Meditations on Descartes's Meditations

Interview by Richard Marshall

'Descartes is often thought of as the philosopher who changed the course of philosophy by bringing questions of mind and knowledge to the forefront of philosophy. Other traditions were, of course, interested in these matters, but in the Meditations Descartes makes it the starting place for philosophy. Before we can ask What do we know?, we need to ask How do we know?, or even Can we know?'

'I should say that I think the First Meditation is less user friendly than it might seem to be, at least if one does not approach on philosophical autopilot. For example, toward the end of the second paragraph he announces that “I will go straight for those principles on which all my former beliefs rested [statim ipsa principia, quibus illud omne quod olim credidi nitebatur].” That already is a difficult idea. I am not sure most meditators come to the work with the thought that their beliefs rest on “principles.” I didn’t. Most of my students don’t.'

'We think of God as the first cause uncaused of motion in the natural world, and of our intellects as a power to abstract universal essences from phantasms acquired from sensible things. The demand that all our thought—even thought of God and our own intellectual selves—involves phantasms, in this way, leads to what I call a “sensory ideology.” Descartes thinks this sensory ideology is a disaster: it distorts our epistemic relation to ourselves as intellectual beings, to God, and even to the general natural of the physical world.'

'Let’s think of philosophical theology as the theory of the universe’s First Principle: whether the universe has a First Principle, and, if so, the nature and character of that First Principle.'

'If we work with the hypothesis that the Meditations is a sustained attempt to extricate the meditator from the sensory ideology and show her that she has a more immediate basic understanding of herself, God, and body, I think much of the text falls into place. Discussions that might have otherwise seemed to be tangents, quirky, or off topic—especially if we take the topic to be answering the skeptic—start to fall into place. As important, I believe, the philosophy gets more interesting.'

John Carriero is interested in Descartes, early modern philosophy and its relation to to scholastics. Here he discusses Descartes' Meditations, epistemology, the 6 Meditations, the alien nature of the Mediations, Aquinas, the Meditations as philosophical theology, Spinoza and Leibniz and philosphical theology, Aquinas and cognition, Descartes' response to Aquinas, dualism, intentionality, Hume and Kant, intellectual and sensory ideas, whether Descartes is really an epistemologist in the modern sense and Descartes on mind and body.

3:16: What made you become a philosopher?

John Carriero: I’m not sure. I had been a math major until I took a year-long course from Ed McCann on the history of philosophy. It struck me at the time that some of the careful reasoning and rigor that I found appealing in math courses was being applied to questions that seemed more interesting. I switched majors in the middle of Ed’s course.

Also, my father had gone to a Jesuit college (Canisius) and had four years of Thomistic philosophy there and then spent a couple of quarters in a graduate program at Fordham. I’m sure that left some sort of mark. We didn’t discuss the ins and outs of Thomism around the dinner table, but a certain interest in and respect for philosophical problems came through. He eventually became a research psychologist. He was very interested in behaviorism (and its implications for free will), and I wound up reading some Skinner in high school. (I remember learning behaviorism from a programmed instruction textbook, which was a bit wild!) I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I imagine these experiences contributed to the interest that philosophy held for me.

3:16: You’re interested in the early moderns and Descartes is someone you’ve argued is not who we thought he was. You’re keen that we stop seeing him through a lens of epistemology alone, and by doing so you change him. First then, can you sketch the familiar picture of Descartes the epistemologist, the version that fits with the idea of Descartes being the beginning of modern philosophy and a radical break with medievalism.

JC: Descartes is often thought of as the philosopher who changed the course of philosophy by bringing questions of mind and knowledge to the forefront of philosophy. Other traditions were, of course, interested in these matters, but in the Meditations Descartes makes it the starting place for philosophy. Before we can ask What do we know?, we need to ask How do we know?, or even Can we know?

Descartes motivates his starting place through an engagement with skeptical doubt. He is interested in two doubts in particular: the dreaming doubt and the evil genius doubt. In order to have knowledge, we must wrestle with these doubts and satisfactorily address them. Implicit in this procedure is a (perhaps controversial) picture of knowledge and certainty that will occupy generations of subsequent epistemologists.

This epistemological project is sometimes thought to leverage a substantive theory of the nature of the mind, according to which my mind reaches as far as what I can be certain of under the threat of skeptical doubt: it is what would be left, so to speak, even if it should turn out that there was no external world. Even if I had no body, I would still have my ideas, my experiences, my mental contents, my conscious states.

One might go further and maintain that minds, so understood, are not only the seats of consciousness but also the loci of norms, values, and qualia, none of which are to be found in unthinking, extended matter. This yields, at an intuitive level, a sort of dualism, which is what most people have in mind when they speak of “Cartesian dualism.” (The relationship of this informal dualism to Descartes’s more technical claim, advanced in the Sixth Meditation, that the mind is “really distinct from” the body is an open question.)

That’s a sketch of an epistemological reading, a reading I am resisting. Although elements of epistemology appear in what I regard as a more accurate take on what’s going on in the Meditations, there’s a lot that seems to me off about this reading, in particular the centrality it gives to the Meditations’ skepticism.

3:16:  As you say, if we take that to be the real picture then the exciting work of his seminal work, The Meditations, takes place early on. Just so we can get the geography, can you say what happens in each of the 6 meditations of the book so we can understand why the early sections have been where we’ve thought the real action takes place?

JC: I think there’s something to be gained by having a fairly complete picture of the Meditations before us, so let me go into a bit more detail than you probably have in mind. (Readers who are familiar with the text or feel I’m getting too much into the weeds might want to look at just the first and last paragraph of what follows.) I’ll do my best to limit editorial comments and not be too fussy.

The First Meditation, in which the skeptical doubt is introduced, is about 6½ pages (in Adam & Tannery); the Second, in which Descartes treats the human mind, is about 11½ pages; the Third, in which Descartes puts forward for consideration the so-called truth rule (to the effect that everything I clearly and distinctly perceive is true) and offers two demonstrations of God’s existence, is about 18 pages; the Fourth, in which Descartes provides his account of error and establishes the truth rule, is about 10 pages; the Fifth, in which Descartes discusses true and immutable natures, the ontological argument, and the sense in which the knowledge of everything else depends on the recognition of God’s existence, is about 9½ pages; and the Sixth, in which Descartes brings body back on the scene, arguing for its existence and positioning it vis-à-vis the mind, both negatively (the mind is “really distinct from” the body) and positively (the mind is “closely joined” to the body), is about 19 pages. Let’s look more closely.

In the First Meditation, Descartes introduces two main grounds for skeptical doubt: the dreaming doubt, which is eventually used to call into question the existence of external world, and the evil genius doubt, which threatens knowledge of even very simple mathematical truths like “Two and three together make five.”

In the Second Meditation, the meditator discovers that when she is focused and alert she can become aware of her existence beyond of any possibility of doubt. This is a truly remarkable experience; moments earlier she was beginning to doubt whether there is any truth at all. Through this experience, Descartes shows us what it is to perceive clearly. Skeptical doubt serves here as a foil to help bring out what is special about such an experience: I can, in my more lucid moments, perceive at least some things so clearly that doubt is impossible.

Call this being with the remarkable ability to see its own existence past any possibility of doubt, the Cogito being. Descartes proceeds next to render distinct our perception of this being. We learn that the essence of the Cogito being is to think. Thinking in turn (and I think this is important) is understood primarily in terms of activities like the ones she’s been engaged in: “doubting, understanding, affirming, denying, willing, unwilling.” (Thinking does also include certain aspects of “imagining and sensing,” but their place in the life of the Cogito being is obscure at present and not sorted out until the Sixth Meditation.) The discovery that the essence of the Cogito being is to think is momentous: prior to it, we did not even know the meanings of the words “mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason” (¶8).

