New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes: Descartes as Pioneer

By Norman Kemp Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
DESCARTES' UNIVERSAL PHYSICS AS OUTLINED IN HIS TRAITÉ DE LA LUMIÈRE

The distinction between sensations and their physical conditions

DESCARTES' Traité de la Lumière1 opens with an account of the difference between what, since the time of Locke, have been entitled the 'primary' and the 'secondary' qualities of bodies, considered with special reference to the distinction between the sensations2 of light and their physical sources. Why, Descartes asks, should we be surprised to find that, contrary to common belief, there is no resemblance between sensations and their physical conditions, that a red rose is not 'red', that fire is not 'warm'? Do not words, which have meaning only by humanly established conventions, lead us to conceive things to which they bear no manner of resemblance? And has not this been nature's own device in enabling us, through smiles and tears, to read joy and sorrow on the faces of our fellows?

But, Descartes proceeds, it will be objected that though our eyes see nothing but changes of countenance, joy and sorrow are none the less there in the minds of our fellows. Clearly, further explanation is required. If we leave aside the question of the meaning of words, we apprehend them simply as sounds, and the sounds, as we find, need bear no resemblance to their physical causes. The man with whom we are conversing opens his mouth, moves his tongue and expels his breath. There is nothing in these actions which at all resembles the idea of the sound which they enable us to experience. The majority of philosophers assure us that physically this 'sound' is nothing but a certain air-vibration

____________________
1
Cf. A.T. i, P. 562: "le traité qui contient tout le corps de ma Physique, porte le nom de La Lumière". It forms the first part of Descartes' Le Monde. Cf. above, p. 25 n.
2
sentiments.

-103-

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New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes: Descartes as Pioneer
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Bibliography vii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Contents xi
  • Chapter I 2
  • Appendix A DESCARTES' THREEFOLD DREAM 33
  • Appendix B DESCARTES' ENCOUNTER WITH CHANDOUX, AND SUBSEQUENT INTERVIEW WITH CARDINAL DE BÉRULLE 40
  • Chapter II 48
  • Chapter III 84
  • Chapter IV 102
  • Chapter IV Descartes' Universal Physics as Outlined in His Traité De La Lumière 103
  • Chapter V 124
  • Chapter VI 138
  • Chapter VII 162
  • Chapter VIII 190
  • Chapter IX 220
  • Chapter X 259
  • Chapter XI 294
  • Chapter XII 308
  • Chapter XIII 322
  • INDEX OF PROPER NAMES 365
  • INDEX OF SUBJECTS 367
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