In This Article René Descartes: Sensory Representations

  • Introduction
  • Primary Texts
  • The Birth of the Topic
  • Book-Length Discussions
  • The Scholastic Background
  • Sensory Representation, the Concept of Mind, Ideas, and Truth
  • Sensory Representation in the Scientific Writings
  • The Senses and Other Cognitive Faculties

Philosophy René Descartes: Sensory Representations
by
Raffaella De Rosa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0272

Introduction

René Descartes, throughout his whole body of philosophical and scientific work, portrays the senses as yielding perceptions that misrepresent their objects and, hence, lead to erroneous beliefs about the real properties of the material world. Descartes calls ideas of secondary qualities such as color and heat “materially false” in Meditation Three and continues to classify these ideas as obscure and confused thoughts (i.e., thoughts that represent their objects as other than they are) in later works such as the Principles of Philosophy and the Passions of the Soul. However, Descartes never gives an explicit account of either sensory representation or the psychological mechanisms responsible for sensory misrepresentation. This exegetical question is rendered more complex by other theoretical issues such as: how can an idea misrepresent its object? What objects, if any, do ideas of color represent, for Descartes? Aren’t sensations simply qualitative features of experience devoid of any property of world-directedness, especially since, for Rationalist Descartes, who believes that the intellect is the only source of truth, representation falls within the purview of intellectual ideas? Different proposals on how to answer this cluster of questions have been suggested in the literature in relation to the broader question of the role of the senses within the cognitive architecture of the Cartesian mind.

Primary Texts

The passages and works where Descartes discusses sensory representation and misrepresentation are cited from the following primary texts: (1) Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996); (2) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Descartes 1984–1985); and (3) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: The Correspondence (Descartes 1991b).

  • Descartes, R. Dioptrics. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 1. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 164–175. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984a.

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    Descartes compares the perception of different colors to the blind man’s perceiving the differences between objects around him with a stick in order to make the point that, in perceiving colors, there is no resemblance between the color perception and the object that causes it in us. No intentional species is invoked to explain color perception. The mind is said to be “ordained by nature” to have certain sensations upon being stimulated in certain ways by surrounding objects. Also in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 6, pp. 109–147.

  • Descartes, R. Passions of the Soul. Part 1, sections 1–35. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 1. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 328–342. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984b.

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    In these sections of the Passions of the Soul, Descartes includes perceptual sensations in the general definition of the passions because, he claims, they are received by the soul from the objects that are represented by them. He also claims that sensations are inaccurate representation of their causes. Also found in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 11, pp. 327–356.

  • Descartes, R. Principles of Philosophy. Part 1, sections 66–70. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 1. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 216–219. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984c.

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    See also Part 4, sections 191–198 (pp. 281–285). In these sections of the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes distinguishes sensations from other perceptions (such as the perception of size and shape); claims that sensations, understood clearly and distinctly, are modes of awareness; explains the mechanisms by which we both make and can avoid errors in judgments regarding the things perceived by the senses; and claims that the sensations of color and the like refer to properties in external objects. Also found in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 8A, pp. 32–36 and pp. 318–323.

  • Descartes, R. Rules for the Direction of the Mind. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 1. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 39–51. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984d.

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    In Rule XII, Descartes provides the first account of perception that differs from that of Aristotle. Sensory perception is passive and it occurs when the sense organs are acted upon mechanically by surrounding objects. Sensory perception is no longer accounted for in terms of the reception of an immaterial form. Also in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 10, pp. 411–430.

  • Descartes, R. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vols. 1–2. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984–1985.

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    These two volumes contain a new translation of the philosophical works of Descartes, based on the Latin and French texts.

  • Descartes, R. Fourth Set of Replies. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 2. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 163–164. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985a.

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    In The Fourth Set of Replies, Descartes answers Arnauld’s objection that Descartes’s own theory of ideas prevents ideas from referring to one object while presenting a different one to the mind, by saying that sensory ideas are obscure and confused perceptions. Also in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 7, pp. 232–235.

  • Descartes, R. Meditation Six. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 2. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 50–62. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985b.

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    In Meditation Six, Descartes explains the sense in which sensory ideas contain “some truth” and indeed represent things in the external world and discusses how this information is to be used by man to navigate the environment successfully. Also in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 7, pp. 72–90.

  • Descartes, R. Meditation Three. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 2. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 30. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985c.

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    In Meditation Three, Descartes claims that ideas of color and the like are materially false because they represent non-things as things. Also in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 7, p. 43.

  • Descartes, R. Sixth Set of Replies. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Vol. 2. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 294–296. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985d.

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    In this passage, Descartes distinguishes three grades of sensation. Descartes’s discussion of the second and third grades of sensation raises the question of whether Descartes considers the perception of color and the like (at the second level) as still representational and offers an insight into the relation between sensory perception, the intellect, and judgment (at the third level). Also in Oeuvres de Descartes (Descartes 1996), Vol. 7, pp. 437–439.

  • Descartes, R. Conversation with Burman. In The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: The Correspondence. Vol. 3. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and A. Kenny, 332–354. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991a.

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    In reply to Burman, Descartes claims that material falsity pertains to the internal object of thought (p. 337).

  • Descartes, R. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: The Correspondence. Vol. 3. Edited and translated by J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and A. Kenny. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991b.

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    This volume contains 207 of Descartes’ letters, most of which had not been translated into English before.

  • Descartes, R. Oeuvres de Descartes. Edited by C. Adam and P. Tannery. 11 vols. Libraire Philosophique. Paris: J. Vrin, 1996.

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    This is the standard French edition of Descartes’ texts.

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