Philosophical comparison between the perspective of Mulla Sadra and Descartes on Soul

Seyed G Safavi

London Academy of Iranian Studies




This paper examines the philosophical views of Mulla Sadra and Descartes on ‘Soul’, in five main axis. The Five axis include the following: 1. Exposition of Mulla Sadra’s philosophical view concerning the soul; 2. Exposition of Descartes view on the soul; 3. Examining points of similarity and difference between the opinions of Mulla Sadra and Descartes; 4. The distinct strength of Mulla Sadra’s theory; 5. The Criticism of Descartes’ theory.


The foundation of Mulla Sadra’s theory is ‘the corporeality of contingency and the spirituality of subsistence in relation to the soul’ and the foundation of Descartes’ theory is ‘the real distinction between the substance of the soul and body’. The new theory of Mulla Sadra in regards to the soul led to the presentation of a philosophical proof for proving physical resurrection, and the dualism of Descartes led to the collapse of his philosophical system.




The topic of ‘knowledge of the soul’ has been amongst the most complex philosophical topics throughout the history of philosophy and human thought, such that Averroes (1126-1198) considered the proposition of a definition and limit for soul to be impossible. Mulla Sadra (1596-1650) the Muslim Iranian philosopher who is the founder of al-Hikmah al-Muta’aliyah (transcendent philosophy) and René Descartes (1596-1650) the French philosopher who is the founder of modern western philosophy, by establishing new philosophical systems in the Islamic and western world in regards to the soul, offered new theories which have had significant consequences. Thus, a comparative analysis of the opinions of these two philosophers in regards to the important topic of soul is of importance.


The analytical structure of this article is as follows: 1. Exposition of Mulla Sadra’s philosophical view concerning the soul; 2. Exposition of Descartes’ view on the soul; 3. Examining points of similarity and difference between the opinions of Mulla Sadra and Descartes; 4. The distinct strength of Mulla Sadra’s theory; 5. The Criticism of Descartes’ theory.


‘Soul’ from Mulla Sadra’s philosophical perspective


Besides his philosophical views on soul Mulla Sadra has also examined topics related to the soul from the perspective of the Holy Qur’an, theology and prophetic narrations, thus, using the term ‘philosophical’ in the subheading of this section is to clarify that this article only deals with the philosophical arguments of Mulla Sadra which are related to the themes that are also covered by Descartes.


In the view of philosophers, soul is a substance which is essentially independent, which in action requires matter, is attached to bodies and has a governing connection with the body. In the opinion of Aristotle, ‘the soul is the first of a natural, organized body potentially possessing life’[i]. In contrast to other philosophers who consider the human soul to be static, Mulla Sadra considers it to be gradational.


The importance and innovation of Mulla Sadra’s theory on the soul, is in how the soul appears. His famous sentence in this regards is ‘the soul is corporeal in its origination but spiritual in its subsistence’[ii], because the human soul for origination and manifestation requires matter and uses the potentialities of the body. The soul is considered to be an organ of the body and this is a reason for the argument that an existence separate to that of the body is not required for the soul. Mulla Sadra by using his “principle of transubstantial motion” which is amongst his important philosophical innovations, has proven that it is possible for a material phenomena which has the potential to become abstract, to slowly gain an immaterial form with the help of transubstantial motion, and finally he concluded that the matter of the soul, is the same as the matter of the body, and that the soul is a physical reality which desires to ascend to the spiritual world (malakut).


The soul passes the following stages in its journey of perfection: the soul in the foetal period is in the stage of the vegetative soul. In the beginning of birth it is animal by actuality and human by potentiality, and with the condition of living a life of thinking and contemplation, at around the age of forty s/he becomes a human in actuality. The soul concurrently with being a unified essence, has both the faculty of audition and that of vision, and besides being capable of thought it has a sensual faculty. Mulla Sadra considers the evolutionary journey of the soul to be harmonious with and alongside the process of the general universal motion, a motion which begins from matter, but reaches a stage which is transcendent from matter and ends at the abstract.


