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On the Origin and Nature of Ideas

A Cartesian Look into the Realm of the Mind

by David Foss

My question is this: what sort of cause does an idea need? Indeed, what is an idea? It is the thing that is thought of, in so far as it has objective being in the intellect. But what is ‘objective being in the intellect’? According to what I was taught, this is simply to determine the act of the intellect after the fashion of an object. And this is merely an extrinsic denomination which adds nothing to the thing itself. Just as ‘being seen’ is nothing other than to direct an act of seeing onto myself, so ‘being thought of’, or having objective being in the intellect, is simply to stop and to terminate the thought of the mind. And this can occur without any movement or change in the thing itself, and indeed without the thing in question existing at all. So why should I look for a cause of something which is not actual, and which is simply an empty label, a non-entity?[1]

Ideas are the stuff of thought. If there have been any thinkers who have placed primary importance on ideas in coming to understand and make sense of the human experience, few have done so with so much at stake in their absolute reality as Descartes. Driven by his thirst for certainty, Descartes recognized the categorical schism that divides the mental from the corporeal, and asserted that it is only in the realm of the mental that consistency, completeness, and truth have any relevance or validity. In terms of our nature as knowers, then, the only substance with which we can truly claim understanding is the fabric of ideas, transparently exposed to the intellect. Ideas are central in the Cartesian metaphysical investigations. And their nature, role, and standing within the mind form the core of Descartes’ further proofs of the existence of God, and of the corporeal world.

The novelty of Descartes’ approach is highlighted by Caterus’ question. And some of the complexity internal to the Cartesian theory of ideas is suggested. Objective being, material and formal being, and efficient causality were terms known to Descartes’ contemporaries, but in his hands they are critically altered to make sense of the reconfigured relationships between mind, God, and the material world. To understand these notions, in their Cartesian context, it is helpful to look at ideas from a series of perspectives, of steadily increasing degrees of specificity. Beginning were the Meditations begin constructively, ideas first emerge as salient metaphysical entities when making sense of what it is to be a thinking thing. Ideas in themselves, as entities causally integrated into the substantive substrate of our world, can then be approached directly with an appreciation for the perceptual context in which they exist. However, the notion of ideas developed by direct examination of their causal situatedness may not be so clear. And it is helpful to take a look into the issue of falsity, where notions of non-being, limitation, and intelligibility cross paths, and ideas are revealed by the boundaries of their reality.

There is scarcely any part of Descartes’ philosophy so widely repeated, and so often misunderstood, as the proposition that cogito ergo sum. This expression of the confrontation between doubt and the cognitive faculties forms the bedrock of analysis on which certainty is built. Offered explicitly in the Fourth Part of his Discourse on the Method, the proposition ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’, and the possibility of certainty it articulates, grows out of an approach to the problem of error wherein all that we know by inference is rejected as susceptible to fallacy. What is left, are those realities without which neither truth, nor error, could be meaningful. First among the realities we cannot help but accept, is the unity in the positivity of the self and the operation of thinking.

... if I had merely ceased thinking, even if everything else I had ever imagined had been true, I should have had no reason to believe that I existed. From this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist.[2]

Initially, it seems the only thing which forces us to accept the reality of the self as a thinking thing is the unintelligibility of its denial. Indeed, the ability of this proposition to terminate Cartesian doubt seems to rest purely on the contradiction contained in its negation. I cannot rationally deny a thing which must be the case in order that I might deny it. But there is little room for growth if the only basis for certain knowledge is the absurdity of denying the power of thinking. The nature of the proposition, cogito ergo sum, and the mind’s relationship to it, also offer a positive orientation in the search for what can be known. The basis of our inability to reject this proposition, Descartes suggests, is the clarity with which we apprehend its necessity.

... the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true; only there is some difficulty in recognizing which are the things that we distinctly conceive.[3]

The problem of ‘recognizing those things that we distinctly conceive’ is a pervasive one. Beyond this initial proposition, where the threshold of clarity lies is not at all obvious. Indeed, by the time Descartes works into his Principles, while carefully articulating the basis for conceptual clarity, he clearly views this threshold as flexible, and corresponding directly to the degree of specificity with which an idea, or proposition, is known.

