Descartess Theory of Mind

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Sign in. Not registered? Sign up. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Search my Subject Specializations: Select Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Authors Affiliations are at time of print publication. Print Save Cite Email Share. Show Summary Details. Subscriber Login Email Address. Library Card. View: no detail some detail full detail. Chapter 1 Cartesian Explanation. Chapter 2 Sensation: Ideas as Brain Patterns. Chapter 3 Imagination and Memory. Chapter 4 Passions of the Soul. Chapter 6 Human Language. When considering one of the more complex modes of thought—for instance, fearing a lion or affirming the Pythagorean Theorem, where the lion and the theorem are the objects presented—it is the idea that is doing the presenting; it is the vehicle of representation.

As Descartes will note in the Fourth Meditation, he takes there to be two basic faculties capacities or abilities of the mind: the intellect or understanding and the will. So, the idea of the Pythagorean Theorem has its origin in the faculty of the intellect or understanding. The act of affirming, the other component of the more complex thought of affirming this theorem, has its origin in the faculty of the will.

Contributions from both faculties, then, give rise to the more complex kinds of thought. Descartes is careful to not identify ideas as pictures or as visual images , but instead says that they are as it were [ tanquam ] images of things. This is important to the theory, since the idea of cold or the idea of sweet, for example, insofar as they are ideas, represent something to the mind, but they are not visual images. The point holds for other ideas, such as the idea of God, which Descartes explicitly lists in the above passage. The idea of God represents something to the mind it represents an infinite substance , and in line with traditional theological doctrine, supposing that God is non-spatial and non-temporal, the idea cannot be understood as being a visual image of God.

Long-standing interpretations take such passages as telling us that ideas have the special feature of intentionality—they are directed at their respective objects. It is in terms of this directedness that the mind is said to be aware of an object. One long-standing interpretation, the Representationalist interpretation, says that for Descartes the objects immediately presented to the mind by way of an idea are purely mental objects.

This purely mental object is said to constitute the content of the idea. Another long-standing interpretation, the Direct Realist interpretation, says that for Descartes the objects immediately represented or presented to the mind by way of an idea are not always mental objects. Nadler The idea of the Sun is understood as being a mental operation a mode of the mind directed at the Sun itself.

In fact, on this interpretation, all ideas are, properly speaking, to be understood as operations or acts of the mind. This holds even for the idea of Pegasus. The idea is a mental operation and in this case is directed at the mentally fabricated object, Pegasus. Here, Pegasus is a purely mental object.

By contrast, the sensory idea of the Sun is directed at the Sun itself, the Sun in the heavens. Thus, this interpretation allows ideas to be directed at mental and extra-mental objects. The import of this interpretation is that the immediate objects of awareness need not be purely mental—so, no tertium quid —which differs dramatically from the Representationalist interpretation. Although both readings have their merits, the remainder of this entry will work within the framework of the Representationalist reading.

When speaking of an existent mode—in this case, an actually occurring idea—Descartes will say that it possesses formal reality. For example, given that the Sun is an actual or existent thing, it possesses formal reality. By contrast, given that Pegasus is not an actual or existent thing, he does not possess formal reality. Given that the idea of the Sun or the idea of Pegasus are actual or existent ideas, where an idea is actual or existent when it is being actively thought by a mind, each would possess formal reality.

The level of formal reality of an infinite substance is greater than that of a finite substance, and the level of formal reality of a finite substance is greater than that of a mode. This is understood in terms of ontological dependence. A mode depends for its formal reality on the formal reality of a finite substance, and a finite substance depends for its formal reality on the formal reality of an infinite substance.

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The objective reality of a thing is the kind of reality a thing possesses in virtue of its being a representation of something ibid. Given that the idea of the Sun and the idea of Pegasus represent things to the mind they represent or exhibit the Sun and Pegasus respectively , each possesses objective reality. Descartes says that ideas possess objective reality by their very nature. Equally importantly, ideas are the only items in his ontology that possess both formal and objective reality. At the very least, the view is that the idea of God contains a level of objective reality that is greater than that contained in an idea representing a finite substance.

