Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Representation, Self-Representation, and the Passions in Descartes

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Representation, Self-Representation, and the Passions in Descartes

Article excerpt

THAT DESCARTES WAS INTERESTED from the very start of his philosophic career in developing a method for problem-solving that could be applied generally to the solution of "unknowns" is well known. Also well known is the further development of the method by the introduction of the technique of hyperbolic doubt in his mature, metaphysical works, especially in the Meditations. Perhaps less widely appreciated is the important role that accounts of systems of signs played in the development of his early accounts of a method; it is crucial to the method that the elements of problems be identified and signified by simple and convenient signs that can then be arranged to display the relations among the known elements and the unknown solution. Commentators such as Michel Foucault(1) have brought this interest in signification to our attention and shown the widespread importance of such projects in the seventeenth century. Few, however, have examined the relation between the early projects of signification and the later, metaphysical works. I suggest that one way to understand Descartes' metaphysical turn in his mature work is as an attempt to ground the accounts he has offered of signification in something further: representation, particularly mental representation. From the start, Descartes explains signification by reference to mental representation: a word, figure, or symbol signifies its objects by prompting the mind to think of those objects. Although Descartes offers detailed and comprehensive accounts in works such as the Rules for the Direction of the Mind of what constitutes effective and convenient systems of signification by way of the relations between signifying element, system, and the objects signified thereby, the mental operations that allow signification to operate, especially that of the "intuition of simple natures," is never fully explained. It remains to the mature phase of Descartes' career to crack open the basic operations of our thought by developing the full-fledged doctrine of ideas--a doctrine that makes explicit how an object is represented to a subject.(2)

Looking at the doctrine of ideas developed in such works as the Meditations allows us to develop a model of representation, that is, what is involved when Descartes says that an idea "represents" such-and-such an object. What I suggest is that a "representation" is a structural whole embracing several, interrelated component parts. The component parts include what I call the "subject-position," that is, a relation to the first-person subject for whom the representation is a representation. This subject-position is directed at an object, what is represented in the representation (the representatum), through a "vehicle" of representation, which vehicle stands in a particular (and variable) relation to the represented object. This vehicle, I should emphasize, does not as such constitute some tertium quid intervening between the subject-position and what the idea is of; what an idea is "of" is its object, which is directly represented therein. Indeed, in many cases the vehicle is not metaphysically distinct from the object. If, for instance, the object is a substance, it may be represented through some of its modes, which constitute the vehicle. To be sure, we may also talk of representing a chunk of extension through its color or a mode of extension through a line segment, in which cases the relation of representation is--or should be--considered conventional. More generally, the vehicle is formed by the interaction of subject and object. The object can be modified by the vehicle, in the sense that what the object is represented as is a matter of the vehicle through which the object is represented. Although I will not argue the matter further here, I do think there is a great deal of textual evidence for this model--particularly in Descartes' crucial notion of "an idea taken objectively" as well as his use of per, ut, and in the case of materially false ideas, tanquam clauses that modify the represented object as or through something or other. …

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