Est Et Non: The Dream Body

  Sometimes I wonder if I could be the world’s last living dualist.

…And then sometimes I wonder if I am one.  …But I have a feeling in my gut that simply won’t let me let go of dualism and Cartesian doubting.  So this paper is an attempt to take some of these ideas––mind, body, doubt, and dreaming––and throw them up into the air, and see if I can get them to fall down in a new pattern.


William Harvey had found valves and such in the human heart, the circulation of the blood.  Galileo had so lately been lucid about machines.   In such things Descartes saw a possibility for explaining how the body might work.  He was much taken by the fountains found in the fashionable houses and palaces of the time, with their elaborate hidden systems of valves and plumbing.  There was a fountain he had seen in whose waters bathed a marble statue of Diana; when anyone approached, the visitor’s footstep set off a system of valves that caused the statue to retreat and hide among the rosebushes.  Perhaps he saw in such elaborate plumbing a way to understand the body, glimpsed the tremendous power explanations along these lines would prove to have.

Maybe this was part of the illumination he had in his stove, or in his bed above the stove, or in his stove-heated room, whichever translation you prefer.  Shut in by snow, or resolution, for three days, inside a small, warm place, with nothing to do but to be a thinking being, he had a revelation.  All in a flash there came to him the fundamental principles, he said, of a wonderful discovery.  What he meant by this is unclear.  Perhaps in that moment he invented coordinate geometry,1 that exquisitely nuanced language for describing the figure and motion of extended substances.  Some believe his vision was that all true explanations of the world  explained by means of a deductive system, though that was hardly a new idea, nor would he have thought it so.  Or perhaps he was shown his own system, the descent into doubt where all of extended substance is stripped away, and one knows oneself only as thought thinking about itself, eventually given back the world but knowing from then on one’s hidden core, made of a different substance than the stuff of this world.  Whatever he saw,  it came to him all at once, like a flash, he said.  Like a vision, but this, not indescribable, mystical, but a rational understanding.


The dualistic difficulty he would never solve: when the body becomes a machine, the mind becomes a ghost, a poltergeist, a bender of spoons.  The body is more than a machine, it is mysterious.  Consider the placebo effect.  Or then again, consider moving your arm, quite as much a mystery in Descartes’s scheme of things, as Elizabeth of Bohemia was quick to point out.  As part of his attempt to answer her, he wrote The Passions of the Soul, endlessly compounding, say, laughter, out of three parts joy and two parts anger,2 ingeniously describing by means of valves and the movements of vapors the hidden kinetic behind the kinesthetic effects we experience in our passions, but skipping very fast over the part about the pineal gland.

Elizabeth wrote him that she found it easier to conceive that the soul is something extended  than to imagine a body’s being moved by an immaterial substance.  And indeed, the modern philosophical tradition in which I was raised may be said to have spelled out in some detail the way in which the mind is “something extended,” identifying the cash value of “mental attributes” in bodies, their behavior, the kinesthetic sensations of their passions, their “dispositions to act,” their “ways of life.”  Dualism is no more; mind and body are one.  …Why do I find myself thinking of that old feminist joke about marriage: “The husband and wife became one, and that one was the husband”?  …Mind and matter were one, and that one was located clearly in the public, the verifiable, the interpersonal.

Thank heaven for dreams.  Though most people I knew took the conclusions of Norman Malcolm’s book Dreaming seriously, it always seemed to me to be a sort of reductio ad absurdum of that publicly-oriented point of view.3 a way of thinking that lead Malcolm to  mischaracterize how we employ the concept of dreaming.  In the years since then dreaming has interested me more and more: the logic of dreams,  their status as a way of knowing, and the questions they ask that cast their flicker over waking “daily life.”


For Descartes, a dream is a parade of phantoms, the creases of the brain relaxing, releasing vapors and spirits, forming phantasms with no extension to their name.  No reality.  No meaning.  So he thought when he theorized.4

There is, on the other hand, the series of dreams he had in his bed tucked over the stove, on the night of the day wherein his heated body/mind had come upon his “wonderful discovery.”  Far from thinking these dreams had no meaning, he considered them to be among the more significant sense data he had ever had in his life.

What Descartes wrote about the dreams is lost, but we have his biographer’s version.  In the first dream, among other things, a whirlwind revolved him violently upon his left heel; later a strong wind forced him to bend over to the left.  In the second, a clap of thunder woke him.  (A reverberation, perhaps, from the day’s lightning strike of intuition?)   When he opened his eyes, the room seemed filled with flying sparks.  The third dream featured books appearing and disappearing on the table.  Verses, full of significance, were found and quoted.   “Est et Non,”  “Yes and No,”  “It Is and It Is Not.”  And “What road shall I choose in life?”