... we should notice something very well known by the natural light: nothingness possesses no attributes or qualities. It follows that, wherever we find some attributes or qualities, there is necessarily some thing or substance to be found for them to belong to; and the more attributes we discover in the same thing or substance, the clearer is our knowledge of that substance.[4]

Our capacity as knowers is further developed in the context of the sensory exposure we suffer from the material world. The reality of the world is not where Descartes begins, but where he concludes his analysis of the senses. What is revealed in the process are the aspects of mind which play the most important parts in coming to terms with his theory of ideas. He suggests:

... I find in myself faculties for certain special modes of thinking, namely imagination and sensory perception. [... Notice] there is an intellectual act included in their essential definition; and hence I perceive that the distinction between them and myself corresponds to the distinction between the modes of a thing and the thing itself. [... Look now to the] passive faculty of sensory perception, that is, a faculty for receiving and recognizing the ideas of sensible objects; [...] I could not make use of it unless there was also an active faculty, either in me or in something else, which produced or brought about these ideas. [... The] only alternative is that [such a constitutive faculty] is in another substance distinct from me — a substance which contains either formally or eminently all the reality which exists objectively in the ideas produced by this faculty [...]. This substance is either a body, that is, a corporeal nature, in which case it will contain formally everything which is to be found objectively in the ideas; or else it is God, ...[5]

The train of thought here bears considerable weight for understanding the nature of mind, and the substantive realm in which it operates. First, it is by such thoughts as concern the external world that we may conclude that sensory perception is at least partially mental. Perception therefore involves the apprehension of various ideas really present before the intellect. Second, because such ideas often transcend the human will, arriving before the intellect without the exercise of willing them, their substantive reality must arise from some other source. The nature of this causal relationship will be investigated later. But the relationship between such ideas, the intellect, and the will form the context within which the issue of knowing is given greater clarity.

Concerning the will, which together with the intellect constitutes the understanding, Descartes observes that both the objects of intellection, as well as the operations of the intellect, are revealed by the degree of our activity (i.e. willing) contained in each. The various intellectual faculties, whether perception, imagination, or even the understanding, differ not only in content, but also in proportion to the degree of activity or passivity contained in each. The will, by its nature, is an absolute power. Whereas the intellect is by its nature finite. Where the intellect reveals truth, the will cannot help but affirm it, not merely on the basis of its facticity, but also as a function of the essential normative content of ‘truth’. However, because the will can extend beyond the finitude of intellectual perspicacity, we can err. Indeed, for Descartes, it is human nature for our reach (apprehension) to exceed our grasp (comprehension).[6]

While it is a fairly straightforward conception of the will, as pure act, which extends its range so widely, the containment and limitation of the intellect (more important for present purposes) must be demonstrated by other means. Other than the reality of error, which in itself obtains a rather ambiguous nature, the finitude of the human intellect can be seen by its apprehension of limit.

... if I had existed alone and independently of every other being, so that I had got from myself what little of the perfect being I participated in, then for the same reason I could have got from myself everything else I knew I lacked, and thus been myself infinite, eternal, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent; in short, I could have had all the imperfections which I could observe to be in God.[7]

In other words, if the mind were absolutely isolated and self sufficient, if it were indeed self constituting, there could be no conception of perfect being beyond the immediate grasp of the self. Furthermore, it would seem there would be no conception of limitation, error, imperfection, in which we participated, as there would be no being beyond our own to weigh against the mind the awareness of finitude.

Before taking up the nature of ideas directly, there is a final note to make about the mental faculties and operations which constitute the intellect. The clarity of an idea as the distinct apprehension of its inferential context, can exist completely apart from whatever body it may correspond to in the imagination, and indeed can exist even where there is no corresponding image.[8] Quite readily, Descartes recognizes that, strictly speaking, no perfect geometric figure has ever been presented to the senses. When we were first exposed to a series of lines which roughly approximate the shape and character of a triangle, we “did not apprehend the figure we saw, but rather the true triangle. It is just the same as when we look at a piece of paper on which some lines have been drawn in ink to represent a man’s face: the idea that this produces in us is not so much the idea of these lines as the idea of a man.”[9] The basis such provocation is that the mind already possesses the idea from some other source.