Mulla Sadra in his following books deals with different topics related to the soul: ‘Arshiyah, Masha’ir, Mabda’ wa Ma’ad, Shawahid al-Robubiyyah, Asfar and Hashiyeh bar Hikmat al-Ishraq-e Suhrewardi. These topics include the following: how the soul is made, the relation between the soul and the body, the substance of the soul, the degrees of the soul, the evolutionary journey of the soul, the immateriality of the soul and the subsistence of the soul amongst others.


First Principle: The soul being Gradational


The human soul, from the beginning of its creation to its telos has various ranks, and in this path passes different existential stages. As such, the soul is not static, rather it is dynamic, alive and gradational. The soul in its initial attachment to the body is referred to as ‘corporeal substance’; after that it gains power from stage to stage and is transformed into the different forms of its creation until it no longer needs the body and can subside on its own. The soul after leaving the body, by separation from the material world and journeying towards the eternal world, returns to its Lord. On the basis of this journey and principle, ‘the soul is corporeal in its origination but spiritual in its subsistence’[iii]. On this basis when it is first manifested in the material world it is a physical power, after that it transforms into the sensual soul, and by passing the different degrees of sensuality it reaches a stage where it is capable of creating different forms within its essence, and in this stage it is referred to as ‘Mofakkirah’ i.e. it has the ability to think. After this the soul retains what it discovers within itself, and this ability is referred to as ‘dhakirah’ i.e. ability to remember. By ascending from this rank, the soul reaches the rank of intellection and comprehending the universalities of the world, after this it reaches the rank of the ‘practical intellect’ (‘aql al-‘amali) and ‘speculative intellect’ (‘aql al-nadhari). The ranks of the speculative intellect are: ‘the intellect of potentiality’ (‘aql bi al-quwwah), ‘intellect of actuality’ (‘aql bi al-fi’l) and the ‘active intellect’ (‘aql fa’al). The body and the soul constantly transform until they reach the top of their rank and reach the supreme origin[iv].


Second principle: the actualization of the active intellect in the human soul


The active intellect has two existences: ‘non-relational existence’ and ‘relational existence’. The relational existence of the active intellect is the existence of the active intellect within the human essence and for the human being. Thus, the perfection and completion of the human being is the existence of the active intellect for her/him and her/his connection and union with the active intellect. The theory of predicating existence of the active intellect for the soul, and considering the active intellect to be the last stage of perfection for the soul; further, it is that the soul in the beginning of creation and the initial periods of its origination is moving towards the perfection of the natural physical body and the origin of some of the vegetative and animal acts, and is a potential thing. Afterwards, by moving in the direction of acquiring power over realities and acquiring knowledge and wisdom and categorizing and organizing issues and ordering the policies related to the laws of life, it becomes an intellectual being and possesses the rank and stage of the ‘intellect of actuality’. The soul on the path of reaching actuality from potentiality, is in need of the aid and attention of a being superior to itself , and as it itself does not possess an innate intellect or intellectual perfection, it is in need of another being which possesses both. There is an end to this chain of need; it ends at a divine light which is connected to a being named ‘the active intellect’ that is perfect, actual , active and governing of souls and is devoid of imperfection and lack, and which leads the soul from the boundary of potentiality to actuality. As such the soul by uniting with this actual perfect being attains ‘actual intellect’, and understands everything by its intellect in their actuality.[v]


Third Principle: the external and internal faculties of the soul


Other than the five external faculties, the soul has five internal faculties which are the principles of the external faculties. The external faculties become inactive as a result of unconsciousness and death, however the internal faculties do not become inactive, for the soul of the human being has collective unity which is the ray of the light of ‘the true unity of reality’.


Fourth Principle: the soul and the body are not two things


The philosophers before Mulla Sadra were of the opinion that the soul being the soul is due to it being an addition to the body and this theory is supplementary to the theory that the body and the soul are two things, and one is added to the other. In their opinion the relationship between the soul and the body, is like that of an entity controlling another entity. However, in Mulla Sadra’s opinion the soul and the body are not two separate things initially, the soul is referred to as the soul for it is exactly like the essence of its substance and is not attributed to anything (i.e. it is not separate from the body to be later on added to it), but rather initially it is considered as a stage amongst the stages of the body. Once the soul becomes transformed and gains perfection by intellect and knowledge it becomes separated from the body. Thus, it is only when the soul becomes pure intellect, independent in its own essence it leaves the body and becomes self-subsistent, no longer in need of the body.[vi]


