a point we will discuss). At the same time, you must also realize how persistent value dualism remains - for example, in stereotypes about "dumb jocks," in praise for the intelligence of "rocket scientists," and in sustained emphasis on mind-based learning (such as math and literature) at the expense of body-based physical education and skilled artisanship. The orientation that produces such lines of thought stems from and reinforces value dualist claims about the human person. The most important points to remember in regard to value dualism are that it views the human person as consisting of two substances and that, although those substances are connected, it views one of them (mind) as more important than the other (body).


Behavior Dualism


Behavior dualism also assumes that the person consists of two separate if connected substances (mind and body) but emphasizes that the mind is the operator of the body. In this version of dualism, we can envision the body, composed of only physical material, acting like an automobile, in which various parts are capable of working together to form a machine that provides transportation. Though parts can break down or be replaced, this machine essentially performs all of its tasks in accordance with its own mechanical design. Alone, however, the car cannot go anywhere. It needs a driver. Here, behavior dualists insert the mind. The nonphysical mind can operate the body much as a driver can steer, accelerate, and brake an automobile. Without the driver, the car stays put. Similarly, without the mind, the body might continue to function (like a car engine idling) but can do little more. In this sense, behavior dualism does not expressly claim (as value dualists do) that the mind is more important than the body; it does, however, tacitly support overemphasizing the mind’s importance by assigning it a superior role in human functioning. Moreover, when it comes to motor learning, behavior dualism emphasizes the priority of the mind in acquiring new physical skills. When considering behavior dualism, the most important point is that it views the nonphysical mind as operating the physical body.


Three Kinds of Dualism in Professional Settings


Philosophical Application
Dualism is a broad umbrella under which variations exist. Three of these variations are important for kinesiology, because they can affect your professional practice, the status of your profession, how you treat clients, and other matters. All dualisms share some features, but each also has unique characteristics. Knowing these characteristics will help you identify dualism in the workplace.




Though these three kinds of dualism overlap, it is common for one of them to come to the fore in certain professional settings. For example, coaches might exhibit a behavior dualist view of the human person as they use words to explain to an athlete how to execute a new skill. The assumption by the coach is that if an athlete’s mind can understand the task, then his or her mind can make the body achieve it. Value dualism, on the other hand, might emerge through a teacher who places greater emphasis on chair-based learning in courses such as math or history than on physical education; indeed, the latter might even be excluded from the curriculum. This teacher assumes that educating the mind is more valuable than educating the body. Finally, substance dualism might appear in a physical therapy clinic where a therapist works to improve a patient’s strength and flexibility apart from any psychological or emotional needs.

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History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity

History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity

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