Descartes did not, of course, attribute extensional reality to the events and things perceived in these dreams;  but still, they pointed beyond themselves.  If they were phantasms, they were phantasms come to play with him, to bring him messages, to enact with him a story.  If they deceived in one way, they spoke truths in another.

Perhaps in sleep the mind sleeps too, its watchful guardians of rationality and plausibility out cold, drunk beside the door; perhaps then angels come.


If Descartes’s whole life were like a dream, a story with themes recurring and meanings on many levels, then I would be remiss not to tell you of another dream about finding verses in a volume, a dream that came to someone else near the end of Descartes’s life, when he was in Sweden as the guest of Queen Christina.

Christina’s library was next to her bedroom, the high walls lined with books all the way to the top.  Halfway up, a suspended catwalk ran along the walls.  This is the room where she met with Descartes at five o’clock, those freezing winter mornings before the fire, among a collection famed far and wide, though he was inclined to grumble at her passion for gathering “a lot of old books.”  But it was perhaps the fame of this collection that made it a fitting symbol for “the great library in the sky,” the repository of all knowledge, in the following story found in one of Descartes’s letters  (as told in Jack Vrooman’s biography René Descartes):

It appears that at Dijon a learned man had struggled all day with a key passage from a Greek poet without being able to understand it.  Tired and annoyed by the fruitlessness of his long effort, he went to bed.  While deep in sleep, his spirit was transported to Stockholm, where he was introduced into the palace of the queen and led into her library.  He looked at all the books, and his eyes fell upon a small volume which he opened.   After having glanced through ten or twelve pages, he ran across ten lines of Greek verse that completely resolved the difficulty which had troubled him for so long.  The joy he felt at this discovery woke him up.  He repeated the verses contunually, and then wrote them down on a scrap of paper so that he would not forget them.  The next morning, he thought about this nocturnal adventure, one of the most extraordinary of his life, and sent a letter to Descartes…to inquire if the queen’s library, her palace, and the city were such as he had seen them in his dream.  He asked him to look for the volume he had read to see if it did indeed exist, and if it contained the ten lines of Greek quoted at the end of the letter.

Descartes was quick to answer…, telling him that even the most talented engineer could not have described the plan of the city more correctly, that the library was exactly as he had depicted it, and that he had found the book in question and had read the verses.  Even though the book was extremely rare, one of his friends had promised to obtain a copy which he would send to Dijon as soon as possible as a token of his esteem.  The story ends here, for there was no further correspondence between the two men.  It was recounted in books published during both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,  and while it remains one of those curious sidelights that literary historians employ to entertain their students, no attempt at a rational explanation has ever been given.  (Vrooman 1970, 235-36)


It seems to me this event would have been very good news for Descartes, vindicating something about his conception of the mind; but what? Does it prove that the mind is extensionless?  Far from it; it seems to say that the mind of the man from Dijon found itself in the Three Crowns castle, on the east corner, four floors up, in the library, near the shelf where the book that held the solution was filed.

If this occurrence does not show the mind to be nonextended, does it at any rate show that the mind is detachable?  Detachable in fact, so therefore certainly differentiable in theory?  Its own thing?  A separate substance?

“His spirit was transported to Stockholm,” Vrooman puts it.  We need not take this too literally.  We do not have to say the man’s mind went to Stockholm, for motion is relative here; we could as well say that Stockholm came to the mind of the man in Dijon.  Still, either way, it is an extraordinary occurrence, and one worth meditating on.

And if we do say he came to Christina’s library, he did not come without his body.  He was conducted to the palace, presumably by someone he could see and who could see him.  (Though not necessarily.  One may be shown around in a dream by an offstage announcer.)

But certainly he had a body!  How else take the book from the shelf?  If he’d found himself a disembodied spirit, and had had to levitate it out, he surely would have mentioned the fact.  Probably he reached out, slid the book from the shelf, blew the dust off, like always, as something said, “This one!  Take up and read!”

“But,” we may ask, “if there had been someone there?  Some servant, paid to stay awake all night, watching for any books moving, surely he would have seen nothing that night.  In the morning, that volume’s covering of dust, and ashes, would measure the same as its neighbors’.”  …Well, perhaps the dream would not have come in that case, like all magic, like Diana, would have hidden itself before the observer’s heavy tread, vanishing behind a rose.


