epistemología de Descartes ( inglés )

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Descartes’ Epistemology
First published Wed Dec 3, 1997; substantive revision Tue Jul 20, 2010

René Descartes (1596–1650) is widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy. His noteworthy contributions extend to mathematics and physics. This entry focuses on his philosophical contributions in the theory of knowledge. Specifically, the focus is on the epistemological project of Descartes’ famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy. Upon its completion, the work was circulated to other philosophers for their comments and criticisms. Descartes responded with detailed replies that provide a rich source of further information about the original work. He indeed published the first edition (1641) of the Meditations together with six sets of objections and replies, adding a seventh set with the second edition (1642).

* 1. Conception of Knowledge
o 1.1 Analysis of Knowledge
o 1.2 Internalism and Justification
o 1.3 Indefeasibility in Context
o 1.4 Methodist Approach
o 1.5 Innate Ideas
* 2. Methods: Foundationalism and Doubt
o 2.1 Foundationalism
o 2.2 Method of Doubt
* 3. First Meditation Doubting Arguments
o 3.1 Dreaming Doubt
o 3.2 Evil Genius Doubt
* 4. Cogito Ergo Sum
o 4.1 The First Item of Knowledge
o 4.2 But is it Knowledge?
* 5. Epistemic Privilege and Defeasibility
o 5.1 Our Epistemic Best: Clear and Distinct Perception and its Defeasibility
o 5.2 The Epistemic Privilege of Judgments About the Mind
* 6. Cartesian Circle
o 6.1 Establishing the Divine Guarantee of the C&D Rule
o 6.2 Circularity and the Broader Argument
* 7. Proving the Existence of the External Material World
o 7.1 The Case for the Externality of the Causes of Sensation
o 7.2 The Case for the Materiality of the Causes of Sensation
* 8. Proving that One is Not Dreaming
* Bibliography
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries

1. Conception of Knowledge
1.1 Analysis of Knowledge

Famously, Descartes defines knowledge in terms of doubt. While distinguishing rigorous knowledge (scientia) and lesser grades of conviction (persuasio), Descartes writes:

I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason. (1640 letter, AT 3:64–65)

Elsewhere, while answering a challenge as to whether he succeeds in founding such knowledge, Descartes writes:

But since I see that you are still stuck fast in the doubts which I put forward in the First Meditation, and which I thought I had very carefully removed in the succeeding Meditations, I shall now expound for a second time the basis on which it seems to me that all human certainty can be founded.

First of all, as soon as we think that we correctly perceive something, we are spontaneously convinced that it is true. Now if this conviction is so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of, then there are no further questions for us to ask: we have everything that we could reasonably want. … For the supposition which we are making here is of a conviction so firm that it is quite incapable of being destroyed; and such a conviction is clearly the same as the most perfect certainty. (Replies 2, AT 7:144–45)

These passages (and others) clarify that Descartes understands doubt as the contrast of certainty. As my certainty increases, my doubt decreases; conversely, as my doubt increases, my certainty decreases. The requirement that knowledge is to be based in complete, or perfect certainty, amounts to requiring a complete absence of doubt — an indubitability, or inability to undermine one’s conviction. Descartes’ methodic emphasis on doubt, rather than on certainty, marks an epistemological innovation. This so-called ‘method of doubt’ will be discussed below (Section 2).

The certainty/indubitability of interest to Descartes is psychological in character, though not merely psychological — not simply an inexplicable feeling. It has also a distinctively epistemic character, involving a kind of rational insight. During moments of certainty, it is as if my perception is guided by “a great light in the intellect” (Med. 4, AT 7:59). This rational illumination empowers me to “see utterly clearly with my mind’s eye”; my feelings of certainty are grounded — indeed, “I see a manifest contradiction” in denying the proposition of which I’m convinced. (Med. 3, AT 7:36)

Should we regard Descartes’ account as a version of the justified true belief analysis of knowledge tracing back to Plato? The above texts (block quoted) are among Descartes’ clearest statements concerning the brand of knowledge he seeks. Yet they raise questions about the extent to which his account is continuous with other analyses of knowledge. Prima facie, his characterizations imply a justified belief analysis of knowledge — or in language closer to his own (and where justification is construed in terms of unshakability), an unshakable conviction analysis. There’s no stated requirement that the would-be knower’s conviction is to be true, as opposed to being unshakably certain. Is truth, therefore, not a requirement of Descartes’ brand of strict knowledge?

Many will balk at the suggestion. For in numerous texts Descartes writes about truth, even characterizing a “rule for establishing the truth” (Med. 5, AT 7:70, passim). It might therefore seem clear, whatever else is the case, that Descartes conceives of knowledge as advancing truth. Without denying this, let me play devil’s advocate. It is not inconsistent to hold that we’re pursuing the truth, even succeeding in establishing the truth, and yet to construe the conditions of success wholly in terms of the certainty of our conviction. Thus construed, to establish a proposition just is to perceive it with certainty; the result of having established it — i.e., what gets established — is the proposition’s truth. Note again that Descartes says, of the perfect certainty he seeks, that it provides “everything that we could reasonably want,” adding (in the same passage):

What is it to us that someone may make out that the perception whose truth we are so firmly convinced of may appear false to God or an angel, so that it is, absolutely speaking, false? Why should this alleged “absolute falsity” bother us, since we neither believe in it nor have even the smallest suspicion of it? (Replies 2, AT 7:144–45)

On one reading of this remark, Descartes is explicitly embracing the consequence of having defined knowledge wholly in terms of unshakable conviction: he’s conceding that achieving the brand of knowledge he seeks is compatible with being — “absolutely speaking” — in error. If this is the correct reading, the interesting upshot is that Descartes’ ultimate aspiration is not absolute truth, but absolute certainty.

On a quite different reading of this passage, Descartes is clarifying that the analysis of knowledge is neutral not about truth, but about absolute truth: he’s conveying that the truth condition requisite to knowledge involves truth as coherence.

A definitive interpretation of these issues has yet to gain general acceptance in the literature. What is clear is that the brand of knowledge Descartes seeks requires, at least, unshakably certain conviction. Perhaps this seeming preoccupation with having the right kind of certainty — including its being available to introspection — is linked with an internalist conception of knowledge.
1.2 Internalism and Justification

One way to divide up theories of justification is in terms of the internalism-externalism distinction. Very roughly: a theory of epistemic justification is internalist insofar as it requires that the justifying factors are accessible to the knower’s conscious awareness; it is externalist insofar as it does not impose this requirement.

Descartes’ internalism requires that all justifying factors take the form of ideas. For he holds that ideas are, strictly speaking, the only objects of immediate perception, or conscious awareness. (More on the directness or immediacy of perception in Section 5.2.) Independent of this theory of ideas, Descartes’ methodical doubts underwrite an assumption with similar force: for almost the entirety of the Meditations, his meditator-spokesperson — hereafter referred to as the ‘meditator’ — adopts the assumption that all his thoughts and experiences are occurring in a dream. This assumption is tantamount to requiring that justification come in the form of ideas.

An important consequence of the interpretation here being developed — namely, a traditional representationalist reading of Descartes — is that rigorous philosophical inquiry must proceed via an inside-to-out strategy. This strategy is assiduously followed in the Meditations, and it endures as a hallmark of many early modern epistemologies. Ultimately, all judgments are grounded in an inspection of the mind’s ideas. Philosophical inquiry is, properly understood, an investigation of ideas. The methodical strategy of the Meditations has the effect of forcing readers to adopt this mode of inquiry.

In recent years, some commentators have questioned this traditional way of understanding the mediating role of ideas in Descartes’ philosophy. Noteworthy in this regard is John Carriero’s outstanding commentary on the Meditations (2009) which provides a challenge to the kind account developed in the present essay.
1.3 Indefeasibility in Context

In characterizing knowledge as “incapable of being destroyed,” Descartes portrays knowledge as enduring. Our conviction must be, writes Descartes, “so strong that it can never be shaken”; “so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting.” Descartes wants a brand of certainty/indubitability that is of the highest rank, both in terms of degree and durability. He wants knowledge that is utterly indefeasible. (Sceptical doubts count as defeaters.)

This indefeasibility requirement implies more than mere stability. A would-be knower could achieve stability simply by never reflecting on reasons for doubt. But this would result in mere undoubtedness, not indubitability. Referring to such a person, Descartes points out that although a reason for “doubt may not occur to him, it can still crop up if someone else raises the point or if he looks into the matter himself” (Replies 2, AT 7:141).

Many readers conclude that Descartes’ standards of justification are too high, for they have the consequence that almost nothing we ordinarily count as knowledge measures up. Before jumping to this conclusion, we should put the indefeasibility requirement into context.

Descartes is a contextualist in the sense that he allows that different standards of justification are appropriate to different contexts. This is not merely to say the obvious: that depending on the context of inquiry, knowledge-worthy justification will sometimes be needed, but other times not. It’s to say something stronger: that depending on the context of inquiry, the standards of knowledge-worthy justification might vary. For example, a contextualist might accept that ‘knowledge’-talk is equally appropriate whether one is describing the best achievements of empirical science, or the best achievements of mathematics, while acknowledging that the former rest on weaker standards of proof than the latter. This example is potentially misleading, in that Descartes appears loath to count mere empirical evidence as knowledge-worthy justification. But upon ramping up the standard to what he finds minimally acceptable, the standard admits of context dependent variation.

Descartes’ minimum standard targets the level of certainty arising when the mind’s perception is both clear and distinct. (For Descartes, clarity contrasts with obscurity, and distinctness contrasts with confusion.) He allows that judgments grounded in clear and distinct perception are defeasible (at least, for those who’ve not yet read the Meditations). But he regularly characterizes defeasible judgments at this level of certainty using terminology (e.g., ‘cognitio’ and its cognates) that translates well into the English ‘knowledge’ (and its cognates).

In the context of inquiry at play in the Meditations, Descartes insists on indefeasibility. (Typically, he reserves the term ‘scientia’ for this brand of knowledge, though he uses ‘cognitio’ and its cognates for either context.) Descartes’ aim is, once and for all, to lay a lasting foundation for knowledge. To achieve this, he contends that we “cannot possibly go too far in [our] distrustful attitude” (Med. 1, AT 7:22). Better to have a standard that excludes some truths, than one that justifies some falsehoods.

An interesting thesis emerges — call it the ‘No Atheistic Knowledge Thesis’. Descartes maintains that though atheists are quite capable of impressive knowledge, including in mathematics, they are incapable of the indefeasible brand of knowledge he seeks:

The fact that an atheist can be “clearly aware [clare cognoscere] that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles” is something I do not dispute. But I maintain that this awareness [cognitionem] of his is not true knowledge [scientiam], since no act of awareness [cognitio] that can be rendered doubtful seems fit to be called knowledge [scientia]. Now since we are supposing that this individual is an atheist, he cannot be certain that he is not being deceived on matters which seem to him to be very evident (as I fully explained). (Replies 2, AT 7:141)

Hereafter, I refer to the indefeasible brand of knowledge Descartes seeks as ‘Knowledge’ (uppercase ‘K’).
1.4 Methodist Approach

How is the would-be Knower to proceed in identifying candidates for Knowledge? Distinguish particularist and methodist responses to the question. The particularist is apt to trust our prima facie intuitions regarding particular knowledge claims. These intuitions may then be used to help identify more general epistemic principles. The methodist, in contrast, is apt to distrust our prima facie intuitions. The preference is instead to begin with general principles about proper method. The methodical principles may then be used to arrive at settled, reflective judgments concerning particular knowledge claims.

Famously, Descartes is in the methodist camp. Those who haphazardly “direct their minds down untrodden paths” are sometimes “lucky enough in their wanderings to hit upon some truth,” but “it is far better,” writes Descartes, “never to contemplate investigating the truth about any matter than to do so without a method” (Rules 4, AT 10:371). Were we to rely on our prima facie intuitions, we might suppose it obvious that the earth is unmoved, or that ordinary objects (as tables and chairs) are just as just as they seem. Yet, newly emerging mechanist doctrines of the 17th century imply that these suppositions are false. Such cases underscore the unreliability of our prima facie intuitions and the need for a method by which to distinguish truth and falsity.

Descartes’ view is not that all our pre-reflective intuitions are mistaken. He concedes that “no sane person has ever seriously doubted” such particular claims as “that there really is a world, and that human beings have bodies” (Synopsis, AT 7:16). But pre-reflective such judgments may be ill-grounded, even when true.

The dialectic of the First Meditation features a confrontation between particularism and methodism, with methodism emerging the victor. For example, the meditator (while voicing empiricist sensibilities) puts forward, as candidates for the foundations of Knowledge, such prima facie obvious claims as “that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on” — particular matters “about which doubt is quite impossible,” or so it would seem (AT 7:18). In response (and at each level of the dialectic), Descartes invokes his own methodical principles to show that the prima facie obviousness of such particular claims is insufficient to meet the burden of proof.
1.5 Innate Ideas

Descartes’ commitment to innate ideas places him in a rationalist tradition tracing back to Plato. Knowledge of the nature of reality derives from ideas of the intellect, not the senses. An important part of metaphysical inquiry therefore involves learning to think with the intellect. Plato’s allegory of the cave portrays this rationalist theme in terms of epistemically distinct worlds: what the senses reveal is likened to shadowy imagery on the wall of a poorly lit cave — what the intellect reveals is likened to a world of fully real beings illuminated by bright sunshine. The metaphor aptly depicts our epistemic predicament on Descartes’ own doctrines. An important function of his methods is to help would-be Knowers redirect their attention from the confused imagery of the senses, to the luminous world of the intellect’s clear and distinct ideas.

Further comparisons arise with Plato’s doctrine of recollection. The Fifth Meditation meditator remarks — having applied Cartesian methodology, thereby discovering innate truths within: “on first discovering them it seems that I am not so much learning something new as remembering what I knew before” (Med. 5, AT 7:64). Elsewhere Descartes adds, of innate truths:

[W]e come to know them by the power of our own native intelligence, without any sensory experience. All geometrical truths are of this sort — not just the most obvious ones, but all the others, however abstruse they may appear. Hence, according to Plato, Socrates asks a slave boy about the elements of geometry and thereby makes the boy able to dig out certain truths from his own mind which he had not previously recognized were there, thus attempting to establish the doctrine of reminiscence. Our knowledge of God is of this sort. (1643 letter, AT 8b:166–67)

The famous wax thought experiment of the Second Meditation is supposed to illustrate (among other things) a procedure to “dig out” what is innate. The thought experiment purports to help the meditator achieve a “purely mental scrutiny,” thereby apprehending more easily the innate idea of body. (Med. 2, AT 7:30–31) According to Descartes, our minds come stocked with a variety of intellectual concepts — ideas whose content derives solely from the nature of the mind. This storehouse includes ideas in mathematics, logic, and metaphysics. Interestingly, Descartes holds that even our sensory ideas involve innate content. On his understanding of the new mechanical physics, bodies have no real properties resembling our sensory ideas of colors, sounds, tastes, and the like, thus implying that the content of such ideas draws from the mind itself. Unlike purely intellectual concepts, however, the formation of these sensory ideas depends on sensory stimulation. Elsewhere (2006), I argue that on Descartes’ official doctrine, ideas are innate insofar as their content derives from the nature of the mind alone, as opposed to deriving from sense experience. This characterization allows that both intellectual and sensory concepts draw on native resources, though not to the same extent.

Though the subject of rationalism in Descartes’ epistemology deserves careful attention, the present essay generally focuses on Descartes’ efforts to achieve indefeasible Knowledge. Relatively little attention is given to his doctrines of innateness, or, more generally, his ontology of thought.

Further reading: On the internalism-externalism distinction, see Alston (1989) and Plantinga (1993). For a partly externalist interpretation of Descartes, see Della Rocca (2005). For coherentist interpretations of Descartes’ project, see Frankfurt (1970) and Sosa (1997a). For a stability interpretation of Descartes, see Bennett (1990). On the indefeasibility of Knowledge, see Newman and Nelson (1999). On contextualism in Descartes, see Newman (2004). On the methodism-particularism distinction, see Chisholm (1982). On Descartes’ rationalism, see Adams (1975), Jolley (1990), and Newman (2006).
2. Methods: Foundationalism and Doubt

Of his own methodology, Descartes writes:

Throughout my writings I have made it clear that my method imitates that of the architect. When an architect wants to build a house which is stable on ground where there is a sandy topsoil over underlying rock, or clay, or some other firm base, he begins by digging out a set of trenches from which he removes the sand, and anything resting on or mixed in with the sand, so that he can lay his foundations on firm soil. In the same way, I began by taking everything that was doubtful and throwing it out, like sand … (Replies 7, AT 7:537)

The theory whereby items of knowledge are best organized on an analogy to architecture traces back to ancient Greek thought — to Aristotle, and to work in geometry. That Descartes’ method effectively pays homage to Aristotle is, of course, welcome by his Aristotelian audience. But Descartes views Aristotle’s foundationalist principles as incomplete, at least when applied to metaphysical inquiry. I suggest that his method of doubt is intended to complement foundationalism. The two methods are supposed to work in cooperation, as conveyed in the above quotation. Let’s consider each method.
2.1 Foundationalism

The central insight of foundationalism is to organize knowledge in the manner of a well-structured, architectural edifice. Such an edifice owes its structural integrity to two kinds of features: a firm foundation and a superstructure of support beams firmly anchored to the foundation. A system of justified beliefs might be organized by two analogous features: a foundation of unshakable first principles, and a superstructure of further propositions anchored to the foundation via unshakable inference.

Exemplary of a foundationalist system is Euclid’s geometry. Euclid begins with a foundation of first principles — definitions, postulates, and axioms or common notions — on which he then bases a superstructure of further propositions. Descartes’ own designs for metaphysical Knowledge are inspired by Euclid’s system:

Those long chains composed of very simple and easy reasoning, which geometers customarily use to arrive at their most difficult demonstrations, had given me occasion to suppose that all the things which can fall under human knowledge are interconnected in the same way. (Discourse 2, AT 6:19).

It would be misleading to characterize the arguments of the Meditations as unfolding straightforwardly according to geometric method. But Descartes maintains that they can be reconstructed as such, and he expressly does so at the end of the Second Replies — providing a “geometrical” exposition of his central constructive steps, under the following headings: definitions, postulates, axioms or common notions, and propositions (AT 7:160ff).

As alluded to above, the Meditations contains a destructive component that Descartes likens to the architect’s preparations for laying a foundation. Though the component finds no analogue in the method of the geometers, Descartes appears to hold that this component is needed in metaphysical inquiry. The discovery of Euclid’s first principles (some of them, at any rate) is comparatively unproblematic: such principles as that things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another (one of Euclid’s axioms) accord not only with reason, but with the senses. In contrast, metaphysical inquiry might have first principles that conflict with the senses:

The difference is that the primary notions which are presupposed for the demonstration of geometrical truths are readily accepted by anyone, since they accord with the use of our senses. Hence there is no difficulty there, except in the proper deduction of the consequences, which can be done even by the less attentive, provided they remember what has gone before. … In metaphysics by contrast there is nothing which causes so much effort as making our perception of the primary notions clear and distinct. Admittedly, they are by their nature as evident as, or even more evident than, the primary notions which the geometers study; but they conflict with many preconceived opinions derived from the senses which we have got into the habit of holding from our earliest years, and so only those who really concentrate and meditate and withdraw their minds from corporeal things, so far as possible, will achieve perfect knowledge of them. (Replies 2, AT 7:156–57)

Among Descartes’ persistent themes is that such preconceived opinions can have the effect of obscuring our mental vision of innate principles; that where there are disputes about first principles, it is not “because one man’s faculty of knowledge extends more widely than another’s, but because the common notions are in conflict with the preconceived opinions of some people who, as a result, cannot easily grasp them”; whereas, “we cannot fail to know them [innate common notions] when the occasion for thinking about them arises, provided that we are not blinded by preconceived opinions” (Prin. 1:49–50, AT 8a:24). These “preconceived opinions” must be “set aside,” says Descartes, “in order to lay the first foundations of philosophy” (1643 letter, AT 8b:37). Unless they are set aside, we’re apt to regard — as first principles — the mistaken (though prima facie obvious) sensory claims that particularists find attractive. Such mistakes in the laying of the foundations weaken the entire edifice. Descartes adds:

All the mistakes made in the sciences happen, in my view, simply because at the beginning we make judgements too hastily, and accept as our first principles matters which are obscure and of which we do not have a clear and distinct notion. (Search, AT 10:526)

Though foundationalism brilliantly allows for the expansion of knowledge from first principles, Descartes thinks that a complementary method is needed to help us discover genuine first principles. He devises the method of doubt for this purpose — a method to help “set aside” preconceived opinions.
2.2 Method of Doubt

Descartes opens the First Meditation asserting the need “to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations” (AT 7:17). The passage adds:

Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt. (AT 7:18)

In the architectural analogy, we can think of bulldozers as the ground clearing tools of demolition. For Knowledge building, Descartes construes sceptical doubts as the ground clearing tools of epistemic demolition. Bulldozers undermine literal ground; doubt undermines epistemic ground. Using sceptical doubts, the meditator shows us how to find “some reason for doubt” in all our preexisting opinions.

Descartes’ ultimate aims, however, are constructive. Unlike “the sceptics, who doubt only for the sake of doubting,” Descartes aims “to reach certainty — to cast aside the loose earth and sand so as to come upon rock or clay” (Discourse 3, AT 6:28–29). Bulldozers are typically used for destructive ends, as are sceptical doubts. Descartes’ methodical innovation is to employ demolition for constructive ends. Where a bulldozer’s force overpowers the ground, its effects are destructive. Where the ground’s firmness resists the bulldozer’s force, the bulldozer might be used constructively — using it to reveal the ground as firm. Descartes’ innovation is to use epistemic bulldozers in this way. He uses sceptical doubts to test the firmness of candidates put forward for the foundations of Knowledge.

According to at least one prominent critic, this employment of sceptical doubt is unnecessary and excessive. Writes Gassendi:

There is just one point I am not clear about, namely why you did not make a simple and brief statement to the effect that you were regarding your previous knowledge as uncertain so that you could later single out what you found to be true. Why instead did you consider everything as false, which seems more like adopting a new prejudice than relinquishing an old one? This strategy made it necessary for you to convince yourself by imagining a deceiving God or some evil demon who tricks us, whereas it would surely have been sufficient to cite the darkness of the human mind or the weakness of our nature. (Objs. 5, AT 7:257–58; my italics)

Here, Gassendi singles out two features of methodic doubt — its universal and hyperbolic character. In reply, Descartes remarks:

You say that you approve of my project for freeing my mind from preconceived opinions; and indeed no one can pretend that such a project should not be approved of. But you would have preferred me to have carried it out by making a “simple and brief statement” — that is, only in a perfunctory fashion. Is it really so easy to free ourselves from all the errors which we have soaked up since our infancy? Can we really be too careful in carrying out a project which everyone agrees should be performed? (Replies 5, AT 7:348)

Evidently, Descartes holds that the universal and hyperbolic character of methodic doubt is helpful to its success. Further appeal to the architectural analogy helps elucidate why. Incorporating these features enables the method to more effectively identify first principles. Making doubt universal and hyperbolic helps to distinguish genuine unshakability from the mere appearance of it.

Consider first the universal character of doubt — the need “to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations” (Med. 1, AT 7:17). The point is not merely to apply doubt to all candidates for Knowledge, but to apply doubt collectively. Descartes offers the following analogy:

Suppose [a person] had a basket full of apples and, being worried that some of the apples were rotten, wanted to take out the rotten ones to prevent the rot spreading. How would he proceed? Would he not begin by tipping the whole lot out of the basket? And would not the next step be to cast his eye over each apple in turn, and pick up and put back in the basket only those he saw to be sound, leaving the others? In just the same way, those who have never philosophized correctly have various opinions in their minds which they have begun to store up since childhood, and which they therefore have reason to believe may in many cases be false. They then attempt to separate the false beliefs from the others, so as to prevent their contaminating the rest and making the whole lot uncertain. Now the best way they can accomplish this is to reject all their beliefs together in one go, as if they were all uncertain and false. They can then go over each belief in turn and re-adopt only those which they recognize to be true and indubitable. (Replies 7, AT 7:481)

That even one falsehood would be mistakenly treated as a genuine first principle — say, the belief that the senses are reliable, or that ancient authorities should be trusted — threatens to spread falsehood to other beliefs in the system. A collective doubt helps avoid such mistakes. It ensures that the method only approves candidate first principles that are unshakable in their own right: it rules out that the appearance of unshakability is owed to logical relations with other principles, themselves not subjected to doubt.

How is the hyperbolic character of methodic doubt supposed to contribute to the method’s success? The architectural analogy is again helpful. Suppose that an architect is vigilant in employing a universal/collective doubt. Suppose, further, that she attempts to use bulldozers for constructive purposes. A problem nonetheless arises. How big a bulldozer is she to use? A light-duty bulldozer might be unable to distinguish a medium-sized boulder, and immovable bedrock. In both cases, the ground would appear immovable. The solution lies in using not light-duty, but heavy-duty tools of demolition — the bigger the bulldozer, the better. The lesson is clear for the epistemic builder: the more hyperbolic the doubt, the better.

A potential problem remains. Does not the problem of the “light-duty bulldozer” repeat itself? No matter how firm one’s ground, would it not be dislodged in the face of a yet bigger bulldozer? This raises the worry that there might not be unshakable ground, but only that which is yet unshaken. Descartes’ goal of utterly indubitable epistemic ground may simply be elusive.

Perhaps the architectural analogy breaks down in a manner that serves Descartes well. For though there is no most-powerful literal bulldozer, perhaps epistemic bulldozing is not subject to this limitation. Descartes seems to think that there is a most-powerful doubt — a doubt than which none more hyperbolic can be conceived. The Evil Genius Doubt (and equivalent doubts) is supposed to fit the bill. If the method reveals epistemic ground that stands fast in the face of a doubt this hyperbolic, then, as Descartes seems to hold, this counts as epistemic bedrock if anything does.

Hence the importance of the universal and hyperbolic character of the method of doubt. Gassendi’s suggestion that we forego methodic doubt in favor of a “simple and brief statement to the effect that [we’re] regarding [our] previous knowledge as uncertain” misses the intended point of methodic doubt.

Before turning attention to the First Meditation demolition project, I want to address what I believe are significant misconceptions about the method of doubt. Two of these are suggested in a passage from the pragmatist Peirce:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim [viz., the maxim that the philosopher “must begin with universal doubt”], for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt … A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts. (1955, 228f)

It is a misconception that universal doubt is intended to result from the mere effort to adhere to the maxim — as if by sheer effort of will. To the contrary, Descartes introduces sceptical arguments precisely in acknowledgement that we need reasons for doubt:

I did say that there was some difficulty in expelling from our belief everything we have previously accepted. One reason for this is that before we can decide to doubt, we need some reason for doubting; and that is why in my First Meditation I put forward the principal reasons for doubt. (Replies 5, appendix, AT 9a:204)

Another misconception is suggested by Peirce’s reference to a “doubt in our hearts.” Distinguish two kinds of doubt, in terms of two kinds of ways that doubt can defeat knowledge. Some doubts purport to undermine one’s conviction or belief — call these ‘belief-defeating doubts’. Other doubts purport to undermine one’s justification (whether or not they undermine belief) — call these ‘justification-defeating doubts’. What Peirce calls a ‘doubt in our hearts’ is suggestive of a belief-defeating doubt. The resulting misconception is that only belief-defeating doubts can undermine knowledge. Longstanding traditions in philosophy acknowledge that there may be truths we believe in our hearts (as it were), but which we do not know. This is one of the lessons of methodic doubt. The sceptical doubts are supposed to help us appreciate that though we believe that 2+3=5, and believe that we’re awake, and believe that there is an external world, we may nonetheless lack Knowledge. Justification-defeating doubts are sufficient to undermine Knowledge, and this is the sort of doubt that Descartes puts forward.

A related misconception has the method calling not merely for doubt, but for disbelief or dissent. One of Gassendi’s objections reads in this manner. He seems to take Descartes to be urging us, quite literally, to “consider everything as false,” a strategy which, as he says to Descartes, “made it necessary for you to convince yourself” of the sceptical hypotheses (Objs. 5, AT 7:257–58). But Descartes’ method does not require us to dissent from the beliefs it undermines. Surely the spirit (even if not always the letter) of the invocation to doubt is that we are to “hold back [our] assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as [we] do from those which are patently false” (Med. 1, AT 7:18).

Finally, a common misconception has it that the universality of doubt undermines the method of doubt itself, since the sceptical hypotheses themselves are so dubious. But this misses the point of the method: namely, to extend doubt universally to candidates for Knowledge, but not also to the very tools for founding Knowledge. As Descartes concedes: “there may be reasons which are strong enough to compel us to doubt, even though these reasons are themselves doubtful, and hence are not to be retained later on” (Replies 7, AT 7:473–74).

Further reading: On foundationalism: for Descartes’ treatment, see Discourse, First Meditation, and Seventh Objections and Replies; for its treatment by ancients, see Euclid (1956) and Aristotle (Posterior Analytics); by interpreters of Descartes, see Sosa (1997a) and Van Cleve (1979). On Cartesian inference, see Gaukroger (1989) and Hacking (1980). On methodical doubt: for Descartes’ treatment, see Rules, Discourse, First Meditation, and Seventh Replies; by commentators, see Frankfurt (1970), Garber (1986), Newman (2006), Williams (1983), and Wilson (1978). On needing reasons for doubt (nonvoluntarism), see Newman (2007). On the analysis-synthesis distinction (closed related to issues of doubt and methodology): see the Second Replies (AT 7:155ff); see also Galileo (1967, 50f), Arnauld (1964, 4:2–3), Curley (1986), and Hintikka (1978).
3. First Meditation Doubting Arguments
3.1 Dreaming Doubt

Historically, there are at least two distinct dream-related doubts. The one doubt undermines the judgment that I am presently awake — call this the ‘Now Dreaming Doubt’. The other doubt undermines the judgment that I am ever awake (i.e., in the way normally supposed) — call this the ‘Always Dreaming Doubt’. A textual case can be made on behalf of both formulations being raised in the Meditations.

Both doubts appeal to some version of the thesis that the experiences we take as dreams are (at their best) qualitatively similar to those we take as waking — call this the ‘Similarity Thesis’. The Similarity Thesis may be formulated in a variety of strengths. A strong Similarity Thesis might contend that some dreams are experientially indistinguishable from waking, even subsequent to waking-up; a weaker thesis might contend merely that dreams seem similar to waking while having them, but not upon waking. Debates about precisely how similar waking and dreaming can be, have raged for more than two millennia. The tone of the debates suggests that the degree of qualitative similarity may vary across individuals (or, at least, across their recollections of dreams). Granting such variation, dreaming doubts that depend on weaker versions of the Similarity Thesis are (other things equal) apt to be more persuasive. I want to consider a textually defensible formulation that is relatively weak. (Note, however, that some texts suggest a strong thesis: “As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep” (Med. 1, AT 7:19, my italics).)

The relatively weak thesis I have in mind is this: that the similarity between waking and dreaming is sufficient to render it thinkable that a dream experience would seem realistic, even when reflecting on the experience, while having it. As Descartes writes: “every sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep” (Med. 6, AT 7:77). This version of the Similarity Thesis is endorsable by those who never recollect dreams that seem, on hindsight, experientially indistinguishable from waking; indeed, it’s endorsable even by those who simply do not remember their dreams to any significant degree.

This weak Similarity Thesis is sufficient to generate straightaway the Now Dreaming Doubt. Since it is thinkable that a dream would convincingly seem as realistic (while having it) as my present experience seems, then, for all I Know, I am now dreaming.

Recall that Descartes’ method requires only a justification-defeating doubt, not a belief-defeating doubt. The method requires me to appreciate that my present belief (that I’m awake) is not sufficiently justified. It does not require that I give up that belief. (I might continue to hold it on some merely psychological grounds.) Nor does the belief need to be false — I might, in fact, be awake. The Now Dreaming Doubt does its epistemic damage so long as it undermines my reasons for believing I’m awake — i.e., so long as I find it thinkable that a dream would seem this good. The First Meditation makes a case that this is indeed thinkable. As Descartes writes: “there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (Med. 1, AT 7:19).

The conclusion — that I don’t Know that I’m now awake — has widespread sceptical consequences. For if I don’t Know this, then neither do I Know that I’m now “holding this piece of paper in my hands,” to cite an example the meditator had supposed to be “quite impossible” to doubt. Reflection on the Now Dreaming Doubt changes his mind. He comes around to the view that, for all he Knows, the sensible objects of his present experience are mere figments of a vivid dream.

Much ado has been made about whether dreaming arguments are self-refuting. According to an influential objection, Similarity Theses presuppose that we can reliably distinguish dreams and waking, yet the conclusion of dreaming arguments presupposes that we cannot. Therefore, if the conclusion of such an argument is true, then the premise stating the Similarity Thesis cannot be. Some formulations of the thesis do make this mistake. Of present interest is whether all do — specifically, whether Descartes makes the mistake. He does not. Interestingly, his formulation presupposes simply the truism that we do in fact distinguish dreaming and waking (never mind whether reliably). He states his version of the thesis in terms of what we think of as dreams, versus what we think of as waking: “every sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep” (Med. 6, AT 7:77). This formulation avoids the charge of self-refutation, for it is compatible with the conclusion that we cannot reliably distinguish dreams and waking.

Does Descartes also put forward a second dreaming argument, the Always Dreaming Doubt? I believe there is strong textual evidence to support this, though it is by no means the standard interpretation. (I make a case for this interpretation in my 1994.) The conclusion of the Always Dreaming Doubt is generated from the very same Similarity Thesis, together with a further sceptical assumption, namely: that for all I Know, the processes producing what I take as waking are no more veridical than those producing what I take as dreams. As Descartes writes:

[E]very sensory experience I have ever thought I was having while awake I can also think of myself as sometimes having while asleep; and since I do not believe that what I seem to perceive in sleep comes from things located outside me, I did not see why I should be any more inclined to believe this of what I think I perceive while awake. (Med. 6, AT 7:77)

The aim of the Always Dreaming Doubt is to undermine not whether I’m now awake, but whether “sensation” is produced by external objects even on the assumption I’m now awake. For in the cases of both waking and dreaming, my cognitive access extends only to the productive result, but not the productive process. On what basis, then, do I conclude that the productive processes are different — that external objects play more of a role in waking than in dreaming? For all I Know, both sorts of experience are produced by some subconscious faculty of my mind. As Descartes has his meditator say:

[T]here may be some other faculty [of my mind] not yet fully known to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance from external things; this is, after all, just how I have always thought ideas are produced in me when I am dreaming. (Med. 3, AT 7:39)

The sceptical consequences of the Always Dreaming Doubt are even more devastating than those of the Now Dreaming Doubt. If I do not Know that “normal waking” experience is produced by external objects, then, for all I Know, all of my experiences might be dreams of a sort. For all I Know, there might not be an external world. My best evidence of an external world derives from my preconceived opinion that external world objects produce my waking experiences. Yet the Always Dreaming Doubt calls this into question:

All these considerations are enough to establish that it is not reliable judgement but merely some blind impulse that has made me believe up till now that there exist things distinct from myself which transmit to me ideas or images of themselves through the sense organs or in some other way. (Med. 3, AT 7:39–40)

The two dreaming doubts are parasitic on the same Similarity Thesis, though their sceptical consequences differ. The Now Dreaming Doubt raises the universal possibility of delusion: for any one of my sensory experiences, it is possible (for all I Know) that the experience is delusive. The Always Dreaming Doubt raises the possibility of universal delusion: it is possible (for all I Know) that all my sensory experiences are delusions (say, from a God’s-eye perspective).
3.2 Evil Genius Doubt

Though dreaming doubts do significant demolition work, they are light-duty bulldozers relative to Descartes’ most power sceptical doubt. What further judgments are left to be undermined? Following the discussion of dreaming, the meditator tentatively concludes that the results of empirical disciplines “are doubtful” — e.g., “physics, astronomy, medicine,” and the like. Whereas:

[A]rithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false. (Med. 1, AT 7:20)

In the final analysis, Descartes holds that such transparent truths — along with demonstrable truths, and many judgments of internal sense — are indeed Knowable. To become actually Known, however, they must stand unshakable in the face the most powerful of doubts. The stage is thus set for the introduction of another sceptical hypothesis.

The most famous rendering of Descartes’ most hyperbolic doubt takes the form of the Evil Genius Doubt. Suppose I am the creation of a powerful but malicious being. This “evil genius” (or deceiving “God, or whatever I may call him,” AT 7:24) has given me flawed cognitive faculties, such that I am in error even about epistemically impressive matters — even the simple matters that seem supremely evident. The suggestion is unbelievable, but not unthinkable. It is intended as a justification-defeating doubt that undermines our judgments about even the most simple and evident matters.

Many readers of Descartes assume that the Evil Genius Doubt draws its sceptical force from the “utmost power” attributed to the deceiver. This is to misunderstand Descartes. He contends that an equally powerful doubt may be generated on the opposite supposition — namely, the supposition that I am not the creature of an all-powerful being:

Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence of so powerful a God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain. … yet since deception and error seem to be imperfections, the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time. (Med. 1, AT 7:21).

Descartes makes essentially the same point in a parallel passage of the Principles:

[W]e have been told that there is an omnipotent God who created us. Now we do not know whether he may have wished to make us beings of the sort who are always deceived even in those matters which seem to us supremely evident … We may of course suppose that our existence derives not from a supremely powerful God but either from ourselves or from some other source; but in that case, the less powerful we make the author of our coming into being, the more likely it will be that we are so imperfect as to be deceived all the time. (Prin. 1:5, AT 8a:6)

Descartes’ official position is that the Evil Genius Doubt is merely one among multiple hypotheses that can motivate the more general hyperbolic doubt. Fundamentally, the doubt is about my cognitive nature — about the possibility that my mind is flawed. Descartes consistently emphasizes this theme throughout the Meditations (italics added):

God could have given me a nature such that I was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident. (Med. 3, AT 7:36)

I can convince myself that I have a natural disposition to go wrong from time to time in matters which I think I perceive as evidently as can be. (Med. 5, AT 7:70)

I saw nothing to rule out the possibility that my natural constitution made me prone to error even in matters which seemed to me most true. (Med. 6, AT 7:77)

What is essential to the doubt is not a specific story about how I got my cognitive wiring; it’s instead the realization — regardless the story — that I can worry that my cognitive wiring is flawed. Elsewhere, I have suggested that we name the underlying doubt ‘Meta-Cognitive Doubt’, to make clear that it is fundamentally about the implications of having a flawed cognitive nature, rather than of being made by an omnipotent creator. (Carriero makes a similar point with the name ‘imperfect-nature doubt’ (2009, 27).) Even so, I regularly speak in terms of the evil genius (following Descartes’ lead), as a kind of mnemonic for the more general doubt about our cognitive nature.

Having introduced the Evil Genius Doubt, the First Meditation program of demolition is not only hyperbolic but universal. As the meditator remarks, I “am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised” (Med. 1, AT 7:21). As will emerge, the early paragraphs of the Third Meditation clarify a further nuance of the Evil Genius Doubt — a nuance consistently observed thereafter. Descartes clarifies there that the Evil Genius Doubt operates in an indirect manner, a topic to which we return (in Section 5.1).

Further reading: On Descartes’ sceptical arguments, see Bouwsma (1949), Curley (1978), Newman (1994), Newman and Nelson (1999), Williams (1986 and 1995). For a contrary reading of the Evil Genius Doubt, see Gewirth (1941) and Wilson (1978). For a more general philosophical treatment of dreaming arguments, see Dunlap (1977).
4. Cogito Ergo Sum
4.1 The First Item of Knowledge

Famously, Descartes puts forward a very simple candidate as the “first item of knowledge.” The candidate is suggested by methodic doubt — by the very effort at thinking all my thoughts might be mistaken. Early in the Second Meditation, Descartes has his meditator observe:

I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (Med. 2, AT 7:25)

As the canonical formulation has it, I think therefore I am. (Latin: cogito ergo sum; French: je pense, donc je suis.) This formulation does not expressly arise in the Meditations.

Descartes regards the ‘cogito’ (as I shall refer to it) as the “first and most certain of all to occur to anyone who philosophizes in an orderly way” (Prin. 1:7, AT 8a:7). Testing the cogito by means of methodic doubt is supposed to reveal its unshakable certainty. As earlier noted, the existence of my body is subject to doubt. The existence of my thinking, however, is not. The very attempt at thinking away my thinking is indeed self-stultifying.

The cogito raises numerous philosophical questions and has generated an enormous literature. In summary fashion, I’ll try to clarify a few central points.

First, a first-person formulation is essential to the certainty of the cogito. Third-person claims, such as “Icarus thinks,” or “Descartes thinks,” are not unshakably certain — not for me, at any rate; only the occurrence of my thought has a chance of resisting hyperbolic doubt. There are a number of passages in which Descartes refers to a third-person version of the cogito. But none of these occurs in the context of establishing the actual existence of a particular thinker (in contrast with the conditional, general result that whatever thinks exists).

Second, a present tense formulation is essential to the certainty of the cogito. It’s no good to reason that “I existed last Tuesday, since I recall my thinking on that day.” For all I Know, I’m now merely dreaming about that occasion. Nor does it work to reason that “I’ll continue to exist, since I’m now thinking.” As the meditator remarks, “it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist” (Med. 2, AT 7:27). The privileged certainty of the cogito is grounded in the “manifest contradiction” (cf. AT 7:36) of trying to think away my present thinking.

Third, the certainty of the cogito depends on being formulated in terms of my cogitatio — i.e., my thinking, or awareness/consciousness more generally. Any mode of thinking is sufficient, including doubting, affirming, denying, willing, understanding, imagining, and so on (cf. Med. 2, AT 7:28). My non-thinking activities, however, are insufficient. For instance, it’s no good to reason that “I exist, since I am walking,” because methodic doubt calls into question the existence of my legs. Maybe I’m just dreaming that I have legs. A simple revision, such as “I exist since it seems I’m walking,” restores the anti-sceptical potency (cf. Replies 5, AT 7:352; Prin. 1:9).

Fourth, a caveat is in order. That Descartes rejects formulations presupposing the existence of a body commits him to no more than an epistemic distinction between mind and body, but not yet an ontological distinction (as in so-called mind-body dualism). Indeed, in the passage following the cogito, Descartes has his meditator say:

And yet may it not perhaps be the case that these very things which I am supposing to be nothing [e.g., “that structure of limbs which is called a human body”], 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. (Med. 2, AT 7:27)

Fifth, and related to the foregoing quotation, is that Descartes’ reference to an “I”, in the “I think”, is not intended to presuppose the existence of a substantial self. In the very next sentence following the initial statement of the cogito, the meditator says: “But I do not yet have a sufficient understanding of what this ‘I’ is, that now necessarily exists” (Med. 2, AT 7:25). The cogito purports to yield certainty that I exist insofar as I am a thinking thing, whatever that turns out to be. The ensuing discussion is intended to help arrive at an understanding of the ontological nature of the thinking subject.

More generally, we should distinguish issues of epistemic and ontological dependence. In the final analysis, Descartes thinks he shows that the occurrence of thought depends (ontologically) on the existence of a substantial self — to wit, on the existence of an infinite substance, namely God (cf. Med. 3, AT 7:48ff). But Descartes denies that an acceptance of these ontological matters is epistemically prior to the cogito: its certainty is not supposed to depend (epistemically) on the abstruse metaphysics that Descartes thinks he eventually establishes.

If the cogito does not presuppose a substantial self, what then is the epistemic basis for injecting the “I” into the “I think”? Some critics have complained that, in referring to the “I”, Descartes begs the question by presupposing what he means to establish in the “I exist.” Among the critics, Bertrand Russell objects that “the word ‘I’ is really illegitimate”; that Descartes should have, instead, stated “his ultimate premiss in the form ‘there are thoughts’.” Russell adds that “the word ‘I’ is grammatically convenient, but does not describe a datum.” (1945, 567) Accordingly, “there is pain” and “I am in pain” have different contents, and Descartes is entitled only to the former.

One effort at reply has it that introspection reveals more than what Russell allows — it reveals the subjective character of experience. On this view, there is more to the experiential story of being in pain than is expressed by saying that there is pain: the experience includes the feeling of pain plus a point-of-view — an experiential addition that’s difficult to characterize except by adding that “I” am in pain, that the pain is mine. Importantly, my awareness of this subjective feature of experience does not depend on an awareness of the metaphysical nature of a thinking subject. If we take Descartes to be using ‘I’ to signify this subjective character, then he is not smuggling in something that’s not already there: the “I”-ness of consciousness turns out to be (contra Russell) a primary datum of experience. Though, as Hume persuasively argues, introspection reveals no sense impressions suited to the role of a thinking subject, Descartes, unlike Hume, has no need to derive all our ideas from sense impressions. Descartes’ idea of the self does ultimately draw on innate conceptual resources.

Sixth, much of the debate over whether the cogito involves inference, or is instead a simple intuition (roughly, self-evident), is preempted by three observations. One observation concerns the absence of an express ‘ergo’ (‘therefore’) in the Second Meditation account. It seems a mistake to emphasize this absence, as if suggesting that Descartes denies any role for inference. For the Second Meditation passage is the one place (of his various published treatments ) where Descartes explicitly details a line of inferential reflection leading up to the conclusion that I am, I exist. His other treatments merely say the ‘therefore’; the Meditations treatment unpacks it. A second observation is that it seems a mistake to assume that the cogito must either involve inference, or intuition, but not both. There is no inconsistency in the view that the meditator comes to appreciate the persuasive force of the cogito by means of inferential reflection, while also holding that his eventual conviction is not grounded in inference. A third observation is that what one intuits might well include an inference: it is widely held among philosophers today that modus ponens is self-evident, and yet it contains an inference. There is no inconsistency in claiming a self-evident grasp of a proposition with inferential structure — a fact applicable to the cogito. As Descartes writes:

When someone says “I am thinking, therefore I am, or I exist,” he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism, but recognizes it as something self-evident by a simple intuition of the mind. (Replies 2, AT 7:140)

4.2 But is it Knowledge?

There are interpretive disputes about whether the cogito is supposed to count as indefeasible Knowledge. (That is, about whether it thus counts upon its initial introduction, prior to the arguments for a non-deceiving God.) Many commentators hold that it is supposed to count, but the case for this interpretation is by no means clear.

There is no disputing that Descartes characterizes the cogito as the “first item of knowledge [cognitione]” (Med. 3, AT 7:35); as the first “piece of knowledge [cognitio]” (Prin. 1:194, AT 8a:7). Noteworthy, however, is the Latin terminology (‘cognitio’ and its cognates) that Descartes uses in these characterizations. As discussed in Section 1.3, Descartes is a contextualist in the sense that he uses ‘knowledge’ language in two different contexts of clear and distinct judgments: the less rigorous context includes defeasible judgments, as in the case of the atheist geometer (who can’t block hyperbolic doubt); the more rigorous context requires indefeasible judgments, as with the brand of Knowledge sought after in the Meditations.

Worthy of attention is that Descartes characterizes the cogito using the same cognitive language that he uses to characterize the atheist’s defeasible cognition. Recall that Descartes writes of the atheist’s clear and distinct grasp of geometry: “I maintain that this awareness [cognitionem] of his is not true knowledge [scientiam]” (Replies 2, AT 7:141). This alone does not prove that the cogito is supposed to be defeasible. It does, however, prove that calling it the “first item of knowledge [cognitione]” doesn’t entail that Descartes intends it as indefeasible Knowledge.

Bearing further on whether the cogito counts as indefeasible Knowledge — prior to having refuted the Evil Genius Doubt — is the No Atheistic Knowledge Thesis (cf. Section 1.3 above). Descartes makes repeated and unequivocal statements implying this thesis. Consider the following texts, each arising in a context of clarifying the requirements of indefeasible Knowledge (all italics are mine):

For if I do not know this [i.e., “whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver”], it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else. (Med. 3, AT 7:36)

I see that the certainty of all other things depends on this [knowledge of God], so that without it nothing can ever be perfectly known [perfecte sciri]. (Med. 5, AT 7:69)

[I]f I did not possess knowledge of God … I should thus never have true and certain knowledge [scientiam] about anything, but only shifting and changeable opinions. (Med. 5, AT 7:69)

And upon claiming finally to have achieved indefeasible Knowledge:

Thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge [scientiae] depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge [perfecte scire] about anything else until I became aware of him. (Med. 5, AT 7:71)

These texts make a powerful case that nothing else can be indefeasibly Known prior to establishing that we’re creatures of an all-perfect God, rather than an evil genius. These texts make no exceptions. Descartes looks to hold that hyperbolic doubt is utterly unbounded — that it undermines all manner of propositions, including therefore the proposition that “I exist.”

By contrast, other texts seem to support the interpretation whereby the cogito counts as indefeasible Knowledge. For example, we have seen texts making clear that it resists hyperbolic doubt. Often overlooked, however, is that it is only subsequent to the introduction of the cogito that Descartes has his meditator first notice the manner in which clear and distinct perception is both resistant and vulnerable to hyperbolic doubt: the extraordinary certainty of such perception resists hyperbolic doubt while it is occurring; it is vulnerable to hyperbolic doubt upon redirecting one’s perceptual attention away from the matter in question. This theme is developed more fully in the next Section below.

As will emerge, there are two main kinds of interpretive camps concerning how to deal with the so-called Cartesian Circle. The one camp contends that hyperbolic doubt is utterly unbounded. On this view, the No Atheist Knowledge Thesis is taken quite literally. The other camp contends that hyperbolic doubt is bounded; that is, that the cogito, and a few other special truths, are in a lockbox of sorts, utterly protected from even the most hyperbolic doubt. This view allows that atheists can have indefeasible Knowledge. These two kinds of interpretations are developed in Section 6.

Further reading: For important passages in Descartes’ handling of the cogito, see the second and third sets of Objections and Replies. In the secondary literature, see Beyssade (1993), Broughton (2002), Carriero (2009), Cunning (2007), Hintikka (1962), Markie (1992) Sarkar (2003), and Vinci (1998).
5. Epistemic Privilege and Defeasibility

The extraordinary certainty and doubt-resistance of the cogito marks an Archimedean turning point in the meditator’s inquiry. Descartes builds on its impressiveness to help clarify further epistemic theses. The present Section considers two such theses about our epistemically privileged perceptions. First, that clarity and distinctness are, jointly, the mark of our epistemically best perceptions (notwithstanding that such perception remains defeasible). Second, that judgments about one’s own mind are epistemically privileged compared with those about bodies.
5.1 Our Epistemic Best: Clear and Distinct Perception and its Defeasibility

The opening four paragraphs of the Third Meditation are pivotal. Descartes uses them to codify the phenomenal marks of our epistemically best perceptions, while clarifying also that even this impressive epistemic ground falls short of the goal of indefeasible Knowledge. This sobering realization leads to Descartes’ infamous efforts to refute the Evil Genius Doubt, by proving a non-deceiving God.

The first and second paragraphs portray the meditator attempting to build on the success of the cogito by identifying a general principle of certainty: “I am certain that I am a thinking thing. Do I not therefore also know what is required for my being certain about anything?” (AT 7:35). What are the phenomenal marks of this impressive perception — what is it like to have perception that good? Descartes’ answer: “In this first item of knowledge [cognitione] there is simply a clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting” (ibid.).

The third and fourth paragraphs help clarify (among other things) what Descartes takes to be epistemically impressive about clear and distinct perception, though absent from external sense perception. The third paragraph has the meditator observing:

Yet I previously accepted as wholly certain and evident many things which I afterwards realized were doubtful. What were these? The earth, sky, stars, and everything else that I apprehended with the senses. But what was it about them that I perceived clearly? Just that the ideas, or thoughts, of such things appeared before my mind. Yet even now I am not denying that these ideas occur within me. But there was something else which I used to assert, and which through habitual belief I thought I perceived clearly, although I did not in fact do so. This was that there were things outside me which were the sources of my ideas and which resembled them in all respects. Here was my mistake; or at any rate, if my judgement was true, it was not thanks to the strength of my perception. (Med. 3, AT 7:35)

The very next paragraph (the fourth) draws an epistemically important contrast with external sense perception (as just characterized). External sense perception does not admit of any great “strength of perception,” quite unlike clear and distinct perception. As earlier noted (Section 1.1), the certainty of interest to Descartes is psychological in character, though not merely psychological. Not only does occurrent clear and distinct perception resist doubt, it provides a kind of cognitive illumination. Both of these epistemic virtues — its doubt-resistance, and its luminance — are noted in the fourth paragraph:

[Regarding] those matters which I think I see utterly clearly with my mind’s eye … when I turn to the things themselves which I think I perceive very clearly, I am so convinced by them that I spontaneously declare: let whoever can do so deceive me, he will never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I continue to think I am something; or make it true at some future time that I have never existed, since it is now true that I exist; or bring it about that two and three added together are more or less than five, or anything of this kind in which I see a manifest contradiction. (Med. 3, AT 7:36)

The contrast drawn in the third and fourth paragraphs gets at a theme that Descartes thinks crucial to his broader project: namely, that there is “a big difference” — an introspectible difference — between external sense perception, and perception that is genuinely clear and distinct. The external senses result in, at best, “a spontaneous impulse” to believe something, an impulse we’re able to resist. In contrast, occurrent clear and distinct perception is utterly irresistible: “Whatever is revealed to me by the natural light — for example that from the fact that I am doubting it follows that I exist, and so on — cannot in any way be open to doubt.” (Med. 3, AT 7:38) As Descartes repeatedly conveys: “my nature is such that so long as I perceive something very clearly and distinctly I cannot but believe it to be true” (Med. 5, AT 7:69; cf. 3:64, 7:36, 7:65, 8a:9).

Because of the epistemic impressiveness of clear and distinct perception (notably, as exhibited in the cogito), the meditator concludes that such perception will issue as the mark of truth, if anything will. He tentatively formulates the following candidate for a criterion of truth: “I now seem [videor] to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true” (Med. 3, AT 7:35). I shall call this general principle the ‘C&D Rule’. The announcement of the candidate criterion is carefully tinged with caution (videor), as the C&D Rule has yet to be subjected to hyperbolic doubt. Should it turn out that clarity and distinctness — as an epistemic ground — is shakable, then, there would remain some doubt about the general veracity of clear and distinct perception. In that case, when reflecting back on having perceived something clearly and distinctly, it would not seem so impressive, after all — it “would not be enough to make me certain of the truth of the matter” (ibid.). This cautionary note anticipates the sobering realization of the fourth paragraph, that, for all its impressiveness, even clear and distinct perception is in some sense defeasible.

In what sense defeasible? Recall that the Evil Genius Doubt is, fundamentally, a doubt about our cognitive natures. Maybe my mind was made flawed, such that I go wrong even when my perception is clear and distinct. As the meditator conveys in the fourth paragraph, my creator might have “given me a nature such that I was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident,” with the consequence that “I go wrong even in those matters which I think I see utterly clearly with my mind’s eye” (AT 7:36). The result is a kind of epistemic schizophrenia:

Moments of epistemic optimism: While I am directly attending to a proposition — perceiving it clearly and distinctly — I enjoy an irresistible cognitive luminance and my assent is compelled.

Moments of epistemic pessimism: When no longer directly attending — no longer perceiving the proposition clearly and distinctly — I can entertain the sceptical hypothesis that such feelings of cognitive luminance are epistemically worthless, arising from a defective cognitive nature.

The doubt is thus indirect, in the sense that these moments of epistemic pessimism arise when I am no longer directly attending to the propositions in question. This indirect operation of hyperbolic doubt is conveyed not only in the fourth paragraph, but in numerous other texts, including the following:

Admittedly my nature is such that so long as I perceive something very clearly and distinctly I cannot but believe it to be true. But my nature is also such that I cannot fix my mental vision continually on the same thing, so as to keep perceiving it clearly; and often the memory of a previously made judgement may come back, when I am no longer attending to the arguments which led me to make it. And so other arguments can now occur to me which might easily undermine my opinion, if I were unaware of [the true] God; and I should thus never have true and certain knowledge about anything, but only shifting and changeable opinions. For example, when I consider the nature of a triangle, it appears most evident to me, steeped as I am in the principles of geometry, that its three angles are equal to two right angles; and so long as I attend to the proof, I cannot but believe this to be true. But as soon as I turn my mind’s eye away from the proof, then in spite of still remembering that I perceived it very clearly, I can easily fall into doubt about its truth, if I am unaware of God. For I can convince myself that I have a natural disposition to go wrong from time to time in matters which I think I perceive as evidently as can be. (Med.5, AT 7:69–70; cf. AT 3:64–65; AT 8a:9–10).

Granted, this indirect doubt is exceedingly hyperbolic. Even so, it means that we lack fully indefeasible Knowledge. Descartes thus closes the fourth paragraph as follows:

And since I have no cause to think that there is a deceiving God, and I do not yet even know for sure whether there is a God at all, any reason for doubt which depends simply on this supposition is a very slight and, so to speak, metaphysical one. But in order to remove even this slight reason for doubt, as soon as the opportunity arises I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver. For if I do not know this, it seems that I can never be quite certain about anything else. (Med. 3, AT 7:36)

The leading role played by the cogito in this four paragraph passage is easily overlooked. Not only is it (in paragraph two) the exemplar of judging clearly and distinctly, it is listed (paragraph four) among the propositions that are compellingly certain while attended to, though undermined when we no longer thus attend.

What next? How does Descartes think we’re to make epistemic progress if even our epistemic best is subject to hyperbolic doubt? This juncture of the Third Meditation (the end of the fourth paragraph) marks the beginning point of Descartes’ notorious efforts to refute the Evil Genius Doubt. His efforts involve an attempt to establish that we are the creatures not of an evil genius, but an all-perfect creator who would not allow us to be deceived about what we clearly and distinctly perceive. Before turning our attention (in Section 6) to these efforts, let’s digress somewhat to consider a Cartesian doctrine that has received much attention in its subsequent history.
5.2 The Epistemic Privilege of Judgments About the Mind

Descartes holds that our judgments about our own minds are epistemically better-off than our judgments about bodies. In our natural, pre-reflective condition, however, we’re apt to confuse the sensory images of bodies with the external things themselves, a confusion leading us to think our judgments about bodies are epistemically impressive. The confusion is clearly expressed (Descartes would say) in G. E. Moore’s famous claim to knowledge — “Here is a hand” — along with his more general defense of common sense:

I begin, then, with my list of truisms, every one of which (in my own opinion) I know, with certainty, to be true. … There exists at present a living human body, which is my body. This body was born at a certain time in the past, and has existed continuously ever since … But the earth had existed also for many years before my body was born … (1962, 32–33)

In contrast, Descartes writes:

[I]f 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. For it may perhaps be the case that I judge that I am touching the earth even though the earth does not exist at all; but it cannot be that, when I make this judgement, my mind which is making the judgement does not exist. (Prin. 1:11, AT 8a:8–9)

Methodical doubt is intended to help us appreciate the folly of the commonsensical position — helping us to recognize that the perception of our own minds is “not simply prior to and more certain … but also more evident” than that of our own bodies (Prin. 1:11, AT 8a:8). “Disagreement on this point,” writes Descartes, comes from “those who have not done their philosophizing in an orderly way”; from those who, while properly acknowledging the “certainty of their own existence,” mistakenly “take ‘themselves’ to mean only their bodies” — failing to “realize that they should have taken ‘themselves’ in this context to mean their minds alone” (Prin. 1:12, AT 8a:9).