Even so, the meditator cannot shake the sense that she knows and understands body better than she does mind, because the body, unlike the mind, falls under the imagination and the senses. So, Descartes allows her to suspend the skeptical doubt and explore what is most distinct in her cognition of a piece of wax. Through this exploration the meditator comes to see that her mind’s existence is more certain and her mind’s nature more open to view than are the existence and nature of the wax.

In the Third Meditation, Descartes, extrapolating from the success of the Second Meditation, hypothesizes that everything we perceive clearly and distinctly is true. Past inductive success is not enough, Descartes thinks, to establish the truth rule. Rather, to do this, we must know something about the origin of the mind: we need to discover whether there is a God and, if so, whether he can deceive.

Now, it would have been natural for many (but not all) members of Descartes’s audience to suppose that demonstrations of the existence of God should start from our sensory knowledge of the physical world, e.g., begin from a premise like “There is motion.” Descartes does not think this is the right way to go. He thinks our knowledge of the existence of body depends on our knowledge of the existence of God. To begin to show this, he subjects to critical examination an argument, drawn from common sense, to the conclusion that our sensory ideas are produced by bodies resembling those ideas.

The route to knowledge of God’s existence that starts from knowledge of the physical world having been closed off, Descartes tries a new tack, which starts instead from the meditator’s possession of a robust idea of God. Descartes explains his reasoning over the course of the 12½ or so pages. This discussion, it seems to me, is as much to awaken a facility for philosophical theology in the meditator as to establish the soundness of some line of reasoning. In particular, Descartes works through the meditator’s own innate sense of her imperfection and dependence. He observes, at one point, that the idea of “the infinite, that is, God” is prior to the idea I have of myself: “For how I could understand that I doubted or desired—that is, lacked something—and that I was not wholly perfect, unless there were in me some idea of a more perfect being which enabled me to recognize my own defects by comparison?” (¶24)? In another place, he points out that my continuing to exist or to be, as opposed to lapsing into absolute nothingness, requires a sort of “force and activity [vi & actione]” (¶31) that it is obvious that I lack (¶32). I come to understand myself, then, as a being that is profoundly dependent on something more powerful than and greater than myself.

In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes explores the compatibility of my originating from a supremely perfect being with the fact that I err. The observation that I am “something intermediate between God and nothingness” provides a start, but it doesn’t get us across the finish line, because error is not a simple absence of being (a “negation”) but rather a defect (a “privation”). And how do defects enter the world without reflecting poorly on its creator? Descartes theorizes that my will plays a crucial role in what I judge to be true. In so doing, he understands cognitive error to be similar to practical error (or sin). This enables him to marshal traditional resources of philosophical theodicy to solve his problem: I am responsible for my judgments—what I give my will’s assent to—in more or less the same way that I am responsible for what goods I pursue. When I go wrong, the deficiency lies not in the nature of the will itself, which, after all, is a wonderful gift from God, but rather in my use of it. Moreover, although God lends his causal concurrence to an erroneous judgment, that support extends only so far as what reality/being is found in that judgment, and not the missing elements that constitute “the essential definition of falsity and error.” Finally, since clarity and distinctness mark reality/being (as opposed to nonbeing), and all reality/being comes from God, who is not a deceiver, what I perceive clearly and distinctly is true. (This last sentence is my attempt at a gloss on a brief argument that Descartes makes at the conclusion of the Fourth Meditation.)

The Fifth Meditation has three main parts. First, Descartes shows the meditator that when she has succeeded in understanding something—for example, when she sees why the three angles of a triangle sum to two right angles—she can see that she is on to a mind-independent essence, what Descartes calls “a true and immutable nature.” Such a locus of understanding may not involve real existence—after all, there may be no triangles existing in the world—but nevertheless must be something [aliquid] and not merely nothing [non merum nihil]. This discovery is next applied within the domain of philosophical theology. We might put it: The understanding of God and his place in the universe, and our relation, as an imperfect and dependent beings, to this Being that has been elicited over the course of the Meditationswitnesses that the nature of God is a something, not a nothing. This nature makes clear to us that God exists, no less clearly than a triangle’s nature makes clear that its three angles sum to two right angles. The final part of the Fifth Meditation is given over to explaining how “the certainty of all other things” depends on the recognition of God’s existence “so that without it nothing can ever be perfectly known.” What Descartes keys focuses on here is the episodic character of perceiving clearly: clear perception comes and goes. Recognition of God’s existence (and your mind’s origin in a supremely perfect being) gives you an understanding of why everything you perceive clearly must be true, and so allows you to continue to believe that you clearly and distinctly perceived after you stopped doing so.

With the Sixth Meditation, Descartes brings body back on the scene, positioning my mind vis-à-vis body. He also explains what the faculties of imagination and sensation are. Imagination seems to be a power of thought that essentially involves body, and so my possession of the power of imagination gives me a probable argument for the existence of body. To do better than a probable argument—to get certainty about the existence of body—I will have to think about my senses. Before doing this, however, Descartes first wishes to make clear that my mind does not depend on the body, and could exist without it. The core of the argument here is that what I learned about the essence of my mind in the Second Meditation, coupled with my more recent discovery that the author of my nature is not a deceiver, allows me to “infer correctly that my essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thinking thing” and does not involve body.

Descartes turns to the senses, presenting an argument for the existence of body. This argument reads as a reworking of the failed argument offered back in the Third Meditation. I have a defeasible, but undefeated, “great propensity” to take sensory ideas as being “transmitted” from bodies, as opposed to being “immitted” into my mind by some higher power. In such a situation, God would be a deceiver, if my sensory ideas were not in fact transmitted from bodies. The rest of Sixth Meditation concerns what Descartes calls “teachings of nature” and what they show me about my embodied condition (“what God has bestowed on me as a combination of mind and body”). This discussion includes a brief account of the nature and purpose of the senses, and a more extended (7 pp.) treatment of a new problem of theodicy: how it happens that our natural impulses, notwithstanding the fact the they, as artifacts of my nature, originate from God, sometimes leads us astray. (There is something delicate here: the treatment of this problem needs to be consistent with the reliance on “great propensity” in the argument for the existence of body.) The final paragraph of the Meditations is taken up with a response to the dreaming doubt, which, if not exactly tacked on, does not seem to be to integral to the proceeding discussion.

As I mentioned, I have gone into a little more detail than perhaps you wanted here. I think it’s interesting to ask what we might have made of the Meditations if they had been handed down to us without the First Meditation and the concluding paragraph of the Sixth. One would have sensed that there was something epistemological going on. There’s the claim that the nature and the existence of mind is better known than the nature and the existence of body. Between the Third and Sixth Meditation one would have picked up the idea that Descartes thinks our epistemic relation to the existence of body differs in some important way from our epistemic relation to our minds and to God. One would have picked up in particular that Descartes thinks our knowledge that bodies exist depends on our knowledge of God. And at the end of the Fifth, one would have picked up the idea that knowledge of God plays an important role in Descartes’s epistemology. This is an interesting set of views. It is not obvious, however, that the most natural way to understand them is as a response to skepticism: they are developed in the context of quite a bit of substantive metaphysics and philosophical theology. 

3:16: You argue that despite appearances, the Meditations is written in an alien philosophical landscape – one that it reshaped! You say that deep down there’s just a huge gap between the intellectual milieu and our own which the familiar reading ignores. So can you pick out for us what you’re getting at here – what’s this strange milieu that takes Descartes miles away from where we are and changes our reading of what is going on in the Meditations - in particular the Scholasticism and the theory of mind that inhabits his time?

JC: We might flip your question and ask where this text appears not to be written in an alien landscape. I think one can read pick up and read the First Meditation as simply a piece of philosophy, without worrying too much about the intellectual context; and I think one might be able to read much of the Second Meditation in that way, too. I think the work begins to wear its foreignness on its sleeve, though, by the time one gets to the Third Meditation. A sign of this is the appearance of a certain amount of technical scholastic terminology that crops up from time to time, e.g., the distinction between formal and objective reality in the Third Meditation and the distinction between negation and privation and the allusion to God’s “concurrence” in the Fourth.

