What follows are some remarks inspired by Lili Alanen’s recent book, Descartes’s concept of mind. I haven’t reviewed the literature on material falsity, and make no claim concerning the novelty of what follows.
The phrase ‘material falsity’ appears in Meditations 3, in the midst of the first causal proof of the existence of God. The argument of that proof is that the idea of a perfect being, which the meditator finds in himself (and which therefore exists, in the manner in which things exist in thought) could have as its ultimate cause only a perfect being. I imagine that most readers will have encountered it.
The argument proceeds by enumeration, a form of argument discussed in the Regulæ, left incomplete some twelve years prior to the writing of the Med. in 1639 (Rodis-Lewis Descartes 183–184). Taking stock of his ideas, the meditator finds that in his ideas of corporeal things there are only a few things he perceives clearly and distinctly: extension, figure, situation, motion, substance, duration, number (ATAn abbreviation of ‘Adam-Tannery’. Charles Adam & Paul Tannery were the first editors of the standard edition of Descartes’ works.
Paul Tannery (1843–1904) 7:43).
Paul Tannery (1843–1904) 7:43).
|[…] cætera autem, ut lumen & colores, soni, odores, sapores, calor & frigus, aliæque tactiles qualitates, nonnisi valde confuse & obscure a me cogitantur, adeo ut etiam ignorem an sint veræ, vel falsæ, hoc est an ideæ, quas de illis habeo, sint rerum quarundam ideæ, an non rerum. Quamvis enim falsitatem proprie dictam, sive formalem, nonnisi in judiciis posset reperiri paulo ante notaverim, est tamen profecto quædam alia falsitas materialis in ideis, cùm non rem tanquam rem repræsentant: ita, exempli causâ, ideæ quas habeo caloris & frigoris, tam parum claræ | & distinctæ sunt, ut ab iis discere non possim, an frigus sit tantùm privatio caloris, vel calor privatio frigoris, vel utrumque sit realis qualitas, vel neutrum. Et quia nullæ ideæ nisi tanquam rerum esse possunt, siquidem verum sit frigus nihil aliud esse quàm privationem caloris, idea quæ mihi illud tanquam reale quid & positivum repræsentat, non immerito falsa dicetur, & sic de cæteris (AT 7:43–44).||[…] but others, like light and colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold, and other tactile qualities, are not thought by me except very confusedly and obscurely, so that I do not even know if they are true or false, that is, whether the ideas, which I have of them, are ideas of particular things, or of non-things. Although falsity properly speaking, or “formal” falsity, cannot be found except in judgments (as I noted a little while ago), still there is, surely, another “material” falsity in ideas, when they represent a non-thing as a thing: thus, for example, the ideas I have of heat and cold are so far from being clear and distinct that from them I cannot say whether cold is just a privation of heat or heat a privation of cold, or both are real qualities, or neither. And since ideas are only as of things, if cold truly is nothing other than the privation of heat, an idea that represents it to me as something real and positive is not without reason said to be false, and so on for the rest.|
The internal reference (“paulo ante notaverim”) is to this passage. The question at hand is whether God exists, and if so, whether he could be a deceiver: “so long as this is not known, I do not seem ever to be able to be quite certain about anything else”.
Nunc autem ordo videtur exigere, ut prius omnes | meas cogitationes in certa genera distribuam, & in quibusnam ex illis veritas aut falsitas proprie consistat, inquiram. Quædam ex his tanquam rerum imagines sunt, quibus solis proprie convent ideæ nomen, ut cùm hominem, vel Chimæram, vel Cœlum, vel Angelum, vel Deum cogito. Aliæ verò alias quasdam præterea formas habent : ut, cùm volo, cùm timeo, cùm affirmo, cùm nego, semper quidem aliquam rem ut subjectum meæ cogitationis apprehendo, sed aliquid etiam amplius quàm istius rei similitudinem cogitatione complector; & ex his aliæ voluntates, sive affectus aliæ autem judicia appellantur.
Jam quod ad ideas attinet, si solæ in se spectentur, nec ad aliud quid illas referam, falsæ proprie esse non possunt; nam sive capram, sive chimæram imaginer, non minus verum est me unam imaginari quàm alteram. […] Ac proinde sola supersunt judicia, in quibis mihi cavendum est ne fallar (AT 7:36–37).
