Tag Archives: intellectual history

Objective Reality: Descartes’ Debt to John Duns Scotus in the Third Meditation

Picture 433The Scholastic source of Descartes’ conception of “objective reality” has been a puzzling subject for Cartesian commentators. Calvin Normore summarily observes, “…almost all of the research on [the] Scholastic background of this aspect of Cartesianism has focused on Descartes’ debt to Thomas [Aquinas] or Francesco Suarez.”1 Arguing against a seeming discontinuity between Descartes and Suarez’s utilization of the doctrine of “objective reality, Timothy J. Cronin maintains, “one must grant that the objection is true if one is speaking of the origin and employment of this doctrine. In regard, however, to the essential nature of objective being, there is between Descartes and Suarez an identity of doctrine.”2 On the other hand, Norman J. Wells states that Descartes “co-opts the terminology” of “objective reality” from Caterus and Suarez, but maintains that Descartes’ doctrine of “objective reality” represents both an “original and unorthodox stand” in relation to his Scholastic predecessor’s treatment of “objective reality,” and “an original modification of the Suarezian perspective.”3

According to commentators, a connection to Scotus concept of “objective reality” in Descartes’ Third Meditation is no more or less definitive then the possibility that Descartes used the concept as he found it in Suarez or Caterus. On which Scholastic text Descartes modeled his own version of “objective reality” has remained inconclusive due to the number of possible candidates. However, a clue to Descartes’ source is implicit in his particular handling of the attendant concepts and images associated with the Scholastic concept of “objective reality,” or “degrees of perfection.” “Objective reality” is the concept that provides Descartes with a solution to the problem of how the “thinking thing” discerns the origin of its idea of the existence of an infinite God.

John Dun Scotus’ proof for the existence of God in his Treatise on God as First Principle and the Opus oxoniense is the likely source for Descartes’ apparatus of terms, concepts, and images in his proof for the existence of God in the Third Mediation. In his proof, Descartes appropriates Scotus’ images of the sun, the stone, and the father/son, as well as the terms “formal,” “eminent,” and “objective reality.” 4 The possibility that Descartes derived the concept of “degrees of perfection” from William of Ockham rather than from Scotus will also be considered.

In the Opus oxoniense, Scotus employs the image of the sun in his discussion concerning the reliability of knowledge gained through the senses:

But if the judgment of the different senses differs in regard to what is seen outside; for instance, if sight says that the staff which is partly in the water and partly in the air is broken, or if sight says, as it invariably does, that the sun is smaller in size than it really is, or in general, that everything seen from a distance is smaller than it is in reality, in all such instances we are still certain of what is true and know which sense is in error.5

Comparison of this passage with the relevant passage from Descartes’ Third Meditation shows a clear correspondence in both context and conception to Scotus’ discussion of the incongruity of the sense’s mistaken judgment of an object, and the real nature of the object. In Descartes’ discussion of the sense’s mistaken judgments, he divides ideas into composite, adventitious, and innate, and asks whether those ideas “resemble” external objects or not:

And finally, even if these ideas did come from things other than myself, it would not follow that they must resemble those things. Indeed, I think I have often discovered a great disparity [between an object and its idea] in many cases. For example, there are two different ideas of the sun which I find within me. One of them, which is acquired as it were from the senses and which is a prime example of an idea which I reckon to come from an external source, makes the sun appear very small. The other idea is based on astronomical reasoning, that is, it is derived from certain notions which are innate in me (or else it is constructed by me in some other way), and this idea shows the sun to be several times larger than the earth. Obviously these ideas cannot resemble the sun which exists outside me; and reason persuades me that the idea which seems to have emanated most directly from the sun itself has in fact no resemblance to it at all(AT VII, 39; CSM II, p. 27).6

In the first passage from Scotus, the rational soul arbitrates between the senses when the senses do not agree. In the case of a disparity between the evidence of one sense and another, the judgment of reason corrects the conflicting judgments of sense. Scotus’ example draws on perceptible objects (the staff, water, the sun) to account for particular sensory phenomena. Scotus maintains that the judgment of reason arbitrates between the conflicting senses “only as an occasion and not as a cause,”7 and concludes that the evidence of the senses is generally reliable.

Descartes, on the other hand, casts doubt on whether his ideas of objects, which he has always assumed to come from without him, do not actually come from within. For Descartes, the mind’s conflicting ideas of the size of the sun are not mediated by the rational mind’s judgment. In the above fragment from the ThirdMeditation, the two ideas of the sun (external and innateidea) are treated as modes of thinking that come from within. Descartes points out that between the mind’s two ideas of the sun no discernable inequality exists. As modes of thought, one idea of the sun is neither more true nor false than the other, even though they appear to contradict one another. The example of the sun is one parallel that indicates Descartes employed Scotus’ approach to the problem of the disparity between the evidence of the senses and the evidence of reason.

Turning to the second image of the stone in Scotus’ Treatise on God as First Principle, Scotus uses the image of a stone as an illustration in his discussion of the infinite and perfect causal power of God:

…since the divine essence alone is the reason for seeing the stone perfectly, it follows that the stone adds nothing of perfection to that essence. But this does not follow if it is the reason for producing the stone immediately, even as total cause, for the first cause is the complete cause of the highest nature. But since the latter is finite, you cannot infer that its first cause is infinite; neither is it proved that the first is the total cause of other things.8

Scotus argues that “the full causal power that each thing may have in itself the first being possesses even more perfectly than if it were formally present. Therefore its power is infinite in intensity.”9 Scotus uses the terms “formal” (formaliter) and “eminent” (eminenter) in treating the infinite power of the first cause. According to Scotus, “formal properties” apply to the first cause in the sense that God actually contains every possible effect, according to its definition, and conveys properties “formally” through causae per se. God generates the “degrees of perfection” inhering in essences through a chain of causal necessity. “Eminent properties” apply to the first cause in that “potential properties” inhering in effects are transmitted through causae per accidens. “Eminent properties” do not participate in “degrees of perfection” because the nature of “eminent properties” is non-essential, or not intended to produce a given effect. For example, a tool may be causing essentially when it is being used for the purpose for which it was made; however, if a tool made to drive nails was being used to turn screws, the effect of the tool is accidental to the nature of the cause for which it is used to achieve.

Scotus’ example of the stone is used in regard to the question whether the infinite first cause produces an infinity of things simultaneously, or only in succession. Scotus maintains that even if an infinity of “eminent properties” do not exist simultaneously, the first cause possesses all the power “formally” “to produce an infinite number at once.”10 For Scotus, the first cause is perfection in the highest degree, and possess all “formal properties” in actuality, though not individually, or potentially. The less individuation that exists between the first “essential cause” and the effect signifies the greater perfection inhering in an “essential order of causes.” Scotus adds that, “the more one can produce simultaneously, the greater the power in intensity,”11 and concludes his discussion with the point that God’s power must be infinite in intensity in order to create ex nihilo. Scotus’ example of the stone shows that anything, whether understood to be existing simultaneously with an infinity of things, or as a member of an infinite succession, adds nothing to the divine essence, since that thing (e.g., a stone) only exists by virtue of an infinite cause of infinite intensity. A stone itself cannot be a total cause, as only the first cause is a complete cause. A stone exists, like all things, on a scalar magnitude of essential perfections, and exists only in virtue of a prior cause that contains “formal” and “eminent” causal power greater than that inhering in the stone.

