Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 5


The Third Meditation—Of God, that He exists — Part I

The Third Meditation—Of God, that He exists — Part I

§ 1: The Structure of Perceptual Experience according to Descartes

Before we can understand the Third Meditation, there is one crucial notion from the Second which we need to spell out. This is the notion of a seeming-to-perceive. We need to spell this out because this elaboration will help us to understand what Descartes does initially in the Third Meditation. Here he introduces, without really telling us and in extremely obscure fashion, his concept and rule of clear and distinct perception, which plays a crucial role throughout the rest of the Meditations.

Now Descartes understands the terms ‘thinking’ and ‘thought’ broadly: a thought is basically anything ‘in the mind’, i.e., anything purely mental, hence such that it implies no existence of anything beyond Descartes’ mind. In this broad spirit, Descartes says, “I am a thinking thing, that is, something which is doubting, affirming, denying, understanding a few things, not knowing many, willing, not willing, even imagining and sensing.” (pp.30-31) Even imaginings and sensings count as thoughts (cogitationes) in this sense, provided, of course, that we take the terms ‘imagining’ and ‘sensing’ in what, on p.27, Descartes has declared to be the strict sense of these terms. As we already know, Descartes believes that we use the word ‘perceive’ in a way which entails the existence of the body; to perceive in this sense is to have sensations caused in one by the object perceived and sensations can only occur in the body, not in the mind.1 As we also already know, we very often use verbs of perception like ‘see’, ‘hear’, etc. in a way which entails that there is something perceived.2 So perceivings in this sense, which implies both the existence of Descartes’ body and the existence of a perceived object causing sensations in this body, are excluded. So, too, are imaginings since imagining involves awareness of what it would be like to have the appropriate sensations in a perceptual experience of what is imagined. It thus also presupposes that the subject imagining has a body.

But there is, thinks Descartes, what one might call a ‘cut-down’ or reduced sense in which he can speak of his perceivings as genuine thoughts, genuinely occurring in his mind, with no implication either of body or of an object impacting upon this body. “As I already mentioned, even if the things that I sense or imagine happened not to exist, I am still certain that the modes of thinking that I call sensations and imaginings, insofar as they are simply certain modes of thinking, are in me.” (p.31) In other words, Descartes believes that every perceiving in the full sense, which implies the existence of a body and of the object perceived as affecting this body, involves two elements which can be separated from one another: on the one hand, there is the purely sensual element, i.e., the sensations caused in my body by what I am perceiving, e.g., sensations of heat and light, on the other hand, there is the purely intellectual or conceptual element, which consists in its seeming to me that I feel heat and see light.

It is not, however, clear what these elements are. This is particularly true of the intellectual or conceptual element. What is it to seem to see light? As we have already noted several times now, the verb ‘see’ has a meaning which entails that if one sees something, there is something one sees. And Descartes always understands the notion of sense perception to entail that one has a body. For these two reasons, Descartes introduces the idea that what is properly in the mind, i.e., the intellectual or conceptual element of perceptual experience, is only ever a mere seeming-to-see. This is understood to be something which, while implying the possibility of his having a body which connects him causally with something perceived by him, does not entail that he actually has one. But how does this element stand to seeing and perception in general, given that these are to be understood in the full body- and object-implying sense?

There would appear to be only one way of understanding what seeing and perception in general are which accommodates the fact that seeing and perception in general are body- and object-implying while ensuring that the intellectual or conceptual element, what is truly in the mind, does not share in this character as implying either the existence of the body or the existence of the object. One must construe perceptual experience in the full, body- and object-implying sense as a matter of a certain object O external to him causing certain sensations in him, which sensations cause in him the judgment “There is an object O there and that O is there causes me to make this judgement through causing sensations of such and such a qualitative type (heat, light, etc.) in what I judge to be my body.” The idea is that this complex judgement is one Descartes could be caused to make even if there were no object O there or he had no actual body in which the relevant kind of sensations occurred. Nor indeed need there exist the point in space and time marked by the demonstrative ‘there’ at which O putatively occurs. The idea is that Descartes could make this judgement, or rather, find it so to speak imposed upon him,3 without his thereby committing himself to the existence of the object O, the body or the sensations referred to in the judgement. Making this judgement would, of course, commit him to the existence of the judgement itself and of him himself as thinking it. But making it does not commit him to the truth of this judgement or of anything entails by its truth.4 This judgement thus passes as a plausible candidate for what Descartes is getting when he speaks of a seeming-to-feel heat or a seeming-to-see light, etc.5

§ 2: The Doctrine and Rule of Clear and Distinct Perception

With this explication in hand, let us turn now to the beginning of the Third Meditation. Descartes begins this Meditation by outlining what he thinks he has achieved so far. In so doing, he makes clear, or at least clearer, the way in which his indubitable knowledge of himself as existing and as thinking is to serve as a point of departure for providing all his previous knowledge-claims with a sure foundation. He also makes clear just what role is played in this by the topic of the Third Meditation, namely, the existence of God.