Order now seems to require that first I should distribute all my thoughts into certain genera, and inquire in which of them truth or falsity properly is found. Certain of them [thoughts] are as if images of things; to these alone the name 'idea' is properly suited, as when I think of a man, a Chimera, the Heavens, an Angel, or God. Others have certain other forms in addition: so that, when I will, fear, affirm, deny, I always apprehend indeed some thing as the subject of my tought, but include something more than the similitude of that thing in thought; and of these [other thoughts] some are called “volitions” or “affections” and others “judgments”.
Now as far as ideas are concerned, if they are regarded only in themselves, and if I do not refer them to something else, they cannot properly be false; for whether I imagine a goat or a chimæra it is no less true that I imagine the one rather than the other. […] Only judgments finally remain, [as being the thoughts] in which it is to be feared that I err.
In the first passage quoted above the meditator defines a sense in which ideas, considered in themselves, can be called true or false; by way of distinguishing this sense from the earlier sense in which ideas considered in themselves were not properly either true or false, this new sense is called “material” falsity (which implies that the earlier sense is “formal”).
Thoughts admitting of truth or falsity
The intent of the passage at AT 7:36–37 is to distinguish those thoughts which admit of truth or falsity from the rest. “Ideas” proper are neither true nor false (the phrase ‘nam sive capram…’ is something of a red herring: what is true is the judgment ‘I am imagining x’). In that respect they are “tanquam rerum imagines”; similitudo is another red herring. Descartes consistently holds that the relation by which a thought has a particular object or refers to a particular thing is not resemblance, but a relation analogous to the semiotic relation of words to things or of words to ideas. The meditator thinks of them as similitudes only pro tempore; in the Sixth Meditation it will turn out that the opinion according to which certain ideas resemble their objects is among those opinions that must be abandoned.
The “other form” that judgments (and volitions) have “in addition” to the ideas they include is not unlike the Fregean assertion-marker (Alanen 153). The formal-material distinction which the meditator avails himself of to disambiguate ‘verum’ and ‘falsum’ rests on an analogy between the idea (proper) as matter and the additional item, which joined with the idea proper yields a judgment, as form. Nothing much turns on the terminology. In the third Med. Descartes will later contrast “formal” or “actual” with “objective” reality (AT 7:41). In his reply to Arnauld, he uses the contrast of ‘formal’ and ‘material’ to mark yet another distinction (Resp.4, AT 7:232; see below).
I think Descartes is improvising, especially in his replies (he does refer to Suárez in Resp. 4, so he isn’t, or so he wants to claim, creating “material falsity” out of whole cloth; I’ll look at the Suárez in a future entry). That does not make the result less interesting, but it suggests that we should not expect the use of these terms to reflect a worked-out, unified conception of the matter-form distinction.
Semantically speaking, material falsity consists in representing a non-thing as a thing. ‘Thing’ (res) is used in the period to denote any entity which is not a mere creature of our thoughts. More precisely: x is a res if the nature of x does not depend on the manner of our conceiving it. A qualitas realis is a quality which is a thing, i.e. a quality whose nature does not depend on the manner of our conceiving it. In a more restricted sense, a x is a res if it is not only a res in the sense just defined but also its existence does not depend on (the manner of) our conceiving it. Heat and cold, or more precisely the objects of the tactile ideas which we signify by the words ‘heat’ and ‘cold’, are non res in the more restricted sense: they exist only “in our thought”, even though we are inclined to think of them as existing in bodies, i.e. as qualities of bodies, as res or modes of extended substance whose nature is independent of our manner of thinking of them.
This needs to be spelled out a little more. ‘Idea’, as most commentators (including Alanen) now recognize, is ambiguous as between act and object. My occurrent judgment that the pavement is hot is an act comprising, as we have seen, ideas of pavement and of heat, along with an act of will—namely, assent to a proposition (this we learn from the Fourth Med.). In the Second Replies, Descartes defines ‘idea’ as a form of thought, that is, as a type which can recur in distinct acts. Ideas so defined are distinguished and designated according to their objects: all ideas, as the meditator says, “can be only as of things” (nisi tanquam rerum esse possunt); every idea “represents”. Thus we have an idea of heat, where ‘of’ denotes a relation which for the moment the meditator does not feel obliged to spell out. All this, except the neologistic use of ‘idea’ where earlier authors would have used various terms like intuitio or species (that this is a new use of ‘idea’ is acknowledged by Descartes in his reply to Hobbes), would have been familiar ground for Descartes’ readers. He is not expecting them to deny that thoughts have objects.
The material falsity of an idea, then, consists in its having as object a non-thing; nevertheless it purports to be, like all ideas, of a thing, i.e. of an entity whose nature and existence are what they are independently of our manner of thinking of them.
