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Descartes's Ontology of Sensation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Kurt Smith*
Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA17815-1301USA


If we were to look caref ully at recent commentary on Descartes's theories of ideas and Sensation, we would find that a large number of commentators hold that he believes the following:.

  1. (1) Ideas are representational,

  2. (2) Sensations are ideas,

  3. (3) Sensations are not representational.

This is an inconsistent triad: any two of the above claims can be true together, but they cannot all be true together. The inconsistent triad can be avoided if we reject one of the claims. Some have argued that Descartes did not hold (l).1 Some have argued that he did not hold (3). I believe that Descartes held (1) and (3), and will argue that he did not hold (2).

Generally, any account of Cartesian Sensation at the very least must account for sensations in terms of the ontology. The account must say whether they are modes or not, and if modes, modes of what — mind, body, both, the union, and so on. Moreover, how sensations are cast in terms of the ontology must agree with how they are cast in terms of the epistemology.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 2005

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1 See, for example, Yolton, John Perceptual Acquaintance from Descartes to Reid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1984);Google Scholar and Nadler, Steven Arnauld and the Cartesian Philosophy of Ideas (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989).Google Scholar

2 See, for example, Aquila, RichardThe Content of Cartesian Sensation and the Intermingling of Mind and Body,History of Philosophy Quarterly 12.2 (1995) 209-26;Google Scholar Wilson, MargaretDescartes on the Representationality of Sensation,’ Central Themes in Early Modern Philosophy, Cover, J.A. and Kulstad, Mark eds. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1990);Google Scholar MacKenzie, Ann WilburDescartes on Sensory Representation: A Study of the Dioptrics,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 16 109-47;Google Scholar Simmons, AlisonAre Cartesian Sensations Representational?Nous 33.3 (1999) 347-69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 I consider the epistemological angle in ‘Rationalism and Representation’ in A Companion To Rationalism, Alan Nelson, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell 2005).

4 See, for example, Simmons, AlisonDescartes on the Cognitive Structure of Sensory Experience,’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 67.3 (2003), 552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 References to Descartes's work will henceforth be provided in the body of the article, and will cite Oeuvres De Descartes, 11 vols, C. Adam and P. Tannery, eds. (AT), and the English translation, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and (for volume 3), Anthony Kenny (CSM or CSMK). AT and CSM are followed by the appropriate volume and page numbers, and will be cited, side by side, separated by a semicolon. Thus the passage referred to here is: AT VII436-9; CSM II 1294-5.

6 Contrast my analysis here to the sort found in Gary Hatfield's ‘The Senses and the Fleshless Eye: The Meditations as Cognitive Exercises,’ in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, ed. (Los Angeles: University of California Press 1986) 45-79, and in his ‘Descartes’ Physiology and its Relation to his Psychology, ' in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, Cottingham, John ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993) 335-70.Google Scholar

7 Descartes does not actually use the term ‘sensible’ quality. Rather, he seems to prefer 'quality.’ Even so, Arnauld in the Fourth Objections uses the term (AT VII 217; CSM II153), and it is clear from Descartes's reply that he understood it.

8 Descartes uses ‘in’ here (in sensu) as he does when saying that we think of color as being in an object (in objectis). This use, I think, expresses an ontological relationship (as opposed to a metaphorical one, for instance).

9 I am refraining from calling the relation representation. I will address this below.

10 The view is that our ideas are produced (producuntur) by motions in the brain (AT VII 79; CSM II 55). In other places, he says that our ideas are occasioned by these motions (AT VIIIB 359; CSM II 304).

11 In his ‘Cartesian Passion and Cartesian Dualism,’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 71 (1990), Paul Hoffman argues that a Cartesian Sensation is a ‘straddling mode’ — a mode that modifies both a mind and a body. And although I think that this is right, I want to make a further qualification, namely, that the ideational component presents a sensible quality. I will call this (below) an ‘S6-sensation.’ Where Hoffman and I will disagree, I think, is in respect to the substance (or substances) to which a Sensation gets attributed. In an earlier paper, Hoffman argues that for Descartes a human being is an Aristotelian substance, understood in terms of Aristotle's hylomorphism, 'The Unity of Descartes's Man,’ The Philosophical Review 95.3 (1986) 339-70. Although in his later paper Hoffman characterizes sensations as straddling modes that modify both a body and a mind, I believe that a consequence of his earlier view is that sensations are modes that are attributable to human beings — not to bodies and minds. So, either Hoffman's latest view (that Sensation modifies two substances, mind and body) has changed from his earlier view (that Sensation modifies one substance, the human being), or his view has not changed, in which case it seems to be internally inconsistent.