There are some subtle problems here for the ideas of corporeal subjects, as well as those phantoms of the imagination wherein novel conglomerates are constituted seamlessly. But these problems will not be so obvious, or threatening, until the Cartesian model of ideas is approached in itself. A task now opened through the window of their realm.

Approached from the facticity of the self, as a thinking thing, ideas are initially important primarily for the light they cast on those mechanisms necessary for their cognition. But in order to move beyond the mere articulation of our nature as knowers, we must distinguish among ideas, and find in them more than the native intelligibility of their existence.

In so far as ideas are simply modes of thought, there is no recognizable inequity among them: they all appear to come from within me in the same fashion. But in so far as different ideas represent different things, it is clear that they differ widely. Undoubtedly, the ideas which represent substances to me amount to something more and, so to speak, contain within themselves more objective reality than the ideas which merely represent modes or accidents.[10]

As modes of thought, ideas are substantively mental, but structurally inferential. Whatever is clearly implicated structurally by an idea, constitutes the objective content of that idea. One result of this conception of ‘objective reality’ is that ideas of externals possess or include greater objective content than do ideas of ideas. Where clarity is an issue not only of presence before the intellect, but also objective density, the mind is no longer alone in its apprehension of being. Because objective content often appears to exceed the will, and penetrate cognition without the creative activity of the mental faculties, the substantive foundation of ideas is at least in part passed beyond the self.

Descartes initially ranks ideas between those which seem innate, those which appear adventitious, and those which arise by our own invention, based solely on the degree to which the will is implicated in their presence before the intellect.[11] However, this ranking is still overly concerned with the formal modality of ideas, where their reality as modes of thought obscures the importance of their structural constitution.

The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives [or borrows] from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea.[12]

We can speak of ideas in two ways: in terms of their formal reality, or in terms of their objective reality. Formally, ideas are simply modes of the activity of mind. To the extent that ideas are considered formally, there is no need assure their reality by the existence of extrinsic causes. Objectively, however, ideas are complex inferential strata, whose internal complexities explicitly implicate non-mental entities, relationships and phenomena.

The formal reality of ideas is the modality of thought which constitutes them. However, formal being can only be attributed to thought itself (i.e., the thinking thing), and the extrinsic causes manifested in the structure of ideas presented to the intellect. Strictly speaking, the mode of being in attributable to ideas is entirely objective being. This distinction between two modes of being emphasizes both the nature of ideas as things caused, as well as the nature of extrinsic entities as things which cause.

... just as the objective mode of being belongs to ideas by their very nature, so the formal mode of being belongs to the causes of ideas — or at least the first and most important ones — by their very nature.[13]

It might be helpful at this point to recall the quote which begins this paper. For Caterus, as well as for many of his contemporaries, it is quite a peculiar thing to talk of objective being as a sort of being which warrants a search for a cause. Objective being is simply understood as that which is granted standing in the intellect. The terminus of thought; The objects by which the mind intellects, or thinks; such things appear entirely intra-mental. What grounds do we have to think that anything in the things outside the mind have a causal role in the constitution of those things inside the mind? Objective being seems to be a sort of nominal-being, or postulated existence. And to much of this Descartes agrees. The nature and existence of ideas before the intellect, insofar as they are considered only as existing before the intellect, are simply modes of thought and require no causal connection with extra-mental influences. However, insofar as ideas are considered in themselves, that is in terms of their inferential content, then objective being cannot simply be reduced to a notion of mental modality. More is required to adequately capture the internal richness of ideas. And this is what Descartes believes he is supplying by his notion of efficient causality.

Descartes introduces his argument for the necessity of some causal activity in the constitution of ideas by directing attention to their internal complexity.

