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J Med Philos. 2000 Aug;25(4):485-513.

Mind-body dualism and the biopsychosocial model of pain: what did Descartes really say?

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Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand.


In the last two decades there have been many critics of western biomedicine's poor integration of social and psychological factors in questions of human health. Such critiques frequently begin with a rejection of Descartes' mind-body dualism, viewing this as the decisive philosophical moment, radically separating the two realms in both theory and practice. It is argued here, however, that many such readings of Descartes have been selective and misleading. Contrary to the assumptions of many recent authors, Descartes' dualism does attempt to explain the union of psyche and soma - with more depth than is often appreciated. Pain plays a key role in Cartesian as well as contemporary thinking about the problem of dualism. Theories of the psychological origins of pain symptoms persisted throughout the history of modern medicine and were not necessarily discouraged by Cartesian mental philosophy. Moreover, the recently developed biopsychosocial model of pain may have more in common with Cartesian dualism than it purports to have. This article presents a rereading of Descartes' mental philosophy and his views on pain. The intention is not to defend his theories, but to re-evaluate them and to ask in what respect contemporary theories represent any significant advance in philosophical terms.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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