12 Note that Descartes does not actually say ‘intellectual act.'

13 For instance, see Simmons (1999).

14 See, for example, Wells, NormanMaterial Falsity in Descartes, Arnauld, and Suarez,’ Journal of the History of Philosophy 22.1 (1984) 2550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 In Principles, Part 1, Article 68, Descartes says: ‘If someone says he sees colour in a body or feels pain in a limb, this amounts to saying that he sees or feels something there of which he is wholly ignorant (AT VIIIA 33; CSM I 217). I take this to mean that my sensory idea of the ice cube, for example, which presents cold, nevertheless does not make clear that the motions of the particles constituting the ice cube are what the idea is representing. To understand that they are what the idea represents, we must engage in a philosophical investigation.

16 See Simmons (1999).

17 I will use ‘reality’ and ‘being’ in this context interchangeably.

18 Descartes holds that all things depend ultimately on the infinite substance. But, for my discussion here, I want to focus on Descartes's saying that the modes are modes of finite substances. ‘Strictly speaking … there are [no] modes or qualities in God' (AT VIIIA 26; CSM I 211).

19 This is from an October 1645 letter (AT IV 326; CSMK III 274).

20 Nicolas Malebranche, The Search After Truth, Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, trans. & eds. (hereafter ‘LO’), with Elucidation of The Search after Truth, Lennon, Thomas M. trans. & ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997),Google Scholar Elucidation 11, 634-5.

21 Search After Truth, LO, Elucidation 11, 634

22 Search After Truth, LO, Bk 3, P 2, Ch 7, 237-8

23 Jolley, NicholasSensation, Intentionality and Animal Consciousness,’ Ratio (New Series), 8.2 (1995) 128-42Google Scholar

24 Jolley, 135

25 We find a similar argument in George Berkeley's Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Part I, See. 49 (La Salle: Open Court Publishing 1969). About colors he says, ‘those qualities are in the mind,’ but they are so ‘only as they are perceived by it — that is, not by way of mode or attribute, but only by way of idea' (57). He goes on to argue, ‘it no more follows the soul or mind is extended, because extension exists in it alone, than it does that it is red or blue, because those colors are on all hands acknowledged to exist in it, and nowhere else’ (ibid.). For discussions of an adverbial theory of perception, see Pitcher, GeorgeMinds and Ideas in Berkeley,’ American Philosophical Quarterly 6 (1969) 198207,Google Scholar and Lennon, Thomas M. 'Berkeley on the Act-Object Distinction,’ Dialogue 40.4 (2001) 651-67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar My take on Descartes greatly benefited from a study of these articles.

26 Search After Truth, LO, Bk 3, P 2, Ch. 1, 218

27 Search After Truth, LO, Bk 1, Ch 2, n. on 7

28 Grene, Marjorie Descartes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1983), 177Google Scholar

29 I consider this sort of case in more detail in my ‘Rationalism and Representation’ in A Companion To Rationalism (Oxford: Blackwell 2005).

30 Versions of this paper were presented to audiences at the University of California at Irvine and at the University of Western Ontario. I thank both for providing helpful comments and for giving the view a real run for its money. I also thank Richard Brook, Andy Chignell, Patricia Easton, Geoff Gorham, Michael LeBuffe, Antonia Lolordo, Andy Pessin, Alison Simmons, and Charles Young for commenting on earlier drafts of the paper, some of them giving a portion of the paper the once-over in a reading group that was part of the 2004 NEH Summer Institute, ‘The Intersection of Philosophy, Science, and Theology in the Seventeenth Century,’ which took place at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I especially thank Tom Lennon for hearing me out on several occasions. These discussions greatly benefited the view worked out here. And, I especially thank Alan Nelson, for not only has the view greatly benefited from our many discussions, it in fact owes its survival over these many years to his continued show of interest in it. Lastly, I thank the anonymous referees and editors of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy for comments that improved the article.