But more important, I think, is the metaphysical and theological context I just mentioned. This is not a part of the current philosophical landscape, and much of the work for us as readers of the Meditations is to try to become comfortable with it. Not so much to accept it or agree with it, but to recover a sufficient fluency with it so that we can engage in philosophical dialogue with Descartes.

I should say that I think the First Meditation is less user friendly than it might seem to be, at least if one does not approach on philosophical autopilot. For example, toward the end of the second paragraph he announces that “I will go straight for those principles on which all my former beliefs rested [statim ipsa principia, quibus illud omne quod olim credidi nitebatur].” That already is a difficult idea. I am not sure most meditators come to the work with the thought that their beliefs rest on “principles.” I didn’t. Most of my students don’t. And exactly what kind of principles are we supposed to be thinking in terms of here? Something like the principle of noncontradiction? Or perhaps, rules of evidence (“Don’t believe hearsay”), such as you might find in a court? It is pretty obscure what Descartes has in mind. Things get worse when Descartes goes on to tell us what the (apparently sole!) principle is, namely, “whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have either from the senses or the senses.” Immediately one wants to ask, But wait, where do mathematical beliefs fit in? Where does self-knowledge fit in? Where do theological beliefs figure in? After all, self-knowledge and knowledge of God are central concerns throughout the Meditations, and mathematical beliefs explicitly surface in the First Meditation and resurface in the account of true and immutable natures in the Fifth.

3:16: You find Aquinas useful in getting to grips with this milieu – was his form of Aristotelianism more important than others for Descartes and what are the salient aspects of Thomistic thinking that helps us understand Descartes’ thinking?

JC: Let’s stay with the curious idea that there is a single “principle” upon which “all my former beliefs depended.” If we don’t think that the suggestion that all of our beliefs depend on principles goes without saying, or don’t find it obvious that our views about our minds or God or mathematics are all acquired from the senses, then we have some philosophical work to do. We might try to do this by falling back on our own philosophical resources—there’s something about the informal way the Meditations reads that encourages such an approach.

However, my sense is that Descartes has something fairly specific in mind, something that would have been familiar to his readers but not necessarily to us. We get a clue in the Sixth Meditation, where Descartes explains how, prior to the Meditations, he convinced himself that “I had nothing at all in the intellect which I had not previously had in sensation” (¶6). There is a certain prima facie plausibility to the thought that Descartes has in view the Aristotelian scholastic thesis that nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses (nihil est intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu). The generality implicit in the “nothing” in the thesis promises, for example, to capture the generality in the “all” in Descartes’s principle.

Moreover, there is an immediate payoff to his hypothesis, in terms of the flow of the First Meditation’s text. After introducing the dreaming doubt, Descartes proceeds to offer a puzzling comparison between thought and painting, which takes up about a fifth of the First Meditation. Why is this necessary? Well, Descartes would like the meditator to doubt the senses fundamentally—basically, to suppose that they contribute nothing of value to the mind. If the meditator is inclined to think that all of her mind’s (or intellectual soul’s) cognitive connection to the world runs through the senses, then doubting the senses fundamentally will appear to be the equivalent of committing cognitive suicide. Descartes needs to offer the meditator some help here, which he does through the painting passage. In that discussion, he sketches a model of thought for the meditator whereby one might assume the senses are worthless and yet we would still have something left to think with, viz. the certain “even simpler and universal things” that “are as it were the real colors from which we form all images of things.”

Suppose we run, then, with the hypothesis that the principle upon which all of my former beliefs defended is supposed to be that nihil est intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu. Then we have more work to do. It’s not a part of our current intellectual landscape, so we need to figure out what this thesis might mean philosophically. We will want some sense of the philosophical significance of the thesis and why Descartes would think it so important to target it. And one thing we’re going to be especially curious about is how it applies to our knowledge of mathematics, God, and our minds (say, intellectual souls), the things that puzzled us at the outset.

It is here that I think Aquinas, who works the thesis out in a systematic and influential way, can be especially helpful. In his view, all of the soul’s contact with a mind-independent reality runs through the senses. When we sense, we acquire “sensible species,” which are stored as sensible phantasms. This material is subsequently retained, refined, and organized in the imagination. Understanding, then, is a matter of turning to the phantasms, illuminating them, so as, in the first instance, to reveal the essences of sensible things. On this view, since the mind’s channel to reality runs through the senses, anytime the intellectual soul thinks about anything it must “turn to the phantasms.” Although the intellect has the power to transcend what’s found in phantasms and reach immaterial beings such as God and itself (and universals), we can’t think about such things without involving the phantasms that give the soul its purchase on a mind-independent reality. We think of God as the first cause uncaused of motion in the natural world, and of our intellects as a power to abstract universal essences from phantasms acquired from sensible things. The demand that all our thought—even thought of God and our own intellectual selves—involves phantasms, in this way, leads to what I call a “sensory ideology.” Descartes thinks this sensory ideology is a disaster: it distorts our epistemic relation to ourselves as intellectual beings, to God, and even to the general natural of the physical world.

3:16:  I think you position Descartes’ radical thinking in terms of a philosophical theology. So what’s the place of philosophical theology in Descartes’ work? You say something surprising (to me at least) when you say that it was probably more important to Descartes than it was to Aquinas! How come?

JC: Let’s think of philosophical theology as the theory of the universe’s First Principle: whether the universe has a First Principle, and, if so, the nature and character of that First Principle.

For Aquinas, First Principle Theory is the culmination of philosophy, what philosophy leads to. Each of the arguments for the existence of God in the Summa Theologiae—the so-called Five Ways—is based on each of the Aristotelian four causes (where the first two “ways” concern the efficient cause). Before you embark on philosophical theology you need to have studied the natural world, and learned what change or motion is, learned about the distinction between act and potency (and, so, what form and matter are), and learned about the four causes and how they are related. So, for Aquinas, not only it is possible to do a lot of philosophy before you get to First Principle Theory, it is necessary to do so.

Descartes reverses this. A large part of the Meditations project is to position us as knowers within the universe, and for him that project is inextricable from philosophical theology. This means more than ticking off the “God exists” and “God is not a deceiver” boxes. It means understanding our position: this involves understanding what the First Principle is and why exists, the nature of our dependence on God, how error enters a universe authored by a supremely perfect being, and, finally, seeing how all Scientia depends on the recognition of God. Descartes views the need to orient ourselves in this way as a sort of propaedeutic that has to come before other disciplines; and so, for him, First Principle Theory does not come after natural philosophy, as it does for Aquinas.

The Meditations’ involvement with First Principle Theory continues into the Sixth Meditation, as Descartes brings body back on the scene and lays out his account of a human being as a union of mind and body: He relies on First Principle Theory to establish that mind and body are really distinct, yet are in intimate “union.” Descartes frames most of the discussion around what he terms “teachings of nature”—that is, things that I find myself believing in a quasi-instinctual way, but whose truth I don’t see with the same clarity with which I see my own existence in the cogito. Although teachings of nature are not transparent to the intellect, they must contain some truth, since my nature originates from God. So, Descartes does not think he can say much, without again drawing heavily on philosophical theology, about what we as human beings are. This is something that will continue with Spinoza and Leibniz, whose theories of what we are also draw heavily on philosophical theology. Here, too, there is a striking difference with Aquinas, whose account of us as hylomorphic composites of rational souls and human bodies is simply another chapter in natural philosophy, with no need of philosophical theology.

3:16: Stepping away from Descartes just for a minute, are Spinoza and Leibniz also engaged in philosophical theology to a degree not acknowledged enough in the modern secondary literature?