So let us begin with Descartes’ recapitulation in the Third Meditation of the results of the Second. This extends from the beginning of the Meditation to the paragraph on p.32, which ends with the claim that as long as the existence of non-deceptive God is unknown, he cannot see how he can ever be certain of “anything else.” The recapitulation begins with Descartes’ resolving once again to withhold assent from, to make no use of, anything in his mind which is ‘dubitable’. Descartes resolves to do this in order to concentrate on what, as he has discovered in the two preceding Meditations, he knows with certainty, namely, that he is a thinking thing, or perhaps more accurately translated something which thinks—a res cogitans. In particular, he now wants to examine this small bit of certain knowledge in order to see whether there is more involved in this than initially appeared—as Descartes puts it, he wants now to “look about more carefully to see if there happen to be other things in me which I have not examined.”

Clearly, by other things in him Descartes must mean other things which are just as certain, because implicated in, what he already knows; if this were not so, then he would not be looking for things which are indubitable and so the whole exercise would be futile. We must therefore understand Descartes to be now looking for things implicit or involved in the small bit of certain knowledge he already has, things which are just as indubitable, just as certain, as what he already has, of which, however, he has not so far noticed that he knows them, which indeed he could only notice by first coming to his first small bit of certain knowledge.6 What more could be implicit in his knowledge of himself as existing as thinking whenever the proposition, “I am, I exist” is stated by him or conceived in his mind?7

Having said that he wishes to examine more closely what is implied by his certain knowledge of himself as a thinking thing, he now says the following:

[1] I am certain that I am a thinking thing. [2] Do I now therefore also know what would be required in order that I be certain of anything [at all and not just this particular matter of my own existence as thinking]? [3] Namely, in this first cognition there is nothing other than a clear and distinct perception of that which I affirm, which would clearly not suffice to make me certain of the truth of a matter if it could ever transpire that something I perceived so clearly and distinctly were false. And so I now seem to be able to establish as a general rule that all that which I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true. (p.31; translation modified; italics added)

This is an extremely important passage. Note how it seems to insinuate that the process of acquiring his certain knowledge of himself as a thinking thing consisted in his clearly and distinctly perceiving that he exists as thinking, which character of his thought (as clear and distinct) he regards as entitling him to claim to know that he is indeed a thinking thing. There is, it seems, a transition in thought here, from what Descartes calls perceiving something clearly and distinctly to regarding what is thus perceived as something one may claim to know. And so Descartes now wonders whether this transition, in this particular case, reflects or exemplifies a general rule or principle—a general rule or principle that anything he very clearly and distinctly perceives is true and so he is entitled to regard it as known by him to be true.

What exactly does Descartes mean by this general rule or principle? I take it that by perceiving something very clearly and distinctly to be the case Descartes means judging that it is the case in optimal epistemic circumstances.8 Optimal epistemic circumstances are those which suffice to give belief the status of truly or adequately justified belief, that is, to turn the belief that p into truly justified, rationally held belief that p, such that in these circumstances one is genuinely entitled to claim to know that p. In the first sentence of this passage [1], Descartes reiterates his certain knowledge that he is as thinking, hence is (at least) a thinking thing. In the second sentence [2], which is a question, he appears to be asking himself whether this small bit of certain knowledge gives him any indication as to what it is to know anything at all with certainty. In particular, is this little bit of certain knowledge such that he may he extract from it a general rule or principle?