Privations as non-things
The meditator, entertaining a hypothesis that Descartes himself rejects, considers an obvious case of respresenting a non-thing as a thing. Privations are non-things (see Des Chene 1996 §3.1 for more). The privation of heat would be (if there were such a thing as heat) the absence of heat—the non-existence of heat in the thing we call “cold”. The absence of heat, or non-heat, is a non-thing: more precisely, if we take cold to be a real and positive thing, that “thing”, which in fact is non-heat, is a non-thing represented as a thing.
There was, as it happens, some debate among Aristotelians concerning heat and cold. Grammatically calor and frigor are both nouns, and put their denotata on an equal footing; but if cold is merely the privation of heat, then the apparent “positivity” of frigor is misleading. We should say non-calor instead. Descartes himself regards this as a non-question; in bodies themselves there is neither heat nor cold. But the meditator is going along with the Aristotelians for the time being, with the expectation that everyone will agree that privations are non-things, and that his point will be understood even by those who, like Descartes himself, don’t think that heat is a real quality in bodies.
The ideas of heat and cold are so obscure and confused that even though they seem to us to be contraries (and, like all ideas, to be of res), we cannot judge with any confidence whether one of them represents the privation of what the other represents, i.e. whether it represents a non-thing. The contrast is with ideas in which I perceive something clearly and distinctly, e.g. extension or number (all the ideas in play here are ideas of bodies—“ideæ rerum corporalium”). In judgments that include those ideas there can be certainty whether they represent things or non-things. Only in the Sixth Meditation is that proved.
Material falsity again
All ideas are “as of things”. Presumably any idea can, in an occurrent thought having that idea as form, represent a non-thing as a thing. The shape of a rainbow is no less illusory than its color. Berkeley, on the basis of similar observations, argued against Locke that if secondary qualities exist only in thought, then primary qualities do too. The function of the distinction between clear and distinct ideas, on the one hand, and obscure and confused ideas, on the other, is to set up the argument of the Sixth Med. in which the guarantee provided by God’s veracity embraces only the ideas of extension and its modes, so that in the study of corporeal things only those ideas are suited to representing the world as it really is. Ideas of sensible qualities have a purpose: they serve to aid us in distinguishing what is good for us (i.e. for the union of body and soul) from what is not. But we have no grounds for asserting that their objects are things. Occurrent thoughts having the ideas of sensible qualities as their forms are of course things. But the qualities represented by those ideas are not, insofar as we are inclined by habits of long standing to take those qualities to be other than modes of extension.
Thus if ‘material falsity’ is supposed to apply only to ideas of sensible qualities, and not to ideas of extension, etc. there must be more to material falsity than merely representing a non-thing as a thing. Material falsity has an epistemological aspect as well as a semantic. Alanen notes, I think rightly, that material falsity is not just obscurity and confusion. At this point it will be useful to turn to the Fourth Objections and Replies.
How is material falsity possible?
Arnauld, who at this point was a brilliant young theologian on the point of defending his doctoral theses, takes issue with the claim that the “objective reality” of an idea cannot be caused by nothing. That claim is essential to Descartes’ first causal proof of the existence of God. On the way to disputing that claim, Arnauld raises two questions concerning material falsity.
The first starts from statements made by Descartes in the first Replies. Arnauld writes:
|Quid enim est idea frigoris? Frigus ipsum, quatenus est objective in intellectu. At si frigus sit privatio, non potest esse objective in intellectu per ideam, cujus esse objectivum sit ens positivum. Ergo, si frigus sit tantùm privatio, nunquam illius poterit esse idea positiva, & proinde nulla quæ materialiter falsa sit.||What is the idea of cold? Cold itself, insofar as it is objectively in the intellect. But if cold is a privation, it cannot be objectively in the intellect by way of an idea of which the objective esse would be a positive ens. Therefore, if cold were only a privation, there could never be a positive idea of it, and so none that would be materially false.|
(Cf. AT 7:102: “here ‘being objectively in the intellect’neque ibi, objective esse in intellectu, significabit ejus operationem per modem objecti terminare, sed in intellectu eo modo esse quo solent ejus objecta, adeo ut idea solis sit sol ipse in tellectu existens, non quidem formaliter, ut in cœlo, sed objective, hoc est eo modo quo objecta in intellectu esse solent will not signify the termination of its operation by some mode of the object, but rather being in the intellect in the way that its objects usually are, so that the idea of the sun is the sun itself existing in the intellect, not, indeed, formally, as in the heavens, but objectively, that is, in the way that objects usually are in the intellect”). If to have an idea of x is for x to be objectively in the intellect, then an idea can be of only a “positive being”, and not of non-things like privations. You cannot think what is not.