Thus, the levels of objective reality possessed by ideas, the reality they possess in virtue of their representing things to the mind, are nominally three: infinite substance, finite substance, and mode. The categories of the objective-reality hierarchy, then, correspond to those of the formal-reality hierarchy.

Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding

Each idea is simply a mode of thought, and insofar as an idea is an existent or actual mode, it possesses a level of formal reality of that of a mode. The formal-objective reality distinction suggests the following. He determines that the formal reality possessed by his own mind cannot be its origin. He concludes that there must be some being that in fact possesses the requisite level of formal reality, which in this case will be greater than that of a finite substance.

The examination of the idea of God follows almost directly upon the introduction of the possible connection between the objective reality of some of his ideas and the formal reality of extra-ideational or extra-mental objects. There is a second distinction that Descartes introduces worth noting, the material-objective distinction. Some scholars believe that it is simply an alternate way of expressing the formal-objective reality distinction. The material-objective distinction is never clearly formulated in the body of the Meditations , though Descartes employs it in his reply to Antione Arnauld — , in the Fourth Set of Replies.

Descartes introduces the material-objective distinction in the Preface To the Reader of the Meditations which was very likely written after the Meditations and the Objections and Replies. In this sense, the idea is simply an existent mode of the mind. In light of the formal-objective reality distinction, since the formal reality of an idea a mode is derived from the formal reality of the mind its substance , it follows that its level of formal reality cannot be greater than that of the mind.

Sometimes he will say, as he does in the above quoted passage, that when understanding an idea to be an operation of the mind that it is taken materially. Sometimes he will say, as he does in the above quoted passage, that when understanding an idea as the object immediately presented to the mind by way of a mental operation , the idea is taken objectively. Consider again the idea of God. When taking this idea materially, the idea is understood as an operation of the mind.


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When taking this very same idea objectively, the idea is understood as that which is presented directly to the mind by way of this operation. The nature of the object presented, Descartes says, can be more perfect than his mind. So, even though he is not an infinite being, an idea can nevertheless present to him a being that is infinite, a being that possesses a greater level of reality than that possessed by a finite substance. Where the two distinctions may differ is with respect to how Descartes employs them.

When tracing out the origins of the formal and objective reality possessed by an idea, Descartes employs the formal-objective reality distinction. In some cases, as in the case of the idea of God, the origin of the formal reality of the idea is his own mind, whereas the origin of the objective reality is God something that exists independently of his mind. However, when Descartes is speaking about the relation between an idea understood as a mental operation, and this very same idea now understood as the object presented by way of this operation, Descartes employs the material-objective distinction.

The difference is with respect to the number of relations in play in the analysis. Concerning the formal-objective reality distinction, the number of relations is two: the relation between the idea as mode and the mind, and the relation between the object presented in or by the idea and God. Concerning the material-objective distinction, there is only one relation being considered: the relation between the idea as mental operation and this idea as object presented via this operation. In the Meditations , after Descartes casts ideas as modes that represent or exhibit objects to the mind, he divides ideas into kinds.

He says:. Here, Descartes considers three kinds of idea: innate ideas , adventitious ideas , and what are sometimes called factitious ideas. The categories are determined by considering the possible origins of the ideational contents presented or exhibited to the mind. The first category includes ideas whose contents have their origin in his nature qua thinking thing. An example is his idea of what thought or thinking is. The third category includes ideas whose contents have their origin in the contents of other ideas. An example might be the idea of Pegasus.

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An account of their origin, he suggests, may require an appeal to things that exist external to, or independently of, his mind. Adventitious ideas include sensory ideas; ideas that originate in sensory experience—such as the ideas of the Sun or the Moon, but also the more simple ideas of colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like. It is not adventitious or sensory , since he has had no sensory experiences of God i. This would be in line with the theological demand that God is immaterial. It is not factitious, for its content is something that his mind cannot fabricate from other ideas the idea represents an actual infinity, and at best his mind can only produce the factitious idea of a potential infinity.

