Term introduced by John Cottingham for an alternative to the usual interpretation of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) as a dualist of mind of body for whom all phenomena involving thought or consciousness belong to mind and all those involving extension belong to body.

The trialist interpretation keeps the two substances of mind and body, but introduces a third attribute, sensation, alongside thought and extension and belonging to the union of mind and body.

Among other things this allows animals, which do not have thought, to be regarded as having sensation and not, as in the traditional dualist interpretation, as being mere automata. Cottingham does not claim, however, that Descartes developed this trialism with complete consistency.

J Cottingham, ‘Cartesian Trialism’, Mind (1985)


Cottingham introduced trialism after citing that Descartes’ account of sensation and imagination has opened his official dualism under considerable pressure.[1] He cited that an evaluation of the Cartesian writings on human psychology there is a grouping of not two but three notions – mind, body, sensation, hence the term trialism.[1] According to Cottingham, Descartes added the third category or notion ” alongside thought and extension without proceeding to reify it as a separate substance.”[2] Thinkers such as Daniel Garber and Tad Schmaltz supported this by citing a letter in the correspondence between Descartes and Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, which indicated that he changed his mind from a dualistic view.[3]

Christian trialism

Christian trialism is the doctrine that humans have three separate essences (body, soul, spirit), based on a literal interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. This doctrine holds the soul to belong to the union of the body and the spirit, which makes it roughly compatible with philosophical trialism. However, the evangelist Kenneth Copeland came under fire by critics such as Hank Hanegraff for extending trialism to each Person in the Trinity, for a total of nine essences.


  1. Jump up to:a b Kureethadam, Joshtrom Isaac (2017). The Philosophical Roots of the Ecological Crisis: Descartes and the Modern Worldview. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 251. ISBN 9781527503434.
  2. ^ Cottingham, John (2008). Cartesian Reflections: Essays on Descartes’s Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 187. ISBN 9780199226979.
  3. ^ Rozemond, Marleen (1998). Descartes’s Dualism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 192. ISBN 0674198409.


  • Cottingham, J. Cartesian TrialismMind, 1985.
  • Njikeh, K.D. Derician Trialism: The Concept of Human Composition into the Mind, Submind and Body Substances/Components, International Journal of Philosophy, 2019.

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