Arnauld pushes the point to yield a dilemma:
|[…] illa frigoris idea, quam dicis materialiter falsam esse, quid menti tuæ exhibet? Privationem? Ergo vera est. Ens positivum? Ergo non est frigoris idea (AT 7:207).||[…] this idea of cold, which you say is materially false—what does it exhibit to your mind? A privation? Then it is true. A positive being? Then it is not the idea of cold.|
In other words: even if the first objection is waived, it remains true that no idea can “represent a non-thing as a thing”. The idea of cold represents it either as a privation of heat, and if cold is the privation of heat, the idea is true; or as a positive being; but then (if cold is the privation of heat) it is not “cold itself existing objectively in the intellect” but rather something else existing objectively in the intellect, and therefore not the idea of cold.
Descartes is in a bit of a jam. He shifts the ground. “Materially false” is now construed to mean “providing matter for errorhoc est, ut ego interpretor, quòd tales sint, ut judico materiam præbeant erroris” (AT 7:231). Expanded, this becomes:
|[…] ubi ait, si frigus sit tantùm privatio, nullam posse dari ideam quæ illud tanquam rem ositivam repræsentet, manifestum est ipsum agere tantùm de ideâ formaliter sumptâ. Nam, cùm ipsæ ideæ sint formæ quædam, nec ex materiâ ullâ componantur, quoties considerantur quatenus aliquid repræsentant, non materialiter, sed formaliter sumantur; si verò spectarentur, non prout hoc vel illud repræsentant, sed tantummodo prout sunt operationes intellectûs, dici quidem posset materialiter illas sumi, sed tunc nullo modo veritatem vel falsitatem objectorum respicerent. Nec ideo mihi videtur illas alio sensu materialiter falsas dici posse, quàm eo quem jam explicui : nempe sive frigus sit res positiva, sive privatio, non aliam idcirco de ipso habeo ideam, sed manet in me eadem illa quam semper habui; quamque ipsam dico mihi præbere materiam erroris, si verum sit frigus esse privationem & non habere tantum realitatis quàm calor; quia, utramque ideam caloris & frigoris considerando prout ambas a sensibus accepi, non possum | advertere plus mihi realitatis per unam quàm per alteram exhiberi (AT 7:232–233).||[…] where he says, “If cold were only a privation, there could not be given any idea that represented this as a positive thing”, manifestly that concerns only the idea taken formally. Since these ideas are forms of a sort, and are not composed from matter, whenever they are considered insofar as they represent something, they are taken not materially but formally; but if they are regarded, not as representing this or that, but only as being operations of the intellect, they can be said to be taken materially, but then [they are not taken] with respect to the truth or falsity of [their] objects. Thus it seems to me that they cannot be said to be materially false in any other sense that that which I have explicated: namely, whether cold is a positive thing or a privation, I do not have an idea of it other [than the one I have]; instead it remains in me the same one I have always had; and this I say provides matter for error, if it is true that cold is a privation and does not have as much reality as heat; because, in considering the idea of heat and cold as they both are received from the senses, I am unable to observe that more reality is exhibited to me by one than by the other.|
Descartes has abandoned, for the moment, his use of “formally” in Med. 3, which designates ideas taken as operations of the intellect; here he uses “materially” for the same. That is confusing, but shouldn’t obscure the point being made here. That point seems to be: the idea of cold, considered as an operation of thought, provides “matter” for error (Descartes later uses “occasion” in alternation with “matter”—it would seem that ‘matter’ is being used in a non-technical sense, as in ‘give someone matter for suspicion’). The error in question (always under the assumption that cold is the privation of heat) is that of taking cold to have as much reality as heat; the idea provides matter for that error insofar as the two ideas seem to be on an equal footing with respect to the existence or reality (“thinglikeness”) of their objects. Sometimes a shadow (which, being the privation of light, is a non-thing) may seem to us to be a dog or cat; it is as if, considered only as “received by sense”, its object had no less reality than the image of a dog or cat.