Even so, it becomes clear to him that the innate idea of God is like the adventitious idea of the Sun, but unlike the innate idea of what thought is which has its origin in his own nature , since like the adventitious idea of the Sun, the objective reality possessed by the idea has its origin in the formal reality belonging to something other than his own mind. His analysis concludes that the origin of the objective reality must be in an existing God an actual infinite substance, something possessing an infinite level of formal reality. In the Sixth Meditation, he will ultimately conclude that the objective reality of his idea of body, also innate, must have, like the innate idea of God, its origin in the formal reality belonging to something other than his own mind, namely, it will have its origin in an existing corporeal substance an extended being that possesses a finite level of formal reality.

Ultimately, the objective reality i. This would mean that no idea was innate. Scholars note that this may be different from the way in which innate ideas were cast in the Third Meditation. But with the sense of innate—as—faculty in mind, in Comments on a Certain Broadsheet , Descartes goes on to say that there is a sense in which even sensory ideas ideas of qualities such as pains, colors, sounds, and so on , ideas arising via the senses, which are a species of adventitious idea, are nevertheless innate.

The argument unfolds as follows: Given that the human or embodied mind has the faculty or capacity to have sensory ideas of pains, colors, sounds, and so on, where these are occasioned on the occurrence or presence of certain motions in the brain, and nothing of the motions in the brain is transferred to the mind, and nothing resembling the pains, colors, and sounds is present in bodies including the brain , then the ideas of pains, colors, and sounds i.

One interpretation that has relatively recently emerged addresses the concern over the alleged similarity between innate and adventitious ideas by emphasizing the role that innate ideas play Nolan , Lennon , Nelson , De Rosa Consider, for example, the adventitious or sensory idea of the Sun. This idea presents the Sun to the mind as a shaped thing. An analysis of this idea reveals that the innate idea of extension body is in play, for without it the human mind simply could not experience or even conceive the Sun as shaped. Shape presupposes extension. In this sense, insofar as a shaped thing is made intelligible to a human mind, the innate idea of extension is involved.

As some scholars have put it, the innate idea underlies or informs the occurring idea of the Sun Nolan , Nelson , De Rosa So, it is the unique role of the innate ideas that distinguishes them from adventitious ideas. Scholars agree that Descartes recognizes at least three innate ideas: the idea of God, the idea of finite mind, and the idea of indefinite body. In the letter to Elisabeth, he includes a fourth: the idea of the union of mind and body. There is an alternate division of ideas worth noting. In the Third Meditation, after having introduced the tripartite division of innate, adventitious, and factitious ideas, Descartes continues to entertain the possible origins of the contents of his ideas.

Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding

His analysis turns on the principle that an effect can never be greater than its cause, which is underwritten by the self-evident principle that something cannot come from nothing. Such ideas are included in the category of Primary Idea. The innate idea of God is a primary idea, since the objective reality it possesses has its origin the the formal reality of God. Likewise, the adventitious idea of the Sun is a primary idea, since the objective reality it possesses has its origin the the formal reality of the Sun.

Factitious ideas, whose contents have their origin in the contents of other ideas, no doubt fall into the category of Non-Primary idea. A non-primary idea is one whose objective reality has its origin in the objective reality of some other idea. The factitious idea of Pegasus is an example of a non-primary idea.


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The principle is notoriously difficult to formulate, and there is no consensus among scholars as to how it is best understood. However, a large number of scholars agree on one component of the principle, which can be expressed as a necessary though not a sufficient condition for representation.

This principle of representation PR can be expressed as follows:. The innate idea of his i. And the list could go on.

