Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 1


Introduction: Descartes’ Life, Times and Goals in the Meditations

Introduction: Descartes’ Life, Times and Goals in the Meditations

§ 1: Preliminary Remarks

These notes constitute course materials I have developed over several years of introducing students to René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes wrote the Meditations in Latin but because it is such a central work of modern Western philosophy it has been repeatedly translated throughout the centuries since 1641, when it was first published.1 The English translation I have used in these notes is the translation by Desmond Clarke, simply because this is the translation used for the Penguin Classics edition, which is very cheap, hence readily accessible to most.

With one important exception I have no objections to other well-known English translations, e.g., the Sutcliffe translation used in the older Penguin Classics edition or the Cottingham translation, to be found in Descartes—Selected Philosophical Writings, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. I do not think there is much to choose between the Sutcliffe, Clarke and Cottingham translations. The exception is the old Haldane and Ross translation, which sometimes translates Descartes’ Latin term cogitatio as ‘thought’, sometimes as ‘perception’. This is very misleading because it obscures Descartes’ attempt to construe perceptions, insofar they are genuinely cognitive, as just a particular species of thought. Those interested in seeing the original Latin text may consult Meditationes de primā philosophiāA Bilingual Edition, edited, translated and indexed by George Heffernan.2

For a proper understanding of Descartes—the real Descartes, not the Descartes of the Meditations themselves, who is a literary artifice—I encourage readers to begin with the Letter of Dedication to the Sorbonne (pp.8-11) and the Summary of the Following Six Meditations (pp.14-17). Those using the Clarke translation might also read the translator’s introduction (pp.xv-xl). Those seeking even more of challenge might also look at Descartes’ Preface to the Reader (pp.12-14). (One might find this more difficult because it presupposes some awareness of Descartes’ earlier work, The Discourse on Method of 1637.)

There is one rather considerable difficulty to which attention must be drawn immediately: in the Preface the translator, Desmond Clarke, has Descartes speak of understanding an idea “intentionally” (p.13). And in the Summary he has Descartes speak of the “intentional reality” (p.16) contained in an idea, specifically, in our idea of a supremely perfect being, i.e., God. In order to understand this, one must understand something of the Scholastic philosophy3 in which Descartes had been raised and with which he was deeply familiar. In the notes to his translation, Clarke gives a brief explanation of why he has chosen to translate things this way—see pp.6-7. In the final section of these notes (§ 5, pp. 19-21) I elaborate what is behind Clarke’s choice of English translation, which seems to me to be a very good choice. I recommend reading this section in conjunction with Clarke’s explanation.

§ 2: Descartes’ Life and Times

René Descartes (1596-1650) is often said to be the father of modern Western philosophy. There are two interconnected reasons for this: firstly, Descartes puts at the centre of his philosophical reflections questions concerning what it is to be the kind of self-conscious, more or less rational subjects we human beings are. In particular, he puts at the centre of philosophical reflection questions concerning how such subjects can know reality in the way they clearly believe they can before they think philosophically about such issues. In one way or another, although often only unevenly, i.e., with regard particularly to our character as knowing, theorising subjects, this concern with the nature of self-conscious subjectivity has been a central feature of Western philosophy ever since. Secondly, when Descartes puts this concern with the nature of the human self and its capacity to know at the centre of his philosophical reflections, he does so against the background of a certain general philosophical conception of empirical reality.

In order to understand what I mean by this general philosophical conception of empirical reality, we need to appreciate one crucial thing: Descartes is an enthusiastic proponent and exponent of what he and his contemporaries would often call natural philosophy, in particular, natural philosophy in the style of the great Italian scientist Galileo (1564-1642), as opposed to the older mediaeval and renaissance natural philosophies. Galilean natural philosophy is, of course, what went on to become modern natural science. Now Descartes believes that Galilean natural philosophy, hence natural science, rests upon or presupposes a certain philosophical view of empirical reality, i.e., the world which shows itself to us in our perceptual experience. Roughly speaking, Descartes believes that the world as it truly is, where all the real causal interaction takes place, is the world as described by Galilean natural philosophy, i.e., natural science.