... the precise question being raised is what is the cause of [an idea’s] being conceived. [It will not] suffice to say that the intellect itself is the cause of the idea, in so far as it is the cause of its own operations; for what is at issue is not this, but the cause of the objective intricacy which is in the idea.[14]

Objective intricacy is a serious issue here because it demands more of an idea’s causal origins than simple existence. It would seem that the structural constitution of any particular idea cannot simply be the result of free and random association by the mind. Whether an idea be of some complex machine, or a mathematical relationship, or of God, Descartes finds no reason to believe that its inferential makeup can be the mind’s invention. In the context of developing the proof of God’s existence, he takes special note of the causal demands made by ideas.

All the intricacy which is contained in the idea merely objectively — as in a picture — must be contained in its cause, whatever kind of cause it turns out to be; and it must be contained not merely objectively or representatively, but in actual reality, either formally or eminently, at least in the case of the first and principle cause.[15]

The designations of formal and objective being, therefore, reflect directly on a subject’s causal situatedness. It seems that ideas, composed out of the matter of mind, in the shape of reality as revealed by the interrogation of the intellect, are nevertheless the children of the world itself. The interaction of mind and world in the constitution of ideas might be this simple if it weren’t for the troubling allowance Descartes makes for invention. And surely, some allowance for human invention must be made, to avoid a theory which denies the manifest reality of innovation and intellectual development. But it also obscures the clarity of the causal picture. Descartes only suggests that invention is possible, and unfortunately leaves unresolved the issue of how it might work.

When examining the causal origins of an idea of a very complex machine, he allows:

Or the cause might be an extensive knowledge of mechanics in the intellect of the person concerned, or perhaps a very subtle intelligence which enabled him to invent the idea without any previous knowledge. But notice that all the intricacy which is to be found merely objectively in the idea must necessarily be found, either formally or eminently, in its cause, whatever this turns out to be.[16]

This might not be so troubling a notion if it were the case that invention were merely the reorientation of preexisting relationships, like putting a puzzle back together in some new order. But the mind works in radically different ways when recalling the components of a machine seen yesterday and imagining some new design innovation. Descartes seems to recognize this by noting that invention may not directly involve the application of “knowledge” of some specifiable thing or science.

Whatever the causal picture, and however we might conceive the process of original thinking, ideas demand a cause of their objective being, in all their detail. Descartes offers efficient causality as the form of causation required by objective being, at least in the case of eternal truths.[17] But efficient causality is clearly restricted to matters of existence, not essence.[18] And it would seem that objective being is concerned primarily with the structure, or essence, of ideas.

The relationship of efficient causality to objective being is illuminated somewhat through the issues of error and falsity. Recalling what has been said about the intellectual apprehension of truth, as directly arising from the positivity of the objective content of particular ideas (or represented by the Cartesian notion of clear and distinct ideas), the emphasis shifts from the objective being of an idea, to its objective clarity. Of course, it would seem that these two notions are the same for Descartes. And his treatment of error clearly establishes ambiguity with falsity, and falsity with non-being. From this, it would be absurd to think Descartes would allow any talk of objective being where there is not clear and distinct perception by the intellect.

But the issue of falsity is even more complex than this might suggest. There are several types of non-being, just as there are several categories of being. And ideas are distinguished from judgements in terms of the origins of error.

... although, as I have noted before, falsity in the strict sense, or formal falsity, can occur only in judgements, there is another kind of falsity, material falsity, which occurs in ideas, when they represent non-things as things.[19]

Formal falsity concerns the failure of formal being to adhere in the subject of a judgement. Formal non-being cannot be internal to an idea, whose being before the intellect is formal being. Such an idea would be no idea at all. But ideas can structurally implicate non-being as being, or “non-things as things”. And this Descartes calls material falsity, or material non-being.

This distinction echoes the prior distinction made between formal and objective being, with respect to ideas, raising the possibility that material non-being might be directly contrasted with objective being. And indeed material falsity, as the misrepresentation of the world by some idea, does involve a structural failure on the part of that idea in terms of inferential clarity. But it must be noted that material falsity is an issue where non-being actually enters into the structure of an idea. Material being concerns the existential status of the idea itself (or aspects of it).

