PHL 323-0001--Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Kant--Text Segments that Have Been Skipped (Spring 2014)

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a.    Classification of thoughts and ideas—the chief question


For the sake of "good order," Descartes proceeds now to classifying his thoughts. Some of them are like "images" of things, for example, the thought of a man, a chimera, 1 heaven, an angel, or God. These, he calls ideas; he distinguishes them from other kinds of thought, such as volitions ("I decide to buy a cup of coffee"), emotions ("I am angry with my roommate"), and judgments ("I affirm that the moon is made out of green cheese"). The only one of these types of thought in which truth (and falsity) can occur is the judgment, and Descartes says that the most frequent error in judgment consists in considering ideas as similar to things outside of himself.


  1A chimera is a monster of classical mythology having a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. Another mythical figure Descartes mentions in this meditation is the hippogriff, which resembles a griffin, but has the hind parts of a horse. A griffin has the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.


Thus, he turns to ideas, and divides them into three classes. Some seem innate,1 some seem to come from the outside, and some, he himself seem to have formed.


  1I do not intend to discuss what Descartes seems to mean when he speaks of innate ideas. There has been a big controversy concerning whether or not there are innate ideas. The examples Descartes mentions are understanding "what a thing is, what truth is, what thought is"; he states about them that he does "not seem to have derived these from any source other than from my very own nature." Descartes, Meditations, p. 25.


In this context, the chief question for Descartes is whether in the case of ideas which seem to come from outside—such as ideas of trees, of dogs, of other people—there is really something in the external world corresponding to them.


b.    The main considerations of which Descartes used to think that they support that ideas which seem to come from the outside resemble things in the external world: He is taught by nature that ideas resemble things, and these ideas are imposed on his will


Two considerations seem to support an affirmative answer to the question whether there are objects outside of the mind which are similar to the ideas which seem to come "from the outside": First, I am taught by nature that out there, there are things corresponding to these ideas; second, the ideas of these things do not depend on my will, but they are imposed on me.


c.    Rejection of these main considerations

(1)    "Being taught by nature" amounts to "being driven by a spontaneous impulse"

Against the first consideration, Descartes remarks that "being taught by nature" means in truth only that there is a spontaneous impulse which drives me to believe that there are things "out there" which resemble my ideas. Spontaneous impulses are not reliable, however.


To illustrate this through an example (not Descartes'): A spontaneous impulse may induce me to believe that a person offering his or her assistance to me does so only in order to be able to take advantage of me at a later date when in fact, he or she is genuinely interested in my well-being. Thus, this spontaneous impulse has misled me in this case, which shows the unreliability of such impulses.

(2)    In dreams, ideas seemingly coming from the outside also are imposed on my will

The second consideration—that there are objects corresponding to some of my ideas, because these ideas are imposed on me against my will—is just as insufficient, for in my dreams, ideas which seem to come from the outside are not subject to my will either, but still, nothing real corresponds to them.1


  1Obviously, Descartes is speaking of a literal reality corresponding to the ideas filling our dreams rather than of what these ideas might symbolize. If a person dreams that his teeth are falling out, the "falling out of the teeth" does not really exist; but the person's insecurity this dream might symbolize is real.


d.    At this point, I cannot know whether there is anything in the external world which is similar to those of my ideas which seem to come from outside of myself


Moreover, even if the ideas seemingly coming from the outside actually would come from things other than myself, there would still be no guarantee of a similarity between these ideas and the things from which they come.


This is driven home particularly in cases in which there are vastly different ideas of the same thing, such as the idea of the sun derived from my everyday experience, and the idea of the sun derived from astronomical considerations. The first idea represents the sun as being about the size of a ball; the second represents the sun as much larger than the earth. Surely, if there is a sun out there, it cannot be similar to both ideas.


Thus, up to now, it has been a blind impulse which induced me to believe in things outside of myself which are similar to my ideas of them, and my belief in the existence of things outside of myself was surely unjustified in the sense that I did not have any intellectually respectable reason for this belief.


Let us put the considerations concerning the real existence of the external world aside temporarily—we will return to them in due time.


Questions relating to this segment:


(1) In his Third Meditation, Descartes divides (or classifies) thoughts as well as ideas into various groups. State how he classifies thoughts (give also an example illustrating each group), and how he classifies ideas, and what he considers the chief question concerning ideas to be in this context.


(2) In his Third Mediation, Descartes reviews briefly two main considerations that had made him believe, prior to his having engaged in his methodical doubt, that the external world exists. State what these reasons are, and why Descartes considers them now as insufficient.


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Descartes states that now, his first priority is to free himself from his doubts regarding the real existence of material things (even though he gets around to it only in the Sixth Meditation).