Initially, at least the answer seems to be ‘yes’: in the main clause of the third sentence [3], Descartes says that this first true cognition was a clear and distinct perception of what was affirmed in it, namely, that he is a thinking thing, and this clear and distinct perception led him to certainty, that is, to the unshakeable conviction, that this at least he is entitled to claim to know. In other words, Descartes’ acquiring this small bit of certain knowledge seems to be a matter of his clearly and distinctly perceiving that he is a thinking thing, i.e., to judge this to be true in optimal epistemic circumstances, thereby acquiring the unshakeable conviction that he is entitled to claim to know that he is a thinking thing. Evidently, this is a case in which clearly and distinctly perceiving that p leads to certain conviction that one is entitled to claim to know that p. Is this not a rule or principle Descartes may assert generally? May he not assert that his perceiving anything as clearly and distinctly as he perceives his existence as a thinking thing entitles him to claim knowledge of it?

It seems, then, that Descartes wants to see in the very way he comes to his initial small bit of certain knowledge a rule or principle which governs the acquiring of any conviction, any certainty, that one is entitled to know—whatever the proposition at issue. What Descartes means by the general rule of which he speaks here thus seems to be one which permits him to transition from thinking, “It seems very clearly and distinctly to me that such and such is the case,” to thinking, “Such and such is the case.” In other words, he means a general rule which permits him to transition from thinking, “It seems to me, in optimal epistemic circumstances, that p” to thinking “p”. Certainly, in the past, he has made all sorts of transitions of this kind. All sorts of beliefs, judgements and seemings-to-perceive have occurred in his mind clearly and distinctly, that is, as occurring in optimal epistemic circumstances, such that he has no reason to doubt, and he has just accepted them at face value, as giving him knowledge. Of course, many of these have turned out to be false. As Descartes himself says,

Yet I have formerly admitted many things as completely certain and manifest which I have nonetheless later found to be dubious. Of what kind have these things therefore been? The earth, namely, and the sky, the heavens and all else which I grasped with the senses. (p.31; translation modified)

Even so, even in these empirical cases these things have occurred to him as completely certain and manifest, even if subsequently they turned out to be false. And what Descartes is evidently interested in here is precisely this appearance as completely certain and manifest—the appearance of even his empirical beliefs and judgements, and his seemings-to-perceive as clear and distinct, as had in optimal epistemic circumstances, hence entitling him to claim to know. It is because he is interested in this appearance of various thoughts and ideas in him as clear and distinct, that is, as had in optimal epistemic circumstances, that Descartes goes on to ask,

But what about them did I perceive clearly? This, namely, that the ideas or thoughts themselves of these things, were presented to my mind. Yet not even now am I denying that these ideas are in me. There was, however, something else which I affirmed and judged to be clearly perceived by me, simply because I was accustomed to believing it, yet did not really perceive: namely, that there were certain things outside of me from which these ideas proceeded and to which they were completely similar. And it was in this that I was deceived, or rather, if I judged the truth, this did not result from the power of my perception. (p.31; translation modified)

Here Descartes asks what it was precisely that he perceived clearly and distinctly about his empirical beliefs and judgements, and in particular, his seemings-to-perceive. In the first instance, he only sees clearly and distinctly, such that he cannot doubt, merely that these thoughts and ideas were in his mind, so to speak up for consideration by his mind as true or false. Even now, he has no doubt that these thoughts and ideas about the earth, the sky, the stars and many other things are in him. But what about the objects of these thoughts and ideas themselves? He had previously thought that he had also perceived the objects of his thoughts and ideas very clearly and distinctly—that they, too, existed, indeed existed precisely as they were depicted by his thoughts and ideas of them. He did this because he made an assumption which he was merely accustomed to making but did not have any real justification for making. As Descartes puts it, he wrongly thought that he clearly and distinctly perceived there to be “certain things outside me from which [his] ideas proceeded and to which they were completely similar.” (p.31; translation modified) This is an assumption, a condition, which determines for the case of his empirical beliefs and judgements and in particular for his seemings-to-perceive (his ‘sensings’) that the transition he made from “It seems clearly and distinctly to me that such and such is the case” to “Such and such is the case” is correct.