In epistemological contexts, Descartes underwrites the mind-better-known-than-body doctrine with methodic doubt. For example, while reflecting on his epistemic position in regards both to himself, and to the wax, the Second Meditation meditator says:

Surely my awareness of my own self is not merely much truer and more certain than my awareness of the wax, but also much more distinct and evident. For if I judge that the wax exists from the fact that I see it, clearly this same fact entails much more evidently that I myself also exist. It is possible that what I see is not really the wax; it is possible that I do not even have eyes with which to see anything. But when I see, or think I see (I am not here distinguishing the two), it is simply not possible that I who am now thinking am not something. (Med. 2, AT 7:33)

Other reasons motivate Descartes as well. The doctrine is closely allied with his commitment to a representational theory of sense perception. On his view of sense perception, our sense organs and nerves serve as literal mediating links in the perceptual chain: they stand between (both spatially and causally) external things themselves, and the brain events that occasion our perceptual awareness (cf. Prin. 4:196). In veridical sensation, the immediate objects of sensory awareness are not external bodies themselves, nor are we immediately aware of states of our sense organs or nerves. Rather, the immediate objects of awareness — whether in veridical sensation, or dreams — are the mind’s ideas. Descartes thinks that the fact of physiological mediation helps explain delusional ideas, because roughly the same kinds of physiological processes that produce waking ideas are employed in producing delusional ideas:

[I]t is the soul which sees, and not the eye; and it does not see directly, but only by means of the brain. That is why madmen and those who are asleep often see, or think they see, various objects which are nevertheless not before their eyes: namely, certain vapours disturb their brain and arrange those of its parts normally engaged in vision exactly as they would be if these objects were present. (Optics, AT 6:141; cf. Med. 6, AT 7:85ff; Passions 26)

Various passages of the Meditations lay important groundwork for this theory of perception. For instance, one of the messages of the wax passage is that sensory awareness does not reach to external things themselves:

We say that we see the wax itself, if it is there before us, not that we judge it to be there from its colour or shape; and this might lead me to conclude without more ado that knowledge of the wax comes from what the eye sees, and not from the scrutiny of the mind alone. But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men. (Med. 2, AT 7:32)

Descartes thinks we’re apt to be “tricked by ordinary ways of talking” (ibid.). In ordinary contexts we don’t say that it seems there are men outside the window; we say we see them. Nor, in such contexts, are our beliefs about those men apt to result from conscious, inferentially complex judgments, say, like this one: “Well, I appear to be awake, and the window pane looks clean, and there’s plenty of light outside, and so on, and I thus conclude that I am seeing men outside the window.” Even so, our ordinary ways of speaking and thinking often mislead. Descartes’ view is that the mind’s immediate perception does not, strictly speaking, extend beyond itself, to external bodies. This is an important basis of the mind-better-known-than-body doctrine. In the concluding paragraph of the Second Meditation, Descartes writes:

I see that without any effort I have now finally got back to where I wanted. I now know that even bodies are not strictly [proprie] perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and in view of this I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else. (Med. 2, AT 7:34)

Related is a Third Meditation remark. Discussing sense perception and our ideas of external things, Descartes writes that the mind’s sensation extends strictly and immediately only to the ideas: “the ideas were, strictly speaking, the only immediate objects of my sensory awareness [solas proprie et immediate sentiebam]” (Med. 3, AT 7:75). The theme that ideas are the only immediate objects of awareness repeats itself elsewhere in Descartes’ writings. As he tells Hobbes: “I make it quite clear in several places … that I am taking the word ‘idea’ to refer to whatever is immediately perceived by the mind” (Replies 3, AT 7:181).

Complicating an understanding of such passages is that Descartes scholarship is divided on whether to attribute to him some version of an indirect theory of perception, or instead some version of a direct theory. According to indirect perception accounts, in normal sensation the mind’s perception of bodies is mediated by an awareness of its ideas of those bodies. By contrast, direct perception interpretations allow that in normal sensation the mind’s ideas play a mediating role, though this role doesn’t have ideas functioning as items of awareness; rather, the objects of direct awareness are the external things, themselves. On both accounts, ideas mediate our perception of external objects. On direct theory accounts, the mediating role is only a process role. By analogy, various brain processes mediate our perception of external objects, but in the normal course of perception we are not consciously aware of those processes; and likewise for the mind’s ideas, according to direct perception accounts. I hold an indirect perception interpretation. On the version of the interpretation I favor — and elsewhere defend (2009) — sensory ideas mediate our perception of the external bodies they’re of, in much the same way that pictures (or other representational imagery) mediate our perception of what they portray. More generally, Descartes seems to view all ideas as mental pictures, of a sort. As he writes: “the term ‘idea’ is strictly appropriate” only for thoughts that “are as it were the images of things” (Med. 3, AT 7:37); he adds that “the ideas in me are like {pictures, or} images” (Med. 3, AT 7:42).

Indirect perception interpretations have figured prominently in the history of Descartes scholarship. A number of recent commentators, however, have challenged this traditional view. For example, John Carriero’s recent book on Descartes defends a direct perception interpretation: “I don’t read Descartes as holding that I am (immediately) aware only of my sensory ideas and only subsequently (and perhaps indirectly) aware of bodies or their qualities” (2009, 25). Thus on Carriero’s reading, Descartes’ broader argument rebutting our doubts about the external world is not to be understood as an effort to get on the other side (as it were) of our ideas:

The argument (as I understand it) is not intended to get us from a realm of inner mental objects (“sensory ideas”) to some other realm of outer, physical objects (“bodies”); rather, it is to confirm our instinctive feeling that we have been receiving information (“directly”) from outer objects, bodies, all along. (2009, 26)

Returning to Descartes’ views of epistemic privilege, it is generally overlooked that his mind-better-known-than-body doctrine is intended as a comparative rather than a superlative thesis. For Descartes, the only superlative perceptual state is that of clarity and distinctness: only it is correctly characterized as our epistemic best. All manner of judgments are susceptible to error except when based on clear and distinct perception.

This understanding of Descartes deviates from a “Cartesian” view widely attributed to him, namely: that we simply cannot be mistaken about the present contents of consciousness; that such judgments about the mind are, by their very nature, as good as it gets. (People widely attribute to Descartes a variety of related doctrines. Compare the doctrines of the infallibility of the mental — roughly, the doctrine that sincere introspective judgments are always true; the indubitability of the mental — roughly, that sincere introspective judgments are indefeasible; and omniscience with respect to the mental — roughly, that one has Knowledge of every true proposition about one’s own present contents of consciousness. There is some variation in the way these doctrines are formulated in the literature.) Am I really denying that this is Descartes’ view? How could we be mistaken about the present contents of consciousness? And how do I explain the passages in which Descartes explicitly embraces the thesis?

Descartes’ view is that introspective judgments are indeed privileged, but he regards them as nonetheless subject to error. Even introspective perception — e.g., our awareness of occurrent pains and other sensations — must be rendered clear and distinct to be counted among our epistemic best. Such matters may be clearly and distinctly perceived, writes Descartes,

…provided we take great care in our judgements concerning them to include no more than what is strictly contained in our perception — no more than that of which we have inner awareness. But this is a very difficult rule to observe, at least with regard to sensations. (Prin. 1:66, AT 8a:32; cf. Prin. 1:68)

Elsewhere, Descartes writes that we do “frequently make mistakes, even in our judgements concerning pain” (Prin. 1:67). These mistakes arise because “people commonly confuse this perception [of pain] with an obscure judgement they make concerning the nature of something which they think exists in the painful spot and which they suppose to resemble the sensation of pain” (Prin.1:46, AT 8a:22).

But how could I be mistaken in judging, say, that I seem to see a speckled hen with two speckles? Descartes holds that we can be mistaken quite simply, by thinking obscurely or confusedly. On his view, the key to infallibility is not merely that the mind’s attention is on its ideas, but that it renders its ideas clear and distinct. To help appreciate his view, notice that judgments about seeming to see hens with two speckles are the same, in kind, as those about seeming to see hens with two hundred forty-seven speckles. Quite obviously, I might be confused in this latter case. (Indeed, it is plausible to hold that only in confusion could I seem to be seeing exactly that many speckles.) Yet there is no relevant difference that would explain why the one judgment is infallible (not merely correct), while the other is fallible. For Descartes, both are fallible; the relevant consideration distinguishing their susceptibility to error is that the two-speckled case is so much easier to render clear and distinct. But though simpler ideas are generally easier to make clear and distinct, simplicity is not a requirement: “A concept is not any more distinct because we include less in it; its distinctness simply depends on our carefully distinguishing what we do include in it from everything else” (Prin. 1:63, AT 8a:31; cf. Prin. 1:45).

What about the texts wherein Descartes seems explicitly to embrace the infallibility of introspective judgments? Consider two key texts often cited in this connection:

I certainly seem to see, to hear, and to be warmed. This cannot be false; what is called “having a sensory perception” is strictly just this, and in this restricted sense of the term it is simply thinking. (Med. 2, AT 7:29)

Now as far as ideas are concerned, provided they are considered solely in themselves and I do not refer them to anything else, they cannot strictly speaking be false; for whether it is a goat or a chimera that I am imagining, it is just as true that I imagine the former as the latter. As for the will and the emotions, here too one need not worry about falsity; for even if the things which I may desire are wicked or even non-existent, that does not make it any less true that I desire them. Thus the only remaining thoughts where I must be on my guard against making a mistake are judgements. (Med. 3, AT 7:37)

On close inspection, these texts make no claim about the possibility of introspective judgment error, because these texts — barring the final sentence of the second passage — are not about fully formed judgments. Rather, Descartes is isolating the components of judgment. His two-faculty theory of judgment requires an interaction between the perceptions of the intellect and the will’s assent (a theory elaborated in the Fourth Meditation). A sine qua non of judgment error is that there be an act of judgment, but acts of judgment require both a perception and a volition. Descartes’ claim that mere seemings “cannot strictly speaking be false” is therefore innocuous: for in isolating the mere seeming, he isolates the perceptual from the volitional. My merely seeming to see a speckled hen with two speckles could not, per se, involve judgment error, because it is not in itself a judgment.

Further reading: On discussions of truth criteria in the 16th and 17th centuries, see Popkin (1979). On Descartes’ theory of ideas, see Carriero (2009), Chappell (1986), Hoffman (1996), Jolley (1990), Nadler (2006), Nelson (1997), and Newman (2009). On the defeasibility of clear and distinct perception (including the cogito), see Carriero (2009, 339ff), Newman and Nelson (1999). On contemporary treatments of infallibility, indubitability, and omniscience, see Alston (1989) and Audi (1993).
6. Cartesian Circle

At the end of Section 5.1 we left off with the fourth paragraph of the Third Meditation. That passage clarifies that the Evil Genius Doubt undermines even clear and distinct perception: upon turning my attention away from matters thus perceived, I can then wonder whether I have a defective cognitive nature that makes me go wrong even in such cases. In his Principles treatment of the same issues, Descartes summarizes the broader problem as follows:

The mind, then, knowing itself, but still in doubt about all other things, looks around in all directions in order to extend its knowledge [cognitionem] further. … Next, it finds certain common notions from which it constructs various proofs; and, for as long as it attends to them, it is completely convinced of their truth. … But it cannot attend to them all the time; and subsequently, when it happens that it remembers a conclusion without attending to the sequence which enables it to be demonstrated, recalling that it is still ignorant as to whether it may have been created with the kind of nature that makes it go wrong even in matters which appear most evident, the mind sees that it has just cause to doubt such conclusions, and that the possession of certain knowledge [scientiam] will not be possible until it has come to know the author of its being. (Prin. 1.13, AT 8a:9–10)

How can we overcome this lingering hyperbolic doubt? At the close of the fourth paragraph of the Third Meditation, Descartes lays out an ambitious plan: “in order to remove even this slight reason for doubt, as soon as the opportunity arises I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver” (Med. 3, AT 7:36).

The broader argument that unfolds has seemed to many readers to be viciously circular — the so-called Cartesian Circle. Descartes first argues from clearly and distinctly perceived premises to the conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists; he then argues from the premise that a non-deceiving God exists to the conclusion that what is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. The worry is that he presupposes the C&D Rule in the effort to prove the C&D Rule. In what follows, I first clarify the key steps in the broader argument for the divine guarantee of the C&D Rule. I then turn to the Cartesian Circle.
6.1 Establishing the Divine Guarantee of the C&D Rule

Descartes’ broader argument unfolds in two main steps. The first main step has him making arguments in the Third Meditation for the existence of an all-perfect God. From these arguments Descartes concludes:

I recognize that it would be impossible for me to exist with the kind of nature I have — that is, having within me the idea of God — were it not the case that God really existed. By ‘God’ I mean the very being the idea of whom is within me, that is, the possessor of all the perfections which I cannot grasp, but can somehow reach in my thought, who is subject to no defects whatsoever. It is clear enough from this that he cannot be a deceiver, since it is manifest by the natural light that all fraud and deception depend on some defect. (Med. 3, AT 7:51f)

There is much of interest to say about Descartes’ arguments for an all-perfect God. (The Fifth Meditation advances a further such argument.) In the interests of space, and of focusing on epistemological concerns, however, these arguments will not be considered here. (For an overview of Descartes’ proofs, see Nolan and Nelson (2006).)

Descartes’ second main step is to argue from the premise (now established) that an all-perfect God exists, to the general veracity of the C&D Rule — whereby, whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. As Descartes tells us: “In the Fourth Meditation it is proved that everything that we clearly and distinctly perceive is true” (Synopsis, AT 7:15). It is this second main step of the broader argument that I want to develop here.

It is tempting to suppose that this second main step is unneeded. That is, one might have thought that the C&D Rule is a straightforward consequence of the existence of a God who is no deceiver. But this is is too fast. Why should only the C&D Rule be a straightforward consequence, but not also a more general infallibility of all our judgments? Essentially this point is made in the First Meditation, at the introduction of the Evil Genius Doubt. The meditator observes that what seems to follow from the standard view — whereby God “is said to be supremely good,” rather than a deceiver — is that God would not allow us ever to be mistaken in our judgments:

But if it were inconsistent with his goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made. (Med. 1, AT 7:21)

In short, the “rule for truth” that would seem to be the most straightforward consequence of an all-perfect creator is this perfectly general rule: If I form a judgment, then it is true. Yet quite clearly, this rule for truth doesn’t hold. But then, this fact — the very existence of error — calls into question whether there is an all-perfect creator. In this First Meditation passage Descartes is raising the traditional problem of evil, but here applied to the case of judgment error. As the passage reasons:

1. There is judgment error.
2. Judgment error is incompatible with the hypothesis that I am the creature of a non-deceiving God.
3. Therefore, I am not the creature of a non-deceiving God.

These First Meditation remarks set the stage for the discussion that will come in the Fourth Meditation. Descartes will need a theodicy for error. (A theodicy is an effort to explain how God is compatible with evil.) The theodicy needs to show that the existence of God is compatible with some forms of judgment error, but not others. The Fourth Meditation thus begins by revisiting the problem of error. But in context, the meditator has just proven the existence of an all-perfect God — a scenario generating cognitive dissonance:

To begin with, I recognize that it is impossible that God should ever deceive me. … I know by experience that there is in me a faculty of judgement which, like everything else which is in me, I certainly received from God. And since God does not wish to deceive me, he surely did not give me the kind of faculty which would ever enable me to go wrong while using it correctly.

There would be no further doubt on this issue were it not that what I have just said appears to imply that I am incapable of ever going wrong. For if everything that is in me comes from God, and he did not endow me with a faculty for making mistakes, it appears that I can never go wrong. (Med. 4, AT 7:53–54)

In an effort to resolve the problem, the meditator begins an investigation into the causes of error. In the course of the discussion, Descartes puts forward his theory of judgment. Judgment arises from the cooperation of the intellect and the will. The investigation concludes that the cause of error is an improper use of the will: error arises when the will gives assent to propositions of which the intellect lacks a clear and distinct understanding. It is therefore within our power to avoid judgment error. Error is our fault:

[If] I simply refrain from making a judgement in cases where I do not perceive the truth with sufficient clarity and distinctness, then it is clear that I am behaving correctly and avoiding error. But if in such cases I either affirm or deny, then I am not using my free will correctly. (Med. 4, AT 7:59–60)

The theodicy that emerges is a version of the freewill defense. Accordingly, we should thank God for giving us freewill, but the cost of having freewill is the possibility of misusing it. Since error is the result of misusing our freewill, we should not blame God.

Not only is the theodicy used to explain the kinds of error God can allow, it serves to clarify the kinds of error God cannot allow. From the latter arises a proof of the C&D Rule. God can allow errors that are my fault, though not errors that would be God’s fault. When my perception is clear and distinct, giving assent is not a voluntary option — thus not explainable by the freewill defense. In such cases, assent is a necessary consequence of my cognitive nature — a point made in many passages: “our mind is of such a nature that it cannot help assenting to what it clearly understands” (AT 3:64); “the nature of my mind is such that I cannot but assent to these things, at least so long as I clearly perceive them” (Med. 5, AT 7:65). Since, on occasions of clarity and distinctness, my assent arises from the cognitive nature that God gave me, God would be blamable if those judgments resulted in error. Therefore, they are not in error; indeed they could not be. That an evil genius might have created me casts doubt on my clear and distinct judgments. That, instead, an all-perfect God created me guarantees that these judgments are true. A clever strategy of argument thus unfolds — effectively inverting the usual reasoning in the problem of evil:

1. There is a non-deceiving God.
2. A non-deceiving God is incompatible with the hypothesis that I am in error about what I clearly and distinctly perceive.
3. Therefore, I am not in error about what I clearly and distinctly perceive.

The first premise was argued in the Third Meditation. The second premise arises out of the discussion of the Fourth Meditation. The result is a divine guarantee of the C&D Rule.

By the end of the Fourth Meditation, important pieces of Descartes’ broader argument are in place. Whether further important pieces arise in the Fifth Meditation is a matter of interpretive dispute. In any case, the Fifth Meditation comes to a close with Descartes asserting that indefeasible Knowledge has finally been achieved:

I have perceived that God exists, and at the same time I have understood that everything else depends on him, and that he is no deceiver; and I have drawn the conclusion that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive is of necessity true. … what objections can now be raised? That the way I am made makes me prone to frequent error? But I now know that I am incapable of error in those cases where my understanding is transparently clear. … And now it is possible for me to achieve full and certain knowledge of countless matters, both concerning God himself and other things whose nature is intellectual, and also concerning the whole of that corporeal nature which is the subject-matter of pure mathematics. (Med. 5, AT 7:70-71)

6.2 Circularity and the Broader Argument

Students of philosophy can expect to be taught a longstanding interpretation according to which Descartes’ broader argument is viciously circular. Despite its prima facie plausibility, Descartes commentators generally resist the vicious circularity interpretation.

Consider first what every plausible interpretation must concede: that the two main steps of the broader argument unfold in a manner suggestive of a circle — I’ll indeed refer to them as ‘arcs’. The Third Meditation arguments for God define one arc:

Arc 1: The conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists is derived from premises that are clearly and distinctly perceived.

The Fourth Meditation argument defines a second arc:

Arc 2: The general veracity of propositions that are clearly and distinctly perceived (i.e., the C&D Rule) is derived from the conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists.

That the broader argument unfolds in accord with these two steps is uncontroversial. The question of interest concerns whether, strictly speaking, these arcs form a circle. The statement of Arc 1 admits of considerable ambiguity. How one resolves this ambiguity determines whether vicious circularity is the result. Let’s begin by clarifying what Arc 1 would have to mean to generate vicious circularity. We’ll then consider the main alternative interpretations of that arc by which commentators avoid a vicious circle.

Vicious Circularity interpretation:

Arc 1: The conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists is derived from premises that are clearly and distinctly perceived — i.e., premises that are accepted because of first accepting the general veracity of propositions that are clearly and distinctly perceived.

Arc 2: The general veracity of propositions that are clearly and distinctly perceived is derived from the conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists.

Thus rendered, Descartes’ broader argument is viciously circular. The italicized segment of Arc 1 marks an addition to the original statement of it, thereby clarifying the circularity reading. Interpreted in this way, Descartes begins his Third Meditation proofs of God by presupposing the general veracity of clear and distinct perception. That is, he starts by assuming the C&D Rule and then uses the rule in the course of demonstrating it. Evidently, this way of reading Descartes’ argument has pedagogical appeal, for it is ubiquitously taught (outside of Descartes scholarship) despite the absence of any textual merit. If there is one point of general agreement in the secondary literature, it is that the texts do not sustain this interpretation.

How then should Arc 1 be understood? There are countless interpretations that avoid vicious circularity, along with numerous schemes for cataloguing them. For present purposes, I’ll catalogue the various accounts according to two main kinds of non-circular strategies that commentators attribute to Descartes. (The secondary literature offers multiple variations of each these main kinds of interpretations, though I won’t here explore the variations.)

Unbounded Doubt interpretations:

Arc 1: The conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists is derived from premises that are clearly and distinctly perceived — i.e., premises that are accepted, despite being defeasible, because our cognitive nature compels us to assent to clearly and distinctly perceived propositions.

Arc 2: The general veracity of propositions that are clearly and distinctly perceived is derived from the conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists.

Again, the italicized segment marks an addition to the original statement of Arc 1. I call this an ‘Unbounded Doubt’ interpretation, because this kind of interpretation construes hyperbolic doubt as unbounded. More precisely, the Evil Genius Doubt is (on this reading) unbounded in the sense that it undermines all manner of judgments — even the cogito, even the premises of the Third Meditation proofs of God. It is the unboundedness of hyperbolic doubt that underwrites the No Atheistic Knowledge Thesis.

Importantly, if doubt is thus unbounded then there is no circularity. For, on this reading of it, Arc 1 does not presuppose the general veracity of the C&D Rule. Hyperbolic doubt is in play throughout Arc 1.

A question immediately arises for such unbounded doubt interpretations. Given that hyperbolic doubt is unbounded, why then are the Arc 1 arguments for God accepted? Why does the meditator assent to the premises of those arguments, if indeed hyperbolic doubt undermines them? The answer lies in our earlier discussion of the indirect manner in which hyperbolic doubt operates (Section 5.1). Recall that while I am clearly and distinctly attending to a proposition, it compels my assent: “my nature is such that so long as I perceive something very clearly and distinctly I cannot but believe it to be true” (Med. 5, AT 7:69; cf. 3:64, 7:36, 7:65, 8a:9). Descartes holds that while we are attending to the steps of the Third Meditation arguments for God, we have no choice but to accept those arguments. Of course, from the fact that those arguments compel our assent while attending to them, it does not (yet) follow that we have Knowledge of their conclusions. At present, our focus is on the issue of circularity, not the issue of how hyperbolic doubt is finally overcome.

The other main kind of interpretation avoids circularity in a different manner. Let’s consider that alternative.

Bounded Doubt interpretations:

Arc 1: The conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists is derived from premises that are clearly and distinctly perceived — indeed, premises belonging to a special class of truths immune to doubt.

Arc 2: The general veracity of propositions that are clearly and distinctly perceived is derived from the conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists.

Once again, the italicized segment marks an addition to the original statement of Arc 1. I call this a ‘Bounded Doubt’ interpretation, because this kind of interpretation construes hyperbolic doubt as bounded. More precisely, the Evil Genius Doubt is (on this reading) bounded in the sense that its sceptical potency does not extend to all judgments: a special class of truths is outside the bounds of doubt. Exemplary of this special class are the cogito and, importantly, the premises of the Third Meditation proofs of God. Propositions in this special class can be indefeasibly Known even by atheists. Since the truths in this special class are Knowable independently of a divine guarantee of the C&D Rule, there is no vicious circularity in the broader argument. Throughout the arguments of Arcs 1 and 2, the premises employed count as indefeasibly Known prior to the Knowledge of the C&D Rule they help establish.

Proponents of this interpretation are apt to cite Third Meditation texts referring to truths said to be revealed by the natural light. The interpretation has it that these natural light propositions are in no way subject to doubt, unlike ordinary clearly and distinctly perceivable truths. In order to extend indefeasible Knowledge to all such truths, it is necessary to establish the general veracity of the C&D Rule. Thus, the need (on this interpretation) for Arc 2 in the broader project.

Though bounded and unbounded doubt interpretations both avoid vicious circularity, each confronts further difficulties, both textual and philosophical. Avoiding the charge of vicious circularity marks the beginning of the interpreter’s work, not the end. Bounded doubt interpreters must explain why, in the first place, the Evil Genius Doubt’s potency does not extend to propositions in the special class. Unbounded doubt interpreters must explain why, in the final analysis, the Evil Genius Doubt eventually loses it undermining potency. Let’s consider each of these further problems.

Granting a bounded doubt interpretation, why — in the first place — does the Evil Genius Doubt’s potency not extend to propositions in the special class? How is it that the doubt does undermine the proposition “that two and three added together make five,” but not the proposition “that there must be at least as much [reality] in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause”? The first proposition is included in the list of examples that are undermined by the Evil Genius Doubt (see fourth paragraph of Med. 3). The second proposition is a premise in a Third Meditation argument for God — a proposition immune to doubt, according to bounded doubt interpretations. What is supposed to be the relevant difference between these propositions? Given the indirect manner in which hyperbolic doubt operates, there seems no clear explanation of why the doubt succeeds in undermining the first proposition but is somehow resisted by the second. Even more awkward for this interpretation is that the cogito is included in the list of examples that that same fourth paragraph passage implies is vulnerable to doubt.

Granting an unbounded doubt interpretation, why — in the final analysis — does the Evil Genius Doubt eventually lose its undermining potency? Putting the point ironically: Why doesn’t the Evil Genius Doubt undermine the very arguments intended to refute the Evil Genius Doubt, as soon as the mind is no longer attending to those premises? Consider Descartes’ own explanation of how hyperbolic doubt undermines the conclusions of arguments once their premises are no longer in the mind’s view:

There are other truths which are perceived very clearly by our intellect so long as we attend to the arguments on which our knowledge of them depends; and we are therefore incapable of doubting them during this time. But we may forget the arguments in question and later remember simply the conclusions which were deduced from them. The question will now arise as to whether we possess the same firm and immutable conviction concerning these conclusions, when we simply recollect that they were previously deduced from quite evident principles (our ability to call them ‘conclusions’ presupposes such a recollection). (Replies 2, AT 7:146)

So, when we’re no longer clearly and distinctly perceiving the steps of an argument, we do not “possess the same firm and immutable conviction” of its conclusion. But precisely such moments are when hyperbolic doubt does its undermining work. This means that upon diverting attention from the premises of Arcs 1 and 2, it is then possible to run the Evil Genius Doubt on their conclusions. It would thus seem that unbounded doubt interpretations leave us in a Sisyphus-like predicament. According to the myth, each time Sisyphus pushes his boulder near to the top of the hill, the boulder somehow slips away, rolling to the very bottom, and the whole process must start all over. By carefully constructing the arguments of Arcs 1 and 2, the meditator gains anti-sceptical momentum, pushing his project near to the goal of Knowledge. But each time, upon diverting his attention from the premises, he finds himself back at the bottom of the hill, wondering about the credibility of those proofs that seemed so evident: “perhaps some God could have given me a nature such that I was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident” (Med. 3, AT 7:36).

Again, the hard question for this interpretation: Why, in the final analysis, does the Evil Genius Doubt eventually lose it undermining potency? Because I hold an unbounded doubt interpretation, this is the hard problem I must confront. Elsewhere (1999), Alan Nelson and I have proposed a solution. Though space doesn’t permit a full recounting of our proposal, I’ll try to summarize the account.

Various themes about innate truths are introduced in the Fifth Meditation. Among them concerns the effects of repeated meditation: truths initially noticed only by means of inference might come to be apprehended self-evidently. In the build-up to the passage claiming that the Evil Genius Doubt is finally and fully overcome, Descartes has his meditator say:

But as regards God, if I were not overwhelmed by preconceived opinions, and if the images of things perceived by the senses did not besiege my thought on every side, I would certainly acknowledge him sooner and more easily than anything else. For what is more self-evident [ex se est apertius] than the fact that the supreme being exists, or that God, to whose essence alone existence belongs, exists?

Although it needed close attention for me to perceive this, I am now just as certain of it as I am of everything else which appears most certain. And what is more, I see that the certainty of all other things depends on this, so that without it nothing can ever be perfectly known. (Med. 5, AT 7:69)

Descartes reiterates this same theme in the Second Replies:

I ask my readers to spend a great deal of time and effort on contemplating the nature of the supremely perfect being. Above all they should reflect on the fact that the ideas of all other natures contain possible existence, whereas the idea of God contains not only possible but wholly necessary existence. This alone, without a formal argument, will make them realize that God exists; and this will eventually be just as self-evident [per se notum] to them as the fact that the number two is even or that three is odd, and so on. For there are certain truths which some people find self-evident, while others come to understand them only by means of a formal argument. (Replies 2, AT 7:163 64)

Let’s build on these texts. Let’s assume that Descartes holds that the needed conclusion comes to be self-evident — namely, the conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists who guarantees the C&D Rule. Indeed, let’s assume that this truth comes to have a kind of cogito-like status, in the following sense: whenever I try to doubt whether God exists, or is a deceiver, or the like, the effort at doubt ends up being self-stultifying. When I try to doubt my own existence, I immediately apprehend that I must exist in order to be attempting the doubt. Similarly (on this interpretation), when I try to doubt God’s existence, or benevolence, or the like, I immediately apprehend, as Descartes writes, that any such sceptical conception of God “implies a conceptual contradiction — that is, it cannot be conceived” (May 1643 letter, AT 8b:60). In that case, the hard problem for an unbounded doubt interpretation has dissolved. I can no longer doubt the Arc 1 conclusions about God, or the Arc 2 conclusions about the divine guarantee, because those conclusions have become self-evident. The mechanism for doubting inferential truths — that of attending to a conclusion without also attending to the premises on which it rests — is now impotent. No longer resting on premises, those truths are recognized as true whenever I attend to them. This interpretation explains why Descartes holds, in the final analysis, that the Evil Genius Doubt eventually loses it undermining potency.

Further reading: For Descartes’ response to the charges of circularity: see the Fourth Replies. For texts concerning his final solution to hyperbolic doubt: see Fifth Meditation; Second Replies; letter to Regius (24 May 1640). For a treatment of the Fourth Meditation proof of the C&D Rule, see Newman (1999). For examples of unbounded doubt interpretations, see Carriero (2009), Curley (1978 and 1993), DeRose (1992), Loeb (1992), Newman and Nelson (1999), Sosa (1997a and 1997b), and Van Cleve (1979). For examples of bounded doubt interpretations, see Broughton (2002), Doney (1955), Della Rocca (2005), Kenny (1968), Morris (1973), Rickless (2005), and Wilson (1978). For an anthology devoted largely to the Cartesian Circle, see Doney (1987).
7. Proving the Existence of the External Material World

The opening line of the Sixth Meditation makes clear its principal objective: “It remains for me to examine whether material things exist” (AT 7:71). At this juncture, the meditator Knows of his own existence and of God’s. It follows that there’s an external world with at least one object, God. The existence of an external material world remains in doubt. Establishing the existence of bodies is not a straightforward matter of perceiving them, because, as we have seen, “bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses” (see Section 5.2 above).

Descartes’ strategy for proving an external material world has two main parts: first, he argues for the externality of the causes of sensation; second, he argues for the materiality of these external causes. (I will refer to these putative sensations as sensations, though, strictly speaking, we cannot yet be using the term in a way that presupposes being caused by external sense organs.) From these two steps it follows that there exists an external material world. Let’s consider each phase of the argument.
7.1 The Case for the Externality of the Causes of Sensation

Descartes builds on a familiar argument in the history of philosophy, an argument that appeals to the involuntariness of sensations. The familiar argument is first articulated in the Third Meditation. Speaking of his apparently adventitious ideas (sensations), the meditator remarks:

I know by experience that these ideas do not depend on my will, and hence that they do not depend simply on me. Frequently I notice them even when I do not want to: now, for example, I feel the heat whether I want to or not, and this is why I think that this sensation or idea of heat comes to me from something other than myself, namely the heat of the fire by which I am sitting. (Med. 3, AT 7:38)

The familiar involuntariness argument amounts to the following — and recall that the me is a thinking thing, a mind:

1. Sensations come to me involuntarily (I’m unaware of causing them with my will).
2. Therefore, sensations are caused by something external to me.
3. Therefore, there exists something external to me — an external world.

(Note: in context, when this argument is first considered by the meditator, he hasn’t yet argued for the existence of God; he has yet to establish any manner of an external world.)

Though some such involuntariness argument has convinced many philosophers, the inference from 1 to 2 does not hold up to methodic doubt, as the meditator explains:

Then again, although these [apparently adventitious] ideas do not depend on my will, it does not follow that they must come from things located outside me. Just as the impulses which I was speaking of a moment ago seem opposed to my will even though they are within me, so there may be some other faculty [of my mind] not yet fully known to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance from external things; this is, after all, just how I have always thought ideas are produced in me when I am dreaming. (Med. 3, AT 7:39)

We first looked at this passage in connection with the Always Dreaming Doubt. Methodic doubt raises the problem of the existence of external things. For all I Know, my “waking” experiences are produced not by external things, but by processes similar to those producing my dreams. This sceptical hypothesis explains why the familiar involuntariness argument fails: the inference from 1 to 2 presupposes exactly what is at issue — namely, that involuntarily sensory ideas are produced by external things, rather than by a subconscious faculty of my mind.

Many philosophers have assumed that we lack the epistemic resources to solve this sceptical problem. For example, Hume writes:

By what argument can it be proved, that the perceptions of the mind must be caused by external objects … and could not arise either from the energy of the mind itself … or from some other cause still more unknown to us? It is acknowledged, that, in fact, many of these perceptions arise not from anything external, as in dreams, madness, and other diseases. … It is a question of fact, whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external objects … But here experience is, and must be entirely silent. (Enquiry Sec. 12)

Interestingly, Descartes would agree that experiential resources cannot solve the problem. By the Sixth Meditation, however, Descartes purports to have the innate resources he needs to solve it — notably, innate ideas of mind and body. Among the metaphysical theses he develops is that mind and body have wholly distinct essences: the essence of thinking substance is pure thought; the essence of body is pure extension. In a remarkable maneuver, Descartes invokes this distinction to refute the sceptical worry that sensations are produced by a subconscious faculty of the mind: “nothing can be in me, that is to say, in my mind, of which I am not aware,” and this “follows from the fact that the soul is distinct from the body and that its essence is to think” (1640 letter, AT 3:273). This result allows Descartes to supplement the involuntariness argument, thereby strengthening the inference from line 1 to line 2. For from the additional premise that nothing can be in my mind of which I am unaware, it follows that if sensations were being produced by some activity in my mind, then I’d be aware of that activity on the occasion of its operation. Since I’m not thus aware, it follows that the sensation I’m having is produced by a cause external to my mind. As Descartes writes, this cause

cannot be in me, since clearly it presupposes no intellectual act [of awareness] on my part, and the ideas in question are produced without my cooperation and often even against my will. So the only alternative is that it is in another substance distinct from me … (Med. 6, AT 7:79)

It follows that my sensations are caused by external world objects. It remains to be shown that these external causes are material objects.
7.2. The Case for the Materiality of the Causes of Sensation

On Descartes’ analysis, there are three possible options for the kind of external thing causing sensations:

1. God
2. material/corporeal substance
3. some other created substance

That is, the cause is either infinite substance (God), or finite substance; and if finite, then either corporeal, or something else. Descartes eliminates options (a) and (c) by appeal to God being no deceiver:

But since God is not a deceiver, it is quite clear that he does not transmit the ideas to me either directly from himself, or indirectly, via some creature [other than corporeal substance] … For God has given me no faculty at all for recognizing any such source for these ideas; on the contrary, he has given me a great propensity to believe that they are produced by corporeal things. It follows that corporeal things exist. (Med. 6, AT 7:79–80, italics added)

This is a highly problematic passage. The “great propensity” here referred to is not the irresistible compulsion of clear and distinct perception. (If it were, the conclusion that sensation is caused by material objects would follow straightaway from this clear and distinct perception, via the C&D Rule.) But unless each step of the argument is clearly and distinctly perceived, Descartes should not be making the argument. Adding to the difficulties of the passage, he expressly cites the conclusion as following from the fact that “God is not a deceiver,” implying that he thinks this inference is supported by a divine guarantee. What is going on in this passage?

On one kind of interpretation, Descartes relaxes his epistemic standards in the Sixth Meditation. He no longer insists on indefeasible Knowledge, now settling for probabilistic arguments. Though there are no decisive texts indicating that this is Descartes’ intent, the interpretation does find some support. For instance, in the Synopsis Descartes writes of his Sixth Meditation arguments:

The great benefit of these arguments is not, in my view, that they prove what they establish … The point is that in considering these arguments we come to realize that they are not as solid or as transparent as the arguments which lead us to knowledge of our own minds and of God … (AT 7:15–16)

The remark can be read as a concession that the Sixth Meditation arguments are weaker than the earlier arguments about minds and God — that these later arguments do not “prove what they establish.” Of course, one need not read the remark this way. And other texts are unfavorable to this interpretation. For example, in the opening paragraphs of the Sixth Meditation Descartes considers a probabilistic argument for the existence of external bodies. Though he accepts the proposed account as offering the best explanation, he nonetheless dismisses it for the express reason that it grounds “only a probability” — it does not provide the “basis for a necessary inference that some body exists” (Med. 6, AT 7:73). This is a puzzling dismissal, assuming Descartes has relaxed his standards to probable inference.

The relaxed standards interpretation falls short for another reason. It provides no explanation of why Descartes cites a divine guarantee for the conclusion that sensations are caused by material objects.

On another kind of interpretation, the troubling passage appealing to a “great propensity” does not mark a relaxing of epistemic standards. Instead, Descartes is extending the implications of his discussion of theodicy in the Fourth Meditation. I earlier argued (Section 6.1) that Descartes thinks he demonstrates the divine guarantee of the C&D Rule by showing that an all-perfect God cannot allow us to be in error about what we clearly and distinctly perceive. What if Descartes holds that there are other perceptual circumstances under which an all-perfect God could not allow us to be in error? And suppose these other circumstances are cases like those occurring in the highly problematic passage. Under these assumptions, the resulting rule for truth would look something like the following:

I am not in error in cases in which (i) I have a great propensity to believe, and (ii) God provided me no faculty by which to correct a false such belief.

This rule is more expansive than the C&D Rule, in that it licenses more kinds of judgments. (Elsewhere (1999), I have called this the ‘Inclination Without Correction Rule’.) Clauses (i) and (ii) are tailored to the problematic passage wherein, as we’ve seen, Descartes invokes two conditions: “God has given me no faculty at all for recognizing any such source for these ideas; on the contrary, he has given me a great propensity to believe that they are produced by corporeal things.” If indeed we’re on the right interpretive track, then Descartes needs some way to prove this rule. Assuming a proof similar in structure to the proof of the C&D Rule, it would run as follows:

1. There is a non-deceiving God.
2. A non-deceiving God cannot allow me to be in error in cases in which (i) I have a great propensity to believe, and (ii) God provided me no faculty by which to correct a false such belief.
3. Therefore, I am not in error in cases in which (i) I have a great propensity to believe, and (ii) God provided me no faculty by which to correct a false such belief.

Assuming Descartes could establish premise 2, he would be entitled to this more powerful rule, and without having relaxed his standards of indefeasibility.

Elsewhere (1999), I argue that premise 2 follows from Descartes’s Fourth Meditation discussion. Prima facie, this may seem ad hoc. But even without detailing the argument, a number of texts make clear that he holds some version of premise 2. In the relevant Sixth Meditation passage, Descartes adds that from “the very fact that God is not a deceiver” there is a “consequent impossibility of there being any falsity in my opinions which cannot be corrected by some other faculty supplied by God” (Med. 6, AT 7:80). In another passage he writes that we would be “doing God an injustice” if we implied “that God had endowed us with such an imperfect nature that even the proper use of our powers of reasoning allowed us to go wrong” (Prin. 4:43, AT 8a:99). In the Second Replies he addresses the case of judgments that “could not be corrected by any clearer judgements or by means of any other natural faculty,” adding: “in such cases I simply assert that it is impossible for us to be deceived” (Replies 2, AT 7:143f). These passages strongly suggest that Descartes thinks that God’s benevolent nature entails a more expansive rule of truth than the C&D Rule. Assuming this interpretation is correct, the inferential moves in the problematic passage are not ad hoc. And as will emerge, Descartes looks again to call on this same more expansive rule in his effort to prove that he is not dreaming.

A final observation. It is often unnoticed that the conclusion of Descartes’ argument for the existence of an external material world leaves significant scepticism in place. Granting the success of the argument, my sensations are caused by an external material world. But for all the argument shows — for all the broader argument of the Meditations shows, up to this point — my mind might be joined to a brain in a vat, rather than a full human body. This isn’t an oversight on Descartes’ part. It’s all he thinks the argument can prove. For even at this late stage of the Meditations, the meditator does not yet Know himself to be awake.

Further reading: For a variation of the Sixth Meditation argument for the existence of the external material world, see Descartes’ Prin. 2.1. See also Friedman (1997), Garber (1992), and Newman (1994). On the respects in which the Sixth Meditation inference draws on Fourth Meditation work, see Newman (1999). For an interpretation of the Sixth Meditation argument that’s consistent with a direct realist interpretation, see Carriero (2009, 146ff).
8. Proving that One is Not Dreaming

By design, the constructive arguments of the Meditations unfold though the meditator remains in doubt about being awake. This of course reinforces the ongoing theme that Knowledge does not properly include judgments of external sense. In the closing paragraph of the Sixth Meditation, Descartes revisits the issue of dreaming. He claims to show how, in principle — even if not easily in practice — it is possible to achieve Knowledge that one is awake.

A casual reading of that final paragraph might suggest that Descartes offers a naturalistic solution to the problem (viz., a non-theistic solution), in the form of a continuity test: since continuity with past experiences holds only of waking but not dreaming, checking for the requisite continuity is the test for ascertaining that one is awake. The following remarks can be read in this way:

I now notice that there is a vast difference between the two [“being asleep and being awake”], in that dreams are never linked by memory with all the other actions of life as waking experiences are. … But when I distinctly see where things come from and where and when they come to me, and when I can connect my perceptions of them with the whole of the rest of my life without a break, then I am quite certain that when I encounter these things I am not asleep but awake. (Med. 6, AT 7:89–90)

This naturalistic “solution” prompts two obvious criticisms, both raised by Hobbes in the Third Objections. First, the solution runs contrary to Descartes’ No Atheistic Knowledge Thesis: since the continuity test (on the naturalistic reading of it) does not invoke God, it thus appears, as Hobbes notes, “that someone can know he is awake without knowledge of the true God” (AT 7:196). Second, as Hobbes adds, it seems one could dream the requisite continuity: one could “dream that his dream fits in with his ideas of a long series of past events,” thus undermining the credibility of the continuity test (AT 7:195).

Mirroring our discussion in Section 7.2, one kind of interpretation has Descartes relaxing his epistemic standards. He’s aware that the naturalistic solution does not stand up to methodic doubt, but he’s not attempting to overcome the Now Dream Doubt with indefeasible Knowledge. A problem for this interpretation is that it doesn’t square with the reply Descartes makes to Hobbes’ first objection: “an atheist can infer that he is awake on the basis of memory of his past life” (via the continuity test); but “he cannot know that this criterion is sufficient to give him the certainty that he is not mistaken, if he does not know that he was created by a non-deceiving God” (Replies 3, AT 7:196). Evidently, Descartes’ solution is not supposed to be available to the atheist. Taken at face value, this reply rules out a relaxed standards reading; it indeed rules out any interpretation involving a naturalistic solution to the problem of dreaming.

On closer inspection, the Sixth Meditation passage puts forward not a naturalistic solution, but a theistic one. The meditator finally concludes that he’s awake because, as the passage explicitly reads, “God is not a deceiver” (AT 7:90).

How does his argument go? Recall, in the proof of the external material world (Section 7.2), that Descartes mysteriously invokes the following (divinely guaranteed) truth rule:

I am not in error in cases in which (i) I have a great propensity to believe, and (ii) God provided me no faculty by which to correct a false such belief.

I suggest that in the dreaming passage Descartes is again invoking this rule. The passage opens with the meditator observing the following:

I can almost always make use of more than one sense to investigate the same thing; and in addition, I can use both my memory, which connects present experiences with preceding ones, and my intellect, which has by now examined all the causes of error. Accordingly, I should not have any further fears about the falsity of what my senses tell me every day; on the contrary, the exaggerated doubts of the last few days should be dismissed as laughable. This applies especially to … my inability to distinguish between being asleep and being awake. (Med. 6, AT 7:89)

Referring to the worry that he’s dreaming as exaggerated suggests that condition (i) is met — i.e., suggests that the present circumstance includes a “great propensity” to believe he’s awake. As such, he needs only to establish condition (ii), and he’ll have a divine guarantee of being awake. Notice that an important theme of the above passage concerns the meditator’s faculties for correcting sensory error — suggesting condition (ii). I propose that, in context, Descartes’ appeal to the continuity test is best understood in conjunction with condition (ii). As the meditator says (speaking of his apparently waking experience):

[W]hen I distinctly see where things come from and where and when they come to me, and when I can connect my perceptions of them with the whole of the rest of my life without a break, then I am quite certain that when I encounter these things I am not asleep but awake. And I ought not to have even the slightest doubt of their reality if, after calling upon all the senses as well as my memory and my intellect in order to check them, I receive no conflicting reports from any of these sources. For from the fact that God is not a deceiver it follows that in cases like these I am completely free from error. (Med. 6, AT 7:90; italics added)

Central to the inference is the meditator’s effort to check the correctness of his belief, by means of his various faculties. The cases like these to which Descartes refers look to be those where conditions (i) and (ii) are both satisfied. Recall what Descartes writes in conjunction with the proof of the external material world: from “the very fact that God is not a deceiver” there is a “consequent impossibility of there being any falsity in my opinions which cannot be corrected by some other faculty supplied by God” (Med. 6, AT 7:80). On the reading that I am proposing, Descartes’ theistic solution to the Now Dreaming Doubt employs the same rule that he employs in his proof for the external material world.

What about Hobbes’ second objection — in effect, that one could dream both (i) and (ii)? Descartes’ response: “A dreamer cannot really connect his dreams with the ideas of past events, though he may dream that he does. For everyone admits that a man may be deceived in his sleep.” (AT 7:196) Perhaps Descartes thinks the situation parallels that of waking life. Those who are sufficiently tired, or otherwise perceptually inattentive, “cannot really” perceive truths clearly and distinctly, though it may seem to them that they do. Whether in waking or dreaming, the Fourth Meditation theodicy has God allowing us to make judgment errors, provided that they are correctable. Relevant, therefore, is that Descartes seems to hold that the mistake of dreaming that we’re awake is correctable: “to be aware that we are dreaming we need only the intellect” (Replies 5, AT 7:359).

Importantly, Descartes does not say we can easily correct the mistake of dreaming that we’re awake. To the contrary, the Sixth Meditation treatment of the Now Dreaming Doubt closes with a concession that his solution is more theoretical than practical:

But since the pressure of things to be done does not always allow us to stop and make such a meticulous check, it must be admitted that in this human life we are often liable to make mistakes about particular things, and we must acknowledge the weakness of our nature. (Med. 6, AT 7:90)

Thus the importance of Descartes’ First Meditation remark that “no danger or error will result” from the program of methodic doubt, “because the task now in hand does not involve action” (Med. 1, AT 7:22). Methodic doubt should not be applied to practical matters. Prudence dictates that when making practical decisions I should assume I’m awake, even if I don’t Know that I’m awake. Judgment errors made while mistakenly assuming I’m awake won’t have any actual practical consequences, but those made while mistakenly assuming I’m dreaming might.

Further reading: See Newman (1999), Williams (1978), and Wilson (1978).
Primary Sources

Abbreviations Used:
Rules = Rules for the Direction of our Native Intelligence
Discourse = Discourse on Method
Synopsis = Synopsis of the Meditations
Meditations = Meditations on First Philosophy
Med. = any one of the six Meditations
Objs./Replies = any of the seven sets of objections/replies that Descartes published along with the Meditations
Prin. = Principles of Philosophy
Passions = The Passions of the Soul
Search = The Search for Truth
AT = Oeuvres de Descartes, Adam, Charles, and Paul Tannery, (eds.) 1904. Paris: J. Vrin. (References are to volume number and page.)
CSM = The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Cottingham, John, and Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. (eds.) 1984. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dates in parentheses indicate a reference to Descartes’ correspondance. All quoted texts are from CSM. For full bibliographic information on Descartes’ writings, see the entry on Descartes.
Secondary Sources

* Adams, Robert, 1975. “Where Do Our Ideas Come From? — Descartes vs. Locke,” Innate Ideas, ed. Stephen P. Stich, Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Alston, William, 1989. Epistemic Justification, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
* Arnauld, Antoine, 1964. The Art of Thinking: Port-Royal Logic, tran. J. Dickhoff and P. James, New York: Library of Liberal Arts.
* Audi, Robert, 1993. The Structure of Justification, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* –––, 2001. “Doxastic Voluntarism and the Ethics of Belief,” in Knowledge, Truth, and Duty, ed. Matthias Steup, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Bennett, Jonathan, 1990. “Truth and Stability in Descartes’ Meditations,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16 (supplement): 75–108.
* Beyssade, Michelle, 1993. “Privileged Truth or Exemplary Truth?” in Essays on the Philosophy and Science of René Descartes, ed. Stephen Voss, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Bouwsma, O. K., 1949. “Descartes’ Evil Genius,” Philosophical Review, 58: 141–151.
* Broughton, Janet, 2002. Descartes’s Method of Doubt, Princeton University Press.
* Carriero, John, 2009. Between Two Worlds: A Reading of Descartes’ Meditations, Princeton University Press.
* Chappell, Vere, 1986. “The Theory of Ideas,” in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Chisholm, Roderick M., 1982. The Foundations of Knowing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
* Cunning, David, 2007. “Descartes on the Dubitability of the Existence of Self,” Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 74 (March): 111–131.
* Curley, E. M., 1978. Descartes Against the Sceptics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
* –––, 1986. “Analysis in the Meditations: The Quest for Clear and Distinct Ideas,” in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Berkeley: University of California Press.
* –––, 1993. “Certainty: Psychological, Moral, and Metaphysical,” in Essays on the Philosophy and Science of René Descartes, ed. Stephen Voss, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Della Rocca, Michael, 2005. “Descartes, the Cartesian Circle, and Epistemology Without God,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70 (January): 1–33.
* DeRose, Keith, 1992. “Descartes, Epistemic Principles, Epistemic Circularity, and Scientia,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 73: 220–38.
* Doney, Willis, 1955. “The Cartesian Circle,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 16 (June): 324–38.
* ––– (ed.), 1987. Eternal Truths and the Cartesian Circle, New York: Garland Publishing.
* Dunlop, Charles E. M. (ed.), 1977. Philosophical Essays on Dreaming, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
* Euclid. The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements, ed. Thomas L. Heath. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.
* Frankfurt, Harry G., 1970. Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.
* Friedman, Michael, 1997. “Descartes on the Real Existence of Matter,” Topoi, 16: 153–162.
* Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, tran. Stillman Drake, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.
* Garber, Daniel, 1986. “Semel in vita: The Scientific Background to Descartes’ Meditations,” in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Berkeley: University of California Press.
* –––, 1992. Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
* Gaukroger, Stephen, 1989. Cartesian Logic: An Essay on Descartes’s Conception of Inference, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Gewirth, Alan, 1941. “The Cartesian Circle,” Philosophical Review, 50 (July): 368–95.
* Hacking, Ian, 1980. “Proof and Eternal Truths: Descartes and Leibniz,” in Descartes: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics, ed. Stephen Gaukroger, Sussex: The Harvester Press.
* Hintikka, Jaakko, 1962. “Cogito ergo sum: Inference or Performance?” Philosophical Review, 71: 3–32.
* –––, 1978. “A Discourse on Descartes’s Method,” in Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
* Hoffman, Paul, 1996. “Descartes on Misrepresentation,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 34 (July): 357–381.
* Jolley, Nicholas, 1990. The Light of the Soul: Theories of Ideas in Leibniz, Malebranche, and Descartes, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Kenny, Anthony, 1968. Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy, New York: Random House.
* Lennon, Thomas M., 2008. The Plain Truth: Descartes, Huet, and Skepticism, Leiden: Brill.
* Loeb, Louis E. 1992. “The Cartesian Circle,” in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Markie, Peter, 1992. “The Cogito and Its Importance,” In The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Menn, Stephen, 1998. Descartes and Augustine, Cambridge University Press.
* Moore, G. E., 1962. Philosophical Papers, New York: Collier Books.
* Morris, John, 1973. “Descartes’ Natural Light,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 11: 169–187.
* Nadler, Steven, 2006. “The Doctrine of Ideas,” in The Blackwell Guide to Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Stephen Gaukroger, Blackwell Publishing.
* Nelson, Alan, 1997. “Descartes’s Ontology of Thought,” Topoi, 16: 163–178.
* Newman, Lex, 1994. “Descartes on Unknown Faculties and Our Knowledge of the External World,” Philosophical Review, 103 (July): 489–531.
* –––, 1999. “The Fourth Meditation,” Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 59 (September): 559–591.
* –––, 2004. “Rocking the Foundations of Cartesian Knowledge: Critical Notice of Janet Broughton, Descartes’s Method of Doubt,” Philosophical Review, 113 (January): 101–125.
* –––, 2006. “Descartes’ Rationalist Epistemology,” In A Companion to Rationalism, ed. Alan Nelson, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.
* –––, 2007. “Descartes on the Will in Judgment,” In A Companion to Descartes , ed. Janet Broughton and John Carriero, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy.
* –––, 2009. “Ideas, Pictures, and the Directness of Perception in Descartes and knowledge,” Philosophy Compass, 4: 134–54.
* Newman, Lex, and Alan Nelson, 1999. “Circumventing Cartesian Circles,” Noûs, 33: 370–404.
* Nolan, Lawrence, and Alan Nelson, 2006. “Proofs for the Existence of God,” in The Blackwell Guide to Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Stephen Gaukroger, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
* Peirce, Charles, 1955. Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler, New York: Dover Publications.
* Plantinga, Alvin, 1993. Warrant: The Current Debate, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Popkin, Richard H., 1979. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, Berkeley: University of California Press.
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* Sosa, Ernest, 1997a. “How to Resolve the Pyrrhonian Problematic: A Lesson from Descartes,” Philosophical Studies, 85: 229–49.
* –––, 1997b. “Reflective Knowledge in the Best Circles,” Journal of Philosophy, 94 (August): 410–430.
* Van Cleve, James, 1979. “Foundationalism, Epistemic Principles, and the Cartesian Circle,” Philosophical Review, 88 (January): 55–91.
* Vinci, Thomas C., 1998. Cartesian Truth, Oxford University Press.
* Williams, Bernard, 1978. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, New Jersey: Humanities Press.
* –––, 1983. “Descartes’s Use of Skepticism,” in The Skeptical Tradition, ed. Myles Burnyeat, Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Williams, Michael, 1986. “Descartes and the Metaphysics of Doubt,” in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, Berkeley: University of California Press.
* –––, 1995. Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism, Princeton University Press.
* Wilson, Margaret Dauler, 1978. Descartes, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Other Internet Resources

* Latin text of the Meditations (original version, 1641)
* French translation of the Meditations (by Duc de Luynes, 1647)
* English translation of the Meditations (by John Veitch, 1901)
* English translation of the Discourse on Method (by John Veitch, 1901)

Related Entries

a priori justification and knowledge | certainty | Descartes, René | Descartes, René: modal metaphysics | Descartes, René: theory of ideas | Gassendi, Pierre | idealism | idealism: British | ideas | innateness: historical controversies | justification, epistemic: foundationalist theories of | knowledge: analysis of | moral particularism | original position | perception: epistemological problems of | primary and secondary qualities | rationalism vs. empiricism | realism | reasoning: defeasible | sense-data | skepticism | truth

Thanks to Robert Audi, Alan Nelson, Ram Neta, and Shaun Nichols, for helpful discussions about the ideas in this essay.
Copyright © 2010 by
Lex Newman

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 8:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Descartes( en inglés )

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René Descartes
First published Wed Dec 3, 2008

René Descartes (1596–1650) was a creative mathematician of the first order, an important scientific thinker, and an original metaphysician. During the course of his life, he was a mathematician first, a natural scientist or “natural philosopher” second, and a metaphysician third. In mathematics, he developed the techniques that made possible algebraic (or “analytic”) geometry. In natural philosophy, he can be credited with several specific achievements: co-framer of the sine law of refraction, developer of an important empirical account of the rainbow, and proposer of a naturalistic account of the formation of the earth and planets (a precursor to the nebular hypothesis). More importantly, he offered a new vision of the natural world that continues to shape our thought today: a world of matter possessing a few fundamental properties and interacting according to a few universal laws. This natural world included an immaterial mind that, in human beings, was directly related to the brain; in this way, Descartes formulated the modern version of the mind–body problem. In metaphysics, he provided arguments for the existence of God, to show that the essence of matter is extension, and that the essence of mind is thought. Descartes claimed early on to possess a special method, which was variously exhibited in mathematics, natural philosophy, and metaphysics, and which, in the latter part of his life, included, or was supplemented by, a method of doubt.

Descartes presented his results in major works published during his lifetime: the Discourse on the Method (in French, 1637), with its essays, the Dioptrics, Meteorology, and Geometry; the Meditations on First Philosophy (i.e., on metaphysics), with its Objections and Replies (in Latin, 1641); the Principles of Philosophy, covering his metaphysics and much of his natural philosophy (in Latin, 1644); and the Passions of the Soul, on the emotions (in French, 1649). Important works published posthumously included his Letters (in Latin and French, 1657–67); World, or Treatise on Light, containing the core of his natural philosophy (in French, 1664); Treatise on Man (in French, 1664), containing his physiology and mechanistic psychology; and the Rules for the Direction of the Mind (in Latin, 1704), an early, unfinished work attempting to set out his method.