The context wherein the parallel example of the stone occurs in Descartes’ Third Meditationshows that Descartes owed much to his reading of Scotus:

Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much [reality] in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause. For where, I ask, could the effect get its reality from, if not from the cause? And how could the cause give it to the effect unless it possessed it? It follows from this both that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect — that is, contains in itself more reality — cannot arise from what is less perfect. And this is transparently true not only in the case of effects which possess [what the philosophers call] actual or formal reality, but also in the case of ideas, where one is considering only [what they call] objective reality. A stone, for example, which previously did not exist, cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something which contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone… But it is also true that the idea of heat, or of a stone, cannot exist in me unless it is put there by some cause which contains at least as much reality as I conceive to be in the heat or in the stone. For although this cause does not transfer any of its actual or formal reality to my idea, it should not on that account be supposed that it must be less real. The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives 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 from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea. For if we suppose than an idea contains something which was not in its cause, it must have got this from nothing; yet the mode of being by which a thing exists objectively [or representatively] in the intellect by way of an idea, imperfect though it may be, is certainly not nothing, and so it cannot come from nothing…12

In the latter fragment, Descartes assembles an impressive array of Scotus’ terminology: “infinite cause,” “degrees of perfection,” and “formal” and “eminent properties.” One exception is Scotus’ “accidentally ordered causes.”13 Descartes’ argument seems to incorporate different elements from two of Scotus’ texts, the Treatise on God as First Principle, and the Opus oxoniense. The example of the stone and “formal” and “eminent properties” appear together in Scotus’ Treatise. The concept of “objective reality” appears in both the Treatise and the Opus oxoniense. In the fragment from the Third Meditation where we find the image of the stone, Descartes invokes Scotus’ concept of an essentially ordered series of causes to argue that the mind’s “formal” idea of an infinite God cannot have originated in the mind. Descartes must suppose that an infinite God exists in order for the innate idea of an infinite God to possess a greater reality or perfection than the mind’s composite or adventitious ideas of things:“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.”14 To demonstrate how the mind came to possess an idea of God’s existence, Descartes argues that “formal properties,” or the mind’s innate ideas, pertain to a chain, however short, of “essentially ordered causes” that informs the mind with an idea of the existence of an infinite God. The idea of an infinite God allows Descartes to arrange ideas, and consequently things, on a scalar magnitude of “degrees of perfection.” Descartes’ example of the stone occurs in a conceptual context that mirrors Scotus’ discussion of an infinite first cause.

Correspondingly, in the Third Meditation, the third image, the “parent” (in Scotus, father/son) occurs in the context of Descartes’ discussion of “objective reality,” or “degrees of perfection.” Descartes’ example of the parent treats the relationship obtaining between the parent/meditator and God/meditator in an analogous way to Scotus’ proof for the existence of God in his Opus oxoniense. First, Scotus:

Per se or essentially ordered causes differ from accidentally ordered causes in three respects. The first difference is that in essentially ordered causes, the second depends upon the first precisely in its act of causation. In accidentally ordered causes that is not the case, although the second may depend on the first for its existence or in some other way. Thus a son depends upon his father for existence but is not dependent upon him in exercising his own causality, since he can act just as well whether his father be living or dead.15

Now Descartes:

…[I]t is not so easy for me to remember why the idea of a being more perfect than myself must necessarily proceed from some being which in reality is more perfect. I should therefore like to go further and inquire whether I myself, who have this idea, could exist if no such being existed. From whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself presumably, or from my parents, or from some other beings less perfect than God; for nothing more perfect than God, or even as perfect, can be thought of or imagined… Lastly, as regards my parents, even if everything I ever believed about them is true, it is certainly not they who preserve me; and insofar as I am a thinking thing, they did not even make me; they merely placed certain dispositions in the matter which I have always regarded as containing me, or rather my mind, for that is all I now take myself to be. So there can be no difficulty regarding my parents in this context. Altogether then, it must be concluded that the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists.16

In his proof for the existence of God, Scotus delineates how essences figure into any series of essentially ordered causes, or causae per se. Scotus reasons that accidentally ordered causes, or causae per accidens, depend on an “essential” order of causation, “since accidents do not have any order save in virtue of what is fixed and permanent.”17 The fixity of “essentially ordered causes” refers to immaterial reality; “accidentally ordered causes” refer to material things. Given the dual nature of Scotus’ treatment of causation, it is evident that he, unlike Descartes, never considers the existence of bodies as doubtful. Following Aristotle, Scotus maintains that all ideas owe their origin to the rational soul’s perceptions of physical objects. The existence of the material world, for Scotus, is an Aristotelian indemonstrable principle.

In the example of the father and son, Scotus examines two kinds of causation through the analogy of a son’s genetic and generic relationship to his father. Scotus argues that “accidentally ordered causes” are not by nature intended to produce a given effect. The “degree of perfection” inhering in the essence of the father is never dependent on, or the cause of, the “degree of perfection” inhering in the essence of the son. In the “essential” order of causation, the essential attributes of one individual are not inherited by another. If the father is taken to be the “essential cause” of the son, the son must, of necessity, be less perfect than the father. Because the son is not his own cause, his relation to the father is necessarily one of “formal” dependence, or the son depending on the father “in the exercising of his own causality.”18 The son takes his essential nature from the father in virtue of a relationship of “formal” dependence, but he is not a direct copy of the father. The necessity that obtains in the relationship of the father and son becomes clear when Scotus replaces the father with God, and the created essential natures of angels or the rational soul stand in for the son.

The similarity of context in Descartes and Scotus’ respective texts is striking. In the “parent” passage from the Third Meditation, Descartes employs Scotus’ example of the father/son in his discussion of “essential” and “accidentally ordered causes.” Descartes’ brief consideration of “accidentally ordered causes” as the origin of the mind’s idea of God’s existence never amounts to more than a hypothetical possibility. In the case of both Scotus and Descartes’ texts, the “accidental order” of causation applies only to the parent as the material cause of the son. Material existence, for Scotus, does not explain from where the son or the father derives their being or essence. The question of the origin of essences is answered when directed to the essential order of causation. “Essentially ordered causes” form a relation of dependence that goes back to God as the first cause.

In the Third Meditation, Descartes is searching for the cause of his idea of God, or what he understands as “a substance infinite, independent, most highly intelligent, most highly powerful, and by which [formal attributes]… is extant.”19 He summons Scotus’ concept of an “essential order of causes” to explore the possibility of God as the originator of the thinking thing (res cogitans). Descartes describes essences manifesting sub specia eternatatus in descending “degrees of perfection.” Descartes then uses Scotus’ example of parentage to demonstrate how the “accidental order of causes” that obtains between the parents and the meditator extends no further than parents as the cause of “certain dispositions in the matter [body] which I have always regarded as containing me, or rather my mind, for that is all I now take myself to be.”20 Being unable to posit a logical causal link to genetic parentage, Descartes surmises that the source of the contents of the mind cannot owe their existence to causae per accidens; the existence of the mind’s idea of God can only exist, and can only be explained through causae per se.

Descartes holds that the mind’s idea of the existence of God is innate, and that God deliberately created the mind with an idea of His existence. Accordingly, God endows beings, whether they are thinking things, extended, or both, with essential being. All beings created by God are secondary members of an “essential order of causes.” In the case of the meditator’s innate idea of God’s existence, the second member of an “essential order of causes” depends upon the first member, God, for its cause. Under Scotus’ consideration of “essentially ordered causes,” God is not involved in the direct causation of ideas. For Scotus, ideas originate in the rational soul’s perception of objects in the material world. Scotus’ separation of causes into accidental and per se emphasizes the radically free creative power of God:

…in the realm of beings something indeed exists which is simply first according to efficiency, and also that something exists which is simply first in the order of ends, and that something exists which is simply first by reason of pre-eminence.21

In 1300, Scotus originated the concept of “degrees of perfection” emanating out of “essentially ordered causes.” As a close reader of Scotus’ writings in the 17th century, Descartes remained largely faithful to Scotus’ handling of images and terminology in building his conceptual proof for the existence of God as an innate idea of the mind. Following Scotus, Descartes defines God as an infinite being that is the perfection of perfections. To prove the mind’s idea of God is an idea of a perfect and infinite being, Descartes applies Scotus’ method of proving God’s existence through the “essential order of causes.”