JC: I think that Spinoza and Leibniz follow Descartes in thinking that First Principle Theory is prior to natural philosophy (or science), and needs to be in place before we can understand what we are. A sign of this is that they are more sympathetic to the ontological argument that was common in Aristotelian scholastic philosophy, especially in Thomism (there are exceptions, to be sure—e.g., Scotus remarks in one place that he thinks the ontological argument can be “touched up”). Leibniz’s theory of us as relatively high-end “monads,” and how we are related to our bodies, is bound up with his sense of how a supremely perfect being would act. Spinoza can’t explain what the human mind is until Part 2 of the Ethics, after he’s laid out his First Principle Theory in Part 1, because he thinks that the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God.

Interestingly, Spinoza explicitly addresses the relationship of First Principle Theory to natural philosophy, criticizing the Aristotelians for inverting their proper relationship:

For the divine nature, which they should have considered before all else—it being prior both in cognition and in Nature—they have taken to be last in the order of cognition, and the things that are called objects of sense they have taken as prior to everything. Hence it has come about that in considering natural phenomena, they have completely disregarded the divine nature. And when thereafter they turned to the contemplation of the divine nature, they could find no place in their thinking for those fictions on which they had built their natural science, since these fictions were of no avail in attaining knowledge of the divine nature. So it is little wonder that they have contradicted themselves on all sides. (Ethics, 2p10s)

You ask about the secondary literature. I think scholars have become increasingly sensitive to the role that the First Principle Theory is playing in early modern rationalism. I think there sometimes remains a tendency, perhaps out of a principle of charity, to try to work around the First Principle Theory and extract something that feels less alien. For example, sometimes scholars are more comfortable working with a (what seems to me ungrounded) “principle of sufficient reason”—or some other disembodied form of “rationality”—than thinking in terms of a really existing First Principle that is ultimate the universe’s intelligibility. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz do hold that reality is deeply intelligible, but that’s because reality originates in a First Principle with certain features, and, for them, the intelligibility of the universe bottoms out in the First Principle’s essence. (An interesting question is here is whether—and, if so, to what extent—Descartes’s doctrine of the creation of the eternal truths compromises this intelligibility.) I think they would find it hard to separate these two commitments. It seems to me it is especially Kant who shows us how one might do so.

There was a more extreme version of the attempt to sidestep First Principle Theory in Descartes back in the 1980s, when some scholars floated the so-called dissimulation thesis (which echoed earlier Straussian readings). This was the idea that Descartes wasn’t sincere in what he wrote about God. I imagine modern discomfort with philosophical theology as a respectable intellectual enterprise led some scholars to think that Descartes could not possibly have been serious. An emphasis on skepticism may have contributed as well. Descartes couldn’t have really thought that the robust philosophical theology he developed in the heart of the Meditations got past skeptical doubt, could he?

Although I’ve tried to learn how to be more patient with First Principle Theory over the years, I feel I still have a way to go. Consider, for example, the concluding paragraph of the Third Meditation:

But before examining this point more carefully and investigating other truths which may be derived from it, I should like to pause here and spend some time in the contemplation of God; to reflect on his attributes and to gaze with wonder and adoration on the beauty of this immense light, so far as the eye of my darkened intellect can bear it. For just as we believe through faith that the supreme happiness of the next life consists solely in the contemplation of the divine majesty, so experience tells us that this same contemplation, albeit much less perfect, enables us to know the greatest joy of which we are capable in this life. (¶39; 7:52; 2:35–36)

This feels to me like an important moment in the Meditations. Descartes is suggesting in fairly direct opposition to Aquinas we already the idea of God we have in this life already gives us a taste of the visio dei we await in the next, and our supreme happiness is bound up with that. It’s hard for us today to connect with Descartes is saying here—hard for us to know how to take it seriously. What is really needed here is a sort of fluency, not just a recitation of the divine attributes. One needs to develop a feel for this subject matter. To the extent that one doesn’t, that passage will come across as an empty piety. I think it is often thought of in this way, because it is hard for us to do better.

3:16: Ok, back to Descartes! And to understand what he’s doing we need to have an idea of what Aristotle and Aquinas said about cognition – so just what did Aquinas have to say about human cognition that is salient to our understanding of Descartes?

JC: As I mentioned earlier, Descartes thinks the sensory ideology inherent in Aquinas’s view badly distorts our cognitive relationship to ourselves, God, and even the physical world. I think this gives an important through line for reading the Meditations. An overarching purpose of the work—perhaps the overarching purpose of the work—is to take someone who has been drawn to the picture of knowledge undergirded by the thesis that nothing is in the intellect which was not first in my senses, and show her that she has a deep understanding of herself, God, and even body that doesn’t involve turning to the phantasms. I believe that keeping this point firmly in view can provide a sustained reading of the Meditations. Let me briefly try to indicate how.

In the First Meditation, Descartes attempts to wean the meditator from the thesis by asking her to doubt her senses fundamentally. As I said earlier, this request has to look incoherent to someone who believes there is nothing in her intellect which was not first in her senses. But through the comparison with thought and painting, Descartes opens up a certain sort of conceptual space, as it were, that enables her to continue with the doubt. Even so, in view of how deeply entrenched nihil est intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu (or some pre-philosophical precursor to the thesis) is, she finds she must struggle to continue with the assumption that her senses may be worthless, and so Descartes has her overcorrect by assuming that they are in fact worthless. (“I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that l have all these things.”)

In the Second Meditation, Descartes shows the meditator that the mind has a much more direct understanding of itself. The shadow of the sensory ideology is especially felt in a couple of places. After establishing that the essence of the Cogito Being is to think, the meditator is tempted to use her imagination to understand herself better, but Descartes points out that the imagination is to all appearances completely irrelevant to the exploration of the mind that she is engaged in. No point in turning to the phantasms here. Similarly, the wax discussion is introduced because the meditator can’t shake the lingering feeling that the body must be better known than the mind because the body can be sensed and imagined, unlike “this puzzling I which cannot be pictured in the imagination.”

If we keep in mind the larger argument between Descartes and Thomistic teachers, we will have some idea of the key issue separating them when we get to the Third Meditation. For Aquinas our basic conception of God is derived from our experience of the world. We know God as the first or ultimate cause in each of the four Aristotelian orders of causality. In direct opposition, Descartes thinks we have a rich innate understanding of God that is not a product of turning to the phantasms and reflecting on the causal structure of the physical world. Rather, it is, so to speak, the other side of our recognition of ourselves as imperfect and dependent beings, and funds all of the other ways we have of thinking about God (e.g., by imagining various of our perfections to be increased without limit).

Moreover, Descartes thinks we have a basic understanding of what a body is that is not the product of turning to the phantasms. Showing this to the meditator is one of the main burdens of the wax discussion; it comes up in a more occasional way elsewhere in the Meditations—for example, in his discussion of true and immutable natures in the Fifth Meditation and his account of geometry and the imagination in the Sixth Meditation.

If we work with the hypothesis that the Meditations is a sustained attempt to extricate the meditator from the sensory ideology and show her that she has a more immediate basic understanding of herself, God, and body, I think much of the text falls into place. Discussions that might have otherwise seemed to be tangents, quirky, or off topic—especially if we take the topic to be answering the skeptic—start to fall into place. As important, I believe, the philosophy gets more interesting.

Although I do think reading the Meditations against the background of nihil est intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensugives us a good through line for the work, I don’t think it explains every sentence. For example, at one place the meditator says that to the extent that she had views about what her soul was, she “imagined it to be something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which permeated my more solid parts.” Obviously, that’s not part of Aquinas’s view. Perhaps it’s a less sophisticated precursor; or perhaps it’s Descartes’s way of saying that he didn’t think Aristotelians had succeeded in giving content to their idea of a substantial form. My thought rather is that by keeping the Thomistic thesis firmly in view, we can achieve a philosophically sophisticated reading that reaches across a wide swath of the text.