This is reinforced in Descartes’ comments concerning how we take ideas:

Since ideas are forms of a kind, and are not composed of any matter, when we think of them as representing something we are taking them not materially but formally. If, however, we were considering them not as representing this or that but simply as operations of the intellect, then it could be said that we were taking them materially, but in that case they would have no reference to the truth of falsity of their objects.[20]

Ideas, insofar as they refer outside themselves, partake in formal being. Insofar as we take them as things before the intellect, they partake in material being. This contrasts strangely with the prior distinction between formal and objective being. This sort of formal being, as the being of a referent, seems to line up more clearly with the previous notion of objective being. And the prior notion of formal being, as the being of a cause, appears to have no connection with this notion of material being. Material being concerns the reality of a thing itself. In terms of ideas, reality is measurable by the clarity of intellectual perception, and reflects directly on the ontological richness of an idea. Formal being, in this later sense, concerns the reality of that which is implicated by the inferential structure of an idea. Whether an idea refers to extra-mental things, other ideas, or trans-mental phenomena the reality of those objects is subsumed under the umbrella of formal being.

Judgements, which involve the movement of the intellect between ideas, can postulate formal non-being, by asserting the existence of some referent. But ideas themselves do not assert. Indeed, although they refer, they do not structurally include existence in any idea other than that of God. So any assessment or affirmation concerning the existence (or formal being) of the referents of an idea, must involve the activity of the intellect, or judgement. But this would seem to preclude the basis for asserting the positivity of any analytic, geometric, or eternal truth, which was the clarity of intellectual perception. Indeed, truth is the being of an idea. Material non-being, as the ambiguity of an idea, is a structural failure internal to an idea, and is ultimately the source of error for Descartes.[21] Judgements, which postulate formal non-being, can only do so on the basis of ambiguities internal to their constituent ideas. By discerning the clarity of each component idea, such error can be corrected, and the judgements resolved. Error, then, occurs only in judgement, whereas falsity arises first by the material finitude of most ideas.

The exception of the idea of God in the Cartesian world is significant for the grounding of competent judgement.

... I do not believe [the best minds] will be able to give any reason sufficient to remove [the doubt arising from the indistinguishability of waking awareness from dreams] unless they presuppose the existence of God. For in the first place, [...] that everything we conceive very clearly and very distinctly is true, is assured only for the reasons that God is or exists, that he is a perfect being, and that everything in us comes from him. If follows that our ideas or notions, being real things and coming from God, cannot be anything but true, in every respect in which they are clear and distinct. Thus, if we frequently have ideas containing some falsity, this can happen only because there is something confused and obscure in them, for in that respect they participate in nothingness, that is, they are in us in this confused state only because we are not wholly perfect.[22]

But establishing the clarity with which we perceive God, or the idea of God, is not itself an easy task. This is because the idea of God represents a thing which transcends the intellect necessarily.[23] The objective reality of such an idea is absolute. But Descartes’ proof of the reality of God’s existence is not primarily based upon the direct apprehension of the transcendent truth of the idea of God. All that can be offered by way of such direct cognition is the awareness that such an idea is only as clear as those ideas concerning the nature of a triangle. Rather, he looks directly to the necessities demanded by efficient causality itself, as well as the nature of intellectual clarity.

Efficient causality, is understood as a sustaining force, whereby duration is brought about from each moment to the next. There is, for Descartes, no temporal momentum. And efficient causality is that force whereby each instant is joined to the next.

The separate divisions of time do not depend upon each other; hence the fact that the body in question is supposed to have existed up till now ‘from itself’, that is, without a cause, is not sufficient to make it continue to exist into the future, unless there is some power in it that as it were recreates it continuously.[24]

But notice: there is no ground for such an assumption other than our intellectual capacity to discern ever smaller units of temporal duration, and our conclusion that such discernment must terminate in the apprehension of instantaneous moments of positive being. Like the Cartesian strategy directed against all objects of thought wherein only that which is indivisible obtains clear and distinct reality, so too is temporal continuity rejected in favor of a time-slice ontology. Unfortunately, the reduction of temporal event sequences does not render moments of greater conceptual clarity. And there is no indication that the process of temporal division, carried to its most absurd extremes, will ever terminate. However, even if such a task were conceivable, it is one Descartes never pursues. This is unfortunate, because it is one he must provide in order that his rejection of temporal momentum be anything more than a passing wave of the hand.[25] Nevertheless, for Descartes, given the failure of temporal momentum, duration requires and demonstrates efficient causality by some supervening force. Being, of whatever sort, which does not structurally include its own existence, is sufficient grounds for inferring the activity of such a force.