Despite similarities of image, context, and terminology, two important differences of method obtain between Scotus and Descartes’ use of “essential order of causes” in their respective proofs for the existence of God. First, Scotus never casts doubt on the existence of the material world in order to establish the existence of God through the “essential order of causes.” As an Aristotelian, Scotus is not concerned with the verifiability of the sciences as such, whereas Descartes’ primary concern after having rejected the Aristotelian cosmology is the very foundation upon which the sciences are built. Subordinating the world of “accidentally ordered causes” to the logically prior “essentially ordered causes” is necessary for Descartes to deduce the foundations of the new science from a single indubitable starting point. Secondary causes in the material world claim no essential connection to the essential nature of God. Descartes’ distinction between an accidental order of causation, such as the parent/son, and “essentially ordered causes” corresponds to his division between extended things (res extensa) and thinking things (res cogitans).

The second difference in method between Scotus and Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God involves the philosophic status of reason as such. In the Third Meditation, Descartes does not prove the existence of God from reason alone, as Scotus attempt to do. After discovering the mind’s origin in the mind’s a priori idea of God, Descartes notes that the mind’s perception of its ideas does not involve reasoning, but only a passive observation and delineation of its three types of ideas in relation to the causal principle of “objective reality.”22 According to Scotus, God, considered as infinite is only known through an “essential order of causes.” The finite “accidental order of causes” tells one nothing about the infinite. In the disembodied world of the Third Meditation, Descartes can dispense with contingent material bodies originating from the secondary qualities of substance and essence. For Descartes, the material world is not caused through the “essential order of causation.” The “essential order of causation” is linked to the material world by way of essence, or in other words, the rational mind’s innate idea of God’s existence.

In the respect of a difference of method, Descartes’ use of Scotus represents both an “original and unorthodox stand” in relation to his Scholastic predecessor’s treatment of “objective reality,” and “an original modification.”23Descartes utilizes the Scotus’ theoretical apparatus of “degrees of perfection,” and its attendant terminology and images, insofar as it is purposeful for him. There never occurs a wholesale transfer of Scotus’ concepts into the Cartesian framework. Yet significant correspondences between Scotus and Descartes’ respective theoretical apparatus indicate that Descartes found enough in Scotus’ philosophic thought to construct one of the hallmarks of his philosophy. Descartes’ proof for the existence of God in the Third Meditation is orthodox, however, in the respect that he continues the Scholastic tradition of generating a proof for the existence of God using conventional Scholastic terminology. It is doubtful such terminology came into Descartes’ hands from Renaissance sources; rather, Descartes likely read the Scholastic proofs for God’s existence first-hand, or in commentaries or textbooks. 24 Descartes never refers to Scotus in the Third Meditation,25 but Scotus’ fingerprints are on the blueprint of the Cartesian mind’s innate idea of God. The possibility that Descartes read Scotus’ writings firsthand is not a far-fetched. In Descartes and the Last Scholastics, Roger Ariew notes that, “Descartes could have become aware of Scotist doctrines from a number of disparate sources.” Ariew lists several possible sources without proposing that Descartes could have directly read works written by Scotus. Nevertheless, Ariew observes that, “Descartes leans toward Scotism for every one of the Scotist theses, as long as they are all relevant to his philosophy.” 26

In the Third Meditation, Descartes’ borrowing from the philosophical writings of the Scholastic philosophers is akin to the Scholastic philosopher’s practice of borrowing both terminology and images from writings of the Ancients. The textual sources of the images and terms used by Scholastic philosophers are sometimes named, sometimes not, and the decision seems almost arbitrary. 27 Descartes, in his philosophical writings, only mentions a handful of his contemporaries and predecessors in passing, leaving a more-or-less cold trail behind him as far as the sources of his own philosophic thought are concerned.28 Yet the use of well-established images, for the Scholastics, serves the purpose of either invoking the authority of a particular Ancient writer with whom the Scholastic philosopher shares an intellectual kinship, or simply because the pre-established image serves the purpose better than one they might invent. Descartes’ use of Scotus’ terminology and images in the Third Meditationwere probably apparent to his contemporary readers,29 being that Descartes’ use of terms and images is in line with the Schoolmen’s long tradition of borrowing terms and images from the Ancients. 30

We now examine the possibility that Descartes derived the terminology and images of “degrees of perfection” from the writings of William of Ockham, rather than the writings of Scotus. It is just as likely that Descartes derived the example of the “parent” from Ockham, as it is that he derived it from Scotus. The image, in the context of “degrees of perfection,” is found in both the writings of Ockham and Scotus. In his critique of Scotus’ concept of “degrees of perfection” in Qusetiones in lib. I Physicorum, Ockham cites Scotus’ example of the father/son. To illustrate Scotus’ point about “accidentally ordered causes,” Ockham reprises Scotus’ example of the father/son in a division whose heading reads, “Scotus answers this question in the affirmative,”31 thus indicating that what follows concerning “degrees of perfection” can be taken to be the views of Scotus, and not those of Ockham.32

Ockham, investigating the question, “Whether in essentially ordered causes the second cause depends on the first,” writes:

To this question I answer: There is a difference between essentially ordered causes and accidentally ordered causes, and partial causes concurring in the production of numerically the same effect. For in essentially ordered causes the second cause depends on the first for its first existence; not, however, for its conservation. For instance, Socrates depends on Plato, since he cannot be naturally caused without Plato, his father; but he is not conserved by Plato, because Socrates lives on when Plato is dead.33

Ockham’s example of Plato/Socrates is simply a reformulation of the concept of dependency between causes that he later clarifies with the example of the father/son when reviewing Scotus’ concept of “degrees of perfection.” Descartes does not employ Ockham’s example of Plato/Socrates in the Third Meditation. If Descartes derives the example of the parent and the concept of ‘Degrees of “perfection” from Ockham, we must ask why Descartes employs the example of the father/son, and not the example of Plato/Socrates. Or, why does he not use both? Ockham’s Qusetiones in lib. I Physicorum, when considered as the source of Descartes’ example of the parent, raises more questions than it answers.

In the Third Meditation, the intricacy of Descartes’ handling of the concept of “degrees of perfection” reflects Scotus’ equally intricate handling of the concept. Without directly referring to Scotus’ writings, it is unlikely that Descartes could gather elsewhere the full range of images and terminology found in Scotus’ argument for the “degrees of perfection,” or Scotus’ several types of causation. Nor could Descartes extract what he needed from simply reading Ockham’s summary of Scotus’ concept for two reasons. First, there is the brevity of Ockham’s overview of Scotus’ ideas. Second, there is the fact that Ockham maintains, on nearly every point in his summary, a position in opposition to Scotus’ conclusions about an infinity of “degrees of perfection.”34 It is unlikely that Descartes would have found in Ockham’s writings what he needed to construct his proof for the existence of God from Ockham’s truncation of Scotus’ argument for “degrees of perfection.” Moreover, what incentive would Descartes have had to resurrect what only appears in Ockham’s account to be a slight and slighting notice of Scotus’ ideas? In the writings of Scotus, Descartes found the ready-made technical vocabulary and illustrative imagery to accomplish what he envisioned for his proof for God’s existence in the Third Meditation. Based on how fully Descartes treats Scotus’ concept of “degrees of perfection,” the diluted form of the theory that Ockham puts together would not have served Descartes’ purposes well. As a close reader of Scholastic philosophers, Descartes found more efficient uses for Ockham’s philosophic thought than for what he aimed to prove in the Third Meditation.

