Monthly Archives: November 2013

As is well known, prawn cocktail flavour crisps are manufactured without the involvement of the humble prawn. By contrast, a prawn cocktail contains prawns. (We can leave open for present purposes whether a prawn cocktail is a cocktail.) The flavour that you taste when you taste prawn cocktail flavour crisps is, therefore, (in at least one sense) not the flavour of a prawn cocktail. The crisps are prawn cocktail flavour, not flavoured. But are the flavours of crisp and cocktail the same? Could they be? And could one learn what prawn cocktail tastes like, or what it’s like to taste it, through tasting only prawn cocktail flavour crisps?

These questions are akin to the question whether identical twins—individuals that we can assume look the same—have the same look. They look the same. But is there, in addition, a look that both has? Or does each, instead, have its own look? And can one learn what one of them looks like, or what it’s like to look at them, by looking only at the other?

One set of questions here is broadly metaphysical. Does it follow from the fact that the flavours of distinct substances are qualitatively the same that the flavours themselves are the same? And supposing that we have reason to allow that crisps and cocktail have the same flavour, does it follow that there are not, in addition, distinct instances of flavour in the cocktail and the crisps?

Another set of questions is broadly epistemological. Under what conditions would one be in a position to recognize that crisps and cocktail have the same flavour? Is it enough that one cannot tell presented instances apart in a blind tasting? Or must one in addition compare those instances with a wider range of flavoured substances? And must one also consider the effects on flavour of mixing cocktail and crisps with other foodstuffs? Finally, should one consider, in addition, the responses of other tasters, including those with greater experience or delicacy of palate? And can it even be required that one cannot tell presented instances apart, given that the different textures of normal instances of crisps and cocktail are liable to serve as a confound by making it easy to tell instances apart? Finally, just as we agree that the twins are distinct even though we cannot tell them apart by looking, might we be willing to allow that the flavours of crisps and cocktails differ, despite our inability in principle to tell them apart on the basis of how they taste?


One central feature of traditional forms of Rationalism has been a commitment to the existence of non-sensory modes of knowing. Thus, for one central example, Descartes’ Meditations can be read, in part, as a set of instructions for recognising in oneself, and then using appropriately, a power of knowing untainted by reliance on sensory experience or imagination. Thus, Descartes writes:

I have been accustomed these past days to detach my mind from my senses, and I have accurately observed that there are very few things that one knows with certainty respecting corporeal objects, that there are many more which are known to us respecting the human mind, and yet more still regarding God Himself; so that I shall now without any difficulty abstract my thoughts from the consideration of sensible or imaginable objects, and carry them to those which, being withdrawn from all contact with matter, are purely intelligible. (Descartes, 1641: Meditation IV: Of the True and the False.)

The same theme can be found in the work of Gottlob Frege. Frege’s fundamental aim was to gain clarity on the nature of mathematics, especially arithmetic. In pursuit of that aim, Frege thought that we had to recognise a Third Realm—in effect, the realm of the purely abstract—inhabited in particular by numbers and by what he called thoughts. Thoughts, on Frege’s view, are the fundamental loci of truth and falsity, and the contents of acts of judgement. Thus, when it’s claimed that it’s true that 2 + 3 = 5, what is said to be true is the thought: that 2 + 3 = 5. And it’s the very same item that one takes to be true in judging that 2 + 3 = 5.

It’s sometimes claimed that Frege held that the study of language must figure centrally in the attempt to gain clarity on the nature of thoughts. And there’s surely some truth to that claim. However, it’s equally important to acknowledge that Frege held that natural languages reflect thoughts only imperfectly. He held that the basic structures made available by natural languages fail adequately to reflect the most basic structures of thought. (That is one consequence of the infamous puzzle raised by the construction “the concept horse”, which on Frege’s principles cannot be used to denote a concept.) Furthermore, Frege held that the perceptible forms of language, and the effects of language on the imagination that are exploited, for example, in poetry (its “pictorial aspects”), serve to cloud our view of thoughts. The latter theme, of the sensible as disruptive, is especially prominent in the following passage, from Frege’s essay “Thoughts”:

I am not here in the happy position of a mineralogist who shows his audience a rock-crystal: I cannot put a thought in the hands of my readers with the request that they should examine it from all sides. Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought, is presented to the reader—and I must be content with that—wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I mean by ‘a thought’. (Frege, 1918–19: 360, fn.6.)


Descartes, R. 1641. Meditations on First Philosophy, E. S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross trans.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frege, G. 1918–19. ‘Thoughts.” In his Collected Papers on Mathematics, Logic, and Philosophy. B. McGuinness ed. M. Black, V. H. Dudman, P. Geach, H. Kaal, E.-H. W. Kluge, B. McGuiness, R. H. Stoothoff trans.. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

In a recent paper, Seyed Ali Kalantari and Michael Luntley propose the following prohibitive norm of belief, as superior to other extant formulations of truth norms governing belief.