In the next paragraph, Descartes goes on to extend the point to include even the arithmetical and mathematical claims he has made:

(W)hen I used to think of something very simple and easy in arithmetic or geometry—for example, that two and three together make five, or other things like that—did I not see at least those things sufficiently clearly to claim that they are true? [However] I subsequently decided that I should doubt them simply because it occurred to me that some god may have endowed me with such a nature that I could be deceived even about things that seemed most evident. For whenever this preconceived belief about the supreme power of God occurs to me, I cannot avoid conceding that, at least if he wishes, it is easy for him to make me err about things that I think I see most clearly with my mind’s eye. (pp.31-32)

Here Descartes appears to be claiming the following: His arithmetic and mathematical beliefs and judgements, unlike many of his empirical ones, have never actually shown themselves to be false. Yet it is conceivable, even in their case, that he might transition incorrectly from thinking, “It seems clearly and distinctly to me that such and such is the case” to “Such and such is the case.” This will occur if God, or at least some supremely powerful but malicious being, is deceiving him. So, here, too, a condition governs the general rule or principle that whatever occurs in his mind as clearly and distinctly true is true. This is the existence of a non-deceptive God.

At this point, it becomes clearer what Descartes is getting at when he asks, on p.31, whether he may find, already in his one small bit of certain knowledge, the operation of a general rule or principle, namely, that whatever appears clearly and distinctly, i.e., in optimal epistemic circumstances, to be the case entitles him to regard it as the case. The point he wants to make appears to be this: in all cases of claiming to know there is always a transition from something which appears to him as true under optimal epistemic circumstances, i.e., for the best possible reasons, to the conviction that he is entitled to claim to know that which appears to him as true. All the beliefs and judgements, and all the seemings-to-perceive, which occur in his mind present themselves, to one degree or another, as clear and distinct, as had in optimal epistemic circumstances. Some are, of course, less clear and distinct than others, hence are less believable, i.e., had in epistemic circumstances which are less than optimal. But they all have some degree of clarity and distinctness, hence all presuppose some general principle or rule of clear and distinct perception. Sometimes, however, this rule or principle is subject to a condition which must be fulfilled if the transition from its seeming to be the case to its actually being the case is to be correct: in the first instance, this condition is that the relevant thoughts and ideas be really being caused by the things they seemed to be caused by (as in the case of empirical beliefs and seemings-to-perceive). In the second instance, this condition is that there be no supremely powerful evil mind who is deceiving Descartes, indeed, that there positively be a non-deceptive God.

But in one very special case there is no such condition governing the transition from what seems very clearly and distinctly to be the case to the conviction that it is the case. This is Descartes’ thought that he is as thinking, that he is a thinking thing. As we have already seen, this thought is such that simply to understand it, i.e., to have it self-consciously in his mind, before his mind’s eye, is to see that it is true. And when it is self-consciously in his mind, before his mind’s eye, Descartes can have no doubt that it is in his mind. This thought is thus self-certifying and this self-certifying character enables Descartes to take it unconditionally at face value—for which reason, of course, it is impossible for either a dream or an evil spirit to deceive Descartes about the truth of this one thought. Descartes discovers that in one particular and very special case, the very character of thought (cogitatio) as clearly and distinctly perceived by him to be true entitles him to claim truth, this because in this case the character of the thought as clearly and distinctly perceived to be true genuinely suffices for truth. So in this one particular, special case, he may, and knows with certainty that he may, move from the clarity and distinctness of his perceiving the claim to be true to asserting its truth.

Descartes then speculates, on p.31 of the Third Meditation, whether he may generalise from this one special case to a general rule, criterion or maxim, namely, that whatever he clearly and distinctly perceives as true is true. He immediately points out, however, that there are obvious objections to any such generalisation. The problem is not simply that certain perceptual experiences which, when he has them, appear to him to be clearly and distinctly veridical could be exposed as false by subsequent perceptual experience. It is rather that not even this much is certain: what he takes to be reliable perceptual experience, however discoverably erroneous it might be on occasion, might not even be this much. What he has before his mind, his diverse cogitations, can give a radically misleading picture of the reality which causes them: for all he knows, he might be subject to global deception, whether through dreams, evil spirits, or, for that matter, computer scientists.