Descartes was known among the learned in his day as the best of the French mathematicians, as the developer of a new physics, and as the proposer of a new metaphysics. In the years following his death, his natural philosophy was widely taught and discussed. In the eighteenth century aspects of his science remained influential, especially his physiology, and he was remembered for his failed metaphysics and his method of doubt. In the nineteenth century he was revered for his mechanistic physiology and theory that animal bodies are machines (that is, are constituted by material mechanisms, governed by the laws of matter alone). The twentieth century variously celebrated his famous “cogito” starting point, reviled the sense data that some alleged to be the legacy of his skeptical starting point, and looked to him as a model of the culturally engaged philosopher. He has been seen, at various times, as a hero and as a villain; as a brilliant theorist who set new directions in thought, and as the harbinger of a cold, rationalistic, and calculative conception of human beings.

* 1. Intellectual Biography
o 1.1 Early life and education
o 1.2 First results, a new mission, and method
o 1.3 Metaphysical turn, comprehensive physics, Discourse
o 1.4 The metaphysics and comprehensive physics revealed
o 1.5 Theological controversy, Passions, and death
* 2. Philosophical Development
* 3. A New Metaphysics
o 3.1 How do our minds know?
o 3.2 The mark of truth
o 3.3 The nature of reality
o 3.4 Mind–body relation
o 3.5 God and error
* 4. The New Science
* 5. Theory of Sense Perception
* 6. Legacy
* Bibliography
o References
o English translations
o Other readings
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries

1. Intellectual Biography
1.1 Early life and education

Descartes was born on 31 March 1596 in his maternal grandmother’s house in La Haye, in the Touraine region of France. His father Joachim, a lawyer who lived in Châtteleraut (22 kilometers southwest of La Haye, across the Creuse River in the Poitou region), was away at the Parliament of Brittany in Rennes. The town of La Haye, which lies 47 kilometers south of Tours, has subsequently been renamed Descartes.

When Descartes was thirteen and one-half months old, his mother, Jeanne Brochard, died in childbirth. The young René spent his first years with his grandmother, Jeanne Sain Brochard, in La Haye, together with his older brother Pierre and older sister Jeanne. It is likely that he then moved to the house of his great uncle, Michel Ferrand, who, like many of René’s male relatives, was a lawyer, and who was Counselor to the King in Châtteleraut. When Descartes met Isaac Beeckman in 1618, Descartes introduced himself as “Poitevin,” or from Poitou (10:46, 51–4; Rodis-Lewis 1998, 26; see also 2:642). At this time (and now and again later on), he signed letters as “du Perron” and called himself “sieur du Perron” (Lord of Perron), after a small farm in Poitou he had inherited from his mother’s family (Watson 2007, 81, 230). But he did not neglect his birth place in La Haye: in a letter of 1649, he described himself as “a man who was born in the gardens of Touraine” (5:349).

In 1606 or 1607, Descartes entered the newly founded Jesuit College of La Fleche, where he remained until 1614 or 1615. He followed the usual course of studies, which included five or six years of grammar school, including Latin and Greek grammar, classical poets, and Cicero, followed by three years of philosophy curriculum. By rule, the Jesuit curriculum was based on the philosophy of Aristotle, and divided into the then-standard topics of logic, morals, physics, and metaphysics. The Jesuits also included mathematics in the final three years of study.

Aristotle’s philosophy was approached through textbooks and commentaries. Even within this framework, and taking into account the reading of Cicero, Descartes would have been exposed to the doctrines of the ancient atomists, Plato, and the Stoics, and he would have heard of the skeptics. Further, important intellectual events were known at La Fleche, including the discovery of the moons of Jupiter by Galileo in 1610.

Famously, Descartes wrote in the autobiographical portion of the Discourse that, when he left school, “I found myself beset by so many doubts and errors that I came to think I had gained nothing from my attempts to become educated but increasing recognition of my ignorance” (6:4). And yet in the next paragraph he allowed that he did not “cease to value the exercises done in the schools” (6:5), for languages, fables, oratory, poetry, mathematics, morals, theology, and philosophy all had their value, as did jurisprudence, medicine, and the other sciences (including engineering), which serve as professions and which one might study after attending a school such as La Fleche. He went on to note the contradiction and disagreement that beset philosophy and so infected the higher sciences (including medicine) “insofar as they borrow their principles from philosophy” (6:8). A year later, in 1638, he advised a correspondent on the virtues of sending the correspondent’s son to La Fleche (even if he wanted his son subsequently to transcend the learning of the schools), while also suggesting that the son might study at Utrecht with Henry le Roy, a disciple of Descartes (2:378–9). Descartes was, in the Discourse, suggesting that it was no accident that the philosophy he learned at La Fleche was uncertain: previous philosophy was bound to be uncertain, since he (Descartes) was now offering a first glimpse of the one true philosophy that he had only recently discovered. Until it could be promulgated, La Fleche, or another good school, would be the best on offer.

His family wanted Descartes to be a lawyer, like his father and many other relatives. To this end, he went to Poitiers to study law, and obtained a degree in 1616. But he never practiced law or entered into the governmental service such practice would make possible. Instead, he became a gentleman soldier, moving in 1618 to Breda, to support the Protestant Prince Maurice against the Catholic parts of the Netherlands (later, Belgium), which were controlled by Spain—a Catholic land, like France, but at this point an enemy.
1.2 First results, a new mission, and method

While in Breda, Descartes met Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch mathematician and natural philosopher. Beeckman set various problems for Descartes, including questions about falling bodies, hydrostatics, and mathematical problems. Descartes and Beeckman engaged in what they called “physico-mathematica,” or mathematical physics (10:52). Since antiquity, mathematics had been applied to various physical subject matters, in optics, astronomy, mechanics (focusing on the lever), and hydrostatics. Beeckman and Descartes brought to this work a commitment to atoms as the basic constituents of matter; as had ancient atomists, they attributed not only size, shape, and motion but also weight to those atoms (10:68). Descartes opened a section in his notebook entitled “Democritica” (10:8), in honor of the ancient atomist Democritus.

At this time, Descartes discovered and conveyed to Beeckman the fundamental insight that makes analytic geometry possible: the technique for describing lines of all sorts by using mathematical equations involving ratios between lengths. Descartes himself did not foresee replacing geometrical constructions with algebraic formulas; rather, he viewed geometry as the basic mathematical science and he considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate. When, in the nineteenth century, algebra and analysis took precedence over geometry, the rectilinear coordinate system of algebraic geometry came to be called “Cartesian coordinates” in honor of Descartes’ discovery.

Descartes left Breda in 1619 to join the Catholic army of Maximilian I (Duke of Bavaria and ally of France). The war concerned the authority of Ferdinand V, a Catholic, who had been crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in September. Descartes attended the coronation and was returning to the army when winter caught him in the small town of Ulm (or perhaps Neuburg), not far from Munich. On the night of November 10, 1619, Descartes had three dreams that seemed to provide him with a mission in life. The dreams themselves are interesting and complex (see Sebba 1987). Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge. He decided to begin with philosophy, since the principles of the other sciences must be derived from it (6:21–2).

Descartes’ activities over the next nine years are not well documented. He lived part of the time in Paris, visited Poitou to sell some inherited properties, and also traveled to Italy. During this time he worked on some mathematical problems, and he derived the sine law of refraction (later published in the Dioptrics). His major effort was on a work to convey his new method, the Rules.

In the Rules, he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know. His methodological advice included a suggestion that is familiar to every student of elementary geometry: break your work up into small steps that you can understand completely and about which you have utter certainty, and check your work often. But he also had advice for the ambitious seeker of truth, concerning where to start and how to work up to greater things. Thus, Rule 10 reads: “In order to acquire discernment we should exercise our intelligence by investigating what others have already discovered, and methodically survey even the most insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display order” (10:403). As examples of “simple” arts “in which order prevails,” he offered carpet-making and embroidery, and also number-games and arithmetic games. He went on to discuss the roles of the “cognitive faculties” in acquiring knowledge, which include the intellect, imagination, sense perception, and memory. These faculties allow the seeker of knowledge to combine simple truths in order to solve more complex problems, such as the solution to problems in optics (10:394), or the discovery of how a magnet works (10:427).

By the end of 1628 Descartes had abandoned work on the Rules, having completed about half of the projected treatise. In that year he moved to the Dutch Netherlands, and after that he returned to France infrequently, prior to moving to Sweden in 1649. While in the Netherlands, he endeavored to keep his address a secret and he changed locations frequently, in accordance with his motto, “to live well, live secretly.”
1.3 Metaphysical turn, comprehensive physics, Discourse

Upon arriving in the Netherlands, Descartes undertook work on two sorts of topics. In Summer, 1629, an impressive set of parhelia, or false suns, were observed near Rome. When Descartes heard of them, he set out to find an explanation. (He ultimately hypothesized that a large, solid ice-ring in the sky acts as a lens to form multiple images of the sun [6:355].) This work interrupted his investigations on another topic, which had engaged him for his first nine months in the Netherlands (1:44)—the topic of metaphysics, that is, the theory of the first principles of everything that there is. The metaphysical objects of investigation included the existence and nature of God and the soul (1:144, 182). However, these metaphysical investigations were not entirely divorced from problems such as the parhelia, for he claimed that through his investigations into God and the human self, he had been able “to discover the foundation of physics” (1:144). Subsequently, Descartes mentioned a little metaphysical treatise in Latin—presumably an early version of the Meditations—that he wrote upon first coming to the Netherlands (1:184, 350). And we know that Descartes later confided to Mersenne that the Meditations contained “all the principles of my physics” (3:233).

While working on the parhelia, Descartes conceived the idea for a very ambitious treatise. He wrote to Mersenne that he had decided not to explain “just one phenomenon” (the parhelia), but rather to compose a treatise in which he explained “all the phenomena of nature, that is to say, the whole of physics” (1:70). This work eventually became The World, which was to have had three parts: on light (a general treatise on visible, or material, nature), on man (a treatise of physiology), and on the soul. Only the first two survive (and perhaps only they were ever written), as the Treatise on Light and Treatise on Man. In these works, which Descartes decided to suppress upon learning of the condemnation of Galileo (1:270, 305), he offered a comprehensive vision of the universe as constituted from a bare form of matter having only length, breadth, and depth (three-dimensional volume) and carved up into particles with size and shape, which may be in motion or at rest, and which interact through laws of motion enforced by God (11:33–4). These works contained a description of the visible universe as a single physical system in which all its operations, from the formation of planets and the transmission of light from the sun, to the physiological processes of human and nonhuman animal bodies, can be explained through the mechanism of moving matter arranged into shapes and structures and moving according to three laws of motion.

After suppressing his World, Descartes decided to put forward, anonymously, a limited sample of his new philosophy, in the Discourse with its attached essays. The Discourse recounted Descartes’ own life journey, explaining how he had come to the position of doubting his previous knowledge and seeking to begin afresh. It offered some initial results of his metaphysical investigations, including mind–body dualism. It did not, however, engage in the deep skepticism of the later Meditations, nor did it claim to establish, metaphysically, that the essence of matter is extension. This last conclusion was presented merely as a hypothesis whose fruitfulness could be tested and proven by way of its results, as contained in the attached essays on Dioptrics and Meteorology. The latter subject area comprised “atmospheric” phenomena. In his Meteorology, Descartes described his general hypothesis about the nature of matter, before continuing on to provide accounts of vapors, salt, winds, clouds, snow, rain, hail, lightning, the rainbow, coronas, and parhelia.

Near the beginning of the Meteorology, Descartes wrote that he was working from the following “supposition” or hypothesis: “that the water, earth, air, and all other such bodies that surround us are composed of many small parts of various shapes and sizes, which are never so properly disposed nor so exactly joined together that there do not remain many intervals around them; and that these intervals are not empty but are filled with that extremely subtle matter through the mediation of which, I have said above, the action of light is communicated” (6:233). He presented a corpuscularian basis for his physics, which denied the atoms-and-void theory of ancient atomism and affirmed that all bodies are composed from one type of matter, which is infinitely divisible (6:239). In the World, he had presented his non-atomistic corpuscularism, but without denying void space outright and without affirming infinite divisibility (11:12–20).

In the Meteorology, he also proclaimed that his natural philosophy had no need for the “substantial forms” and “real qualities” that other philosophers “imagine to be in bodies” (6:239). He had taken the same position in the World, where he said that in conceiving his new “world” (i.e., his conception of the universe), “I do not use the qualities called heat, cold, moistness, and dryness, as the Philosophers do” (11:25). Indeed, Descartes claimed that he could explain these qualities themselves through matter in motion (11:26), a claim that he repeated in the Meteorology (6:235–6). In effect, he was denying the then-dominant scholastic Aristotelian ontology, which explained all natural bodies as comprised of a “prime matter” informed by a “substantial form,” and which explained qualities such as hot and cold as really inhering in bodies in a way that is “similar” to the qualities of hot and cold as we experience them tactually.

Unlike Descartes’ purely extended matter, which can exist on its own having only size and shape, scholastic Aristotelians held that prime matter cannot exist on its own. To form a substance, or something that can exist by itself, prime matter must be “informed” by a substantial form (a form that renders something into a substance). The four Aristotelian elements, earth, air, fire, and water, had substantial forms that combined the basic qualities of hot, cold, wet, and dry: earth is cold and dry; air is hot and wet; fire is hot and dry; and water is cold and wet. These elements can themselves then serve as “matter” to higher substantial forms, such as the form of a mineral, or a magnet, or a living thing. Whether in the case of earth or of a living rabbit, the “form” of a thing directs its characteristic activity. For earth, that activity is to approach the center to the universe; water has the same tendency, but not as strongly. For this reason, Aristotelians explained, the planet earth has formed at the center, with water on its surface. A new rabbit is formed when a male rabbit contributes, through its sperm, the “form” of rabbithood to the seed-matter of the female rabbit. This form then organizes that matter into a the shape of a rabbit, including organizing and directing the activity of its various organs and physiological processes. The newborn rabbit’s behavior is then guided by its rabbit-specific “sensitive soul,” which is the name for the substantial form of the rabbit. Other properties of the rabbit, such as the whiteness of its fur, are explained by the “real quality” of white inhering in each strand of hair.

Although in the World and Meteorology Descartes avoided outright denial of substantial forms and real qualities, it is clear that he intended to deny them (1:324; 2:200; 3:420, 500, 648). Two considerations help explain his tentative language: first, when he wrote these works, he was not yet prepared to release his metaphysics, which would support his hypothesis about matter and so rule out substantial forms (1:563); and, second, he was sensitive to the prudential value of not directly attacking the scholastic Aristotelian position (3:298), since it was the accepted position in university education (3:577) and was strongly supported by orthodox theologians, both Catholic and Protestant (1:85–6; 3:349).

After publication of the Discourse in 1637, Descartes received in his correspondence queries and challenges to various of the doctrines, including his account of the sequence of phenomena during heart-beat and the circulation of the blood; his avoidance of substantial forms and real qualities; his argument for a distinction between mind and body; and his view that natural philosophical hypotheses could be “proven” through the effects that they explain (6:76). Descartes’ correspondence from the second half of the 1630s repays close study, among other things for his discussions of hypothesis-confirmation in science, his replies to objections concerning his metaphysics, and his explanation that he had left the most radical skeptical arguments out of this work, since it was written in French for a wide audience (1:350, 561).

In 1635, Descartes fathered a daughter named Francine. Her mother was Descartes’ housekeeper, Helena Jans. They lived with Descartes in the latter 1630s, until Francine’s untimely death in September 1640. Descartes subsequently contributed a dowry for Helena’s marriage in 1644 (Watson 2007, 188).
1.4 The metaphysics and comprehensive physics revealed

In a letter of 13 November 1639, Descartes wrote to Mersenne that he was “working on a discourse in which I try to clarify what I have hitherto written” on metaphysics (2:622). This was the Meditations, and presumably he was revising or recasting the Latin treatise from 1629. He announced to Mersenne a plan to put the work before “the twenty or thirty most learned theologians” before it was published. In the end, he and Mersenne collected seven sets of objections to the Meditations, which Descartes published with the work, along with his replies. Some objections were from theologians, one set was from the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Bourdin, and others were from Mersenne himself, the philosophers Pierre Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes, and the philosopher-theologian Antoine Arnauld.

As previously mentioned, Descartes considered the Meditations to contain the principles of his physics. But there is no Meditation labeled “principles of physics.” The principles in question, which are spread through the work, concern the nature of matter (that its essence is extension), the activity of God in creating and preserving the world, the nature of mind (that it is unextended, thinking substance), mind–body union and interaction, and the ontology of sensory qualities.

Once Descartes had presented his metaphysics, he felt free to proceed with the publication of his entire physics. However, he needed first to teach it to speak Latin (3:523), the lingua franca of the seventeenth century. He hatched a scheme to publish a Latin version of his physics (the Principles) together with a scholastic Aristotelian work on physics, so that the comparative advantages would be manifest. For this purpose, he chose the Summa philosophiae of Eustace of St. Paul. That part of his plan never came to fruition. His intent remained the same: he wished to produce a book that could be adopted into the schools, even Jesuit schools such as La Fleche (3:233, 523). Ultimately, he had some success in having his physics taught in the Netherlands and England; but for the Catholic lands, teaching of his philosophy was dampened when his works were placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1663.

The Principles appeared in Latin in 1644, with a French translation following in 1647. Descartes added to the French translation an “Author’s Letter” to serve as a preface. In the letter he explained important elements of his attitude toward philosophy, including the view that in matters philosophical one must reason through the arguments and evaluate them for one’s self (9B:3). He also presented an image of the relations among the various parts of philosophy, in the form of a tree:

Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom. (9B:14)

The extant Principles offer metaphysics in Part I; the general principles of physics, in the form of his matter theory and laws of motion, are presented in Part II, as following from the metaphysics; Part III concerns astronomical phenomena; and Part IV covers the formation of the earth and seeks to explain the properties of minerals, metals, magnets, fire, and the like, to which are appended discussions of how the senses operate and a final discussion of methodological issues in natural philosophy. His intent had been also to explain the origins of plants and animals, human physiology, mind–body union and interaction, and the function of the senses. In the end, he had to abandon the discussion of plants and animals (Princ. IV.188), but he included some discussion of mind–body union in his account of the senses.
1.5 Theological controversy, Passions, and death

From early in his correspondence with Mersenne, Descartes showed a concern to avoid becoming embroiled in theological controversy or earning the enmity of church authorities (1:85–6, 150, 271). In the end, he was drawn into theological controversy with Calvinist theologians in the Netherlands. In the latter 1630s, Henry le Roy, or Regius, a professor of medicine in Utrecht, taught Descartes’ system of natural philosophy. Already by 1640, Gisbert Voetius, a theologian at Utrecht, expressed his displeasure over this to Mersenne (3:230). Controversy brewed, at first between Regius and Voetius, with Descartes advising the latter. Voetius, who was rector of the University, convinced the faculty senate to condemn Descartes’ philosophy in 1642. He and his colleagues published two works (in 1642 and 1643) attacking Descartes’ philosophy, to which Descartes himself responded by publishing a Letter to Voetius (1643). The controversy simmered through the mid 1640s. Descartes eventually had a falling out with Regius, who published a broadsheet or manifesto, in which Regius departed from Descartes’ theory of the human mind. Descartes replied with his Comments on a Certain Broadsheet (1648).

In the mid 1640s, Descartes continued work on his physiological system, which he had pursued throughout the 1630s. He had his Treatise on Man recopied, and he began a new work, Description of the Human Body. During this period he corresponded with Princess Elisabeth, at first on topics in metaphysics stemming from her reading of the Meditations, and then on the passions and emotions. Eventually, he wrote the Passions of the Soul, which gave the most extensive account of his behavioral physiology to be published in his lifetime, and which contained a comprehensive and original theory of the passions and emotions. Portions of this work constitute what we have of Descartes’ moral theory.

In 1649, Descartes accepted the invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden to join her court. At the Queen’s request, he composed the Statutes of the Swedish Royal Academy. On the day he delivered them to her, he became ill. He never recovered. He died on 11 February 1650.
2. Philosophical Development

In general, it is rare for a philosopher’s positions and arguments to remain the same across an entire life. This means that, in reading philosophers’ works and reconstructing their arguments, one must pay attention to the place of each work in the philosophical development of the author in question. Readers of the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant are aware of the basic distinction between his critical and precritical periods. Readers of the works of G. W. Leibniz are also aware of his philosophical development, although in his case there is less agreement on how to place his writings into a developmental scheme.

Scholars have proposed various schemes for dividing Descartes’ life into periods. I favor a relatively simple division between the era when mathematics provided the model for his method, and the period after the “metaphysical turn” of 1629, when his conception of the role of the intellect in acquiring knowledge changed, and when he came to conceive the truth of his special or particular hypotheses in natural philosophy as less than certain, and so as subject to the scheme of confirmation through consequences mentioned above. In effect, he adopted a hypothetico-deductive scheme of confirmation, but with this difference: the range of hypotheses was limited by his metaphysical conclusions concerning the essence of mind and matter, their union, and the role of God in creating the preserving the universe. Consequently, some hypotheses, such as the “substantial forms” of scholastics, were ruled out. I explain argumentative differences among the World, Discourse, and Meditations and Principles as stemming from the fact that in the 1630s Descartes was arguing without yet having presented his metaphysics, and so he adopted an empirical mode of justification, whereas after 1641 he could appeal to his published metaphysics in seeking to secure the general framework of his physics.

Other scholars see things differently. John Schuster (1980) finds that the epistemology of the Rules lasted into the 1630s, and was superseded (unhappily, in his view) only by the metaphysical quest for certainty of the Meditations. Daniel Garber (1992, 48) also holds that Descartes abandoned his early method after the Discourse. Machamer and McGuire (2006) believe that Descartes expected natural philosophy to meet the standard of absolute certainty through the time of the Meditations, and that he in effect admitted defeat on that score in the final articles of the Principles, adopting a lower standard of certainty for his particular hypotheses (such as the explanation of magnetism by cork-screw shaped particles). They see the Principles as marking Descartes’ “epistemic turn” away from the methodological stance of realism found in the Rules, Discourse, and Meditations.

These contrasting views of Descartes’ intellectual development suggest different relations between his metaphysics and physics. Schuster (1980) treats Descartes’ metaphysical arguments as a kind of afterthought. Machamer and McGuire (2006) see Descartes’ alleged “epistemic turn” and his retreat from realism as a response to philosophical criticism in 1641; they find more continuity between Descartes’ Rules and his writings up to 1641 than do Garber or I. In the version I have presented, Descartes was working on physical problems first, but his metaphysical insights of 1628–9 allowed him to achieve a general conception of matter as having only “geometrical” properties, viz., size, shape, and motion.

There are also differences among interpreters concerning the relative priority in Descartes’ philosophical endeavors of epistemology or the theory of knowledge as opposed to metaphysics or first philosophy. In the account of Descartes’ development that I have given, he was interested in epistemological and methodological questions first, and these interests came to a head in the Rules. Thereafter, his aim was to establish a new natural philosophy based on a new metaphysics. In the extant works from the 1630s, the World and Discourse plus essays, he argued for the general principles of his physics, including his conception of matter, on empirical grounds. He argued from explanatory scope and theoretical parsimony. As regards parsimony or simplicity, he pointed out that his reconceived matter had only a few basic properties (especially size, shape, and motion), from which he would construct his explanations. He claimed great explanatory scope by contending that his explanations could extend to all natural phenomena, celestial and terrestrial, inorganic and organic. But throughout the 1630s, Descartes claimed that he also was in possession of a metaphysics that could justify the first principles of his physics. His arguments to establish that metaphysics are found in the Meditations and Principles.

Some scholars emphasize the epistemological aspects of Descartes’ work, starting with the Rules and continuing through to the Principles. Accordingly, the main change in Descartes’ intellectual development is the introduction of skeptical arguments in the Discourse and Meditations. Many interpreters, represented prominently in the latter twentieth century by Richard Popkin (1979), believe that Descartes took the skeptical threat to knowledge quite seriously and sought to overcome it in the Meditations. By contrast, in the main interpretive thread that I follow here, skeptical arguments were a cognitive tool that Descartes used in order to guide the reader of the Meditations into the right cognitive frame of mind for grasping the first truths of metaphysics.

The reader who is curious about these issues should read the relevant works of Descartes, together with his correspondence from the latter half of the 1630s and early 1640s.
3. A New Metaphysics

Descartes first presented his metaphysics in the Meditations, and then reformulated it in textbook-format in the Principles. His metaphysics sought to answer these philosophical questions: How does the human mind acquire knowledge? What is the mark of truth? What is the actual nature of reality? How are our experiences related to our bodies and brains? Is there a benevolent God, and if so, how can we reconcile his existence with the facts of illness, error, and immoral actions?
3.1 How do our minds know?

Descartes had no doubt that human beings know some things and are capable of discovering others, including (at least since his metaphysical insights of 1629) fundamental truths about the basic structure of reality. Yet he also believed that the philosophical methods taught in the schools of his time and used by most of his contemporaries were deeply flawed. He believed that the doctrines of scholastic Aristotelian philosophy contained a basic error about the manner in which fundamental truths, such as the truths of metaphysics, are to be gained. He expressed this mistaken view in the First Meditation, by saying (not in his own voice, but in a voice for the reader): “Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses” (7:18). He then went on to challenge the veridicality of the senses with the skeptical arguments of First Meditation, including arguments from previous errors, the dream argument, and the evil-deceiver argument.

In the Aristotelian scheme against which Descartes is moving, all knowledge arises from the senses, in accordance with the slogan “There is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses” (7:75, 267). Similarly, orthodox scholastic Aristotelians agreed that there is “no thought without a phantasm,” or an image. Descartes explained these convictions as the results of childhood prejudice (7:2, 17, 69, 107; Princ. I.71–3). As children, we are naturally led by our senses in seeking benefits and avoiding bodily harms. As a result, when we grow into adults we are “immersed” in the body and the senses, and so we accept the philosophical view that the senses are the basis for learning about the nature of the reality (7:38, 75, 82–3).

Descartes denied that the senses reveal the natures of substances. He held that in fact the human intellect is able to perceive the nature of reality through a purely intellectual perception. This means that in order to procure the fundamental truths of metaphysics, we must “withdraw the mind from the senses” (7:4, 12, 14) and turn toward our innate ideas of the essences of things, including the essences of mind, matter, and an infinite being (God). Descartes constructed the Meditations so as to secure this process of withdrawal from the senses in Meditation I. Meditation II brings the discovery of an initial truth, in the cogito (7:25), which is elsewhere summarized as the argument “cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am” (7:140). Descartes then observes that the cogito result is known only from the fact that it is “clearly and distinctly” perceived by the intellect (7:35). Hence, he sets up clear and distinct intellectual perception, independent of the senses, as the mark of truth (7:35, 62, 73).

Descartes then unfolds the results of clear and distinct perception in Meditations III–VI, and he repeats and extends these results in Principles I–II. We consider these results in Secs. 3.3–5. For now, let us examine what Descartes thought about the senses as a source of knowledge that was different from the pure intellect.

Descartes famously calls the senses into doubt in the First Meditation, and he affirms in Meditation Six that the senses are not meant to provide knowledge of the “essential nature” of external objects (7:83). In that way, his position in the Meditations differs from that in the Rules, for in that work he allowed that some “simple natures” pertaining to corporeal things can and should be considered through the images of the senses (10:383, 417). In the Meditations, he held that the essence of matter could be apprehended by innate ideas, independently of any sensory image (7:64–5, 72–3). To that extent, his later position agrees with the Platonic tradition in philosophy, which denigrated sensory knowledge and held that the things known by the intellect have a higher reality than the objects of the senses. Descartes, however, was no Platonist, a point to which we will return. His attitude toward the senses in his mature period was not one of total disparagement.

Descartes assigned two roles to the senses in the acquisition of human knowledge. First, he acknowledged that the senses are usually adequate for detecting benefits and harms for the body. Indeed, he considered their natural function to be “to inform the mind of what is beneficial or harmful for the composite of which the mind is a part” (7:83), that is, for the composite of mind and body. In this connection, he was agreeing with the conception of the function of the senses that was widely shared in the traditional literature in natural philosophy, including the Aristotelian literature, as well as in the medical literature on the natural functions of the senses.

Second, he recognized that the senses have an essential role to play in natural philosophy. The older literature on Descartes sometimes had him claiming that he could derive all natural philosophical or scientific knowledge from the pure intellect, independent of the senses. But Descartes knew full well that he could not do that. He distinguished between the general principles of his physics and the more particular mechanisms that he posited to explain natural phenomena, such as magnetism or the properties of oil and water. He claimed to derive the general principles “from certain seeds of truth” that are innate in the mind (6:64). These include the fundamental doctrine that the essence of matter is extension (Princ. II.3–4, IV.203). As to particular phenomena, in general he had to rely on observations to determine their properties (such as the properties of the magnet), and he acknowledged that multiple hypotheses about subvisible mechanisms could be constructed to account for those phenomena. The natural philosopher must, therefore, test the various hypotheses by their consequences, and consider empirical virtues such as simplicity and scope (Disc. VI; Princ. IV.201–6). Further, Descartes knew that some problems rely on measurements that can only be made with the senses, including determining the size of the sun (7:80) or the refractive indexes of various materials (Met. VIII).

In considering Descartes’ answer to how we know, we can distinguish classes of knowledge. Metaphysical first principles are known by the intellect acting alone. Such knowledge should attain absolute certainty. Practical knowledge concerning immediate benefits and harms is known by the senses. Such knowledge is usually good enough. Objects of natural science are known by a combination of pure intellect and sensory observation: the pure intellect tells us what properties bodies can have, and we use the senses to determine which particular instances of those properties bodies do have. For submicroscopic particles, we must reason from observed effects to potential cause. In these latter cases, our measurements and our inferences may be subject to error, but we may also hope to arrive at the truth.
3.2 The mark of truth

At the beginning of the Third Meditation, Descartes declares “I now seem to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true” (7:35). Clarity and distinctness of intellectual perception is the mark of truth.

In the fifth set of Objections to the Meditations, Gassendi suggestions that there is difficulty concerning

what possible skill or method will permit us to discover that our understanding is so clear and distinct as to be true and to make it impossible that we should be mistaken. As I objected at the beginning, we are often deceived even though we think we know something as clearly and distinctly as anything can possibly be known. (7:318)

Gassendi has in effect asked how it is that we should recognize clear and distinct perceptions. If clarity and distinctness is the mark of truth, what is the method for recognizing clarity and distinctness?

In reply, Descartes claims that he has already supplied such a method. What could he have in mind? It cannot be the simple belief that one has attained clarity and distinctness, for Descartes himself acknowledges that individuals can be wrong in that belief (7:35, 361). Nonetheless, he does offer a criterion. We have a clear and distinct perception of something if, when we consider it, we cannot doubt it (7:145). That is, in the face of genuine clear and distinct perception, our affirmation of it is so firm that it cannot be shaken.

Descartes held that any act of judgment, such the affirmation “I think, therefore I am,” involves both the intellect and will. The intellect perceives or represents the content of the judgment; the will affirms or denies that content. In the face of genuine clarity and distinctness, “a great light in the intellect” is followed by “a great inclination of the will” (7:59). The inclination of the will is so strong that it amounts to compulsion; we cannot help but so affirm. Descartes thus makes unshakable conviction the criterion. But can’t someone be unshakable in their conviction merely because they are stubborn? Assuredly so. But Descartes is talking about the conviction that remains unshakable in face of serious and well-thought out challenges (7:22). To be immune from doubt does mean simply that you do not doubt a proposition, or even that it resists a momentary attempt to doubt; the real criterion for truth is that the content of a proposition is so clearly perceived that the will is drawn to it in such a way that the will’s affirmation cannot be shaken even by the systematic and sustained doubts of the Meditations. Perhaps because the process for achieving knowledge of fundamental truths requires sustained, systematic doubt, Descartes indicates that such doubt should be undertaken only once in the course of a life (7:18; 3:695).

Having extracted clarity and distinctness as the criterion of truth at the beginning of the Third Meditation, Descartes immediately calls it into question. He re-introduces an element of the radical doubt from the First Meditation: that a powerful God might have created him with “a nature such that I was deceived even in matters which seemed most evident” (7:36). Descartes therefore launches an investigation of “whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver” (7:36).

In the course of the Third Meditation, Descartes constructs an argument for the existence of God that starts from the fact that he has an idea of an infinite being. The argument is intricate. It invokes the metaphysical principle that “there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause” (7:40). This principle is put forward as something that is “manifest by the natural light” (7:40), which itself is described as a cognitive power whose results are indubitable (7:38), like clear and distinct perception (7:144). Descartes then applies that principle not to the mere existence of the idea of God as a state of mind, but to the content of that idea. Descartes characterizes that content as infinite, and he then argues that a content that represents infinity requires an infinite being as its cause. He concludes, therefore, that an infinite being, or God, must exist. He then equates an infinite being with a perfect being, and asks whether a perfect being could be a deceiver. He concludes: “It is clear enough from this that he cannot be a deceiver, since it is manifest by the natural light that all fraud and deception depend on some defect” (7:52).

The second and fourth sets of objections drew attention to a problematic characteristic of this argument. In the words of Arnauld:

I have one further worry, namely how the author avoids reasoning in a circle when he says that we are sure that what we clearly and distinctly perceive is true only because God exists. But we can be sure that God exists only because we clearly and distinctly perceive this. Hence, before we can be sure that God exists, we ought to be able to be sure that whatever we perceive clearly and evidently is true. (7:214).

Arnauld here raises the well-known problem of the Cartesian circle, which has been much discussed by commentators in recent years.

In reply to Arnauld, Descartes claims that he avoided this problem by distinguishing between present clear and distinct perceptions and those that are merely remembered (7:246). He is not here raising a question the reliability of memory (Frankfurt 1962). Rather, his strategy is to suggest that the hypothesis of a deceiving God can only present itself when we are not clearly and distinctly perceiving the infinity and perfection of God, because when we are doing that we cannot help but believe that God is no deceiver. It is as if this very evident perception is then to be balanced with the uncertain opinion that God might be a deceiver (7:144). The evident perception wins out, and the doubt is removed.

Descartes explicitly responds to the charge of circularity in the manner just described. Over the years, scholars have debated whether this response is adequate. Some scholars have constructed other responses on Descartes’ behalf, or have found such responses embedded in his text at various locations. One type of response appeals to a distinction between the natural light and clear and distinct perception, and seeks to vindicate the natural light without appeal to God (Jacquette 1996). Another response suggests that, in the end, Descartes was not aiming at metaphysical certainty concerning a mind-independent world, but was merely seeking an internally coherent set of beliefs (Frankfurt 1965). A related response suggests that Descartes was after mere psychological certainty (Loeb 1992). The interested reader can follow up this question by turning to the literature here cited (including Carriero 2008, Doney 1987, and Hatfield 2005).

Building on his claim that clear and distinct perceptions are true, Descartes claims to establish various results concerning the nature of reality, including the existence and fraudlessnes of God, and the natures of mind and matter, to which we turn in the next subsection. Here we must ask: What is the human mind that it can perceive the nature of reality? Descartes has a specific answer to this question: the human mind comes supplied with innate ideas that allow it to perceive the main properties of God (infinity and perfection), the essence of matter, and the essence of mind. For readers in Descartes’ day, this claim would naturally raise a further question: assuming that these innate ideas concern “eternal truths” about God, matter, and mind, do these truths hold independent of God, or do they instead reflect the contents of God’s own intellect?

Descartes had an interesting answer to this question. He rejected, with many of his contemporaries, the notion that there are eternal truths that obtain independently of the existence of God. Some Neoplatonist philosophers held that the eternal truths in the human mind are copies, or ectypes, of the archetypes in the mind of God. Some Aristotelian philosophers just prior to Descartes, including Francisco Suarez, held that the eternal truths reflect God’s own understanding of his creative power; God’s power includes that, if he creates a rabbit, it must be an animal. Eternal truths are latent in God’s creative power, and he understands this, so that if human beings understand the eternal truths as eternal, they do so by understanding the creative power of God.

Descartes had a different account. He held that the eternal are the free creations of God (1:145, 149, 151; 7:380, 432). God decides what the essence of circle is, or to make 2 + 3 = 5. He might have created other essences, although we are unable to conceive what they might have been. Our conceptual capacity is limited to the innate ideas that God has implanted in us, and these reflect that actual truths that he created. God creates the eternal truths (concerning logic, mathematics, the nature of the good, the essences of mind and matter), and he creates the human mind and provisions it with innate ideas that correspond to those truths.
3.3 The nature of reality

Descartes reveals his ontology implicitly in the Meditations, more formally in the Replies, and in textbook fashion in the Principles. The main metaphysical results that describe the nature of reality assert the existence of three substances, each characterized by an essence. The first and primary substance is God, whose essence is perfection. In fact, God is the only true substance, that is, the only being that is capable of existing on its own. The other two substances, mind and matter, are created by God and can only exist through his ongoing act of preservation or conservation, called God’s “concurrence” (Princ. I.51).

Descartes’ arguments to establish the essences of these substances appeal directly to his clear and distinct perception of those essences. The essence of matter is extension in length, breadth, and depth. One might speak here of “spatial extension,” but with this proviso: that Descartes denied the existence of space separate from matter. Cartesian matter does not fill a distinct spatial container; rather, spatial extension is constituted by extended matter (there is no void, or unfilled space). This extended substance possesses the further “modes” of size, shape, position, and motion. Modes are properties that exist only as modifications of the essential (principal) and the general attributes of a substance. In addition to its essence, extension, matter also has the general attributes of existence and duration. The individual parts of matter have durations as particular modes. All the modes, of matter, including size, shape, position, and motion, can exist only as modifications of extended substance.

The essence of mind is thought. Besides existence and duration, minds have two chief powers or faculties: intellect and will. The intellectual (or perceiving) power is further divided into the modes of pure intellect, imagination, and sense perception. Pure intellect operates independent of the brain or body; imagination and sense perception depend upon the body for their operation. The will is also divided into various modes, including desire, aversion, assertion, denial, and doubt. These always require some intellectual content (whether pure, imagined, or sensory) upon which to operate. Perhaps for that reason, Descartes describes the mind as an “intellectual substance” (7:78; also, 7:12). It seems he held that the mind essentially has a will, but that the intellectual (or perceptive, or representational) power is more basic, because the will depends upon it in its operation.

What role does consciousness play in Descartes’ theory of mind? Many scholars believe that, for Descartes, consciousness is the defining property of mind. There is some support for this position in the Second Replies. There Descartes defines mind as “the substance in which thought immediately resides” (7:161). He says of the term “thought” that it extends to “everything that is within us in such a way that we are immediately aware of it” (7:160). If mind is thinking substance and thoughts are essentially conscious, perhaps consciousness is the essence of thought?

Descartes in fact did hold that all thoughts are, in some way, conscious (7:226). He did not mean by this that we have reflective awareness of, and can remember, every thought that we have (5:220). In the Second Meditation, he describes himself as a thinking thing by enumerating all the modes of thoughts of which he is conscious: understanding (or intellection), willing, imagining, and (at this point, at least seeming to have) sense perceptions (7:28). He thus sets up consciousness as a mark of thought. But is it the essence? There is another possibility. If perception (intellection, representation) is the essence of thought, then all thoughts might be conscious in a basic way because the character of the intellectual substance is to represent, and any representation present in an intellectual substance is thereby conscious. Similarly, any act of will present in an intellectual substance also is available to consciousness, because it is of the essence of such a substance to perceive its own states (11:343). Accordingly, perception or representation is the essence of mind, and consciousness follows as a result of the mind’s being a representing substance.
3.4 Mind–body relation

In the Discourse, Descartes presented the following argument to establish that mind and body are distinct substances:

Next I examined attentively what I was. I saw that while I could pretend that I had no body and that there was no world and no place for me to be in, I could not for all that pretend that I did not exist. I saw on the contrary that from the mere fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it followed quite evidently and certainly that I existed; whereas if I had merely ceased thinking, even if everything else I had ever imagined had been true, I should have had no reason to believe that I existed. From this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist. (6:32–3)

This argument moves from the fact that he can doubt the existence of the material world, but cannot doubt the existence of himself as a thinking thing, to the conclusion that his thoughts belong to a nonspatial substance that is distinct from matter.

The problem with this argument is that it is fallacious. It relies on conceivability based in ignorance. For Descartes has not included anything in the argument to ward off the possibility that he, as a thinking thing, is not in fact a complex material system. He has merely relied on the fact that he can doubt the existence of matter to conclude that matter is distinct from mind. But this argument is clearly inconclusive. From the fact that the Joker cannot, at a certain moment, doubt the existence of Batman (because he is with him), but he can doubt the existence of Bruce Wayne (who might, for all the Joker knows, have been killed by the Joker’s henchmen), it does not follow that Bruce Wayne is not Batman. In fact, he is Batman. The Joker is merely ignorant of that fact.

In the Meditations, Descartes changed the structure of the argument. In the Second Meditation, he established that he could not doubt the existence of himself as a thinking thing, but that he could doubt the existence of matter. However, he explicitly refused to use this situation to conclude that his mind was distinct from body, on the grounds that he was still ignorant of his nature (7:27). Then, in the Sixth Meditation, having established, to his satisfaction, the mark of truth, he used the mark to frame a positive argument to the effect that the essence of mind is thought, and that a thinking thing is unextended; and that the essence of matter is extension, and that extended things cannot think (7:78). He based this argument on clear and distinct intellectual perceptions of the essences of mind and matter, not on the fact that he could doubt the existence of one or the other.

The conclusion of the Sixth Meditation constitutes the well-known substance dualism of Descartes. That dualism leads to problems. As Princess Elisabeth, among others, asked Descartes: if mind is unextended and matter is extended, how do they interact? This problem vexed not only Descartes, who admitted to Elisabeth that he didn’t have a good answer (3:694), but it also vexed Descartes’ followers and other metaphysicians. It seems that, somehow, the states of mind and body must be brought into relation, because when we decide to pick up a pencil our arm actually moves, and when light hits our eyes we experience the visible world. But how do mind and body interact? Some of Descartes’ followers adopted an occasionalist position, according to which God mediates the causal relations between mind and body; mind does not affect body, and body does not affect mind, but God gives the mind appropriate sensations at the right moment, and he makes the body move by putting it into the correct brain states at a moment that corresponds to the volition to pick up the pencil. Other philosophers adopted yet other solutions, including the monism of Spinoza and the pre-established harmony of Leibniz.

In the Meditations and Principles, Descartes did not focus on the metaphysical question of how mind and body interact. Rather, he discussed the functional role of mind–body union in the economy of life. As it happens, our sensations serve us well in avoiding harms and pursuing benefits. Pain-sensations warn us of bodily damage. Pleasure leads us to approach things that (usually) are good for us. Our sense perceptions are reliable enough that we can distinguish objects that need distinguishing, and we can navigate as we move about. As Descartes saw it, “God or nature” set up these relations for our benefit. They are not perfect. Sometimes we feel pain because a nerve has been damaged, and yet there is no tissue damage at the place in which the pain is felt. Descartes observed that amputees may feel pain in their fingers when they have no fingers (Princ. IV.196). Sometimes we experience sensory illusions. All the same, he regarded the union of mind and body to have been instituted by God in the best manner possible for finite beings such as ourselves (7:88). Further, we can use our intellects to interpret illusions or other false sensations (7:438).
3.5 God and error

In discussing the mark of truth, Descartes suggested that the human intellect is as reliable as it is because it was created by God. In discussing the functioning of the senses to preserve or maintain the body, he explained that God has arranged the rules of mind–body interaction in a manner that is conducive to the good of the body. Nonetheless, in each case, errors occur, just as, more broadly, human beings make poor moral choices, even though God has given them a will that is intrinsically drawn to the good (1:366, 5:159, Princ. I.42).

Descartes responded these problems differently. He explained cognitive and moral errors as resulting from human freedom. God provides human beings with a will, and wills are intrinsically free. In this way, there is no difference in degree in freedom between God and man. But human beings have finite intellects. And because they are free, they can choose to judge in cognitive or moral situations for which they do not have clear and distinct perceptions of the true or the good. If human beings restricted their acts of will to cases of clear and distinct perception, they would never err. But the vicissitudes of life may require judgments in less than optical circumstances, or we may decide to judge even though we lack a clear perception. In either case, we may go wrong.

Matters are different for the errors of the senses. The senses depend on media and sense organs, and on nerves that must run from the exterior of the body into the brain. God sets up the mind–body relation so that our sensations are good guides for most circumstances. But the media may be poor (the light may not be good), circumstances may be unusual (as with the partially submerged stick that appears as if bent), or the nerves may be damaged (as with the amputee). In these cases, the reports of the senses are suboptimal. Since God has set up the system of mind–body union, shouldn’t God be held accountable for the fact that the senses can mislead? Here Descartes does not appeal to our freedom not to attend to the senses, for in fact we must often use the senses in suboptimal cognitive circumstances when navigating through life. Rather, he points out that God was working with the finite mechanisms of the human mind and body, and he suggests that God did the best he could (7:88).
4. The New Science

When Descartes was at La Fleche, there already were signs that the conception of the universe was changing. Recall that Galileo’s discovery of four moons of the planet Jupiter was celebrated at La Fleche in 1610. More generally, Copernicus had, in the previous century, offered a forceful argument for believing that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of the solar system. Early in the seventeenth century, Johannes Kepler announced new results in optics, concerning the formation of images, the theory of lenses, and the fact that the retinal image plays a central role in vision. By the early 1630s, Descartes was aware (1:263) of William Harvey’s claim that the blood circulates in the body.

Descartes himself contributed some specific new results to the mathematical description of nature, as co-discoverer of the sine law of refraction, and as developer of an accurate model of the rainbow. Nonetheless, as significant as these results are, his primary contribution to the “new science” lay in the way in which he described a general vision of a mechanistic approach to nature and sketched in the details of that vision to provide a comprehensive alternative to the dominant Aristotelian physics.

In the textbooks of Aristotelian physics of Descartes’ day, it was common to divide physics into “general” and “special.” General physics pertained to the basic Aristotelian principles for analyzing natural substances: form, matter, privation, cause, place, time, motion. Special physics concerned actually existing natural entities, divided into inanimate and animate. Inanimate physics further divided into celestial and terrestrial, in accordance with the Aristotelian belief that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that the earth was of a different nature than the heavens (including the moon, and everything beyond it). Inanimate terrestrial physics first covered the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), then the “mixed” bodies composed from them, including the various mineral kinds. Animate terrestrial physics concerned the various powers that Aristotelians ascribed to the ensouled beings, where the soul is considered as a principle of life (possessing vital as well as mental or cognitive powers). In the simplest textbooks, the powers of the soul were divided into three groups: vegetative (including nutrition, growth, and reproduction), which pertained to both plants and animals; sensitive (including external senses, internal senses, appetite, and motion), which pertain to animals alone; and rational powers, pertaining to human beings alone. All the bodies in both inanimate and animate terrestrial physics were governed by a “form” or active principle, as described in Section 1.3.

Descartes’ ambition was to provide replacements for all the main parts of Aristotelian physics. In his physics, there is only one matter and it has no active forms. Thus, he dissolved the boundary that had made the celestial and the terrestrial differ in kind. His one matter had only the properties of size, shape, position, and motion. The matter is infinitely divisible and it constitutes space; there is no void, hence no spatial container distinct from matter. The motions of matter are governed by three laws of motion, including a precursor to Newton’s law of inertia (but without the notion of vector forces), and a law of impact. Descartes’ matter possessed no “force” or active agency; the laws of motion were decreed by God and were sustained by his activity. Earth, air, fire, and water were simply four among many natural kinds, all distinguished simply by the characteristic sizes, shapes, positions, and motions of their parts.

Although Descartes nominally subscribed to the Biblical story of creation, in his natural philosophy he presented the hypothesis that the universe began as a chaotic soup of particles in motion and that everything else was subsequently formed as a result of patterns that developed within this moving matter. Thus, he conceived that many suns formed, around which planets coalesced. On these planets, mountains and seas formed, as did metals, magnets, and atmospheric phenomena such as clouds and rain. The planets themselves are carried around the sun in their orbits by a fluid medium that rotates like a whirlpool or vortex. Objects fall to earth not because of any intrinsic “form” that directs them to the center of the universe, and also not because of a force of attraction or other downward-tending force. Rather, they are driven down by the whirling particles of the surrounding ether. Descartes insisted that all cases of apparent action at a distance, including magnetism, must be explained through the contact of particle on particle. He explained magnetism as the result of cork-screw shaped particles that spew forth from the poles of the earth and flow from north to south, causing magnetized needles to align with their flow.

Descartes also wanted to provide an account of the formation of plants and animals by mechanical causes, but he did not succeed during his lifetime in framing an account that he was willing to publish. He did, however, develop an extensive physiological description of animal bodies, in which he explained the functions of life in purely mechanical manner, without appeal to a soul or vital principle.

In mechanizing the concept of living thing, Descartes did not deny the distinction between animate and inanimate, but he redrew the line between ensouled and unensouled beings. In his view, among earthly beings only humans have souls. He thus equated soul with mind: souls account for intellection and volition, including conscious sensory experiences, conscious experience of images, and consciously experienced memories. Descartes regarded nonhuman animals as machines, devoid of mind and consciousness. This meant that he was required to explain all of the powers that Aristotelians had ascribed to the vegetative and sensitive soul by means of purely material and mechanistic processes (11:202). These mechanistic explanations extended, then, not merely to nutrition, growth, and reproduction (which he wrote about but never achieved results that were published during his lifetime), but also to the functions of the external and internal senses, including the ability of nonhuman animals to respond via their sense organs in a situationally appropriate manner: to approach things that are beneficial to their body (including food), and to avoid danger (as the sheep avoids the wolf).

In the Treatise on Man and Passions, Descartes described purely mechanical processes in the sense organs, brain, and muscles, that were to account for the functions of the sensitive soul. These processes involved “animal spirits,” or subtle matter, as distilled out of the blood at the base of the brain and distributed down the nerves to cause muscle motions in accordance with brain structures and current sensory stimulation. The brain structures that mediate behavior may be innate or acquired. Descartes ascribed some things that animals can do to instinct; other aspects of their behavior he explained through a kind of mechanistic associative memory. He held that human physiology is similar to nonhuman animal physiology, as regards both vegetative and (some) sensitive functions—those sensitive functions that do not involve consciousness or intelligence:

Now a very large number of the motions occurring inside us do not depend in any way on the mind. These include heartbeat, digestion, nutrition, respiration when we are asleep, and also such waking actions as walking, singing, and the like, when these occur without the mind attending to them. When people take a fall, and stick out their hands so as to protect their head, it is not reason that instructs them to do this; it is simply that the sight of the impending fall reaches the brain and sends the animal spirits into the nerves in the manner necessary to produce this movement even without any mental volition, just as it would be produced in a machine. (7:229–30)

Many of the behaviors of human beings are actually carried out without intervention from the mind.

The fact that Descartes offered mechanistic explanations for many features of nature does not mean that his explanations were successful. Indeed, his followers and detractors debated the success of his various proposals for nearly a century after his death. His accounts of magnetism and gravity were challenged. Leibniz challenged the coherence of Descartes’ laws of motion and impact. Newton offered his own laws of motion and an inverse square law of gravitational attraction. His account of orbital planetary motions replaced Descartes’ vortexes. Others struggled to make Descartes’ physiology work. There were also deeper challenges. Some wondered whether Descartes could actually explain how his infinitely divisible matter could coalesce into solid bodies. Why shouldn’t collections of particles act like whiffs of smoke, that separate upon contact with large particles? Indeed, how do particles themselves cohere?

Such problems were real, and Descartes’ physics was abandoned over the course of the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, it provided a conception for a comprehensive replacement of Aristotelian physics that persisted in the Newtonian vision of a unified physics of the celestial and terrestrial realms, and that continued in the mechanistic vision of life that was revived in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
5. Theory of Sense Perception

As the new “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and others replaced the Aristotelian physics, the theory of sensory qualities had to undergo substantial change. This was especially true for what came to be known as the secondary qualities (in the terminology of Robert Boyle and John Locke). The secondary qualities include colors, sounds, odors, tastes, and tactile qualities such as hot and cold. The Aristotelians maintained that these qualities exist in objects as “real qualities” that are like instances or samples of the quality as experienced. A red thing possesses the quality red in just the same way it possesses a shape: it simply is red, and we experience that very redness when we see a red object.

Descartes sought to replace “real qualities” with a mechanistic account of qualities in objects. He rendered light as a property of particles and their motions: it is a “tendency to move” as found in a continuous medium and radiating out from a luminous body. When light strikes an object, the particles that constitute light alter their rotation about their axis. “Spin” is what makes light have one color rather than another. When particles with one or another degree of spin interact with the nerves of the retina, they cause those nerves to jiggle in a certain way. This jiggling is conveyed to the brain where it affects the animal spirits, which in turn affect the mind, causing the mind to experience one or another color, depending on the degree of spin and how it affects the brain. Color in objects is thus that property of their surface that causes light particles to spin in one way or another, and hence to cause one sort of sensation or another. There is nothing else in the surface of an object, as regards color, than a certain surface-shape that induces one or another spin in particles of light.

Descartes introduced this new theory of sensory qualities in the first six chapters of the World. There, he defended it on the grounds of that his explanation of qualities in bodies in terms of size, shape, and motion are clearly understood, by comparison with the Aristotelian qualities (11:33). Subsequently, in the Meditations and Principles, he defended this account by appeal to the metaphysical result that body possesses only geometrical modes of extension. Real qualities are ruled out because they are not themselves instances of size, shape, or motion (even if patches of color have a size and a shape, and can be moved about).

In addition to a new theory of sensory qualities, Descartes offered theories of the way in which the spatial properties—size, shape, distance, and position—are perceived in vision. Optics had been an area of inquiry since antiquity. Euclid and Ptolemy had each written on optical problems. During the Middle Ages, the Arabic natural philosopher Ibn al-Haytham produced an important new theoretical work in which he offered an extensive account of the perception of spatial properties.

The theoretical terrain in optics changed with Kepler’s doctrine that vision is mediated by the retinal image and that the retina is the sensitive body in the eye. Previous theorists generally believed that the “crystalline humor,” now known as the lens, was the sensitive body. Descartes accepted Kepler’s result and framed a new theory of spatial perception. Some of his theorizing simply adapted Ibn al-Haytham’s theories to the newly discovered retinal image. Thus, Ibn al-Haytham held that size is perceived by combining the visual angle that a body subtends with perception of its distance, to arrive at a perception of the true size of the object. In al-Haytham’s scheme, visual angle is registered at the surface of the crystalline humor. Descartes held that size is perceived by combining visual angle with perceived distance, but now he treated visual angle as the extent of an object’s projection onto the retina.

In Ibn al-Haytham’s account, distance may be inferred if the size of an object is known; then, its visual angle is an inversely proportional to its distance. Descartes recognized this traditional account, depending as it does on past experience of an object’s size and on an inference or rapid judgment that combines perceived visual angle with known or remembered size. Ibn al-Haytham also explained that distance can be perceived by an observer’s being sensitive to the number of equal portions of ground space that lie between the observer and a distant object. Descartes did not adopt this explanation. However, Descartes used his mechanistic physiology to frame a new account of how distance might be perceived, a theory different from anything that could have been found in Ibn al-Haytham.

In Kepler’s new theory of how the eye works, an image is formed on the retina as a result of refraction by the cornea and lens. For objects at different distances, the focal properties of the system must be changed, just as the focal length of a camera is changed. There were several theories of how this might occur, but Descartes accepted the view that the lens changes shape or “accommodates” for near and far vision. He then theorized that this change in the shape of the lens must be controlled by muscles, which themselves are controlled by nerve processes in the brain. He realized that the central nervous state that controls accommodation would vary directly in proportion to the distance of objects. However, unlike the case of inferring distance from known size and visual angle, Descartes did not suppose that the mind is aware of the apparatus for controlling the accommodation of the eye. Rather, he supposed that, by an innate mechanism, the central brain state that varies with distance directly causes an idea of distance in the mind (6:137; 11:183). This physiologically produced idea of distance could then be combined with perceived visual angle in order to perceive an object’s size, as in al-Haytham’s theory of size perception.
6. Legacy

The things that readers find valuable in Descartes’ work have changed over the centuries. We have seen that his natural philosophy had an immediate impact that lasted into the eighteenth century. His theory of vision was part of that heritage, as were his results in mathematics. We have also seen that his mechanistic account of the psychology of the sensitive soul and his view that animals are like machines were revived in the nineteenth century.

The fortune of the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of Descartes’ philosophy is complex. In his own time, he inspired a raft of followers, who sought to develop his metaphysics, epistemology, natural philosophy, and even to add a worked-out ethics. These authors included Geraud de Cordemoy, Arnold Geulincx, Antoine Le Grand, Nicolas Malebranche, Pierre Regis, and Jacques Rohault. The British philosopher Henry More at first followed Descartes but subsequently turned against him. Other major philosophers, including Benedict de Spinoza and G. W. Leibniz, were influenced by Descartes’ thought but developed their own, distinct systems.

Philosophers in subsequent ages have stressed various aspects of Descartes’ philosophy, in some cases without undertaking close study of his writings. In the eighteenth century, Hume and Kant (each in his own way) rejected the metaphysical aspirations of Descartes, to know the nature of reality as it is in itself. They did not merely deny his particular metaphysical theories; they rejected his sort of metaphysical project altogether.

During the twentieth century, two aspects of his philosophy became widely invoked and perhaps just as widely misinterpreted. The first is Descartes’ skepticism. In the early twentieth century, one response to the threat of skepticism was to retreat to the position that we can only know our own sense data, where “sense data” are equated with the supposed contents of immediate sensory experience: for vision, color patches having a shape. Some authors then treated Descartes’ project in the Meditations as that of reducing human knowledge to immediate sense data, from which knowledge of the external world was then to be constructed.

As a reading of Descartes, this position has little to offer. As we have seen, in the Second and Third Meditations Descartes argues from the indubitability of the cogito reasoning to the trustworthiness of intellectual perception to the existence of a perfect being (God). In the latter argument, he does indeed seek to infer the reality of a being external to himself. But the inference has nothing to do with sensory experience. The inference proceeds from a nonsensory and innate idea of God to the existence of that God. Whatever one may think of the quality of the argument, it has nothing to do with sense data. Descartes used skeptical arguments as a tool to disengage the reader from the sensory world in order to undertake metaphysical investigations. There did result, in the Sixth Meditation, a re-evaluation of the senses in relation to metaphysics. But again, sense data were not in the mix.