This philosophical view of the relation between the world as it is for everyday pre-scientific experience and the world as it is for natural science conditions and constrains how Descartes thinks about us, i.e., about human selfhood—what the human self is, what it can know and how it is related to the world revealed to it in its perceptual experience. Thereby Descartes engenders a whole series of highly controversial problems and issues which have set the stage, or defined the conceptual horizon, for all subsequent philosophising. All thinkers after Descartes have responded in one way or another to the ways in which Descartes conceived human selfhood, the world in which this self exists and the way the former relates, both cognitively and practically, to the latter. This status as the thinker with whom all subsequent philosophers have had to come to terms defines him as the father of distinctively modern, distinctively Western philosophy.

But before we look more closely at the philosophical views which made Descartes such a seminal figure, we need to get acquainted with the man himself. So who is René Descartes? Let us look at the following chronological account of Descartes’ life, which is based on the Cottingham translation of the Meditations and other works by Descartes:4

born at La Haye near Tours (about 215 km SSW of Paris) on 31^st^ March
attends the Jesuit college of La Flèche in Anjou, which, as I recall, was steeped in the late Mediaeval Scholastic philosophy of Francesco Suarez (1548-1617); Descartes stayed at La Flèche for eight or nine years, but, as is pointed out in the Cottingham translation, “the exact dates of his arrival and departure are uncertain.”
takes doctorate in law at University of Poitiers
goes to Holland; joins army of Prince Maurice of Nassau (but, as I recall, does not see any action, in fact, finds life in the army rather boring); meets and befriends Isaac Beeckman, a brilliant and more or less self-taught student of nature (hydrostatics), with whom Descartes corresponds over a long period of time and who had already embraced a ‘mechanicist’ view of nature; composes a short treatise on music, the Compendium Musicae

Excursus: What is a mechanist view of nature? Mechanism vs. Organicism

This is the view that all natural entities are only ever either mechanical wholes or parts of mechanical wholes. A mechanical whole is a whole composed of parts which can exist independently of their composition in the whole and whose nature and arrangement in the whole determine all the capacities to act and be acted upon displayed by the whole. The principle example of a whole in this sense is the machine, e.g., a clock or an internal combustion engine—whence the term ‘mechanism’. All behaviours of a whole in this mechanical sense—precisely the way it affects or is affected by other things—is a function of the parts and their arrangement. The contrasting position to mechanism is the organicist conception of nature, classically represented by Aristotle’s conception of nature. On this organicist view, wholes are not simply sums of their parts but have capacities to act and be acted upon which are not simply functions of their parts and the arrangement thereof.5 In discussing and thinking about Descartes’ philosophy, you need always to bear in mind that he has a mechanist view of natural entities but not of human beings. According to Descartes, human beings are non-natural (or perhaps rather not completely natural) entities because they have minds, which, as we shall see, Descartes ultimately identifies as their immortal souls.

travels in Germany; Descartes reports having, on 10th November, a dream in which he envisions a new system of all human knowledge, governed by a truly scientific, effective method6
returns to France; during next few years spends time in Paris, but also travels in Europe
composes Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Cottingham: of Our Native Intelligence, i.e., our native wit or inventive, discovering intelligence); leaves for (the more tolerant and free-thinking) Holland, which is to be his home until 1649, though with frequent changes of address
begins working on Le monde (The World)
condemnation of Galileo leads Descartes to abandon plans to publish The World
birth of Descartes’ natural daughter Francine, baptized 7th August (died 1640)
publishes Discours sur la methode (Discourse on the Method), as a kind of introduction to the Optics, Meteorology and Geometry (which had all been originally conceived as parts of The World)
writes Meditationes de primā philosophiā (Meditations on First Philosophy), which he distributes to leading minds of Europe, e.g., Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who, with his book Leviathan of 1650, was to become England’s greatest political philosopher
Meditations on First Philosophy published, together with Objections and Replies (first six sets); some of the objections came from those to whom he had distributed the work, e.g., Hobbes
second edition of Meditations published, with all seven sets of Objections and Replies and Letter to Dinet
Cartesian philosophy condemned at the University of Utrecht; Descartes’ long correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia begins
visits France; Principia philosophia (Principles of Philosophy) published
awarded a pension by King of France; publishes Comment on a Certain Broadsheet (which, I think, is an inflammatory pamphlet by his disciple Regius in Holland which had caused controversy); begins work on Description of the Human Body
interviewed by Frans Burman at Egmond-Binnen (Conversation with Burman)
goes to Sweden on invitation of Queen Christina; The Passions of the Soul published
dies at Stockholm on 11th February; Christina subsequently converts to Catholicism, I believe, out of respect for Descartes