1 Calvin Normore, “Meaning and Objective Being: Descartes and his Sources,” in Essays on Descartes Meditations, Amelie Oksenberg Rorty, ed. (University of California Press, 1986), p. 231, brackets mine. Some further relevant articles addressing the subject of the relation between Scholasticism and Descartes’ Meditations and the rôle of “objective reality” in Cartesian philosophy are: Roland Dalbiez, “Les sources scolastiques de la théorie cartésienne de l’être objectif. A Propos du ‘Descartes’ de M. Gilson,” in Revue d’Histoire de la philosophie 3, 1929, pp. 464-72: “Le milieu intellectuel scolastique que nous avons essayé de reconstituer en partie: attribution scotiste d’une quasi-réalité a l’esse objectivum, définition vasquezienne de la vérité par l’accord du conceptus objectivus et de la chose, affirmation suarezienne de la possibilité absolue de la sensation d’un objet inexistant, ce milieu intellectuel permet de comprendre historiquement la genèse de la théorie cartésienne de l’être objectif ;” Jean-Luc Marion, The Essential Incoherence of Descartes’ Definition of Divinity, trans. by Frederick P. Van de Pitte, in Essays on Descartes Meditations, ed. by Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (University of California Press, Berkley, 1986); Roger Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1999); Marco Forlivesi, “La distinction entre concept formèl et concept objectif: Suarez, Pasqualigo, Mastri,” in Les Études Philosophiques, Nr. 1, 2002; Jean-Francois Courtine, “La doctrine cartésienne de l’idée et ses sources scolastiques,” Les catégories de l’être: Etudes de philosophie ancienne et médiévale (PUF: Paris, 2003).

2 T.J. Cronin, S. J., “Objective Being in Descartes and Suarez,” Wisdom In Depth: Essays in Honor of Henri Renard, S. J., eds. V.F. Daues, S.J., M.R. Holloway, S.J., L. Sweeney, S.J. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1966); p. 79.

3 Norman J. Wells, “Objective Reality of Ideas in Descartes, Caterus, and Suarez,” in The Journal of the History of Philosophy (University of California Press, Berkeley; Los Angeles, 28:1, pp. 33-61, January, 1990), p. 61.

4 The main references in Descartes’ Third Meditation to the sun are as follows: AT VII, 38: CSM II, p. 26; AT VII, 39: CSM II, 27. The main references to the stone are as follows: AT VII, 40: CSM II, 28-9, 30. The main references to the parent are as follows: AT VII, 48, 50: CSM II, 31-33, 35. Hereafter all citations of Descartes’ works are as follows: references to Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (eds.), Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols. (Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1996), are abbreviated as AT. References to the English edition of Descartes’ philosophical works, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Mardoch, and Anthony Kenny (eds.), (Cambridge University Press, 1984), are abbreviated as CSM.

5 John Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings, translated by Allan Wolter, O.F.M. (Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), p. 114; Iohannis Duns Scoti, Opera Omnia, vol. 3, pp. 123-172 (Vaticana, 1950). The passage in Latin runs as follows: “Si autem diversi sensus habeant diversa judicia de aliquo viso extra, puta visus dicit baculum esse fractum cujus pars est in aqua et pars est in aere, visus semper dicit solem esse minoris quantitatis quam est, et omne visum a remotis esse minus quam sit, in talibus est certitudo quid verum sit et quis sensus erret per propositionem…” References to the two editions of Scotus’ writings edited by Allan Wolter, O.F.M., are as follows: John Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings is abbreviated as PW; John Duns Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principle, translated by Allan Wolter, O.F.M. (Franciscan Press, 1983), is abbreviated as TGFP. The critical edition of Scotus’ works cited is abbreviated as DSOO. References to the Duns Scotus:Opera Omnia list, in the following order, volume, page, and paragraph number.

6 Third Mediation, AT VII, 39: “Ac denique, quamvis a rebus a me diversis procederent, non inde sequitur illas rebus istis similes esse debere. Quinimo in multis saepe magnum discrimen videor deprehendisse: ut, exempli causa, duas diversas solis ideas apud me invenio, unam tanquam a sensibus haustam, & quae maxime inter illas quas adventitias existimo est recensenda, per quam mihi valde parvus apparet, aliam vero ex rationibus Astronomiae desumptam, hoc est ex notionibus quibusdam mihi innatis elicitam, vel quocumque alio modo a me factam, per quam aliquoties major quam terra exhibetur; utraque profecto similis eidem soli extra me existenti esse non potest, & ratio persuadet illam ei maxime esse dissimilem, quae quam proxime ab ipso videtur emanasse.” Cf. Third Meditation, AT VII, 38: CSM II, p. 26, for an earlier reference to the sun: “Among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious, and others to have been invented by me. My understanding of what a thing is, what truth is, and what thought is, seems to derive simply from my own nature. But my hearing a noise, as I do now, or seeing the sun, or feeling the fire, comes from things which are located outside me, or so I have hitherto judged.” Cf. Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, New York, 1941), p. 588; 428 b, 1, ff., for a likely source for the sun image in both Scotus and Descartes: “But what we imagine is sometimes false though our contemporaneous judgment about it is true; e.g. we imagine the sun to be a foot in diameter though we are convinced that it is larger than the inhabited part of the earth…”

7 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 115: “And so when reason judges that the senses err, it does so in

virtue of two kinds of knowledge. The first is a knowledge for which the intellect requires a

sense only as an occasion and not as a cause — a knowledge in which it would not be

deceived even if all the senses were deceived. The other is a knowledge acquired by the oft

repeated testimony of one or more senses which are known to be true by reason of the

proposition so frequently quoted, viz., ‘Whatever occurs in most instances, etc.”’

8John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 132. The Latin text (p. 133) runs as follows: “Ad secundum obiectum supra dico quod quia essentia divina, sola est ratio videndi lapidem perfecte, sequitur quod lapis nihil perfectionis addat illi essentiae. Non sequitur hoc, si est ratio causandi lapidem immediate, etiam ut tota causa: nam respectu supremae naturae prima causa est totalis causa.” Cf. John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 25, where Scotus also uses the example of a stone: “We would have no more reason to conclude that God is formally wise from the notion of wisdom derived from creatures then we would have reason to conclude that God is formally a stone. For it is possible to form another notion of a stone to which the notion of a created stone bears some relation, for instance, stone as an idea of God. And so we could say formally, ‘God is a stone,’ according to this analogous concept, just as we say, ‘He is wise,’ according to another analogous concept.’” The context of this passage, treating of the supposed attributes of God, differs from the passage referring to the example of the stone cited above, and further, this passage differs from Descartes considerations where he uses the example of the stone.

9John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 130: “…I prove infinity as follows: if the first being at one and the same time formally possessed all causal power, even tough the things which it could cause could not be given simultaneous existence, it would be infinite because — as far as it is concerned — it has power enough to produce an infinite number all at once, and the more one can produce simultaneously, the greater the power in intensity. But if the first being possessed such power in an even more perfect way than if it had formally, its intensive infinity follows a fortiori. But the full causal power that each thing may have in itself the first being possesses even more perfectly than if it were formally present. Therefore its power is infinite in intensity.”

10 John Duns Scotus, TGFP, p. 130.

11Ibid., TGFP, p. 130.