(1) For any S, p: it is not the case that S ought not to believe that p only if p is true. [Their (11).]

As they note, the formula looks cumbersome, but a more intuitive re-formulation is readily available:

(2) For any S, p: it is permitted for S to believe that p only if p is true. [Their (12).] (Kalantari and Luntley, 2013: 422)

If one leaves aside considerations about the temporal profile of believing and about beliefs apparently made true by being believed—and, of course, if one assumes that beliefs are subject to permissive and prohibitive norms—then the proposal has plausibility. However, puzzles arise when we bring to bear considerations of time and constitution.

Consider the following case. At t1, exactly one person, A, believes that (p and at least two people believe that p), for true p not about persons or beliefs. A has a false conjunctive belief, since it is false that at least two people believe that p. Since it is false, at t1, that (p and at least two people believe that p), according to (2), and plausibly enough, A is not permitted to hold the belief, since they would be so permitted only if it were true that (p and at least two people believe that p). So far, so good. Trouble arises when we consider a second person, B, distinct from A, and ask about what they are permitted to believe.

Is B permitted to believe that (p and at least two people believe that p)?

Suppose the question were raised at t1. In that case, it appears that B is not permitted so to believe, since the belief would then be false and so not true. However, suppose that, at t2, B forms the belief anyway, and comes to believe that (p and at least two people believe that p). Since, on natural assumptions, A and B are distinct both now believe p, it is true, at t­2, that (p and at least two people believe that p). So, as far as (2) advises, it is at t2 permissible for B (and indeed A) to believe that (p and at least two people believe that p).

What should we say about this situation? Is it a situation in which B should be permitted to form the target belief? Or is it right to say, instead that, even though B is in a position to see that were they to form the belief, it would then be true, they are not permitted to form the required belief and must run a dog-leg through, e.g., first forming the belief that (p and exactly one person believes that p)?

For present purposes, I leave the question open. It may be, however, that further reflection on the role of temporal considerations might figure in refining the alleged prohibition.


Kalantari, S. A. and Luntley, M. (2013). ‘On the logic of aiming at truth.’ Analysis 73(3): 419–422.

1. In what conditions ought one to believe something? For example, ought one to believe that human-caused climate change is occurring? It’s sometimes suggested that the following answer should be accepted:

(Ought-1) One ought to believe P if and only if P.

That is,

(Ought-RL) If P, then one ought to believe P.

(Ought-LR) If not-P, then one ought not to believe P.

For example,

(1) If human-caused climate change is occurring, then one ought to believe that human caused climate change is occurring.

(2) If it’s not the case that human-caused climate change is occurring, then one ought not to believe that human caused climate change is occurring.

However, Ought-RL looks to be incorrect. For it claims that one ought to believe every truth. There are two central problems here.

The first problem rests on a very plausible—though controversial—claim, to the effect that ought implies can. According to the ought-implies-can claim, if one ought to A, then one can A. For instance, if one ought to make others happy, then one can make others happy. Crucially, it seems to follow that if one can’t A—if one can’t make others happy—then it isn’t the case that one ought to A—it isn’t the case that one ought to make others happy. Now it’s plausible that there are truths that are too long and complicated for any human to believe—say truths involving the conjunction of all currently known mathematical truths, or the conjunction of all the truths in all the books in the University of Warwick library. If it’s impossible for any human to believe such a truth, then the ought-implies-can claim delivers the result that no human ought to believe such a truth. It would follow that Ought-RL is false.

The second problem is less decisive, but more interesting. In order to avoid impossibility, suppose that someone set themselves the aim of getting as close as they could to knowing the conjunction of all the currently known mathematical truths, or all such truths contained in books within the University of Warwick library. The person in question has no ulterior motive for doing this, no further end for which this is a means. They are pursuing the end entirely for its own sake. They pursue the end for a month or so, and get themselves into a position in which they believe the conjunction of a large number of mathematical truths. Let’s call the conjunctive claim that they come to believe “Q”. We now have that it’s possible to believe Q, so the ought-implies-can claim fails to rule against this being something one ought to do. Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe that, all else being equal, one ought to do what one can to emulate this strange figure. We may admire their resolve, but in other respects it’s hard even to find intelligible the end that they have set themselves, given that it serves no further purposes. To that extent, it seems implausible to claim that, even where P is restricted to truths that it’s possible for one to believe, one ought to believe P just because it’s true.