Fifth Principle: human beings initially fall under a single definition of species, but in the second stage have different essences


Human beings are united in terms of their species in this world and under a single definition of the species composed of the proximate genus (Jins qarib) and the proximate difference (Fasl-e qarib), where by this genus and difference are taken from the bodily matter and the form of the soul. However, human souls in the initial stage after a unity in species, move towards a change of essence and become different species falling under four genera. The souls in the beginning of existence and the initial stage of actuality, are forms of perfection for the sensible material body, and at the same time are also spiritual matter, which either becomes accompanied by an intellective form and by its aid moves from the stage of potentiality to that of actuality or accompanies delusional satanic, animal, brutal and bestial forms, and on the day of resurrection is resurrected in that form. However, this resurrection occurs in the other world otherwise it would be transmigration and not resurrection. This is while transmigration is an impossible matter whereas bodily resurrection is a real matter which cannot be escaped or avoided. In the end the human being will be transformed in the form of an angel, Satan, or a four legged or brutal animal. If knowledge and God-consciousness (taqwa) dominate the human soul, it appears as an angel, while if deceit, trickery and compounded ignorance overcome his soul, it becomes Satan, and by the dominance of the effects of lust on it, turns into a four-legged animal and if it is dominated by anger it will become a brutal beast. As such the actuality of each thing is based on its form and not its matter. In that world the matter of the human being (regardless of colour or race) is of no importance, rather the foundation of resurrection is the form and actuality of the human being. As such the human being is resurrected in Resurrection based on the moralities and positive counterparts which dominates its soul.[vii]

Sixth principle: the transformation of the soul based on transubstantial motion


The transformation of the stages of the soul according to transubstantial motion is of the important innovations of Mulla Sadra. By criticising the opinions of past philosophers concerning the static nature of the soul, in the book ‘Arshiyah he clarifies the problems of past philosophers and answers them. He says, that if they say that it is of the certainties of philosophy that one object cannot at the same time be the form of one object and the substance for the form of another, unless the form is removed, and afterwards the substance becomes something else, and based on this hypothesis it cannot be said that the essence of human soul becomes manifest in the form an internal soul, in answer to them it is said: the correctness of this statement is based on the presupposition that in a world one state of being occurs, or the object under discussion is an absolute abstract object which is unchangeable. However, the soul by its dependence upon the body is capable of becoming powerful and at the same time as being the material form of this world, it is a substance for the form of the other world, or that this very soul is capable of becoming like the lowest form of animals in this material world through bad deeds, and yet be a substance prepared for accepting the form of the other world. Thus, although the corporeal form is in actuality the form of the body, it can potentially be substance for the intellectual form.

Mulla Sadra through his proofs proves that the universal natures all undergo transubstantial motion and in this world transform from one form to another. Thus, in this regards it is not necessary to accept the opinion of past philosophers who due to considering bodies and essences to be static did not discover transubstantial motion.


The human soul undergoes a revolution sooner that other beings. In general the body, soul and intellect become varied in different natural stages. In the beginning of creation the soul occupies the greatest degree of the sensual world and the beginning of the spiritual world. The soul is ‘the great gate of Allah’, for with its aid one can reach the world of angels and also every characteristic of hell can be seen in it. The soul is a barrier between this world and the other world, for it is both the form of the forces of this world and also the material of all the forms of the other world. The soul ‘is the meeting place of corporeality and spirituality’. The soul as the ultimate of spiritualities and bodies is testament that the soul in the first stage is of the bodily and spiritual realities, and not solely bodily[viii].


Seventh principle combining the contingency and the subsistence of the soul

A criticism put forward by Khawjah Nisar al-DinTusi is that how is possible to combine the contingency of the soul and its subsistence, for whatever proof is presented for contingency, will also act as a proof for the transiency of the soul and whichever proof is set forth for the subsistence of the soul is also a proof for its eternality and as such a negation of its contingency.