12 Third Meditation, AT VII, 40, CSM 2, pp. 28-29; brackets and italics in original. The original Latin text runs as follows: “Jam vero lumine naturali manifestum est tantumdem ad minimum esse debere in causa efficiente & totali, quantum in ejusdem causae effectu. Nam, quaeso, undenam posset assumere realitatem suam effectus, nisi a causa? Et quomodo illam ei causa dare posset, nisi etiam haberet? Hinc autem sequitur, nec posse aliquid a nihilo fieri, nec etiam id quod magis perfectum est, hoc est quod plus realitatis in se continet, ab eo quod minus. Atque hoc non modo perspicue verum est de iis effectibus, quorum realitas est actualis sive formalis, sed etiam de ideis, in quibus consideratur tantum realitas objectiva. Hoc est, non modo non potest, exempli causa, aliquis lapis, qui prius non fuit, nunc incipere esse, nisi producatur ab aliqua re in qua totum illud sit vel formaliter vel eminenter, quod ponitur in lapide; nec potest calor in subjectum quod prius non calebat induci, nisi a re quae sit ordinis saltem aeque perfecti atque est calor, & sic de caeteris; sed praterea etiam non potest in me esse idea caloris, vel lapidis, nisi in me posita sit ab aliqua causa, in qua tantumdem ad minimum sit realitatis quantum esse in calore vel lapide concipio. Nam quamvis ista causa nihil de sua realitate actuali sive formali in meam ideam transfundat, non ideo putandum est illam minus realem esse debere, sed talem esse naturam ipsius ideae, ut nullam aliam ex se realitatem formalem exigat, praeter illam quam mutuatur a cogitatione mea, cujus est modus. Quod autem haec idea realitatem objectivam hanc vel illam contineat potius quam aliam, hoc profecto habere debet ab aliqua causa in qua tantumdem sit ad minimum realitatis formalis quantum ipsa continet objectivae. Si enim ponamus aliquid in idea reperiri, quod non fuerit in ejus causa, hoc igitur habet a nihilo; atqui quantumvis imperfectus sit iste essendi modus, quo res est objective in intellectu per ideam, non tamen profecto plane nihil est, nec proinde a nihilo esse potest…”

13 Another distinguishing mark of Descartes’ debt to the writings of Scotus is in Descartes particular use in the Third Meditation of the long-established phrase, “ex nihilo nihil fit.” In both Descartes and Scotus’ texts, the superiority of the first cause to its effects is the topic wherein the phrase is invoked. The phrase, “nothing comes from nothing” is found in Scotus’ proof for the existence of God in the Ordinatio. The first two extracts are from Descartes’ Third Meditation:

“It follows from this both that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect — that is, contains in itself more reality — cannot arise from what is less perfect” (AT VII, 40: CSM II, p. 28);


“For if we suppose than an idea contains something which was not in its cause, it must have got this from nothing; yet the mode of being by which a thing exists objectively [or representatively] in the intellect by way of an idea, imperfect though it may be, is certainly not nothing, and so it cannot come from nothing…” (AT VII, 41: CSM II, p. 29);

and now Scotus:

“Proof: Some being can be produced. Therefore it is either produced by itself or by nothing or by something other than itself. Now it cannot be produced by nothing, for what is nothing causes nothing. Neither can it be produced by itself…” (PW, p. 39; DSOO, 2, 151, 43);


“Proof: From the first reason adduced here, viz., that nothing can come from nothing, it follows that some nature is capable of causing effectively…” (PW, p 44; DSOO, 2, 161, 55).

14 Third Meditation, AT VII, 41; CSM 2, pp. 28-29.

15 John Duns Scotus, PW, pp. 40-41; John Duns Scotus, DSOO, 2, 154, 48-49. The Latin text runs as follows: “Et differunt causae per se sive essentialiter ordinatae a causis per accidens sive accidentaliter ordinatis in tribus. Prima differentia est, quod in per se ordinatis secunda in quantum causa dependet a prima; in per accidens non, licet in esse vel aliquo modo alio dependeat. Filius enim licet secundum esse dependeat a patre, non tamen in causando, quia patre mortuo potest agere sicut ipso vivo.”

16 Third Meditation, AT VII, 48, 50; CSM 2, 31-33, 35. The Latin original runs as follows: “Nempe a quo essem? A me scilicet, vel a parentibus, vel ab aliis quibuslibet Deo minus perfectis; nihil enim ipso perfectius, nec etiam aeque perfectum, cogitari aut fingi potest… Quantum denique ad parentes attinet, ut omnia vera sint quae de illis unquam putavi, non tamen profecto illi me conservant, nec etiam ullo modo me, quatenus sum res cogitans, effecerunt; sed tantum dispositions quasdam in ea materia poseurunt, cui me, hoc est mentum, quam solam nunc pro me accipio, inesse judicavi. Ac proinde hic nulla de iis difficultas esse potest; sed omnino est concludendum, ex hoc solo quod existam, quaedamque idea entis perfectissimi, hoc est Dei, in me sit, evidentissime demonstrari Deum etiam existere.”

17 John Duns Scotus, PW, p.43.

18 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 41.

19 Third Meditation, AT VII, 45: CSM 2, p. 31. Brackets mine.

20 Third Meditation, AT VII, 50-51; CSM, 2, p. 35. Brackets mine.

21 John Duns Scotus, PW, p. 38; DSOO, 2, 149-50, 41.

22 “Third Meditation, AT VII, 42; CSM 2, p. 29: “So it is clear to me, by the natural light, that the ideas in me are like [pictures, or] images which can easily fall short of the perfections of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more perfect.”

23 Norman J. Wells, “Objective Reality of Ideas in Descartes, Caterus, and Suarez,” in The Journal of the History of Philosophy, p. 61.

24 Cf. Calvin Normore, “Meaning and Objective Being: Descartes and his Sources”: “In the Third Meditation Descartes is conjuring with the stock-in-trade of late Medieval metaphysicians… This suggests a Descartes firmly rooted in a Scholastic tradition which is deeply in debt to Duns Scotus and closely allied with fourteenth-century developments in epistemology and in the theory of meaning. This makes the problem of Descartes immediate sources and the question of his originality even more puzzling” p. 240.

25 To my knowledge, the sole mention of Duns Scotus to issue from Descartes’ pen occurs in the Objections and Replies accompanying the Meditations (AT VII, 120). Descartesrefers to Scotus by name in his reply to the objections of Caterus against his distinction between the mind and body. However, Descartes’ reference to Scotus is itself made in reference to Caterus’ citation of Scotus’ “formal” and “objective” distinction.

26 Roger Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics, pp. 56, 55.

27 In the section of the Discourse on the Method that corresponds with the Third Meditation, Descartes makes an explicit admission that the terminology employed in his proof for the existence of God derives from the Scholastics: “To this I added that since I knew of some perfections that I did not possess, I was not the only being which existed (here, by your leave, I shall freely use some Scholastic terminology)…,” AT VI, 34: CSM I, p. 128. Richard Kennington cites this latter passage in connection to Descartes’ Scholastic vocabulary in his erudite article, “The ‘Teaching of Nature’ in Descartes’ Soul Doctrine,” in Review of Metaphysics, 1972, vol. XXVI, p. 92. Descartes’ free usage of Scholastic terminology constitutes what Kennington calls “small indications of the borrowed character of his terminology,” and notes several instances where Descartes qualifies and editorializes the terms he introduces, as if he himself were slightly incredulous as to the validity or efficacy of the language he adopts or revises for his own purposes: “We find that in the Meditations he uses little or no traditional terminology until in Meditation III he addresses himself to the first part of his apologetic intention, the proof that God exists. Abruptly a group of Scholastic terms is introduced, scarcely defined and devoid of supporting explanation — “objective reality,” “formal or actual reality,” “eminent reality”… He prefaces his introduction of “objective reality” with a “so to speak” (ut ita loquar, in the French version, “pour ainsi parler”). He speaks of “that reality that the philosophers call actual or formal” and “the reality that they name objective…,” italics in original(cf. AT IX, 31-32 for Kennington’s quotations). Two additional examples might be added to this list. First, a passage from Descartes’ treatise, The World: “To express myself in scholastic terms, they will be able to have a priori demonstrations of everything that can be produced in this new world” (AT XI, 47; CSM 1, p. 97); second, a passage from Principles of Philosophy: “Hence the term ‘substance’ does not apply univocally, as they say in the Schools, to God and to other things…” (AT VIII A, 24; CSM 1, p. 210).

28 For an insightful comment on Descartes’ possible attitude toward exploiting the work of his predecessors, see Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1969),p. 83: “Of the many things which had been said by his predecessors [concerning the origin of the idea of God], a large number appeared as being at least materially true, and Descartes never hesitated to repeat them when it suited him to do so… Where the truth value of an idea is so wholly inseparable from its place in the order of deduction, why should one worry about its origin? There is but one place where a true idea is fully true; it is the very place it finds in Descartes’ own philosophy.”