2. Suppose that’s right. That is, suppose that it’s false that, for every P, regardless of its intrinsic interest or capacity to sub-serve one’s further ends, if P, then one ought to believe P. Now consider the following claim:

(Transparency) “the deliberative question whether to believe that P inevitably gives way to factual question whether P, because the answer to the latter question will determine the answer to the former question” (Shah and Vellemean 2005: 499, with inessential reformulation)

It’s somewhat plausible that one can’t answer the latter question—whether P—without coming to believe either P or not-P. In particular, if one comes up with the answer P, there’s some plausibility in the claim that that would be a way of coming to believe P. Suppose it so. Still, without more ado, coming to believe P doesn’t seem to decide the question whether to believe P. Similarly, if, in the course of deliberating whether to run down a hill, I stumble and begin so running, that isn’t a way of deciding to run down the hill. And in the latter case, it would seem that I might even decide, in the course of flailing wildly down the hill, not to do so, and so make every effort to stop. So, similarly, having come to believe P, I might keep open my deliberation over whether to do so, whether, that is, to continue to believe P. Now in fact, ceasing to believe P is, if anything, less within our control than is ceasing to run down a hill. And that is especially so in conditions where one has no reason to believe P is false. But it’s far from clear that, in either the case of activity or of attitude, the fact that one is saddled decides the deliberative question whether to acquiesce.

Consider, then, the following science fiction case. Suppose that, in 2035, neuroscientists have found a way to extinguish individual beliefs by the use of specially designed radioactive pills hooked up to some future analogue of a mobile phone app. Ishmael, pills dropped and phone in hand, is on a research mission at the University of Warwick library. He is on the hunt for a specific mathematical theorem that he knows is to be found in one of the maths books in the library. He doesn’t know the name of the theorem, but knows enough about it that he will be able to recognise it on presentation with a little reflection. Starting with the “A”s, Ishmael begins reading through books of mathematical theorems. Ishmael accepts as true each of the theorems that he comes across, but has no immediate interest in any of the theorems other than the one he seeks, and no interest that would be served by believing any of those other theorems. With respect to one of these theorems—let’s call it R—Ishmael deliberates over the question whether to believe R. Since he’s answered the factual question whether R, he’s come to believe R. The question driving Ishmael’s deliberation is whether to continue to believe R, given that he has the resources to cease so believing via a couple of key presses. Given that the mere fact that a claim is true does not suffice to make it so that one ought to believe P, it seems that the mere fact that R is true does not suffice to make it so that Ishmael ought to believe it. In particular, its truth does not suffice to make it so that Ishmael ought to continue to believe it. Thus, I think there is some reason to think that Transparency is false.


Dodd, J. (2013). ‘Jane Heal’s “Disinterested Search for Truth”.’ in G. Longworth ed. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Virtual Issue 1, Truth: 138–144.

Heal, J. (1988). ‘The Disinterested Search for Truth.’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Volume LXXXVIII. Reprinted in G. Longworth ed. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Virtual Issue 1, Truth: 125–136.

Shah, N. and Velleman, D. (2005). ‘Doxastic Deliberation.’ Philosophical Review 114: 497–534.

1. Things to look out for:

(i) The interaction of supposition with commitment: how much of the apparent commitment here is within the scope of the supposition; how much outside its scope?

(ii) The role of time: there are various temporal signals in the text (marked [ts]). How, if at all, do they figure in pursuit of Descartes’ aims? One thought: they figure in exposing the substantiality of the “I”, as something that is the subject of various powers and acts, that persists through change, including changes in its various activities over time. That might in turn indicate a way of thinking about functions of the wax passage.

2. Up to the Cogito passage.

“I will suppose, then, that everything I see is spurious.” (Note two versions of the supposition: (a) For all I can tell by seeing, everything I see is spurious (there might, for all that, be corporeal reality); (b) There is no corporeal reality.)

Natural to think that the supposition will be brought into contact with other considerations, considerations that will either conflict with the supposition, or be consistent with it. Natural to expect that Descartes will want to show that (i) my existence and (ii) my knowledge (or certainty) of my existence are consistent with the supposition.

“But I have just [note: temporal signal] said that I have no senses and no body. This is the sticking point: what follows from this? Am I not so bound up with a body and with senses that I cannot exist without them?”

3. Conclusion of the Cogito passage:

“So after [ts] considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever [ts] it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”

3.1. Minimally, what we have here is the following: necessarily (which might take an epistemic or an alethic reading), on all the occasions on which the proposition that I am, I exist is put forward by me or conceived in my mind, that proposition is true.

3.2. Aside: why does Descartes say, “put forward by me or conceived in my mind”? Being put forward by me would seem to suffice for being conceived by me, so the first disjunct seems redundant. Descartes is signalling that this one thing, the referent of “I”, is capable of different operations, including operations involving the undertaking of commitment.

3.3. The claim is again framed temporally: on each occasion of conceiving the proposition, it is true. So, on each occasion the referent of “I” exists. It doesn’t seem to follow just from that that “I” refers to the same thing from occasion to occasion.