I’d like to note that the use I am making of Aquinas—as a way of entering a different intellectual context so that we might have some sense of what the argument is about—differs from other uses one might make of the historical context. For instance, one might be interested in matters of similarity or influence. Scholars (and some of Descartes’s contemporaries) have felt that the way he establishes his existence in the cogito passage owes something to Augustine’s De Trinitate; there are also interesting similarities between it and Avicenna’s floating man. One can also find interesting precedent for Descartes’s wax argument in Avicenna. These uses can provide opportunities for philosophical reflection too. I haven’t found that they lead to a sustained reading of the Meditations in the way that keeping in view Aquinas’s sensory ideology does. My assessment, of course, depends on my belief that there is an overarching project in the Meditations, one that is tightly constructed. I think other scholars may perhaps disagree and see it as more loosely constructed.

3:16: So how does Descartes’ thinking respond to Aquinas on these matters – the discussion of a piece of wax becomes important here, doesn’t it, in his claim that the mind can outstrip imagination and sense?

JC: That’s a good question, because it raises an important issue concerning how to think about the way in which Descartes works against the Thomistic picture over the course of the Meditations. I am not sure we want to view Descartes as offering a close critique of scholastic thought in the Meditations. He originally conceived of the Principles of Philosophy as a more direct engagement with scholastic philosophy. He had at one point the idea of publishing his philosophy side by side with a representative scholastic text. But, even there, it is not clear how much of the argument was supposed to go by way of internal critique as opposed to a simple juxtaposition with a philosophy that Descartes thought readers would find obviously superior.

Turning to the Meditations, I think there are several places where Descartes is taking direct aim at a Thomistic picture: first, as you mention, there is the claim that he has a grasp of the wax that far surpasses anything he could imagine. Second, Descartes makes this remark in the Fifth Meditation, when exploring the true and immutable nature of a triangle:

It would be beside the point for me to say since I have from time to time seen bodies of triangular shape, the idea of the triangle may have come to me from external things by means of the sense organs. For I can think up countless other shapes which there can be no suspicion of my ever having encountered through the senses, and yet I can demonstrate various properties of these shapes, just as I can with the triangle. (V.¶6)

And, third, Descartes makes this point about the difference between a purely intellectual understanding of a geometrical figure and an understanding assisted by imagination:

When I imagine a triangle, for example, I do not merely understand that it is a figure bounded by three lines, but at the same time I also see the three lines with my mind's eye as if they were present before me; and this is what I call imagining. But if I want to think of a chiliagon, although I understand that it is a figure consisting of a thousand sides just as well as I understand the triangle to be a three-sided figure, I do not in the same way imagine the thousand sides or see them as if they were present before me. It is true that since I am in the habit of imagining something whenever I think of a corporeal thing, I may construct in my mind a confused representation of some figure; but it is clear that this is not a chiliagon. For it differs in no way from the representation I should form if I were thinking of a myriagon, or any figure with very many sides. (VI.¶2)

That said, I think it is a fair question as to whether we should think of these passages as providing an internal refutation of a Thomistic view. We might rather see Descartes as introducing the meditator to a novel conception of mind in the Second Meditation, something that she becomes more intimately familiar with as she progresses further into Meditations. For example, here’s a moment in the wax passage that strikes me as powerful:

So, let us proceed, and consider on which occasion perception of the nature of the wax was more perfect and evident. Was it when I first looked at it, and believed I knew it my external senses, or at least by what they call 'common' sense—that is, the power of imagination? Or is my knowledge more perfect now, after a more careful investigation of the nature of the wax and of the means by which it is known? Any doubt on this issue would clearly be foolish; for what distinctness was there in my earlier perception? Was there anything in it which an animal could not possess? But when I distinguish the wax from its outward forms—take the clothes off, as it were, and consider it naked—then although my judgement may still contain errors, at least my perception now requires a human mind. (II.¶14)

If we allow ourselves to linger over this passage, we might have the following thoughts about how the things that we can do with our minds differ from the sort of cognitive achievements that might be plausibly thought to belong to animals. Animals seem to have the ability to track bodies over time, to in some sense represent the wax as the same body. But what they don’t seem to have is the ability to think about what it is that makes the wax be the same body.

Suppose we pull a philosophical switcheroo and substitute a qualitatively identical piece of wax as I play with my cat. The point is not that we can fool the cat; we can be fooled too. Rather, the point is that we have some sense of how to think aboutthe difference between the two scenarios. This ability seems to reveal something special—indeed, distinctive, Descartes suggests here—about the human mind. It an ability that, as Descartes puts it in an adjacent text, requires the “inspection of the mind alone [solius mentis inspectio].”

It is hard to see how the ability to raise and think about such a question is a product of turning to the phantasms. I don’t want to deny that one might insist—if one shared Aquinas’s systematic commitments—that the phantasms must be playing some role here; in this sense, there’s no internal refutation. But at the same time, as we reflect on the sorts of cognitive abilities that Descartes is drawing our attention to, it may become hard to recognize ourselves, or at least our minds, in the sort of story Aquinas is trying to tell.

3:16: So how does this help us understand Descartes’ dualism in contrast to Aquinas?

JC: If we take “dualism” narrowly, and identify it with Descartes’s claim that the mind is “really distinct” from the body, there is a direct path from Descartes’s rejection of nihil est in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu to his thesis that the mind and body are distinct substances. For Aquinas, the intellect depends for its natural operation on phantasms stored in a corporeal organ. So, no body, no stored phantasms, no natural operation of the intellect. (The qualification “natural” is necessary because Aquinas does make allowance for the existence of the intellect between death and bodily resurrection, as Christian doctrine requires; but he came to think that the intellect is hobbled in this condition that is unnatural to it.) That the intellect requires the body for its natural operation is part of the rationale beneath the human essence; it’s behind its coherence, so to speak.

Descartes, as I read him, agrees with the tradition that sensory and imagination cognition require body: imagination is a form of cognition that by its essence requires the intimate presence of a body to the mind; sensation is a form of cognition that requires union with a body. To digress for a moment, although Descartes thinks imagination and sensation require body, he does not think, as Aquinas does, that they take place in the body, in some corporeal organ; he believes that they take place in the mind. There’s an analogy here between how Aquinas thinks of the intellect and how Descartes thinks of sensation and imagination: while each thinks the activity of the respective power takes place inan immaterial subject, it nevertheless depends on the presence of a body.

Be that as it may, Descartes thinks imagination and sensation are impossible without body. How is it, then, that the mind is a distinct substance from its body? Don’t our minds need our bodies in order to function, just as Aquinas thought? No, because Descartes denies that sensation and imagination are essential to the functioning of the mind; they are auxiliary powers. For Descartes the mind is fundamentally a thinking being, where thinking is cashed out in terms of activities like understanding, doubting, affirming, and denying. He does not view sensation or imagination as essential to these sorts of activities. So, he does not see the dependence of imagination and sensation on body as an obstacle to the mind’s existing without the body.

That’s how things look if we take “dualism” narrowly, as I said, as the thesis that mind is “really distinct” from the body. If we allow ourselves to step back for a moment and think about dualism broadly, it seems to me that Descartes is unfolding a conception of the mind with a life of its own, so to speak, apart from the mechanistic life of the body. The activities that characterize this life—understanding, affirming, denying, willing, and being unwilling—don’t bear any internal relation to the body. The activities which characterize thinking suggest that the mind has a quasi-teleological essence or logos, around understanding the true and pursuing the good. (In contrast with the familiar view, which places consciousness at the heart of Descartes’s account of mind and thinking, I believe that consciousness is better thought of as a “proprium” of the mind, in that the activities that Descartes wants us to focus on are typically conscious, at least in their paradigmatic forms.) Now, Descartes thinks of the body in a very different way: as a mathematical/mechanical system. It has an organization, an integrity, in roughly in the same way that solar system or Gulf Stream has an organization, an integrity. This gives it a nonteleological essence or logos. This makes for a dualism in perhaps a less technical but equally interesting sense. I think this dualism makes it harder for Descartes (than for Aquinas) to offer a philosophically satisfying account of human nature, an account of the rationale behind the union: it can seem a sort of brute fact that comes through to us in sensation (and something that marks a limitation on the intelligibility of the world, at least to us).