29 Cf. Descartes and the Last Scholastics (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1999), for Ariew’s examination of 17th century Scotism.

30 The following is an example of the Scholastic practice of anonymous borrowing. The example begins with Aquinas’ borrowing an image from Aristotle and ends with Descartes borrowing the same image from either Aristotle or Aquinas. In Aristotle’s De Anima (413a 8) we find this image: “Further, we have no light on the problem whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.” Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle, p. 556.In SummaContra Gentiles II, 57:2, Aquinas invokes the image of a sailor and a ship to illustrate a point in his discussion of the soul. Aquinas, rebutting Plato’s claim of the divisibility of body and soul, writes: “Accordingly, Plato and his followers asserted that the intellectual soul is not united to the body as form to matter, but only as mover to movable, for Plato said that the soul is in the body “as a sailor in a ship” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles: Book 2: Creation, trans. by Vernon Bourke andJames F. Anderson (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), p. 169). Descartes, too, harkens back to both Aristotle and Aquinas when he reprises this example of the sailor and the ship: “Nature also teaches me, by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, and so on, that I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit” (Sixth Meditation, AT VII, 8: CSM II, p. 56).

31 William of Ockham, Philosophical Writings: A Selection, translated and edited by Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M. (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1990), pp. 118-19: “[Question 4:] Whether a first efficient cause can be sufficiently proved from production as opposed to conservation?… Scotus answers this question in the affirmative in the first question of the second distinction…” Ockham proceeds to give eight summary answers to the question, according to the views of Scotus, then gives eight of his own replies to both the question, and to Scotus before replying in the end to the main argument, and passing on to the next question.

32 Cf. Ockham’s Philosophical Writings, p. 119-20: “In the seventh place: Otherwise, an infinity of accidentally ordered causes would be impossible; for such an infinity cannot exist simultaneously, but only successively, one thing after another, so that the second cause is caused by the first cause, without, however, depending on the first cause in causing; for a son generates in the same way whether his father be still living or dead.”

33 Ockham, Philosophical Writings, p. 115.

34Cf. Ockham, Philosophical Writings, pp. 119-22.


The Question Of The Immortality Of The Soul In Descartes’ Epistle To The Sorbonne


I. The Question of Immortality

In his Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes presents his Meditations to the Dean and Doctors as a work of Christian apologetics, while suppressing his incendiary goal of demolishing the entire Aristotelian metaphysics, physics, and psychology with the critical principle of rationem dubitandi. Descartes’ methodological doubt functions as a general principle for critiquing what Aristotle and his Scholastic followers took for granted — the reliability of the rational soul’s knowledge of the material world gained through the senses.1 The Aristotelian-Scholastic’s proofs for the soul typically began with some form of evidence derived from the order of corporeal being, such as the fact that living things possess the power of self movement and growth, then causally deduced the formal principle from the material principle — for example, living things that move and grow and reproduce are animated by soul. However, concerning the survival of the incorporeal soul after the dissolution of the body, Aristotle does not give a consistent opinion, except on the point that the rational soul is “capable of existence [i.e., functioning] in isolation from all other psychic powers.”2

The demonstrable fact that the rational soul engages in operations such as calculation, speculation and contemplation, in which the body has no share, is not tantamount to the Thomistic claim that the soul has an existence — not merely an operation — entirely independent of the body that it is the form or actuality of. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas maintains, contra the view of Aristotle, that if the human intellectual soul, which is the actuality of the human body, possesses operations that are in no way dependent on the body’s operations, 3 then it follows that the intellectual soul is capable of continuing its operation of intellectual apprehension (intelligere corrumpitur) after the death of the body.

Descartes maintained that such proofs were not conclusive because man’s knowledge of the ontological order was made to depend on the perception of the fallible senses as the first principle of knowledge. For Descartes, the necessity for providing indisputable proofs for the existence of God and the separability of the soul from the body was of particular importance,4 considering that the dubitability of the evidence obtained through the senses, and the hypothesis of the malin génie, called into question the validity of any proof that presupposed the reliability of the senses, such as Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. By calling his addressee’s attention to the point that his project for proving the existence of God, and that the soul does not perish with the body, corresponded to the traditional Scholastic enterprise, Descartes sought to align his proofs with the long-accepted attempts of his Scholastic predecessors.

Citing the Lateran Council held under Pope Leo X in session eight, Descartes attempted to further legitimize his philosophical investigation into the nature and immortality of the soul by supporting his quest for epistemological certainty with Leo X’s mandate for Christian philosophers to refute the arguments of irreligious philosophers who hold “that the soul dies along with the body.”5 Be that as it may, Descartes’ mission as a philosophical apologist for the truth of Christian doctrine involved more than simply upholding the tenets of the Faith with rational arguments, as there was nothing innovative or new in doing so.

The sense that Aristotelian philosophy was a stagnant body of knowledge was part of the impetus behind Descartes’ desire to look afresh at the foundations of philosophy. That the Church had, in making Aquinas its representative theologian, implicitly “Christianized” the thought of Thomas’ master, Aristotle, was an alliance that made the doctrines of Christianity dependent in crucial ways on the philosophic principles and reasoning of a pagan philosopher.6 Hence, Descartes hoped to free Christian philosophy from the influence of, and dependence on Aristotelian philosophy, while setting the traditional questions of natural theology on a philosophically indubitable and Christian foundation.

When he broaches the question of the nature of the soul, Descartes could have had nothing other than the opening of Aristotle’s De anima in mind, writing, “As regards the soul, many people have considered that it is not easy to discover [non facile investigari] its nature…”7 Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring about the soul in De anima begins with what is perceptible or intelligible, and moves to the underlying principle or mechanism: “…in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does [movement] precedes the question, what enables it [i.e., the soul] to do what it does.”8 Aristotle does not begin his inquiry into the nature of the soul with thinking, since thought itself is neither perceptible, nor is it an intelligible species that takes itself as its own object; that is, Aristotle’s account of the rational soul does not begin with a demonstration of rationality.9 Descartes reverses Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the nature of the soul, and begins his Meditations by inquiring into a type of purely rational mental activity that is comparable to Aristotle’s conception of theoria, or contemplation, and then moves, in the Sixth Meditation, to where Aristotle’s investigation begins, which is an account of the perceptible activity of the agent that the soul/mind informs.

II. From Immortality to Separability

In his letter to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne, Descartes claims that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul “are prime examples of subjects where demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy rather than theology;” and further, “that the only reason why many irreligious people are unwilling to believe that God exists and that the human mind is distinct from the body [mentemque humanam a corpore distingui] is the alleged fact that no one has hitherto been able to demonstrate these points.” That no prior proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is immune to contradiction or refutation is precisely what Descartes is claiming to be the case, bluntly stating that, “I would add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.”10

However, a rational proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul would invalidate the necessity for God’s participation in revealing Himself to man, and the soul’s salvation would not require God’s intervention any more than its survival after the death of the body. Aquinas was particularly aware of the religious or fideistic dimension to the question of the soul’s immortality. If the self-subsistence of the soul could be conclusively demonstrated, then God’s act of preserving the soul after the body dies would become superfluous, since the soul would be inevitably immortal, and without any need of divine support.11

Prior to addressing the matter of the nature and immortality of the soul in his letter, Descartes draws on Biblical passages that declare man’s knowledge of the existence of God to be “manifest” in order to build a case for the proof for the existence of God given in the Meditations. As Descartes’ proof for the separability of the soul from the body in the Second Meditation hinges dialectically on his proof for the existence of God as an innate idea of the mind, the soul is conceived of as tantamount to mind.12 The conflation of soul with mind leads Descartes to allude in his Sorbonne letter to his doctrine of innate ideas, writing that “everything that may be known of God” through the Scriptures, including man’s knowledge of God’s existence, “…can be demonstrated by reasoning which has no other source than our own mind.”13

Descartes’ phrase, “no other source than our own mind,” introduces a subtle shift in the argument, and is intended to transfer man’s knowledge of the existence of God from the sensible effects wherein God’s existence is evident throughout His creation, to a knowledge of God’s existence that is neither discursive, nor requires any recourse to the theological Biblical tradition. Knowledge of the existence of God derived from His sensible effects is, according to Descartes, a fallacy in the order of knowledge; the corporeal organs of sense only sense what is sensible, and God, who is incorporeal, cannot be apprehended in His existence through the corporeal senses. The dubitability of sensible objects and their effects undermines the validity of knowledge derived from the material world; hence, if man’s knowledge of the existence of God is drawn from sensible effects, then the existence of God can be called into doubt through the same channels by which His existence was asserted.