3.4. What is Descartes entitled to here? Three views:

(i) He’s entitled to commit, outside the scope of the supposition, to the claim that he exists (or: “I exist”). [This might be either because he’s directly entitled to the antecedent—I conceive the proposition that I exist—or because he’s indirectly entitled, via consideration of what a sceptical argument can render doubtful.]

(ii) He’s entitled to commit, within the scope of the supposition, to the claim that he exists (or: (“I exist”). [This might be because the supposition involves his conceiving the proposition, or conceiving more generally.]

[Note that only (i) would give him grounds for ordinary commitment, while only (ii) would interact appropriately with the supposition. [Compare: Suppose your train had been delayed; what would follow? Well, I know that in fact I got to work on time, so obviously it wouldn’t follow that I’d be late.] Alternatively, if the nature of supposition, as Descartes understands it, collapses the relevant distinction, then we can get both outcomes.]

(iii) He’s committed only to the conditional, that if he conceives, then he exists. [Inter alia: if he conceives the proposition that he exists, then it’s true.] But he doesn’t yet know whether the antecedent of the conditional is consistent with the supposition that he has no senses, &c., or whether it’s true. On this view, there would be more work to do in supporting the claim that his conceiving, so existing, is consistent with the supposition. [This would be consistent with the fact that there appears to be further discussion of whether he is in some way dependent upon body, senses, &c.]

3.5. Questions remain here about how Descartes knows even so much as that: if he conceives, he exists. Since the antecedent involves a commitment to a subject, I, there’s no scope here for Lichtenberg style concerns. [Such concerns might nonetheless arise in the course of seeking an entitlement to the antecedent.] Even if, as Descartes suggests, this is known through immediate insight, that insight has presuppositions—as Descartes also suggests. The capacity to see its truth seems to depend on possession of the capacity also to see that anything that thinks exists. Is knowledge of that subject to sceptical doubt—perhaps through being akin to knowledge of real natures, as per arithmetic—or is it somehow immune, perhaps through being akin to basic structural or logical knowledge?

4. “But I do not yet [ts] have a sufficient understanding of what this ‘I’ is, that now [ts] necessarily exists.”

Is this a straightforward commitment, on Descartes’ part, to the claim that he now ‘necessarily’ exists? It might seem so. However, ‘But’ has been used before to signal supposition. Moreover, an alternative reading is available:

“Suppose, then, that I conceive the proposition that I am, I exist. It necessarily follows that the proposition is true: I am, I exist. But what else follows? In particular, does it follow that I have senses, a body, &c., so that this supposition conflicts with the supposition that I lack those things?”

5. “I will therefore go back [ts] and meditate on what I originally [ts] believed myself to be, before [ts] I embarked on this present [ts] train of thought. I will then subtract anything capable of being weakened, even minimally, by the arguments now [ts] introduced, so that what is left at the end may be exactly and only what is certain and unshakeable.”

Note that “the arguments now introduced” might refer to the sceptical arguments, or all the arguments considered to this point, including what is derived from the Cogito passage, e.g. that if I conceive, then I exist.

6. “But what shall I now [ts] say that I am, when I am supposing that there is some supremely powerful…deceiver, who is deliberately trying to trick me in every way he can?”

Note that it is part of the supposition here that the deceiver is trying to deceive me: that is trying to make me commit to things that are false. Since deception appears to presuppose commitment, so conception, we have that within the scope of the supposition, I exist. So, it doesn’t follow—though may be true—that Descartes apparent commitments to his existence in this paragraph are genuine, rather than made only within the scope of the supposition.

7. “Can I now [ts] assert that I possess even the most insignificant of all the attributes of all the attributes which I have just [ts] said belong to the nature of a body? I scrutinize them, think about them, go over them again, but nothing suggests itself.”

7.1. “Now” here also signals: within the scope of the present supposition.

7.2. “Can I assert?” is a request for positive grounds for assertion. Hence, failure to find such positive grounds isn’t per se ground for asserting a contrary. So, it seems that we’re not here being offered grounds for thinking we aren’t, or don’t have, body, but only argument to an absence of grounds for thinking we are, or have, body.

7.3. Note that Descartes appeals to a variety of mental operations here, all attributed to himself, and taking place, presumably, in sequence. We have here an explicit signal, not only—as earlier—that he has various powers and is capable of various acts, but in addition the “I” is preserved over time through a series of connected operations.

8. “Thinking? At last [ts] I have discovered it—thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist. That is certain.”

8.1. Again, a key question here is whether this is assertion takes place within the scope of the supposition.

8.2. What is claimed here? That I have positive grounds for thinking that nothing else is inseparable from me—for example, that I could exist without body? That would seem to require that the full sceptical supposition, including my thinking and existing, is coherent, and it’s not clear that Descartes has defended that claim to this point. Alternatively, perhaps the claim is only that all that I have positive grounds for claiming to be inseparable from me is thought. That might be grounded in the thought that my only positive grounds for taking myself to exist in the supposition are that, in the supposition, I think. Notice that if that’s the ground then it supports the view that thinking is a sufficient condition for existing, but not that it’s a necessary condition. And it seems that Descartes wants to leave open at this stage that we have provided a necessary condition. See next point.