Another prominent line of twentieth-century interpretation also focuses on the isolation of the subject in the Second Meditation. In the course of that Meditation, Descartes accepts that he knows the contents of his mind, including putative sensory experiences, even though he doubts the existence of his body. Some philosophers have concluded from this that Descartes believed that human beings actually can, in their natural state, have sensory experiences even if they lack a body. But Descartes in fact denied that possibility. In his metaphysics, sense perception and imagination depend for their existence on mind–body union. There can be intellectual perceptions that do not depend on the brain. But acts of imagination and sense perception depend on the brain for their occurrence (Pass. I.19–20, 43). Thus, Descartes did not in fact hold that we might have all of our sense experiences even if we had no brain. Rather, he allowed that he could conceive his sensory experiences independent of the brain, and that, if God were not supremely good, God could produce those experiences in us independent of the brain. But conceivability does not in all cases—and especially not in cases of mere ignorance, as in the Second Meditation—yield metaphysical possibility (as we have seen in the Discourse argument for the mind–body distinction).

In Descartes’ view, it is impossible that a deceiving God would cause our sensory experiences (since God is essentially perfect and so supremely good). Descartes denied that human beings can clearly conceive that God is a deceiver (7:144), and he also maintained that it is “self-contradictory that men [human beings] should be deceived by God” (7:428). But, as he argued in the Sixth Meditation, if our sensory perceptions were not in fact caused by bodies, God would be a deceiver (7:80). Since we can neither clearly conceive of him as a deceiver nor allow the possibility that he is a deceiver, we cannot take seriously the possibility that he produces our sensory experiences in the absence of the existence of material things and, more specifically, in the absence of the relevant brain states.

In the end, Descartes’ legacy in part consists of problems he raised, or brought into prominence, but did not solve. The mind–body problem is a case in point. Descartes himself argued from his ability clearly and distinctly to conceive mind and body as distinct beings to the conclusion that they really are separate substances. Most philosophers today accept neither the methodological basis for his claim nor the claim itself. Indeed, since the time of Kant, few philosophers have believed that the clear and distinct thoughts of the human mind are a guide to the absolute reality of things. Hence, the notion that even clear conceivability discerns metaphysical possibility is not accepted. Moreover, few philosophers today are substance dualists.

All the same, the mind–body problem persists. In distinguishing the domain of the mental from that of the physical, Descartes struck a chord. Many philosophers accept the conceptual distinction, but remain uncertain of the underlying metaphysics: whether mind is identical with brain; or the mental emerges from complex processes in the brain; or constitutes a property that is different from any purely physical property, even while being instantiated by the brain. In this case, a problem that Descartes made prominent has lived far beyond his proposed solution.

NOTE: In referring to Descartes’ works, I have used the pagination of the Adam and Tannery volumes (AT), Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols. The citations give volume and page numbers only (dropping the abbreviation “AT”). Whenever possible, I have used the Cottingham, Stoothoff, Murdoch, and Kenny translation, The Philosophical Writings Of Descartes, 3 vols., which shows the AT pagination in the margins. The AT volume numbers provide a guide to which work is being cited in translation: vols. 1–5, correspondence; vol. 6, Discourse; vol. 7, Meditations; vol. 10, Rules; vol. 11:1–118, World, or Treatise on Light; vol. 11:119–222, Treatise on Man; vol. 11:301–488, Passions. Where there is no accessible translation for a citation from AT, I show the citation in italics. I also cite works that are broken into articles by abbreviated title, part, and article: Princ. for the Principles, and Pass. for the Passions.

* Carriero, John. 2008. “Cartesian Circle and the Foundations of Knowledge,” in Companion to Descartes, ed. Janet Broughton and John Carriero. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
* Descartes, René 1964–76. Oeuvres de Descartes, 11 vols., ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. Paris: Vrin/CNRS. Cited by volume and page number.
* Doney, Willis, ed., 1987. Eternal Truth and the Cartesian Circle. New York: Garland Publishing.
* Frankfurt, Harry G. 1962. “Memory and the Cartesian Circle,” Philosophical Review, 71: 504–11.
* Frankfurt, Harry G. 1965. “Descartes’ Validation of Reason,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 2: 149–56.
* Garber, Daniel. 1992. Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
* Hatfield, Gary. 2005. “Cartesian Circle,” in Blackwell Guide to Descartes’ Meditations, ed. S. Gaukroger. Oxford: Blackwell, 122–41.
* Jacquette, Dale. 1996. “Descartes’ Lumen Naturale and the Cartesian Circle,” Philosophy and Theology: Marquette University Quarterly, 9: 273–320.
* Loeb, Louis. 1992. “Cartesian Circle,” in Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. J. Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 200–35.
* Machamer, Peter, and J. E. McGuire. 2006. “Descartes’s Changing Mind,” Studies In History and Philosophy of Science, 37: 398–419.
* Popkin, Richard H. 1979. History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Schuster, John. 1980. “Descartes’ Mathesis Universalis, 1619–28,” in Descartes: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics, ed. S. Gaukroger. New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 41–96.
* Sebba, Gregor. 1987. Dream of Descartes. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press.
* Watson, Richard. 2007. Cogito, Ergo Sum, rev. edn. Boston: Godine.

English translations

* Descartes, René. 1965. Discourse on Method, Optics, Geometry, and Meteorology, trans. Paul J. Olscamp. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. Originally published in French in 1637.
* –––. 1983. Principles of Philosophy, trans. V. R. Miller and R.P. Miller. Dordrecht: Reidel. Originally published in Latin in 1644.
* –––. Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols., trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984–91).
* –––. 1989. Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen H. Voss Indianapolis: Hackett. Originally published in French in 1649.
* –––. 1998. World and Other Writings, trans. Stephen Gaukroger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Other readings

* Broughton, Janet, and John Carriero, eds. 2008. Companion to Descartes. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
* Clarke, Desmond M. 1982. Descartes’ Philosophy of Science. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
* Cottingham, John, ed. 1992. Cambridge Companion to Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* –––, ed. 1994. Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartes’s Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* –––, ed. 1998. Descartes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Curley, Edwin. 1978. Descartes against the Skeptics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
* Dicker, Georges. 1993. Descartes: An Analytical and Historical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
* Frankfurt, Harry. 1970. Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
* Gaukroger, Stephen. 1995. Descartes: An Intellectual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* –––. 2002. Descartes’ System of Natural Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Gaukroger, Stephen, John Schuster, and John Sutton, eds. 2000. Descartes’ Natural Philosophy. London: Routledge.
* Guèroult, Martial. 1984–85. Descartes’ Philosophy Interpreted According to the Order of Reasons, trans. R. Ariew, 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
* Hatfield, Gary. 2003. Descartes and the Meditations. London: Routledge.
* Nelson, Alan, ed. 2005. Blackwell Companion to Rationalism. Oxford: Blackwell.
* Rodis-Lewis, Geneviève. 1998. Descartes: His Life and Thought, trans. J. M. Todd. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
* Rorty, Amélie, ed. 1986. Essays on Descartes’ Meditations. Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Shea, William R. 1991. Magic of Numbers and Motion. Canton, Mass.: Science History Publications.
* Smith, Norman Kemp. 1953. New studies in the Philosophy of Descartes: Descartes as Pioneer. London: Macmillan.
* Voss, Stephen, ed. 1993. Essays on the Philosophy and Science of René Descartes. New York: Oxford University Press.
* Williams, Bernard. 1978. Descartes, The Project of Pure Inquiry. London: Penguin.
* Wilson, Catherine. 2003. Descartes’s Meditations: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Wilson, Margaret D. 1978. Descartes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Other Internet Resources

* Descartes, resources from PhilWeb

Related Entries

Arnauld, Antoine | Cordemoy, Geraud de | Descartes, René: and the pineal gland | Descartes, René: epistemology | Descartes, René: ethics | Descartes, René: life and works | Descartes, René: modal metaphysics | Descartes, René: ontological argument | Descartes, René: physics | Descartes, René: theory of ideas | emotion: 17th and 18th century theories of | Gassendi, Pierre | Le Grand, Antoine | More, Henry | Regius, Henricus

The editors would like to thank Gintautas Miliauskas (Vilnius University) for notifying us of a variety of typographical errors in this entry.
Copyright © 2008 by
Gary Hatfield

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notas sobre constitucionalismo (inglés)

fuente http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/constitutionalism/notes.html
Notes to Constitutionalism

1. Unless otherwise indicated, the term “constitutional” (and its cognate terms “constitutionalism”, “constitution”, and so on) should henceforth be understood to carry this richer meaning.

2. Whether Locke and Hobbes are properly invoked in this way is perhaps open to question. There is reason to believe that Locke’s argument defends political, as opposed to strictly legal, limitations upon the sovereign. It might be argued that effective political limitation requires legal limitation as well, but this does not seem strictly necessary. More on this later.

3. “For to be subject to laws is to be subject to the commonwealth — that is to the sovereign — that is, to himself, which is not subjection but freedom from the laws.” (Leviathan, Ch. 29, 255)

4. What Parliament does “no authority upon Earth can undo.” (Sir William Blackstone) Three points are worth stressing here. First, it is not at all clear that the British Parliament ever did possess the unlimited sovereignty ascribed to it by Blackstone. Although the United Kingdom has no written constitution of the kind one finds in the United States, legal scholars are generally in agreement that Britain has, for centuries, contained an “unwritten constitution” arising from a variety of sources, including long-standing principles of the common law and landmark judicial decisions concerning the appropriate limits of Parliament’s legislative power. (See Section 4 below.) Second, the British constitution also includes a number of written documents adopted at various points in its political history, a primary example being Magna Carta (1215, A.D.). Third, it is arguable that the people of the United Kingdom, in virtue of their membership in the European Community and the fact that British Courts now enforce, as binding, Community law, have in fact relinquished their unlimited sovereignty. If the law of member states (e.g. France, Denmark, and the UK) must now be consistent with Community law, and the latter is immune from legislative change or repeal through legislative acts on the part of member governments, then it can be argued that the sovereignty of the member states within the European Community has been replaced by the sovereignty of “the people of Europe.”

5. Leviathan, Part 1, Ch. 13. Although Hobbes’s sovereign is constitutionally unlimited, Hobbes insisted that individuals retained the right to self-preservation. It would be incoherent, Hobbes thought, for individuals to give up that right the protection of which is the very reason people have for creating a sovereign power. Although individuals retain the right to self-preservation, it is also true that Hobbes’ unlimited sovereign has the right to take anyone’s life if, in the sovereign’s judgment, this is necessary to preserve the well being of the commonwealth.

6. Constitutional conventions are explored in Sec. 6 below. Although entrenchment is an almost universal characteristic of modern constitutions, and although one could plausibly argue that it is practically desirable, it may not be absolutely necessary. Some constitutional norms are ordinary statutes amenable to introduction and change by ordinary legislative procedures. Indeed, some constitutions are almost wholly statutory, e.g., the 1848 Italian Constitution and the constitution of New Zealand.

7. Henceforth, and unless otherwise indicated, all uses of the word “constitution” (and cognate terms) should be understood as referring to constitutional law.

8. Hercules is first introduced by Dworkin in Ch. 4 of Taking Rights Seriously and reappears in subsequent writings, most notably, Law’s Empire.
9. The most influential and possibly radical critical theories are associated with the “Critical Legal Studies Movement” and “feminist jurisprudence.” But not all opponents of constitutionalism take these approaches. Jeremy Waldron, for example, is highly opposed to constitutional bills of rights and their interpretation and enforcement by judges. Though partly based on skepticism about the ability of either judges or the authors of bills of rights to emulate the moral insight of Hercules with any degree of success, Waldron’s arguments largely hinge on the right of autonomous, sovereign individuals to participate in political decisions affecting their own lives. This is a right which is seriously compromised by the existence of judicially enforced bills of rights in what Waldron terms “the circumstances of politics.” These circumstances include: radical and deep disagreements about the right and the good, combined with a common, felt need to coordinate on a common plan of action in dealing with matters of political significance (including rights). For Waldron’s views see The Dignity of Legislation and Law and Disagreement. Even though Waldron is here presented as offering a “critical theory,” it is important to realize that his is not a critical theory of the sort associated with CLA or radical feminism.

10. “I no longer believe that constitutional theory constrains, or is supposed to constrain judges. Rather…it serves primarily to provide a set of rhetorical devices that judges can deploy as they believe effective.” (Mark Tushnet, “Constitutional Interpretation, Character and Experience,” p. 759.)

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religión y moralidad

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Religion and Morality
First published Wed Sep 27, 2006; substantive revision Fri Oct 1, 2010

From the beginning of Western thought, religion and morality have been closely intertwined. This is true whether we go back within Greek philosophy or within Christianity and Judaism. The present article will not try to step beyond these confines, since there are other articles on Eastern thought. The article proceeds chronologically, giving greatest length to the contemporary period. It attempts to explain the main options as they have occurred historically. The purpose of proceeding historically is to substantiate the claim that morality and religion have been inseparable until very recently, and that our moral vocabulary is still deeply infused with this history. Since there are historically so many different ways to see the relation, a purely schematic or typological account is not likely to succeed as well. The ethical theories of the individual philosophers mentioned will not be described in depth, since this encyclopedia already contains entries about them; instead, the focus will be on what these philosophers say about the relation between morality and religion.

* 1. Ancient Greek Philosophy
* 2. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament
* 3. The Middle Ages
* 4. Modern Philosophy
* 5. The Twentieth Century
* Bibliography

1. Ancient Greek Philosophy

With the Greeks as a starting point, the initial focus is on ‘Homer’, a body of texts transmitted first orally and then written down in the seventh century BCE. In what follows, the term ‘morality’ will be used more frequently than ‘ethics’. Philosophers have drawn various contrasts between ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ at various times (Kant for example, and Hegel, and more recently R. M. Hare and Bernard Williams). But etymologically, the term ‘moral’ comes from the Latin mos, which means custom or habit, and it is a translation of the Greek ethos, which means roughly the same thing, and is the origin of the term ‘ethics’. In contemporary non-technical use, the two terms are more or less interchangeable, though ‘ethics’ has slightly more flavor of theory, and has been associated with the prescribed practice of various professions (e.g., medical ethics, etc.). In any case, no distinction will be made here. Morality is regarded here as a set of customs and habits that shape how we think about how we should live. The term ‘religion’ is much disputed. Again, we can learn from the etymology. The origin of the word is probably the Latin religare, to bind back. Not all uses of the term require reference to a divinity or divinities. But the term is used here so that there is such a reference, and a religion is a system of belief and practice that accepts a ‘binding’ relation to such a being or beings. This does not, however, give us a single essence of religion, since the conceptions of divinity discussed here are so various, and human relations with divinity are conceived so variously that no such essence is apparent even within Western thought. The ancient Greeks, for example, had many intermediate categories between full gods or goddesses and human beings. There were spirits (in Greek daimones) and spiritual beings like Socrates’s mysterious voice (daimonion) (Apology, 31d1–4, 40a2–c3). There were heroes who were offspring of one divine parent. There were humans who were deified, like the kings of Sparta. This is just within the culture of ancient Greece. If we included Eastern religions in the scope of the discussion, the hope for finding a single essence of religion would recede further. It is better to think of religions as having what Wittgenstein calls ‘family resemblance’ (Philosophical Investigations, 65–67).

So what does the relation between morality and religion look like in Homer? The first thing to say is that the gods and goddesses of the Homeric poems behave remarkably like the noble humans described in the same poems, even though the humans are mortal and the gods and goddesses immortal. Both groups are motivated by the desire for honor and glory, and are accordingly jealous when they receive less than they think they should while others receive more, and work ceaselessly to rectify this. The two groups are not however symmetrical, because the noble humans have the same kind of client relation to the divinities as subordinate humans do to them. There is a complex pattern that we might call ‘an honor-loop’ (See Mikalson, Honor Thy Gods). The divinities have their functions (in Greek, the word is the same as ‘honors’), such as Poseidon’s oversight of the sea, and humans seek their favor with ‘honor’, which we might here translate as ‘worship’. This includes, for example, sanctuaries devoted to them, dedications, hymns, dances, libations, rituals, prayers, festivals and sacrifices. In all of these the gods take pleasure, and in return they give ‘honor’ to mortals in the form of help or assistance, especially in the areas of their own expertise. There is a clear analogy with purely human client-relations, which are validated in the Homeric narrative, since the poems were probably originally sung at the courts of the princes who claimed descent from the heroes whose exploits make up the story. The gods and goddesses are not, however, completely at liberty. They too are accountable to fate or justice, as in the scene in the Iliad 22, where Zeus wants to save Hector, but he cannot because ‘his doom has long been sealed’ (Iliad 22:179).

The Presocratic philosophers come out of Homer, and it is sometimes said that they do so by rejecting religion in favor of science. There is a grain of truth in this, for when Thales (who flourished around 580) is reported as saying ‘Water is the origin (or principle) of all things’ this is different from saying, for example, that Tethys is mother of all the rivers, because it deletes the character of narrative or story (Aristotle’s Metaphysics, 983b20–8). When Anaximenes (around 545 BCE) talks of air as the primary element, explaining all change by its compression and dilation (Diels & Kranz, 13, A 5), or Heraclitus (around 500 BCE) explains change as a pattern in the turnings of fire igniting in measures and going out in measures, they are not giving stories with plot-lines involving quasi-human intentions and frustrations (DK 13, A 5). But it is wrong to say that they have left religion behind. Heraclitus puts this enigmatically by saying that the one and only wisdom does and does not consent to be called Zeus (DK 22, B 14). He is affirming the divinity of this wisdom, but denying the anthropomorphic character of much Greek religion. ‘To god all things are beautiful and good and just but humans suppose some things to be just and others unjust’ (DK 22, B 102). He ties this divine wisdom to the law of a city, ‘for all human laws are nourished by the one divine law’ (DK 22, B 114), though he does not have confidence that ‘the many’ are capable of making law. The sophists, to whom Socrates responded, rejected this tie between human law and divine law, and this was in part because of their expertise in rhetoric, by which they taught their students how to manipulate the deliberations of popular assemblies. The most famous case is Protagoras (c.490–21), who stated in the first sentence of his book Truth that ‘A human being is the measure of all things, of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not’ (Plato’s Theaetetus, 152a). Protagoras is not correctly seen here as skeptical about morality or religion. It is true that he claimed he was not in a position to know either the manner in which the gods are or are not (another translation is ‘that they are or are not’) or what they are like in appearance (DK 80, B 4). But as Plato (c.430-c.347) presents him, he told the story that all humans have been given by the gods the gifts of shame and justice, so as to make possible the founding of cities; this is why each human is the measure. Even Thrasymachus, in the first book of Plato’s Republic, thinks of justice as the same thing amongst gods and humans (Republic, 388c). His view of what this justice is, namely the interest of the stronger, is disputed by Plato. But the claim that justice operates at both the divine and human levels is common ground.

Socrates (c.470–399) in one of the early dialogues debates the nature of the holy with Euthyphro, who is a religious professional. Euthyphro is taking his own father to court for murder, and though ordinary Greek morality would condemn such an action as impiety, Euthyphro defends it on the basis that the gods behave in the same sort of way, according to the traditional stories. Socrates makes it clear that he does not believe these stories, because they attribute immorality to the gods. This does not mean, however, that he does not believe in the gods. He was observant in his religious practices, and he objects to the charge of not believing in the city’s gods that was one of the bases of the prosecution at his own trial. He points to the spirit who gives him commands about what not to do (Apology, 31d), and we learn later that he found it significant that this voice never told him to stop conducting his trial in the way that in fact led to his death (Ibid., 40a-c). Socrates interpreted this as an invitation from the gods to die, thus refuting the charge that, by conducting his trial in the way he did, he was guilty of theft — i.e., depriving the gods of his life that properly belonged to them (Phaedo, 62b). His life in particular was a service to god, he thought, because his testing of the wisdom of others was carrying out Apollo’s charge given by the oracle at Delphi, implicit in the startling pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Greece (Apology, 21a-d).

Socrates’s problem with the traditional stories about the gods gives rise to what is sometimes called ‘the Euthyphro dilemma’. If we try to define the holy as what is loved by the gods (and goddesses), we will be faced with the question ‘Is the holy holy because it is loved by the gods, or do they love it because it is holy?’ (Euthyphro, 10a). Socrates makes it clear that his view is the second (though he does not argue for this conclusion and he is probably relying on a previous premise about value disagreements in general ). (See Hare, Plato’s Euthyphro on this passage.) But his view is not an objection to tying morality and religion together. He hints at the end of the dialogue (Euthyphro, 13de) that the right way to link them is to see that when we do good we are serving the gods as well. Plato probably does not intend for us to construe the dialogues as a single philosophical system, and we must not erase the differences between them. But it is significant that in the Theaetetus (176b), Socrates says again that our goal is to be as like god as possible, and since god is in no way and in no manner unjust (in the sense of ‘unrighteous’), but as just as it is possible to be, nothing is more like god than the one among us who becomes correspondingly as just as possible. In several dialogues this thought is connected with a belief in the immortality of the soul; we become like god by paying attention to the immortal and best part of ourselves (e.g., Symposium, 210A-212B). The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is also tied to the doctrine of the Forms, whereby things with characteristics that we experience in this life (e.g., beauty) are copies or imitations of the Forms (e.g., The Beautiful-Itself) that we see without the distraction of the body when our souls are separated at death. The Form of the Good, according to the Republic, is above all the other Forms and gives them their intelligibility (as, by analogy, the sun gives visibility), and is (in a pregnant phrase) ‘on the other side of being’ (Republic, 509b). Finally, in the Laws (716b), perhaps Plato’s last work, the character called ‘the Athenian’ says that the god can serve for us in the highest degree as a measure of all things, and much more than any human can, whatever some people say; so people who are going to be friends with such a god must, as far as their powers allow, be like the god themselves.

This train of thought sees the god or gods as like a magnet, drawing us to be like them by the power of their goodness or excellence. In Plato’s Ion (533d), the divine is compared to a magnet to which is attached a chain of rings, through which the attraction is passed. This conception is also pervasive in Aristotle (384–22), Plato’s student for twenty years. In the Nicomachean Ethics, for example, the words ‘god’ and ‘divine’ occur roughly twice as often as the words ‘happiness’ and ‘happy’. This is significant, given that Aristotle’s ethical theory is (like Plato’s) ‘eudaimonist’ (meaning that our morality aims at our happiness). Mention of the divine is not merely conventional, for Aristotle, but does important philosophical work. In the Eudemian Ethics (1249b5–22) he tells us that the goal of our lives is service and contemplation of the god. He thinks that we become like what we contemplate, and so we become most like the god by contemplating the god. Incidentally, this is why the god does not contemplate us; for this would mean becoming less than the god, which is impossible. As in Plato, the well-being of the city takes precedence over the individual, and this, too, is justified theologically. It is more divine to achieve an end for a city than for an individual. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle draws a distinction between what we honor and what we merely commend (NE, 1101b10–35, see also Plato, Protagoras 344b–345c). There are six states for a human life, on a normative scale from best to worst: divine (which exceeds merely human on the one extreme), virtuous (without wrongful desire), strong-willed (able to overcome wrongful desire), weak-willed (unable to do so), vicious and bestial (which exceeds the merely human on the other extreme, and which Aristotle says is mostly found among barbarians) (NE, 1145a15–22). The highest form of happiness, which he calls blessedness, is something we honor as we honor gods, whereas virtue we merely commend. It would be as wrong to commend blessedness as it would be to commend gods (NE, 1096a10–1097a15). Sometimes Aristotle uses the phrase ‘God or understanding’ (in Greek, nous) (e.g., Politics, 1287a27–32). The activity of the god, he says in the Metaphysics, is nous thinking itself (1074b34). The best human activity is the most god-like, namely thinking about the god and about things that do not change. Aristotle’s virtue ethics, then, needs to be understood against the background of these theological premises. He is thinking of the divine, to use Plato’s metaphor, as magnetic, drawing us, by its attractive power, to live the best kind of life possible for us. This gives him a defense against the charge sometimes made against virtue theories that they simply embed the prevailing social consensus into an account of human nature. Aristotle defines virtue as lying in a mean between excess and defect, and the mean is determined by the person of practical wisdom (actually the male, since Aristotle is sexist on this point). He then gives a conventional account of the virtues such a person displays (such as courage, literally manliness, which requires the right amount of fear and confidence, between cowardice and rashness). But the virtuous person in each case acts ‘for the sake of the noble (or beautiful)’, and Aristotle continually associates the noble with the divine (e.g., NE, 1115b12).

There are tensions in Aristotle’s account of virtue and happiness. It is not clear what his final view is of the relation between the activity of contemplation and the other activities of a virtuous life (see Hare, God and Morality, chapter one). But the connection of the highest human state with the divine is pervasive in the text. One result of this connection is the eudaimonism mentioned earlier. God does not care about what is not god, for this would be a diminution. In the same way, the highest and most god-like human does not care about other human beings except to the degree they contribute to his own best state. This degree is not negligible, since humans are social animals, and their well-being depends on the well-being of the families and cities of which they are members. Aristotle is not preaching self-sufficiency in any sense that implies we could be happy on our own, isolated from other human beings. But our concern for the well-being of other people is always, for him, contingent on our special relation to them. Within the highest kind of friendship ‘a friend is another self’, he says, and within such friendship we care about friends for their own sake, but if the friend becomes divine and we do not, then the friendship is over (NE, 1159a7). Aristotle does not say that we have obligations to other human beings just because they are human beings. Finally, he ties our happiness to our end (in Greek, telos); for humans, as for all living things, the best state is activity in accordance with the natural function that is unique to each species. For humans the best state is happiness, and the best activity within this state is contemplation (NE, 1178b17–23).

The Epicureans and Stoics who followed Aristotle differed with each other and with him in many ways, but they agreed in tying morality and religion together. For the Epicureans (as for Aristotle in the Metaphysics), the gods do not care about us, though they are entertained by looking at our tragicomic lives (rather as we look at soap operas on television). We can be released from a good deal of anxiety, the Epicureans thought, by realizing that the gods are not going to punish us. Our goal should be to be as like the gods as we can, enjoying ourselves without interruption, but for us this means limiting our desires to what we can obtain without frustration. The Stoics likewise tied the best kind of human life, for them the life of the sage, to being like god. The sage follows nature in all his desires and actions, and is thus the closest to the divine. One of the virtues he will have is ‘apathy’ (in Greek apatheia), which does not mean listlessness, but detachment from wanting anything other than what nature, or the god, is already providing.
2. The Hebrew Bible And The New Testament

The second line of thought traced in this entry starts with the Hebrew Bible and continues with the Greek scriptures called by Christians ‘The New Testament’. Morality and religion are connected in the Hebrew Bible primarily by the category of God’s command. Such commands come already in the first chapter of Genesis, and they come in two types. First, God creates by command, for example ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3). Then, after the creation of animals, God gives a second kind of command, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, and repeats the command to the humans he creates in the divine image (Gen. 1:22). In the second chapter there is a third kind of command. God tells Adam that he is free to eat from any tree in the garden, but he must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Eve and Adam disobey, and eat of that fruit, they are expelled from the garden. There is a family of concepts here that is different from what we meet in Greek philosophy. God is setting up a kind of covenant by which humans will be blessed if they obey the commands God gives them. Human disobedience is not explained in the text, except that the serpent says to Eve that they will not die if they eat the fruit, but will be like God, knowing good and evil, and Eve sees the fruit as good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom. After they eat, Adam and Eve know that they are naked, and are ashamed, and hide from God. There is a turning away from God and from obedience to God that characterizes this as a ‘fall into sin’. As the story goes on, and Cain kills Abel, evil spreads to all the people of the earth, and Genesis describes the basic state as a corruption of the heart (6:9). This idea of a basic orientation away from or towards God and God’s commands becomes in the Patristic period of early Christianity the idea of a will. There is no such idea in Plato or Aristotle, and no Greek word that the English word ‘will’ properly translates.

In the Pentateuch, the story continues with Abraham, and God’s command to leave his ancestral land and go to the land God promised to give him and his offspring (Gen. 17:7–8). Then there is the command to Abraham to kill his son, a deed prevented at the last minute by the provision of a ram instead (Gen. 22:11–14). Abraham’s great grandchildren end up in Egypt, because of famine, and the people of Israel suffer for generations under Pharaoh’s yoke. Under Moses the people are finally liberated, and during their wanderings in the desert, Moses receives from God the Ten Commandments, in two tables or tablets (Exod. 20:1–17, 31:18). The first table concerns our obligations to God directly, to worship God alone and keep God’s name holy, and keep Sabbath. The second table concerns our obligations to other human beings, and all of the commands are negative (do not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet) except for the first, which tells us to honor our fathers and mothers. God’s commands, taken together, give us the law. One more term belongs here, namely ‘kingdom’. The Greeks had the notion of a kingdom, under a human king (though the Athenians were in the classical period suspicious of such an arrangement). But they did not have the idea of a kingdom of God. This idea is explicable in terms of law, and is introduced as such in Exodus in connection with the covenant on Mt. Sinai. The kingdom is the realm in which the laws obtain.

This raises a question about the extent of this realm. The Ten Commandments are given in the context of a covenant with the people of Israel, though there are references to God’s intention to bless the whole world through this covenant. The surrounding laws in the Pentateuch include prescriptions and proscriptions about ritual purity and sacrifice and the use of the land that seem to apply to this particular people in this particular place. But the covenant that God makes with Noah after the flood is applicable to the whole human race, and universal scope is explicit in the Wisdom books, which make a continual connection between how we should live and how we were created as human beings. For example, in Proverbs 8 Wisdom raises her voice to all humankind, and says that she detests wickedness, which she goes on to describe in considerable detail. She says that she was the artisan at God’s side when God created the world and its inhabitants.

In the writings which Christians call ‘The New Testament’ the theme of God’s commands is recapitulated. Jesus sums up the commandments under two, the command to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind (see Deuteronomy 6:5), and the command to love the neighbor as the self (see Leviticus 19:18). The first of these probably sums up the first ‘table’ of the Ten Commandments to Moses, and the second sums up the second. The New Testament is unlike the Hebrew Bible, however, in presenting a narrative about a man who is the perfect exemplification of obedience and who has a life without sin. New Testament scholars disagree about the extent to which Jesus actually claimed to be God, but the traditional interpretation is that he did make this claim; in any case the Christian doctrine is that we can see in his life the clearest possible revelation in human terms both of what God is like and at the same time of what our lives ought to be like. In the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5–7) Jesus issues a number of radical injunctions. He takes the commandments inside the heart; for example, we are required not merely not to murder, but not to be angry, not merely not to commit adultery, but not to lust. We are told, if someone strikes us on the right cheek, to turn to him also the left. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and those who hate and persecute us, and in this way he makes it clear that the love commandment is not based on reciprocity (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–36). Finally, when he is asked ‘Who is my neighbor?’, he tells the story (Luke 10) of a Samaritan (traditional enemies of the Jews) who met a wounded Jew he did not know by the side of the road, was moved with compassion, and went out of his way to meet his needs; the Samaritan was ‘neighbor’ to the wounded traveler.

The theme of self-sacrifice is clearest in the part of the narrative that deals with Jesus’ death. This event is understood in many different ways in the New Testament, but one central theme is that Jesus died on our behalf, an innocent man on behalf of the guilty. Jesus describes the paradigm of loving our neighbors as the willingness to die for them. This theme is connected with our relationship to God, which we violate by disobedience, but which is restored by God’s forgiveness through redemption. In Paul’s letters especially we are given a three-fold temporal location for the relation of morality to God’s work on our behalf. We are forgiven for our past failures on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice (Rom. 3:21–26). We are reconciled now with God through God’s adoption of us in Christ (Rom. 8:14–19). And we are given the hope of future progress in holiness by the work of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:3–5). All of this theology requires more detailed analysis, but this is not the place for it.

There is a contrast between the two traditions described so far, namely the Greek and the Judeo-Christian. The idea of God that is central in the above account of the Greeks is the idea of God attracting us, like a kind of magnet, so that we desire to become more like God. In the above account of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the central notion was that of God commanding us. It is tempting to simplify this contrast by saying that the Greeks favor the good, in their account of the relation of morality and religion, and the Judeo-Christian account favors the right or obligation. The notion of obligation seems to make most sense against the background of command. But the picture is over-simple because the Greeks had room in their account for the constraint of desire; thus the temperate or brave person in Aristotle’s picture has desires for food or sex or safety that have to be disciplined by the love of the noble. On the other side, the Judeo-Christian account adds God’s love to the notion of God’s command, so that the covenant in which the commands are embedded is a covenant by which God blesses us, and we are given a route towards our highest good which is union with God.
3. The Middle Ages

The rest of the history described in this entry is a cross-fertilization of these two traditions or lines of thought. In the patristic period, or the period of the early Fathers, it was predominantly Plato and the Stoics amongst the Greek philosophers whose influence was felt. The Eastern and Western parts of the Christian church split during the period, and the Eastern church remained more comfortable than the Western with language about humans being deified (in Greek theiosis). In the West, Augustine (354–430) emphasized the gap between the world we are in as resident aliens and our citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem, and even in our next life the distance between ourselves and God. He describes in the Confessions the route by which his heart or will, together with his understanding, moved from paganism through Neo-Platonism to Christianity. The Neo-Platonists (such as Plotinus, 205-270) taught a world-system of emanation, whereby the One (like Plato’s Form of the Good) flowed into Intellect (the realm of the Forms) and from there into the World-Soul and individual souls, and finally into bodies, from where it returned to itself. Augustine accepted that the Platonists said, like the beginning of the prologue of John, that the Word (in Greek, logos) is with God and is God, since the Intellect is the mediating principle between the One and the Many (John 1:1–5). Augustine held that Plato had asserted that the supreme good, possession of which alone gives us blessedness, is God, ‘and therefore (Plato) thought that to be a philosopher is to be a lover of God’ (City of God, VIII.8). But the Platonists did not say, like the end of John’s prologue, that the Word is made flesh in Jesus Christ, and so they did not have access to the way to salvation revealed in Christ or God’s grace to us through Christ’s death. Nonetheless, it is surprising how far Augustine can go in rapprochement. The Forms, he says, are in the mind of God and God uses them in the creation of the world. Human beings were created for union with God, but they have the freedom to turn towards themselves instead of God. If they turn to God, they can receive divine illumination, through a personal intuition of the eternal standards (the Forms). If they turn towards themselves, they will lose the sense of the order of creation, which the order of their own loves should reflect. Augustine gives primacy to the virtue of loving what ought to be loved, especially God. In his homily on I John 4:8, he says, ‘Love and do what you will.’ But this is not a denial of the moral law. He held that humans who truly love God will also act in accord with the other precepts of divine and moral law; though love not merely fulfils the cardinal virtues (e.g., temperance, courage, justice) but transforms them by supernatural grace.

The influence of Augustine in the subsequent history of ethics resulted from the fact that it was his synthesis of Christianity (the official religion of the Roman empire after 325) and Greek philosophy that survived the destruction of the Western Roman Empire. Especially noteworthy is Boethius (c.480–524), from whom we get the definition of the concept of ‘person’ that has been fundamental to ethical theory. To understand this, we need to go back into the history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. The church had to explain how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit could be distinct and yet not three different gods. They used, in Latin, the term persona, which means ‘role’ but which was also used by the grammarians to distinguish what we call ‘first person, second person and third person’ pronouns and verb-forms. The same human being can be first person ‘I’, second person ‘you’, and third person ‘he’ or ‘she’, depending on the relations in which he or she stands. The doctrine of the Trinity comes to be understood in terms of three persons, one God, with the persons standing in different relations to each other. But then this term ‘person’ is also used to understand the relation of the second person’s divinity to his humanity. The church came to talk about one person with two natures, the person standing under the natures. This had the merit of not making either the humanity or the divinity less significant to who Jesus was. Plato and Aristotle did not have any term that we can translate ‘person’ in the modern sense, as someone (as opposed to something) that stands under all his or her attributes. Boethius, however, defines ‘person’ as ‘individual substance of rational nature,’ a key step in the introduction of our present concept.

In the West knowledge of most of Aristotle’s texts was lost, but not in the East. They were translated into Syriac, and Arabic, and eventually (in Muslim Spain) into Latin, and re-entered Christian Europe in the twelfth century accompanied by translations of the great Arabic commentaries. This new rebirth (a ‘renaissance’) of learning gave rise to a crisis, because it threatened to undermine the harmony established from the time of Augustine between the authority of reason, as represented by Greek philosophy, and the authority of faith, as represented by the doctrines of the Christian church. There were especially three ‘errors of Aristotle’ that seemed threatening: his teaching that the world was eternal, his apparent denial of personal immortality, and his denial of God’s active agency in the world. (See, for example, Bonaventure, In Hexaemeron, VI.5 and In II Sent., lib.II, d.1, pars1, a.1, q.2.) These three issues (‘the world, the soul, God’) become in one form or another the focus of philosophical thought for the next six centuries.

Thomas Aquinas (c.1224–74) undertook the project of synthesis between Aristotle and Christianity, though his version of Christianity was already deeply influenced by Augustine, and so by Neo-Platonism. Aquinas, like Aristotle, emphasized the ends (vegetative, animal and typically human) given to humans in the natural order. He described both the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, but he did not feel the tension that current virtue ethicists feel between virtue and the following of rules or principles. The rules governing how we ought to live are known, some of them by revelation, some of them by ordinary natural experience and rational reflection. But Aquinas thought these rules consistent in the determination of our good, since God only requires us to do what is consistent with our own good. Aquinas’s theory is eudaimonist in the sense previously defined; ‘And so the will naturally tends towards its own last end, for every man naturally wills beatitude. And from this natural willing are caused all other willings, since whatever a man wills, he wills on account of the end’ (Summa Theologiae I, q.20. a.2). God’s will is not exercised by arbitrary fiat; but what is good for some human being can be understood as fitting for this kind of agent, in relation to the purpose this agent intends to accomplish, in the real environment of the action, including other persons individually and collectively. The principles of natural moral law are the universal judgments made by right reasoning about the kinds of actions that are morally appropriate and inappropriate for human agents. They are thus, at least in principle and at a highly general level, deducible from human nature. Aquinas held that reason, in knowing these principles, is participating in the eternal law (Summa Theologiae I, q.91. a.2). Aquinas was not initially successful in persuading the church to embrace Aristotle. In 1277 the Bishop of Paris condemned 219 propositions (not all Thomist), including the thesis that a person virtuous in Aristotle’s terms ‘is sufficiently disposed for eternal happiness’. But in the long run, the synthesis which Aquinas achieved became authoritative in Roman Catholic education.

Aquinas was a Dominican friar. The other major order of friars, the Franciscan, had its own school of philosophy starting with Bonaventure (c.1217–74), who held that while we can learn from both Plato and Aristotle, and both are also in error, the greater error is Aristotle’s. One other figure from this tradition should be mentioned, John Duns Scotus (literally John from Duns, the Scot, c.1266–1308). There are three notable differences between him and Aquinas. First, Scotus is not a eudaimonist. He took a double account of motivation from Anselm (1033–1109), who made the distinction between two affections of the will, the affection for advantage (an inclination towards one’s own happiness and perfection) and the affection for justice (an inclination towards what is good in itself independent of advantage) (Anselm, De Concordia 3.11, 281:7–10; De Casu Diaboli 12, 255:8–11). Scotus says that we are born with a ranking of advantage over justice, which needs to be reversed by God’s assistance before we can be pleasing to God. We should be willing (as Moses was, at Exodus 32: 32, and Paul at Romans 9: 3) to sacrifice our own happiness for God if that were to be necessary, which it is not (by God’s grace). Second, he does not think that the moral law is self-evident or necessary. He takes the first table to be necessary, since it derives (except for the ‘every seventh day’ provision of the command about the Sabbath) from the necessary principle that God is to be loved. But the second table is contingent, though fitting our nature, and God could prescribe different commands even for human beings (Ord. I, dist.44). One of his examples is the proscription on theft, which applies only to beings with property, and so not necessarily to human beings (since they are not necessarily propertied). God also gives dispensations from the commands, according to Scotus, for example the command to Abraham to kill Isaac (Ord. III, suppl. dist.37). Third, Scotus denied the application of teleology to non-intentional nature, and thus departed from the Aristotelian and Thomist view. This does not mean that we have no natural end or telos, but that this end is related to the intention of God in the same way a human artisan intends his or her products to have a certain purpose (see Hare 2006, Ch. 2).
4. Modern Philosophy

Europe experienced a second Renaissance when scholars fled Constantinople after its capture by the Muslims in 1453, and brought with them Greek manuscripts that were previously inaccessible. In Florence Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) identified Plato as the primary ancient teacher of wisdom, and (like Bonaventure) cited Augustine as his guide in elevating Plato in this way. His choice of Plato was determined by the harmony he believed to exist between Plato’s thought and the Christian faith, and he set about making Latin translations of all the Platonic texts so that this wisdom could be available for his contemporaries who did not know Greek. He was also the first Latin translator of Plotinus, the Neo-Platonist.

There is a fundamental similarity in the way the relation between morality and religion is conceived between Scotus and the two Reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–64), though neither of them make the distinctions about natural law that Scotus (the ‘subtle doctor’) does. Luther says ‘What God wills is not right because he ought or was bound so to will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because he so wills’ (Bondage of the Will, Works, 195–6). Calvin says ‘God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous’ (Institutes, 3.23.2). The historical connection between Scotus and the Reformers can be traced (though it won’t be done here). The Counter-Reformation in Roman Catholic Europe was strongly influenced by Aquinas. Francisco de Suarez (1548–1617) claimed that the precepts of natural law can be distinguished into those (like ‘Do good and avoid evil’) which are known immediately and intuitively by all normal human beings, those (like ‘Do no injury to anyone’) which require experience and thought to know them, but which are then self-evident, and those (like ‘Lying is always immoral’) which are not self-evident but can be derived from the more basic precepts. However, Suarez accepted Scotus’s double account of motivation.

The next two centuries in Europe can be described in terms of two lines of development, rationalism and empiricism, both of which led, in different ways, to the possibility of a greater detachment of ethics from theology. The history of rationalism from René Descartes (1596–1650) to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) is a history of re-establishing human knowledge on the foundation of rational principles that could not be doubted, after modern science started to shake the traditional foundations supported by the authority of Aristotle and the church. Descartes was not primarily an ethicist, but he located the source of moral law (surprisingly for a rationalist) in God’s will. The most important rationalist in ethics was Benedict de Spinoza (1632–77). He was a Jew, but was condemned by his contemporary faith community as unorthodox. Like Descartes, he attempted to duplicate the methods of geometry in philosophy. Substance, according to Spinoza, exists in itself and is conceived through itself (Ethics, I, def. 3); it is consequently one, infinite, and identical with God (Ibid., I, prop. 15). There is no such thing as natural law, since all events in nature (‘God or Nature’) are equally natural. Everything in the universe is necessary, and there is no free will, except in as far as Spinoza is in favor of calling someone free who is led by reason (Ibid., I, prop. 32). Each human mind is a limited aspect of the divine intellect. On this view (which has its ancestry in Stoicism) the human task is to move towards the greatest possible rational control of human life. Leibniz was, like Descartes, not primarily an ethicist. He said, however, that ‘the highest perfection of any thinking being lies in careful and constant pursuit of true happiness’ (New Essays on Human Understanding, XXI, 51). The rationalists were not denying the centrality of God in human moral life, but their emphasis was on the access we have through the light of reason rather than through sacred text or ecclesiastical authority.

After Leibniz there was in Germany a long-running battle between the rationalists and the pietists, who tried to remain true to the goals of the Lutheran Reformation. Good examples of the two schools are Christian Wolff (1679–1754) and Christian August Crusius (1715–75), and after discussing the empiricists, we shall try to understand Kant will as mediating between the two. Wolff was a very successful popularizer of the thought of Leibniz, but fuller in his ethical system. He took from Leibniz the determinist principle that we will always select what pleases us most, and the principle that pleasure is the apprehension of perfection, so that the amount of pleasure we feel is proportional to the amount of perfection we intuit (New Essays on Human Understanding, XXI, 41). He thought we are obligated to do what will make us and our condition, or that of others, more perfect, and this is the law of nature that would be binding on us even if (per impossibile) God did not exist. He saw no problem about the connection between virtue and happiness, since both of them result directly from our perfection, and no problem about the connection between virtue and duty, since a duty is simply an act in accordance with law, which prescribes the pursuit of perfection. His views were offensive to the pietists, because he claimed that Confucius already knew (by reason) all that mattered about morality, even though he did not know anything about Christ. Crusius, by contrast, accepted Scotus’s double theory of motivation, and held that there are actions that we ought to do regardless of any ends we have, even the end of our own perfection and happiness. It is plausible to see here the origin of Kant’s categorical imperative. But he also added a third motivation, what he called ‘the drive of conscience’ which is ‘the natural drive to recognize a divine moral law’ (“A Guide to Rational Living,” Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, §132, 574). His idea was that we have within us this separate capacity to recognize divine command and to be drawn towards it out of a sense of dependence on the God who prescribes the command to us, and will punish us if we disobey (though our motive should not be to avoid punishment) (Ibid., §135).

The history of empiricism in Britain from Hobbes to Hume is also the history of the attempt to re-establish human knowledge, but not from above (from indubitable principles of reason) but from below (from experience and especially the experience of the senses). Thomas Hobbes (1588–1649) said that all reality is bodily (including God), and all events are motions in space. Willing, then, is a motion, and is merely the last act of desire or aversion in any process of deliberation. His view is that it is natural, and so reasonable, for each of us to aim solely at our own preservation or pleasure. In the state of nature, humans are selfish, and their lives are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, a war of all against all (Leviathan, Ch. 13). The first precept of the law of nature is then for each of us, pursuing our own interest, ‘to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of attaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war’ (Ibid., Ch. 14). The second precept is that each of us should be willing to lay down our natural rights to everything to the extent that others are also willing, and Hobbes concludes with the need to subordinate ourselves to a sovereign who alone will be able to secure peace. The second and longest portion of Leviathan is devoted to religion, where Hobbes argues for the authority of Scripture, which he thinks is needed for the authority of law. He argues for the authority in the interpretation of Scripture, God’s word, to be given to that same earthly sovereign, and not to competing ecclesiastical authorities (whose competition had been seen to exacerbate the miseries of war both in Britain and on the continent) (Ibid., Ch. 33).

John Locke (1632–1704) followed Hobbes in deriving morality from our need to live together in peace given our natural discord, but he denied that we are mechanically moved by our desires. He agreed with Hobbes in saying that moral laws are God’s imposition, but disagreed by making God’s power and benevolence both necessary conditions for God’s authority in this respect (Treatises, IV.XIII.3). He also held that our reason can work out counsels or advice about moral matters; but only God’s imposition makes law (and hence obligation), and we only know about God’s imposition from revelation (The Reasonableness of Christianity, 62–5). He therefore devoted considerable attention to justifying our belief in the reliability of revelation.

The deists (e.g., William Wollaston, 1659–1724) believed that humans can reason from their experience of nature to the existence and some of the attributes of God, that special revelation is accordingly unnecessary, that God does not intervene in human affairs (after creation) and that the good life for humans finds adequate guidance in philosophical ethics. Frances Hutcheson (1694–1746) was not a deist, but does give an example of the sort of guidance involved. He distinguished between objects that are naturally good, which excite personal or selfish pleasure, and those that are morally good, which are advantageous to all persons affected. He took himself to be giving a reading of moral goodness as agape, the Greek word for the love of our neighbor that Jesus prescribes. This love is benevolence, Hutcheson said, and it is formulated in the principle ‘That Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers’ (Inquiry II, III, VIII). Because the definitions of natural and moral good produce a possible gap between the two, we need some way to believe that morality and happiness are coincident. Hutcheson thought that God has given us a moral sense for this purpose (Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions, II). This moral sense responds to examples of benevolence with approbation and a unique kind of pleasure, and benevolence is the only thing it responds to, as it were the only signal it picks up. It is, like Scotus’s affection for justice, not confined to our perception of advantage. The result of our having moral sense is that when intending the good of others, we ‘undesignedly’ end up promoting our own greatest good as well because we end up gratifying ourselves along with others. God shows benevolence by first making us benevolent and then giving us this moral sense that gets joy from the approbation of our benevolence. To contemporary British opponents of moral sense theory, this seemed too rosy or benign a picture; our joy in approving benevolence is not enough to make morality and happiness coincident. We need also obligation and divine sanction.

David Hume (1711–76) is the first figure in this narrative who can properly be attached to the Enlightenment, though this term means very different things in Scotland, in France and in Germany. Hume held that reason cannot command or move the human will. Since morals clearly do have an influence on actions and affections, ‘it follows that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already proved, can never have any such influence’ (Treatise, III.1). For Hume an action, or sentiment, or character, is virtuous or vicious ‘because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind’ (Ibid., III.2). The denial of motive power to reason is part of his general skepticism. He accepted from Locke the principle that our knowledge is restricted to sense impressions from experience and logically necessary relations of ideas in advance of experience (in Latin, a priori). From this principle he derived more radical conclusions than Locke had done. For example, we cannot know about causation or the soul. The only thing we can know about morals is that we get pleasure from the thought of some things and pain from the thought of others. Since the idea of morality implies something universal, there must be some sentiment of sympathy or (he later says) humanity, which is common to all human beings, and which ‘recommends the same object of general approbation’ (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, IX.I.221). Hume thought we could get conventional moral conclusions from these moral sentiments, which nature has fortunately given us. He was also skeptical about any attempt to derive conclusions containing ‘ought’ from premises containing only ‘is’, though scholars debate about the scope of the premises he is talking about here. Probably he included premises about God’s will or nature or action. This does not mean he was arguing against the existence of God. He thought (like Calvin) that we cannot rely on rational proofs of God’s existence, even though humans have what Calvin called a sense of the divine and Hume called ‘true religion.’ He never identified himself as an atheist, though he had opportunity in the atheist circles he frequented in Paris, and his Dialogues on Natural Religion end with the sentiment that ‘to be a philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian’ (Dialogues, part XII, penultimate paragraph). Some scholars take it that this remark (like similar statements in Hobbes) is purely ironic, but this goes beyond the evidence.

The Enlightenment in France had a more anti-clerical flavor (in part because of the history of Jansenism, unique to France), and for the first time in this narrative we meet genuine atheists, such as Baron d’Holbach (1723–89) who held not only that morality did not need religion, but that religion, and especially Christianity, was its major impediment. François-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778) was, especially towards the end of his life, opposed to Christianity, but not to religion in general (Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the Great, letter 156). He accepted from the English deists the idea that what is true in Christian teachings is the core of human values that are universally true in all religions, and (like the German rationalists) he admired Confucius. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) said, famously, that mankind is born free, but everywhere he is in chains (The Social Contract, Ch. 1). This supposes a disjunction between nature and contemporary society, and Rousseau held that the life of primitive human beings was happy inasmuch as they knew how to live in accordance with their own innate needs; now we need some kind of social contract to protect us from the corrupting effects of society upon the proper love of self. Nature is understood as the whole realm of being created by God, who guarantees its goodness, unity, and order. Rousseau held that we do not need any intermediary between us and God, and we can attain salvation by returning to nature in this high sense and by developing all our faculties harmoniously. Our ultimate happiness is to feel ourselves at one with the system that God created.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the most important figure of the Enlightenment in Germany, but his project is different in many ways from those of his French contemporaries. He was brought up in a pietist Lutheran family, and his system retains many features from, for example, Crusius. But he was also indebted through Wolff to Leibniz. Moreover, he was ‘awoken from his dogmatic slumbers’ by reading Hume, though Kant is referring here to Hume’s attack on causation, not his ethical theory (Prolegomena, 4:260). Kant’s mature project was to limit human knowledge ‘in order to make room for faith’ (Critique of Pure Reason, B xxx). He accepted from Hume that our knowledge is confined within the limits of possible sense experience, but he did not accept skeptical conclusions about causation or the soul. Reason is not confined, in his view, to the same limits as knowledge, and we are rationally required to hold beliefs about things as they are in themselves, not merely things as they appear to us. In particular, we are required to believe in God, freedom and immortality. These are three ‘postulates of practical reason’, required to make rational sense of the fact of moral obligation, the fact that we are under the moral law (the categorical imperative) that requires us to will the maxim of an action (the prescription of the action together with the reason for it) as a universal law (removing any self-preference) and to treat humanity in any person as always at the same time an end and never merely as a means (Groundwork, 4.421,429). Kant thought that humans have to be able to believe that morality in this demanding form is consistent in the long run with happiness, if they are going to be able to persevere in the moral life without rational instability. He did not accept the three traditional theoretical arguments for the existence of God (though he was sympathetic to a modest version of the teleological argument). But the practical argument was decisive for him, though he held that it was possible to be morally good without being a theist, even though such a position was rationally unstable.

In Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason he undertook the project of using moral language in order to translate the four main themes of Biblical revelation (accessible only to particular people at particular times) into the revelation to Reason (accessible to all people at all times). This does not mean that he intended to reduce Biblical faith to morality, though some scholars have taken him this way. The translated versions of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Second Coming are as follows (see Hare 1996): Humans have an initial predisposition to the good, which is essential to them, but is overlaid with a propensity to evil, which is not essential to them. Since they are born under ‘the Evil Maxim’ that subordinates duty to happiness, they are unable by their own devices to reverse this ranking, and require ‘an effect of grace’ (Religion, 6.53). Providence ushers in progress (though not continuous) towards an ‘ethical commonwealth’ in which we together make the moral law our own law, by appropriating it as authoritative for our own lives (this is what Kant means by ‘autonomy’) (Religion, 6.98–99; Groundwork, 4.433–34).

A whole succession of Kant’s followers tried to ‘go beyond’ Kant by showing that there was finally no need to make the separation between our knowledge and the thing-in-itself beyond our knowledge. One key step in departing from the surviving influence on Kant of Lutheran pietism is taken by Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), who identifies (as Kant does not) the will of the individual with the infinite Ego which is ordering the universe morally. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) accomplished a similar end end by proposing that we should make the truth of ideas relative to their original historical context against the background of a history that is progressing towards a final stage of ‘absolute knowledge’, in which Spirit (in German Geist, which means also ‘mind’) understands that reality is its own creation and there is no ‘beyond’ for it to know. Hegel is giving a philosophical account of the Biblical notion of all things returning to God, ‘so that God may be all in all’ (I Cor. 15:28). In this world-history, Hegel located the Reformation as ‘the all-enlightening sun’ of the bright day that is our modern time (The Philosophy of History, 412). He thought that Geist moves immanently through human history, and the various stages of knowledge in that history are also stages of freedom, each stage producing first its own internal contradiction, and then a radical transition into a new stage. The stage of absolute freedom will be one in which all members freely by reason endorse the organic community and concrete institutions in which they actually live (Phenomenology, BB, VI, B, III).

One of Hegel’s opponents was Arthur Schopenhauer (1799–1860), the philosopher of pessimism. Schopenhauer thought that Hegel had strayed from the Kantian truth that there is a thing-in-itself beyond appearance, and that the Will is such a thing. He differed from Kant, however, in seeing the Will as the source of all our endless suffering, a blind striving power without ultimate purpose or design (The World as Will and Representation, §56, p.310 and §57, p.311). It is, moreover, one universal Will that underlies the wills of all separate individuals. The intellect and its ideas are simply the Will’s servant. On this view, there is no happiness for us, and our only consolation is a (quasi-Buddhist) release from the Will to the limited extent we can attain it.

Hegel’s followers split into what are sometimes called ‘Right Hegelians’ and ‘Left Hegelians’ (or ‘Young Hegelians’). Right Hegelians promoted the generally positive view of the Prussian state that Hegel expressed in the Philosophy of Right. Left Hegelians rejected it, and with it the Protestant Christianity which they saw as its vehicle. In this way Hegel’s peculiar way of promoting Christianity ended up causing its vehement rejection by thinkers who shared many of his social ideals. David Friedrich Strauss (1808–74) wrote The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, launching the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship with the suggestion that much of the Biblical account is myth or ‘unconscious invention’ that needs to be separated out from the historical account. Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804–72) wrote The Essence of Christianity in which he pictured all religion as the means by which ‘man projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself’ (The Essence of Christianity, 30). Feuerbach thought religion resulted from humanity’s alienation from itself, and philosophy needed to destroy the religious illusion so that we could learn to love humankind and not divert this love onto an imaginary object. Karl Marx (1818–83) followed Feuerbach in this diagnosis of religion, but he was interested primarily in social and political relations rather than psychology. He became suspicious of theory (for example Hegel’s), on the grounds that theory is itself a symptom of the power structures in the societies that produce it. ‘Theory,’ Marx writes, ‘is realized in a people only in so far as it is a realization of the people’s needs’ (“Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Early Writings, 252). And ‘ideologies’ and ‘religion,’ he believes, arise from ‘conditions that require [these] illusions’ (Ibid., 244). Marx returned to Hegel’s thoughts about work revealing to the worker his value through what the worker produces, but Marx argued that under capitalism the worker was alienated from this product because other people owned both the product and the means of producing it. Marx urged that the only way to prevent this was to destroy the institution of private property (“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Early Writings, 348). Thus he believed, like Hegel, in progress through history towards freedom, but he thought it would take Communist revolution to bring this about.

A very different response to Hegel (and Kant) is found in the work of Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), a religious thinker who started, like Hegel and Kant, from Lutheranism. Kierkegaard mocked Hegel constantly for presuming to understand the whole system in which human history is embedded, while still being located in a particular small part of it. On the other hand, he used Hegelian categories of thought himself, especially in his idea of the aesthetic life, the ethical life and the religious life as stages through which human beings develop by means of first internal contradiction and then radical transition. Kierkegaard’s relation with Kant was problematic as well. In Either/Or he caricatured Kant’s ethical thought (as well as Hegel’s) in the person of Judge William, who is stuck within the ethical life and has not been able to reach the life of faith. On the other hand, his own description of the religious life is full of echoes of Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. Kierkegaard wrote most of his work pseudonymously, taking on the names of characters who lived the lives he describes. In the aesthetic life the goal is to keep at bay the boredom that is constantly threatening, and this requires enough distance from one’s projects that one is not stuck with them but can flit from engagement to engagement without pain (Either/Or, II.77). This life deconstructs, because it requires (in order to sustain interest) the very commitment that it also rejects. The transition is accomplished by making a choice for one’s life as a whole from a position that is not attached to any particular project, a radical choice that requires admitting the aesthetic life has been a failure. In this choice one discovers freedom, and thus the ethical life (Ibid., II.188). But this life too deconstructs, because it sets up the goal of living by a demand, the moral law, that is higher than we can live by our own human devices. Kierkegaard thought we have to realize that God is (contrary to Fichte) ‘another’ (The Sickness unto Death, XI 128) and God’s assistance is necessary even for the kind of repentance that is the transition into the religious life. He also suggested that within the religious life, there is a ‘repetition’ of the aesthetic life and the ethical life, though in a transformed version.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), was the son of a Lutheran pastor in Prussia. He was trained as a classical philologist, and his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was an account of the origin and death of ancient Greek tragedy. Nietzsche was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, especially his view of the will (which Nietzsche called ‘the Will to Power’), and was first attracted and then repelled by Wagner, who was also one of Schopenhauer’s disciples. The breaking point seems to have been Wagner’s opera Parsifal. Nietzsche by this time was opposed to orthodox Christianity and promoting Ancient Greece instead, and he thought that Wagner was betraying his integrity by using an ‘anti-Greek’ Christian story for the opera. Nietzsche saw clearly the intimate link between Christianity and the ethical theories of his predecessors in Europe, especially Kant. In On the Genealogy of Morals, he says, ‘The advent of the Christian God, as the maximum god attained so far, was therefore accompanied by the maximum feeling of guilty indebtedness on earth. Presuming we have gradually entered upon the reverse course, there is no small probability that with the irresistible decline of faith in the Christian God, there is now also a considerable decline in mankind’s feeling of guilt’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, 90–1). This is the ‘death of God’ which Nietzsche announced, and which he predicted would also be the end of Kantian ethics (The Gay Science, §108, 125, 343). It is harder to know what Nietzsche was for, than what he was against. This is partly an inheritance from Schopenhauer, who thought any system of constructive ethical thought a delusion. But Nietzsche clearly admired the Ancient Greeks, and thought we would be better off with a ‘master’ morality like theirs, rather than a ‘slave’ morality like Christianity. ‘Mastery over himself also necessarily gives him mastery over circumstances, over nature, and over all more short-willed and unreliable creatures’ (Genealogy, 59–60). By this last clause, he meant mastery over other people, and the model of this mastery is the ‘overman’ who is free of the resentment by the weak of the strong that Nietzsche thought lay at the basis of Christian ethics.

Hume had a number of successors in Britain who accepted the view (which Hume took from Hutcheson) that our fundamental obligation is to work for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Four should be mentioned. William Paley (1743–1805) thought he could demonstrate that morality derived from the will of God and required promoting the happiness of all, that happiness was the sum of pleasures, and that we need to believe that God is the final granter of happiness if we are to sustain motivation to do what we know we ought to do (The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, II.4). Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) rejected this theological context. His grounds were radically empiricist, that the only ‘real’ entities are publicly observable, and so do not include God (or, for that matter, right or time or relations or qualities). He thought he could provide a scientific calculus of pleasures, where the unit that stays constant is the minimum state of sensibility that can be distinguished from indifference. He thought we could then separate different ‘dimensions’ in which these units vary, such as intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity (how soon the pleasures will come), fecundity (how many other pleasures this pleasure will produce) and purity. Discarding the theological context made moral motivation problematic, for why should we expect (without God) more units of pleasure for ourselves by contributing to the greater pleasure of others? Bentham’s solution was to hope that law and social custom could provide individuals with adequate motives through the threat of social sanctions, and that what he called ‘deontology’ (which is personal or private morality) could mobilize hidden or long-range interests that were already present but obscure.

John Stuart Mill (1806–73) was raised on strict utilitarian principles by his father, a follower of Bentham. Unlike Bentham, however, Mill accepted that there are qualitative differences in pleasures simply as pleasures, and he thought that the higher pleasures were those of the intellect, the feelings and imagination, and the moral sentiments. He observed that those who have experienced both these and the lower pleasures, tend to prefer the former. At the age of twenty, he had a collapse, and a prolonged period of ‘melancholy’. He realized that his education had neglected the culture or cultivation of feeling, of which hope is a primary instance (Autobiography, 1.84). In his Three Essays on Religion (published posthumously in 1874) he returned to the idea of hope, saying that ‘the indulgence of hope with regard to the government of the universe and the destiny of man after death, while we recognize as a clear truth that we have no ground for more than a hope, is legitimate and philosophically defensible’; without such hope, we are kept down by ‘the disastrous feeling of “not worth while”’ (Three Essays, 249–50). Mill did not believe, however, that God was omnipotent, given all the evil in the world, and he insisted, like Kant, that we have to be God’s co-workers, not merely passive recipients of God’s assistance.

Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) in Methods of Ethics distinguished three methods: Intuitionism (which is, roughly, the common sense morality that some things, like deliberate ingratitude to a benefactor, are self-evidently wrong in themselves independently of their consequences), Egoistic Hedonism (the view that self-evidently an individual ought to aim at a maximum balance of happiness for herself, where this is understood as the greatest balance of pleasure over pain), and Utilitarianism or Universalistic Hedonism, (the view that self-evidently she ought to aim at the maximum balance of happiness for all sentient beings present and future, whatever the cost to herself). Of these three, he rejected the first, on the grounds that no concrete ethical principles are self-evident, and that when they conflict (as they do) we have to take consequences into account in order to decide how to act. But Sidgwick found the relation between the other two methods much more problematic. Each principle separately seemed to him self-evident, but when taken together they seemed to be mutually inconsistent. He considered two solutions, psychological and metaphysical. The psychological solution was to bring in the pleasures and pains of sympathy, so that if we do good to all we end up (because of these pleasures) making ourselves happiest. Sidgwick rejected this on the basis that sympathy is inevitably limited in its range, and we feel it most towards those closest to us, so that even if we include sympathetic pleasures and pains under egoism, it will tend to increase the divergence between egoistic and utilitarian conduct, rather than bring them closer together. The metaphysical solution was to bring in a god who desires the greatest total good of all living things, and who will reward and punish in accordance with this desire. Sidgwick recognized this as a return to the utilitarianism of Paley (Compare Methods of Ethics, II.1,2 and IV.4,5). He thought this solution was both necessary and sufficient to remove the contradiction in ethics. But this was only a reason to accept it, if in general it is reasonable to accept certain principles (such as the Uniformity of Nature) which are not self-evident and which cannot be proved, but which bring order and coherence into a central part of our thought. Sidgwick did not commit himself to an answer to this, one way or the other.
5. The Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century professional philosophy in the West divided up into two streams, sometimes called ‘Analytic’ and ‘Continental’, and there were periods during which the two schools lost contact with each other. Towards the end of the century, however, there were more philosophers who could speak the languages of both traditions. The beginning of the analytic school is sometimes located with the rejection of a neo-Hegelian idealism by G. E. Moore (1873–1958). One way to characterize the two schools is that the Continental school continued to read and be influenced by Hegel, and the Analytic school (with some exceptions) did not. Another way to make the distinction is geographical; the analytic school is located primarily in Britain, Scandinavia and N. America, and the continental school in the rest of Europe, in Latin America and in certain schools in N. America. Some figures from the Continental school are described first, after which we turn to the analytic school (which is this writer’s own). Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was initially trained as a theologian, and wrote his dissertation on what he took to be a work of Duns Scotus. He took an appointment under Edmund Husserl (1855–1938) at Freiburg, and was appointed to succeed him in his chair. Husserl’s program of ‘phenomenology’ was to recover a sense of certainty about the world by studying in exhaustive detail the cognitive structure of appearance. Heidegger departed from Husserl in approaching Being through a focus on ‘Human Being’ (in German Dasein) as concerned above all for its fate in an alien world, or as ‘anxiety’ (Angst) towards death (see Being and Time I.6). In this sense he is the first existentialist, though he did not use the term. Heidegger emphasized that we are ‘thrown’ into a world that is not ‘home’, and we have a radical choice about what possibilities for ourselves we will make actual. Heidegger drew here from Kierkegaard, and he is also similar in describing the danger of falling back into mere conventionality, what Heidegger calls ‘the They’ (das Man). On the other hand he is unlike Kierkegaard in thinking of traditional Christianity as just one more convention making authentic existence more difficult. In Heidegger, as in Nietzsche, it is hard to find a positive or constructive ethics. Heidegger’s position is somewhat compromised, moreover, by his initial embrace of the Nazi party. In his later work he moved increasingly towards a kind of quasi-religious mysticism. His Romantic hatred of the modern world and his distrust of system-building led to the espousal of either silence or poetry as the best way to be open to the ‘something’ (sometimes he says ‘the earth’) which reveals itself only as ‘self-secluding’ or hiding itself away from our various conceptualizations. He held the hope that through poetry, and in particular the poetry of Hölderlin, we might be able to still sense something of the god who appears ‘as the one who remains unknown,’ who is quite different from the object of theology or piety, but who can bring us back to the Being we have long lost sight of (Poetry, Language, Thought, 222).

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) did use the label ‘existentialist’, and said that ‘Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheist position’ (Existentialism and Human Emotions, 51). He denied (like Scotus) that the moral law could be deduced from human nature, but this was because (unlike Scotus) he thought that we give ourselves our own essences by the choices we make. His slogan was, ‘Existence precedes essence’ (Ibid., 13). ‘Essence’ is here the defining property of a thing, and Sartre gave the example of a paper cutter, which is given its definition by the artisan who makes it. Sartre said that when people believed God made human beings, they could believe humans had a God-given essence; but now that we do not believe this, we have realized that humans give themselves their own essences (‘First of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.’ Ibid., 15). On this view there are no outside commands to appeal to for legitimation, and we are condemned to our own freedom. Sartre thought of human beings as trying to be God (on a Hegelian account of what God is), even though there is no God. This is an inevitably fruitless undertaking, which he called ‘anguish’. Moreover, we inevitably desire to choose not just for ourselves, but for the world. We want, like God, to create humankind in our own image, ‘If I want to marry, to have children, even if this marriage depends solely on my own circumstances or passion or wish, I am involving all humanity in monogamy and not merely myself. Therefore, I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man’ (Ibid., 18). To recognize that this project does not make sense is required by honesty, and to hide this from ourselves is ‘bad faith’. One form of bad faith is to pretend that there is a God who is giving us our tasks. Another is to pretend that there is a ‘human nature’ that is doing the same thing. To live authentically is to realize both that we create these tasks for ourselves, and that they are futile.

The twentieth century also saw, within Roman Catholicism, forms of Christian Existentialism and new adaptations of the system of Thomas Aquinas. Gabriel Marcel (1889–73), like Heidegger, was concerned with the nature of Being as it appears to human being, but he tried to show that there are experiences of love, joy, hope and faith which, as understood from within, give us reason to believe in an inexhaustible Presence, which is God. Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) developed a form of Thomism that retained the natural law, but regarded ethical judgment as not purely cognitive but guided by pre-conceptual affective inclinations. He gave more place to history than traditional Thomism did, allowing for development in the human knowledge of natural law, and he defended democracy as the appropriate way for human persons to attain freedom and dignity. The notion of the value of the person and the capacities given to persons by their creator was also at the center of the ‘personalism’ of Pope John Paul II’s The Acting Person (1979), influenced by Max Scheler (1874–1928). Natural law theory has been taken up and modified more recently by two philosophers who write in a style closer to the analytic tradition, John Finnis (1940-) and, in a different and incompatible way, Alastair MacIntyre (1929-). Finnis holds that our knowledge of the fundamental moral truths is self-evident, and so is not deduced from human nature. His Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980) was a landmark in integrating the modern vocabulary and grammar of rights into the tradition of Natural Law. MacIntyre, who has been on a long journey back from Marxism to Thomism, holds that we can know what kind of life we ought to live on the basis of knowing our natural end, which he now identifies in theological terms. He is still influenced by a Hegelian historicism, and holds that the only way to settle rival knowledge claims is to see how successfully each can account for the shape taken by its rivals. It is controversial whether Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory is both eudaimonist (tracing our motivation to our own happiness and perfection) and deductivist (deriving the moral law from human nature). If it is, contemporary version have departed from it in being non-eudaimonist (as in Finnis) and non-deductivist (as in Jean Porter’s Natural and Divine Law and Nature as Reason). Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) was a student of Husserl and Heidegger and the first translator of Husserl into French. His most important work, Totality and Infinity, discusses how consciousness works to unify and assimilate the world (totality), but this is interrupted by the face, the approach of the other, who makes an infinite demand. God does not appear here except in a trace, in the ethical command to which we are responsible.

Michel Foucault (1926–84) followed Nietzsche in aspiring to uncover the ‘genealogy’ of various contemporary forms of thought and practice (he was concerned, for example, with our treatment of sexuality and mental illness), and how relations of power and domination have produced ‘discourses of truth’ (“Truth and Power,” Power, 131). In his later work he described four different aspects of the ‘practice of the self’ We select the desires, acts, and thoughts that we attend to morally, we recognize ourselves as morally bound by some particular ground, e.g., divine commands, or rationality, or human nature, we transform ourselves into ethical subjects by some set of techniques, e.g., meditation or mortification or consciousness-raising, and, finally, we propose a ‘telos’ or goal, the way of life or mode of being that the subject is aiming at, e.g., self-mastery, tranquility or purification. Foucault criticized Christian conventions that tend to take morality as a juristic and often universal code of laws, and to ignore the creative practice of self-making. Even if Christian and post-Christian moralists turn their attention to self-expression, he thought they tend to focus on the confession of truth about oneself, a mode of expression which is historically linked to the church and the modern psycho-sciences. Foucault preferred stressing our freedom to form ourselves as ethical subjects, and develop ‘a new form of right’ and a ‘non-disciplinary form of power’ (“Disciplinary Power and Subjection,” Power, 242). He did not, however, tell us much more about what these new forms would be like.

Jurgen Habermas (1929-) proposed a ‘communicative ethics’ that develops the Kantian element in Marxism (The Theory of Communicative Action, Vols. I and II). By analyzing the structure of communication (using speech-act theory developed in analytic philosophy) he lays out a procedure that will rationally justify norms, though he does not claim to know what norms a society will adopt by using this procedure. The two ideas behind this procedure are that norms are valid if they receive the consent of all the affected parties in unconstrained practical communication, and if the consequences of the general observance of the norms (in terms of how each person’s interests are affected) are acceptable to all. Habermas thinks he fulfills in this way Hegel’s aim of reconciling the individual and society, because the communication process extends individuals beyond their private perspectives in the process of reaching agreement. Religious convictions need to be left behind when entering the public square, on this scheme, because they are not communicable in the way the procedure requires. In recent work he has modified this position, by recognizing that certain religious forms require their adherents to speak in an explicitly religious way when advancing their prescriptions for public life, and that it is discriminatory to try to prevent their so doing.

We are sometimes said to live now in a ‘post-modern’ age. This term is problematic in various ways. As used within architectural theory in the 1960’s and 1970’s it had a relatively clear sense. There was a recognizable style that either borrowed bits and pieces from styles of the past, or mocked the very idea (in modernist architecture) of essential functionality. In philosophy, the term is less clearly definable. It combines a distaste for ‘meta-narratives’ and a rejection of any form of foundationalism. The effect on philosophical thinking about the relation between morality and religion is two-fold. On the one hand, the modernist rejection of religion on the basis of a foundationalist empiricism is itself rejected. This makes the current climate more hospitable to religious language than it was for most of the twentieth century. But on the other hand, the distaste for over-arching theory means that religious meta-narratives are suspect to the same degree as any other, and the hospitality is more likely to be towards bits and pieces of traditional theology than to any theological system as a whole. Habermas uses the term ‘post-secular age’ to describe our current condition, in which the secularization hypothesis (that religion was destined to wither away under the impact of science and education) has apparently failed.

We conclude this section with some movements that are not philosophical in a professional sense, but are important in understanding the relation between morality and religion. Liberation theology, of which a leading spokesman from Latin America is Gustavo Gutiérrez (1928-), has attempted to reconcile the Christian gospel with a commitment (influenced by Marxist categories) to revolution to relieve the condition of the oppressed. The civil rights movement (drawing heavily on Exodus), feminist ethics, animal liberation, environmental ethics, and the gay rights and children’s rights movements have shown special sensitivity to the moral status of some particular oppressed class. The leadership of some of these movements has been religiously committed, while the leadership of others has not. At the same time, the notion of human rights, or justified claims by every human being, has grown in global reach, partly through the various instrumentalities of the United Nations. There has, however, been less consensus on the question of how to justify human rights. There are theological justifications, deriving from the image of God in every human being, or the command to love the neighbor, or the covenant between God and humanity (see Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs). Whether there is a non-theological justification is not yet clear. Finally, there has also been a burst of activity in professional ethics, such as medical ethics, engineering ethics, and business ethics. This has not been associated with any one school of philosophy rather than another. The connection of religion with these developments has been variable. In some cases (e.g., medical ethics) the initial impetus for the new sub-discipline was strongly influenced by theology, and in other cases not.

We return, finally, to analytic philosophy, whose origins were associated above with G. E. Moore. His Principia Ethica (1903) can be regarded as the first major ethical document of the school. He was strongly influenced by Sidgwick at Cambridge, but rejected Sidgwick’s views about intuitionism. He thought that intrinsic goodness was a real property of things, even though (like the number two) it does not exist in time and is not the object of sense experience. He explicitly aligned himself here with Plato and against the class of empiricist philosophers, ‘to which most Englishmen have belonged’ (Principia Ethica, 162). His predecessors, Moore thought, had almost all committed the error, which he called ‘the naturalistic fallacy’, of trying to define this value property by identifying it with a non-evaluative property. For example, they proposed that goodness is pleasure, or what produces pleasure. But whatever non-evaluative property we try to say goodness is identical to, we will find that it remains an open question whether that property is in fact good. For example, it makes sense to ask whether pleasure or the production of pleasure is good. This is true also if we propose a supernatural property to identity with goodness, for example the property of being commanded by God. It still makes sense to ask whether what God commands is good. This question cannot be the same as the question ‘Is what God commands what God commands?’ which is not still an open question. Moore thought that if these questions are different, then the two properties, goodness and being commanded by God, cannot be the same, and to say (by way of a definition) that they are the same is to commit the fallacy. Intrinsic goodness, Moore said, is a simple non-natural property (i.e. neither natural nor supernatural) and indefinable. He thought we had a special form of cognition that he called ‘intuition’, which gives us access to such properties. By this he meant that the access was not based on inference or argument, but was self-evident (though we could still get it wrong, just as we can with sense-perception). He thought the way to determine what things had positive value intrinsically was to consider what things were such that, if they existed by themselves in isolation, we would yet judge their existence to be good.

At Cambridge Moore was a colleague of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Russell was not primarily a moral philosopher, but he expressed radically different views at different times about ethics. In 1910 he agreed with Moore that goodness (like roundness) is a quality that belongs to objects independently of our opinions, and that when two people differ about whether a thing is good, only one of them can be right. By 1922 he was holding an error theory (like that of John Mackie, 1917–81) that although we mean by ‘good’ an objective property in this way, there is in fact no such thing, and hence all our value judgments are strictly speaking false (“The Elements of Ethics,” Philosophical Essays). Then by 1935 he had dropped also the claim about meaning, holding that value judgments are expressions of desire or wish, and not assertions at all. Wittgenstein’s views on ethics are enigmatic and subject to wildly different interpretations. In the Tractatus (which is about logic) he says at the end, ‘It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)’ (Tractatus, 6.421). Perhaps he means that the world we occupy is good or bad (and happy or unhappy) as a whole, and not piece-by-piece. Wittgenstein (like Nietzsche) was strongly influenced by Schopenhauer’s notion of will, and by his disdain for ethical theories that purport to be able to tell one what to do and what not to do. The Tractatus was taken up by the Logical Positivists, though Wittgenstein himself was never a Logical Positivist. The Logical Positivists held a ‘verificationist’ theory of meaning, that assertions can be meaningful only if they can in principle be verified by sense experience or if they are tautologies (for example, ‘All bachelors are unmarried men’). This seems to leave ethical statements (and statements about God) meaningless, and indeed that was the deliberately provocative position taken by A. J. Ayer (1910–89). Ayer accepted Moore’s arguments about the naturalistic fallacy, and since Moore’s talk of ‘non-natural properties’ seemed to Ayer just nonsense, he was led to emphasize and analyze further the non-cognitive ingredient in evaluation which Moore had identified. Suppose one says to a cannibal, ‘You acted wrongly in eating your prisoner.’ Ayer thought one is not stating anything more than if one had simply said, ‘You ate your prisoner’. Rather, one is evincing moral disapproval of it. It is as if one had said, ‘You ate your prisoner’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks (Language, Truth and Logic, 107–8).

The emotivist theory of ethics had its most articulate treatment in Ethics and Language by Charles Stevenson (1908–79). Stevenson was a positivist, but also the heir of John Dewey (1859–1952) and the American pragmatist tradition. Dewey had rejected the idea of fixed ends for human beings, and stressed that moral deliberation occurs in the context of competition within a person between different ends, none of which can be assumed permanent. He criticized theories that tried to derive moral principles from self-certifying reason, or intuition, or cosmic forms, or divine commands, both because he thought there are no self-certifying faculties or self-evident norms, and because the alleged derivation disguises the actual function of the principles as devices for social action. Stevenson applied this emphasis to the competition between people with different ends, and stressed the role of moral language as a social instrument for persuasion (Ethics and Language, Ch. 5). On his account, normative judgments express attitudes and invite others to share these attitudes, but they are not strictly speaking true or false.

Wittgenstein did not publish any book after the Tractatus, but he wrote and taught; and after his death Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953. The later thought of Wittgenstein bears a similar relation to the Tractatus as the relation Heidegger bears to Husserl. In both cases the quest for a kind of scientific certainty was replaced by the recognition that science is itself just one language, and not in many cases prior by right. The later Wittgenstein employed the notion of different ‘forms of life’ in which different ‘language games’, including those of religion, are at home (Philosophical Investigations, §7, 19, 373). In Oxford there was a parallel though distinct development centering round the work of John Austin (1911–60). Austin did not suppose that ordinary language was infallible, but he did think that it preserved a great deal of wisdom that had passed the test of centuries of experience, and that traditional philosophical discussions had ignored this primary material. In How to do Things with Words (published posthumously) Austin labeled ‘the descriptive fallacy’ the mistake of thinking that all language is used to perform the act of describing or reporting, and he attributed the discovery of this fallacy to Kant (How to do Things with Words, 3).This opens up the possibility of expressivist accounts of both ethics and religion.

R. M. Hare (1919–2002) took up the diagnosis of this fallacy, and proposed a ‘universal prescriptivism’ which attributed three characteristics to the language of morality. First, it is prescriptive, which is to say that moral judgments express the will in a way analogous to commands. This preserves the emotivist insight that moral judgment is different from assertion, but does not deny the role of rationality in such judgment. Second, moral judgment is universalizable. This is similar to the formula of Kant’s categorical imperative that requires that we be able to will the maxims of our actions as universal laws. Third, moral judgment is overriding. This means that moral prescriptions legitimately take precedence over any other normative prescriptions. In Moral Thinking (1981) Hare claimed to demonstrate that utilitarianism followed from these three features of morality, though he excluded ideals (in the sense of preferences for how the world should be independently of the agent’s experience) from the scope of this argument. God enters in two ways into this picture. First, Hare proposed a figure he calls ‘the archangel’ who is the model for fully critical (as opposed to intuitive) moral thinking, having full access to all the relevant information and complete impartiality between the affected parties. Hare acknowledged that since archangels (e.g., Lucifer) are not reliably impartial in this way, it is really God who is the model. Second, we have to be able to believe (as Kant argued) that the universe sustains morality in the sense that it is worthwhile trying to be morally good. Hare thought that this requires something like a belief in Providence (“The Simple Believer,” Essays on Religion and Education, 22–3).

The most important opponent of utilitarianism in the twentieth century was John Rawls (1921–2005). In his Theory of Justice (1971) he gave, like Hare, an account of ethics heavily indebted to Kant. But he insisted that utilitarianism does not capture the Kantian insight that each person is an end in himself or herself, because it ‘does not take seriously the distinction between persons’ (Theory of Justice, 22). He constructed the thought experiment of the ‘Original Position’ in which individuals imagine themselves not knowing what role in society they are going to play or what endowments of talent or material wealth they possess, and agree together on what principles of justice they will accept. Rawls thought it important that substantive conceptions of the good life were left behind in moving to the Original Position, because he was attempting to provide an account of justice that people with competing visions of the good could agree to in a pluralist society. Like early Habermas he included religions under this prohibition. In Political Liberalism (1993) he conceded that the procedure of the Original Position is itself ideologically constrained, and he moved to the idea of an overlapping consensus: Kantians can accept the idea of justice as fairness (which the procedure describes) because it realizes autonomy, utilitarians because it promotes overall utility, Christians because it is part of divine law, etc. But even here Rawls wanted to insist that adherents of the competing visions of the good leave their particular conceptions behind in public discourse and justify the policies they endorse on grounds that are publicly accessible. He described this as the citizen’s duty of civility (Political Liberalism, iv).

In closing the section of this article on the continental school, we talked briefly about postmodernism. Within analytic philosophy the term is less prevalent. But both schools live in the same increasingly global cultural context. In this context we can reflect on the two main disqualifiers of the project of relating morality intimately to religion that seemed to emerge in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first disqualifier is the prestige of natural science, and the attempt to make it foundational for all human knowledge. The various empiricist, verificationist, and reductionist forms of foundationalism have not yet succeeded, and even within modern philosophy there has been a continuous resistance to them. This is not to say that they will not succeed in the future (for example we may discover a foundation for ethics in the theory of evolution), but the confidence in their future success has waned. Moreover, the already-mentioned secularization hypothesis that religion would wither away with increasing education seems to have been false. Certainly parts of Western Europe are less attached to traditional institutional forms of religion. But taking the world as a whole, religion seems to be increasing in influence rather than declining as the world’s educational standards improve. The second main disqualifier is the liberal idea (present in the narrative of this article from the time of the religious wars in Europe) that we need a moral discourse based on reason and not religion in order to avoid the hatred and bloodshed that religion seems to bring with it. Here the response to Rawls has been telling. It seems false that we can respect persons and at the same time tell them to leave their fundamental commitments behind in public discourse, and it seems false also that some purely rational component can be separated off from these competing substantive conceptions of the good (c.f. Wolterstorff, “An Engagement with Rorty”). It is true that religious commitment can produce the deliberate targeting of civilians in a skyscraper. But the history of the twentieth century, the bloodiest century of our history, is that non-religious totalitarian regimes have at least as much blood on their hands. Perhaps the truth is, as Kant saw, that people under the Evil Maxim will use any available ideology for their purposes. Progress towards civility is more likely if Muslims, Christians, Jews, (and Buddhists and Hindus) are encouraged to enter ‘the public square’ with their commitments explicit, and see how much common ethical ground there in fact is. This writer has done some of this discussion, and found the common ground surprisingly extensive, though sometimes common language disguises significant differences. Progress seems more likely in this way than by trying to construct a neutral philosophical ground that very few people actually accept.

We end with a recent development in analytic ethical theory, a revival of divine command theory parallel to the revival of natural law theory already described. A pioneer in this revival was Philip Quinn’s Divine Command and Moral Requirements (1978). He defended the theory against the usual objections (one, deriving from Plato’s Euthyphro, that it makes morality arbitrary, and the second, deriving from a misunderstanding of Kant, that it is inconsistent with human autonomy), and proposed that we understand the relation between God and moral rightness causally, rather than analyzing the terms of moral obligation as meaning ‘commanded by God’. Though we could stipulate such a definition, it would make it obscure how theists and non-theists could have genuine moral discussion, as they certainly seem to do. Richard Mouw’s The God Who Commands (1990) locates divine command theory within the Calvinist tradition, and also stresses the background of divine command against the narrative of God’s work in saving human beings. Robert M. Adams, in a series of articles and then in Finite and Infinite Goods (1999), first separates off the good (which he analyzes Platonically in terms of imitating the ultimate good, which is God) and the right. He then defends a divine command theory of the right by arguing that obligation is always obligation to someone, and God is the most appropriate person, given human limitations. John Hare, in God and Morality, defends a somewhat similar theory, as well as giving a fuller history than the present article allows of the different conceptions of the relation between morality and religion. Thomas L. Carson’s Value and the Good Life (2000) argues that normative theory needs to be based on an account of rationality, and then proposes that a divine-preference account of rationality is superior to all the available alternatives. An objection to divine command theory is mounted by Mark Murphy’s An Essay on Divine Authority (2002) on the grounds that divine command only has authority over those persons who have submitted themselves to divine authority, but moral obligation has authority more broadly. Linda Zagzebski’s Divine Motivation Theory (2004) proposes, as an alternative to divine command theory, that we can understand all moral normativity in terms of the notion of a good emotion, and that God’s emotions are the best exemplar. William Wainwright’s Religion and Morality 2005) defends the claim that divine command theory provides a more convincing account of moral obligation than any virtue-based theory, including divine motivation theory. Finally, C. Stephen Evans’s Kierkegaard’s Ethic of Love: Divine Command and Moral Obligations (2004) traces back to Kierkegaard’s Works of Love the account that bases moral obligation in divine command. To conclude, this revival of interest in divine command theory, when combined with the revival of natural law theory already discussed, shows evidence that the attempt to connect morality closely to religion is undergoing a robust recovery within professional philosophy.

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* Finnis, J., 1980, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Foucault, M., 1988, “Disciplinary Power and Subjection,” Power, Steven Lukes (ed.), New York: New York University Press.
* –––, 1988, “Truth and Power,” Power, Steven Lukes (ed.), New York: New York University Press.
* Habermas, J., 2010, An Awareness of What s Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, trans. Ciaran Cronin, Malden, MA: Polity Press.
* Hare, J., 2006, God and Morality A Philosophical History, Oxford: Blackwell.
* –––, 1996, The Moral Gap, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* –––, 1985, Plato’s Euthyphro, Bryn Mawr Commentaries, Bryn Mawr.
* Hare, R. M., 1981, Moral Thinking, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* –––, 1992, “The Simple Believer,” Essays on Religion and Education, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, A. V. Miller (trans.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
* –––, The Philosophy of History, C. J. Friedrich (ed.), New York: Dover Publications, 1956.
* Heidegger, M., Being and Time, John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.), New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
* –––, Poetry, Language, Thought, Albert Hofstadter (trans.), New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
* Hobbes, T., Leviathan, Richard Tuck (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1991] 1996.
* Hume, D., Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947.
* –––, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, L. A. Selby-Biggie (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
* –––, A Treatise of Human Nature, L. A. Selby-Biggie (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
* Hutcheson, F., Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions with Illustrations on the Moral Sense, A. Garrett (ed.), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991.
* –––, Inquiry into the Originial of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue: In Two Treatises, Wolfgang Leidhold (ed.), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004.
* Irwin, T., 2007, The Development of Ethics, vol. 1, Oxford; Oxford University Press.
* Kant, I., Critique of Practical Reason, Mary Gregor (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
* –––, Critique of Pure Reason, Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (eds. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
* –––, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Mary Gregor (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
* –––, Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Gary Hatfield (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
* –––, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, in Religion and Rational Theology, Allen W. Wood and George di Giovanni (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
* Kierkegaard, S., Samlede Voerker, A. B. Drachmann, J. L. Heiberg and H. O. Lange (eds.), Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1901–06.
* Leibniz, G. W., New Essays on Human Understanding, Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (eds. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
* Levinas, E., 1969, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
* Locke, J., The Reasonableness of Christianity, I. T. Ramsey (ed.), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.
* –––, Two Treatises on Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, Ian Shapiro (ed.), New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
* Luther, M., The Bondage of the Will, in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, John Dillenberger (ed.), Garden City: Doubleday, 1961.
* MacIntyre, A., 1988, Whose Justice, Which Rationality, London: Duckworth.
* Marx, K., “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Early Writings, Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (trans.), London: Penguin Books, [1975] 1992.
* –––, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” Early Writings, Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (trans.), London: Penguin Books, [1975] 1992.
* Mikalson, J., 1991, Honor Thy Gods, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
* Mill, J. S., Autobiography, Jack Stillinger (ed.), Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969.
* –––, 1874, Three Essays on Religion, London: Henry Holt.
* Moore, G. E., 1903, Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Mouw, R., 1990, The God Who Commands, Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press.
* Murphy, M., 2002, An Essay on Divine Authority, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
* Nietzsche, F., The Gay Science, Walter Kaufman (trans.), New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
* –––, On the Genealogy of Morals, Walter Kaufman (trans.), New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
* Paley, W., 1830, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Cambridge: Hillard and Brown.
* Plato, Collected Dialogues, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (eds.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
* –––, Republic, Robin Waterfield (trans.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
* Porter, J., 1999, Natural and Divine Law, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
* –––, 2005, Nature as Reason, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
* Quinn, P., 1978, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Rawls, J., 1993, Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.
* –––, 1971, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
* Rousseau, J.-J., The Social Contract and other Later Political Writings, Victor Gourevitch (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
* Russell, B., 1910, “The Elements of Ethics,” Philosophical Essays, New York: Longmans, Green.
* Sartre, J.-P., 1957, Existentialism and Human Emotions, Secaucus: Citadel Press.
* Schneewind, J., 1998, The Invention of Autonomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Schopenhauer, A., The World as Will and Representation, E. F. J. Payne (trans.), New York: Dover Publications, 1966.
* Scotus, D., A Treatise on God as First Principle, Allan B. Wolter (ed. and trans.), Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1966.
* –––, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality, Allan B. Wolter (ed. and trans.), Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986.
* Sidgwick, H., 1981, Methods of Ethics, 7th edn, Indianapolis: Hackett.
* Spinoza, B., Ethics, G. H. R. Parkinson (trans.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
* Stevenson, C., [1944] 1962, Ethics and Language, New Haven: Yale University Press.
* Strauss, D., The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 4th edn, Marian Evans (trans.), New York: C. Blanchard, 1860.
* Suarez, Francisco, De Legibus, in Selections from Three Works of Francisco Suarez, S. J., 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press; and London: H. Milford, 1944.
* Voltaire, Letters of Voltaire and Frederick the Great, Richard Aldington (trans.), New York: Brentano’s, 1927.
* Wainwright, W., 2005, Religion and Morality, Aldershot: Ashgate.
* Wittgenstein, L., [1953] 1960, Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe (trans.), New York: Macmillan.
* –––, [1921] 1961, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
* Wolterstorff, N., “An Engagement with Rorty,” Journal of Religious Ethics 31–1 (2003): 129–140.
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Aquinas, Saint Thomas: moral, political, and legal philosophy | Aristotle, General Topics: ethics | Duns Scotus, John | ethics: natural law tradition | Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’ | Kant, Immanuel: and Hume on morality | Moore, George Edward: moral philosophy | morality, definition of | Nietzsche, Friedrich: moral and political philosophy | Plato: ethics | voluntarism, theological
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Convencionalismo en la teoría política

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First published Thu Sep 6, 2007; substantive revision Thu Jan 13, 2011

The central philosophical task posed by conventions is to analyze what they are and how they differ from mere regularities of action and cognition. Subsidiary questions include: How do conventions arise? How are they sustained? How do we select between alternative conventions? Why should one conform to convention? What social good, if any, do conventions serve? How does convention relate to such notions as rule, norm, custom, practice, institution, and social contract? Apart from its intrinsic interest, convention is important because philosophers frequently invoke it when discussing other topics. A favorite philosophical gambit is to argue that, perhaps despite appearances to the contrary, some phenomenon ultimately results from convention. Notable candidates include: property, government, justice, law, morality, linguistic meaning, necessity, ontology, mathematics, and logic.

* 1. Issues raised by convention
o 1.1 Social convention
o 1.2 Conventionalism
* 2. Truth by convention
* 3. Analyzing social convention
o 3.1 Hume
o 3.2 Lewis
* 4. Critical reactions to Lewis
o 4.1 Regularities de facto and de jure
o 4.2 Alternative conventions?
o 4.3 Which equilibrium concept?
o 4.4 Must convention solve a coordination problem?
* 5. Equilibrium selection
o 5.1 Salience
o 5.2 Dynamical models
* 6. Alternative treatments of convention
o 6.1 Gilbert: plural subjects
o 6.2 Miller: collective ends
o 6.3 Millikan: patterns sustained by weight of precedent
* 7. Conventions of language
o 7.1 Conventional theories of meaning
o 7.2 Objections to conventional theories
* Bibliography
* Academic Tools
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries

1. Issues raised by convention

In everyday usage, “convention” has various meanings, as suggested by the following list: Republican Party Convention; Geneva Convention; terminological conventions; conventional wisdom; flouting societal convention; conventional medicine; conventional weapons; conventions of the horror genre. As Nelson Goodman observes:

The terms “convention” and “conventional” are flagrantly and intricately ambiguous. On the one hand, the conventional is the ordinary, the usual, the traditional, the orthodox as against the novel, the deviant, the unexpected, the heterodox. On the other hand, the conventional is the artificial, the invented, the optional, as against the natural, the fundamental, the mandatory (1989, p. 80).

Adding to the confusion, “convention” frequently serves as jargon within economics, anthropology, and sociology. Even within philosophy, “convention” plays so many roles that we must ask whether a uniform notion is at work. Generally speaking, philosophical usage emphasizes the second of Goodman’s disambiguations. A common thread linking most treatments is that conventions are “up to us,” undetermined by human nature or by intrinsic features of the non-human world. We choose our conventions, either explicitly or implicitly.
1.1 Social convention

This concept is the target of David Lewis’s celebrated analysis in Convention (1969). A social convention is a regularity widely observed by some group of agents. But not every regularity is a convention. We all eat, sleep, and breathe, yet these are not conventions. In contrast, the fact that everyone in the United States drives on the right side of the road rather than the left is a convention. We also abide by conventions of etiquette, dress, eating, and so on.

Two putative social conventions commonly cited by philosophers are money and language. Aristotle mentions the former example in the Nicomachean Ethics (V.5.II33a):

Money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand; and this is why it has the name “money” (“nomisma”)—because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless,

and the latter example in De Interpretatione (16a.20-28):

A name is a spoken sound significant by convention… I say “by convention” because no name is a name naturally but only when it has become a symbol.

David Hume mentions both examples in the Treatise of Human Nature (p. 490):

[L]anguages [are] gradually establish’d by human conventions without any explicit promise. In like manner do gold and silver become the common measures of exchange, and are esteem’d sufficient payment for what is of a hundred times their value.

Although Hume analyzed money at some length in the 1752 “Of Money,” it now receives systematic attention mainly from economists rather than philosophers.[1] In contrast, philosophers still lavish great attention upon the extent, if any, to which language rests upon convention. David Lewis offers a theory of linguistic conventions, while Noam Chomsky and Donald Davidson argue that convention sheds no light upon language. See section 7, Conventions of language.

For many philosophers, a central philosophical task is to elucidate how we succeed in “creating facts” through our conventions. For instance, how does convention succeed in conferring value upon money or meaning upon linguistic items? Ideally, a satisfying answer to these questions would include both an analysis of what social conventions are and a description of the particular conventions underlying some range of “conventional” facts. Hume’s theory of property and Lewis’s theory of linguistic meaning serve as paradigms here.

What are social conventions? A natural first thought is that they are explicit agreements, such as promises or contracts, enacted either by parties to the convention or by people suitably related to those parties (such as their ancestors). This conception underwrites at least one famous conventionalist account: Thomas Hobbes’s theory of government as resulting from a social contract, into which agents enter so as to leave the state of nature. However, it seems clear that the vast majority of interesting social phenomena, including government, involve no explicit historical act of agreement. Social conventions can arise and persist without overt convening.

Partly in response to such worries, John Locke emphasized the notion of a tacit agreement. A tacit agreement obtains if there has been no explicit agreement but matters are otherwise as if an explicit agreement occurred. A principal challenge here is explaining the precise respects in which matters are just as if an explicit agreement occurred. Moreover, many philosophers argue that appeal even to “as if” agreements cannot explain linguistic meaning. What language would participants in such an agreement employ when conducting their deliberations? Bertrand Russell observes that “[w]e can hardly suppose a parliament of hitherto speechless elders meeting together and agreeing to call a cow a cow and a wolf a wolf” (1921, p. 190). As W. V. Quine asks, then, “What is convention when there can be no thought of convening?” (1969, p. xi). Some philosophers take this argument to show that language does not rest upon convention. Others, such as Lewis, take it as impetus to develop a theory of convention that invokes neither explicit nor tacit agreement.
1.2 Conventionalism

Conventionalism about some phenomenon is the doctrine that, perhaps despite appearances to the contrary, the phenomenon arises from or is determined by convention. Conventionalism surfaces in virtually every area of philosophy, with respect to such topics as property (Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature), justice (Hume’s Treatise again), morality (Gilbert Harman (1996), Graham Oddie (1999), Bruno Verbeek (2008)), geometry (Henri Poincaré (1902), Hans Reichenbach (1922), Adolf Grünbaum (1962)), Lawrence Sklar (1977)), pictorial representation (Nelson Goodman (1976)), personal identity (Derek Parfit (1984)), ontology (Rudolf Carnap (1937), Nelson Goodman (1978), Hilary Putnam (1987)), arithmetic and mathematical analysis (Rudolf Carnap (1937)), necessity (A. J. Ayer (1936), Alan Sidelle (1989)), and almost any other topic one can imagine. Conventionalism arises in so many different forms that one can say little of substance about it as a general matter. However, a distinctive thesis shared by most conventionalist theories is that there exist alternative conventions that are in some sense equally good. Our choice of a convention from among alternatives is undetermined by the nature of things, by general rational considerations, or by universal features of human physiology, perception, or cognition. This element of free choice distinguishes conventionalism from doctrines such as projectivism, transcendental idealism, and constructivism about mathematics, all of which hold that, in one way or another, certain phenomena are “due to us.”

A particularly important species of conventionalism, especially within metaphysics and epistemology, holds that some phenomenon is partly due to our conventions about the meaning or proper use of words. For instance, Henri Poincaré argues that “the axioms of geometry are merely disguised definitions,” concluding that:

The axioms of geometry therefore are neither synthetic a priori judgments nor experimental facts. They are conventions; our choice among all possible conventions is guided by experimental facts; but it remains free and is limited only by the necessity of avoiding all contradiction (1902, p. 65).

Poincaré holds that, in practice, we will always find it more convenient to choose Euclidean over non-Euclidean geometry. But he insists that, in principle, we could equally well choose non-Euclidean axioms. This position greatly influenced the logical positivists, including Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, and Hans Reichenbach, who generalized it to other aspects of science.

Beginning with Logical Syntax of Language (1937/2002), Carnap developed a particularly thoroughgoing version of linguistic conventionalism. Carnap invites us to propose various linguistic frameworks for scientific inquiry. Which framework we choose determines fundamental aspects of our logic, mathematics, and ontology. For instance, we might choose a framework yielding either classical or intuitionistic logic; we might choose a framework quantifying over numbers or one that eschews numbers; we might choose a framework that takes sense data as primitive or one that takes physical objects as primitive. Questions about logic, mathematics, and ontology make no sense outside a linguistic framework, since only by choosing a framework do we settle upon the ground rules through which we can rationally assess such questions. There is no theoretical basis for deciding between any two linguistic frameworks. It is just a matter for conventional stipulation based upon pragmatic factors like convenience.

Conventionalist theories differ along several dimensions. The most obvious concerns the underlying understanding of conventions themselves. In many cases, such as Hume’s theory of property and justice, the conventions are social. In other cases, however, convention lacks any intrinsically social element. For example, both Poincaré and Carnap seem to regard conventional stipulation as something that a lone cognitive agent could in principle achieve.

Another important difference between conventionalist theories concerns what the “conventional” is contrasted with. Options include: the natural; the mind-independent; the objective; the universal; the factual; and the truth-evaluable.

Poincaré’s geometric conventionalism contrasts the conventional with the truth-evaluable. According to Poincaré, there is no underlying fact of the matter about the geometry of physical space, so geometric axioms are not evaluable as true or false. Rather, the choice of an axiom system is akin to the choice of a measuring standard, such as the metric system. In many conventionalist theories, however, the idea is that our conventions somehow make certain facts true. Those facts may be “conventional”, “social,” or “institutional” rather than “brute” or “natural,” but they are full-fledged facts nonetheless. For instance, following Hume, it seems plausible to claim that property rights and monetary value are due largely to convention. Yet few philosophers would hold that claims about property rights or monetary value are non-truth-evaluable.[2] As this example illustrates, conventionalism need not reflect an “anti-realist” or “deflationary” stance towards some subject matter.

Conventionalism often entrains relativism. A particularly clear example is Gilbert Harman’s moral philosophy (1996), according to which moral truths result from social convention. Conventions vary among societies. One society may regard infanticide as horrific, while another may regard it as routine and necessary. Moral statements are true only relative to a conventional standard. On the other hand, as the example of property rights illustrates, one can accept that some fact is due to social convention while denying that it is relative or non-universal. For instance, one might urge, the conventions of my society make it the case that I own my house, but this fact is then true simpliciter, without relativization to a particular societal convention.

A final division among conventionalist theories concerns whether the putative conventions inform pre-existing practice. Hume’s theory of property purports to unveil actual conventions at work in actual human societies. But some conventionalists instead urge that we must adopt a convention. Carnap’s conventionalist treatment of logic, mathematics, and ontology illustrates this approach. Carnap exhorts us to replace unformalized natural language with conventionally chosen formal languages. Carnap has no interest in describing pre-existing practice. Instead, he offers a “rational reconstruction” of that practice.
2. Truth by convention

Carnap’s conventionalism was the culmination of the logical positivists’ efforts to accommodate logic and mathematics within an empiricist setting. Rejecting the Kantian synthetic a priori, the positivists held that logic and mathematics were analytic. Kant had explained the analytic-synthetic distinction in terms of concept-containment, which struck the positivists as psychologistic and hence “unscientific.” The positivists instead treated analyticity as “truth by virtue of meaning.” Specifically, they treated it as the product of linguistic convention. For instance, we can adopt the stipulative convention that “bachelor” means “unmarried man.” “All bachelors are unmarried men” is true by virtue of this convention. The positivists sought to extend this analysis to far less trivial examples, most notably mathematical and logical truth. In this regard, they were heavily influenced by Gottlob Frege’s logicism and also by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s conception, developed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, of logical truths as tautologous and contentless (sinnloss). Alberto Coffa (1993), Michael Friedman (1999), and Warren Goldfarb (1997) offer detailed discussion of the role played by conventionalism in logical positivism.

Although initially attracted to Carnap’s conventionalism, W.V. Quine eventually launched a sustained attack on it in “Truth by Convention” (1935) and “Carnap and Logical Truth” (1963). Quine’s anti-conventionalist arguments, in conjunction with his attack upon the analytic-synthetic distinction, profoundly impacted metaphysics and epistemology, casting conventionalist theories of logic, mathematics, and ontology into general disrepute.

One of the Quine’s most widely cited arguments (1936), directed against a crude conventionalism about logic, traces back to Lewis Carroll. There are infinitely many logical truths. Human beings are finite, so we can explicitly stipulate only a finite number of statements. Thus, in generating all the logical truths we must eventually apply rules of inference to finitely many conventionally stipulated statements. But then we are employing logic to derive logic from convention, generating a vicious regress. Quine’s point here is not just that logic did not in fact come into existence through conventional truth assignment. His point is that it could not have thus come into existence.

To avoid the Quinean regress, one might propose that we conventionally stipulate a finite number of axioms and a finite number of inferences rules, thereby fixing an infinite number of logical truths. The question here is what it means to “stipulate” an inference rule. We can conventionally stipulate that we will henceforth obey a certain inference rule. But that stipulation does not entail that we are entitled to reason in accord with the inference rule. Mere conventional stipulation that we will henceforth obey a inference rule does not ensure that the rule carries truths into truths. What if we stipulate that the inference rule carries truths into truths? Then our stipulation is merely another axiom. So we require a new inference rule to draw any consequences from it, and the regress continues.

While it is doubtful that Carnap or the other positivists held the crude form of conventionalism attacked by Quine’s argument, the argument suggests that conventionalism about logic requires an account of “tacit” conventions. If logic is indeed “true by convention,” then some of the relevant conventions must apparently be “implicit” in our practice, rather than the results of explicit stipulation. So we require an account of what an “implicit” convention amounts to. Carnap offers no such account.

Another Quinean argument holds that “truth by convention” offers no explanatory or predictive advantage over the far less exciting thesis that certain statements are true due to obvious features of extra-linguistic reality. For instance, we can all agree that linguistic convention makes it the case that “Everything is identical to itself” means what it does. But why should we furthermore hold that the truth of this sentence is due to linguistic convention, rather than to the fact that everything is indeed self-identical? According to Quine, Carnap has offered no reason for thinking that such truths are somehow vacuous as opposed to merely obvious.

A final notable Quinean argument centers on the role of “conventional stipulation” in scientific theorizing. Consider a scientist introducing a new theoretical term by definitional stipulation. The new term is embroiled in an evolving body of scientific doctrine. As this body of doctrine develops, the original legislated definition occupies no privileged status. We may reject it in light of new empirical developments. Thus, “conventionality is a passing trait, significant at the moving front of science but useless in classifying the sentences behind the lines” (1954, p. 119). Hilary Putnam (1962) further develops this argument, offering the example of “kinetic energy = ½ mv2”. Although that identity began as a stipulative definition in Newtonian mechanics, Einsteinian mechanics deems it false. Inspired by such examples, Quine rejects as untenable any distinction between statements “true by convention” or otherwise.

Quine therefore rejects Carnap’s picture of science as a two-stage process: the first stage in which we conventionally stipulate constitutive aspects of our scientific language (such as its ontology or logic) based solely upon pragmatic, non-rational factors; the second in which we deploy our language by subjecting non-conventional theories to rational scrutiny. For Quine, this two-stage picture does not describe even idealized scientific inquiry. There is no clear separation between those aspects of theory choice that are solely “pragmatic” and those that are rational.

These and other Quinean arguments proved extremely influential. Ultimately, many philosophers became convinced that Carnap’s conventionalist program was fundamentally flawed.[3] This reaction dovetailed with additional developments inimical to conventionalism. For instance, Hilary Putnam (1963, 1974) and various later philosophers, such as Michael Friedman (1983), vigorously attacked geometric conventionalism.[4]

On the other hand, conventionalism still finds defenders. Lawrence Sklar (1977) advocates a refurbished version of geometric conventionalism. Alan Sidelle (1989) advocates conventionalism about necessary truth. Michael Dummett (1991), Christopher Peacocke (1987), and Dag Prawitz (1977) follow Gerhard Gentzen in treating certain fundamental inferences as “implicit definitions” of the logical connectives, a theory somewhat reminiscent of Carnap’s conventionalism about logic. Thus, the issues raised by Quine remain unresolved. Still, it seems safe to say that philosophers nowadays regard conventionalist solutions within metaphysics and epistemology more warily than philosophers from the pre-Quinean era.[5]
3. Analyzing social convention

Although philosophers have always been interested in social conventions, Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature offered the first systematic analysis of what they are. The topic then lay dormant until Lewis revived it in Convention, providing an analysis heavily influenced by Hume’s but far more detailed and rigorous. Lewis’s analysis continues to shape the contemporary discussion. In this section, we briefly discuss Hume and then discuss Lewis in detail. Henceforth, “convention” means “social convention.”
3.1 Hume

Hume’s analysis of convention, while compressed, has proved remarkably fertile. As Hume puts it in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, a convention is

a sense of common interest; which sense each man feels in his own breast, which he remarks in his fellows, and which carries him, in concurrence with others into a general plan or system of actions, which tends to public utility (p. 257).

On this definition, a convention prevails in a population when each member of the population plays his part in some system of actions because he perceives that it is in his interest to do so, given that others perceive it is in their interests to do so. Several features of this definition deserve emphasis. First, a convention contributes to the mutual benefit of its participants. Second, a convention need not result from explicit promise or agreement. Third, each participant believes that other participants obey the convention. Fourth, given this belief, each participant has reason to obey the convention herself. This fourth point emerges even more sharply in the Treatise: “the actions of each of us have a reference to those of the other, and are perform’d upon the supposition, that something is to be perform’d on the other part” (p. 490). Hume illustrates his approach with the memorable example of two men sitting in a row-boat. In order to move at all, they must synchronize their rowing, which they do without any explicit agreement.

Having clarified convention, Hume deploys it to illuminate property, justice, promising, and government. In each case, Hume offers a broadly conventionalist account (see the entry on Hume’s moral philosophy for details). For instance, property emerges from the state of nature through a social convention “to bestow stability on the possession of those external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry” (Treatise, p. 489). This convention makes it the case that certain goods are “owned” by certain people, who enjoy exclusive rights to their use or dispensation. Similarly, Hume argues that the obligation to keep one’s promises is intelligible only with reference to convention that, when one employs a certain “form of words” (e.g., “I promise to j”), one thereby expresses a resolution to j and subjects oneself to penalty if one does not j.

In both the Treatise and “Of the Original Contract,” Hume rejects a Hobbesian conception of government as arising from the state of nature through a social contract. Hume offers various criticisms, but a particularly fundamental objection is that Hobbes adopts a misguided order of explanation. Hobbes explains government as the result of phenomena, such as promising or contracting, that themselves rest upon convention and hence could not arise in a pure state of nature. Hume contends that promising and government arise independently, albeit in the same basic way and from the same basic source: convention.[6]

Perhaps the most notable feature of Hume’s account is that it provides a detailed model of how social order can arise from rational decisions made by individual agents, without any need for either explicit covenant or supervision by a centralized authority. In this respect, Hume’s discussion prefigures Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” analysis of the marketplace.
3.2 Lewis

Lewis develops a broadly Humean perspective by employing game theory, the mathematical theory of strategic interaction among instrumentally rational agents. Drawing inspiration from Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict (1960), Lewis centers his account around the notion of a coordination problem, i.e., a situation in which there are several ways agents may coordinate their actions for mutual benefit.

Suppose A and B want to meet for dinner. They can choose between two restaurants, Luigi’s and Fabio’s. Each agent is indifferent between the two restaurants, and each agent prefers meeting the other one to not meeting. We represent this situation through a payoff matrix:

Luigi’s Fabio’s
Luigi’s 1, 1 0, 0
Fabio’s 0, 0 1, 1

Restaurant Rendezvous Payoff Matrix

The rows (respectively, columns) represent A’s (respectively, B’s) possible strategies: in this case, their two restaurant options. Each cell contains the respective payoffs for A and B for a given strategy combination. Since there are two incompatible ways that A and B might achieve a mutually desirable result, the two “players” must coordinate their actions.

In several respects, Restaurant Rendezvous is an unrepresentative coordination problem. First, A and B must perform the same action in order to achieve the desired result. Second, A and B achieve identical payoffs in each circumstance. The following payoff matrix represents a coordination problem lacking these two properties:

Call back Wait
Call back 0, 0 1, 2
Wait 2, 1 0, 0

Telephone Tag Payoff Matrix

As an intuitive interpretation, imagine that A and B are speaking on the phone but that they are disconnected. Who should call back? Each would prefer that the other call back, so as to avoid paying for the call. However, each prefers paying for the call to not talking at all. If both try to call back, then both will receive a busy signal. The payoff matrix summarizes this situation. This kind of case is sometimes called an impure coordination problem, since it enshrines a partial conflict of interest between players.

Coordination problems pervade social interaction. Drivers must coordinate so as to avoid collisions. Economics agents eliminate the need for barter by coordinating upon a common monetary currency. In many such cases, there is no way to communicate in advance, and there is no centralized authority to impose order. For instance, prisoners in POW camps converge without any centralized guidance upon a single medium of exchange, such as cigarettes.

Lewis analyzes convention as an arbitrary, self-perpetuating solution to a recurring coordination problem. It is self-perpetuating because no one has reason to deviate from it, given that others conform. For example, if everyone else drives on the right, I have reason to as well, since otherwise I will cause a collision. Lewis’s analysis runs as follows (p. 76):

A regularity R in the behavior of members of a population P when they are agents in a recurrent situation S is a convention if and only if it is true that, and it is common knowledge in P that, in any instance of S among members of P,

(1) everyone conforms to R;

(2) everyone expects everyone else to conform to R;

(3) everyone has approximately the same preferences regarding all possible combinations of actions;

(4) everyone prefers that everyone conform to R, on condition that at least all but one conform to R;

(5) everyone would prefer that everyone conform to R′, on condition that at least all but one conform to R′,

where R′ is some possible regularity in the behavior of members of P in S, such that no one in any instance of S among members of P could conform both to R′ and to R.

Lewis finally settles upon a modified analysis that allows occasional exceptions to conventions. The literature spawned by Lewis’s discussion tends to focus on the exceptionless characterization given above.

Lewisian convention is a special case of Nash equilibrium, the central idea behind modern game theory. An assignment of strategies to players is a Nash equilibrium iff no agent can improve his payoff by deviating unilaterally from it. An equilibrium is strict iff each agent decreases his payoff by deviating unilaterally from it. Intuitively, a Nash equilibrium is a “steady state”, since each player behaves optimally, given how other players behave. In this sense, Nash equilibrium “solves” the strategic problem posed by a game, so it is sometimes called a “solution concept”. However, Lewisian convention goes well beyond Nash equilibrium. In a Lewisian convention, everyone prefers that everyone else conform if at least all but one conform. Equilibria with this property are sometimes called coordination equilibria.

By classifying R as a convention only if there is some alternative regularity R′ that could serve as a convention, Lewis codifies the intuitive idea that conventions are arbitrary. This was one of the most widely heralded features of Lewis’s definition, emphasized by both Quine (1969) and Putnam (1981).

Notably, Lewis introduces the concept of common knowledge. Roughly, p is common knowledge iff everyone knows p, everyone knows that everyone knows p, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows that p, etc. The subsequent game-theoretic and philosophical literature offers several different ways of formalizing this intuitive idea, due to researchers such as Robert Aumann (1976) and Stephen Schiffer (1972). Recently, some controversy has arisen concerning the precise relation between these later formalizations and Lewis’s own informal remarks. Robin Cubitt and Robert Sugden (2003) argue that Lewis’s conception of common knowledge is radically different from the later formalizations, while Peter Vanderschraaf (1998) and Giacomo Sillari (2005) downplay the differences. See the entry on common knowledge for discussion of this controversy and of how common knowledge informs both game theory and the philosophical study of convention.

In the later paper “Languages and Language” (1975/1983), Lewis significantly altered his analysis of convention. See section 7, Conventions of language, for details.
4. Critical reactions to Lewis

Most subsequent discussions take Lewis’s analysis as a starting point, if only as a foil for motivating some alternative. Many philosophers simply help themselves to Lewis’s account without modifying it. On the other hand, virtually every element of Lewis’s account has attracted criticism during the past few decades. For instance, Ken Binmore (2008) forcefully attacks the “common knowledge” condition in Lewis’s analysis. In this section, we will review some prominent criticisms of Lewis’s account.
4.1 Regularities de facto and de jure

Lewis’s definition of convention demands complete or near-complete conformity. Many commentators object that this is too strict, excluding conventions “more honored in the breach than the observance.” To take Margaret Gilbert’s example (1989), there might be a convention in my social circle of sending thank-you notes after a dinner party, even though few people actually observe this convention anymore. Lewis must deny that sending thank-you notes is a convention, a verdict which Gilbert and other commentators find unintuitive. Wayne Davis (2003) and Ruth Millikan (2005) develop similar objections.

This objection sometimes accompanies another: that Lewis overlooks the essentially normative character of conventions. The idea is that conventions concern not just how people actually behave but also how they should behave. In other words, conventions are regularities not (merely) de facto, but de jure. For instance, if there is a convention that people stand a certain distance from one another when conversing, then it seems natural to say that people should stand that distance when conversing. It is not obvious that Lewis can honor these intuitions, since his conceptual analysis does not mention normative notions. On this basis, Margaret Gilbert (1989) and Andrei Marmor (1996) conclude that Lewis has not provided sufficient conditions for a convention to prevail among some group.