Prior to investigating whether these material things exist, however, he proposes to examine the ideas he has of them, and to sift out in them what is distinct, and what is confused.


He asserts that what is distinct in ideas about material things is that these things are extended in length, breath, and depth,1 and all that can be measure with regard to this extension.


  1Remember that being extended or filling space is the only thing of which he claims that it remains while the piece of wax referred to earlier goes through all kinds of changes.




Next, he makes an important observation with regard to the part of ideas of material things that is perceived clearly and distinctly.


Even if one supposes that there is nothing in the external material world which would correspond to what is clear and distinct in our ideas of material things, that is, if there would be nothing out there which would be circular, square, or triangular, circles, squares, triangles, and similar things would thereby not simply be reduced to "mere objects of one's consciousness," as I am tempted to call it, or, as Descartes says, these things would still be "something and not merely nothing."1 A comparison of a "mere object of a person's consciousness" with a clear and distinct idea involving extension might serve to make this point.


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 43.


a.    An example of a "mere object of a person's consciousness"


A prime example of a mere "object of a person's consciousness" is a freely imagined thing, say, a landscape. 1 Imagine it, and observe your power to change it at will. Imagine there to be a waterfall in the distance. While as a matter of fact, the landscape which you imagine has such a waterfall, there is no point to saying, "This waterfall is a necessary and integral part of the landscape which I am imagining; it must be in it; it cannot be absent." All you need to do to prove these statements wrong is to think the waterfall away, and replace it with steep cliffs without water. There is nothing in the imagined landscape that would "resist" your changing it at will.


  1The example Descartes uses in a later slightly different context is a horse with wings.


b.    The reality of many ideas involving extension


With regard to many clear and distinct ideas involving extension, this is different, though. I do not know, at this stage of the investigation at least, whether "out there," in the supposedly real world, square things exist. But let me attend to my idea of a square. It involves, among other things, that such a figure must have diagonals of equal length. And, unlike with the waterfall as a part of the imagined landscape, the "being equal of the diagonals of the square" is not a feature I can change at will; it belongs necessarily to the square; the square could not be different in this respect. Unlike the waterfall as a part of the landscape, I did not invent the equality of the diagonals as a part of the square; it was like that always, and will always be like it. Thus, I have here an idea which "has a certain determined nature, essence, or form which is unchangeable and eternal, which I did not fabricate, and which does not depend on my mind."1


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 43.


Question relating to this segment:


(1) Descartes argues that even if there are no material things, ideas of triangles, squares, circles, and so on, would not be nothing. Summarize this argument. (Be sure to explain, as a part of your summary, the difference between these ideas and what I have called "mere objects of our consciousness.") Also, state the principle with regard to a clear and distinct perception of ideas that is crucial in Descartes' second argument in support of God's existence.


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a.    While Descartes does not know yet whether or not material things exist, he claims to know at least that they can exist


At the beginning point of his Sixth Meditation, Descartes does not know yet—at least for the sake of the argument—whether or not material things exist. He knows, however, that they can exist, or that they are possible. He knows this for the following reasons: First, God can surely make all those things of which I do have a clear and distinct perception. Second, I perceive clearly and distinctly what it means to be an extended thing. Thus, God can make extended things. Whether or not he has really made them has not been determined yet.


b.    The difference between imagining and pure understanding


Our imagination, which appears to be nothing but an application of the ability to know (Descartes calls this—at least in the translation used as text for this course—"knowing faculty"1) to a body that is actually present, seems to indicate that these material things exist.


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 47.


But, Descartes argues, imagining differs from pure understanding. There are, to be sure, things I can both understand and imagine, such as a triangle or a pentagon. I can, however, clearly understand a polygon with thousand sides (chiliagon), as well as one with ten-thousand sides (myriagon); I can, however, not imagine them, for whatever I would imagine in either case is the same confused polygon with very many sides. Since, therefore, I can understand these figures without being able to imagine them and the difference between the two, understanding and imagining must be different from one another.


c.    Descartes considers pure understanding as essential to who he is; imagining he does not consider as essential to who he is


Further, Descartes argues that, even without the power of imagining, he would remain the same person that he is; he claims that he understands imagining to consist in the mind's intuiting something (= "looking at" something) in the body to which the mind has turned itself.1 (I do not find Descartes' explanation of imagining altogether enlightening. It is quite possible, of course, that I am missing something.) In pure understanding, on the other hand, the mind turns to itself to gaze upon one of the ideas it has within itself.


  1Remember that Descartes, who believes at this point to understand what he is, does, at that stage of the game, not even know yet whether or not he has a body; therefore, it is clear why he considers, on his conception of the imagination as involving the body, the power of imagining as not essential to what he is.


