Descartes on imagination and intellect

Jackie asked:

I am reading the book ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ by Renee Descartes. I have some questions about it.

Why and how does Descartes distinguish between imagination and intellection? Is it because imagination is sensory and deals with concrete ideas and intellection is knowing and deals with abstract ideas? Could you give me an example of an abstract idea and a concrete idea. Is it because Descartes wants to prove that only intellect is needed to exist because you can understand stuff you can’t imagine?

Does Descartes claim himself to be an intellect in the 6th Meditation? If so, what was the nature?

Last question, what special classes of ideas poses a problem that motivates the proof of dualism? To my understanding, Dualism is that only matter and thinking things and their ideas exist. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Thank you so much! Sorry for asking so many questions.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Don’t apologize for asking too many questions, asking too few is worse.

You touch on an aspect of Descartes’ thinking less often discussed than his scepticism and his dualism: his recognition that there are features of humans not referable to body or mind alone, but essentially involving both, such as sensation, emotions (passions) and, maybe, imagination.

Descartes thinks the world consists of two types of substance, thinking stuff or mind (res cogitans) and extended stuff or matter (res extensa). The physical world (including animals) consists of matter. God and angels consist of mind. Humans are essentially mind (‘I think therefore I am’) but also also have material bodies.

Matter has its properties, such as size, shape, weight.

Mind has its property namely thinking (doubting, understanding, affirming and denying, all part of reason or intellect; and willing).

But there is an immediate problem with this neat division.

For what about sensation and emotion? These are not features of matter alone or mind alone, but are hybrid faculties, involving body and mind in intimate union (‘intermingled’ as Descartes puts it). Thus, sensation requires sensory organs, which are material; emotion includes racing pulse, faster breathing and muscle trembling, all bodily features. Also imagination, regarded as having a mental image of something, is rather like sensation, except the image is not of something before our eyes but something we conjure up in our mind’s eye.

So emotion, sensation and imagination don’t fit into Descartes’ dualistic framework.

Sensation, emotion and imagining require body. So, God and the angels, being immaterial, can’t have these. They only have thinking (intellect and will).

Hence, for Descartes, intellection, understood as thinking without emotion, sensation or imagination, must be superior to imagination, to ensure God always has superior understanding to we humans.

So, we can, as you say, intellect or understand stuff we can’t imagine. Descartes’ example is a regular 1000-sided figure (chiliagon). I can form an image in my mind’s eye of, say, a pentagon, even an octagon, but it gets increasingly hard with more sides. Try to form an image of a chiliagon and I have a vague, almost circular image, but no way can I be sure that it has 1000, rather than say 994, or even 2000, sides. But I can easily intellect a chiliagon: it’s a regular polygon with 1000 sides, just as squares have 4 and hexagons have 6, right!

Descartes also recognized that animals have emotions and sensations. But he denied that they had minds or souls (they didn’t intellect). He realized that this cut across his mind/body dualism – if they had no res cogitans, only res extensa, how come they could feel? He struggled in his later years in Conversation with Burman, in Passions of the Soul, and in correspondence with his famous, very bright, distance student, Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, to give an account of human feelings and sensations, of how body stuff and mind stuff could possibly interact, and of how soulless animals could feel, but never resolved the issues.

Yes, Descartes does claim to be an intellect (thinking thing). But he also realizes he is an embodied creature with some properties attributable to the mind/body union and not to mind or body alone.

Descartes’ dualism is substance dualism. This view has few adherents these days (the interaction problem is still the killer). But property dualism has its fans. Here, something can have both physical and mental properties. Thus, a collection of brain cells has a particular activity pattern (physical property) and also a mental property (feels like something to the subject whose brain it is).

Finally, I don’t think concrete and abstract IDEAS exist, only concrete and (maybe) abstract THINGS or particulars. Thus, a chair is a concrete, physical thing; a thought is a concrete mental thing. Abstract things, if they exist, include numbers and propositions, do not exist in time or space or causally interact with us.

Descartes scholars can say a lot more about these matters (and they do), such as the influence of Aristotle and medieval philosophy, and the special meaning of some of the terms used, but I give my view as a non-expert reader, and admirer, of Descartes.


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