A closely related idea is that violations of convention elicit some kind of sanction, such as tangible punishment or, more commonly, negative reactive attitudes. Lewis emphasizes the self-perpetuating character of convention: one conforms because it is in one’s interest to conform, given that others conform. But, the argument goes, this emphasis overlooks a distinct enforcement mechanism: non-conformity elicits some kind of sanction from other people.

Lewis (1969, pp. 97–100) anticipates such objections and attempts to forestall them. He argues that conventions will tend to become norms. Once a convention prevails in some population, any member of the population will recognize that others expect him to conform to it and that they prefer he do so. He will also recognize that conforming answers to his own preferences. It follow that he ought to conform, since, other things being equal, one ought to do what answers both to one’s own preferences and to those of other people. Moreover, if people see that he fails to conform, then they will tend to sanction him through punishment, reproach, or distrust, since they will see that he acts contrary both to his own preferences and to theirs. To some extent, this argument recalls Hume’s argument in the Treatise that conventions of property generate moral norms. Robert Sugden (1986/2004) develops the line of thought in more detail.

Gilbert responds to such arguments by noting that, even if they show that conventions have a tendency to acquire normative force, they do not show that normativity is essential to convention. Theoretically, it seems possible for rational agents to instantiate a Lewisian convention without regarding it as a norm and without making any effort to enforce the convention through sanctions. Thus, Gilbert concludes, Lewis’s account does not preserve the intrinsic link between convention and normativity.

Even if one sympathizes with this objection, how to elucidate more systematically the normativity of convention remains unclear. It does not seem to be the normativity of morality, since someone who violates some convention of, say, etiquette or fashion need not thereby act immorally. Nor is it straightforwardly reducible to the normativity of instrumental rationality: many philosophers want to say that, other things being equal, one should conform to convention quite independently of whatever one’s beliefs and desires happen to be. (“You really ought to send a thank-you note.”) What is this mysterious brand of normativity, which apparently derives from neither morality nor instrumental rationality? That question is still a focus of active philosophical research.
4.2 Alternative conventions?

Seumas Miller (2001) deploys an example of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to question whether a convention must have a conventional alternative. In Rousseau’s example, agents stationed throughout a forest must decide whether to hunt stag or hunt hares. Hunting stag yields a higher pay-off for everyone, but only if all other players hunt stag as well. We can represent a two-person stag hunt through the following pay-off matrix:

Hunt Stag Hunt Hare
Hunt Stag 2, 2 0, 1
Hunt Hare 1, 0 1, 1

The Stag Hunt Payoff Matrix

Miller argues that, on Lewis’s definition of “convention,” hunting hares is not a possible convention, since a player who chooses to hunt rabbits does not prefer that the other player do likewise. Miller argues that this result accords with intuition. He furthermore argues that hunting stag is, intuitively speaking, a possible convention. He concludes that Lewis errs by requiring convention to have a conventional alternative.

Tyler Burge (1975) develops a related but distinct worry. He agrees with Lewis that convention must have a conventional alternative, but he denies that participants must know of such an alternative. Burge offers as an example a primitive, isolated society with a single language. Members of this society believe, as a matter of religious principle, that theirs is the only possible language. Nevertheless, Burge argues, their linguistic practice is governed by convention. Burge concludes that Lewis adopts an overly “intellectualist” conception of convention, one that credits participants in convention with far more rational self-understanding than they necessarily possess. While Burge agrees with Lewis that conventions are arbitrary, he thinks that “the arbitrariness of conventions resides somehow in the ‘logic of the situation’ rather than in the participants’ psychological life” (p. 253). For Burge, the arbitrariness of a convention consists in the following facts: the conventions operative within a society emerge due to historical accident, not biological, psychological or sociological law; and, with effort comparable to that expended in learning the original convention, parties to the convention could have instead learned an incompatible convention that would have served roughly the same social purpose.
4.3 Which equilibrium concept?

The game-theoretic literature contains numerous solution concepts that either generalize or refine Nash equilibrium. Various commentators suggest that a proper analysis of convention requires one of these alternate solution concepts. For instance, Robert Sugden (1986/2004) analyzes convention as a system of evolutionarily stable strategies. On this approach, not only are conventions self-enforcing, but they have an additional stability property: once established, they can resist invasion by deviant agents trying to establish a new convention. Sugden argues that this approach illuminates a wide range of social phenomena, including familiar examples such as money and property.

Another widely discussed solution concept is correlated equilibrium, introduced by Robert Aumann (1974, 1987). To illustrate this generalized concept, consider a modified version of Restaurant Rendezvous. In the new version (sometimes called “Battle of the Sexes”), each agent prefers a different restaurant, although both agents prefer meeting to not meeting. We represent this situation with the following payoff matrix:

Luigi’s Fabio’s
Luigi’s 2, 1 0, 0
Fabio’s 0, 0 1, 2

Battle of the Sexes Payoff Matrix

This game has two “pure” Nash equilibria: one in which both players go to Luigi’s, the other in which both go to Fabio’s. Intuitively, neither equilibrium is fair, since one player achieves a higher payoff than the other. The game also has a “mixed-strategy” Nash equilibrium: that is, an equilibrium in which each agent chooses his strategy based upon the outcome of a randomizing device. Specifically, the game has a mixed-strategy equilibrium in which A goes to Luigi’s with probability 2/3 and B goes to Luigi’s with probability 1/3. A’s expected payoff from this equilibrium is given as follows, where “Prob(x, y)” denotes the probability that A goes to x and B goes to y:

A’s expected payoff =
Prob(Luigi’s, Luigi’s) × 2
+ Prob(Luigi’s, Fabio’s) × 0
+ Prob(Fabio’s,Luigi’s) × 0
+ Prob(Fabio’s, Luigi’s) × 1
= 2/9×2 + 2/9×0 + 2/9×0 + 2/9×1
= 2/3.

Similarly, B’s expected payoff is 2/3. Neither player can improve upon this payoff by deviating from the mixed-strategy equilibrium, given that the other player is playing her end of the equilibrium. This equilibrium is fair, in that it yields the same expected payoff for both players. But it also yields a lower expected payoff for each player than either pure equilibrium, since there is a decent chance that the players’ separate randomizing devices will lead to them to different restaurants.

If the players can contrive to correlate their actions with a common randomizing device, they can achieve a new equilibrium that is fair and that Pareto dominates the old mixed-strategy equilibrium. More specifically, suppose that there is a single coin toss: each player goes to Luigi’s if the toss is heads, Fabio’s if the toss is tails. The resulting strategy combination yields an expected payoff of 3/2 for each player. Intuitively, this strategy combination is an equilibrium, since no player has reason to deviate unilaterally from it. But the strategy combination does not count as a Nash equilibrium of the original game, since in mixed Nash equilibria players’ actions must be probabilistically independent. Aumann calls this strategy combination a correlated equilibrium, since players’ actions are probabilistically correlated. He develops this intuitive idea in great formal detail, without reliance upon explicit pre-game communication between players.

Building upon Aumann’s formal treatment, Brian Skyrms (1996) and Peter Vanderschraaf (1998b, 2001) argue that we should treat convention as a kind of correlated equilibrium. For example, consider the convention that drivers at traffic intersections correlate their actions with the color of the traffic signal. As the restaurant and traffic examples illustrate, correlated equilibria often provide far more satisfactory solutions to coordination problems than one could otherwise achieve.
4.4 Must convention solve a coordination problem?

Wayne Davis (2003), Andrei Marmor (1996, 2009), Seumas Miller (2001), Robert Sugden (1986/2004), and Peter Vanderschraaf (1998) argue that conventions need not be coordination equilibria. For instance, Davis claims that fashion conventions do not solve coordination problems, since we do not usually care how other people dress.

To develop this objection, Sugden introduces conventions of property and conventions of reciprocity, neither of which solves coordination problems. He illustrates the former with the Hawk-Dove game (also sometimes called “Chicken”):

Dove Hawk
Dove 1, 1 0, 2
Hawk 2, 0 1/2, 1/2

Hawk-Dove Payoff Matrix

The intuitive interpretation here is that two people faced with an item of value 2 must decide whether to fight for it (Hawk) or share it (Dove). If both play Dove, then they split it. If one plays Hawk and the other Dove, then the Hawk gets the entire good. If they both play Hawk, then they again split it, but its value is reduced by half to reflect the cost of fighting. This game has no coordination equilibrium. However, consider the following strategy for recurring instances of the game: “If you are already in possession of the relevant item, then play Hawk; otherwise, play Dove.” It is an equilibrium for both players to play this strategy. (More technically, following Skyrms (1996), we might regard this strategy combination as a correlated equilibrium.) Sugden argues that such an equilibrium might emerge as a convention among agents who repeatedly play Hawk-Dove. But the equilibrium is not a convention according to Lewis’s definition. If I play my end of it, I do not prefer that other people do likewise. I prefer that others play Dove. Thus, the equilibrium lacks one of the main characteristics emphasized by Lewis: a preference for general conformity over slight-less-than-general conformity.

Sugden illustrates conventions of reciprocity with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which has the following payoff matrix:

Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 2, 2 0, 3
Defect 3, 0 0, 0

Prisoner’s Dilemma Payoff Matrix

The original intuitive interpretation of this payoff matrix is that the police are separately interrogating two prisoners, each of whom must decide whether to cooperate with the other prisoner by remaining silent or whether to “defect” by confessing. If both cooperate, then both receive very light sentences. If both defect, then both receive very harsh sentences. If one defects and the other cooperates, then the defector goes free while the cooperator receives a harsh sentence. Although this scenario may seem rather contrived, we can model many common social interactions as instances of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Sugden offers as an example two academics who exchange houses for their sabbaticals. Each academic must decide whether to maintain the other’s house in good condition, even though leaving it a mess would be easier.

Prisoner’s Dilemma has no coordination equilibrium. Yet Sugden argues that the following “tit-for-tat” strategy might emerge as a convention when players repeatedly play Prisoner’s Dilemma over some indefinite period (e.g., two academics with a standing arrangement to exchange houses every summer): co-operate as long as your opponent cooperates; if your opponent defects, then defect for some prescribed number of rounds r as retaliation before cooperating again; if your opponent cooperates but you defect by mistake, then accept your opponent’s punishment in the next r rounds without retaliating. This equilibrium is not a convention in Lewis’s sense, since one always prefers that one’s opponent cooperate rather than defect.

In response to such examples, Sugden (1986/2004) and Vanderschraaf (1998b) develop generalized game-theoretic analyses that do not require convention to solve a coordination problem. In practice, the necessary revisions to Lewis’s account are not very sweeping, since they basically amount to excising clause (4) from his conceptual analysis. Vanderschraaf (1998a) argues that these revisions yield a theory closer to Hume’s original account.

Marmor (2009) also questions Lewis’s focus on coordination problems. Marmor emphasizes actual games, such as chess, rather than the “games” primarily studied by game theorists, such as Prisoner’s Dilemma. According to Marmor, the rules of chess are conventions that do not solve a coordination problem. Chess playing activity does not involve coordinating one’s actions with those of other players, in anything like the sense that driving on the right side of the road (rather than the left) involves coordination among agents. Drawing on John Searle’s (1969) discussion of “constitutive rules,” Marmor argues that Lewis has overlooked an important class of conventions, which Marmor calls “constitutive conventions,” modeled after the rules of a game. Roughly, a constitutive convention helps “constitute” a social practice, in the sense that it helps define what the practice is and how to engage in it correctly. Marmor offers a generalized analysis designed to accommodate both Lewisian conventions and constitutive conventions. The analysis resembles Lewis’s, but it makes no mention of coordination problems, and it contains no reference to common knowledge.
5. Equilibrium selection

Lewis requires that a convention be one among several possible alternatives. Even if one follows Miller in rejecting that requirement, it seems clear that there are many cases, such as the choice of monetary currency, where we must select from among numerous candidate conventions. This raises the question of how we select a particular candidate. An analogous question arises for game theory more generally, since a game may have many Nash equilibria. It is rational to play my part in a Nash equilibrium, if I believe that other agents will play their parts. But why should I believe that others will play their parts in this particular equilibrium? If we assume that players cannot engage in pre-game communication, three basic answers suggest themselves: players converge upon a unique equilibrium through rational reflection on the logic of their strategic situation; or they are guided by psychological factors outside the ambit of purely rational analysis; or they learn from prior experience which equilibrium to choose. One might also combine these three suggestions with one another.

A venerable game-theoretic tradition embraces the first suggestion. The hope is that, if we assume enough common knowledge among players about the game’s payoff structure and their own rationality, then, through relatively a priori reasoning, they can successfully predict which equilibrium others will select. An early example of this explanatory tradition is the method of backwards induction, introduced by Ernst Zermelo (1913). The tradition culminates in John Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten’s A General Theory of Equilibrium Selection (1988). However, few researchers still champion this tradition. Its basic flaw is already apparent from our simplest coordination problem, Restaurant Rendezvous. Nothing intrinsic either to rationality or to the logic of the situation favors one equilibrium over the other. Indeed, Harsanyi and Selten’s theory dictates that each player choose a mixed-strategy randomizing over Luigi’s and Fabio’s. Clearly, then, Harsanyi and Selten cannot explain how, in a wide variety of cases, people converge upon a unique, non-randomized solution. Nor does it seem likely that we can overcome this difficulty by emending our analysis of rationality or refining our solution concept. Apparently, breaking the tie between otherwise symmetrical equilibria requires us to supplement the austere viewpoint of pure rational analysis with some additional input, either from human psychology or else from experience.
5.1 Salience

Following Thomas Schelling (1960), who introduced the notion of a focal point, Lewis argues that agents will select the salient convention. A convention is salient (it is a focal point) if it “stands out” from the other choices. A candidate convention might acquire salience through precedent, explicit agreement, or its own intrinsic properties. Schelling conducted a famous experiment to illustrate the concept of salience. He asked subjects to choose a time and place to meet a friend on a given day in New York City, without any possibility of prior communication about where or when to meet. Most respondents chose noon at Grand Central Station. Somehow, then, this choice stands out as the most conspicuous. As Schelling’s example illustrates, salience is a “subjective” psychological trait that does not follow in any obvious way from the rational structure of the strategic situation. Hume already anticipated a role for subjective psychological traits, noting that our choice of convention often depends upon “the imagination, or the more frivolous properties of our thought and conception” (Treatise, p. 504, note 1).

Salience plays two distinct roles in Lewis’s account, corresponding to the following two questions: How do conventions arise? and Why do people conform to convention? The former question concerns dynamics (i.e., the factors governing how conventions originate and evolve over time), while the latter concerns statics (specifically, the rational structure that sustains a convention at a given moment). Lewis’s answer to the first question is that agents initially select some equilibrium either by chance, agreement, or intrinsic salience. The equilibrium gradually becomes more salient through precedent, until eventually it becomes a convention. Lewis’s answer to the second question is that a pre-existing convention is so overwhelmingly salient that agents expect one another to abide by it, an expectation which furnishes reason to conform.

Philosophers have heavily criticized Lewis’s reliance upon salience, arguing that the notion of salience is obscure, or that there is often no salient option among candidate conventions, or that precedence does not confer salience, or that Lewis fails to integrate salience into the formal game-theoretic framework that otherwise shapes his discussion. Margaret Gilbert (1989) argues that salience cannot provide a reason for action: merely observing that some possible convention is salient tells us nothing, because we cannot assume that others will abide by the most salient convention. In a similar vein, Brian Skyrms (1996) asks how it comes to be common knowledge that others will choose the salient equilibrium over the alternatives.

Despite these criticisms, many authors over the intervening decades, such as Robert Sugden (1986/2004) and Ken Binmore and Larry Samuelson (2006), have argued that a satisfactory theory of equilibrium selection requires something like Lewis’s notion of salience. Note also that, even if the foregoing criticisms are legitimate, they do not impugn Lewis’s analysis of what conventions are. They only show that Lewis has not offered a complete theory of how conventions are chosen, how they evolve, and how they sustain themselves.
5.2 Dynamical models

For the past decade, the most popular approach to equilibrium selection has been broadly dynamical. The dynamical approach, a branch of evolutionary game theory, develops formal models of how strategy choice evolves in a population whose members repeatedly play some game against each another. In contrast with “static” game theory (i.e., the study of equilibria), dynamical models incorporate an explicitly temporal parameter. The basic goal is to study the conditions under which dynamical models with various properties tend to converge to static equilibria with various properties.

Dynamical models of equilibrium selection differ along several dimensions. Does the model depict learning by individual players or aggregate trends in the population as a whole? How much rationality does the model attribute to players? Is the model deterministic or stochastic? Do players have limited or unlimited memory of past events? How much common knowledge do players have about the game’s payoff structure? Can players learn about the results of interactions in which they do not participate? Do the same players participate in each round of play, or are the players repeatedly drawn anew from a larger population? Is that larger population modeled as finite or infinite? An overview of the burgeoning and forbiddingly technical literature on these questions falls beyond the scope of this article. We confine attention here to three developments: replicator dynamics; fictitious play; and sophisticated Bayesian learning. Interested readers should consult the detailed surveys offered by Drew Fudenberg and David Levine (1998) and H. Peyton Young (2004).

Replicator dynamics: In this deterministic model, introduced by Peter Taylor and Leo Jonker (1978), the proportion of players choosing some strategy grows proportionally to the difference between that strategy’s mean payoff and the mean payoff for the population as a whole. The model does not describe how the behavior of individual players changes over time. Rather, the model describes aggregate trends in the population as a whole.

A stable steady state of a dynamical system is a state s with the following two features: once the system enters s, it never leaves it; and once the system approaches “close enough” to s, then it always remains near s. The basin of attraction of s is the set of states such that, if the dynamical system begins in one of those states, then it will eventually converge towards s. In many cases, the best way to understand a dynamical system is to construct a “phase portrait” diagramming its steady states and their basins of attraction. In the case of interest to us here, the “state” of a dynamical system is simply the proportion of players choosing each strategy.

Two easy formal results convey the flavor of research on replicator dynamics: every stable steady state of replicator dynamics is a Nash equilibrium; and every evolutionarily stable equilibrium is a stable steady state of replicator dynamics.

Replicator dynamics originated within evolutionary biology. Subsequently, game theorists such as Larry Samuelson (1997) have argued that it illuminates social interaction among humans. Within philosophy, Brian Skyrms (1996, 1998) argues that replicator dynamics shows how conventions of property and linguistic meaning could evolve without any need for Lewisian “salience.” He places particular emphasis upon signaling games, that is, games in which a sender wishes to communicate a message to a receiver, a message determining which action from among a fixed repertoire the receiver will perform. (See section 7.1 for more detail on signaling games.) For certain signaling games, replicator dynamics almost always converges to an evolutionarily stable signaling convention. Which convention emerges depends solely upon chance facts about players’ initial propensities to adopt various strategies (i.e., the basin of attraction from which the system happens to begin). As Skyrms puts it, “[w]hich signaling system is selected is a matter of chance, not of salience” (1996, p. 93).

Despite the popularity of replicator dynamics, critics such as H. Peyton Young (1998) remain skeptical. The most natural motivation for replicator dynamics is biological. We conceptualize players as animals genetically programmed to exhibit certain behaviors. Creatures who achieve higher payoffs have higher reproductive fitness, and they pass their strategy choices along to their progeny. Natural selection therefore causes certain behaviors to become more prevalent. Under these assumptions, replicator dynamics seems plausible. But it is not clear that a comparable rationale applies to human interaction, since humans generally act not based solely upon their genetic programming but rather upon their beliefs and desires. Why should the choices of individual human agents yield the pattern described by replicator dynamics?

In response to this worry, theorists try to derive replicator dynamics from models of individual adaptive behavior. Some models posit that people tend to imitate the behavior of others, based either on how popular or how successful that behavior seems. Other models posit some kind of reinforcement mechanism. Neither approach accords very well with the traditional preference among both philosophers and economists for rational explanations. Samuelson (1997, p. 23) responds that such approaches may nevertheless be appropriate “if we are interested in people, rather than ideally rational agents.” But it is hardly obvious that our best cognitive science of actual human psychology will eschew rational explanation in favor of the psychological mechanisms currently being invoked to underwrite replicator dynamics.

Fictitious play: George Brown (1951) introduced fictitious play as “pre-play” reasoning, in which a player mentally simulates repeated trials of a game against an imaginary opponent so as to predict her real opponent’s actions. The phrase “fictitious play” has become a misnomer, because researchers now typically apply it to models in which players learn based upon their actual experience of repeated play. In paradigmatic fictitious play models, each player plays a “best reply” to the observed historical frequency of her opponents’ past actions. This policy is rational if: the player assumes that each opponent plays some stationary (either pure or mixed) strategy; the player employs Bayesian updating to determine the probability that each opponent will perform a given action in the next round; and the player seeks to maximize her expected payoff for that round based upon her current probability distribution over her opponents’ actions. It is easy to show that, if players engaged in fictitious play enter into a strict Nash equilibrium, then they stay in it forever. Moreover, there are some circumstances (e.g., zero-sum two-person games) in which fictitious play converges to Nash equilibrium behavior. However, as Lloyd Shapley (1964) first showed, there are games in which fictitious play does not always converge to equilibrium behavior.

The literature explores many different variations on this theme. One can restrict how many past trials the player remembers or how much weight the player places upon older trials. One can embed the player in a large population and restrict how much a player knows about interactions within that population. One can introduce a “neighborhood structure,” so that players interact only with their neighbors. One can introduce a stochastic element. For instance, building on work of M. I. Friedlin and A. D. Wentzell (1984) and Michihiro Kandori, George Mailath, and Rafael Rob (1993), H. Peyton Young (1993, 1996, 1998) develops a model of how conventions evolve in which each player chooses a “best reply” with probability 1−ε and some random strategy with probability ε. One can also generalize the fictitious play framework to accommodate correlated equilibrium. Peter Vanderschraaf (2001) explores a variant of fictitious play in which a player frames hypotheses about correlations between her opponents’ strategies and external events. Applying this framework to convention, he argues that we can treat the emergence of correlated equilibrium conventions as an instance of rational belief-fixation through inductive deliberation.

Fictitious play does not attribute knowledge of other people’s payoffs or their rationality. It does not depict players as reasoning about the reasoning of others. Instead, it depicts players as performing a mechanical statistical inference that converts an action’s observed historical frequency into a prediction about its future probability of recurrence. For this reason, critics such as Ehud Kalai and Ehud Lehrer (1993) contend that fictitious play attributes to players insufficient recognition that they are engaged in strategic interaction. For instance, a player who reasons in accord with fictitious play implicitly assumes that each opponent plays some stationary (either pure or mixed) strategy. This assumption overlooks that her opponents are themselves updating their beliefs and actions based upon prior interaction. It also prevents players from detecting patterns in the data (such as an opponent who plays one strategy in odd-numbered trials and another strategy in even-numbered trials). Moreover, fictitious play instructs a player to maximize her expected payoff for the current round of play. This “myopic” approach precludes maximizing one’s future expected payoff at the price of lowering one’s current payoff (e.g., playing Hawk rather than Dove even if I expect my opponent to do likewise, since I believe that I can eventually “teach” my opponent to back down and play Dove in future rounds).

Sophisticated Bayesian learning: This approach, initiated by Paul Milgrom and John Robert (1991), replaces the rather crude statistical inference posited by fictitious play with a more refined conception of inductive deliberation. Specifically, it abandons the questionable assumption that one faces stationary strategies from one’s opponents. Ehud Kalai and Ehud Lehrer (1993) offer a widely discussed model of sophisticated Bayesian learning. Players engaged in an infinitely repeated game constantly update probability distributions defined over the set of possible strategies played by their opponents, where a strategy is a function from the set of possible histories to the set of possible actions. At each stage, a player chooses an action that maximizes the expected value of her payoffs for the entire future sequence of trials, not just for the present trial. This approach allows a player to discern patterns in her opponents’ behavior, including patterns that depend upon her own actions. It also allows her to sacrifice current payoff for a higher expected long-term payoff. Kalai and Lehrer prove that their procedure almost always converges to something approximating Nash equilibrium, under the crucial assumption (the “grain of truth” assumption) that each player begins by assigning positive probability to all strategies that actually occur.

Critics such as John Nachbar (1997) and Dean Foster and H. Peyton Young (2001) argue that there is no reason to accept the “grain of truth” assumption. From this perspective, Kalai and Lehrer merely push the problem back to explaining how players converge upon a suitable set of prior probabilities satisfying the “grain of truth” assumption. Although Kalai and Lehrer’s proof actually requires only a somewhat weakened version of this assumption, the problem persists: sophisticated Bayesian learning converges to Nash equilibrium only under special assumptions about players’ prior coordinated expectations, assumptions that players might well fail to satisfy.

Sanjeev Goyal and Maarten Janssen (1996) develop this criticism, connecting it with the philosophical problem of induction, especially Nelson Goodman’s grue problem. Robert Sugden (1998) further develops the criticism, targeting not just sophisticated Bayesian learning but virtually every other learning model found in the current literature. As the grue problem highlights, there are many different way of extrapolating past observations into predictions about the future. In philosophy of science, the traditional solution to this difficulty is that only certain predicates are “projectible.” But Sugden argues that the difficulty is more acute for strategic interaction, since successful coordination requires shared standards of projectibility. For instance, suppose that I repeatedly play a coordination game with an opponent who has two different strategy options: s1 and s2. Up until time t, my opponent has always played s1. I might “project” this pattern into the future, predicting that my opponent will henceforth play s1. But I might instead project a “grueified” pattern, such as: “play s1 until time t, and then play s2.” Which inductive inference I make depends upon which predicates I regard as projectible. There is no guarantee that my opponent shares my standards of projectibility. In effect, then, convergence through inductive deliberation requires me and my opponent to solve a new coordination problem: coordinating our standards of projectibility.

According to Sugden, existing dynamical models implicitly assume that players have already solved this new coordination problem. Sugden concludes that a full explanation of equilibrium selection requires something like Lewis’s notion of salience. In particular, it requires shared psychological standards regarding which patterns are projectible and which are not. Sugden urges, contra Skyrms, that dynamical models of convention cannot displace salience from its central role in understanding convention. For obvious reasons, however, Sugden (1998) does not discuss the “hypothesis testing” model recently developed by Dean Foster and H. Peyton Young (2003), which purports to avoid many of the difficulties sketched above for replicator dynamics, fictitious play, and sophisticated Bayesian learning.

As the foregoing discussion indicates, the dynamical study of equilibrium selection is a diverse, fast-growing area of research. Moreover, it raises difficult questions on the boundary between economics and philosophy, such as how to analyze inductive reasoning, how much rationality to attribute to social agents, and so on. It is undeniable that, in a wide variety of circumstances, people successfully converge upon a single unique convention amidst a range of alternatives. It seems equally undeniable that we do not yet fully understand the social and psychological mechanisms that accomplish this deceptively simple feat.
6. Alternative treatments of convention

We now survey some alternative theories of convention proposed in the past few decades. Unlike the rival proposals discussed in section 4, which accept Lewis’s basic perspective while emending various details, the theories discussed below reject Lewis’s entire approach.
6.1 Gilbert: plural subjects

Eschewing Lewis’s game-theoretic orientation, Margaret Gilbert (1989) instead draws inspiration from sociology, specifically from Georg Simmel’s theory of “social groups” (1908). The basic idea is that individual agents can “join forces” to achieve some common end, thereby uniting themselves into a collective entity. To develop this idea, Gilbert provides a complex account of how agents bind themselves into a “plural subject” of belief and action. A plural subject is a set of agents who regard themselves as jointly committed to promoting some goal, sharing some belief, or operating under some principle of action. By virtue of their common knowledge of this joint commitment, members of the plural subject regard themselves as “we”. They thereby regard one another as responsible for promoting the group’s goals and principles. For instance, two traveling companions make manifest their commitment to keep track of one another, whereas two people who happen to share a seat on a train do not. The traveling companions form a plural subject. The unaffiliated travelers do not. The traveling companions regard each other as responsible for helping if one person falls behind, for not losing one another in a crowd, and so on.

Gilbert proposes that “our everyday concept of a social convention is that of a jointly accepted principle of action, a group fiat with respect to how one is to act in certain situations” (p. 377). Members of a population jointly accept a fiat when it is common knowledge that they have made manifest their willingness to accept and promote that fiat as a basis for action. By Gilbert’s definition, participants in a convention constitute a plural subject. For they jointly accept the common goal of promoting some fiat. Moreover, members of the social group regard the fiat as exerting normative force simply by virtue of the fact that they jointly accept it. Note that not all plural subjects instantiate conventions. For instance, depending on the details of the case, the traveling companions from the previous paragraph might not. A convention arises only when individual members of a plural subject jointly accept some fiat.

Gilbert’s account differs from Lewis’s in both ontology and ideology. Ontologically, Gilbert isolates a sui generis entity, the plural subject, that Lewis’s “individualistic” approach does not countenance. Gilbert argues that a population could instantiate a Lewisian convention without giving rise to a plural subject. Participants in a Lewisian convention may prefer that other participants conform to it, given that almost everyone does. But they need not regard themselves as responsible for enforcing it or for helping others conform. They would so regard themselves if they viewed themselves as belonging to a plural subject. Thus, a Lewisian convention does not ensure that its adherents constitute a plural subject.

Regarding ideology, Gilbert’s account attributes to convention an intrinsically normative element that Lewis rejects. For Gilbert, adopting a convention is making manifest a willingness to promote a certain fiat. Parties to a convention therefore accept that they ought to act in accord with the fiat. In contrast, as we saw in section 4.2, Lewis’s account does not recognize any normative elements as intrinsic to convention.

The contrast between Gilbert and Lewis instantiates a more general debate over Homo economicus: a conception of agents as self-interested and instrumentally rational. Lewis attempts to analyze social phenomena reductively within that framework. In contrast, Gilbert rejects the rational choice conception, opting for a picture, Homo sociologicus, according to which an agent acts based on her self-identification as a member of a social group constituted by various norms. Elizabeth Anderson (2000) analyzes how the clash between these two conceptions relates to convention and normativity.

In her later work, Gilbert (2008) adopts a more concessive stance towards Lewis’s analysis of convention. She maintains that her analysis handles many important social phenomena that Lewis’s account overlooks, but she grants that there may be other social phenomena that Lewis’s account handles well.
6.2 Miller: collective ends

Seumas Miller (2001) introduces the notion of a “collective end.” A collective end is an end that is shared by a group of agents and that can be achieved only through action by all of those agents; moreover, these facts are mutually believed by the agents. A convention to j in some recurring situation s prevails among some agents iff it is mutually believed by the agents that each one has a standing intention to j in s, as long as others perform j in s, so as to realize some shared collective end e. For instance, the collective end corresponding to the convention of driving on the right side of the road is avoiding collisions.

In many respects, Miller’s account is more similar to Lewis’s than to Gilbert’s. Miller shares Lewis’s “reductionist” perspective, analyzing social convention as a pattern of interaction between rational agents, without any irreducibly “social” element. In particular, Miller rejects sui generis social entities, such as plural subjects, and he does not invoke specialized norms of convention beyond those engendered by morality and rationality.

One objection to Miller’s account is that, in many cases, there is no clear “collective end” subserved by convention. For instance, what collective end must participants in a monetary practice share? It seems that each agent might care only about his own individual welfare, without concern for some more general social end. Even where there is a clear collective end served by some convention, should we really build this fact into the definition of convention? As Burge observes, “parties to a convention are frequently confused about the relevant ends (the social functions of their practice); they are often brought up achieving them and do not know the origins of their means” (1975, p. 252). Thus, it might seem that Miller attributes too much self-understanding to participants in a convention.
6.3 Millikan: patterns sustained by weight of precedent

Ruth Millikan (2005) offers a radical alternative to the views surveyed so far. She draws inspiration not from economics or sociology but from biology. On her view, a convention is a pattern of behavior reproduced within a population due largely to weight of precedent. To say that an instance of some pattern “reproduces” previous instances is to say that, if the previous instance had been different, the current instance would be correspondingly different. Many patterns of behavior are “reproduced” in this sense, such as the propensity to greet one another by shaking hands in a certain way. However, not all reproduced patterns are conventions. For instance, we learn from our parents to open stuck jars by immersing them in hot water, but our reproduction of this pattern is not a convention. To count as a convention, a reproduced pattern must be reproduced, in large part, simply because it is a precedent, not because of its intrinsic merits. Thus, a convention is unlikely to emerge independently in different populations, in contrast with a pattern such as immersing stuck jars in hot water.

Through what mechanisms does convention spread “by weight of precedent”? Millikan mentions several ideas: lack of imagination, desire to conform, playing it safe by sticking with what has worked. The use of chopsticks in the East and forks in the West illustrates how obeying precedent is often the most practical policy, since these respective implements are more readily available in the respective locations.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Millikan’s discussion is that it assigns no essential role to rationality in sustaining conventions. For instance, a society in which people maintain a convention simply from unreflective conformism would satisfy Millikan’s definition. The tradition established by Hume and continued by Lewis seeks to explain how social order emerges from the rational decisions of individual agents. Millikan rejects that tradition. To some extent, Burge also departs from the tradition, writing that “the stability of conventions is safeguarded not only by enlightened self-interest, but by inertia, superstition, and ignorance” (p. 253). However, Millikan’s position is more extreme than Burge’s, since she assigns reason no role in sustaining convention. In other words, whereas Burge apparently thinks that convention rests upon both rational and irrational underpinnings, Millikan does not acknowledge any rational underpinnings.
7. Conventions of language

Plato’s Cratylus offers a notable early discussion of linguistic convention. Hermogenes defends a broadly conventionalist view of linguistic meaning:

[N]o one is able to persuade me that the correctness of names is determined by anything besides convention… No name belongs to a particular thing by nature, but only because of the rules and usages of those who establish the usage and call it by that name (384c-d),

while Cratylus advocates a rather obscure anti-conventionalist alternative:

A thing’s name isn’t whatever people agree to call it —some bit of their native language that applies to it—but there is a natural correctness of names, which is the same for everyone, Greek or foreigner (383a-b).

Nowadays, virtually all philosophers side with Hermogenes. Barring a few possible exceptions such as onomatopoeia, the association between a word and its referent is not grounded in the intrinsic nature of either the word or the referent. Rather, the association is arbitrary. In this weak sense, everyone agrees that language is conventional. However, disagreement persists about whether social convention plays a useful role in illuminating the workings of language.
7.1 Conventional theories of meaning

David Lewis (1969) provides the first systematic theory of how social convention generates linguistic meaning. Subsequent philosophers to offer convention-based accounts include Jonathan Bennett (1976), Simon Blackburn (1984), Wayne Davis (2003), Brian Loar (1976), and Stephen Schiffer (1972).

Lewis begins by studying signaling problems. A communicator has privileged information differentiating among states s1, …, sm. Audience members can choose among responses F(s1) …, F(sm). Everyone prefers that audience members do F(si) if si obtains. There is a set of signals x1, …, xn, m ≤ n, that the communicator can pass to the audience. In Lewis’s example, the sexton knows whether the redcoats are staying home, coming by land, or coming by sea. By placing either zero, one, or two lanterns in the belfry, he signals Paul Revere whether to go home, warn people that redcoats are coming by land, or warn people that the redcoats are coming by sea. A signaling problem is a coordination problem, because communicator and audience must coordinate so that the communicator’s signal elicits the mutually desired action.

In comparison with normal linguistic interaction, signaling problems are very specialized. A fundamental difference is that people normally need not agree upon which action(s) would be desirable, given some state of affairs. When we search for an audience reaction canonically associated with an assertion that p, the most natural candidate is something like believing that p (or perhaps believing that the speaker believes p). Yet coming to believe a proposition is not an action, and Lewis’s definition of convention presupposes that conventions are regularities of action. Hence, believing what people say cannot be part of a Lewisian convention.

Although Lewis explored various ways around this difficulty, he eventually concluded that we should alter the analysis of convention. In “Languages and Language” (1975/1983), he broadened the analysis so that regularities of action and belief could serve as conventions. Clause (4) of Lewis’s definition entails that everyone prefers to conform to the convention given that everyone else does. Preferences regarding one’s own beliefs are dubiously relevant to ordinary conversation. Thus, in his revised analysis, Lewis substitutes a new clause:

The expectation of conformity to the convention gives everyone a good reason why he himself should conform (p. 167).

The “reason” in question might be either a practical reason, in the case of action, or an epistemic reason, in the case of belief.

Lewis defines a language as a function that assigns truth-conditions to sentences. More precisely, and ignoring complications such as vagueness and indexicality, a language L is a mapping that assigns each sentence s a set of possible worlds L(s). A sentence s is “true in L” iff the actual world belongs to L(s). There are infinitely many possible languages. We must explain what it is for a given group of agents to use a given language. In other words, what is the “actual language” relation? Lewis proposes:

A language L is used by a population G iff there prevails in G a convention of truthfulness and trust in L, sustained by an interest in communication,

where a speaker is “truthful in L” iff she tries to avoid uttering sentences not true in L, and a speaker is “trusting in L” iff she believes that sentences uttered by other speakers are true in L. Given that this convention prevails, speakers who want to communicate have reason to conform to it, which in turn perpetuates the convention. Note that Lewis’s account avoids the Russell-Quine regress argument from section 1.1, since Lewisian convention does not presuppose explicit agreement between participants.

In many respects, Lewis’s account descends from Grice’s theory of speaker-meaning. A simplified version of Grice’s account runs as follows: a speaker speaker-means that p iff she performs an action with an intention of inducing the belief that p in her audience by means of their recognition of that very intention. Although Lewis does not explicitly build speaker-meaning into his analysis of the “actual language” relation, a broadly Gricean communicative mechanism informs his discussion. Like Grice, Lewis emphasizes how meaning emerges from coordination between the speaker’s communicative intentions and the hearer’s communicative expectations. Grice does not provide a very compelling account of how speakers and hearers coordinate their communicative intentions and expectations by exploiting a pre-existing practice. Lewis fills this lacuna by citing a standing convention of truthfulness and trust.

Stephen Schiffer (1972) and Jonathan Bennett (1976) offer alternative “neo-Gricean” accounts that combine Lewisian convention with more explicit appeal to Gricean speaker-meaning. In effect, both theories are sophisticated variants upon the following:

Sentence s means that p as used by population G iff there prevails in G a convention to use utterances of s so as to speaker-mean that p.

Thus, both accounts analyze sentence meaning as the result of a convention that certain sentences are used to communicate certain propositions.

A fundamental question for philosophy of language is how meaning arises from use. How do we confer significance upon inherently meaningless linguistic expressions by employing them in linguistic practice? Neo-Gricean accounts such as Lewis’s, Schiffer’s, and Bennett’s provide detailed answers to this question. For instance, Lewis isolates a self-perpetuating communicative mechanism that systematically associates sentences with propositional contents. He reduces social convention to the propositional attitudes of individual speakers, and he then uses social convention to explain how meaning arises from use. He thereby depicts linguistic expressions as inheriting content from antecedently contentful propositional attitudes. On this approach, thought is the primary locus of intentionality, and language enjoys intentional content merely in a derivative way, through its employment in communicative transactions. That general view of the relation between language and thought goes back at least to Book III of Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding. It is currently quite popular. Much of its popularity stems from the widespread perception that Lewis’s account, or some other such account, successfully explains how language inherits content from thought.
7.2 Objections to conventional theories

Conventional theories of linguistic meaning attract several different types of criticism. We may distinguish four especially important criticisms: denial that the putative conventions prevail in actual practice; denial that convention can determine linguistic meaning; denial that convention is necessary for linguistic meaning; and denial that convention-based accounts employ the proper order of explanation.
7.2.1 Do the putative conventions prevail?

This criticism surfaces repeatedly throughout the literature. For instance, Grice’s analysis of speaker-meaning generated a mini-industry of counter-example and revised analysis. The gist of the counter-examples is that there are many perfectly normal linguistic interactions in which speakers lack the communicative intentions and expectations cited by Grice. Thus, it is difficult to see how our practice could instantiate a convention that crucially involves those intentions and expectations. One might respond to this argument in various ways, such as classifying certain linguistic interactions as “paradigmatic” and others as “derivative.” But at least one prominent Gricean, Stephen Schiffer (1987), eventually concluded, partly from such counter-examples, that the program of explicating linguistic meaning through Lewisian convention and Gricean speaker-meaning was hopeless.

Regarding Lewis’s account, critics such as Wayne Davis (2003), Max Kölbel (1998), Stephen Laurence (1996), and Bernard Williams (2002) question whether there is a convention of truthfulness and trust. As Davis and Williams urge, it is hardly obvious that speakers generally speak the truth or generally trust one another, despite frequent claims by diverse philosophers to the contrary. Even if we grant that people generally speak the truth and generally trust one another, does this give me reason to speak truthfully? It does, if I want other people to believe the truth. But if I want them to believe falsehoods, then I have reason to lie rather than speak the truth. Thus, one might object, a regularity of truthfulness and trust is not self-perpetuating in the way that Lewisian convention requires. Expectation of conformity does not provide reason for conformity. In contrast, consider the convention of driving on the right. That convention likewise provides reason for conformity only given an appropriate desire: namely, desire to avoid a collision. The difference is that virtually everyone seeks to avoid a collision, while deception is a normal feature of ordinary linguistic interaction.

Inevitably, such objections focus on details of particular theories. Thus, they cannot show that conventionalist theories in general are mistaken.
7.2.2 Can convention determine linguistic meaning?

The most serious version of this objection, advanced by Stephen Schiffer (1993, 2006), John Hawthorne (1990, 1993), and many other philosophers, focuses on the productivity of language. We can understand a potential infinity of meaningful sentences. Yet we can hardly master infinitely many linguistic conventions, one for each meaningful sentence. How, then, can convention fix the meanings of these infinitely many sentences?

This general worry arises in a particularly acute way for Lewis’s theory. Consider some sentence S that we would never normally use, perhaps because it is too long or too grammatically complex. Suppose that some speaker nevertheless utters S. As Lewis acknowledges, we would not normally believe that the speaker was thereby attempting to speak truthfully. Instead, we would suspect that the speaker was acting for some deviant reason, such as trying to annoy, or settling a bet, and so on. We would not normally trust the speaker. But then Lewis cannot use his convention of truthfulness and trust to underwrite a unique truth-condition for S.

The most natural diagnosis here is that the sentence’s meaning is determined by the meanings of its parts. We understand it because we understand its component words and because we understand the compositional mechanisms through which words combine to form meaningful sentences. Of course, word meanings may themselves be fixed by convention. But then what the conventionalist should explicate is the conventional link between words and their meanings, not just the conventional link between sentences and their truth-conditions. Lewis explicates the latter, not the former. Although Lewis (1992) attempts to circumvent these worries, Hawthorne (1993) and Schiffer (2006) argue that his response is inadequate.

Lewis’s account is not alone in encountering difficulties with productivity. Most contemporary conventionalist theories encounter similar difficulties, because most such theories, heeding Frege’s context principle (only the context of a sentence do words have meaning), focus attention upon the link between sentences and propositions rather than the link between words and their meanings. One might hope to supplement convention-based accounts with the Chomsky-inspired thesis, advocated by James Higginbotham (1986) and Richard Larson and Gabriel Segal (1995), that speakers have tacit knowledge of a compositional semantic theory. However, as Martin Davies observes (2003), no one seems to have worked out this supplementary strategy in any detail, and it is not obvious how important a role the resulting account would assign to convention, let alone the Gricean communicative mechanism.

Ultimately, the force of these worries remains unclear. For instance, Wayne Davis (2003) develops a conventionalist account that harkens back to the pre-Fregean tradition. In simplified form, Davis’s Lockean proposal is that a word is meaningful because we conventionally use it to express a certain “idea”. Evidently, these issues connect with vexed questions about compositionality, linguistic understanding, the unity of the proposition, and the role played by formal semantic theories in the study of natural language.
7.2.3 Is convention necessary for linguistic meaning?

Noam Chomsky (1980) and Donald Davidson (1984) acknowledge that there are linguistic conventions while denying that they are fundamental to the nature of language.

Chomsky regards language as a system of grammatical rules “tacitly known” by a speaker. Linguistics, which Chomsky treats as a branch of cognitive psychology, studies the grammatical competence of individual speakers. It should not posit a mysterious and unscientific “communal language” shared by speakers, but should instead focus upon “idiolects.” Thus, language has no special ties to social interaction or communication. Specifically, it has no special ties to convention. Stephen Laurence (1996) and Stephen Schiffer (2006) develop theories of the “actual language” relation informed by a broadly Chomskian perspective. The basic idea behind both accounts is that a linguistic item as used by some speaker is associated with certain semantic properties just in case the association between the linguistic item and the semantic property figures in the psychological processes through which the speaker assigns meanings (or truth-conditions) to sentences.

Davidson elaborates a model of communication that takes as its paradigm “radical interpretation.” During radical interpretation, one tries to assign truth-conditions to utterances in a completely unfamiliar tongue. To do so, one detects patterns concerning which sentences the speaker “holds true,” and one tries to make rational sense of those patterns, guided by general maxims such as the principle of charity (roughly, maximize true beliefs on the part of the speaker). Davidson admits that, in everyday life, we tend as a default to interpret one another “homophonically.” But there is no principled reason why we must embrace this homophonic default, and we readily deviate from it whenever seems appropriate, as illustrated by cases of idiosyncratic usage, malapropism, and so on. In a sense, then, all linguistic understanding rests upon radical interpretation. So shared linguistic conventions are inessential to linguistic communication:

Knowledge of the conventions of language is thus a practical crutch to interpretation, a crutch we cannot in practice afford to do without —but a crutch which, under optimum conditions for communication, we can in the end throw away, and could in theory have done without from the start (1984, p. 279).

Davidson concludes that theories of meaning and understanding should not assign convention a foundational role.
7.2.4 Do convention-based accounts employ the proper order of explanation?

A final objection to convention-based theories targets the broader Lockean strategy of explaining language in terms of thought. According to this objection, which is espoused by philosophers such as Robert Brandom (1994), Donald Davidson (1984), and Michael Dummett (1993), language does not inherit content from thought. Rather, thought and language are on a par, acquiring content through their mutual interrelations. (One might also claim that language is the primary locus of intentionality and that thought inherits content from language. However, few if any contemporary philosophers espouse this viewpoint.) Thus, we should not analyze linguistic meaning as the product of convention, so long as conventions are understood as Lewisian systems of intentions, preferences, and expectations. Those propositional attitudes are themselves intelligible only through their relations to language. As Davidson puts it, “philosophers who make convention a necessary element in language have the matter backwards. The truth is rather that language is a condition for having conventions” (1984, p. 280).

Two main difficulties face this approach. First, although philosophers have offered various arguments for the thesis that thought is not explanatorily prior to language, none of the arguments commands widespread assent. Christopher Peacocke (1998) forcefully criticizes many of the most well-known arguments. As things stand, the objection constitutes not so much a problem for conventional theories as a prospectus for a rival research program. The second and more serious difficulty is that, so far, the rival research program has not yielded results nearly as precise or systematic as existing conventional theories. Perhaps the two most commanding theories within the rival research program are Davidson’s (1984) and Brandom’s (1994). Many contemporary philosophers feel that both theories enshrine an overly “anti-realist” conception of mental content. Moreover, neither theory yields detailed necessary and sufficient conditions for linguistic meaning analogous to those provided by Lewis.

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Human Rights
First published Fri Feb 7, 2003; substantive revision Tue Aug 24, 2010

Human rights are international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to engage in political activity. These rights exist in morality and in law at the national and international levels. They are addressed primarily to governments, requiring compliance and enforcement. The main sources of the contemporary conception of human rights are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948b) and the many human rights documents and treaties that followed in international organizations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and the African Union.

The philosophy of human rights addresses questions about the existence, content, nature, universality, justification, and legal status of human rights. The strong claims made on behalf of human rights (for example, that they are universal, or that they exist independently of legal enactment as justified moral norms) frequently provoke skeptical doubts and countering philosophical defences. Reflection on these doubts and the responses that can be made to them has become a sub-field of political and legal philosophy with a substantial literature (see the Bibliography below).

This entry includes a lengthy final section, International Human Rights Law and Organizations, that offers a comprehensive survey of today’s international system for the promotion and protection of human rights.

* 1. The General Idea of Human Rights
* 2. The Existence of Human Rights
* 3. Which Rights are Human Rights?
o 3.1 Civil and Political Rights
o 3.2 Minority and Group Rights
o 3.3 Environmental Rights
o 3.4 Social Rights
* 4. International Human Rights Law and Organizations
o 4.1 Historical Overview
o 4.2 United Nations Human Rights Treaties
o 4.3 Other Human Rights Agencies within the United Nations
o 4.4 Regional Arrangements
o 4.5 The International Criminal Court
o 4.6 Promotion of Human Rights by States
o 4.7 Nongovernmental Human Rights Organizations
o 4.8 The Future of Human Rights Law
* Bibliography
o Books and Articles
* Internet Resources
o Documents and Treaties
o Organizations (Governmental and Nongovernmental)
* Related Entries

1. The General Idea of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) sets out a list of over two dozen specific human rights that countries should respect and protect. These specific rights can be divided into six or more families: security rights that protect people against crimes such as murder, massacre, torture, and rape; due process rights that protect against abuses of the legal system such as imprisonment without trial, secret trials, and excessive punishments; liberty rights that protect freedoms in areas such as belief, expression, association, assembly, and movement; political rights that protect the liberty to participate in politics through actions such as communicating, assembling, protesting, voting, and serving in public office; equality rights that guarantee equal citizenship, equality before the law, and nondiscrimination; and social (or “welfare”) rights that require provision of education to all children and protections against severe poverty and starvation. Another family that might be included is group rights. The Universal Declaration does not include group rights, but subsequent treaties do. Group rights include protections of ethnic groups against genocide and the ownership by countries of their national territories and resources (see Anaya 2004, Baker 2004, Henrard 2000, Kymlicka 1989, and Nickel 2006).

In this section I try to explain the general idea of human rights by setting out some defining features. The goal here is to answer the question of what human rights are with a general description of the contemporary concept rather than a list of specific rights. Two people can have the same general idea of human rights even though they disagree about whether some particular rights are human rights. (For another attempt to characterize the idea of human rights in light of contemporary human rights practice see Beitz, 14f.)

First, human rights are political norms dealing mainly with how people should be treated by their governments and institutions. They are not ordinary moral norms applying mainly to interpersonal conduct (such as prohibitions of lying and violence). As Thomas Pogge puts it, “to engage human rights, conduct must be in some sense official” (Pogge 2000, 47). But we must be careful here since some rights, such as rights against racial and sexual discrimination are primarily concerned to regulate private behavior (Okin 1998). Still, governments are directed in two ways by rights against discrimination. They forbid governments to discriminate in their actions and policies, and they impose duties on governments to prohibit and discourage both private and public forms of discrimination.

Second, human rights exist as moral and/or legal rights. A human right can exist as (1) a shared norm of actual human moralities, (2) a justified moral norm supported by strong reasons, (3) a legal right at the national level (here it might be referred to as a “civil” or “constitutional” right), or (4) a legal right within international law. A human rights advocate might wish to see human rights exist in all four ways. (See Section 2. The Existence of Human Rights.)

Third, human rights are numerous (several dozen) rather than few. John Locke’s rights to life, liberty, and property were few and abstract (Locke 1689), but human rights as we know them today address specific problems (e.g., guaranteeing fair trials, ending slavery, ensuring the availability of education, preventing genocide.) They are the rights of the lawyers rather than the abstract rights of the philosophers. Human rights protect people against familiar abuses of people’s dignity and fundamental interests. Because many human rights deal with contemporary problems and institutions they are not transhistorical. One could formulate human rights abstractly or conditionally to make them transhistorical, but the fact remains that the formulations in contemporary human rights documents are neither abstract nor conditional. They presuppose criminal trials, governments funded by income taxes, and formal systems of education.

Fourth, human rights are minimal—or at least modest—standards. They are much more concerned with avoiding the terrible than with achieving the best. Their dominant focus is protecting minimally good lives for all people (Nickel 2006). Henry Shue suggests that human rights concern the “lower limits on tolerable human conduct” rather than “great aspirations and exalted ideals” (Shue 1996). As modest standards they leave most legal and policy matters open to democratic decision-making at the national and local levels. This allows them to have high priority, to accommodate a great deal of cultural and institutional variation, and to leave open a large space for democratic decision-making at the national level. (For criticism of the view that human rights are minimal standards see Brems 2009 and Raz 2010.)

Fifth, human rights are international norms covering all countries and all people living today. International law plays a crucial role in giving human rights global reach. We can say that human rights are universal provided that we recognize that some rights, such as the right to vote, are held only by adult citizens; that some human rights documents focus on vulnerable groups such as children, women, and indigenous peoples.

Sixth, human rights are high-priority norms. Maurice Cranston held that human rights are matters of “paramount importance” and their violation “a grave affront to justice” (Cranston 1967). This does not mean, however, that we should take human rights to be absolute. As James Griffin says, human rights should be understood as “resistant to trade-offs, but not too resistant” (Griffin 2001b). The high priority of human rights needs support from a plausible connection with fundamental human interests or powerful normative considerations.

Seventh, human rights require robust justifications that apply everywhere and support their high priority. Without this they cannot withstand cultural diversity and national sovereignty. Robust justifications are powerful but need not be understood as ones that are irresistible.

Eighth, human rights are rights, but not necessarily in a strict sense. As rights they have several features. One is that they have rightholders — a person or agency having a particular right. Broadly, the rightholders of human rights are all people living today. Another feature of rights is that they focus on a freedom, protection, status, or benefit for the rightholders (Brandt 1983, 44). Rights also have addressees who are assigned duties or responsibilities. A person’s human rights are not primarily rights against the United Nations or other international bodies; they primarily impose obligations on the government of the country in which the person resides or is located. The human rights of citizens of Belgium are mainly addressed to the Belgian government. International agencies, and the governments of countries other than one’s own, are secondary or “backup” addressees. The duties associated with human rights typically require actions involving respect, protection, facilitation, and provision. Finally, rights are usually mandatory in the sense of imposing duties on their addressees, but they sometimes do little more than declare high-priority goals and assign responsibility for their progressive realization. It is possible to argue, of course, that goal-like rights are not real rights, but it may be better simply to recognize that they comprise a weaker but useful notion of a right.

Having set out a general idea of human rights with eight elements, it is useful to consider three other candidates which I think should be rejected. The first is the claim that all human rights are negative rights, in the sense that they only require governments to refrain from doing things. On this view, human rights never require governments to take positive steps such as protecting and providing. To refute this claim we do not need to appeal to social rights that require the provision of things like education and medical care. It is enough to note that this view is incompatible with the attractive position that one of the main jobs of governments is to protect people’s rights by creating an effective system of criminal law and of legal property rights. The European Convention on Human Rights (Council of Europe 1950) incorporates this view when it says that “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law” (Article 2.1). And the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (United Nations 1984) imposes the requirement that “Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law” (Article 4.1). Providing effective legal protections is providing services, not merely refraining

A second claim to be rejected or qualified is that all human rights are inalienable. To say that a right is inalienable means that its holder cannot lose it temporarily or permanently by bad conduct or by voluntarily giving it up. Inalienability does not mean that rights are absolute or can never be overridden by other considerations. I doubt that all human rights are inalienable in this sense. One who endorses both human rights and imprisonment as punishment for serious crimes must hold that people’s rights to freedom of movement can be forfeited temporarily or permanently by just convictions of serious crimes. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that human rights are very hard to lose. (For a stronger view of inalienability, see Donnelly 2003:10).

Third, I think we should reject John Rawls’ proposal in The Law of Peoples that human rights define where legitimate toleration of other countries ends. Rawls says that human rights “specify limits to a regime’s internal autonomy” and that “their fulfillment is sufficient to exclude justified and forceful intervention by other peoples, for example, by diplomatic and economic sanctions, or in grave cases by military force” (Rawls 1999, 79–80).

It is a grave oversimplification to suggest that there is a neat line defined by human rights where national sovereignty ends and tolerance stops. There is no need to deny that human rights are helpful in identifying the limits of justifiable toleration, but there are several reasons to doubt that they simply define that boundary. First, the “fulfillment” of human rights is a very vague idea. No country fully satisfies human rights; all countries have significant human rights problems. Some countries have large human rights problems, and many have massive problems (“gross violations of human rights”). Beyond this, the responsibility of the current government of a country for these problems also varies. The main responsibility may belong to the previous government and the current government may be taking reasonable steps to move towards greater compliance.

Further, defining human rights as norms that set the bounds of toleration requires restricting human rights to only a few fundamental rights. Rawls suggests the following list: “the right to life (to the means of subsistence and security); to liberty (to freedom from slavery, serfdom, and forced occupation, and to a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience to ensure freedom of religion and thought); to property (personal property); and to formal equality as pressed by the rules of natural justice (that is, that similar cases be treated similarly)” (Rawls 1999, 65). As Rawls recognizes this list leaves out most freedoms, rights of political participation, equality rights, and social rights. Leaving out any protection for equality and democracy is a high price to pay for assigning human rights the role of setting the bounds of tolerance, and we can accommodate Rawls’ underlying idea without paying it. The intuitive idea that Rawls uses is that countries engaging in massive violations of the most important human rights are not to be tolerated — particularly when the notion of toleration implies, as Rawls thinks it does, full and equal membership in good standing in the community of nations. To use this intuitive idea we do not need to follow Rawls in equating human rights with some stripped down list of human rights. Instead we can work up a view — which is needed for other purposes anyway — of which human rights are the weightiest and whether they can classified into tiers. Large violations of the most fundamental rights can then be used as grounds for non-tolerance. (For a fuller version of these criticisms see Nickel 2006.)
2. The Existence of Human Rights

The most obvious way in which human rights exist is as norms of national and international law created by enactment and judicial decisions. At the international level, human rights norms exist because of treaties that have turned them into international law. For example, the human right not to be held in slavery or servitude in Article 4 of the European Convention and in Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights exists because these treaties establish it. At the national level, human rights norms exist because they have through legislative enactment, judicial decision, or custom become part of a country’s law. For example, the right against slavery exists in the United States because the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery and servitude. When rights are embedded in international law we speak of them as human rights; but when they are enacted in national law we more frequently describe them as civil or constitutional rights. As this illustrates, it is possible for a right to exist within more than one normative system at the same time.

Enactment in national and international law is one of the ways in which human rights exist. But many have suggested that this is not the only way. If human rights exist only because of enactment, their availability is contingent on domestic and international political developments. Many people have sought to find a way to support the idea that human rights have roots that are deeper and less subject to human decisions than legal enactment. One version of this idea is that people are born with rights, that human rights are somehow innate or inherent in human beings. One way that a normative status could be inherent in humans is by being God-given. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) claims that people are “endowed by their Creator” with natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” On this view, God, the supreme lawmaker, enacted some basic human rights.