§ 3: The Background to and Purpose of the Meditations

For our purposes, the most important date in Descartes’ chronology is 1633 and Descartes’ response to it. In 1633 the Holy Roman Inquisition condemned Galileo for his continued public endorsement of Copernican astronomy. The Polish monk Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) had made himself famous, not to say infamous, by claiming that one arrived at a more elegant and productive theory of the heavens by placing the sun rather than the Earth at the centre of the universe. That is, he recommended that one reject the received geocentric view of the universe, which derived from the Greek astronomer Ptolemy and had been accepted for centuries, in favour of a heliocentric one. Now as far as what it could predict and explain was concerned, Copernicus’ heliocentric view was not essentially better than the old Ptolemaic geocentric view. But it seemed to Copernicus and many others at the time that by placing the Earth at the centre of the universe Ptolemy had created a system which could only depict the movements of heavenly objects in very complex ways. Moreover, Copernicus and many others at the time recognised that this complexity would only increase the more the received theory attempted to accommodate new empirical data. Copernicus realised that one achieved at least the potential of a much simpler system if one placed the sun rather than the Earth at the centre and so he sketched a model of the heavens as a genuinely solar system. It should be noted that this greater simplicity and elegance is, in Copernicus’ model, very much potential only. As subsequent investigation showed, the model needed a lot of modification before it could deliver on its promise.

Now the Catholic Church objected to this view of the heavens. It is important to understand the nature of the Church’s objection. It did not really object to the Copernican model because it thought that there was something decidedly un-Christian about a picture of the universe which placed something other than the Earth at its centre—as if a geocentric view somehow better reflected the character of the universe as God’s creation, and in particular, the status of man as the pinnacle of God’s Creation. After all, that the sun should stand at the centre of the universe does not denigrate God’s achievement in any way. Nor is it really true that by having something other than the Earth at the centre of the universe one reduces the status of human beings as God’s supreme accomplishment.

What determined the Church’s stance towards Galileo was the interplay between two quite contingent historical factors. The first factor was the foundational significance of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) had for the Church. For centuries the Church had used Aristotle’s philosophy as a theoretical framework for its whole account of how empirical reality was structured. Unfortunately for the Church, Aristotle had embraced a geocentric view of the universe. So any challenge to a geocentric view was a challenge to Aristotle and thus to the philosophical conception of reality which the Church had spent centuries constructing. The second factor was the fact that by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Church’s moral and intellectual authority had come under significant attack. For slightly over one hundred years the Church had been struggling for its survival as a cohesive, single entity which bound Europe together in a trans-national unity. This was the time of the great Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther (1483–1546) in 1517, which had swept through Europe, causing much turmoil and bloodshed.

Crucially, Luther and many other Reformers were highly critical of Aristotle and the Church’s reliance on Aristotle for the conceptual framework of its account of the world. In particular, they were critical of the Church’s reliance on Aristotle for its account both of how the world works and thus of how God acts in the world; and of how we human beings are structured, hence of how our immortal soul relates to our earthly existence. Since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when the Catholic Church had got its act together sufficiently to launch a counteroffensive against the diverse groups which either had already or were threatening to split off from it, the Church had been purging itself of corruption and revitalising its spiritual energies. It could therefore not afford to have one of its central authority and resources, namely, Aristotle, so crushingly debunked by natural philosophers who were more7 interested in understanding how the empirical world worked than in defending the Catholic faith. This was particularly true with regard to Galileo, who had already become renowned for his investigations into linear motion and free fall, and for his use of the telescope in the discovery of new heavenly bodies, i.e., the moons of Jupiter. All the more threatening for the Church was the fact that Galileo was an abrasive self-promoter who would not hesitate to make opponents look silly if it advanced his interests.