9. The last passage continues: “But for how long? [ts] For as long as [ts] I am thinking. For it could be [i.e. for all I now know] that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist. At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason—words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now. But for all that I am a thing which is real, and which truly exists. But what kind of a thing? As I have just said—a thinking thing.”

9.1. Descartes doesn’t commit here to the claim that he would cease to exist if he stopped thinking. All he is entitled to is that his thinking is a sufficient condition for his existing. However, we have in addition that he will exist for as long as he continues to think: this goes beyond the more minimal claim that at any moment at which he thinks, he will exist. (The latter claim would seem to be consistent with the reference of “he” shifting from occasion to occasion of thinking.) The issue of necessary conditions is left open because all we’re entitled to is that thinking is the only sufficient condition of which we are aware, so, for all we can tell, could be a necessary condition. However, it seems that we haven’t yet been given reason to think either that thinking is possible without senses, &c., or that there are no other necessary of sufficient conditions for my existence. All we are entitled to is: that we don’t have positive reason to think thinking is impossible without senses and we don’t have positive reason to think that there are other necessary or sufficient conditions on my existence.

9.2. “I am then, in the strict sense only, a thing that thinks.” The slightly unnatural reading here is that, when we are being strict—so keeping in place the sceptical supposition—all that we know about ourselves is that we are thinking. But what is the commitment to my being a thing that thinks? And what has Descartes done to this point to establish that I am such a thing? Plausibly, the claim that I am a thing amounts to no more than the claim that I’m an existent, or I exist.

9.3. “…I am a mind….” All that Descartes is entitled to here is that I am at least a mind.

9.4. “…words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now.” Descartes signals here that something momentous has happened. Minimally, what has happened is that Descartes has realised that his thinking suffices for his existing. On the assumption that he also has grounds—at least within the supposition—for holding that he thinks, so exists, we have that those grounds do not depend on positive grounds for thinking he has corporeal characteristics. So, whether or not thinking, or being a thinker, requires having corporeal characteristics, we may have some reason to think that they don’t form part of our basic idea of thinking, or being a thinker. It’s not clear how momentous a shift this is from our prior conception, except insofar either we were previously committed to a dependence claim, or were previously unclear about whether a dependence claim held.

9.5. “But for all that I am a thing which is real, and which truly exists. But what kind of a thing? As I have just said—a thinking thing.” There are at least three questions here. (i) Why real and truly existent? For emphasis, or is there a distinction here? (ii) What does Descartes mean by “real” and what has been the argument to the claim of reality? (iii) What sorts of commitment are embodied by “kind”? One suggestion is that this is an appeal to the thing’s primary attribute—what makes it the thing it is, or makes it a thing—or, perhaps, one primary attribute amongst others.

9.6. As ever, a question arises about the nature of Descartes’ commitment: “But for all that I am a thing which is real…”. “But for all that…” signals, I think, that the commitment is (at least) within the supposition. But is this something that, within the supposition, I know, or of which I am certain? Or is it merely something that’s true within the supposition?

10. A signal of the modesty of the conclusions we’ve reached to this point: “What else am I? I will use my imagination.”

The two main things that happen in the paragraph are the following. (i) Descartes considers and rejects the proposal that we might find out what, if anything, we are in addition to thinking things by using the imagination. (ii) Descartes seems to indicate that we don’t yet know that our thinking, and so our existence, are metaphysically independent of the corporeal.

(i) Argument:

“…imagining is simply contemplating the shape or image of a corporeal thing. Yet now [ts] I know for certain both that I exist and at the same time [ts] that all such images and, in general, everything relating to the nature of body, could be mere dreams <and chimeras>.”

At first blush, this line of thought seems to depend essentially on commitment (at least within the supposition) to the claim that Descartes knows that he exists. It’s not entirely clear how Descartes could have reached that conclusion. He has that if he thinks he exists, then he does exist. So, if all that knowledge requires is guaranteed (truth when thought), then his thinking that he exists can amount to knowing. Moreover, he has that he knows that if he thinks he exists, he exists. But in order for that to help, he would need to know that he thinks, and Descartes doesn’t appear to have argued that we do know that, or explained how we can know that. If that is the line of thought, then we’ll need to revisit what happens earlier, in order to figure out how the required knowledge of my existence is achieved.

Alternatively, the argument might be this: I can clearly conceive of my thinking and so existing without in addition conceiving of my having a body, &c. In that case, my conceiving of my existence, via my thinking, does not depend on positive input about body, either from the senses, the imagination, or other sources of information about the corporeal. That shows me that, whether or not my thinking, or my existence, is metaphysically dependent on body, &c., I don’t need to think via bodily information in order to do enough to think of (conceive of) my thinking. That line of argument would depend only on what is required for the meditator to engage properly with the supposition: body doesn’t exist, and yet I am deceived. So, it wouldn’t depend on the meditator having knowledge within the supposition, but only a kind of knowledge about the supposition.