3:16: So he disagrees with Aquinas over the doctrine of abstraction but there’s continuity when they discuss ‘intentionality’. Can you explain this for us and how does it fit with later moments in the history of philosophy – maybe in Hume or Kant?

JC: This is a large topic. Sometimes “intentionality” is understood to as an issue about how thoughts get to be “about” the world—to put it metaphorically, how the mind reaches out to the world. In a certain sense, this is backwards for Aquinas and Descartes. A (sensible or intelligible) species for Aquinas or an idea for Descartes is a vehicle through which some structure from the world (some form, for Aquinas; some reality, for Descartes) comes to be in the mind.

Sometimes Descartes is read as using the dreaming doubt to strip sensory ideas back to their essence: strictly, my sensory ideas of the keyboard and screen involve nothing more than would remain if I were dreaming right now. What is supposed to remain are the purely mental items, what I call the “epistemological surfaces” of things. On this picture, there is a problem of how to get from the purely mental item, the idea, back to the physical thing in the world, some corporeal structure. Exactly how are the two related?

I don’t think this is Descartes’s view. If it were, he doesn’t have a good argument for it. I don’t see how the dreaming doubt can establish any particular metaphysics of ideas. One cannot argue, for example, that since I am certain I am having this sensory idea, but doubt whether the keyboard exists, or, indeed, whether there are any bodies at all, this shows that my sensory idea does not essentially involve body. This would open Descartes to a version of the classic charge that illegitimately draws ontological conclusions (here, about the nature of ideas) from epistemological premises (here, about what I can and cannot doubt). I don’t think the charge is fair either in this context or in the context where it is more customarily leveled (the real distinction between mind and body). Moreover, if you look closely at the text, you find that in settings where he has the meditator actively denying that she has a body (in order to help her shake the sensory ideology), he’s careful to describe the situation as one where she is “as it were” sensing rather than flat-out sensing; I think Descartes wishes to avoid implying that she would be in fact sensing under those circumstances.

I think, then, that sensory ideas function for Descartes in a way that is similar to how sensible species function in Aquinas. You ask about the subsequent history.

I believe that Locke is still working with the picture that one finds in Aquinas and Descartes (and many others in the tradition), but, in the case of secondary qualities, he wishes to “thin out” what about the world they import into the mind: according to Locke, what my idea of red imports in my understanding is simply the presence of a power in the world to produce this sort of idea. In the subsequent Empiricist tradition, Berkeley seems to me to collapse the distinction between sensory ideas (or sensible impressions) and what they represent; for him, it would be wrong to think of ideas as forms that bring something extramental into the mind. Hume seems to follow him. For them, ideas or impressions are mental items that have a being and identity that is prior to what they represent. At this point, they need to offer a theory about how I get from fleeting mind-dependent ideas or impressions to something more stable, to objects in the world. For Berkeley, if a cherry is a congeries of impressions, which impressions (and whose impressions) belong to this congeries? Or, for Hume, how is it we come to think of perceptions as having a distinct and continued existence during periods when we don’t perceive them (Treatise, I.4.2). But this is a later conversation that I don’t see Aquinas and Descartes as being participants in. For them, there’s the world, and a speciesor idea is a vehicle through which the world gets into the mind.

3:16: Is there a difference between what he says about intellectual ideas and sensory ideas? 

JC: Let me begin with sensory ideas and how they work. This is something I changed my mind about as I worked on Between Two Worlds. I originally thought Descartes’s misgivings over the so-called resemblance thesis—the thesis that our sensory ideas resemble their objects—was an indication that he was jettisoning the scholastic framework (in the case of sensory ideas), in favor of something along the lines of a “causal covariance” model of sensory representation. Let me explain. On an Aristotelian scholastic view, representation is a matter of the world getting into the mind, so that it becomes “in a way” the same as (in other words, so that it “resembles” the world, in a certain respect): here you might think of the image of a candle in a mirror). On a causal covariance model, the relation between sensory ideas is simply that similar structures in the world cause similar ideas in the mind. For example, ideas that are similar in certain ways—say, red ideas—are caused by surface textures that are the similar in certain ways—the things we call red in the world. On this view, sensory ideas work in a very different way from intellectual ideas. It had seemed to me that Descartes’s anti-resemblance remarks should be taken as an indication that he was rejecting the former view in favor the latter.

Now, to be sure, Descartes does sometimes write in a way that suggests this sort of picture, e.g., Rule 12, which contains a diagram that uses different crosshatchings to indicate different colors. However, as I worked on the Meditations, several things moved me toward thinking that Descartes is still basically operating within the scholastic framework mentioned earlier, whereby an idea, be it sensory or intellectual, simply brings something of the world into the mind. For example, Descartes says that the idea of the sun is the sun itself existing in the intellect. But it is hard to see how I could have any idea of the sun that didn’t involve sensory qualities, and so Descartes seems to be implying here that my sensory idea of the sun’s yellowness is simply some physical structure associated with the sun existing in my mind. (In the Third Meditation, Descartes does refer to an idea of the sun “based on astronomical reasoning” which is “derived from certain notions that are innate in me (or else constructed in me in some other way).” The looseness in formulation here seems meant to allow for the obvious fact that any idea of the sun I have will involve some sensory input, so to speak.) There are other signs of conservatism in the text. For example, Descartes tends not to reject the claim that sensory ideas “resemble” their object full stop, but rather that they “exactly” resemble their objects or that they resemble their objects “in all respects.” This seems to allow for an idea’s working by importing something of its object’s structure into the mind. Also, in the Sixth Meditation, Descartes writes of bodies as “transmitting” ideas to the mind; en routeto this conclusion he considers and discards the possibility that some superior being might be “in-mitting” these ideas into my mind. “Transmitting” and “inmitting” sound different to me from merely producing blank effects on my mind. “Transmitting,” in particular, suggests that something is being conveyed from the bodies to the mind. Finally, there is the obvious point that Descartes describes sensory ideas as clear or obscure, and confused. This seems to me to fit better with the thought that he is still operating with a traditional scholastic framework than that he is working with a model of representation based on causal-covariance.

Beyond these textual indications, there’s an important philosophical consideration. It would be a major undertaking, working with a picture of sensory ideas as merely the effects of the world on the mind, to build a theory of credible theory of sensory representation—to get from the fact that ideas of type I1are systematically correlated with physical structure of type P1to a thesis that an idea of type I1represents P1. For example, there are obvious problems between correlations between proximal and distal stimuli that Descartes doesn’t show any interest in. For example, in the Sixth Meditation, he seems to suppose that there is a sensory idea of “pain as occurring in the foot”—that is, Descartes seems happy to assuming that “as occurring in the foot” is the sort of information that is simply built into the content of a sensory idea. To my mind, this fits better with a picture of sensory ideas as transmitting information than with sensory ideas as systematically correlated effects.

Although, at a general level, sensory ideas function the same way that intellectual ideas do, there are differences between them. Intellectual ideas are not transmitted from their objects; the three most important ones—my ideas of my mind, God, and the essence or nature of body—are innate. Intellectual ideas are (or can be made) distinct in a way that sensory ideas cannot. We can resolve their content, as it were, through careful attention. But if we set aside this genetic difference, and focus simply on the content of sensory ideas, it seems to me that Descartes is open to what might be called a “Leibnizian” reading, and Descartes’s treatment of sensory ideas as confused leaves him open to Kant’s charge (in the Prolegomena, Part I, Remark III) about treating sensory ideas as imperfect intellectual ideas (imperfect, that is, from the point of view of contributing to understanding, not from the point of view of their role in preserving the composite of mind and body).