So first the Church told Galileo basically to shut up about his allegiance to Copernican views. But Galileo refused to keep his unorthodox views to himself and so forced the Church’s hand. In 1633 the Church condemned him and put his works on the index of forbidden books. At this point, Galileo, if he continued to maintain in public such heresies as that the Earth moves, found himself not only in danger of further prosecution and imprisonment, but even of torture and death. It is important to note that the Church felt itself forced to this step by Galileo; many of the Church hierarchy admired and respected Galileo’s work and, under different circumstances, many of them could have been brought to accept the Copernican world view. Copernicus himself had found it possible to remain a true son of the Church and the Catholic faith notwithstanding his heterodox astronomical views. And in fact by the end of the seventeenth century most leading intellectuals both inside and outside of the Church had accepted that some kind of heliocentric view was right. These days, of course, no Christian Church feels that contemporary astronomical theories, which are no longer even heliocentric, impugn either the glory of God or the unique status of human beings.

The fact that the Church condemned Galileo in an attempt to assert and maintain its authority is crucial to understanding Descartes’ reaction to the condemnation of Galileo in 1633. Descartes spent most of his life in France and the Netherlands. In these countries, particularly in the Netherlands, he was able to pursue his investigations of natural phenomena and mathematics, quite freely. But he was well aware of the religious divisions tearing Europe apart and he fully understood that the Church could be provoked, simply in order to maintain its authority and coherence in the face of extreme threats, into a far less tolerant attitude which could potentially nip the new style of natural philosophy in the bud. Given, however, that the Catholic Church was acting out of a need to preserve its unity and authority in the face of extreme challenge, given that it needed a way of looking credible in the face of an increasingly educated, sophisticated and independently minded public, would it not be a great boon for both the Catholic Church and Galilean natural philosophy, to both of which Descartes was deeply wedded, if one could show that the new style of natural philosophy, notwithstanding its Copernican commitments, actually fitted better with the central Christian and in particular central Catholic doctrines?

This notion, that Galilean natural philosophy, if only it be properly understood, is a friend of the Christian and in particular Catholic faith, indeed a much better friend than Aristotle, is the key to understanding why Descartes dropped the project he was working on in 1633 in order to write the Discourse on the Method for Guiding One’s Reason. This latter work was published in 1637.8 The Discourse can be seen as a precursor to the text we will be looking at, namely, the Meditations on First Philosophy. It is in fact a much less polished text than the Meditations.9 But it attempts to do the same thing as the Meditations, namely, to provide a philosophical account of empirical reality and of the human subject which shows how the human subjects fits into empirical reality. Crucially, the picture Descartes draws of empirical reality shows it to be something one can only truly know by doing Galileo’s kind of natural philosophy rather than Aristotle’s. Equally crucially, from the picture Descartes draws of us human beings it follows that our human minds must not be identified with our human brains or bodies, but must be regarded as separate entities. Evidently, this is starting to make the human mind like rather like the soul as Christianity had come to conceive it, namely, as something so independent of brain and body that it can survive the death of both.

Furthermore, if our human minds are separate from our brains and bodies, then we must regard our minds as causally connected to our bodies through our brains. But when the connection between our minds and our brains, hence bodies, is conceived in this causal way, it seems that we human beings are subject to the possibility of a particularly radical kind of error which can only be eliminated if there is a supreme being who ensures that the causal interaction between our minds and brains gives us correct information about empirical reality. For if the mind is a separable existence, then the human brain and body stand between it and the empirical world. They mediate causally between the mind and the world in such a way the mind only knows the world through the distinct effects in the brain caused by external objects acting upon the brain via the body. But in principle all sorts of different things can cause the very same effects in the brain. So for all we human beings know, the thoughts evoked in our minds by the movement of matter in our brains might not truly represent the external items and events which caused these movements in the brain. As we shall see, in the Sixth and final Meditation Descartes shows himself fully to appreciate that this picture of the mind and its relation to brain, body and the world beyond the body entails a kind of scenario many of you will have already encountered, in which each of us is supposed to have no real reason for believing that there really is the world which presents itself to us in our perceptual experience of it. Today, this sceptical scenario is often presented as the claim that for all each of us knows, he or she could be just a brain in a vat. The problem of how we could ever know that we were not in this sceptical scenario, not, for example, brains in a vat, is known these days as the problem of the external world, or scepticism about the external world.