Mulla Sadra argues that the soul in contrast to pure abstracts and also to bodies, is not limited to one world, but rather is possessing of different modalities of being. On the one hand it possesses an abstract and intellectual modality and on the other it exists in the natural world on the basis of which it is contingent, and the contingency of the this specific modality of the modalities of the world, is based on the condition of the body. The soul enters the abstract world in its evolutionary journey; by entering the abstract world, and through this transformation, it dies in the natural world and is resurrected in the abstract world. It is evident that in this stage of the soul’s being, there is no need for the body and material conditions. Thus, the annihilation of the body, does not in anyway harm the intellectual, but rather results in the destruction on the state of attachment and the natural being of the soul, and this state is transient and after the annihilation of the body is destroyed. However besides this state, the soul acquires an abstract being and because of that state is subsistent[ix].

Descartes theory:

Descartes’ theory in regards to the soul has come to be known as Cartesian dualism, for he believed in the substantial distinction between the soul and the body. In this section Descartes’ theory in regards to the ‘distinction of soul and body’, ‘spiritual substance’ and the eternality of the soul  will be analysed.


The distinction of the soul and the body


According to Descartes’ theory the soul is not material for its substance is thought; further, it does not possess the material characteristics which the body is comprised of. In the introduction to Meditations Descartes says: the distinction between the body and the soul is based on the reducibility of the body and the irreducibility of the soul. For the body can only be considered in a reducible form whereas the soul cannot be considered other than as irreducible, in the sense that one cannot imagine half of the soul. The soul and the body are two distinct entities which have actual distinction, which is the highest form of distinction between entities. By His power god has created substance of the soul and the body distinct from each other.[x]


Descartes considers ‘thought’ to be the essential characteristic of the soul and considers extension to be the essential characteristic of the body.[xi] He says that the presence of the soul in the body is not like that of the ship captain in the ship, rather the soul is united with the whole of the body. The soul at the same time as having essential distinction from the body, in action, is united with it.[xii] My body, as I clearly see it, is a substance, however it is a material substance just as my spirit is a thinking substance. Thus that which is referred to as “I” has two distinct parts: the “body” or the machine that works and the “soul” or engineer that thinks.[xiii]


In principle 8 of the principles of philosophy Descartes writes:


In this way we discover the distinction between soul and body, or between a thinking thing and physical thing.


This is the best way to discover the nature of the mind and its distinction from the body. Since we are supposing that everything which is distinct from us is non-existent, if we examine what we are we see that no extension shape or local motion, or anything similar which should be attributed to the body pertains or our nature apart from thought alone. Therefore, thought is known prior to and more certainly than anything physical because we have already perceived our thought while we are still doubting other things.


The substance of the soul and its existential independence from the body

The foundation of Descartes’ argument for the abstractness of the soul is ‘cogito ergo sum’. In the ‘second meditation’ Descartes aims to acquire truth through methodical doubt, and comes to reason that in the process of doubt he can come to doubt everything except himself. He says that his “I” cannot be doubted, for it is that which is doubting in the first place, and that even the doubt of the deceitful Satan cannot make his “I” seem doubtful. For if he has been deceived he must be, and as such he is. With this reasoning Descartes aims to prove the existence of the thinking self. In the second meditation Descartes argues that actions such as eating and movement belong to the body and not the “I”, whereas thinking belongs to the ‘I” and cannot be removed from the “I”. He further argues that the perception of the wax (body) not by the senses or imagination but by the intellect alone, is reason for the existence of the soul as an independent substance from the body. For the wax has been perceived without the aid of the physical senses.[xiv]


The immortality and subsistence of the soul

Descartes is of the opinion that the soul is immortal and subsistent. However like Plato he does not consider the eternality of the soul to be because of the simplicity of the soul, rather he considers that the soul is subsistent because it is a substance. He is of the opinion that all substances, be they physical or spiritual, are subsistent.

Commonalities and differences between Mulla Sadra and Descartes

In this section the commonalities and differences between the two philosophers will be discussed.

The commonalities between Descartes and Mulla Sadra

Mulla Sadra and Descartes have a common opinion in regards to a number of important philosophical principles in regards to the soul, although they have used different principles and arguments in order to prove these principles. These principles are: 1. The soul being substance; 2. The soul being abstract and spiritual; 3. Eternality of the soul; 4. The soul at the same time as being connected and united with the body, is a distinct reality from it.