3:16: Does this view of Descartes make it difficult – actually wrong – to think of Descartes primarily as an epistemologist in anything like the modern sense? 

JC: That’s an interesting question, which I have been thinking about lately. I believe that there is a lot of epistemology in Descartes and that it shaped the immediate subsequent tradition. But we need to think about what that epistemology looks like.

A chief goal of the Meditations—made urgent by the rejection of the Thomistic picture of knowledge—is to locate us as knowers within the universe that we know. But already “knowers” is perhaps misleading: There is no Latin word that is equivalent to the English “know,” and, at any rate, what Descartes is interested in is Scientia. Scientia is not some “super” version of “know”; it is closer to classical episteme—understanding—than it is to what philosophers have in mind by knowledge today. You don’t, for example, have Scientia of things like “This is a hand” or “That is a barn.” Rather, Scientia involves seeing why things are as they are, which for many thinkers in the period is a matter of grasping essences. Turning to the Empiricists, I think it is worth noticing that Locke’s essay is entitled An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, rather than “knowledge,” and Book One of Hume’s Treatise is entitled “Of the Understanding.” It’s a sign that they are interested in the scope and limit of human understanding and explanation, rather than in our ability to accumulate knowledge of facts. For Locke, working this out involves exploring what sort of purchase we have (if any) on the real essences of things; for Hume, it involves figuring out how human causal thinking works.

So perhaps it would be better to say that Descartes initiates a project of locating us, in the wake of the demise of the sensory ideology, as understanders (intellectual beings) within the universe that we understand. He thinks that Scientia requires a systematic understanding of our position as intellectual beings within the universe that we understand. Achieving such an understanding involves knowing something about the First Principle of the universe (God), as the source of the universe’s intelligibility, the origin (or author) of our natures, and the Being that ultimately accounts for our minds’ being plugged into the universe’s order.

Now, this idea of locating yourself as a knower within the universe that you know (or, again, as a being that understands within the reality that you understand) is quite broad, and is capable of being developed in different directions. We might see certain contemporary forms of epistemology naturalized as in a way heir to it. For Descartes and his rationalist successors, Spinoza and Leibniz, locating ourselves as intellectual beings in the universe that we understand is inextricable from First Principle Theory, or theology. This gives their treatments of this matter an a prioriflavor. For Spinoza, the universe is intelligible because it originates in a being unlimited in perfection, and the human mind is able to understand what it can because it is a part of God’s infinite intellect. For Leibniz, the created world is intelligible as the product of a supremely perfect being, and our special place as minds in the hierarchy of being is bound up with our appreciation of necessary truths, which gets us to the “why” of things; for this reason, we don’t merely mirror the perfection of the world in the way all created beings do, but we understand, and are “images of divinity itself” (Monadology, §82).

Locke approaches the project of understanding our position as knowers in a very different spirit. He wants to locate us as knowers (and thereby explain the scopes and limits of human understanding) in a way that largely eschews First Principle Theory, and is, one might put it, more “naturalistic.” Following out his approach, he is led to conclude that the prospects for Scientia are quite dim, and, in the second half of Book IV, starts to get interested in other forms of judgment/belief that fall short of the traditional ideal. Berkeley and Hume use reflection on human resources for knowing as springboards for their own distinctive projects. Berkeley believes that once one sees the incoherence of certain pictures of what abstract ideas are supposed to be, or once one thinks hard about the nature of sensible qualities, one will see a need to revise both one’s views about what it is to understand and the character of the reality that we understand; in other words, one will be well on one’s way to immaterialism (at which point First Principle Theory reappears in his story in a novel way). Finally, Hume thinks that if you look at what is really going on when we make causal inferences, you’ll discover, in effect, that the picture of Scientia that rationalists are working with, and which Locke was drawn to but felt was out of our reach, really doesn’t make sense: we have no idea of what it would be for our answers to the “why’s” to bottom out, let alone to bottom out in a First Principle.

That’s my picture of epistemology in the early modern period. It seems to me to intersect with some contemporary discussion. But certain things are absent. I don’t think, for example, that early modern philosophers are focused on the requirements for knowing that p, or what needs to obtain before I can correctly say that I know that p. Their focus, as I have said, is on intelligibility and the extent to which we understand things, and how this comes about. Similarly, I do not see much interest in what we might call epistemic practice theory, the norms for responsible believing, such as are explored in the current discussion about the epistemology of peer disagreement. They are not focused on “evidence” and “justification,” although something along these lines begins to show up in Hume—in the distinction between philosophical and unphilosophical probability, for example. I don’t think epistemology fully takes its “juridical” turn until we get to Kant.

Keeping this mind should temper how we take aspects of their projects to touch on modern concerns. For example, Descartes tells us in the Fourth Meditation that we ought to give our assent only to what we perceive clearly. Roughly, I take this to mean that we’re not done with a subject matter until we have the sort of quasi-mathematical conviction concerning it such that doubt is impossible. I think it is important to hear this dictum in the context of an account of what Scientia, that is, a systematic understanding of the universe—one that Descartes thinks bottoms out in our grasp of the First Principle—looks like. Divorced from this context, the principle seems to me idle. It has nothing to say about when I should believe there is a barn in front of me. Or, to take a rather different example, Locke, in the final chapters of Book IV of his Essay, after arguing in the earlier chapters that the prospects for Scientiaare bleak, turns to forms of belief and assent that fall short of understanding. These chapters lie on the periphery of what I take to be the central concern of the Essay, which is to say something about the scope and limits of human understanding and the closely related topic of our purchase on the essences of things (since to understand a thing is to grasp its essence). It is here, I think, that Locke’s contribution to the subsequent tradition is most seen.

You’ll notice that skepticism, especially external world skepticism, figures less prominently in my account of early modern epistemology than in some accounts. This feels true of the period to me. External world skepticism seems to be about knowledge and its requirements, as opposed to Scientia and its requirements. Descartes does seem to think that refutation of external world skepticism is necessary to Scientia. Indeed, in the Meditations, he suggests that we already have in place a basic understanding of even the nature of body (¶1) before he gets around to demonstrating that body exists (¶9) or responding to the dreaming doubt (¶24). Rather, his use of skepticism is opportunistic—he thinks it is a device that will help him wean the meditator from the sensory ideology. Spinoza and Leibniz, who are not working in the same dialectical context—Descartes won that battle, as far as they are concerned—do not seem to have worried much about external world skepticism. Locke seems dismissive of external world skepticism. He seems puzzled by why anyone would think there is a serious philosophical problem here. Berkeley shows more interest in skepticism, but mainly as a label with which to tar his materialist adversary, as opposed to a serious philosophical position that needs to be carefully thought through. Hume is perhaps the most interesting case. He seems to have a deeper, more interesting and ambiguous relationship with skepticism (where skepticism is now taken being taken in a broader sense than our ability to know that there is an external world). 

3:16: Is there nothing of the familiar view of Descartes left once you’ve finished reading him like this?

JC: To stick with skepticism, one can take the First Meditation as a freestanding text and use it as a launching pad for external world skepticism. I could imagine spending a course thinking about issues that arise while thinking about this text. Does it make sense to doubt all of one’s experience? Can I really doubt that two and three together make five? And so on. But I’ll make two points here.