At this point, it becomes clear what Descartes is doing here: he wants to show that the task of restoring the beliefs he has put to one side consists in appreciating, first, that there is, in all cases of claiming to know, a transition from what seems to him to be clearly and distinctly the case; and then second, showing the truth of the condition which in some cases must be fulfilled if this transition is to be correct. If one can do this, one will have in effect generalised from the particular and privileged case to a general criterion or maxim for moving legitimately from thinking, “It seems to me clearly and distinctly, i.e., in optimal epistemic circumstances, that p” to thinking “p”, then it must first be demonstrated that the causal relations between the finite knowing subject Descartes and whatever (if anything) is out there have been set up in the right way. In other words, if he is to advance from that particular, special case in which he already knows he may move from its seeming clearly and distinctly to him that p to the claim that p, to the general case, then he must show that the causes of his empirical beliefs and judgements, and in particular, his seemings-to-perceive, are precisely the things which are represented to him as thus and so in these beliefs, judgements and seemings-to-perceive. And he must show that when he performs mathematical calculations, he is not being systematically misled by a supremely powerful evil mind. Evidently, both these requirements can be met, these conditions shown to be fulfilled, by showing that a benevolent God exists who has ordered the causal relations between Descartes and external reality in such a way (a) that those seemings-to-perceive which occur in his mind really are perceptual experiences which give reliable if not always infallible testimony to how things are; and (b) when he calculates, he mostly gets things right and only makes mistakes which he can in principle discover.

The point of this whole discussion has thus been to show not just that one needs to prove the existence of a being so powerful and benevolent that He would not have permitted Descartes to be radically deceived. The point has also been to show precisely where and how this proof fits into Descartes’ overall strategy: the role of the proof of God’s existence is to enable the crucial step of generalisation from the one particular, privileged case in which Descartes does not need any proof in order to move correctly from its seeming clearly and distinctly to him that p to asserting that p. In other words, proof of God’s existence is needed in order to ensure that in general, whenever it seems to him clearly and distinctly that a claim is true, i.e., whenever he takes himself to have the best kind of reasons one can have for a claim, given the nature of the claim, he can rationally believe it. This does not mean that he will always be right, but it does mean that if he is not right, his error will be on the margins and in particular it will be one which he himself will be able to uncover, hence one for which he himself is responsible.

We may sum this tortuous discussion up in a relatively simple point: Descartes knows with certainty that he is as thinking. And he notes that he perceives that he is as thinking clearly and distinctly. He then goes on in effect to ask whether his perceiving it clearly and distinctly to be the case that p—whether its seeming to him, in the best possible, clearest and most distinct way, that p—is a criterion or mark of truth. In one privileged case, this is unconditionally so, namely, the case of the claim that he exists as thinking. But is it so in other, more substantive cases? More accurately, how precisely, under what conditions, is it true in other, more substantive cases? In these cases, it is only conditionally the case that he may move from asserting, “It seems clearly and distinctly to me that p” to asserting “p.” This condition is the existence of God, and indeed his knowledge, via demonstration, of the existence of God. The existence of God is the guarantee of the status of its seeming to one, in the best possible way, that p, as a criterion for asserting rationally that p. Note that this does not entail that in all cases if it seems to one in the best possible way that p, then p.

§ 3: The Critique of Scholastic Conceptions of Truth as Accurate Picturing

There is another concern Descartes seeks to pursue in recapitulating the point made right back in the First Meditation that he has discovered lots of his perceptual experiences and the empirical knowledge-claims based upon them to be wrong in order to make a further point, this time about the nature of truth and falsity. He returns to the issue raised in the First Meditation of whether he could be in error because God was radically deceiving him, he concludes that he must establish whether God exists and whether God could deceive him. “As long as this is unknown,” he says, “I cannot see how I can ever be certain of anything else.” (p.32)

And so, apparently in preparation for the effort to prove the existence of (a non-deceiving) God, he turns to classify the ideas he finds in his mind into kinds and to determine “in which kinds truth or falsehood are properly found.” (p.32) In so doing, Descartes is raising this issue of just what is properly or non-derivatively the bearer of truth and falsity. In order to see what the issue is here, one must remember that Descartes is asking whether and to what extent he can know anything at all. Now what one knows when one knows are propositions and one knows them as true. So from this epistemological perspective the relevant notion of a bearer of truth or falsity, of what is properly said to be true or false, is the proposition. Descartes says as much:9 “… I mentioned a little earlier that falsehood [hence by extension truth] understood in a strict sense, or formal falsehood [or truth], can only occur in judgements … .” (p.37) Of course, as Descartes himself would concede, there is a sense in which we can say that other kinds of thing which we can describe as true and false: we can speak of a true (or false) image or picture, of a true (or false) theory or story, etc. But if the concern is to specify the sense of truth and falsity at issue when one speaks of what one knows and whether it is true or false, then the bearer at issue is what Descartes calls the judgement, i.e., the proposition or thought claimed to be true in an act of linguistic or mental judging.10