The precise nature of such an efficient cause, however, seems elusive. This appears to be a problem given Descartes’ insistence that all being, insofar as it is being before the intellect (i.e., objective being), is clearly and distinctly perceived by the intellect. But, as has already been noted, God necessarily exceeds direct and complete apprehension. How could the mind form clear and distinct perceptions of such a thing?

Such incomprehensibility as is internal to the idea of God certainly presents a problem when attempting to imagine such a being. But the intellectual clarity of an idea is not at all related to the degree to which the imagination can model it. While he often refers to ideas in terms of their representational value, Descartes never means such ideas obtain some sort of semblance to their objects.

... the mind does not receive any corporeal semblance; the pure understanding both of corporeal and incorporeal things occurs without any corporeal semblance. In the case of imagination, however, which can have only corporeal things as its object, we do indeed require a semblance which is a real body: the mind applies itself to this semblance but does not receive it.[26]

Neither is comprehension — or direct and thorough apprehension — of an idea required for clear and distinct perception. The clarity with which the intellect discerns an idea can be evaluated either directly (in which case total comprehension is essential), or indirectly. Indirect assessment of such perception is carried out by testing the intelligibility of simultaneously denying part of an idea, while affirming the remainder. It is, in a sense, the effort to break apart an idea into its constituent relations, in an attempt to ascertain whether their union is a fiction of the mind, or a necessity of the world. Whenever such a contradictory idea is postulated, and it is unclear whether it obtains any lesser or greater degree of certainty than the original, we can be certain that at least in this respect the idea is ambiguous (or partakes in non-being). Where the postulated idea or proposition is absurd, we can be certain that the original idea obtains at least as much reality as is demanded by the relation in question.[27]

Clarity, with respect to the incomprehensibility of the idea of God, can be achieved even though the idea itself evades direct examination. And, for Descartes, the clarity with which the intellect apprehends the idea of God is far greater than that of any other idea, in no small part due to the fact that there are innumerable attributes internal to the idea of God which cannot be contradicted intelligibly. Such is the nature of this peculiar idea, that it contains the certainty of its affirmation. But the method of testing clarity, by component negation, is applicable to all ideas, and is used with even greater success than direct illumination.

The two notions, of efficient causality and the indirect assessment of objective being, stand as the two methods whereby Descartes attempts to prove the existence of God.[28] But these two directions offer insight into the nature of ideas themselves. They are caused entities, whose matter is the matter of thought, but whose structural or objective intricacy demands the sustaining influence of an extra-mental reality. They are entities of being, which obtain just as much objective reality as they clearly and distinctly implicate.

There are shortcomings to the Cartesian model. There does not seem to be a clear place for intellectual innovation. Indeed, all that can be thought is ‘in the world’ already, awaiting the light of some intellect to strike upon it. While this might be an adequate model in terms of making sense of past ‘discoveries’, it offers no insight into the generative process itself. It is a failure to make sense of Art, which is as certain a human reality as science. And it is hard to imagine the scientific endeavour itself devoid of an artistic kernel. New ways of thinking might later be described as ‘discoveries’, but for those who first explore them, they are reorientations of the world, not children of the world. Of course, this criticism is neither mortal nor catastrophic to the Cartesian project. It would have to be far better articulated, and more clearly shown to be at odds with Descartes’ thinking. Nevertheless, it should serve as food for thought; the stuff from which new ideas come, and the old find renewed sustenance or fade amidst a fresh shower of contradictions.

PHIL-470-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, Summer 1992)

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Last modified August 27, 1998

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