I hope you can see what I am intimating here: Descartes thinks he can use the possibility of our being radically deceived by our perceptual experiences and other cognitions to argue that if knowledge is to be truly possible for us human beings, then there must be a supremely powerful being who has so ordered the causal relations between our minds, our brains and external things that whatever error our thoughts may contain is something we can genuinely uncover and correct. In other words, something sufficiently God-like must exist as a guarantee that the movements in the brain registered by the mind accurately describe their external causes. Furthermore, if we are to be justified in our claims to have thoughts which do accurately describe how the external world, if we are to be genuinely responsible for whatever errors our thoughts contain, then we must be able to prove that God exists (since God provides the guarantee, not, of course, for thoughts always being right, but for their only being in error to the extent that this is down to us, that is, is a mistake or failing on our part which we can uncover and correct). In short, the kind of natural philosophy which Galileo represents not only requires one to think of the human mind as soul-like; it also requires one to acknowledge the existence of God. Moreover, it requires one to acknowledge God’s existence in a rational way, i.e., on the basis reasons for believe in God’s existence. In short, Galilean natural philosophy requires one to acknowledge dependence on orthodox Christian theology and metaphysics since it is precisely the task of such theology and metaphysics to provide a rational guarantee of God’s existence. If one thinks of the world in Galilean rather than Aristotelian fashion, one gets a picture of the world and of our relation to the world which is much more inherently Christian and which in particular we can only claim to know if, in addition to theorising about nature, we also speculate about God and the soul in the manner of traditional Christian theology and metaphysics. At this point, we should note that this is to provide a new solution to an old problem: throughout the Middle Ages philosophers had struggled to show that theoretical speculation about (natural philosophy) and theoretical speculation about God (theology) were intrinsically unified with one another, such that in particular the former positively required the latter. Descartes sees himself as showing how, by embracing Galileo rather than Aristotle—in effect, by turning to modern natural science—one could finally demonstrate the dependence of inquiry into nature on inquiry into the Divine.

This, then, is the project which Descartes undertakes in the period after the condemnation of Galileo. The Discourse on Method of 1637 is the first attempt at this project. But we know from a letter written in 1638 to the Jesuit Antoine Vatier that Descartes regarded the proof of the existence of God given in the Discourse, although the most important part of the work, to be “the least worked out section in the whole book.” (AT i. 560). In this same letter Descartes also said that “a fuller treatment of scepticism,” that is, of the possibility for radical error, “was needed before the argument could be properly appreciated.” (Gaukroger 1995, p.336) And so Descartes set about writing the Meditations, which were completed between 1638 and mid-1640. That the Meditations are indeed designed to show that the Christian and in particular Catholic faith are better served by thinking of empirical reality in a Galilean rather than Aristotelian way is shown by the letter of dedication with which the work begins. For this letter is directed to those most learned and distinguished men of the Sacred Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne. The faculty of theology at the Sorbonne was at the time one of the leading schools of Christian theology and metaphysics. Descartes is writing the Meditations to convince them and those like them that Galilean and Copernican conceptions of the world, of nature, are much more congenial to Christian religion and theology than the Aristotelian conceptions they had previously relied upon. According to Descartes, the Galilean and Copernican conceptions are more congenial in a triple sense: they entail a nicely Christian conception of the human mind as soul-like; they entail a nicely Christian dependence of the weak and finite human mind upon God; and thirdly and just as importantly, they show that natural philosophy, hence natural science needs the collaboration of theological reflection. The student of nature who endorses Galileo and Copernicus is in fact a much more natural ally of the Christian theologian than that old-fashioned student of nature who continues to rely on that pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle.

§ 4: The Letter of Dedication to the Sorbonne

Desmond Clarke, the translator of the Meditations in the Penguin Classics edition, observes that in the Letter of Dedication with which the work begins, Descartes associates the project of the Meditations with the Catholic counter-reformation. Clarke bases this observation on the reference Descartes makes on p. 9 of his Letter of Dedication to the Fifth Lateran Council, a meeting of bishops which ran from 1512 till 1517. In 1517 this council condemned the doctrines of Martin Luther, who in that same year had launched the Protestant Reformation through his famous posting of his ninety five theses against indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg in East Germany. Now a central tenet of the Catholic Church which Luther rejected was what one might call the harmony of reason and faith: the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith were and indeed had to be demonstrable by reason, such that even an atheist, if only he be reasonable, could demonstrate to his own satisfaction the truth of these doctrines. Luther and many other reformers denied this; they insisted that such obviously central doctrines as the existence of God and the existence of one’s immortal soul could only be accepted on faith.10