One has perceptions and passions in dreams, one walks and speaks and sees.  Does one have a body?  Indeed.  It is the embarrassment of riches when it comes to bodies, as much as anything, that is odd here.  There is the body seated before the fire in its dressing gown; there is the naked one lying in bed, eyes closed, snoring softly.

There are complex connections between the two.  Think of the man who dreamed of being in the French Revolution, in the end being guillotined, waking to find that a part of the bedstead had fallen on his neck.5  Think of the little boy who after long searching finally finds a bathroom.  “Ah,” he lets it go.  Only to wake into being five years old at a boarding school off in a foreign country, shamefully wetting the bed once again.  (Sometimes it matters mightily to be able to tell whether one is awake or dreaming.)

But if one can, in a way, have more than one body, and the two complexly related,  does the fact that one is dreaming at least mean this:  that one has at least one body?  The extended, solid, weighted one with the rapid-eye-movements happening.  Can we doubt the physical reality of our sleeping, extended, “real” body?  Or does it underlie our ability to dream, both actually, as it lies there breathing,  and conceptually, in its waking life?  Do dream language and dream body rest upon our understanding of the real body?

…Or could they execute a flip?  As dream body slides underneath now, supporting the dancing weight of real body on its own soft contours, folding it in its arms.  So that suddenly dream body seems as real as any other, “real” body, as ephemeral.   When one sees with a consciousness in the light of which both dream body and real body are parts of the passing show.

My friend Bethroot has a friend who may or may not be dying of a brain tumor.  At one point when things were looking grim, Barbara, for that is her name, was having a long talk with her physician.  At the end of it she asked him as a friend if he had any advice for her.  “I don’t know,” he answered sympathetically, “maybe…practice solipsism?”  They laughed until they cried.  From some half-forgotten philosophy class each had salvaged that word, and with it, some sense of what it had meant  for a moment to doubt the world away.

Possibly the point of wondering whether one is dreaming, wondering whether one has a body, is not to deliver ourselves from the valley of the shadow of doubt, but to find therein an awakening.


  1. Aryeh Kosman “The structure of the Meditations is the structure of one classical form of meditation. The meditator detaches himself from his world; experience is stripped of its content in order that there may be revealed…self and God” (Rorty 1986, 39).       


Zen saying:  “With a little doubt, there is a small awakening.  With a great doubt, there is a great awakening.  With no doubt, there is no awakening.”



For many helpful conversations and pointing out of sources that led to “Est et Non: The Dream Body,” I am grateful to Grace Iurilli.  This paper was first read at the “Giving the Body Its Due” conference in Eugene, Oregon, 1989, and later at the Fall 1991 Conference of the Society for Women in Philosophy, Pacific Division; my thanks to the members of those audiences.    “Est et Non”was first published in Hypatia, a Journal of Feminist Philosophy,  Fall, 1993.

  1. I confess this is a bit of poetic license; I know of no evidence to suggest he invented coordinate geometry at that moment–I wanted to remind readers that he had invented it. Though the more general possibility that the world could be described by mathematics may have been part of what Descartes glimpsed in his vision; Davis and Hersh suggest this. (Davis et al., 3-8).
  2. While this reducing of “complex emotions” to mixtures of a few “simple” ones strikes me as the mathematical mind gone wildly awry, I remembered again why I like Descartes so much when I noticed that beginning the long list of passions he undertakes to describe, the first one that comes to his mind is “wonder” (Descartes 1931, 358).
  3. For a great deal more on this subject, see Alexander (1975).
  4. See, for example, The Passions of the Soul (Descartes 1931, 341).
  5. This was Alfred Maury, a nineteenth century dream researcher. He theorized that though the whole dream had seemed a very long one, in fact it must have been caused by the headboard’s falling on his neck, and so must have all taken place in the instant before he woke up.  (There are alternative ways of looking at this.)


Alexander, Tangren. 1975.  Malcolm and dreaming and nonsense, Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon.

Davis, Phillip J. and Reuben Hersch. 1986.  Descartes’ Dream: The World According to Mathematics, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Descartes, René. 1931. The passions of the soul.  Trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross. In The philosophical works of Descartes, vol. 1. London: Cambridge University Press.

Kosman, L. Aryeh. 1986.  The naive narrator: Meditation in Descartes’ Meditations.  In Essays on Descartes’ Meditations. (1986).

Malcolm, Norman. 1962.  Dreaming, New York: Humanities Press.

Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, ed. 1986. Essays on Descartes’ Meditations,  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Vrooman, Jack R. 1970.  René Descartes: A biography.  New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons.