A Cartesian Glossary

Including But Not Limited to Spinoza's Cartesian Definitions

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last modified January 30, 2004


Based on Benedict Spinoza's systematic explanation of Descartes,
Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, in Spinoza, Complete Works
(Hackett Publishing Company).

thought = "all that is in us and of which we are immediately conscious." (Pt. I, def. 1)

idea = "the specific form of a thought, through the immediate perception of which I am conscious of that same thought." (Pt. 1, def. 2)

Curiously, in introducing the notion of an idea, Descartes lumps together

  • simple idea, such as the idea of the color, or of the shape, of this visible letter X or the pain I am feeling right now after dropping a heavy object on my toe,

  • a general idea, such as the idea of all letters shaped similarly to this X,

  • a definitional idea, such as the idea of God (e.g., as a perfect substance) ,

  • a propositional idea, such as the idea that a mind is not a material being or that this X is printed in boldface.

    General ideas and definitional ideas can perhaps be re-described as propositional ideas but simple ideas probably cannot. However, perhaps simple ideas can be clear and distinct insofar as I can be certain that such an idea is present to my thought. Descartes is especially interested in discovering clear and distinct definitional ideas (because they reveal the essence of things), but also clear and distinct propositional ideas about existing beings whose existence can only be known by the mind (mind itself and body)

  • mind = "substance in which thought immediately inheres" (Pt. 1, def. 6). Descartes says that the essence of the mind or mental substance is thought.

    body = "substance that is the immediate subject of extension and accidents that presuppose extension, such as figure, position, and local motion [change of place]." (Pt. 1, def. 7)

    God = "substance that we understand through itself to be supremely perfect, and in which we conceive nothing at all that involves any defect or limitation" (Pt. 1, def. 8)

    substance = "that which, in order to exist, needs only the concurrence of God." (Pt. 2, def. 2)

    extension = "that which consists of three dimension. But by extension we do not understand the act of extending, or anything distinct from quantity." (Pt. 2, def. 1)

    II. Garrett's additions

    essence = as used in relationship to a substance, it means (1) the necessary and sufficient conditions for being that (type of) substance and (2) the principle whose explanatory value underlies part of what we can understand about any of its accidents.

    Regarding (2): to know that the essence of mind is thinking helps us understand willing, dreaming, remembering, doubting, etc. Regarding (1): to say that the essence of mind is thinking commits us to holding that all minds are thinking things and all thinking things are minds.
    clear and distinct ideas = evident ideas = ideas perception of which brings the mind certainty that what the ideas present to us is true.
    Here is how Descartes himself describes clear and distinct ideas:

    "A perception which can serve as the basis for a certain and indubitable judgement needs to be not merely clear but also distinct. I call a perception 'clear' when it is present and accessible to the attentive mind--just as we say that we see something clearly when it is present to the eye's gaze and stimulates it with a sufficient degree of strength and accessibility. I call a perception 'distinct' if, as well as being clear, it is so sharply separated from all other perceptions that it contains within itself only what is clear." (Prin. 1.45, cited by Lex Newman in Descartes' Epistemology, in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

    uncertain ideas = ideas about which a reasonable person can entertain doubt. These ideas are not clear but obscure, or not distinct.

    error = the quality of a person's judgments when he or she affirms as true an idea that is false or denies as false an idea that is true.

    One risks error when one is dealing with uncertain ideas. One who affirms an uncertain idea may judge correctly, but only by accident.
    understanding, faculty of = one of several capacities rooted in the mind, capable of grasping clear and distinct ideas as such and retaining them when grasped; the faculty with which we know things.

    intellect, faculty of = another name for faculty of understanding

    The human intellect is limited. (We only know some of the things of which we have ideas.)
    will, faculty of = also called the faculty of choice,
         the capacity to affirm or deny, to pursue or shun.
    the human will in itself is said to be infinite, since the will does not limit a person in wishing for things or affirming or denying ideas.
    imagination, faculty of = the mind's faculty of recovering images of what the mind has once perceived and fashioning new images by mentally manipulating and combining these images, or running through images in a sequence.
    Descartes seems to limit "imagination" to working with concrete picturelike ideas (though they may be auditory or olefactory as well as visual) and does not include among its powers forming concepts which no image could illustrate, such as the perfect God itself.