But of more concern to Descartes at this point is not so much the issue of what bears truth or falsity but what these latter are. Note that, having effectively arrived at judgements as the proper bearers of truth and falsity, he now goes on to insinuate a particular understanding of what the truth and falsity of judgements is:

That leaves only judgements [as the proper bearers of truth and falsity] and this is where I have to be careful not to be mistaken. The principal error, however, and the one most likely to occur here consists in the fact that I judge that the ideas, which are in me, resemble or correspond to thing which are outside me. (pp.32-33)

Note the reference to the concept of resemblance. Indeed, Descartes appeals to this concept (or rather cognate forms of it) three further times across pp.33-34: when he speaks of ideas as “similar to the things in question …”, when he speaks of an external thing as sending “me its own likeness rather than something else,” and finally, when he says that “it does not follow that they [his ideas of external things] must resemble them [the referents of these ideas, the external things themselves].”

In fact, what Descartes is insinuated is a view of truth and falsity which he associates with his former self, when he was still naïve and before he had embarked on his project of radically overturning (but then, of course, also of recovering) his former beliefs. Any reference Descartes makes to his former self and his former beliefs, in this case, about truth and falsity, is not to be taken as strictly autobiographical but as referring to the kind of view one would have in Descartes’ times as someone steeped in mediaeval, Aristotle-inspired Scholastic philosophy. On this traditional view, truth was conceived on analogy to the way in which a (realistic) picture, e.g., a photograph, accurately depicts its subject. It is important to recognise that Descartes rejects this picture-conception of truth and falsity because it is not uncommon to find Descartes being accused of endorsing it.11 But why does Descartes reject it?

Note his claim that in the past he has discovered that the empirical realities which had caused his perceptual experiences and empirical beliefs had shown themselves subsequently to be radically unlike the way they had been represented in these experiences and beliefs. A little later in the Third Meditation, he points out that even if my perceptual experiences and empirical beliefs

originated from things that are distinct from me, it does not follow that they must resemble them. In fact, I seem to have found in many cases that there is often a great disparity between them. For example, I find I have two different ideas of the sun. One idea, which seems to have been acquired from the senses and is a paradigm example of an adventitious idea, makes the sun appears very small. The other idea, however, is derived from astronomical reasoning … and it makes the sun appear to be several times greater than the earth. They cannot both be truly similar to the same sun that exists outside me, and reason convinces me that the one that seems to have originated more directly from the sun resembles it the least. (p.34)

Obviously, Descartes is alluding here to the way in which the new natural philosophy associated with Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo has shown untutored perceptual experience to be misleading: whereas it looks to the naked eye as if the sun is smaller than the Earth and indeed, that the sun moves relative to the Earth, in fact things are exactly the other way around. So the real size and motion of the sun does not correspond to its apparent size and motion. In other words, the idea of the sun’s size and motion which the sun itself causes in one when one has untutored perceptual experience of the sun does not resemble the reality of the sun’s size and motion.12

But from this point drawn from the rise and history of what we today call modern science, Descartes draws two interconnected philosophical lessons: firstly, empirical reality as it really is may be very much unlike how it appears to us in sense-perception—so much so that reality can only be only properly and accurately grasped by the mind, which constantly monitors the testimony of the senses for coherence and, where necessary, revise them quite radically. But secondly, in order for the mind to play this role (of treating the low-level perceptual judgements of our sense-experience as mere evidence for or symptoms of how empirical reality really is), it needs to free itself of conceptions of truth and falsity which, through misconstruing the nature of truth and falsity, prevent the mind from seen what its true role is and what that of the senses really is. In short, Descartes regards Scholastic conceptions of truth and falsity as preventing one from understanding philosophically the true ontological structure and nature of empirical reality and its relation to our minds. Thereby these conceptions inhibit the development of a truly accurate theoretical understanding of empirical reality.

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

  1. Of course, here I am using the term ‘sensation’ in the ordinary sense, according to which a sensation is precisely not a seeming-to-perceive but rather some such thing as a sensation of pain, of heat, a red after-image, a ringing in the ears, etc.

  2. Even if every so often we misperceive what we perceive, as when I see what I mistakenly take to be a man lurking in the garden, which is in fact a bush moving about in the wind.

  3. For we understand perceptual experience to be a matter of something outside the mind which imposes upon the mind certain beliefs about it. We have no choice as what and how we perceive things to be, nor is perceptual experience a matter of deliberation, of making a judgement in any literal sense of the term.