On the other hand, in the Third Meditation, the necessity of the mind’s a priori knowledge of the existence of God is deduced from the infinite nature of God, as there is no other means by which a finite mind could be in possession of the idea of an infinite being.14 Further, Descartes maintains that,

the mere fact that God created me is a very strong basis for believing that I am somehow made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.15

The thesis that the mind is made in God’s image and likeness rests upon the assumption that the mind possesses judgment, rationality, and will — in other words, those communicable attributes that God possesses infinitely and perfectly, and the human mind, to a limited and finite degree. Because the meditator perceives both God and the ego through the same faculty, i.e., the understanding, what is predicated of God — infinity and perfection,16 is also predicated of the mind, but to a diminished degree of perfection.17 The quasi-univocity between the innate contents of the mind and the mind’s simultaneous apprehension of the knowledge of the existence of God and the ego confirms that the mind has natural knowledge of God in the same way that the mind perceives itself — the force of the intuition that to think (i.e., to act), one must exist, impresses itself on the understanding with the same indubitable force as the fact that if a finite mind has an idea of an infinite, perfect being, it follows that an infinite perfect being must perforce exist.

The Sorbonne faculty, as Descartes was well aware, were Aristotelian-Thomists, and held that the first principle of man’s knowledge was the grasping of concrete existence in its singularity, which apprehension depended upon the sensible object received by the active intellect via the phantasm. Without the sensible object, neither the active nor the possible intellect could be activated, and the intellect’s abstraction from the particular thing to grasp the intelligible species could never take place. Man’s knowledge of the existence of God, deriving from the order of created things, points to the necessity of His existence as the first cause of the material world, and the requirement that there exist in the universe intellectual creatures that bear “a likeness to its source, according to its being and its nature, wherein it enjoys a certain perfection.”18

Man’s rational soul, or intellectual nature, cognizes the existence of God by the rational faculty that has its basis in the priority of the sensible object given to the active intellect through the phantasm. Descartes’ emphasis on the ease with which the existence of God is thinkable subordinates the chain of causes in the sensible order to the chain of causes in the order of ideas. That the existence of God, according to Descartes, is more self-evident than the existence of the sensible world, alters the Aristotelian/Thomist conception of the intellectual soul, which apprehends its object via the simple class of objects that Aquinas refers to as “sensible by accident,” or objects which are intelligible in themselves.19 However, Descartes wished to gain the commendation of the Sorbonne for his Meditations, and to do so required a subtle method of aligning his ostensibly anti-Aristotelian conception of God and the human soul with the views upheld by the staunchly traditional Sorbonne faculty:20

I have noticed both that you and all other theologians assert that the existence of God is capable of proof by natural reason, and also that the inference from Holy Scripture is that the knowledge [cognitionem] of God is easier to acquire than the knowledge we have of many created things…”21

In this rhetorical gesture, Descartes first presents his conception of man’s knowledge of God’s existence as an innate idea of the mind, which is a pivotal move in his attempt to persuade the theologians that his metaphysics does not diverge from the main topics of prior systems, but serves to reckon together and codify all “arguments that have been put forward on these issues by the great men,” whose arguments Descartes praises as having “the force of demonstrations.”22

In his letter, Descartes strategically combines established doctrines of the Church with the traditional Scholastic endeavor to generate proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, and then, in the Meditations, ingeniously modifies the purpose of speculative philosophy and natural theology to support the practical ends of physical science. It is noteworthy that the Sorbonne letter only contains one passing mention of science, when the wider purpose of the Meditations was the establishment of a firm foundation upon which to raise the sciences.23 Because Descartes scientific thought derives entirely from his metaphysics,24 he is able to sidestep the need to deal directly in his letter with the fact that his speculative physics overturns the speculative physics of Aristotle — the main points that Descartes address in his letter, viz., proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, are framed in terms of definitive proofs that can be used to combat atheism, materialism, and religious skepticism.25

Descartes’ project of providing a firm metaphysical foundation for the sciences is carried out according to the established template of the Scholastic philosophers, consisting of a synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology. But by taking a reductionist approach to the history of philosophy, and indeed to the act of philosophizing itself, at one stroke Descartes is able to critique and sweep aside the writings of his Scholastic predecessors with his claims of logical soundness and indubitability for the proofs in the Meditations.26 Descartes’ conception of one universal science, whose “roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences…,”27 required that the method used for augmenting the sciences be single, in order that truth could be demonstrated in a systematic order. The indisputability of Aristotle’s indemonstrable principles for reasoning was transformed, under the auspices of the Cartesian method, into the test of indubitability for arriving at epistemological certainty in derived propositions.

Descartes synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology differs, then, from the Scholastic’s metaphysics and theology in that the aim of discovering a method from which to derive indubitable metaphysical principles with which to augment physics and all the other branches of science was never present for Scholastic philosophers such as Aquinas. For Descartes, the theological imperative to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul developed out of a rationale opposed to the Aristotelian/Scholastic concept of theoria (the contemplation of truth) as the utmost goal of philosophizing.28

Descartes rejected not only the contemplation of truth as the goal of philosophic activity by replacing it with an end in practical activity, but took skepticism as his chief philosophic enemy from the beginning, rather than the thought of Aristotle and the Scholastics.29 Moreover, Descartes’ held that the rational proofs found in the writings of the Schoolmen for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul failed to attain their objective, and amounted in the end to mere demonstrations that the truths of faith and the truths of reason do not lie in opposition to each other; or, that there can not exist something which is both true and not true at the same time.

Such demonstrations, Descartes held, were insufficient to combat the tendency in the 17th century toward atheism, materialism, and religious skepticism. Only the perception of truth impressed with such force and vivacity that the mind cannot help but assent to it could be a sufficient criterion for the test of the indubitability of knowledge — what is true is what the mind perceives “clearly and distinctly.”

1 It should be noted that, in regard to his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes’ desire to have his textbook adopted and instituted into the Jesuit educational programme led him to soften his tone concerning the anti-Aristotelian and anti-Scholastic positions found in such works as his Discourse on the Method (1637) and Meditations (1641). Writing to his former teacher, Charlet, in October 1644, Descartes states in regard to the contents of his Principles that, “I know that people have thought my views were new; yet they will see here that I do not use any principles which were not accepted by Aristotle and by all those who have ever concerned themselves with philosophy. People have also imagined that my aim was to refute the received views of the Schools, and to try to render them absurd; but they will see that I do not discuss them any more than I would if I had never learnt them” (AT IV, 141; CSMK 3, p. 238); and four months later, again writing to Charlet, Descartes expresses his wish that his textbook would “serve effectively to explain the truths of the faith without, moreover, contradicting the writings of Aristotle” (AT IV, 157; CSMK 3, p. 240).

2 DA, p. 558 (413b 25). Cf. DA, p. 548 (408b 24): “The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle… Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassable.”

Regarding Aristotle’s opinion of the immortality of the soul in De anima, and how those opinions formed a basis for debate among Christian philosophers C.F. Fowler notes that, “His [Aristotle’s] enigmatic comments throughout the De anima on the possibility of the survival of the human soul only added to the difficulties for his Christian followers and gave rise to the various schools of interpretation.” Descartes On the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of Christian Doctrine (International Archive of the History of Ideas, 160; Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London, 1999), p. 80. Brackets mine.