The following analogy may be instructive. Suppose that Socrates stands before a mirror. Each can presumably exist independently of the other. The image of Socrates arises as a relation between Socrates and the mirror. It cannot exist independently of Socrates or the mirror. Destroy Socrates or the mirror, and this image of Socrates is destroyed. And, since the surface is a mode of the mirror, there is a sense in which this image would be too. The mirror is the bearer of the image. The relationship to Socrates is different. The image is said to be an image of Socrates.

The image is about him. He is not the bearer of the image, but is what this image represents. So, the relation that Socrates has to this image must be importantly different from the relation that the mirror has to this image. To be sure, the image derives its existence, or its formal reality, from the formal reality of the mirror, but its objective being has its origin not in the mirror but in Socrates. It is in the Rules that Descartes introduces the simple natures.

Simple natures form an ordered, hierarchical system. The basic classes of this enumeration will also be partitioned. In light of this, this ultimate enumeration—the partition of the simple natures into the classes of thinking and extended things—can be referred to as the master enumeration. As laid out in the Rules , the hierarchy is not understood in terms of the ontology, but in terms of what must be known in terms of what. One group includes those simple natures that presuppose the simple nature thought or thinking , while the other group includes those simple natures that presuppose the simple nature extension.

The view is that the simple nature shape , for instance, presupposes the simple nature extension in that the former is known understood on the basis of the latter. The same holds for the other class. The simple nature hot , a sensible quality, presupposes the simple nature thought or thinking in that the former is known or understood on the basis of the latter.

No thought or thinking, no feeling of hotness. Descartes recognizes two forms of conjunction found among the simple natures: necessary and contingent conjunction. So, for instance, the simple nature shape is necessarily conjoined with the simple nature extension insofar as the former presupposes or entails the latter.

An idea is said to be clear whenever the necessary conjunction between simple natures in the idea is exhibited or made explicit. He writes that the procedure:. Extension is the common nature; it unites such natures into a single thing a body. Thought or thinking is the common nature that unites the other simple natures into a single thing a mind.

Ideas are said to be confused whenever they include or contain simple natures belonging to the two mutually exclusive classes of simple nature the two classes together forming the enumeration. Here, the Latin confusio means mixed together. The adventitious idea of the Sun is an example of a confused idea. In presenting the Sun as circular-shaped and hot, the idea includes simple natures that belong to the two mutually exclusive classes. Shape belongs to the class whose members presuppose the simple nature extension , whereas heat a quality belongs to the class whose members presupposes the simple nature thought or thinking.

An idea is said to be distinct , then, whenever it includes or contains only simple natures belonging to one of the mutually exclusive classes. The astronomical idea of the Sun, as introduced in the Third Meditation, looks to be an example of a distinct idea.

Descartes' Substance Dualism Theory of the Mind

It includes only those simple natures belonging to the class whose members presuppose the simple nature extension. Smith , They are real things. In his analysis of the idea of the triangle, Descartes concludes that the natures that he clearly and distinctly perceives the triangle as possessing are in fact possessed by the triangle. These natures are real. Russell Wahl has argued that for Descartes truth was related directly to natures. AT VII 65; CSM II 45 The import of this view is that the simple natures, which constitute the contents of ideas, are also the very same natures possessed by things—at least when the idea is clear and distinct.

Here, the simple natures look to be serving as an ontological bridge, so to speak, between the mind and extra-mental reality. A relatively recent suggestion, which emerged in part as a response to the conflict between the Representationalist and Direct-Realist interpretations, comes from Paul Hoffman.

Hoffman He bases his suggestion on a view held by Aquinas. Given that simple natures are the ontological elements of ideas and things, Hoffman in essence argues that it is the simple natures themselves that possess the two kinds of reality that Descartes had introduced in the Third Meditation, namely, formal and objective reality. Hoffman Consider the adventitious idea of the Sun. As noted earlier, this idea is obscure and confused. Even so, it reportedly represents the Sun in the heavens.