(ii) “And yet it may not be the case that those very things which I am supposing to be nothing, because they are unknown to me, are in reality identical with the ‘I’ of which I am aware? I do not know, and for the moment I shall not argue the point, since I can make judgements only about things which are known to me.”

Notice that the idea seems to be that I can’t fix—or haven’t yet fixed—the supposition as one in which corporeal things are in fact absent. Rather, the most I can do is fix the suppositional case as one with respect to which I’m not aware of corporeal things, either as subject of the supposition or as the person making the supposition. That might tell us something about the corporeal and its connection with (suppositional) cognition. Suppose that suppositional cognition concerning the corporeal is grounded in sensory or imaginative capacity. In that case, we might hold that that capacity can only rule that what is supposed involves an absence of things given sensorily. That will only fix that corporeal things are in fact absent on the further assumption that things are by nature given sensorily. Since Descartes thinks that that assumption is ungrounded, he thinks that we can’t (at least at this stage of the Meditation) fix the absence of corporeal things by suppositional use of the imagination. This might in turn figure in the fact that Descartes is explicit that Meditation II doesn’t decide whether mind and body are distinct substances.

11. “But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.”

How has Descartes reached this preliminary conclusion? The claim looks to be a summary of the foregoing. What we’ve seen, in effect, is a single “I” engaging in critical reasoning over a period of time, reasoning involving a variety of acts and powers. The crucial thing here is that the very nature of the reasoning we’ve undertaken through the course of the Meditation reveals to us that the locus of that reasoning, myself, has persisted through changes/activities, sustained in existence just to the extent that those changes/activities were thinking activities.

12. “This is a considerable list, if everything on it belongs to me. But does it?…The fact that it is I who am doubting and understanding and willing is so evident that I see no way of making it any clearer.”

The question at issue in this paragraph is, how do I know that each of the acts that I’ve been said to engage in through the course of the meditation belongs to me? I take it the question is: how do I know that all the acts have a single, persisting subject, rather than each act having its own proprietary subject, distinct from the subject of the others. I think the point is that the nature of the interrelations amongst the various acts—the fact that they are elements in a sequence of critical reasoning or deliberation—reveals to us that there is a single, persisting subject.

Descartes also signals in this paragraph that, although sensing and imagining, or at least their cognitive cores, are clearly acts of the same persisting subject, their relation to the subject is less straightforward than other acts on the list.

13. The Wax passage

We now turn to the wax. “But it still [ts] appears—and I cannot stop thinking this [ts]—that the corporeal things of which images are formed in my thoughts, and which the senses investigate [ts], are known with much more distinctness than this puzzling ‘I’ which cannot be pictured in the imagination.”

13.1. Amy Schmitter provides a somewhat useful account of aspects of the challenge the passage presents to its interpreter:

“In the first place, then, the wax passage must be accounted part of the project of demonstrating the priority of the mind in the order of reasons… On the other hand, the content of the wax passage suggests that it serves another end: changing the meditator’s notion of body… Interpretation faces something of a bind here: it seems as if recognizing the role of the passage in situ requires discounting the importance of what is actually said about the wax [since it’s too early in the Meditations to take a stand on corporeal nature], whereas attending to the discussion of what is perceived “in the wax” may make it difficult to place the passage within the order of reasons. The challenge, then, is to reconcile attention to the entire content of the discussion with respect for its exact location within the Meditations.” (Schmitter 2000: 179–80)

13.2. When someone uses the senses in order to investigate something, they are required to keep track of that thing over time, treating it as the same thing, and perhaps believing that it is the very same thing, as they consider it from various perspectives and as it undergoes various changes. (Notice also the aside “I cannot stop thinking this”, something one could only know through exploiting one’s capacity to, in this sense, keep track of oneself over time.) A way of understanding what’s going on here is the following. We have a claim, that we keep track of a particular thing over time—the referent of “I”—in order to investigate its various characteristics, all without making use of sensory imagery. That claim is apt to strike the meditator as puzzling: don’t the senses figure essentially in our capacity to keep track of a particular through changes? And if they would need to so figure, that will raise a doubt about the security of our view that we are able to keep track of a persisting “I”, a persisting subject for our intellectual acts and powers.

13.3. Two things one might expect in response are these. (i) A signal that exploiting a capacity to keep track of a particular over time in order to collect information about it and its changing characteristics depends upon (awareness of) the persistence of the collector, the individual undertaking the investigation. In that case, the idea that the senses are fundamentally responsible for keeping track of individuals would depend upon a form of persistence that we either cannot keep track of, or that is itself tracked perceptually. (ii) A signal that sense perceptual tracking of an individual over time is dependent on an idea of the individual that is not itself sensory, even in cases where the characteristics through which one keeps track of the individual are themselves made available through sense perception.