Whether or not, of course, imagining works as Descartes has described it, Descartes cannot know yet—after all, he does not even know yet whether he actually has a body.


Thus, he is to ask next: Is there an argument in support of the existence of the corporeal things my senses present to me?


d.    Another review of the reasons which motivated Descartes to assume, prior to his meditating, that material things exist, and that his body belongs to him more than other bodies


In preparation for this argument, Descartes conducts another review of the reasons for which he used to believe prior to engaging in his methodical doubt that material things exist, and that his body belongs to him more than other bodies. (Such a review can also be found in the Third Meditation.1)


  1See Descartes, Meditations, p. 26.

(1)    Ideas of physical things are not only imposed on Descartes against his will, but they are also more vivid and clear-cut than made-up ideas

As far as material things other than Descartes' body are concerned, he mentions among the reasons for having thought that he senses things different from himself that the ideas of these things presented by the senses do not only impose themselves on him against his will—a thought which he stated in his Third Meditation already—but also are more vivid and clear-cut than the ones which he makes up himself, and the ones which he has in his memory. For these reasons, he used to think that the ideas his senses present to him are similar to mind-independent things from which they come.

(2)    Lack of ability to escape from one's body; feeling things only in it

He also reviews the reasons why he used to think that his body belongs to him more than any other body: He perceives himself to be unable to escape from his body, and he feels all kinds of things in it, such as pain and pleasure, hunger and thirst, etc; these things, he does not feel in any other body.


He claims, however, to see no affinity between some of the things he feels in his body and what one is supposed to do in consequence—such as between hunger and eating, or thirst and drinking (hunger is not similar to eating, thirst is not similar to drinking, etc.); he says that he has been taught these connections by nature.


e.    Another review of the reasons which made him distrust his senses


Next, he reviews once again what made him distrust his senses.

(1)    Mistaken perceptions, phantom pains, dreams, the evil deceiver

These reasons are mistakes in perceiving distant objects, things like phantom pains, which he does not seem to have experienced himself, but about which apparently he was told,1 dreaming, and finally, possibly having been constituted such as to be constantly deceived.


  1A phantom pain is a pain a person with an amputated limb feels, and which seems to come from that limb.

(2)    Nature drives one to all kinds of things opposed to reason

Further, while nature seems to suggest that things are out there, nature drives him to all kinds of things which are opposed to his reason, so he cannot trust what nature is teaching. Even though the perceptions of his senses do not depend on his will, maybe they come from one of his faculties still unknown to him.

(3)    How to judge these things after having meditated?

How is he to judge these things now, however, after having engaged in lengthy meditations, and after having become clear about all kinds of things, including that God exists, and that he cannot be a deceiver?


Questions relating to this segment:


(1) At the beginning of his Sixth Meditation, Descartes gives a reason in support of his claim that, while he does not know yet whether or not material things exist, he knows at least that it is possible for them to exist. Briefly explain the reasons he uses in support of this assertion.


(2) Briefly explain the consideration Descartes uses to show that imagining is different from pure understanding.


(3) In his Sixth Meditation, Descartes reviews once more the reasons for which he had assumed, prior to engaging in his meditating, that material things exist, as well as the reasons that made him distrust his senses. Explain the main points of this review.


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Descartes claims that no falsity can be found in his views1 unless he has been given by God the ability to discern this falsity (otherwise, God would be a deceiver).


  1The translation I have assigned uses "opinions" instead of "views," which is, for the contemporary American, an unfortunate choice of words because he or she will understand the word immediately in the sense of the superficial dichotomy "opinion—fact."


Earlier (Meditation Three), Descartes has given the following as one of the reasons why he used to believe, prior to engaging in his methodical doubt, that there are mind-independent bodies: "I do seem to have been so taught by nature."1 He has, however, rejected this as a reason sufficiently convincing because all he meant at the time was being "driven by a spontaneous impulse."2


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 26.
  2Descartes, Meditations, p. 26.


Now, though, he introduces a more refined sense of "being taught by nature." What does "nature" mean in this context?


Taken generally, he understands by nature "nothing other than the combination of all things bestowed upon me by God";1 in a stricter sense, he understands by nature "what God has bestowed on me insofar as I am composed of mind and body."1


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 53.
  2Descartes, Meditations, p. 54.


Being taught by nature in these senses—a credible teaching, since a truthful God would not give me a deceitful nature—must be distinguished from a "habit of making reckless judgments."1 These judgments are, of course, not reliable.


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 54.