  4. Note that I have not said that it commits Descartes only to the existence of this judgement and his thinking it. This is because I want to preserve Descartes’ belief that – since according to him everything has a cause – there is something causing this judgement in him, even if it should not be the object O, or indeed anything external to him. Remember how Descartes contemplated the possibility that, unbeknownst to him, he himself might be the cause of the thoughts (cogitationes) occurring in his mind. Descartes appears never to consider the possibility that his experiences and thoughts might be completely uncaused. This is because he still buys into older notions of causality which entail that everything has a cause (with the possible exception of God, but if one thinks that the principle applies universally, then one must regard God as self-causing, i.e., a causa sui, cause of itself). The great Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) pointed out that it is perfectly possible to conceive of something’s just popping into or out of existence without there being any cause of its doing so. So if the conceivability of something entails its possibility, then it is perfectly possible for events to happen without there being any cause of them.

  5. It is worth noting that Descartes, by thus analysing the notion of perceptual experience into two not merely distinct but genuinely separate components, viz., sensation outside of the mind and judgement inside the mind which is caused by the sensation, inaugurates a tendency to reduce, quite falsely in my opinion, the sensuous, experientially qualitative aspects of perceptual experience to mere sensations—as if pains, tickles, twinges and itches could provide a model for thinking about how external things look to one when given to one in perceptual experience. How powerful this tendency is is shown by the extent to which even the most ardent critics of ‘Cartesianism’ endorse it: amongst contemporary philosophers, Sellars, Davidson, Brandom, perhaps McDowell and countless others for whom the sensuous, experientially qualitative aspects of perceptual experience are mere qualia. Sellars is quite explicit in his endorsement of this tendency: on p.10 of Science and Metaphysics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968) he claims that “(t)he conception of visual impressions as states of consciousness can be clarified to some extent by pointing out that they were assimilated to bodily sensations and feelings.”

  6. See the final sentence of the paragraph extending across p.30 to p.31.

  7. To paraphrase what Descartes says in the Second Meditation (p.24).

  8. Here we really should add “as this notion of optimal epistemic conditions is determined by the nature of the proposition clearly and distinctly perceived to be true.” This will prove important later.

  9. More accurately, he almost says as much. For by talking in terms of judgements rather than propositions, Descartes obscures an important issue. The term ‘judgement’ is in fact ambiguous: sometimes we use it to refer to the act of judging, i.e., the act of asserting linguistically that p or the act of judging in one’s mind that p. At other times, we use it to refer to the content asserted or judged to be true in the performance of the act, i.e., what philosophers call the proposition expressed in the linguistic act or contained in the mental act. It is only this content, the proposition, which may properly be said to be true or false. Only the proposition is the truth-bearer in the most basic and original, non-derivative sense. But I do not wish to get into any more subtlety on this point here. There is a vast philosophical literature on propositions qua truth-bearers, in particular, on what they are.

  10. Clearly, the notion of a true (or false) theory presupposes the notion of a true (or false) ‘judgement’, i.e., proposition. Note that this does not necessarily commit one to the (false) view that a true theory is just a collection of true propositions. The obvious problem with such a view of theory is that it is committed to saying that if a theory entails a false proposition, then it is itself false. And we are disinclined to say this.

  11. The most prominent exponent of this kind of reading is Richard Rorty, in his massively influential but also massively inaccurate Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979). What Rorty says about Descartes is just wrong, as is the account he then goes on to give of late 19^th^ century German neo-Kantianism. Ironically, the German neo-Kantians understood much better than Rorty (a) that Descartes rejected the picture-conception; and (b) that Descartes does not necessarily embrace any correspondence-theoretic view of truth (of which the picture-conception is a crude version) at all. True, Descartes does speak of judgements corresponding to reality, etc., but he does not have to be understood as meaning this in the strong ontological sense required of a proponent of the correspondence theory. For a quick account of German neo-Kantianism which intimates its much greater historical sophistication see my “What does (the young) Heidegger mean by the Seinsfrage?”, Inquiry, Vol. 42, No.3-4, November, 1999, pp.411-438.

  12. In the Scholastic jargon which Descartes uses in the Third Meditation, its realitas objectiva— what Clarke translates as intentional reality (p.34), Anscombe and Geach as representational reality but is literally, hence to our modern ears misleadingly, translated as objective reality—does not correspond to its formal reality (realitas formalis).