The differences between Descartes’ and Mulla Sadra

The difference of Descartes and Mulla Sadra in relation to the soul are: 1. Descartes considers the soul to be ‘spirituality of contingency and spirituality of subsistence’; whereas Mulla Sadra considers it to be ‘corporeality of contingency and spirituality of subsistence’; 2. Descartes considers the soul to be static, whereas Mulla Sadra considers it to be dynamic. 3. Descartes considers the soul to have only one stage, whereas Mulla Sadra considers it to be gradational: ‘the soul before nature’, ‘the soul in nature’ and ‘the soul after leaving matter’. 4. The foundations of proving the eternality of the soul, differs in the opinion of Descartes and Mulla Sadra. Descartes considers the eternality of the soul to be due to it being a substance, and as such even material substances are eternal in his philosophy. However, Mulla Sadra considers the eternality of the soul to be due to abstractness of the soul and its relation to the world of intellects, which is the absolute abstract of the contingent being which is dependent on the absolute simple abstract existence 5. According to Descartes the soul and the body are two discreet entities where one is added to the other. Whereas in Mulla Sadra’s opinion it is not so, but rather soul is referred to as soul because it is exactly like the essence of its substance and is not an addition to anything; in the beginning it is considered as one of the stages of the body and afterwards it gains perfection and acquires wisdom and knowledge and becomes abstract. 6. Descartes considers the relation between the body and the soul through epiphysis which is of the major weaknesses of his philosophical system. However, Mulla Sadra explains the relation between the body and the soul through ‘the gradational nature of existence’, the gradation of the soul’ and ‘the transubstantial motion’.

The distinct strength of Mulla Sadra theory of the soul


Based on the theory of ‘the corporeality of contingency and the spirituality of subsistence’ of the soul, Mulla Sadra has proven bodily resurrection by a philosophical instead of a theological method. In Mulla Sadra’s philosophical system, the soul arises from the material foundation and through transubstantial motion passes the stages of abstractness one after the other and becomes more complete, and the time of natural death, is the time of the perfection of the soul and its complete lack of need for the body. After the separation of the soul from the body, the faculty of imagination (which is abstract) is strengthened and creates the metaphorical body, however, this does not hinder the reality of the material or after-life body, because for the human being the body is matter, and matter here is considered in terms of genus and not simply in terms of the physical but also comprises for example bodies of light, as such the term body can also be applied to the metaphorical body. The philosophical principles of Mulla Sadra’s proof for bodily resurrection are: ‘the supreme reality of existence’, ‘reality of particularity and existence’, ‘the gradation of being’, ‘transubstantial motion’, abstractness of imagination’. However, Descartes’ philosophy is incapable of rationally proving bodily resurrection.



Descartes’ mechanical philosophy

The problem in explaining the relation between the body and the soul in Descartes’ philosophy is a result of his Mechanical and plurality oriented philosophy which on the one hand does not see the dynamism present in the natural world on the basis of transubstantial motion, and on the other hand is not capable of seeing that the existential unity of being, including in terms of the human being, is not above its multiplicity and as such explains the relations between substances and being with the direct mechanic role of God. In general, Descartes’ philosophy is amongst ‘static philosophies’ whereas that of Mulla Sadra, Leibniz and Hegel are of the ‘dynamic systems of philosophy’.


The relation of the body and the soul


The statement that the relation of the body and the soul is accidental and that there is no necessary relation between the two is false. Like Aristotle, Descartes has described the soul as the “first perfection” for the instrumental natural body, and it is impossible for such a composition to arise from two things which have no causal relation. The relation between soul and body is a necessary relation. This relation is not like the relation of the coincidence of opposites, and is not like the relation of two effects of one cause which have no direct relation with each other. Also the relation of the body and the soul, is not the relation of the absolute cause with its effect, rather it is the relation of two entities which are necessary for each other, whereby each from a distinct aspect require the other, and they are dependent on each other in being. The body requires a connection to the soul in order to be actualised.  And although the soul in terms of reality and intellectual being does not require the body, however for generation it needs a capable body, so that it comes to exist in it and belongs to it.[xv] Hence, Mulla Sadra considers the soul to be material and not abstract in the beginning of its manifestation in the body (the corporeality of contingency and the spirituality of subsistence), as such no problem occurs in the relation between a material and an abstract entity.