13.4. A third thing to watch out for is the idea that what is required here is an account of (a) our access to particulars’ characteristics—in particular, to the “I”s acts and powers—and (b) the way in which that access figures in enabling us to access the particular itself. We might have expected that, in both the “I” case and the case of corporeal particulars, we have the same mode of access to the particular as to its characteristics. Descartes will apparently argue against that expectation.

13.5. There are at least two other things going on in the wax passage, beyond an attempt to get clearer about the capacity of the mind to keep track of particulars: (i) Descartes is attempting to reveal something about our conception of corporeal matter; (ii) Descartes is going to deliver the first case of perception of something that is explicitly characterised as clear and distinct.

13.6. It’s worth thinking in advance about what sort of account we might offer of sense-based tracking. Very crudely, there appear to be the following options. (There may well be other options.)

(i) In addition to all the individual sensory appearances a thing has, appearances that can change over time, there is a sort of super-appearance of the thing, as it is in itself. By latching on, in sense perception, to that super-appearance, one is able to track the thing.

(ii) On the basis of exposure to the various individual appearances, one forms some sort of general idea of their subject, either as a matter of organising the appearances into a sort of reductive account of the subject, or by some sort of inference to the best explanation of the various appearances.

(iii) One brings to bear on one’s experience a pre-formed conception or idea of the subject, held in one’s imagination. Since the imagination works sensory images, the idea or conception is a congeries of sensory images. This is applied through matching sensory images in the imaginative idea with the appearances that are made available through sensory perception.

What one might then look for from Descartes would be an argument by elimination, showing that none of these accounts works, so that the tracking of subjects, and the organisation of individual appearances around a persisting subject, is a function of cognition—one’s intellectual ideas—rather than an operation of the imagination or sensorium.

14. “Let us consider the things which people commonly think they understand most distinctly of all…”

Is our idea of the wax—the idea that facilitates our keeping track of the wax—a congeries of individual sense perceptual appearances? No, because all of those appearances can change consistently with our taking it (or knowing) that the same wax remains.

15. “the wax was…a body which presented itself to me in these various forms a little while ago [ts], but which now [ts] exhibits different ones. But what exactly is it that I am now imagining?”

The question here, in effect, is: how, if at all, does imagination enable me to keep track of this body, as the very same thing from moment to moment, and as distinct from its various, changing individual appearances?

16. “Let us concentrate, take away everything which does not belong to the wax, and see what is left: merely something extended, flexible and changeable.”

As we consider the wax over time, something persists through changes in the individual appearances. What remains stable through all possible such changes is what belongs to the wax; what changes doesn’t belong to the wax. The questions, then, are (a) what remains stable and (b) what power of ours enables us to access that which remains stable? The answer to (a) is: something extended, flexible and changeable. So, what we want to know, in answering (b), is how we access the qualities (presumably determinable qualities, or instances thereof) of being extended, flexible and changeable. And we want to know how our access to those qualities enables us to access the something—the body—underlying those qualities.

17. “But what is meant here by ‘flexible’ and ‘changeable’? Is it what I picture in my imagination: that this piece of wax is capable of changing from a round shape to a square shape, or from a square shape to a triangular shape? Not at all; for I can grasp that the wax is capable of countless changes of this kind, yet I am unable to run through this immeasurable number of changes in my imagination, from which it follows that it is not the faculty of imagination that gives me my grasp of the wax as flexible and changeable.”

17.1. Argument:

(I) The imagination has access only to (or, at most to) determinate or particular qualities—e.g. this square shape, this round shape. (Perhaps this is because the imagination is dependent ultimately on the sensorium, plus principles of composition.)

(II) So, if the imagination sponsors our grasp of the wax’s flexibility, then it must do so by making available all the possibilities of determinate or particular qualities consistent with the wax’s flexibility of which we have a conception or idea.

(III) Moreover, it must do that in advance of our ability to view the wax as the same persisting thing over time, for it would need to supply the template that environmental elements fit, or fail to fit, in order to be what facilitates that ability. But

(IV) The imagination lacks the capacity to do that, due to the sheer quantity of determinate or particular qualities that would be involved.

So, if that is all correct, then it seems that the imagination can’t sustain our ability to grasp the determinable quality of flexibility, and so can’t support our going via that quality to the underlying body.

17.2. Note that flexibility here might have served as a super-appearance, so the inability of sense perception or imagination to underwrite our grasp on it would thereby indicate that we have no sensory or imaginative access to such a super-appearance.