It is, therefore, to be "sifted out" what nature teaches me concerning bodies outside of me, and what comes from my habit of making unconsidered judgments.




Nature as just defined teaches me the following three things:


a.    The disposition of my body


First, nature teaches me things such as that my body is ill-disposed when I feel pain, and well-disposed when I feel pleasure.


b.    The close connection between mind and body


Second, nature teaches also that there is a much closer connection between the body and the mind than there is between a driver and his or her car (Descartes' example is a seaman and his ship). If my car is damaged, I see the damage without feeling physical pain. Thus, if my relation to my body would only be like that to my car, I would, if my body would be damaged, only understand with my intellect that it is damaged without feeling pain. Therefore, nature teaches me that my mind is, as Descartes puts it, "the commingling of the mind with the body."1


  1Descartes, Meditations, p. 53.


c.    The existence of bodies other than mine that must be different from each other, since they affect me in vastly different ways


Nature teaches me also that there are other bodies around me. They affect me differently; some are hot, some are cold, some are red, some are blue, some are bitter, some are sweet, and so on. Descartes claims that nature teaches him that there must be differences among these bodies, which are responsible for these vast differences in how these bodies affect me.




As has been explained, Descartes distinguishes what comes from a "teaching of nature" from what results from a "habit of making reckless judgments." Some of these results are to be investigated next.


a.    Sensations of heat, color, tastes, sounds, and so on are based on real causes in the object, but there is nothing mind-independent in the object which would be similar to these sensations


Nature teaches me that there must be some kind of difference between a body that feels hot and a body that feels cold (see above). My reckless judgment, however, used to supply the statement, "Just as the body really has a round shape corresponding to my idea of its roundness, so is there some quality of hotness in the body which is similar to the heat I sense when I touch the body." Descartes says, however, that there is no such quality, only some kind of cause that has as its consequence that I feel heat.1 When I used to assume, before meditating carefully, that there was hotness in the body corresponding to my sensation of heat, this was not taught to me by nature, but it was due to my rash judgment.2


  1Today, we would say that the kinetic energy of the molecules is higher in the body we sense to be hot than in the body we sense to be cool.
  1"And although I feel heat as I draw closer to the fire, and I also feel pain upon drawing too close to it, there is not a single argument that persuades me that there is something in the fire similar either to that heat, any more than to that pain. On the contrary, I am convinced only that, there is something in the fire that, regardless of what it finally turns out to be, causes in us those sensations of heat or pain." Descartes, Meditations, p. 54.


Descartes says that colors, tastes, etc are to be analyzed similarly.


b.    A larger context: the difference between primary and secondary qualities


This view amounts to what came to be called the difference between primary and secondary sense qualities, as we will see later in this course.1


  1John Locke was the first who used this terminology, but Descartes spoke about the realities the terms refer to.


Primary qualities are those properties of material objects the objects actually have in the way in which we understand these properties to be. Examples of primary qualities are shape, size, proportion, being composed of parts, and similar ones. A round thing does not only appear round to me, but it really is round. Roundness is a property the thing has independently of my being aware of it. Roundness "inheres" or is present in the thing. Contrary to that, secondary qualities, such as sweetness, do not inhere in the thing. What inheres in the thing are only certain physical and chemical properties which will bring about, in cooperation with my taste buds and my nervous system, the sensation of sweetness. The same applies to the other sense qualities, such as colors, sounds, smells, and so on.


c.    If relative size is a "primary quality," isn't there a problem with God's veracity, since my senses do not accurately present relative size?


There is, however, one additional problem: Relative size is a primary quality (i.e. one sphere's having twice the diameter of that of another is a property the sphere has independently of me perceiving it). But stars appear to me as little dots of light, when as a matter of fact, they are huge in comparison to these dots. Does this not detract from God's veracity, since my senses present something to me different from how it really is?


Descartes states that there is no tendency in the eye to believe that the star is small; that the star is small is a judgment made "without any reason for doing so."1 Thus, he claims to have absolved God from lacking veracity in this respect.]


  1See Descartes, Meditations, p. 54.


Questions relating to this segment:


(1) Following his "proof" in support of the existence of material bodies, Descartes distinguishes "being taught by nature" from a "habit of making unconsidered judgments." He mentions three items concerning bodies (including his own) which nature teaches him. Briefly explain what they are. Also, briefly explain at least one item concerning bodies of which Descartes says that it is not taught by nature, but that it originates in the "habit of making unconsidered judgments."


(2) Explain the difference between what came to be called primary and secondary sense qualities. Also, explain how Descartes tries to get around the following problem with God's veracity: On the one hand, relative size is a primary sense quality; on the other hand, though, our senses do not always present relative size accurately to us.


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