First, while such discussions can quickly become sophisticated and subtle, most of that sophistication and subtlety takes place away from the text. For example, in his book The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, Barry Stroud uses the First Meditation as a way to get external world skepticism up and running. There is quite a bit of interesting philosophy along the way. Stroud homes in, for example, on whether it is a requirement on knowing that that you know all of the things incompatible with your knowing are false. (In order for me to know that there is a keyboard here, must I know that it is false that I am dreaming that this is a keyboard?) This is an important question, and it propels Stroud’s discussion forward in the next chapters. But it is not a question about which Descartes himself has a great deal to say. In this case, we are not so much thinking with Descartes about something he wants to think about as using his text to help us think about something that we want to think about.

Second, my sense is that when we try to read the text this way, extended stretches of the text will seem to be digressions and detours. I’ve mentioned the First Meditation’s comparison between thought and painting, which does not earn its keep on such readings. In addition, much of what he does in the First Meditation ought to strike us as curious. Unless we are on philosophical autopilot, the suggestion that there are some principles—indeed, as it turns out, a single principle—upon which all my beliefs rested ought to strike us as (very) odd—not, as Descartes seems to suggest, something that goes without saying. Just what are we being asked to buy into, as the price of admission for entry into the Meditations? Or, to take another example, something that Janet Broughton calls attention to in her Descartes’s Method of Doubt, it is surprising to find Descartes saying, after the skeptical doubt is in place, that the things we are doubting are “highly probable opinions” which, their dubitability notwithstanding, are “much more reasonable to believe than to deny.” On standard readings of the First Meditation, the skepticism leaves us with no basis for such claims. And if we look beyond the First Meditation itself, I believe that Descartes’s subsequent treatment of skeptical doubt seems either clumsy or perfunctory—think, for example, of his brief response to the dreaming doubt in the very last paragraph on the Meditations. It’s hard to come away from that thinking that this was something he was seriously interested in—unless we keep in view his rather limited and special objectives in employing skeptical argumentation.

3:16:  As a take home, can you summarise what Descartes thought the mind and body were on this unfamiliar view? (And why does he even argue for the existence of a body?)

JC: Let me start with the mind. In the Second Meditation the meditator discovers that her mind has this wonderful ability to see that something is so, past all possibility of doubt. That tells you a lot about what the mind is. In particular, this leads Descartes to characterize the mind as a thinking thing, where thinking in turn is characterized as follows:

But what then am I? A thinking thing? What is that? A doubting, understanding, affirming, willing, unwilling, and also imagining and sensing [imaginans quoque, & sentiens] thing. (¶8; 7:28; 2:19)

I’ve mentioned a couple of times the importance of how Descartes understands thinking. The configuration of powers (doubting, understanding, affirming, willing, unwilling) that he keys on here are intellectual, and they all have to do with understanding. (Imagining and sensing are in the mix, but they are outliers, not part of the essence of the thinking thing. This is suggested by the quoque. Indeed, these core powers so are so integral to the thinking being that Descartes observes “that it is I who am doubting and understanding and willing is so evident that l see no way of making it any clearer”; by way of contrast, he thinks some explanation is called for in the case of imagining and sensing. Much of the Meditations is really an exercise in spending some quality time with this intellectual beast, and getting to know it better by observing it in action, as it seeks to understand itself and its place in the universe. By observing what the mind does, there emerges a picture of an Aristotelian intellectual substance, with a related constellation of powers and abilities organized around certain ends (understanding the true, pursuing the good). This is what I meant earlier when I said that mind, for Descartes, has teleological essence. Consciousness, again, is in the vicinity—paradigmatic exercises of these core abilities seem to bring with them not only awareness but a certain sort of self-awareness—but consciousness is not at the heart of what the mind is. (If it were, it would be as unproblematic that a sharp pain belongs to the mind as it is that my affirmation of my own being belongs to thinking.)

I’m less sure that there is a familiar view of what body is for Descartes. I guess some scholars think that an upshot of Descartes’s rejection of the resemblance thesis is that colors are not “really” to be found in body but only in the subjective experiences of the mind. And then, as your question suggests, it looks as if we need some sort of argument to get us back from the mental items to the physical world that caused them. I’ve suggested that this is notDescartes’s problem. Sensory ideas are not simply subjective experiences; they import physical reality into the mind, so that this reality comes to exist in the mind “objectively.” But if sensory ideas accomplish this much, why do we need to prove that bodies exist—don’t the sensory ideas simply make this manifest? After all, I’m modeling Descartes’s sensory ideas after Aquinas’s species, and Aquinas didn’t feel the need to prove that bodies exist.

This is a good question that helps us get inside Descartes’s head. When we look at how his argument for body works, we see that it depends on our instinctual tendency (“great propensity”) to take our sensory ideas in a certain way: namely, as the “transmission” of physical structure from the world into the mind. This strikes me as a way of capturing a reasonably commonsensical view of what goes on when we sense. We need an argument because, as powerful as this great propensity is, it does not amount to perceiving clearly that body exists. It does not have the force of a mathematical demonstration. Descartes wants us to ask, in the spirit of a mathematician who is trying to figure out whether she has a proof of a theorem or not, “Can I doubt this step?,” and if the answer is yes, we are to keep at it. Before I have reflected on my natural inclinations and their origin, the answer is yes, I candoubt whether sensory ideas are in fact transmissions of physical structure from the world. However, after I recognize that the source of this propensity is a supremely perfect being, I can no longer doubt this. Although in this way I come to be certain that body exists, the manner in which God is relied on in the argument—namely, to validate a natural inclination, whose truth is immediate to me—shows that my knowledge of the existence of body is not accompanied by the same intelligibility or transparency that accompanies my knowledge of either my own existence or God’s.

3:16:  And finally, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

JC: Well, as an undergraduate, I was interested in Austin and Quine. 

(I wrote my senior thesis on How to Do Things With Words.) Studying each was formative of my philosophical world. From studying Quine, I got a sense of what a philosophical system looks like and how you need to pay attention to a philosopher’s starting points (which might not be your own) if you are going to have any chance of learning from him or her. From Austin, I got something more methodological—a sense of how, if you aren’t careful, your vocabulary might do all your thinking for you. 

(Sense and Sensibilia is probably more helpful here than How to Do Things With Words.) Keeping an eye out for when this might be happening is a good way to take yourself off of philosophical autopilot. It’s one of the things that led me to think harder about the ways in which Scientia for Descartes is unlike “know” for us. Or, to take another example, when Descartes says in the Second Meditation that we previously didn’t know what the word “mind” means, I wanted to try to take that seriously and to divest the word of various contemporary associations. That’s why I used expression the “Cogito Being,” in order to slow things down a bit. (On a side note, I recall Rogers Albritton, over dinner, being quite unhappy about the expression “The mind thinks.” “Isn’t it rather, in English,” he said, “that I think with my mind? As in ‘Use your mind!’ or, perhaps, ‘I have a mind to tell him off.’” I think it is worth trying to pay attention to such details.)

In terms of books on the Meditations, Margaret Wilson’s Descartes came out a couple of years before I started my dissertation. It was a model of how to combine philosophical seriousness with careful scholarship. My approach to the role of skepticism in the Meditations owes a lot to her work. 

As I was writing my book, Janet Broughton’s Descartes’s Method of Doubt came out. I learned a lot about the First Meditation from her. Also, thinking about her book brought me to work out my own views about the resemblance thesis and why Descartes feels a need to demonstrate the existence of body. It was Janet who (in correspondence) drew the transmitting/inmitting language to my attention.

Lately, I have been working on a book on Spinoza’s Ethics, and thinking about half a dozen of Lilli Alanen’s papers on the affects in Spinoza. I admire her for the way she tries to see through an abstract system down to the facts on the ground, so to speak, in order to think about what we might care about in Spinoza’s writings. She has a refreshingly wary attitude toward Spinoza—neither abruptly dismissive nor uncritically enthusiastic.


Richard Marshall is biding his time.

Buy his second book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the index of interviewees

End Time seriesthe themes