Thus, at the time demonstration of the existence of God and the immortal soul had a more than purely theoretical significance for the Catholic Church. Such a demonstration would refute not only the atheists; it would also refute the Protestants, who were, of course, a much greater threat to the Catholic Church. Indeed, as far as refuting the Protestants was concerned, one would not have to demonstrate the existence of God and the soul in any strict or final sense. From this perspective, it would be enough to show that some such demonstration was needed simply in order to understand how human knowledge and practical action were possible at all. To show even this much would be to show that the general intellectual stance of the Church and the institutions which it had created over more than a thousand years were essential to the very possibility of distinctively human existence. For of course we human beings are distinguished from the other animals God has created by being capable of reasoned belief and rational action. And so to show even this much would be to demonstrate publicly the intellectual authority of the Holy Roman Church.

And now comes Descartes’ cunning thought, one which he does not, of course, make explicit in the Letter: what if this demonstration of the need for the intellectual stance and tradition of the Church should rely crucially on construing empirical reality in the manner of Galileo and also of Beeckman and Descartes himself rather than that of Aristotle? What if by showing that this much more theoretically successful and powerful way of understanding the empirical world not only led one to think of the human mind as a soul, but also positively entailed that without the existence of God we could neither rationally believe nor freely and responsibly act? Then there would be a need to prove the existence of God since proving this existence would be needed if the claims we humans make to rational belief and to free, morally responsible, accountable action, were not to be vain conceits. There would be a need inherent in the very business of knowing the world and of acting in it for such institutions as the Sacred Faculty of Theology at the University of the Sorbonne. If this should all be so, then the Church should see in Galileo, Descartes and other advocates the new kind of natural philosophy precisely an ally in its fight to reassert itself against both atheists and, more importantly, the Reformers. The Church should then see that its previous reliance on Aristotle was a mistake which had contributed to the breakdown of its intellectual and moral authority.11

Crucially, this defence of the Church relies on the Church’s conceding that while it had authority precisely on matters concerning God and the soul, “natural philosophy is an area to be guided by the natural light of reason, not the Church.” (Gaukroger, p.337) So in addition to showing that natural philosophy done in the style of Galileo is in truth a better friend of Christianity and the Church than Aristotle, this defence teaches a further lesson, namely, that the Church does not need to intervene in the business of natural philosophy not only because it has nothing to fear from natural philosophy, it actually interferes with the complementary positive contribution natural philosophy can make towards consolidating faith and Christian theology.

§ 5. Clarke’s Use of the Terms ‘Intentional’ and ‘Intentionally’

As already indicated, in the Preface Descartes speaks of understanding an idea “intentionally” (p.13). And in the Summary he speaks of the “intentional reality” (p.16) contained in an idea, specifically, our idea of a supremely perfect being, i.e., God. There is no connection at all in either of these usages with the notion of something done deliberatively or on purpose. Clarke uses the term ‘intentional reality’ as a term of art to translate Descartes’ Latin phase realitas objectiva. This Latin phrase is more literally translated as ‘objective reality’. Unfortunately, what Descartes means by the objective reality of an idea (realitas objectiva) is precisely not what the literal translation, namely, ‘objective reality’, would lead us today to think. This literal translation would imply that the objective reality of an idea is the entity out there in reality which the idea is an idea of, i.e., the entity which it is, as one might also say, about. But in fact what Descartes means by the objective reality of an idea is not the entity the idea is about but rather the property possessed by the idea of being of or about this entity! An idea is, after all, always an idea of or about something. For example, I have an idea of or about Santa Claus. That is, I have an idea with the property of being about Santa Claus rather than, say, Tony Abbott; this distinctive property of being about or, as one might also say, referring to, Santa Claus distinguishes this one particular idea from all others. Crucially, I have this idea whether or not Santa Claus actually exists. So my idea of Santa Claus has the property of being about, or referring to, Santa Claus even though Santa does not exist. The objective reality of an idea is thus what one might call the content of an idea in contrast to whatever object there might (or might not) be out there in reality, corresponding to it, making it an idea of something real or existent.