17.3. What about the idea that we construct a system in the imagination, consisting of all possible patterns of development of individual appearances or determinate qualities? Again, that looks as though it would depend on the imagination being able to hold all the possible individual appearances in view in advance of confrontation with the wax. Moreover, it seems implausible that we could generalise in the required way without some pre-conception of which appearances we want to organise into the pattern for this wax, rather than that wax, or any other particular thing. (The latter consideration might also bear on whether the intellectual idea of the wax could be generated by abstraction from experience.) The upshot is that, if Descartes’ assumptions about both what the imagination would need to do, and what it can do, are correct, there are serious difficulties for the view that the imagination is what enables us to keep track of the wax as the very same persisting thing over time.

17.4. I guess the main pressure points here would be:

(I) (The imagination has access only to determinate qualities—e.g. this square shape, this round shape. (Perhaps this is because the imagination is dependent ultimately on the sensorium, plus principles of composition.)); and

(IV) The imagination lacks the capacity to construct a reductive model of the wax, as a construct from all its possible determinate qualities, due to the sheer quantity of determinate qualities that would be involved. For if the imagination has access to determinable qualities like flexibility, all is potentially well: they can serve as super-appearances; and if the imagination can organise indefinitely many determinate qualities into a disjunctive specification of the shape-options that are available to the wax, again all is well.

One possible way of thinking about this is that the issue here concerns the type of generality made available by conception (e.g. propositional judgement). So understood, Descartes is in effect pointing to a difference between sensation and imagination and cognition: sensation and imagination operate only over concrete attributes; cognition operates over generalities. Insofar as our access to the wax goes via generality-involving cognition, it can’t then go via sensation or imagination.

18. The outcome view seems to have these components:

(i) Sensory perception makes available to us particular quality instances (attributes, modes), and not qualities themselves, or the bearers of those qualities, objects or substances. (It does so either directly, or perhaps indirectly via causal influence of those particular quality instances on the sensorium.)

(ii) Our access to objects or substances goes via our access to qualities: they are conceived as the bearers of qualities.

(iii) A natural thought would be that our access to objects or substances as the bearers of qualities goes via our thoughts of them, or judgments about them, as bearers of those qualities, as in judging that the wax is flexible, &c.

(iv) A natural corollary might be that our access to substances and qualities is in some sense derivative from a combination of judgements, considered as wholes, and the logical relations amongst those judgements, e.g. that the thought that this wax is flexible and that that wax is coloured entail that that wax is flexible and coloured (at least in a context in which we are also in a position to judge that this wax is that wax).

19. Some relevant passages from elsewhere.

19.1. From Principles (around the point analogous to the wax passage): “In order to realize that the knowledge of our mind is not simply prior to and more certain than the knowledge of our body, but also more evident, 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…. For example, if I judge that the earth exists from the fact that I touch it or see it, this very fact undoubtedly gives even greater support for the judgement that my mind exists.” (Pr 1: 11)

19.2. “However, we cannot initially become aware of a substance merely through its being an existing thing, since this alone does not of itself have any effect on us. We can, however, easily come to know a substance by one of its attributes, in virtue of the common notion that nothingness possesses no attributes, that is to say, no properties or qualities. Thus, if we perceive the presence of some attribute, we can infer that there must also be present an existing thing or substance to which it may be attributed.” (Pr 1: 52)

19.3. Sixth Set of Replies:

“I demonstrated in the Optics how size, distance, and shape can be perceived by reasoning alone, which works out any one feature from the other features. The only difference is that when we now make a judgement for the first time because of some new observation, then we attribute it to the intellect; but when from our earliest years we have made judgements, or even rational inferences, about the things which affect our senses, then, even though these judgements were made in exactly the same way as those we make now, we refer them to the senses. The reason for this is tat we make the calculation and judgement at great speed because of habit, or rather we remember the judgements we have long made about similar objects; and so we do not distinguish these operations from simple sense-perception.” (CSM II: 295.)

20. How does all this figure in showing that mind is better known than corporeal nature?

Two thoughts. (i) Investigation of the wax over time presupposes sameness of the subject, and some of the powers of the subject. (ii) The wax passage indicates that the mind per se (as opposed to the sensorium or imagination?) is implicated in keeping track of substance, and so cases in which we do so are cases involving the possession of qualities by the mind, and so reveal aspects of the mind.

20.1. This would seem to fit Carriero’s emphasis on the role of judgement, or propositional-level cognition. But it would be more neutral than Carriero about the role of generality in such cognition. Carriero seems to associate attention to the generality of thought with commitment to an abstractionist model of our cognition of generality. While it seems right that the wax passage is supposed to work against abstractionism, it seems to do so precisely by attending to the incapacity of abstractionism to model generality, including the type of generality implicated in thinking propositions about particulars.




Carriero., J. 2009. Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’s Meditations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schmitter, A. 2000. ‘The Wax and I: Perceptibility and Modality in the Second Meditation.’ Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philosophie 82: 178–201.

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