Rights plausibly attributed to divine decree must be very general and abstract (life, liberty, etc.) so that they can apply to thousands of years of human history, not just to recent centuries. But contemporary human rights are specific and many of them presuppose contemporary institutions (e.g., the right to a fair trial and the right to education). Even if people are born with God-given natural rights, we need to explain how to get from those general and abstract rights to the specific rights found in contemporary declarations and treaties.

Attributing human rights to God’s commands may give them a secure status at the metaphysical level, but in a very diverse world it does not make them practically secure. Billions of people do not believe in the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If people do not believe in God, or in the sort of god that prescribes rights, then if you want to base human rights on theological beliefs you must persuade these people of a rights-supporting theological view. This is likely to be even harder than persuading them of human rights. Legal enactment at the national and international levels provides a far more secure status for practical purposes.

Human rights might also exist independently of legal enactment by being part of actual human moralities. It appears that all human groups have moralities, that is, imperative norms of behavior backed by reasons and values. These moralities contain specific norms (for example, a prohibition of the intentional murder of an innocent person) and specific values (for example, valuing human life.) One way in which human rights could exist apart from divine or human enactment is as norms accepted in all or almost all actual human moralities. If almost all human groups have moralities containing norms prohibiting murder, these norms could constitute the human right to life. Human rights can be seen as basic moral norms shared by all or almost all accepted human moralities.

This view is attractive but filled with difficulties. First, it seems unlikely that the moralities of almost all human groups agree in condemning, say, torture, unfair criminal trials, undemocratic institutions, and discrimination on the basis of race or sex. There is a lot of disagreement among countries and cultures about these matters. Human rights declarations and treaties are intended to change existing norms, not just describe the existing moral consensus. Second, it is far from clear that the shared norms that do exist support rights held by individuals. A group may think that torture is generally a bad thing without holding that all individuals have a high-priority right against being tortured. Third, human rights are mainly about the obligations of governments. Ordinary interpersonal moralities often have little to say about what governments should and should not do. This is a matter of political morality, and depends not just on moral principles but also on views of the dangers and capacities of the contemporary state.

Yet another way of explaining the existence of human rights is to say that they exist most basically in true or justified moralities. On this account, to saying that there is a human right against torture is mainly to say that there are strong reasons for believing that it is almost always wrong to engage in torture and that protections should be provided against its practice. This approach would view the Universal Declaration as attempting to formulate a justified political morality. It was not merely trying to identify a preexisting moral consensus; it was also trying to create a consensus on how governments should behave that could be supported by very plausible moral and practical reasons. This approach requires commitment to the objectivity of such reasons. It holds that just as there are reliable ways of finding out how the physical world works, or what makes buildings sturdy and durable, there are ways of finding out what individuals may justifiably demand of governments. Even if there is little present agreement on political morality, rational agreement is available to humans if they will commit themselves to open-minded and serious moral and political inquiry. If moral reasons exist independently of human construction, they can — when combined with premises about current institutions, problems, and resources — generate moral norms different from those currently accepted or enacted. The Universal Declaration seems to proceed on exactly this assumption. One problem with this view is that existence as good reasons seems a rather thin form of existence for human rights. But perhaps we can view this thinness as a practical rather than a theoretical problem, as something to be remedied by the formulation and enactment of legal norms. The best form of existence for human rights would combine robust legal existence with the sort of moral existence that comes from being supported by strong moral and practical reasons.
3. Which Rights are Human Rights?

This section discusses the question of which rights belong on lists of human rights. Not every question of social justice or wise governance is a human rights issue. For example, a country could have too much income inequality, inadequate provision for higher education, or no national parks without violating any human rights. Deciding which norms should be counted as human rights is a matter of some difficulty. And there is continuing pressure to expand lists of human rights to include new areas. Many political movements would like to see their main concerns categorized as matters of human rights, since this would publicize, promote, and legitimize their concerns at the international level. A possible result of this is “human rights inflation,” the devaluation of human rights caused by producing too much bad human rights currency (See Cranston 1973, Orend 2002, Wellman 1999, Griffin 2010).

One way to avoid rights inflation is to follow Cranston in insisting that human rights only deal with extremely important goods, protections, and freedoms. A supplementary approach is to impose several justificatory tests for specific human rights. For example, it could be required that a proposed human right not only deal with some very important good but also respond to a common and serious threat to that good, impose burdens on the addressees that are justifiable and no larger than necessary, and be feasible in most of the world’s countries (see Nickel 2006). This approach restrains rights inflation with several tests, not just one master test.

Human rights are specific and problem-oriented (Dershowitz 2004, Donnelly 2003, Shue 1996, Talbott 2005). Historic bills of rights often begin with a list of complaints about the abuses of previous regimes or eras. Bills of rights may have preambles that speak grandly and abstractly of life, liberty, and the inherent dignity of persons, but their lists of rights contain specific norms addressed to familiar political, legal, or economic problems.

In deciding which specific rights are human rights it is possible to make either too little or too much of international documents such as the Universal Declaration and the European Convention. One makes too little of them by proceeding as if drawing up a list of important rights were a new question, never before addressed, and as if there were no practical wisdom to be found in the choices of rights that went into the historic documents. And one makes too much of them by presuming that those documents tell us everything we need to know about human rights. This approach involves a kind of fundamentalism: it holds that if a right is on the official lists of human rights that settles its status as a human right (“If it’s in the book that’s all I need to know.”) But the process of listing human rights in the United Nations and elsewhere was a political process with plenty of imperfections. There is little reason to take international diplomats as the most authoritative guides to which human rights there are. Further, even if a treaty could settle the issue of whether a certain right is a human right within international law, such a treaty cannot settle its weight. It may claim that the right is supported by weighty considerations, but it cannot make this so. If an international treaty enacted a right to visit national parks without charge as a human right, the ratification of that treaty would make free access to national parks a “human right” within international law. But it would not be able to make us believe that the right to visit national parks without charge was sufficiently important to be a real human right.

Once one takes seriously the question of whether some norms that are now counted as human rights do not merit that status and whether some norms that are not currently accepted as human rights should be upgraded, there are many possible ways to proceed. One approach that should be avoided puts a lot of weight on whether the norm in question really is, or could be, a right in a strict sense. This approach might yield arguments that human rights cannot include children’s rights since young children cannot exercise their rights by invoking, claiming, or waiving (Hart 1955, Wellman 1995). This approach begs the question of whether human rights are rights in a strict sense rather than a fairly loose one. The human rights movement and its purposes are not well served by being forced into a narrow conceptual framework. The most basic idea of the human rights movement is not that of a right, but the idea of regulating the behavior of governments through international norms. And when we look at human rights documents we find that they use a variety of normative concepts. Sometimes they speak of rights, as when the Universal Declaration says that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement” (Article 13). Sometimes these documents issue prohibitions, as when the Universal Declaration says that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile” (Article 9). And at other times they express general principles, as illustrated by the Universal Declaration’s claim that “All are equal before the law” (Article 7).

A better way to evaluate a norm that is nominated for the status of human right is to consider whether it is compatible with the general idea of human rights that we find in international human rights documents. If the general idea of human rights suggested above is correct, it requires affirmative answers to questions such as whether this norm could have governments as its primary addressees, whether it ensures that people can have minimally good lives, whether it has high priority, and whether it can be supported by strong reasons that make plausible its universality and high priority.

Questions about which rights are human rights arise in regard to many families of human rights. Discussed below are (1) civil and political rights; (2) minority and group rights; (3) environmental rights; and (4) social rights.
3.1 Civil and Political Rights

These rights are familiar from historic bills of rights such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791, with subsequent amendments). Contemporary sources include the first 21 Articles of the Universal Declaration, and such treaties as the European Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Some representative formulations follow:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other medium of one’s choice. (American Convention on Human Rights, Article 13.1)

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests (European Convention, Article 11).

Every citizen shall have the right to participate freely in the government of his country, either directly or through freely chosen representatives in accordance with the provisions of the law. 2. Every citizen shall have the right of equal access to the public service of his country. 3. Every individual shall have the right of access to public property and services in strict equality of all persons before the law (African Charter, Article 13).

These rights fit the general idea of human rights suggested above (see 1. The General Idea of Human Rights). First, they are political norms that primarily impose responsibilities on governments and international organizations. Second, they are minimal norms in that they protect against the worst things that happen in political society rather than setting out standards of excellence in government. Third, they are international norms establishing standards for all countries — and that have been accepted by more than 150 of the world’s countries. Finally, it is plausible to make claims of high priority on their behalf, and to support these claims of importance with strong reasons. Consider the right to freedom of movement. One approach to justifying this right and its high priority would argue the indispensability of free movement to being able to find the necessities of life, to pursuing plans, projects, and commitments, and to maintaining ties to family and friends. A related approach argues that it is impossible to make use of other human rights if one cannot move freely. The right to political participation is undermined if a person is not permitted to go to political rallies or to the polls.

Most civil and political rights are not absolute—they are in some cases overridden by other considerations and rightly set aside in those cases. For example, some civil and political rights can be restricted by public and private property rights, by restraining orders related to domestic violence, and by legal punishments. Further, after a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake free movement is often appropriately suspended to keep out the curious, to permit access of emergency vehicles and equipment, and to prevent looting. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits rights to be suspended during times “of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” (Article 4). But it excludes some rights from suspension including the right to life, the prohibition of torture, the prohibition of slavery, the prohibition of ex post facto criminal laws, and freedom of thought and religion.
3.2 Minority and Group Rights

Concern for the equal rights of disadvantaged groups is a longstanding concern of the human rights movement. Human rights documents emphasize that all people, including women and members of minority ethnic and religious groups, have the same basic rights and should be able to enjoy them without discrimination. The right to freedom from discrimination figures prominently in the Universal Declaration and subsequent treaties. The Civil and Political Covenant, for example, commits participating states to respect and protect their people’s rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or social status” (on minority and group rights see Nickel 2006, ch. 10).

Some standard individual rights are especially important to ethnic and religious minorities, including rights to freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination. Human rights documents also include rights that refer to minorities explicitly and give them special protections. For example, the Civil and Political Covenant in Article 27 says that persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities “shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Since 1964 the United Nations has mainly dealt with the rights of women and minorities through specialized treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007). See also the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Specialized treaties allow international norms to address unique problems of particular groups such as assistance and care during pregnancy and childbearing in the case of women, custody issues in the case of children, and the loss of historic territories by indigenous peoples.

Minority groups are often targets of violence. Human rights norms call upon governments to refrain from such violence and to provide protections against it. This work is partly done by the right to life, which is a standard individual right. It is also done by the right against genocide which protects groups from attempts to destroy or decimate them. The Genocide Convention was one of the first human rights treaties after World War II. In Article 2 it gives the following definition of genocide:

…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The right against genocide seems to be a group right. It is held by both individuals and groups and provides protection to groups as groups. It is largely negative in the sense that it requires governments and other agencies to refrain from destroying groups; but it also requires that legal and other protections against genocide be created at the national level.

Can a group right fit the general idea of human rights proposed earlier? Perhaps it can if we broaden the conception of who can hold human rights to include ethnic and religious groups. This can be made more palatable, perhaps, by recognizing that the beneficiaries of the right against genocide are individual humans who enjoy greater security against attempts to destroy the group to which they belong (Kymlicka 1989).
3.3 Environmental Rights

In spite of the danger of rights inflation, there are doubtless norms that should be counted as human rights but are not generally so treated. After all, there are lots of areas in which people’s dignity and fundamental interests are threatened by governmental actions and omissions. Consider environmental rights, which are often defined as rights of animals or of nature itself. Conceived in this way they do not fit our general idea of human rights because the rightholders are not humans or human groups. But more modest formulations are possible; environmental rights can be understood as rights to an environment that is healthy and safe. Such a right is human-oriented: it does not cover directly issues such as the claims of animals, biodiversity, or sustainable development (Nickel 1993. See also Hayward 2005).

The right to a safe environment can be sculpted to fit the general idea of human rights suggested above by conceiving it as primarily imposing responsibilities on governments and international organizations. It calls on them to regulate the activities of both governmental and nongovernmental agents to ensure that environmental safety is maintained. Citizens are secondary addressees. This right sets out a minimal environmental standard, safety for humans, rather than calling for higher and broader standards of environmental protection. (Countries that are able to implement higher standards are of course free to enact those standards in their law or bill of rights.)

A justification for this right must show that environmental problems pose serious threats to fundamental human interests, values, or norms; that governments may appropriately be burdened with the responsibility of protecting people against these threats; and that most governments actually have the ability to do this. This last requirement — feasibility — may be the most difficult. Environmental protection is expensive and difficult, and many governments will be unable to do very much of it while meeting other important responsibilities. The problem of feasibility in poorer countries might be addressed here in the same way that it was in the Social Covenant. That treaty commits governments not to the immediate realization of social rights for all, but rather to making the realization of such rights a high-priority goal and beginning to take steps towards its fulfillment.

Implementing a new right has opportunity costs. If no new resources are available, implementing a new right will mean that fewer resources are available for the implementation of existing rights. Rights are not magical sources of supply (Holmes and Sunstein 1999, Nickel 2006, ch. 5). This is not to deny, however, that successful implementation of a right can reduce threats in some areas and thereby reduce costs. For example, success in protecting the rights of minorities may reduce ethnic conflict and the threats to rights that it generates.
3.4 Social Rights

The Universal Declaration included social (or “welfare”) rights that address matters such as education, food, and employment. Their inclusion has been the source of much controversy (see Beetham 1995). Social rights are often alleged to be statements of desirable goals but not really rights. The European Convention did not include them (although it was later amended to include the right to education). Instead they were put into a separate treaty, the European Social Charter. When the United Nations began the process of putting the rights of the Universal Declaration into international law, it followed the model of the European system by treating economic and social standards in a treaty separate from the one dealing with civil and political rights. This treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (the “Social Covenant,” 1966), treated these standards as rights — albeit rights to be progressively realized.

The Social Covenant’s list of rights includes nondiscrimination and equality for women in the economic and social area (Articles 2 and 3), freedom to work and opportunities to work (Article 4), fair pay and decent conditions of work (Article 7), the right to form trade unions and to strike (Article 8), social security (Article 9), special protections for mothers and children (Article 10), the right to adequate food, clothing, and housing (Article 11), the right to basic health services (Article 12), the right to education (Article 13), and the right to participate in cultural life and scientific progress (Article 15).

Article 2.1 of the Social Covenant sets out what each of the parties commits itself to do about this list, namely to “take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation…to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant.” In contrast, the Civil and Political Covenant simply commits its signatories to “respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory the rights recognized in the present Covenant” (Article 2.1). The contrast between these two levels of commitment has led some people to suspect that economic and social rights are really just goals.

The system to monitor and promote compliance with the Social Covenant is modest since it mainly requires participating countries to make periodic reports on measures taken to comply with the treaty. Countries agree “to submit…reports on the measures which they have adopted and the progress made in achieving the observance of the rights recognized herein” (Article 16). A committee of experts, created by the Economic and Social Council in 1987, is given the job of looking at the progress reports from the participating countries. This body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, studies the reports, discusses them with representatives of the governments reporting, and issues interpretive statements known as “General Comments” on the requirements of the treaty. An amendment to the treaty which allows the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights “to receive complaints from individuals of violations of economic and social rights has recently come into force.”

Why did the Social Covenant opt for progressive implementation and thereby treat its rights as being somewhat like goals? The main reason, I think, is that more than half of the world’s countries were in no position, in terms of economic, institutional, and human resources, to realize these standards fully or even largely. For many countries, noncompliance due to inability would have been certain if these standards had been treated as immediately binding. We will return to this topic below.

Opponents of social rights often deny them the status of human rights, restricting that standing to civil and political rights. Familiar objections to social rights include the following: (1) they do not serve truly fundamental interests; (2) they are too burdensome on governments and taxpayers; and (3) they are not feasible in less-developed countries (on these issues see Beetham 1995; Cranston 1967, 1973; Howard 1987; Nickel 2005, 2006).

Human rights, such as rights to freedom from torture or to fair trials in criminal and civil cases, set out extremely important standards that governments everywhere should meet. One might object that social rights do not meet this standard of great importance. Perhaps they identify valuable goods, but not extremely valuable goods. If this objection is that some formulations of social rights in international human rights documents are too expansive it can be conceded and those formulations rejected or qualified. It is far from the case, however, that all or most social rights pertain to superficial interests. To discuss the issue of importance I will use two social rights as examples: the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to free public education. These rights require governments to try to remedy widespread and serious evils such as hunger and ignorance.

The importance of food and other basic material conditions of life is easy to show. These goods are essential to people’s ability to live, function, and flourish. Without adequate access to these goods, interests in life, health, and liberty are endangered and serious illness and death are probable. The connection between having a minimally good life and having reasonably secure access to the goods the right guarantees is direct and obvious — something that is not always true with other human rights (Orend 2002, 115).

In the contemporary world lack of access to educational opportunities typically limits (both absolutely and comparatively) people’s abilities to participate fully and effectively in the political and economic life of their country (Hodgson 1998). Lack of education increases the likelihood of unemployment and underemployment.

Another way to support the importance of social rights is to show their importance to the full implementation of civil and political rights. If a government succeeds in eliminating hunger and providing education to everyone this promotes people’s abilities to know, use, and enjoy their liberties, due process rights, and rights of political participation. This is easiest to see in regard to education. Ignorance is a barrier to the realization of civil and political rights because uneducated people often do not know what rights they have and what they can do to use and defend them. It is also easy to see in the area of democratic participation. Education and a minimum income make it easier for people at the bottom economically to follow politics, participate in political campaigns, and to spend the time and money needed to go to the polls and vote.

The second objection is that social rights are too burdensome. It is very expensive to guarantee to everyone basic education and minimal material conditions of life. Perhaps social rights are too expensive or burdensome to be justified even in rich countries. Frequently the claim that social rights are too burdensome uses other, less controversial human rights as a standard of comparison, and suggests that social rights are substantially more burdensome or expensive than liberty rights. Suppose that we use as a basis of comparison liberty rights such as freedom of communication, association, and movement. These rights require both respect and protection from governments. And people cannot be adequately protected in their enjoyment of liberties such as these unless they also have security and due process rights. The costs of liberty, as it were, include the costs of law and criminal justice. Once we see this, liberties start to look a lot more costly. To provide effective liberties to communicate, associate, and move it is not enough for a society to make a prohibition of interference with these activities part of its law and accepted morality. An effective system of provision for these liberties will require a legal scheme that defines personal and property rights and protects these rights against invasions while ensuring due process to those accused of crimes. Providing such legal protection in the form of legislatures, police, courts, and prisons is extremely expensive.

Further, we should not think of social rights as simply giving everyone a free supply of the goods these rights protect. Guarantees of things like food and housing will be intolerably expensive and will undermine productivity if everyone simply receives a free supply. A viable system of social rights will require most people to provide these goods for themselves and their families through work as long as they are given the necessary opportunities, education, and infrastructure. Government-implemented social rights provide guarantees of availability (or “secure access”), but governments should have to supply the requisite goods in only a small fraction of cases. Note that primary education is often an exception to this since many countries provide free public education irrespective of ability to pay.

Countries that do not accept and implement social rights still have to bear somehow the costs of providing for the needy since these countries — particularly if they recognize democratic rights of political participation — are unlikely to find it tolerable to allow sizeable parts of the population to starve and be homeless. If government does not supply food, clothing, and shelter to those unable to provide for themselves, then families, friends, and communities will have to shoulder this burden. It is only in the last century that government-sponsored social rights have taken over a substantial part of the burden of providing for the needy. The taxes associated with social rights are partial replacements for other burdensome duties, namely the duties of families and communities to provide adequate care for the unemployed, sick, disabled, and aged. Deciding whether to implement social rights is not a matter of deciding whether to bear such burdens, but rather of deciding whether to continue with total reliance on a system of informal provision that distributes benefits in a very spotty way and whose costs fall very unevenly on families, friends, and communities.

Once we recognize that liberty rights also carry high costs, that intelligent systems of provision for social rights supply the requisite goods to people in only a small minority of cases, and that these systems are substitutes for other, more local ways of providing for the needy, the difference in size between the costs of liberty rights and the costs of social rights ceases to seem so large.

Even if the burdens imposed by social rights are not excessive, it might still be wrong to impose them on individuals. Libertarians object to social rights as requiring impermissible taxation. Nozick, for example, says that “Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor” (Nozick 1974, 169). This view is vulnerable to an attack asserting two things. First, taxation is permissible when it is used to support government-organized systems of humanitarian assistance that fulfill more effectively than charity duties of assistance that all individuals have (Beetham 1995, 53). Second, property rights are not so strong that they can never be outweighed by the requirements of meeting other rights.

The third objection to social rights is that they are not feasible in many countries. It is very expensive to provide guarantees of subsistence, minimal public health measures, and basic education. As we saw above, the Social Covenant dealt with the issue of feasibility by calling for progressive implementation, that is, implementation as financial and other resources permit. Does this view of implementation turn social rights into high-priority goals? If so, is that a bad thing?

Standards that outrun the abilities of many of their addressees are good candidates for normative treatment as goals. Treating such standards as goals, which allows us to view them as largely aspirational rather than as imposing immediate duties, avoids massive problems of inability-based noncompliance. One may worry, however, that this is too much of a demotion. As norms, goals seem much weaker than rights. But goals can be formulated in ways that make them more like rights. Goals can be assigned addressees (the party who is to pursue the goal), beneficiaries, scopes that define the objective to be pursued, and a high level of priority. Strong reasons for the importance of these goals can be provided. And supervisory bodies can monitor levels of progress and pressure low-performing addressees to attend to and work on their goals.

Treating very demanding rights as goals has several advantages. One is that proposed goals that exceed one’s abilities are not as farcical as proposed duties that exceed one’s abilities. Creating grand lists of human rights that many countries cannot at present realize seems fraudulent to many people, and perhaps this fraudulence is reduced if we understand that these “rights” are really goals that countries should promote. Goals are inherently ability-calibrated. What you should do now about your goals depends on your abilities and other commitments. Goals coexist happily with low levels of ability to achieve them. Another advantage is that goals are flexible; addressees with different levels of ability can choose ways of pursuing the goals that suit their circumstances and means. Because of these attractions of goals, it will be worth exploring ways to transform very demanding human rights into goals. The transformation may be full or partial.

A right together with its supporting reasons might be divided into two parts. One part, call it the “demand side,” sets out the rightholder’s claim and the reasons why it is very valuable or important that this claim be fulfilled. If the right is the right to a fair trial when one is arrested and accused of a crime, the demand side would set out the rightholder’s claim to a fair trial and the reasons why that claim is very valuable or important. The other part, the “supply side,” would set out the addressees’ responsibilities in regard to the rightholder’s claim. It would explain why this claim to a fair trial is a matter of duty, what the duties are, and why it is these particular addressees rather than other possible addressees that have the duty (Feinberg 1973).

A goal that is similar to a right could also be divided into these two parts. The demand side would set out the beneficiary’s claim or demand and the reasons why it is very desirable or important that this demand be fulfilled. For example, the demand side might set out the reasons why it is desirable for the beneficiary to have access to employment. And the supply side would set out the addressee’s responsibility in regard to the beneficiary’s demand. It would explain why promoting access to employment for the beneficiary should be a goal for the addressee. It does not impose duties on the addressee, but it shows that the addressee has good reasons for acting to satisfy the demand.

Since even a goal that is supported by good reasons imposes no duties — that is, fails to be mandatory in character — we may think that such goals are poor substitutes for rights and should not be called “rights.” But it is possible to create right-goal mixtures that contain some mandatory elements and that therefore seem more like real rights (see Brems 2009 for a similar idea). A minimal right-goal mixture would include a duty to try to realize the goal as quickly as possible. Here the demand side would set out the beneficiary’s demand or claim and the reasons why it is very desirable or important that this demand be fulfilled. And the supply side would explain not only why the addressee has good reasons to pursue this goal, but also explain why the addressee has a duty to try to realize this goal with all deliberate speed. The economic and social rights in the Social Covenant seem to fit this model. The countries ratifying the Covenant agree to make it a matter of government duty to realize the list of rights as soon as possible. As we saw earlier, each of the Social Covenant’s signatories has agreed to “take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant.” The signatories agree, on this interpretation, to make it a matter of duty to realize the listed rights as soon and as far as resources permit.

A problem with such a right-goal mixture is that it allows the addressee great discretion concerning when to do something about the right and how much to do. A body supervising compliance with a human rights treaty may wish to remove some of this discretion by requiring that the addressees at least take some significant and good faith steps immediately and regularly and that these steps be documented. Duties to try are less vaporous if they are combined with duties that require immediate steps. Countries may be required to act in certain ways (e.g., make a good faith effort and be prepared to demonstrate that they have done so), set specific benchmarks and timetables, establish agencies to work on the goals, provide them with budgets, and use expert assistance from international agencies. To facilitate the monitoring of compliance the country may be required to collect data continuously concerning realization of the goals, make periodic reports, and allow its citizens to complain to the monitoring body about failures to pursue the goals energetically (United Nations 1991).

Article 14 of the Social Covenant imposes a conditional duty in regard to the right to education that was set out in Article 13. It says that countries that “have not been able to secure” compulsory primary education, free of charge, “undertake, within two years, to work out and adopt a detailed plan of action for the progressive implementation, within a reasonable number of years, to be fixed in the plan, of the principle of compulsory education free of charge for all.” Compliance with this requirement, which is only present for the right to education, involves planning and setting timetables. Instead of, or in addition to, requiring plans and timetables a goal-right mixture could require immediate compliance with minimal standards. The idea is that minimal provision might be within the capacity of all addressees. For example, countries could be required very soon to provide all children with reading and writing instruction.

These ways of creating right-goal mixtures allow us to see that some rights can be goals while still having enough mandatory elements to be counted as rights in a meaningful sense.

A complementary approach to implementing social rights (and other demanding rights as well) in developing countries emphasizes ability enhancement rather than burden reduction. It seeks to increase the ability of developing countries to implement rights effectively. Possible strategies include using aid to increase the resources available for this purpose, providing education to current and future officials, offering technical assistance concerning the mechanisms of implementation, and battling corruption. Human rights theory needs better accounts of how the rights, e.g., of a Haitian create (moral and legal) duties not just for the Haitian government but also for (1) other governments, (2) international organizations, (3) individuals resident in Haiti, and (4) individuals resident in other countries.

John Rawls proposed a duty of liberal democratic countries to aid poor or “burdened” countries. Rawls defines “burdened societies” as ones that “lack the political and cultural traditions, the human capital and know-how and, often, the material and technological resources needed to be well-ordered” (Rawls 1999). Rawls holds that well-off countries have a moral duty to assist burdened societies. Unfortunately Rawls does not provide much justification for this claim. In particular he does not use his idea of an international “original position” to work out how the justification for such a duty would go and what objections it would need to overcome.

A good defense of a duty of well-off governments to assist poor countries in realizing human rights would not automatically impose that duty on the citizens of those well-off countries. But perhaps citizens should share somehow in duties of international aid. One approach to explaining how and why citizens share in these duties involves viewing the citizens of a democratic country as having ultimate responsibility for the human rights duties of their government. If their government has a duty to respect or implement the right to a fair trial, or a duty to aid poor countries, its citizens share in that duty. They are required as voters, political agents, and taxpayers to try to promote and support their government’s compliance with its human rights duties. This principle of shared duty is particularly attractive in democratic societies where the citizens are the ultimate source of political authority. This view makes individuals back-up addressees for the duties of their governments.

Thomas Pogge has taken a related but slightly different approach to generating individual duties from human rights that have governments as their primary addressees. Pogge emphasizes the Universal Declaration’s Article 28 which says that “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which this the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Pogge sees in this Article a plausible norm, namely that both countries and individuals have negative duties not to be complicit in an international order that unfairly disadvantages poor countries and the people in them. A coercive political order, whether national or international, “must not avoidably restrict the freedom of some so as to render their access to basic necessities insecure — especially through official denial or deprivation. If it does, then all human agents have a negative duty, correlative to the postulated social and economic human rights, not to cooperate in upholding it unless they compensate for their cooperation by protecting its victims or by working for its reform. Those violating this duty share responsibility for the harms (insecure access to basic necessities) produced by the unjust institutional order in question” (Pogge 2002, 67).
4. International Human Rights Law and Organizations

Since 1948 an elaborate body of international human rights law has developed through state practice, the work of international courts, and multilateral treaty making. Dozens of human rights treaties are now operative within organizations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the African Union. Some of these treaties have been ratified by more than three-quarters of the world’s countries. This section sketches the development of international measures to promote and protect human rights. Efforts to protect human rights through international treaties began in 1919 in the League of Nations and expanded after World War II with treaties such as the Genocide Convention (1948), the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950), and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (both 1966). The international promotion and protection of human rights complements the legal protection of human rights at the national level.

* 4.1 Historical Overview
* 4.2 United Nations Human Rights Treaties
* 4.3 Other Human Rights Agencies within the United Nations
* 4.4 Regional Systems
* 4.5 The International Criminal Court
* 4.6 Promotion of Human Rights by States
* 4.7 Nongovernmental Human Rights Organizations
* 4.8 The Future of Human Rights Law

4.1 Historical Overview

When a government violates the human rights of its residents they may be able to appeal to the country’s laws or bill of rights and get a court to order that the violations stop and that the government provide remedies. If suitable national laws and bills of rights are unavailable, however, victims of human rights violations may want help from international law and organizations. Traditionally, international law did not confer rights and protections on individual persons; its concern was exclusively the rights and duties of countries or states. Victims of human rights violations could appeal to heaven, and invoke standards of natural justice, but there were no international organizations working to formulate and enforce legal rights of individuals. After World War I the League of Nations had some success in using minority rights treaties to protect national minorities in Europe, but the effort ended with the rise of Nazi Germany and the beginning of World War II.

Countries fighting Hitler’s Germany decided that after their victory a new international organization would be needed to promote international peace and security, and that securing human rights in all countries would help lessen the likelihood of the reoccurrence of large wars (Lauren 1998, Morsink 1999, Glendon 2001). Indeed, prior to the official formation of the United Nations, the Allies imposed human rights obligations on Italy and Central European powers in peace treaties. Similar obligations were imposed on Germany and Japan during the Allied occupation (Henkin 1999). The United Nations was created in 1945. Its Charter established goals of protecting future generations from the “scourge of war” and promoting “fundamental human rights” and the “dignity and worth of the human person.”

Not long after its founding the UN established a committee with the charge of writing an international bill of rights. This document was to be similar to historic bills of rights such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) and the United States Bill of Rights (1791), but was to apply to every person in every country. This international bill of rights emerged in December 1948 as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Morsink 1999, Lauren 1998, Glendon 2001). Although some diplomats had hoped for a binding human rights treaty that countries joining the UN would have to adopt, the Universal Declaration was a set of recommended standards rather than a binding treaty. By now, however, almost all of the norms in the Universal Declaration have been incorporated in widely-ratified UN human rights treaties.

The Universal Declaration has been astoundingly successful in setting the pattern for subsequent human rights treaties and in getting countries to include its list of rights in national constitutions and bills of rights (Morsink 1999). The Universal Declaration, and the treaties that followed it, largely define what people today mean when they speak of human rights. As we saw in Section 1 above, the Universal Declaration proposed six families of rights including security rights, due process rights, liberty rights, rights of political participation, equality rights, and social rights. The inclusion of social rights to goods such as education and an adequate standard of living took the Declaration beyond its 18th century antecedents (see Eide 1992).

The Universal Declaration was born at a time that made its success difficult. The Declaration’s approval by the General Assembly coincided with the beginning of the Cold War — an ideological and geopolitical conflict between capitalist and communist countries that continued almost until 1990. Ideological differences and hostilities might have stalled the human rights movement if not for human rights advances in Europe. In the early 1950s Western European countries formed the Council of Europe and created the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This international treaty entered into force September 3, 1953, and was binding upon countries that ratified it. The European Convention established basic rights similar to those in the Universal Declaration, but included provisions for enforcement and adjudication. The European Convention gave birth to the European Court of Human Rights, whose job is to receive, evaluate, and investigate complaints, mediate disputes, issue judgments, and interpret the Convention. The human rights set forth in the Convention are legally enforceable rights to which member states are bound. In creating the European Convention and Court, the countries of Western Europe gradually proved that effective protection of human rights could be provided at the international level.

Inspired by the success of the European Convention, the United Nations followed a similar path, creating numerous treaties aimed at the enforcement and adjudication of the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration. These documents establish legal obligations among the ratifying countries to implement international rights within their national legal and political systems. By 2000 the main human rights treaties had been ratified by a large majority of the world’s countries. As Ann Bayefsky writes, “Every UN member state is a party to one or more of the six major human rights treaties. 80% of states have ratified four or more” (Bayefsky 2001).

Regional arrangements, similar to those in Europe, exist in the Americas and Africa (see 5.4.2 and 5.4.3 below). Efforts to protect human rights through international law have obviously not been totally successful — lots of human rights violations still occur today in all parts of the world. International human rights law is a work in progress, and has developed much farther than one could have expected in 1950 or even in 1975.
4.2 United Nations Human Rights Treaties

International human rights treaties transform lists of human rights into legally binding state obligations. The first such United Nations treaty was the Genocide Convention, approved in 1948 — just one day before the Universal Declaration. The Convention defines genocide and makes it a crime under international law. It also requires ratifying states to enact legislation prohibiting genocide. Currently the Genocide Convention has more than 130 parties. The International Criminal Court, created by the Rome Treaty of 1998, is authorized to prosecute genocide at the international level, along with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

After the creation of the Universal Declaration, the Human Rights Commission proceeded to try to create treaties to make the rights in the Universal Declaration into norms of international law. Because of the Cold War, the effort went ahead at a glacial pace. To accommodate the ideological division between those who believed in the importance of social rights and those who did not, or who thought that social rights could not be enforced in the same way as civil and political rights, the Commission ultimately decided to create two separate treaties. Drafts of the two International Covenants were submitted to the General Assembly for approval in 1953, but approval was much delayed. Almost twenty years after the Universal Declaration, the United Nations General Assembly finally approved the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (both 1966). The Civil and Political Covenant contains most of the civil and political rights found in the Universal Declaration. The Social Covenant contains the economic and social rights found in the second half of the Universal Declaration (Articles 22–27). These treaties embodying Universal Declaration rights received enough ratifications to become operative in 1976 and have now become the two most important UN human rights treaties. To date, these treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries.

A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. This is a significant, if non-coercive, form of accountability. A ratifying country does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm “self-executing” — that is, directly enforceable in domestic courts. That often requires implementing legislation.

A common method of treaty implementation within the UN is the creation of a standing committee (or “treaty body”) to monitor the performance of member states, and to which those states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance. The Civil and Political Covenant, which has been ratified by more than 150 countries, illustrates this approach. Rather than creating a human rights court, the Covenant created the Human Rights Committee (HRC), to promote compliance with its norms. The eighteen members of the HRC serve as independent experts rather than as state representatives. This potentially gives them some independence from the positions of their governments. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions (Alston and Crawford 2000).

The HRC is responsible for publishing “general comments” regarding the interpretation of the Civil and Political Covenant, reviewing periodic state reports on implementation of the Covenant, and receiving and investigating complaints of human rights violations made by states and individuals. The Committee holds public sessions in which it hears from non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and meets with representatives of the state making the report. The HRC then publishes “Concluding Observations” that evaluate human rights compliance by the reporting country. This process requires countries to hold discussions with the Human Rights Committee and have their human rights problems exposed to world public opinion. The reporting procedure is useful in encouraging countries to identify their major human rights problems and to devise methods of dealing with them over time. Unfortunately, the reporting system has few teeth when dealing with countries that stonewall or fail to report, and the Human Rights Committee’s conclusions often receive little attention (Bayefsky 2001).

In addition to the required reporting procedure, the HRC has the authority to consider state complaints that allege human rights violations by another member state (see Article 41). The Civil and Political Covenant also has an optional protocol, binding only on states that have separately ratified it, that authorizes the HRC to receive, investigate, and mediate complaints from individuals alleging that their rights under the Covenant have been violated by a participating state (Joseph, Schultz, and Castan 2000). About two-thirds of the states adhering to the Covenant have ratified this optional protocol.

Many other UN human rights treaties are implemented in roughly the same way as the Civil and Political Covenant. These include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination(1966), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984). These human rights treaties create their own treaty bodies to monitor compliance and implementation. The proliferation of treaty bodies and reporting requirements has led to considerable overlap and inefficiency within the UN human rights system (Bayefsky 2001).

The standard UN system for implementing human rights is not very powerful. It is stronger on the promotion of human rights than on their protection through adjudication. Unlike the regional systems in Europe and the Americas, it does not have an international human rights court with powers to order states to change their practices or compensate a victim. Its tools are largely limited to consciousness-raising, persuasion, mediation, and exposure of violations to public scrutiny.
4.3 Other United Nations Human Rights Agencies

Human Rights treaties are only one part of the UN’s human rights program. In fact, the UN has several agencies and courts, independent of its human rights treaties, to address continuing human rights abuses. Three notable agencies are the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which serves as a full-time advocate for human rights within the UN; the Human Rights Council, which addresses gross human rights violations; and the Security Council, which has the authority to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions, sponsor peacekeeping missions, and authorize military interventions in cases of human rights emergencies.
4.3.1 The High Commissioner for Human Rights

In 1993, following recommendations included in the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the United Nations General Assembly established the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as part of the UN Secretariat. The OHCHR coordinates the many human rights activities within the UN, working closely with treaty bodies, such as the Human Rights Committee, and other UN agencies such as the Human Rights Council. The High-Commissioner assists in the development of new treaties and procedures, sets the agenda for human rights agencies within the UN, and provides advisory services to governments. Most importantly, the High Commissioner serves as a full-time advocate for human rights within the United Nations (Korey 1998). The OHCHR also has field offices throughout the world, including offices in Central Asia, East and Southern Africa, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East.
4.3.2 The Human Rights Council

In 2006 the longstanding UN Human Rights Commission was replaced by a new Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Commission was a 56 member committee, authorized by the UN Charter, consisting of state representatives. The stated goals of the replacement were to eliminate “double standards and politicization.” The new Council’s responsibilities include “promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights,” addressing gross human rights violations, making recommendations to the General Assembly, and “responding promptly to human rights emergencies.” The Council’s other responsibilities include providing direct assistance to UN member states to help them meet their human rights responsibilities through communication, technical assistance, and capacity building.

The Council consists of 47 members, elected directly and individually by the General Assembly with membership based on equitable geographic distribution. Council members serve terms of three years, with a limitation of no more than two consecutive terms. Procedures for Council membership are aimed at keeping countries with very poor human rights records off the Commission. Members must be elected by an absolute majority of the General Assembly, requiring 96 votes in a secret ballot, rather than a simple majority of General Assembly members present. The General Assembly also acts as a check on the Council, with the ability to suspend Council members whose countries commit gross human rights violations. The Council meets at least three times per year for a total of not less than ten weeks, with the ability to hold special sessions when necessary.

An important 2008 development within the procedures of the Council is Universal Periodic Review. This is a system of scrutiny and evaluation run by the Council and its staff in which all UN member states are required once every four years to report on, receive evaluation, and have discussed in the Council their human rights practices. This requirement applies whether or not a country participates in human rights treaties.
4.3.3 The Security Council

The Security Council’s mandate under Article 24 of the UN Charter is the maintenance of international peace and security. The fifteen-member body consists of 5 permanent and 10 elected members. Nine votes are needed to approve any measures. Any of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) can exercise their veto power to prevent a given action from succeeding. The permanent membership of five countries, with their veto power, is a clear concession to economic and military power within the Security Council. The Security Council can issue binding decisions regarding international security or peace, authorize military interventions and impose diplomatic and economic sanctions (Bailey 1994, Ramcharan 2002). In recent years the Security Council has been willing to discuss and attempt to deal with major human rights crises. After the international failure to intervene to prevent the Rwandan genocide, the Security Council and other UN bodies began to develop the idea of a “Responsibility to Protect” (see Evans 2008).
4.4 Regional Human Rights Systems

Regional arrangements supplement the UN system by promoting and protecting human rights in particular parts of the world. Three regions — Europe, the Americas, and Africa — have formulated their own declarations and conventions for the protection and enforcement of human rights. Because of their locations, regional agencies and courts have better chances of effectively investigating alleged violations promptly and securing relief for victims. Regional agencies are also likely to be more attuned to the culture and identity of the region and may accordingly have a deeper understanding of problems, circumstances, and possible reforms.
4.4.1 The European System

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the European Court of Human Rights, established under the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights (1950) showed the world that it was possible to adjudicate and enforce human rights at the international level. Article 3 of the Statute of the Council of Europe requires member states to accept the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms within their jurisdictions. The Council even defines its post-1989 role as that of a “human rights watchdog” for post-communist European countries (see About the Council of Europe). During its 57 year history, membership in the Council of Europe has more than doubled — currently the Council has nearly 50 member states, about 20 of which are Central or Eastern European states.

The European Convention formulates human rights norms, legally binds member states to respect these norms, and creates a system of adjudication and enforcement. The European Convention’s commitment clause requires all member states to secure these fundamental rights to every person within their jurisdictions. The first section of the European Convention then sets forth the fundamental rights covered in the convention, while the second section establishes the European Court of Human Rights.

The rights set forth in the European Convention are similar to the first twenty-one articles of the Universal Declaration, covering standard civil and political rights. Social rights were treated in a separate document, the European Social Charter. The European Convention defines its rights in greater detail than the Universal Declaration. A good example of this is seen in the right to life. While the Universal Declaration simply sets forth, “[e]veryone has the right to life…,” the European Convention’s formulation is far more specific, requiring a mens rea as a necessary condition for violation and defining specific exceptions to this right (see Article 2).

The European system originally had both a Commission and a Human Rights Court to ensure that member states fulfilled their human rights obligations. In 1998, the European Convention was amended to abolish the Commission, expand and reorganize the Court, and make the Court a full-time operation. Countries that ratify the European Convention agree to respect and implement a list of rights, but they also agree to the investigation, mediation, and adjudication of human rights complaints. The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, is composed of one judge from each participating state in the Council of Europe. The judges, however, are appointed as independent jurists rather than as state representatives.

Citizens from the participating countries with human rights complaints who have been unable to find a remedy in their national courts may petition the European Court of Human Rights. Complaints by governments about human rights violations in another participating country are also permitted, but are rarely made. If the Court agrees to hear a complaint, it investigates and adjudicates it. Before issuing a judgment, the Court attempts to mediate the dispute. If conciliation fails, the Court will issue a judgment with supporting judicial opinions and impose a remedy. Through this process a large body of international human rights jurisprudence has developed (Jacobs and White 1996; Janis, Kay and Bradley 1995). The Court currently has a very large backlog of cases. In 2004 reforms were implemented to address this problem (see the 2004 amendment, Protocol 14)

Participating governments almost always accept the Court’s judgments. Compliance occurs because governments are committed to the European Convention and to the rule of law, and because their membership in good standing in the Council of Europe would be endangered were they to defy the Court.
4.4.2 The Inter-American System

The Organization of American States (OAS) is the oldest regional organization of states. In 1948, 21 states signed the OAS Charter, establishing the regional organization and affirming their commitment to democracy, liberty, and equality before the law. Article 3 of the OAS Charter recognizes the “fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race, nationality, creed, or sex.” The Inter-American system has two main documents, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights; and two main treaty bodies, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Even before the UN adopted the Universal Declaration, the Organization of American States approved the American Declaration (1948). Like the Universal Declaration, the American Declaration encompasses the entire range of human rights. Additionally, the declaration includes an explicit list of duties, ranging from general duties toward society and one’s children, to an individual’s duty to vote, work, and pay taxes (Articles 29–38).

Despite its early beginnings, the Inter-American system of human rights progressed more slowly than its counterparts. Not until 1969 did the OAS adopt the American Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in June of 1978. The Convention gave legal force to most of the rights established in the American Declaration with a commitment clause requiring states to adopt legislative or other measures necessary for full implementation of these rights. The Convention does not cover social rights. Those were subsequently added by the Protocol of San Salvador (1988).

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was established in 1959 and conducted its first investigation in 1961. The Commission is the first of two permanent bodies for promoting and protecting human rights in the Americas and consists of seven members elected by the OAS General Assembly who serve in their personal capacities.

The Commission’s main functions include investigating individual complaints and preparing reports on countries with severe human rights problems. To this end the Commission is authorized to:

* Receive and investigate individual petitions regarding human rights violations
* Publish reports regarding human rights situations in member states
* Visit member states and investigate general human rights conditions or particular problem areas
* Publish studies on specific subject areas, such as indigenous rights and women’s rights
* Make human rights recommendations to member states
* Submit cases to, or request advisory opinions from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 1979 the OAS adopted the Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, officially creating the Inter-American Court and defining its jurisdiction. The Court is authorized to interpret and enforce the Convention (Davidson 1997). The Court is composed of seven judges who serve a six year term as individuals rather than as government representatives. The Court’s jurisdiction is limited to cases submitted to it by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or by the member states. The Court generally holds public hearings and delivers decisions in public sessions.

Historically, the Commission was a more important actor than the Court in the implementation of the American Convention (Farer 1997). This seems to be changing, however, as the Court plays an increasingly active and central role.
4.4.3 The African System

The African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights was created within the Organization of African Unity in 1981, entering into force in 1986. In 2000 the Organization of African Unity transformed itself into the African Union. The Constitutive Act, whereby this was accomplished, reaffirmed Africa’s determination “to promote and protect human and peoples’ rights.” As of 2010 the African Union has 50 members in good standing.

The African Charter obligates ratifying countries to recognize the rights and duties listed and to adopt legislation or measures to bring them into effect (Article 2). The Charter is divided into two parts. The first part sets forth rights and duties and the second part establishes safeguards for them. Like the American Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter sets out not only rights but also duties of individuals (Articles 27–29). These individual duties, included perhaps to counter claims that human rights promote excessive individualism, are directed to family, society, state, and the international community.

The African Charter explicitly posits group rights — the rights of peoples. Examples of such rights include the right of a group to freely dispose of its natural resources in the exclusive interest of its members (Article 21), and the right of a colonized or oppressed group to free themselves from domination (Article 20).

The Charter created an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to promote and ensure the protection of human and peoples’ rights in Africa (Article 30). The Commission meets twice a year and consists of eleven members of the African community who serve six year terms in their personal capacities. The functions of the Commission are the promotion of human rights, the protection of these rights, interpretation of the African Charter, and the performance of “any other tasks” requested by the AU (Article 45). The Commission is also authorized to perform studies regarding problems in the area of human rights; formulate rules addressing human rights problems; investigate alleged human rights violations; prepare reports discussing human rights abuses; and make recommendations to the AU Assembly (Articles 45–54). Furthermore, states are required to submit regular reports to the Commission on their human rights problems and efforts to address them (Article 62).

The African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights is now in operation in Arusha, Tanzania. The first election of its eleven judges occurred in 2006. The judges serve six-year terms and are permitted to serve two terms. The Court issued its first judgment concerning admissibility in 2009.

The African system has enormous human rights problems to address, frequently faces non-cooperation by governments, and has inadequate resources (Evans and Murray 2002). But despite these problems the African Union seems to be slowly constructing international mechanisms to promote and protect human rights in Africa.
4.4.4 Other regions

Large areas of the world lack functioning regional human rights systems (although they are, of course, covered by the worldwide UN system). No regional system exists in Asia, although the members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) created in 2009 an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The Arab League has an Arab Charter of Human Rights but it has received few ratifications despite its adoption more than a decade ago.
4.5 The International Criminal Court

After countries throw off oppressive regimes or emerge from civil war they face a period of (what we now call) transitional justice. During this period they face the question of what should be done about prosecuting and punishing political, military, and ethnic leaders who organized and carried out severe human rights violations. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is designed to prevent impunity for human rights crimes, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The ICC was based on the models and experience of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The ICC was created in 1998 when 120 States adopted the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court setting forth the jurisdiction and functions of the Court. This treaty came into force in 2002. In the following year the member states adopted Rules of Procedure and Evidence, Elements of Crimes, an Agreement on Privileges and Immunities, and elected the Court’s 18 judges (McGoldrick et al. 2004).

The ICC has a prosecutor who receives petitions, conducts investigations, and prosecutes grave international crimes (Articles 34, 42). The Prosecutor may accept referrals made by State Parties or by the UN Security Council, and may also accept information about crimes from individuals and nongovernmental organizations.

The ICC operates as a backup system to efforts at the national level to prosecute war crimes and human rights violations. Under the doctrine of complementarity, the Court’s jurisdiction comes into play only when a country is unwilling or unable to make a good faith effort to prosecute and convict violators. A person alleged to have committed a crime under the ICC Statute whose country is unwilling or unable to prosecute him or her falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC if (1) the country of which the accused is a citizen is a party to the Statute, or has authorized the jurisdiction of the court in the matter; (2) the country in whose territory the accused allegedly committed the crime is a party to the Statute, or has authorized the jurisdiction of the court in the matter, or (3) the crime the accused allegedly committed is referred to the Court by the Security Council.

The Court’s jurisdiction is limited to “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole” (Rome Statute, Article 1). The Statute identifies four crimes over which the ICC may exercise jurisdiction: (1) genocide; (2) crimes against humanity; (3) war crimes; and (4) the crime of aggression against another state. The ICC may not, however, exercise jurisdiction over crimes of aggression until success has been achieved in defining this crime (Article 5.2).

As of 2010, 111 countries have ratified the ICC. Prominent countries that have not joined include China, India, Russia and the USA. No Middle Eastern country except Jordan has ratified.
4.6 Promotion of Human Rights by States

Perhaps the most important role that states play in international human rights law is in defining and establishing that law by creating and ratifying human rights treaties. Treaties are generally authored by committees of state representatives, and they are ratified by executive and legislative consent at the national level. Once a treaty is established, states help give it life by creating domestic legislation to implement it, conforming their conduct to its norms, and using it as a standard for domestic and international evaluation and criticism.

Article 56 of the UN Charter obligates member states to take “joint and separate action” to promote observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. Within a country, means of promoting international human rights include incorporating international norms into a state’s constitution and criminal law; creating limits on federalism; and, promoting human rights through propaganda and education. Perhaps the most basic method is enforcement through law at the national level. For example, to comply with the Genocide Convention a country must make genocide a crime within its own legal system. Much international law is obeyed because its norms have been incorporated into the legal systems of countries (Hathaway 2005). Since the end of the Cold War, numerous states have formulated new or revised constitutions that include human rights. A sampling of these states includes Romania (1991), Slovenia (1991), Congo (1992), Lithuania (1992), Albania (1993), Russian Federation (1993), Moldova (1994), Tunisia (1995), Cameroon (1996), and Poland (1997) (See Alston 1999.)

A recent example of the incorporation in domestic law of international norms is found in the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Act of 1998. The Act makes the norms of the European Convention part of the domestic law of the UK. Under this Act, a resident of the UK can bring a human rights claim in British courts under this Act instead of having to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Another mechanism for state promotion of human rights is the creation of national human rights commissions. Their functions include educating people on human rights, promoting human rights, and advising local governments about human rights (Ramcharan 2005). Representatives of state commissions are permitted to participate in annual United Nations human rights sessions, enabling a state’s human rights problems or successes to receive attention at the international level (Ramcharan 2005). Countries with national human rights commissions include Australia, Canada, Fiji, India, Ireland, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines, and Uganda, to name a few.

States often take actions, unilaterally or together with other states, intended to promote and protect human rights in other countries. For example, in the late 1990s Australia led the military effort to restore peace and respect for human rights in East Timor. A new crisis erupted in 2006 and Australia, Portugal, New Zealand, and Malaysia again sent troops to suppress the violence. States use diplomacy, publishing reports and statements, conditioning access to trade or aid on human rights improvements, economic sanctions, and military intervention to promote human rights in other countries.

Humanitarian intervention is the use of force by one state to prevent or stop gross human rights violations and other humanitarian disasters in another state (Teson 2005). Military intervention, even when it has humanitarian purposes, conflicts with the idea of non-intervention—a cornerstone of international law. The principle of non-intervention discourages the use of force against the political and territorial sovereignty of states, and in doing so promotes international peace and security. Perhaps humanitarian intervention, like self-defense, is an exception to the principle of non-intervention.

There is always the risk of a state pursuing its own foreign policy goals under the guise of “humanitarian intervention.” War can be rationalized by calling it “humanitarian intervention” and emphasizing high-minded motives. This possibility was seriously debated with regard to the United States’ intervention in Iraq (see Human Rights Watch: The War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention; see also Teson 2005).

Still, there are situations in which military intervention is the only possible means of ending a consistent pattern of gross human rights violations. Humanitarian intervention relies on the principle that sovereign nations have an obligation to respect fundamental human rights. When state officials perpetrate human rights crimes and the government fails to bring them to justice, the responsibility of the international community is triggered. International organizations have been widely criticized for failing to intervene early and decisively during the genocide in Rwanda.

Efforts by states help add real power to the international human rights system. The countries of Western Europe along with Canada and Australia have been the historic pillars of the human rights establishment. (Perhaps the United States should be added to this list, but its record of compliance with and support for human rights is very mixed.) These countries have lent their considerable power and influence to the system, keeping it going during hard times and helping it expand and flourish in better times. Although these countries all have human rights problems of their own, and have not always risen to the challenge of human rights emergencies, they have sometimes provided military and peacekeeping forces at considerable cost to themselves in money and lives. They have often worked closely with the Security Council in these efforts. They do not, however, have a standing legal commitment to do this, except their commitment under the UN Charter to support the actions of the Security Council.
4.7 Nongovernmental Organizations

Nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Doctors without Borders are extremely active at the international level in the areas of human rights, war crimes, and humanitarian aid. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) allow for collaborations between local and global efforts for human rights by “translating complex international issues into activities to be undertaken by concerned citizens in their own community” (Durham 2004). The functions of international NGOs include investigating complaints, advocacy with governments and international governmental organizations, and policy making. Local activities include fundraising, lobbying, and general education (Durham 2004).

Although they do not have the authority to implement or enforce international law, NGOs have several advantages over state organizations in the human rights system. Much of their work includes information processing and fact finding, in which NGOs educate people about their human rights and gather information regarding human rights abuses in violating countries (Claude & Weston 1992, Durham 2004). In this process NGOs have the benefit of access to local people and organizations and are often able to get direct and indirect access to critical information about current human rights violations (Durham 2004). Once they gather information, NGOs can design campaigns to educate the international community about these abuses.

A key function of NGOs is advocacy — urging support for human rights and attempting to influence governments or international groups with regard to particular human rights violations. Advocacy involves education, persuasion, and the public shaming of violators (Claude & Weston 1992). Representatives of NGOs are seen everywhere in the international human rights system. Many international human rights NGOs attend and often participate in the meetings of UN human rights bodies (Claude & Weston 1992). They provide information about human rights situations through their reports and testimony. They shape the agendas, policies, and treaties of the UN through participation and lobbying (Korey 1998). Notable examples include NGO involvement in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (Claude & Weston 1992).

NGOs with affiliates around the world include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation of Human Rights, Minority Group Rights, Doctors without Borders, and Oxfam. Besides these high profile NGOs there are thousands of local and national organizations working on human rights issues. For a comprehensive list of such organizations see Non-governmental Organizations Research Guide.
4.8 The Future of Human Rights Law

A person who has read the foregoing account of human rights law may wonder whether all the work that has gone into its creation and implementation has made any difference. If so much international human rights law exists, why is the world such a mess?

A simple answer with much truth in it is that the world’s human rights problems are large and deeply entrenched, and that human rights law and organizations are, by comparison, not very strong — particularly within the United Nations. Some of the countries that have the worst human rights records do not participate in the UN human rights system, and many others participate in a formal and hypocritical way.

Regional systems, particularly in Europe and the Americas, do somewhat better. They have their own human rights courts, are more powerful, and enjoy more serious and sincere participation by many (but not all) of their members.

The first 50 years of the human rights movement were handicapped by the Cold War. With that handicap removed, the 1990s were a period of growth and improvement in human rights law and institutions. The period since 2001 has seen a preoccupation with terrorism that has taken much attention and energy away from other human rights problems.

Success in promoting human rights requires hard-to-achieve success in other areas including building more capable, responsive, efficient, and non-corrupt governments, dealing with failed states, increasing economic productivity (to pay for the protections and services that human rights require), improving the power and status of women, improving education, and managing international tensions and conflicts. Realizing human rights worldwide is a project for centuries, not decades. This is not to say, however, that progress cannot proceed at a faster pace than it currently does.

Still, there are some grounds for optimism. Human rights are more widely accepted than they have ever been. They have become part of the currency of international relations, and most countries participate in the human rights system. Treaty arrangements help encourage and pressure countries to deal with their human rights problems. The human rights project continues and has not failed.