Following up Arnauld’s first point, Descartes effectively takes the second horn of the dilemma.
|Cùm autem ait Vir C., ideam frigoris esse frigus ipsum prout est objective in intellectu, distincitone arbitror opus esse : hoc enim sæpe contingit in ideis obscuris & confusis, inter quas hæ caloris & frigoris sunt numerandæ, ut ad aliud quid referantur quàm ad id cujus revera ideæ sunt. Ita, si frigus sit tantùm privatio, frigoris idea non est frigus ipsum, prout est objective in intellectu, sed aluid quid quod perperam pro istâ privatione sumitur ; nempe est sensus quidam nullum habens esse extra intellectum (AT 7:233).||When the honorable gentleman says that “the idea of cold is cold itself as it is objectively in the intellect”, I judge that a distinction is needed: it often happens with confused and obscure ideas, among which those of heat and cold are to be numbered, that they are referred to something other than to that of which they are in fact the ideas. Thus, if cold were only a privation, the idea of cold is not cold itself as it is objectively in the intellect, but something else which we mistakenly take for that privation; namely it is a certain sensation have no being outside the intellect.|
The idolator’s idea of God is materially false in this sense: the idolator has confused ideas concocted by the mind which are referred to God himself, but which are in fact ideas of sensible things. Those ideas (e.g. the idea of a powerful personage hurling thunderbolts) give, in the mind of the idolator, “occasion for error”. To Gassendi Descartes says, in effect, your objections are beside the point because the idea you have in mind is not the idea of a perfect being.
I don’t think Descartes has a single view of material falsity. He moves from a semantic (“representing a non-thing as a thing”) to an epistemic notion (“providing matter or occasion for error”). In neither case does material falsity pick out a definite class of ideas. The common thread is that obscurity and confusion conduce to material falsity; the idea of God, being clear and distinct, can provide no occasion for error. That is the claim Descartes wants to protect.
But in the response to Arnauld Descartes abandons also the claim that the idea of x (or “the idea of x taken objectively”) is x itself “existing in the intellect in the manner in which things usually do”. The idea of cold turns out to have no existence except in the intellect, or the mind—a view that recurs in the Principles. This is in response to Arnauld’s objection that a non-thing cannot be said to exist even in the intellect.
The difficulty then is that the idea of cold has no object. It is not, for example, the obscure and confused idea of particles moving much more sluggishly than those that give us occasion to feel heat. It is a entirely different sort of thing: a mode of thought which we habitually “refer” to bodies. Similarly the idolator’s idea of God is not God himself existing obscurely and confusedly in the mind, but (at best) something else.
Irrelevance of qualia
Thoughts of cold cannot, then, be individuated by their objects, if by ‘object’ we mean the thing such that the existence of that thing in the intellect constitutes having a thought with that thing as object. Nevertheless, if by idea is meant “form of thought” (Resp. 2, AT 7:160: “By the name of idea I understand that formIdeæ nomine intelligo cujuslibet cogitationis formam illam, per cujus immediatam perceptionem ipsius ejusdem cogitationis conscius sum of each thought by the immediate perception of which I am aware of this same thought”), then there can be such a thing as an idea of cold, i.e. a type of thought having a characteristic form that distinguishes it from, say, thoughts of heat. The idea of cold cannot be distinguished, as can the idea of God, by its object, since it has none. Its purpose is to signify to me, by virtue of its difference from the ideas of heat or tepidness, differences among the causes of sensation—namely, bodies—relevant to my well-being; this it does by virtue of relations instituted by God between certain types of motion in the brain and that idea.
One consequence is that the “raw feel” or subjective aspect of having a sensation of cold is of little importance to Descartes. We tend to take our sensations of cold to represent distinctive qualities in bodies (we “refer” them not only to bodies as their causes but to supposed qualities in those bodies which we take to be other than modes of extension), but qualia as such—the “what it’s like” of feeling cold—are of no importance to Descartes. As Marion has argued (in his Théologie blanche), sensations are a code; they encipher certain features of the physical world (under normal conditions). But they, like words, do so arbitrarily, subject only to the constraint that different features correspond (by divine institution) to different kinds of sensation (a recurring theme in Descartes’ treatment of sensation, both in the mechanistic physiology of the Traité de l’Homme and in the psychology of the Med., is that to differences in the causes of sensations there correspond differences in the sensations). That is all they need to do to serve as a guide to benefit and harm. It no more matters that cold should have a particular feel than that the word ‘dog’ should have a particular sound. A Cartesian definition of the idea of cold would refer to its function, not its feel.
Alanen, Lili. Descartes’s concept of mind. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard, 2003. · Find it at Best Book Buys, isbn.nu, Powells, ABE.
Des Chene, Dennis. Physiologia. Ithaca: Cornell, 1996. · Find it at Best Book Buys, isbn.nu, Powells, ABE.
Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève. Descartes. Biographie. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1995. Find it at Galaxidion.
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