Cartesian Dualism


Descartes’ philosophy of machine (body) and engineer (soul) is a dualistic philosophical instrument which separates the world into two separate beings, namely the body and soul. In modern western philosophy Cartesian dualism has had contradictory outcomes, which are a result of the problems within Descartes philosophical system. Three modern philosophical currents in the west have opposed Descartes views: 1. Materialists who have rejected the spiritual substance of Descartes philosophy by relying on his opinions on animals (whose life he had considered to be mechanic), and have also explained the human being in mechanical terms; 2. The Idealist current which by relying on the independent spiritual substance of Descartes, have considered matter as a form of soul and have denied material substance; 3. The phenomenological current which by denying both the material spiritual substance of Descartes have stressed on phenomenon, which has none of the characteristics of Descartes’ substances.



Both Descartes and Mulla Sadra began a new theory; however their theories led to two contradictory conclusions in the history of philosophy. The strivings of Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz, who are associated with Cartesianism, in order to solve the contradictions in Descartes’ philosophical system including the issue of the soul, resulted in the collapse of the Cartesian system and the appearance of the schools of Materialism, Idealism and phenomenology in the west. Whereas the strength of the philosophical system of Mulla Sadra, which withstood the criticisms of theologians, not only did not collapse after him, but rather was enriched and expanded by philosophers after him such as, Mulla Hadi Sabzawari, Mulla Ali Nuri, Mulla Abdullah Zonuzi and Mirza Mehdi Ashtiyani, and in the twentieth century the New Sadrean philosophy appeared. New Sadrean philosophy is a dynamic and current philosophical system which has been formed in the current era and is engaged in answering new philosophical issues and is forming a new arrangement and organisation of Islamic philosophy. The most distinguished characters of this school are Allamah Muhammad Hussain Tabatabai, Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir Al-Sader, Ayatullah Murtadha Muttahari, Ayatullah Seyyed Muhammad Hussain Beheshi, Imam Mussa Sader, Allamah Muhammad Taqi Ja’fari, Dr. Mehdi Ha’ri Yazdi, Ayatullah Jawadi Amuli, Dr Mehdi Mohaqeq, Ayatullah Seyed Mohammad Khamenei and Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr.



Aristotle, The Complete works of Aristotle, The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Barnes,    Jonathan, Princeton, 1995.

Descartes, Rene, Mediations and other Metaphysical Writings, Penguin, London, 2003.

Mulla Sadra, Asfar, Qum, 1379.

–       Shawahed al- Rububiyah, ed. Ashtyani, Seyed Jala al-Din, Tehran, 1360.

–       Arshiyah, ed. Ahani, Gholamhussein, Tehran, 1361.

[i] Aristotle, De Anime II , 1. 412 a 27; 4/2 b. line 5

[ii] Mulla Sadra, Asfar, vol IV, 1., p 4lines 3ff, p. 35, last line ff;

[iii] Mulla Sadra, Asfar, vol IV, 1., p 4lines 3ff, p. 35, last line ff;

[iv] Mulla Sadra, ‘Arshiyah,al-Mashriq al-Thani, Ishraq al-Awwal, Qawa’id 1 and 2.

[v] Mulla Sadra, Shawahid al-Rububiyah, third mashhad, third Ishraq.

[vi] Mulla Sadra, ‘Arshiyah, p 50 , 238.

[vii] Ibid, p 59-60, 241

[viii] see Arshiyah, pp61-62, 242.

[ix] Mulla Sadra, Asfar, vol 8, p 392

[x] See Descartes, Principles of philosophy, principle60.

[xi] Ibid, principle 63.

[xii] See Descartes, Discourse on the Method, chapter 5.

[xiii] The greats of philosophy, p 179

[xiv] See Descartes, meditations on first philosophy.

[xv] Asfar, vol 8, p 382

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