3 Cf., SCG 2, 68: 12: “Above all these forms [nutritive and sensitive souls], however, is a form like to higher substances even in respect of the kind of knowledge proper to it, namely, understanding. This form, then, is capable of an operation which is accomplished without any bodily organ at all. And this form is the intellective soul; for understanding is not effected though any bodily organ. That is why this principle, the intellective soul by which man understands and which transcends the condition of corporeal matter, must not be wholly encompassed or imbedded in matter… This is proved by its intellectual operation, wherein corporeal matter has no part. But since the human soul’s act of understanding needs powers — namely, imagination and sense — which function through bodily organs, this itself shows that the soul is naturally united to the body in order to complete the human species.”

4 Cf. AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4: In his Dedicatory Letter, Descartes is in earnest with his assertion that, “I think there is no more useful service to be rendered in philosophy than to conduct a careful search, once and for all, for the best of these arguments [for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul], and to set them out so precisely and clearly as to produce for the future a general agreement that they amount to demonstrative proofs.” Brackets mine.

5 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.

6 In 1613, Aquaviva, the General of the Jesuit order, renewed the Jesuit’s commitment to Thomas’ theology.

7 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4, brackets mine. Cf. DA, “To attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world,” p. 535, 402a 10. Cf. Discourse on the Method, “But many are convinced that there is some difficulty in knowing God and even knowing what their soul is,” AT VI, 37; CSM 1, p. 129.

8 DA, p. 561, 415a 15. Brackets mine.

9 Cf. Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “There are… some who raise a difficulty by asking, who is to be the judge of the healthy man, and in general who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions. But such inquiries are like puzzling over the question whether we are now asleep or awake. And all such questions have the same meaning. These people demand that a reason shall be given for everything; for they seek a starting-point, and they seek to get this by demonstration, while it is obvious from their actions that they have no conviction. But their mistake is what we have stated it to be; they seek a reason for things for which no reason can be given; for the starting-point of demonstration is not demonstration,” p. 747-748 (1011a 1- 15).

10 AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4.

11 In order for the philosophical proof for the immortality of the soul to be consistent with the Church’s doctrine, Aquinas postulated that God would have to act in order to preserve the soul after the death of the body: “Separated souls know some singulars but not all (even those that are temporally present). For evidence on this we should consider that there are two modes of understanding. One is by abstraction from sense images, and in this manner singulars cannot be known by the intellect directly… The other manner of understanding is by the infusion of species [per influentiam specierum] by God, and according to this manner the intellect can know singulars… immaterial substances can know singulars by way of species which are participated likenesses of the divine essence,” ST, 1a, 89, 4, reply; pp. 149-151. Brackets mine.

12 Cf. footnote 3 in CSM 2, p. 10, where the additional phrase from the French translation of the Meditations, “…or the soul of man, for I make no distinction between them,” is noted in relation to the passage from the original text that reads, “And it follows from this that while the body can very easily perish, the mind is immortal by its very nature.”

C.F. Fowler note of Descartes’ predominant use of the term mens over anima, animus, ingenium, and spiritus in the Meditations to describe the human soul (Fowler 1999, pp. 161-175). Fowler concludes with the observation that, “The novelty of the Cartesian notion of the human soul was highlighted by a refusal of the traditional vocabulary and the deliberate choice of the word mens,” ibid., p. 186.

13 AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3. Brackets and italics mine. The Latin original is as follows: “…videmur admoneri ea omnia quae de Deo sciri possunt, rationibus non aliunde petitis quam ab ipsamet nostra mente posse ostendi.”

14 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35: “…when I turn my mind’s eye on upon myself, I understand that I am a thing which is incomplete and dependent on another and which aspires without limit to even greater and better things; but I also understand at the same time that he on whom I depend has within him all those greater things, not just indefinitely and potentially but actually an infinitely, and hence that he is God.”

15 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35.

16 The fact that man is created in the “likeness” or “image” of an infinite and perfect God has its parallel in: 1) infinite — the human will that extends indefinitely; 2) perfection — the mind’s reflexive apprehension of clear and distinct ideas.

17 Cf. Third Meditation, AT VII, 42; CSM 2, p. 29: “An although one idea may perhaps originate from another, there cannot be an infinite regress here; eventually one must reach a primary idea, the cause of which will be like an archetype which contains formally [and in fact] all the reality [or perfection] which is present only objectively [or representatively] in the idea. So it is clear to me, by the natural light, that the ideas in me are like [pictures, or] images which can easily fall short of the perfection of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more perfect.” Brackets in original.

18 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 46: 2.

19 Cf. SCG 2, 77: 2: “…the intellectual soul itself remains potential with respect to the determinate likeness of things that can be known by us, namely, the natures of sensible things. It is the phantasms which present these determinate sensible natures to us. But these phantasms have not yet acquired intelligible actuality, since they are likenesses of sensible things even as to material conditions, which are the individual properties, and, moreover, the phantasms exist in material organs. Consequently, they are not actually intelligible.”

20 In a letter to Mersenne of January 28, 1641, Descartes writes in regard to his physics, “…I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle,” AT III, 297-298; CSMK 3, p. 173. Like Aristotle’s, Descartes physics are founded on his metaphysics; hence, to destroy the principles of Aristotle’s physics is to cast doubt on the validity of his metaphysics as well — which Descartes does not fail, in his Meditations, to do.

21 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3.

22 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.

23 “And finally, I was strongly pressed to undertake this task [producing demonstrative proofs for the existence of God, and that the human mind is distinct from the body] by several people who knew that I had developed a method for resolving certain difficulties in the sciences…” AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4. Brackets mine.

24 In a letter to Mersenne of November 11, 1640, Descartes discusses some possible difficulties in the Sorbonne’s reception of his Meditations, which he refers to as his “metaphysics, due to controversies that might arise concerning certain other projected publications: “It might also hold up the approbation of the Sorbonne, which I want, and which I think may be very useful for my purposes, for I must tell you that the little book on metaphysics which I sent you contains all the principles of my physics.” (AT III, 233; CSMK 3, p. 157).

25 “What I have done is to take merely the principle and most important arguments and develop them in such a way that I would now venture to put them forward as very certain and evident demonstrations. I will add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.” (AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4).

Contra the materialistic view of the soul propounded by early natural philosophers, Descartes briefly alludes to such claims in the Second Meditation: “But as to the nature of this soul, either I did not think about this or else I imagined it to be something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which permeated my more solid parts.” (AT VII, 26; CSM 2, p. 17). Cf. SCG: “This, then, does away with the error of the early natural philosophers. Who supposed that no substance exists except the corporeal, and who therefore said that the soul is a body, either fire or water or air, or something of the kind…” (2, 49: 11). Cf. DA, p. 540-542 (405a 5-505b 30) for Aristotle’s review of his predecessor’s opinions of the soul as “either an element, or constructed out of the elements.” The respective summaries of the opinions of early natural philosophers found in the writings of Descartes and Aquinas’ are an obvious echo of remarks made in Aristotle’s treatise on the soul.

26 “I do not think that the diversity of the opinions of the scholastics makes their philosophy difficult to refute. It is easy to overturn the foundations on which they all agree, and once that has been done, all their disagreements over detail will seem foolish.” (AT III, 232; CSMK 3, p. 156).

27 Fifth Set of Objections, AT VII D; CSM 1, 186.

28 Cf. Nicomachean Ethics, “…the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this [contemplation] must be most of the nature of happiness,” p. 1104 (1178b 20). Brackets mine. Cf. SCG 1, 1: 2: “The ultimate end of the universe must… be the good of an intellect. This good is truth. Truth must consequently be the ultimate end of the whole universe, and the consideration of the wise man aims principally at truth.”

29 Cf. Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Leibniz, volume 4 (Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1960), p. 80.