Note that the property of being about something can be possessed not just by such psychological entities as ideas in the mind but also by such linguistic entities as names and sentences. This suggests that in order to clarify what Descartes means by the objective reality of an idea, we may take our lead from the notion of the meaning of linguistic entities: what Descartes means by the objective reality of an idea is, or is at least analogous to, the meaning of a linguistic entity. The meaning of a linguistic item like a name or sentence is, one would think, something which the name or sentence can have irrespective of whether there actually is any reality corresponding to the name or sentence. The meaning of the name or sentence is, after all, what makes it the case that the name or sentence is about this rather than that. So we may regard what Descartes means by the objective reality of an idea as its meaning, in analogy to the linguistic case.

The property of being about something is a very important and much discussed notion in contemporary philosophy of mind and psychology. In the literature, this property of aboutness is called intentionality. Note that the notion of intentionality is not to be identified the ordinary, pre-philosophical notion of intention, which connotes purpose or aim. If you are interested in understanding more about the notion of intentionality, you might consult the entry on intentionality in the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy—see

© Carleton B. Christensen, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014

  1. Under a slightly different title than the present one, namely, Metaphysical Meditations. The title we know the Meditations under today goes back to the second edition of 1643.

  2. The English translation provided by Heffernan is bizarre in places because he has, for some unexplained reason, decided to reproduce, in what he takes to be very literal ways, the Latin subjunctive in the English text. Thereby he has generated very odd and at times misleading English.

  3. By Scholastic philosophy I mean the kind of highly sophisticated academic philosophy which had emerged during the Middle Ages, through the work of thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (of Ockham’s razor fame). This kind of philosophy, which was pursued within the universities, hence by members of religious orders (since these were the university teachers of the time), was often oriented towards (Christian) theological issues such as proofs of the existence of God, the nature of the human soul, the way God acted in the world, etc. (At the same time, this kind of philosophy developed very sophisticated, theological neutral accounts of perception, cognition, language, logic, etc.) Although this kind of philosophy originated in the Middle Ages, it persisted at the Universities right through the Renaissance and into the seventeenth century. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, it had declined and a more modern, non-clerical and often non-academic science-orientated intellectual life had assumed the ascendancy.

  4. This chronology is available as a PDF at the Wattle site; on pp.xiii-xiv of the Clarke translation there is also a useful chronology of Descartes’ life.

  5. Organicist conceptions involve the idea that the whole can affect its parts and their arrangement in a manner not possible for a mechanist whole. Vitalist doctrines in biology, associated with the the German embryologist Hans Driesch (1867-1941) and now discredited, are forms of organicism. I hasten to add, however, the organicist conceptions need not be vitalist. The important feature about organicism is its causal holism, something it shares with certain conceptions, not of nature, but of certain kinds of human and social reality. Thus, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) conceived of human persons, societies, cultures and traditions as wholes of a quite different, genuinely ‘holistic’ kind, as opposed to the mechanistic wholes to be found in nature. For more on Driesch, see For an account of vitalism, see

  6. See Gaukroger, p.106f., for an account of this dream and the vision Descartes had of a mathematically and scientifically organised system of all human knowledge.

  7. Or at least no less interesting in understanding how empirical world worked

  8. Descartes intended it as a kind of introduction to some other works he also published in this year, namely, a study of optics (The Dioptrics), a study of the weather (The Meteors) and his most outstanding contribution to modern science, his analytical geometry (The Geometry). These three latter works had been planned as part of a whole systematic treatise called The World. But because it was to be so systematic, it would make Descartes’ Copernican and Galilean commitments clear. So he published as independent works those parts of the larger project which he felt to be publishable and which did not require commitment to either Copernicus or Galileo.

  9. “(T)here can be no doubt,” says Gaukroger, “that Descartes put it together from material written at different times.” And he goes on to say that “… at first glance, the organization of the material … does seem arbitrary and somewhat illogical.” (Gaukroger 1995, p.305).

  10. Notoriously, Luther spoke of die Hure Vernunft, i.e., the whore Reason.

  11. A particularly poignant feature of acknowledging this mistake would lie in the fact that Luther and other Reformers were extremely hostile towards Aristotle. So by acknowledging one’s mistake, one would be generously making an important concession to the Reformers’ position while retaining the core of one’s own.