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* Buchanan, A., 2010. Human Rights, Legitimacy, and the Use of Force, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Cameron, I., 2004. “Jurisdiction and Admissiblity Issues under the ICC Statute,” in D. McGoldrick et al, (eds.) The Permanent International Criminal Court, Oxford: Hart Publishing.
* Claude, R. and Weston, B. (eds.), 1992. Human Rights in the World Community, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
* Cranston, M., 1967. “Human Rights, Real and Supposed,” in D. D. Raphael (ed.), Political Theory and the Rights of Man, London: Macmillan.
* Cranston, M., 1973. What Are Human Rights?, London: Bodley Head.
* Davidson, S., 1997. The Inter-American Human Rights System, Aldershot: Dartmouth.
* Dershowitz, A., 2004. Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights, New York: Basic Books.
* Donnelly, J., 2003. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 2nd edn. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.
* Durham, H., 2004. “We the People: The Position of NGOs in Gathering Evidence and Giving Witness in International Criminal Trials,” in R. Thakur and P. Malcontent (eds.), From Sovereign Impunity to International Accountability, New York: United Nations University Press.
* Eide, A. et al. (eds.), 2002. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Commentary, Norway: Scandanavian University Press.
* Evans, G., 2008. The Responsibility to Protect, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
* Evans, M. and Murray, R. (eds.), 2002. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights: The System in Practice, 1986–2000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Farer, T., 1997. “The Rise of the Inter-American Human Rights Regime”, Human Rights Quarterly, 19: 510–546.
* Feinberg, J., 1973. Social Philosophy, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
* Gewirth, A., 1982. Human Rights, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
* Glendon, M., 2001. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York: Random House.
* Griffin, J., 2001. “First Steps in an Account of Human Rights” European Journal of Philosophy, 9: 306–327.
* Griffin, J., 2008. On Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Hart, H., 1955. “Are There Any Natural Rights?” Philosophical Review, 64: 175–191.
* Hathaway, O., 2005. “The Promise and Limits of the International Law of Torture,” in O. Hathaway and H. Koh (eds.), Foundations of International Law and Politics, New York: Foundation Press.
* Hayden, P. (ed.), 2001. The Philosophy of Human Rights, St. Paul, MN: Paragon Press.
* Hayward, T., 2005. Constitutional Environmental Rights Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Henkin, L., Neuman, G., Orentlicher, D. and Leebron, D. (eds.), 2001. Human Rights, New York: Foundation Press.
* Henrard, K., 2000. Devising an Adequate System of Minority Protection, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
* Hodgson, D., 1998. The Human Right to Education, Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing .
* Holmes, S. and Sunstein, C., 1999. The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes, New York: Norton.
* Howard, R., 1987. “The Full-Belly Thesis: Should Economic Rights Take Priority over Civil and Political Rights?” Human Rights Quarterly, 5: 467–90.
* Jacobs, F. and White, R., 1996. The European Convention on Human Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Janis, M., Kay, R., and Bradley, A. (eds.), 1995. European Human Rights Law: Texts and Materials, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
* Joseph, S., Schultz, J.,and Castan, M. (eds.), 2000. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Cases, Materials, and Commentary, New York: Oxford University Press.
* Kamminga, M., 1992. Inter-State Accountability for Violations of Human Rights, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
* Katayanagi, M., 2002. Human Rights Functions of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, The Hague: Kluwer.
* Korey, W., 1998. NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York: St. Martin’s .
* Kymlicka, W., 1989. Liberalism, Community, and Culture, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Kymlicka, W. (ed.), 1995. The Rights of Minority Cultures, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Lauren, P., 1998. The Evolution of International Human Rights, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
* Locke, J., 1689. The Second Treatise on Civil Government, New York: Prometheus Books, 1986.
* McGoldrick, D. et al. (eds.), 2004. The Permanent International Criminal Court, Oxford: Hart Publishing.
* Morsink, J., 1999. Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
* Morsink, J., 2009. Inherent Human Rights: Philosophical Roots of the Universal Declaration, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
* Nickel, J., 1993. “The Human Right to A Safe Environment,” Yale Journal of International Law, 18: 281–295.
* Nickel, J., 2005. “Poverty and Rights,” Philosophical Quarterly, 5: 385–402.
* Nickel, J., 2006. Making Sense of Human Rights, Second edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
* Nickel, J., 2008. “Rethinking Indivisibility: Towards a Theory of Supporting Relations between Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, 30: 984–1001 .
* Nozick, R., 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.
* Okin, S., 1998. “Feminism, Women’s Human Rights, and Cultural Differences,” Hypatia, 13: 32–52.
* Orend, B., 2002. Human Rights: Concept and Context, Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.
* Pogge, T., 2000. “The International Significance of Human Rights,” Journal of Ethics, 4: 45–69.
* Pogge, T., 2002. World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Cambridge: Polity Press .
* Ramcharan, B., 2002. The Security Council and the Protection of Human Rights, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
* Ramcharan, B. (ed.), 2005. The Protection Role of National Human Rights Institutions, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.
* Rawls, J., 1999. The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
* Raz, J., 2010. “Human Rights without Foundations” in Samantha Besson and John Tasioulas (eds.), The Philosophy of International Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Rodley, N., 1999. “United Nations Non-Treaty Procedures for Dealing with Human Rights Violations” in H. Hannum (ed.), Guide to International Human Rights Practice, Ardsley, NY: Transnational, 3rd edition .
* Schabas, W., 2001. An Introduction to the International Criminal Court, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Shue, H., 1996. Basic Rights, Second edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press .
* Sigler, J., 1983. Minority Rights, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
* Steiner, H. and Alston, P. (eds.), 2000. International Human Rights in Context, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Sumner, L., 1987. The Moral Foundation of Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Talbott, W., 2005. Which Rights Should be Universal?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Teson, F., 2005. Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality, Ardsley, NY: Transnational.
* Thomson, J., 1990. The Realm of Rights, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
* Tolley, H., 1987. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Boulder: Westview Press.
* Van Dervort, T., 1997. International Law and Organization, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
* Wellman, C., 1995. Real Rights, New York: Oxford University Press.
* Wellman, C., 1999. The Proliferation of Rights: Moral Progress or Empty Rhetoric?, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
* Werner, L., Contemporary International Law: A Concise Introduction, Second edition. Boulder: Westview Press.

Other Internet Resources
Documents and Treaties

* African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (African Union 1981).
* American Convention on Human Rights (OAS 1969).
* American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (OAS 1948).
* Charter of the United Nations (1945).
* Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women(UN 1979).
* Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN 2007) .
* Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN 1989).
* Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers (UN 1990).
* European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Council of Europe, 1950).
* European Social Charter.
* Genocide Convention (UN 1948).
* International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN 1966).
* International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UN 1966).
* International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UN 1965).
* Protocol of San Salvador (OAS 1988).
* Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (UN 1998).
* UN Convention Against Torture (UN 1984).
* Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948).
* Vienna Declaration (UN 1993).

Organizations (Governmental and Nongovernmental)

* African Union.
* Amnesty International.
* Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
* Derechos Human Rights.
* Doctors without Borders.
* Human Rights Watch.
* International Commission of Jurists.
* International Red Cross.
* Organization of American States.
* United Nations.
* University of Minnesota Human Rights Library.

Related Entries

globalization | rights | rights: of children

The assistance of Thomas Pogge, Virginia Mantouvalou, and M.B.E. Smith, is acknowledged with gratitude.
Copyright © 2010 by
James Nickel

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 8:43 am  Leave a Comment  

teorías sobre el igualitarismo

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First published Fri Aug 16, 2002; substantive revision Fri Aug 16, 2002

Egalitarianism is a trend of thought in political philosophy. An egalitarian favors equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. Egalitarian doctrines tend to express the idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. So far as the Western European and Anglo-American philosophical tradition is concerned, one significant source of this thought is the Christian notion that God loves all human souls equally. Egalitarianism is a protean doctrine, because there are several different types of equality, or ways in which people might be treated the same, that might be thought desirable. In modern democratic societies, the term “egalitarian” is often used to refer to a position that favors, for any of a wide array of reasons, a greater degree of equality of income and wealth across persons than currently exists.

* 1. Preliminary Distinctions
* 2. Equality of Opportunity
* 3. Equality of Condition: Equality of What?
o 3.1 Lockean Rights
o 3.2 Karl Marx on Equal Rights
o 3.3 Income and Wealth
o 3.4 Capabilities
o 3.5 Resources
o 3.6 Welfare and Opportunity for Welfare
o 3.7 Conclusion: A Test Case
* 4. Equality among Whom?
* 5. Is Equality Desirable Per Se? Varieties of Egalitarianism
o 5.1 Sufficiency
o 5.2 Priority
o 5.3 Desert
* Bibliography
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries

1. Preliminary Distinctions

Egalitarianism is a contested concept in social and political thought. One might care about human equality in many ways, for many reasons. As currently used, the label “egalitarian” does not necessarily indicate that the doctrine so called holds that it is desirable that people’s condition be made the same in any respect or that people ought to be treated the same in any respect. An egalitarian might rather be one who maintains that people ought to be treated as equals–as possessing equal fundamental worth and dignity and as equally morally considerable. In this sense, a sample nonegalitarian would be one who believes that people born into a higher social caste, or a favored race or ethnicity, or with an above-average stock of traits deemed desirable, ought somehow to count for more than others in calculations that determine what morally ought to be done. (On the thought that the core egalitarian ideal is treating people as equals, see Dworkin 2000.) Further norms of equality of condition or treatment might be viewed as free-standing or derived from the claim of equality of status. Controversy also swirls around attempts to specify the class of human persons to whom egalitarian norms apply. Some might count an unborn fetus or a very severely demented human as persons; others disagree.

Egalitarianism can be instrumental or noninstrumental. Given a specification of some aspect of people’s condition or mode of treating them that should be equal, one might hold that the state of affairs in which the stated equality obtains is morally valuable either as an end or as a means. The instrumental egalitarian values equality as a means to some independently specifiable goal; the noninstrumental egalitarian values equality for its own sake–as an end, or as partly constitutive of some end. For example, someone who believes that the maintenance of equality across a group of people fosters relations of solidarity and community among them, and is desirable for that reason, qualifies as an instrumental egalitarian. Someone who believes that equality of some sort is a component of justice, and morally required as such, would be a noninstrumental egalitarian.

Equality of any sort might be valued conditionally or unconditionally. One values equality in the former way if equality is deemed valuable only if some further condition is in place. One might hold that equality in the distribution of resources among a group of persons is valuable, but only on the condition that the individuals are equally deserving.

Equality might be deemed to be desirable or undesirable. A separate and distinct range of questions concerns whether or not people ought to act to bring about equality or are obligated to bring about equality (see Nagel 1991). The discussion to come often merges these questions, the assumption being that if equality is valuable, that is at least one good reason for thinking one should bring it about.

Egalitarianism can be formulated with a variety of roles in mind. For example, an egalitarian norm might be proposed as a fundamental moral principle. As such, it would be intended as a statement of the ultimate norm (or as a member of the set of ultimate norms) to which individual conduct and institutional arrangements ought to conform. An ultimate norm might or might not be suitable for the role of guiding individual decision making or of serving as an explicitly recognized principle regulating institutions and public policy formation in a particular society. If individual agents and public officials are liable through limited cognitive ability, limited knowledge, or limited allegiance to morality to misapply ultimate principles, it might well be the case that these principles could be implemented to a greater degree if they were not employed directly as decisionmaking guides for individual and public policy choice. (On this issue, see Hare 1981). Following this train of thought, one might favor as guidelines for individual and public choice simple, easily understood, readily implementable rules that are to serve as proxies for the moral principles that are the ultimate norms. Or one might instead hold that the ultimate moral principles that fix what is right and wrong are well suited to be practical decision making guides. The point is merely that we should distinguish these distinct roles that moral norms might play and avoid criticizing a norm in one role by standards appropriate only if the norm is understood to be playing a different role.

Given some specification of the kind of equality that is under consideration, it is clear what it means to say of a number of people that they are equal in the stated respect. If we are concerned with equal utility, then a group has equal utility when all have exactly the same. If we are concerned with equality of dollar holdings, then people are equal when all hold exactly the same number of dollars. But saying that much does not yet suggest a way of determining, in general, whether inequality is greater in one situation than in another, when different people hold different amounts of the good that we are concerned to equalize in the two situations. Inequality can be measured in different ways, and no measure seems to be strongly supported by common sense intuition about the meaning of equality. (See Sen 1997 and Temkin 1993 ). This entry usually abstracts from this issue by supposing that we can unequivocally determine, for any ideal of equality, how to measure degrees of inequality across the board.
2. Equality of Opportunity

In a hierarchical caste society, positions of advantage are assigned to people on a basis of birth lineage. If one is a legitimate offspring of parents who are aristocrats, one will also enjoy the privileges of aristocratic rank. An historically important form of equality associated with the rise of competitive market economies is the ideal of equality of opportunity. This ideal is also known as formal equality of opportunity or careers open to talents.

Equality of opportunity requires that jobs in economic firms and options to borrow money for investment purposes such as starting a business should be open to all applicants, that applications be assessed by relevant criteria of merit, and that the top-ranked applicant should be offered the job or option to borrow. The relevant criteria of merit are to be set so that those who score highest are those whose selection would best further the morally innocent purposes of the enterprise. In competitive market settings, the presumption typically is that the criteria should be related to profitability. The best applicant for a job or a loan would then be the individual to whom offering the good in question produces the greatest increase in the firm’s expected profit. (If the firm’s owners are risk averse or risk seeking, the pertinent criterion would be expected profit weighted by their risk preferences.) A further aspect of the ideal of equality of opportunity requires that economic firms offering goods and services for sale should sell to all willing customers, treating all potential customers evenhandedly as potential sources of profit. Finally, equality of opportunity requires that purchasers of goods and services should be responsive only to the price and quality of the goods offered to them for purchase (and not, for example, to the ethnicity or sex or sexual orientation of the maker or seller of the good). This last-mentioned requirement of equality of opportunity is not included within formulations of the norm that are intended to be enacted as law and enforced by criminal or civil law procedures. But to implement equality of opportunity, an orientation of the hearts and minds of members of society is needed, not merely legal enactments. Equality of opportunity would be subverted if the laws effectively prohibited economic firms from basing decision making on factors other than expected profitability but consumers would not purchase products that embodied the skilled labor of women and blacks, so that their market opportunities are stunted.

Two natural extensions of the equality of opportunity ideal deserve mention. One is the requirement that places in colleges and universities and competitive private schools should be open to all applicants with applicants ranked by their ability to learn and other academic virtues and selected on these academic grounds (provided they can pay the tuition and fees). A second extension requires that public sector jobs–other than those reserved for elected officials along with their staffs–should be open to all applicants with selection of applicants being made on the basis of the merits of the applications.

The general idea of equality of opportunity is that the political economy of a society distributes positions that confer special advantages and these should be open to all applicants with applicants selected by merit. The merits of the applications for a position should track the degree to which the applicant’s hiring or selection for interaction would boost the fulfillment of the morally innocent purposes of the association as weighted by the association’s bosses. The more general formulation of the notion of merit allows that an economic firm might legitimately base its decisions on nonmarket values without engaging in wrongful discrimination that violates equality of opportunity rightly construed. For example, a maker of fancy surfboards might sell them by preference to more skilled surfers, and a mountaineering guide might select clients partly on the basis of their physical fitness and their perceived enthusiasm for wilderness adventure. Also, members of the learned professions such as medicine and law might be bound by legal and cultural norms that require them to tailor their services to the aims of the profession rather than just to profitability (e.g., norms that require a medical doctor to refuse to provide a medical treatment to a potential client who is willing and able to pay but would not benefit from the treatment).

The ideal of equality of opportunity is the ideal of a political economy in which each person’s prospects as producer depend only on his initial stock of resources plus his ability and willingness to provide goods and services that others value plus luck as market fluctuations are encountered. Moreover, in the role of consumer, each individual (modulo his location) faces the same array of goods and services on sale to anyone who can pay the purchase price (and can satisfy the relevant nonmarket conditions of the seller or maker). Such characteristics of persons as their supposed race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and religion play no role in determining one’s life prospects in this public sphere except insofar as these traits might happen to affect one’s abilities and willingness to offer what others are willing to exchange for money.

In theory, equality of opportunity could be fully satisfied in a society in which wealth passed along by inheritance from generation to generation fundamentally determines everyone’s competitive prospects. In this society jobs and positions and so on would be open to all applicants, but the only applicants who have the skills that qualify them for desirable posts are the children of the wealthy. They alone have access to the training and acculturation that confer skills.

A society that establishes and maintains a state educational system sustained by public funds already goes some way beyond equality of opportunity and toward provision to all of its members of some opportunity to develop skills that will enable them to succeed in competitions for desirable positions regulated by equality of opportunity. The same can be said of a society that enforces minimal standards of child raising to which parents must conform. One can imagine a society doing more in this same spirit.

A society might institute policies that secure at least a minimally acceptable threshold of schooling and skill formation for all its members. An alternative aim is to eliminate entirely the advantages that family wealth and social status confer on individuals in competitions regulated by formal equality of opportunity. The achievement of this aim would render a society classless, in a certain sense. John Rawls (Rawls, 1971 and 2001) has formulated this ideal as a principle of equality of fair opportunity (EFO). This principle holds that any individuals in society with the same native talent and ambition should have the same prospects of success in competition for positions that confer special benefits and advantages. EFO goes beyond equality of opportunity by requiring that all efforts by parents to give their children a comparative advantage in competitions for desirable positions and posts are somehow entirely offset. In a society regulated by EFO, socialization is adjusted so that among people equally willing to work to become qualified for a particular career and equally endowed by genetic inheritance with latent ability needed for that career, all have the same chances of success in that career.

EFO also opposes racial and sexual and similar prejudices that work to deprive disfavored individuals from enjoying opportunities to become qualified so that they would benefit from formal equality of opportunity. In some settings, affirmative action policies that aim to help members of historically disadvantaged groups such as African-Americans in the U.S. gain desirable employment opportunities in proportion to their numbers in the population can be regarded as policies intended to move society in the direction of satisfying EFO.

Formal equality of opportunity, in so far as it imposes requirements on firms, universities and colleges, and government as employer, is the law of the land in many modern democracies, and also entrenched in the common-sense morality most people embrace. By contrast, equality of fair opportunity is a controversial principle, which no existing nation seriously strives to achieve or comes close to achieving.

EFO could not be fully achieved without conflict with other values. Consider that parents naturally want to help their children develop the talents needed for competitive success. Some parents control a lot of resources useful for this purpose; some parents have few such resources. The ordinary interaction of parents with their children is then an obstacle to the achievement of equality of fair opportunity. If society were fully to achieve EFO, then either parental freedom to help their children in ways that give them a competitive edge would have to be curtailed or such help would have to be exactly offset by compensating infusion of social resources toward the education and socialization of children whose parents are less effective. (See Fishkin 1983).
3. Equality of Condition: Equality of What?

A society that satisfied the ideal of formal equality of opportunity might provide grim conditions of life for those who are unsuccessful in competitions for positions of advantage. Even a perfect meritocracy that satisfies the stringent Rawlsian equality of fair opportunity principle might impose the same grim conditions of life on those who lack marketable merit and skill. The class of competitive losers might include some who have adequate native talents but fail to make good use of them, but some of the losers will be those with the bad luck to be born without much by way of native talent. The question then arises whether any further substantive ideals of equality, beyond meritocratic ideals, should be affirmed. (See Schar 1967.)

One family of substantive equality ideals, equality of democratic citizenship and civil liberties, is perhaps no more controversial than formal equality of opportunity. Democratic equality embraces the norm that law-makers and top public officials should be selected in democratic elections. All adult nonretarded noncrazy citizens should be eligible to vote and run for office in free elections that operate against a backdrop of freedom of speech and association, and in which all votes count equally and majority rule prevails. All citizens should have the same wide rights to freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religious practice. Criminal justice rules should be applied evenhandedly to all and should embody the procedural values of the rule of law.

A controversial extension of democratic citizenship resembles Rawlsian equality of fair opportunity applied to the political arena. Call this ideal “equal participation.” Equal participation requires that any individuals in society with the same ambition to influence the political process and the same talents of political persuasion and organization should have equal prospects of influence on the democratic political process. (See Christiano 1996, Walzer 1983, for a criticism, Estlund, 1999, and for a related view, J. Cohen 1989a.)

The remainder of this section surveys several proposals as to what (beyond democratic citizenship and civil liberties) should be distributed equally among the members of society and how equality and inequality in the distribution of these goods should be measured. The latter issue can be posed in this way: When various amounts of heterogeneous goods are held by different individuals, how can one measure individuals’ overall holdings of goods so that it can be determined when people’s overall holdings are effectively equal?
3.1 Lockean Rights

The Lockean rights approach is so named because an early prominent exponent of the doctrine was John Locke (Locke 1690). It might just as well be viewed as a rejection of egaltarianism rather than as a version of it. Contemporary Lockeans are also known as libertarians (see Nozick 1974).

The Lockean view is that every person has equal basic moral rights–natural rights. Natural rights are rights that one has independently of institutional arrangements and customary beliefs. A person’s natural rights give her a set of claims against all other persons that each person absolutely must respect.

The traditional content of Lockean rights is roughly as follows: Each person has the right to do whatever she chooses with whatever she legitimately owns so long as she does not violate the rights of others not to be harmed in certain ways–by force, fraud, coercion, theft, or infliction of damage on person or property. Each person has the right not to be harmed by others in the mentioned ways, unless she voluntarily waives any of her rights or voluntarily transfers them to another or forfeits them by misconduct. Also, each adult person is the full rightful owner of herself and each child person has the right to be nurtured to adult status by those responsible for her creation. It is generally supposed in the Lockean tradition that starting from the premise of self-ownership, under actual conditions on earth one can validly derive strong rights of private appropriation and ownership of land and moveable parts of the earth (Nozick, 1974).

Lockean rights do not single out a state of affairs, that in which everyone’s rights are fully respected, and hold that all people are obligated to act in whatever ways are needed to bring about this state of affairs. Each person’s right generates a duty to respect that right on the part of every other person. Rights are constraints on what each individual may do, and do not set goals that all are together obligated to fulfill.

A more egalitarian variant of Lockean rights doctrine combines the right of self-ownership with skepticism about the Lockean account of the moral basis of private ownership rights. Instead the left-wing Lockean asserts that each person is the full rightful owner of herself and each adult person has a right to a per capita share of ownership of the unimproved land and resources of the earth. In short, this version of Lockeanism combines robust self-ownership with an egalitarian account of world ownership. There are several variants to this doctrine. Critics explore whether or not the doctrine is normatively stable: Do any plausible grounds there might be for denying Lockean private ownership of the world also generate grounds for denying individual self-ownership? Do any grounds there might be for resisting the denial of individual self-ownership also generate reasons to resist the denial of Lockean private ownership of the world? (See Steiner 1994, G. Cohen 1995, Vallentyne and Steiner 2000, and Van Parijs 1995).
3.2 Karl Marx on Equal Rights

The Marxian tradition in political and economic thought urges the desirability of eliminating some of the inequalities associated with the institutions of a capitalist market economy. Interpreting Karl Marx as an egalitarian normative theorist is a tricky undertaking, however, in view of the fact that he tends to eschew explicit theorizing on moral principles and to regard assertions of moral principles as so much ideological dust thrust in the eyes of the workers by defenders of capitalism.

In “The Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx asserts that in the first phase of communist society the economy will distribute goods according to the norm, to each according to his labor contribution. This norm can be regarded as defining an equal right, but like any such right, it is defective. One defect is that some individuals are naturally more able than others, and so the amount of one’s labor contribution will vary depending on factors that vary by luck beyond one’s power to control. For this and other reasons Marx asserts it will be desirable when a higher phase of communist society is attained. Then society can move beyond the sphere of bourgeois right altogether and operate according to the norm, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Despite Marx’s disclaimer, he seems to be proposing a principle of equal right: Each has the right to receive economic goods that satisfy her needs to the same extent provided she contributes to the economy according to her ability. But Marx would resist the description of this norm as a principle of justice or moral rights. One consideration in his mind may be that moral rights ought to be enforced, but when it is feasible and desirable to implement higher-phase communist distribution, the implementation can be carried out successfully without any legal or informal coercion, and hence should not occur through any process of social enforcement. Or so Marx thinks. (See Marx 1978, Wood 1981, Cohen, G., 1988 and 1995.)
3.3 Income and Wealth

In modern societies with market economies, an egalitarian is generally thought to be one who supports equality of income and wealth (income being a flow, wealth a stock). Respecting this usage, this entry considers an egalitarian in the broad sense to be someone who prefers in actual or at least non-exotic circumstances that people should be more nearly equal in income and wealth and favors policies that aim to bring about such equality.

Money is a conventional medium of exchange. Given an array of goods for sale at various prices, with some money one has the option to purchase any combination of these goods, within the budget constraint set by the amount of money one has. What money can purchase in a given society depends on the state of its economy and also on legal and cultural norms that may limit in various ways what is allowed to be put up for sale. For example, the laws may forbid the sale of sexual activity, human organs intended for transplant, the right to become a parent of a particular child by adoption, narcotic drugs, and so on. What money can purchase also obviously depends on what one is free to do with whatever one purchases–one may catch fish with the fishing rod one purchases only with a license and in accordance with rules issued by the state agency that regulates fishing.

Leaving these complications in the background, one can appreciate that having money gives one effective freedom to engage in a wide variety of activities and experiences. One has the option to purchase any of many commodities and do with them whatever is legally and conventionally allowed, up to the limit of one’s budget. The ideal of equality of income and wealth is roughly the ideal that people should enjoy this effective freedom to the same extent.

This ideal is attractive to some and repulsive to others. One serious objection is that to bring about and sustain the condition in which all people have the same amount of money would require continuous and extensive violation of people’s Lockean rights, which as standardly understood include the right to gain more property than others possess by gift or trade or hard work. Another, closely related objection is that a regime of equal money could be maintained only by wrongful interference with people’s liberty, because if money is distributed equally at one time people will choose to act in ways that over time will tend to result in unequal distribution of money at later times. (For the first objection, see Nozick 1974, chapter 7, for the second, see Walzer 1983.)

Another objection to the ideal of monetary equality is that its pursuit would inhibit people’s engagement in wealth-creating and wealth-saving activity, and in the not very long run would reduce society’s stock of wealth and make us all worse off in the terms of the effective freedom that was being equalized. Yet another objection is that people behave in ways that render them more and less deserving, and monetary good fortune is among the types of things that people come to deserve differentially.

The advocate of egalitarianism in the broad sense has some replies. Unless some substantive argument is given as to why Lockean rights should be accorded moral deference, the mere fact that equality conflicts with Lockean rights does not by itself impugn the ideal of equality. Maybe some purported “rights” should not be regarded as momentous, and their sacrifice to secure equality might be acceptable on balance. In the same vein, one might hold that the fact that continuous restriction of individual liberty is needed to satisfy some norm does not by itself tell us whether the moral gain from satisfying the ideal is worth the moral cost of lessened freedom. Some restrictions of liberty are undeniably worth their cost, and some ideal of equality might be among the values that warrant some sacrifice of liberty.

Equality might be upheld as one value among others, and increase in wealth or in wealth per capita may be included along with equality in a pluralistic ethics. We may want more effective freedom (of the sort money combined with goods for sale provides), and we may also want this freedom equally distributed, and then we would need to find an acceptable compromise of these values to deal with cases when they conflict in practice. Much the same might be said about the conflict between the achievement of equality of money and the distribution of good fortune according to people’s differential desert.

Monetary equality can strike one as a misguided ideal for the different reason that it does not deal in what is of fundamental importance. The value of purchasing power, equal or unequal, depends on the value of what is for sale. Imagine that the economy of a society is organized so it produces only trivial knick-knacks. Freedom to purchase trivia is a trivial freedom, and rendering it equal does not significantly improve matters. (Critics of consumerism and consumer culture are moved by the idea that in actual modern societies, the economy, responsive to consumer demand, is responsive to demands for what is not very worthwhile and ignores many truly imporrtant human goods, that either happen to be not for sale or that by their nature are not suitable for sale on a market.)

Another concern about monetary equality is that purchasing power interacts with individuals’ personal powers and traits, and real freedom reflects the interaction, which an emphasis on purchasing power alone conceals. Consider two persons, one of whom is blind, legless, and armless, while the other has good eyesight and full use of her limbs. Given equal money, the first must spend his money on devices and services to cope with his handicaps, while the second may purchase far more of what she likes. Here equality of purchasing power seems to leave the two very unequal in real freedom to live their lives as they choose. But the case of handicaps is just an extreme instance of what is always present, namely each individual has a set of traits and natural powers bestowed by genetic inheritance and early socialization, and these differ greatly across persons and greatly affect people’s access to valuable ways to live.
3.4 Capabilities

One response to the problematic features of the monetary equality ideal is to shift to the notion of real freedom as that which an egalitarian morality should be concerned to equalize. Real or effective freedom contrasts with formal freedom. You are formally free to go to Canada just in case no law or convention backed by penalties prevents you from going and no one would coercively interfere if you attempted to travel there. In contrast, you are really or effectively free to go to Canada just in case this is an option that you may choose–if you choose to go and seriously try to go, you will get there, and if you do not choose to go and make a serious attempt to go, you do not get there. (One might lack formal freedom to do something yet be really free to do it, if one was able to evade or overcome the legal and extralegal obstacles to doing that thing.)

Another response to the problematic features of the monetary equality ideal aims to cope with the thought that freedom of purchasing power may not be of great importance. The response is to characterize what we should be equalizing in terms that directly express what is reasonably regarded as truly important.

Both responses are present in a proposal made by Amartya Sen in several publications beginning in 1980 (see Sen 1980 and 1992 and the references cited in Sen 1992). Sen suggests that in so far as we should value equality of condition, what we should value is equal real freedom, and more specifically basic functioning capability equality. People may function–do or be something–in any of a huge number of ways. Consider all of the different ways that one might function variously. Many of these are trivial or of little importance; set these to the side. Consider then basic functionings, functionings that are essential or important for human flourishing or valuable agency. Consider all of the packages of functionings that an individual at a time is really free to choose all at once; these are one’s capabilities at a time. We may also consider an individual’s basic capabilities over the life course. The proposal is that society should sustain basic capability equality. (Care must be taken in identifying an individual’s capability sets, since what others choose may affect the freedom one has. One may have the option of choosing the functioning of attending college, but only if not too many persons in one’s high school cohort make the same choice.)

We might construe “basic capability” as picking out one of the capabilities needed for a minimally decent life. For example, being able to obtain enjoyment in life and gain scientific knowledge that meet threshold levels deemed “good enough” suffice to give one basic enjoyment and basic knowledge capabilities. Above that threshold level for each capability, differences in the level of capability that people can attain do not signify–they do not change the fact that everyone does or does not enjoy equal basic capabilies. To get equal basic capability for everyone would be to get each person at or above the threshold level for every one of the capabilities that are specified to be necessary for a minimally decent or good enough life. So understood, the basic capability proposal falls in the family of sufficientarian ideals; on which, see the section on “Sufficiency” below.

The capability approach to equality can be developed in different ways depending on how basic capabilities are identified.

Some theorists have explored the capability approach by tying it to an objective account of human well-being or flourishing. The aim is to identify all of the functionings needed for human flourishing. For each of these functionings, the ideal is that each person should be sustained in the capability to engage in every one of these functionings at a satisfactory or good enough level. (See Nussbaum 1990, 1992, and 1999.)

Another use of the capability approach ties it to the idea of what is needed for each person to function as a full participating member of modern democratic society. Each person is to be sustained throughout her life, so far as this is feasible, in the capabilities to function at a satisfactory level in all of the ways necessary for full membership and participation in democratic society. (See Anderson 1999 and Walzer 1983.)

It should be noted that the capability approach as described so far involves the assumption that anything whatever that reduces or expands an individual’s real freedom to function in ways that are valuable should trigger a response on the part of a society or agency that aims to establish and sustain capability equality. One might reject this assumption while otherwise working within the capability framework. One might distinguish aspects of a person’s situation that are socially caused from those that are naturally caused. This distinction is evidently rough and needs refinement, but one has some sense of what is intended. That I am unable to run fast or sing a tune on key may be largely due to my genetic endowment, which in this context we may take to be naturally rather than socially caused. In contrast, the facts that given the talents of others and their choices to use them in market interaction, my running ability is nonmarketable but my singing ability enables me to have a career as a professional singer are deemed socially caused. That I have a certain physical appearance is natural (any of a wide variety of childrearing regimens would have produced pretty much this same physical appearance) but that my appearance renders me ineligible for marriage or romantic liaisons is a social fact (social arrangements bring this about and different social arrangements might undo it).

However exactly the natural and social are distinguished, one might restrict the scope of an equality ideal to the smoothing out of socially caused inequalities. As Elizabeth Anderson remarks, “The proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which by definition is socially imposed” (Anderson 1999, p. 288). What this restriction amounts to depends on how one distinguishes socially caused from other inequalities. Suppose that society pursues policy A, and that if it pursued policy B instead, a given inequality across people would disappear. Does this fact suffice to qualify the inequality as socially caused or not?

Critics of the capability approach home in on three of its features.

The starting point of the capability approach is that the equality that matters morality or that we are morally required to sustain is equality of freedom of some sort. This starting point is open to challenge. Freedom is no doubt important as a means to many other goods and as something everyone cares about to some considerable extent. But why confine the concern of equality to freedom rather than to achieved outcomes? Suppose that we could supply resources to Smith that will expand her freedom, but we happen to know that this freedom will do nobody any good. She will neglect it and it will be wasted. In these circumstances, why supply the resources? If provision of freedom for its own sake is morally of first-priority importance, then the fact that freedom in this instance will do nobody any good would seem to be an irrelevant consideration. If this fact seems highly pertinent to what we should do, this indicates that freedom may not be the ultimate value the distribution of which is the proper concern of an equality ideal.

Another feature of the capability approach as elaborated to this point is that it does not appear to register the significance of personal responsibility as it might appropriately qualify the formulation of an equality ideal (Roemer 1996 and 1998). A simple example illustrates the difficulty. Suppose society is dedicated to sustaining all of its members equally at some level of basic capability. Society provides resources fully adequate for sustaining an individual at this level of basic capability, but he frivolously and negligently squanders the resources. The resources are re-supplied, and squandered again, and the cycle continues. At some point in the cycle, many people would urge that the responsibility of society has been fulfilled, and that it is the individual’s responsibility to use provided resources in reasonable ways, if his lack of adequate basic capability is to warrant a claim to equality-restoring social intervention. The capability approach could of course be modified to accommodate responsibility concerns. But it will be useful to turn to consideration of the resourcist approach, within which the aim of integrating equality and responsibility has prompted various proposals.

A third feature of the capability approach that has elicited criticism is the idea that knowledge of human flourishing and what facilitates it must inform the identification of an adequate equality norm. The worry in a nutshell is that in modern societies that secure wide freedoms, people will embrace many opposed conceptions of how to live and of what is choiceworthy in human life. These are matters about which we must agree to disagree. At least if an ideal of equality is being constructed to serve in a public conception of justice that establishes basic terms of morality for a modern democratic society, this ideal must eschew controversial claims about human good and human flourishing such as those in which the capability approach must become embroiled. Martha Nussbaum explores how the capability approach to social equality might function appropriately as a public conception of justice (Nussbaum 2000). Charles Larmore argues that it is wrong for government to impose a policy that could only be justified by appeal to the claim that some controversial conception of the good is superior to another (Larmore 1987 and 1996; for criticism, see Sher 1997). In response it might be urged that a conception of human capabilities might be controversial but true, and if known to be true, appropriately imposed by government policy.
3.5 Resources

The ideal of equality of resources can be understood by recognizing its enemies. These enemies comprise all manner of proposals that suppose that in so far as we should care about equality of condition across persons, what we should care about equalizing is the utility or welfare or well-being or good that persons attain over the course of their lives. John Rawls offers an especially clear statement of the animating impulse of the equality of resources ideal. He imagines someone proposing that the relevant measure of people’s condition for a theory of justice is their level of plan fullfillment or attained satisfaction, and responds that his favored conception “takes a different view. For it does not look behind the use which persons make of the rights and opportunities available to them in order to measure, much less to maximize, the satisfactions they achieve. Nor does it try to evaluate the relative merits of different conceptions of the good. Instead, it is assumed that the members of society are rational persons able to adjust their conceptions of the good to their situation.” (See Rawls 1971, section 15.) Resourcist ideals of equality of condition are nonwelfarist.

Several thoughts are intertwined here. One is that equality of condition must be developed as a component of an acceptable theory of justice, intended to be the basic charter of a democratic society and acceptable to all reasonable members of such a society, who are presumed to be disposed to disagree interminably about many ultimate issues concerning religion and the meaning and worth of human life (Rawls 1993). We must seek reasonable terms of cooperation that people who disagree about much can nonetheless accept. If there is anything that people cannot reasonably be expected to agree about, it is what constitutes human good, so introducing a controversial conception of human good as part and parcel of the ideal of equality that is to be at the core of the principles of justice is a bad mistake.

Another thought is that responsible individuals will consider themselves to have a personal obligation, which cannot be shifted to the government or any agency of society, to decide for themselves what is worthwhile in human life and what is worth seeking and to fashion (and refashion as changing circumstances warrant) a plan of life to achieve worthwhile ends. So even if the true theory of human good could be discovered, it would offend the dignity and sense of responsibility of individual persons for some agency of society to preempt this individual responsibility by arranging matters so that everyone achieves human good understood a certain way to a sufficiently high degree. Individuals should take responsibility for their ends. (See Rawls 1971, Rakowski 1992, Dworkin 2000).

Another thought that motivates the family of equality-of-resources ideals is that society’s obligations by way of providing for its members are limited. A just and egalitarian society is not plausibly held to be obligated to do whatever turns out to be necessary to bring it about that their members attain any given level or share of quality of life. The reason for this is that the quality of life (the degree to which one attains valuable agency and well-being goals) that any individual reaches over the course of her life depends on many choices and actions taken by that very individual, so to a considerable extent, the quality of life one reaches must be up to oneself, not the job of society or some agency acting on behalf of society. Along these lines, the actual course of an individual’s life and the degree of fulfillment it reaches also depend on many chance factors for which nobody can reasonably be held accountable. Justice is a practical ideal, not a Don Quixote conception that aims to correct all bad luck of any sort that befalls persons. A reasonable morality understands the social justice obligations of society as limited, not open-ended and unbounded. So if equality of condition is part of social justice, it too must reflect an appropriately limited conception of social responsibility. Equality of resources fills this bill. (See Daniels 1990 and chapters 3 and 4 of Buchanan et al. 2000.)

The trick then is to develop an appropriate conception of resources that can serve in an ideal of equality of condition.

Resources can be external, material goods, such as land and moveable property. One can also extend the domain, and consider traits of persons that are latent talents or instruments that help them to achieve their ends as also included within the set of resources to be equalized. Extending the domain in this way will introduce complexity into the account, because personal talents are attached to persons and cannot simply be transferred to others who lack talent.

Notice that in elaborating equality of resources, it is assumed that a population of individuals with given traits, generated by genetic inheritance and early socialization, is present, and equalization is to proceed by adjusting features of the individuals’ environment or by altering features of the individuals, say by extra education. But of course, moral questions may also be raised about the processes by which individuals come to be born and given early socialization so as to endow them with certain traits. With genetic information about an individual made available to prospective parents before the individual is born, a decision can be made about whether to bring this child to term. In the future, genetic enhancements may be available that can alter the genetic makeup of individuals, and again a morality must consider when enhancements should be supplied and by whom. Raising these questions makes it evident that just assuming an initial population of individuals with given traits takes for granted matters that are very much morally up for grabs (see Buchanan et al. 2000). For the purposes of this entry, this complication is noted only to be set aside.

How can resources be identified and rated? We want to be able to say, given two persons each with different amounts of resources, which one has more resources overall. The literature to date reveals two ways of confronting the question. One has been developed by John Rawls (Rawls 1971), one by Ronald Dworkin (Dworkin, 2000).

Rawls suggests that the conception of resources to be deployed in a resourcist ideal of equality is primary social goods. These are defined as distributeable goods that a rational person prefers to have more rather than less of, whatever else she wants. (A variant conception identifies them as goods that any rational person would want who gives priority to her interest in cooperating with others on fair terms, selecting and if need be revising a conception of the good and a set of life aims, and pursuing the conception and the aims.) On this approach it is not so far clear how to measure a person’s holding of social primary goods overall if there are various primary goods and one has different amounts of the different kinds. The primary goods approach has yet to be developed in detail. Rawls has suggested that the scope of this problem of devising an index of primary goods is lessened by giving some primary goods, the basic liberties, priority over the rest. For the remainder, Rawls suggests that the relative weight of primary goods can be set by considering what people (regarded as free and equal citizens) need. (See Rawls 2001, section 17.)

Dworkin’s approach begins with the idea that the measure of a resource that one person holds is what others would be willing to give up to get it. From this standpoint competitive market prices are the appropriate measure of the resources one possesses: In particular, the division of a lot of resources among a group of people is equal when all are given equal purchasing power for the occasion and all the resources are sold off in an auction in which no one’s bids are final until no one wants to change her bids given the bids of the others.

This equal auction is just a first approximation to Dworkin’s proposal. Two complications need to be introduced. One is that one ought to extend the domain of resources to include personal talents as well as external property. A second is that equality of resources as conceived in this construction supposes that the results of unchosen luck, but not chosen option luck, should be equalized.

Take the second wrinkle first. If we start from an initial equality of resources brought about by the equal auction mechanism, individuals might then go on to use and invest and spend their resource allotments in various ways. Assume the rules mediating their interaction are set and morally unproblematic. Roughly speaking, we say people are free to interact with others on any mutually agreeable terms but not to impose the costs of their activities on others without the mediation of voluntary consent. Starting from an initial equality of resources, any results that issue from voluntary interactions reiterated over time do not offend against the equality ideal. Let voluntary choice and chosen luck prevail.

The first wrinkle is that individuals differ in their unchosen natural talent resource allotments. These should somehow be equalized. But how? The Dworkin proposal is that we can in thought establish an insurance market, in which people who do not know whether they will be born disabled (afflicted with negative talents) and do not know what market price their positive talents will fetch, can insure themselves in a variant of the equal purchasing power auction against the possibility of being handicapped or having talents that fetch low market price. In this way in thought unchosen luck is transformed into morally inoffensive chosen luck (so far as this is thinkable).

The final Dworkin proposal then is that the thought experiment of the equal auction modified as above is used to estimate in actual circumstances in a rough and ready way who is worse off and who better off than others through no choice of her own. A tax and transfer policy is instituted then that tries to mimic the results of the imaginary equal auction. To the extent that we establish and sustain such policies–voila!–we have equality of resources across the members of an actual society. (See Dworkin 2000).

The Dworkin proposal is noteworthy for its integration of themes of equality and personal responsibility in a single conception. But the moral appropriateness of linking these themes is open to question.

The most far-reaching skepticism on this point denies that personal responsibility can be more than instrumentally valuable, a tool for securing other values. One might hold that in a world in which human choices are events and all events are caused by prior events according to physical laws, responsibility can make sense pragmatically and instrumentally in various settings but does not really make good normative sense under scrutiny. One might reach a similar result by noting that even if persons are truly responsible for making some choices rather than others, what we could reasonably be held responsible for and what surely lies beyond our power to control run together to produce actual results and cannot be disentangled. On this view, if we care about equality, we should seek not responsibility-modified equality but straight equality of condition, using responsibility norms only as incentives and prods to bring about equality (or a close enough approximation to it) at a higher level of material well-being.

Another sort of skepticism challenges whether the broad project of holding people responsible for their chosen luck but not for their unchosen luck really makes sense, because unchosen luck of genetic inheritance and early socialization fixes the individual’s choice-making and value-selecting abilities. What one chooses, bad or good, may simply reflect the unchosen luck that gave one the ability to be a good or a bad chooser. Suppose for example that Smith chooses to experiment with cigarettes and heroin, and these gambles turn out badly in the form of contraction of lung cancer and long-term hard drug addiction. He is then far worse off than others, but his bad fortune comes about through his own choice–hence is not compensable according to Dworkinian equality of resources. But that Smith chooses these bad gambles and Jones does not may simply reflect the unchosen bad luck that Smith had in his genetic inheritance and early socialization. So holding him fully responsible for the fortune he encounters through chosen gambles may make no sense if we follow through the underlying logic of the Dworkin proposal itself. This takes us back to welfarist equality conceptions, which the resourcist theorist wishes to steer away from at all cost.
3.6 Welfare and Opportunity for Welfare

The ideal of equality of welfare holds that it is desirable that the amount of human good gained by each person for herself (and by others for her) over the course of her life should be the same. Human good, also known as welfare or well-being or utility, is what an individual gets insofar as her life goes well for herself (Parfit, 1984). This awkward phrase is meant to distinguish one’s life going well for oneself, as one would wish one’s life to go from the standpoint of rational prudence, and its going well by way of producing good that enters the lives of other people or animals or fulfills some impersonal good cause. Suppose my life in its entirety consists in sticking my finger in a dike and slowly painfully freezing to death, like the little Dutch boy in the children’s fable. So lived, this life produces lots of good for millions of people saved from flood and drowning, but for me it produces no good, just slow misery. The life just imagined is a good in the sense of morally admirable life but not a life that contains much welfare or human good for the one living it.

The background thought is then that morality is concerned with the production and fair distribution of human good. Nothing else ultimately matters (except animal and nonhuman person welfare, but leave these important qualifications aside). So to the extent we believe that fair distribution is equal distribution, that morality requires that everyone get the same, what everyone should then have the same of is human good or welfare or well-being.

To work out this conception of equality of condition would involve determining what account of the nature of human good is most plausible. One account is hedonism, which holds the good to be pleasure and absence of pain. Another account identifies the good with desire satisfaction or life aim fulfillment. A variant of this last approach holds that the relevant aims and desires are those that would withstand ideal reflection with full information unmarred by cognitive error (such as adding two and two and getting five). A quite different account supposes that the good is constituted by the items on a list of objectively valuable beings and doings. The more the individual attains the items on the objective list over the course of her life, the better her life goes, whatever her subjective opinions and attitudes about such attainments might be. The most plausible conception of the ideal of equality of welfare incorporates whatever is the best theory of human good or welfare. (In this connection see Griffin 1986 and Hurka 1990.)

Any such account bumps into problems concerning personal responsibility and the sense that the obligations of society are limited–problems already mentioned in this discussion. A society bent on sustaining equality of welfare would continue pouring resources down the drain if worse off individuals insist on negligently squandering whatever resources are expended on them in order to boost their welfare level up to the average level. One might respond to this responsibility challenge by stipulating that equality is only desirable on the condition that individuals are equally responsible or deserving: It is bad if some are worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own. In a slogan, one might assert an ideal of equality of opportunity for welfare. (See Cohen 1989, Arneson 1989, and for criticism Rakowski 1992, Fleurbaey 1995, Scanlon 1997, and Wolff 1998).

Another criticism does not so much challenge the welfarist interpretation of equality of condition but presses the issue, how much weight any such equality of condition ideal should have in competition with other values. Imagine for example that some people, the severely disabled, are far worse off than others, and are through no fault or choice of their own extremely poor transformers of resources into welfare. A society bent on sustaining equality of welfare or equal opportunity for welfare as a first priority would be obligated to continue transferring resources from better off to worse off no matter how many better off people must then suffer any amount of welfare loss just so long as the pertinent welfare condition of a single still worse off individual can be improved even by a tiny amount.

Another criticism challenges the welfarist conceptions of equality of condition directly. One observes that in a diverse modern society, individuals will reasonably disagree about what is ultimately good and worthwhile in human life. Hence no conception of welfare is available to serve as a consensus standard for a public morality acceptable to all reasonable persons. In a similar spirit, one might invoke the idea that responsible individuals cannot acquiesce in the assumption of the responsibility on the part of the government to determine what is worthwhile and choiceworthy for them, for this responsibility rests squarely on each individual’s shoulders and cannot legitimately be dislodged from that perch. (See especially Dworkin, 2000, chapter 7, also Arneson 2000.)
3.7 Conclusion: A Test Case

Philosophical discussions of what should be equalized if we care about equality of condition raise dust that has not yet settled in any sort of consensus. All the rival views canvassed encounter difficulties, the seriousness of which is at present hard to discern.

It should be noted that the issue, how to measure people’s condition for purposes of a theory of equality, connects to a broader issue, how to measure people’s condition for purposes of a theory of fair distribution. Equality is just one of the possible views that might be taken as to what fair treatment requires. (For example, the sufficientarian and prioritarian principles discussed in the text below both admit of resourcist and welfarist variants.) Any theory of distributive jsutice that says that sometimes better off persons should improve the situation of worse off persons requires an account of the basis of interpersonal comparisons that enables us to determine who is better off and who is worse off.

Finally, the reader might wish to test the merits of rival answers to the equality-of-what question by considering a social justice issue different in character from the issues considered so far. Suppose a society is divided into two or more linguistic communities, one being by far the most populous. The language of the dominant community is the official language of public life, and a minority linguistic group demands redress in the name of social equality. The minority group seeks government action to help sustain and promote the survival and flourishing of the minority linguistic community. For another example, suppose a modern democratic society contains more or less intact remnants of hunter-gatherer bands who claim in the name of social equality the right to withdraw from the larger surrounding society and practice their traditional way of life and run their affairs autonomously. How should a society committed to an ideal of equality of condition handle this type of issue? (See Kymlicka 1995, Young 1990, Anderson 1999, and Barry 2001.)
4. Equality among Whom?

Settling which aspect of people’s condition (if any) should be the same for all and fixing a measure of people’s condition in this respect still does not render an ideal of equality of condition fully determinate.

So far the question remains open, among whom should equality of condition obtain?

At some spots the discussion to this point has assumed an answer to this question. The issue is posed, in what ways should the members of a society or nation state be made equal? Framing the issue in this way presumes that what is morally valuable is that equality prevails among the members of each separate society. The idea then is that it is desirable that the condition of the inhabitants of India should be rendered more equal and that the condition of inhabitants of Germany should be rendered more equal but that equalizing the condition of Germans and Indians combined need not be desirable. But why not? (On this issue, see Dworkin 2000 and Rawls, “The Law of Peoples,” in Rawls 1999.)

If equality is prized as a means to other values, it may be the case that only equality among individuals who interact in significant ways has a tendency to promote the desired further goals. For example, if we prize equality of possessions to foster social solidarity, it may be that producing equality among people who live in distant parts of the globe and hardly interact will have no tendency to promote solidarity across the combined population. For the instrumental egalitarian, one should seek equality among those collections of people in which equality would produce the desired further results.

If equality is valued for its own sake, rather than as a means to further goals, it is less clear why the domain of persons among whom equality should obtain is limited in space or time or by political boundaries. Why not hold that it is desirable that equality should prevail to the degree this is feasible among all persons who shall ever live?

This question may not be rhetorical. One view is that when people set up a wide-ranging system of coercion on the scale of a political nation, special moral requirements come into play, including a requirement that all whose lives are ruled by this system of coercion should be treated equally or brought to an equal condition in some respects. (If a world government were established, the special requirements would be global in scope.) (See Miller 1998.)

The question, whether the requirement of equalizing people’s condition applies within particular societies but not across societies on a global scale, might be thought to raise a rough dilemma for the normative attractiveness of any equality ideal. The dilemma arises in the following train of thought. On the one hand, there is no good basis for restricting the scope of equality. If equality matters, the group that should be made equal is people everywhere. On the other hand, a global equality requirement will strike many as deeply counterintuitive because it seems to impose very demanding requirements on prosperous individuals and nations to share their wealth with less prosperous strangers in distant lands. The dilemma paints egalitarianism as either parochial or Quixotic and utopian. To remove this impression of dilemma, it would suffice either to defend the restriction of egalitarian requirements to single societies or to show that the requirements of demanding global egalitarianism are not really counterintuitive.

Further issues may be raised about the nature of the individuals among whom equality should obtain. One might hold that across whatever kind of group is deemed to be the relevant domain of equality, individuals should be made equal in condition over the course of their lives. Another possibility is that the individual persons at the same stage of the life cycle should be rendered equal in condition. On this latter view, a society in which over time the people who are old all enjoy the same condition, and likewise the people who are young and those who are middle-aged, could perfectly conform to the ideal of equality of condition even if the old are (say) far better off than the middle-aged and the middle-aged are always far better off than the young. Another possible view is that equality should be formulated so it demands that from now, the condition of all those living should be equalized (regardless of what condition people enjoyed in the past). (See McKerlie 1989 and 2001 and Temkin 1993, chapter 8).

Another issue emerges if one asks: why focus on individual persons rather than on groups? One might hold that it is not important that individual persons have equal life prospects, but it is morally valuable that men and women on the whole should have equal life prospects, that heterosexuals and nonheterosexualls should have the same life prospects, that people of different supposed races should have the same life prospects on the whole, and so on. To fill out this proposal one would need to develop a normative account that explains what sorts of group classifications matter for this purpose and on what grounds. Notice that one might be troubled, for example, if it is found that men have better life prospects on the average than women, because that would be an indicator that perhaps equality of opportunity and equality of fair opportunity are not satisfied. To be moved by this consideration is not to value equality of condition across groups per se.

Finally, the discussion in this entry assumes that if equality is valuable or morally required, the equality that matters is equality among human persons. Equality across individual humans and individual members of other animal species has not been envisaged. But why not? If human beings are picked out as morally special, some reasonable ground must be adduced for this selection. In view of the fact that there might be intelligent beings who qualify as persons but are nonhuman (angels, intelligent extraterrestrials, and so on), perhaps we should focus on persons and consider whether equality of condition should prevail among persons and only among persons and if so, on what basis. Notice that the claim that human persons share a special equal status from which less intelligent animals are excluded still allows that these animals, though not equal in status to humans, may nonetheless be morally considerable.
5. Is Equality Desirable Per Se? Varieties of Egalitarianism

Why should it matter that people have or get the same? In previous sections of this entry some attempt has been made to clarify some principles that prize equality of condition of some sort. No doubt in some circumstances movement toward equality of some sort can be expected to increase the extent to which other values worth caring about are achieved. The question here is whether the achievement of equality of condition of any sort matters for its own sake, independently of whether it hinders or promotes the attainment of other values.

In considering this question, one should beware of conflating equality per se with distinct and independent values that in some circumstances will closely shadow it. The values that might be confounded with equality include sufficiency, priority, and desert.
5.1 Sufficiency

Suppose one compares the grim conditions of life endured by the poorest inhabitants of the earth with the garishly opulent conditions of life enjoyed by the wealthiest people. A natural reaction is that it is morally outrageous that such inequalities in life prospects exist. As George Orwell once wrote, “a fat man eating quails while children are begging for bread is a disgusting sight” (Orwell, 1938, p. 115). But one may wonder if what is troubling about the example is the gap between rich and poor or rather the deplorable condition of the poor, which might continue unabated even if the gap itself were eliminated. To put the issue another way, if it is the inequality per se that is bad, then the gap between poor and rich would seem to be no worse than a same-sized gap between the life prospects of the rich and super-rich. If the latter inequality strikes one as morally inconsequential, the question arises whether inequality is in and of itself really objectionable. Perhaps the problem is not that the poor have less than the rich, but rather that the poor do not have enough–a sufficient level of resources to provide a good life or a reasonable prospect of a good life. The suggestion then is that sufficiency not equality is what per se matters. How one’s condition compares to the situation of other people is not important in itself. What is morally important is that people have enough to bring them over the threshold of decent life prospects. (For this line of thought, see Frankfurt 1987).

The doctrine of sufficiency holds that it is morally valuable that as many as possible of all who shall ever live should enjoy conditions of life that place them above the threshold that marks the minimum required for a decent (good enough) quality of life. Sufficiency can rationalize egalitarian transfers of resources from better off to worse off persons when such transfers would increase the total number of people who ever achieve sufficiency.

A potential problem for the sufficiency doctrine is that it may not be possible nonarbitrarily to specify a line of sufficiency such that moving a person just across that line has great moral significance. If the sufficiency doctrine were asserted either as a complete theory of justice or as a principle that trumps all competitors, it would definitely be problematic. Suppose a large number of people are unavoidably below sufficiency, leading hellish lives, and that transfer of resources could vastly improve their lives while leaving them below the sufficient level. Instead we could use these same resources to boost a single person who is now just barely under sufficiency to just barely over it. Sufficiency as a trumping doctrine says that we ought to do what will increase the total number of persons who ever achieve sufficiency no matter what the cost to other moral values. This is worse than dubious. A similar difficulty emerges when one imagines cases in which many people are unavoidably over the sufficiency level, but with a resource infusion their lives will be vastly improved, and in which the same resources could instead be used to prevent a single person now just above sufficiency from falling a hair beneath this line.
5.2 Priority

There is another route to the conclusion that equality per se is not morally valuable. Consider again the scenario in which the poorest inhabitants of the earth face grim and miserable conditions of existence and the richest enjoy an enormously better quality of life. The sufficientarian’s diagnosis of this situation is that what is bad about this scenario is not the inequality, the gap between rich and poor, but the fact that the poor do not have enough. An alternative diagnosis can most easily be explained by supposing that we have a cardinal interpersonal measure of welfare or well-being. An individual’s level of well-being registers how well her life is going as it would be assessed from the standpoint of rational prudence. An individual’s level of well-being is the level of benefits or advantages for herself that her life contains. From this perspective, when one speaks of “better off” and “worse off” persons, one is speaking of persons whose lifetime level of well-being is high or low.

With this bit of background in place, the idea that transfers of resources from better off to worse off persons are sometimes morally desirable can be understood without supposing either that equality of any sort is per se desirable or that there is some level of well-being that marks the good enough level and that has a special status as specified by the sufficiency doctrine. Suppose that for any person, the lower her lifetime well-being score–the amount of well-being she gains or is now expected to gain over the course of her life–the more morally valuable it would be to secure an incremental gain of well-being for her (or to avoid a small loss). This is the root idea of prioritarianism.

The prioritarian idea is to be sharply distinguished from the idea that across some range, resources secured for a person have declining marginal utility. To illustrate, suppose one person is leading a hellish existence and another is leading a life of sheer bliss. We might think that a single unit of some generally useful resource such as water is likely to do more good, result in a greater aggregate of well-being among all persons, if the unit is provided to the person suffering in hell rather than the person enjoying heavenly bliss. This may be so. The straight utilitarian of well-being will then favor provision of the unit of water to the inhabitant of hell. Now suppose instead that a unit of some resource would provide exactly the same increase in well-being if it is provided either to the person leading the hellish or the person leading the blissful life. (Perhaps the person already in bliss is a very efficient transformer of resources into personal well-being.) The prioritarian gives priority to getting benefits to those whose well-being level is low, so will favor helping the miserable rather than the lucky person even if the well-being aggregate is thereby reduced a bit, compared to what it would have been if the resource had been channeled to the blissful person.

Prioritarianism holds that the moral value of achieving a benefit for an individual (or avoiding a loss) is greater, the greater the size of the benefit as measured by a well-being scale, and greater, the lower the person’s level of well-being over the course of her life apart from receipt of this benefit. Well-being weighted by priority as just specified is sometimes called “weighted well-being.” To this account of value the prioritarian adds the position that one ought to act, and institutions should be arranged, so as to maximize moral value as defined. (See chapter 2 of Scheffler 1982, Weirich 1983, Parfit 1997).

An attractive feature of the priority doctrine is that it will never yield the implication that there is something good, from the standpoint of egalitarian values, in bringing about equality or a clear move in the direction of equality by making better off persons worse off without bringing about any offsetting gain at all to worse off persons. Suppose there are rich peasants and poor peasants and there is nothing we can do to improve the lives of the poor peasants. We could, however, burn the grain storehouses of the rich peasants, rendering them worse off but still no worse off than the poor peasants. If equality is desirable for itself, then there is something positive to be said about the destruction of the grain storehouses in the example, even if it is also the case that there is an offsetting negative feature of the transition to the new status quo, namely that the well-being of the rich peasants precipitously declines. If equality were to be deemed a value that takes priority over all others, a trumping value, then we would be committed to asserting that the state of affairs after levelling down is all things considered morally better than the status quo ante. The prioritarian faces no such embarrassment in her responses to levelling down scenarios such as the example just described.

Another attractive feature of prioritarianism is that it promises to combine in a single determinate principle the values of well-being maximization and priority for the badly off. So elaborated, the priority doctrine would contain a solution to the problem of integrating the values of efficiency and equality broadly understood. But this advantage is just notional pending a determination of how to weight the competing values of well-being gains and priority in a single principle. As stated, the priority doctrine does not specify a determinate principle but a family of principles. At one extreme, hardly any weight is given to priority as it competes with maximizing well-being, and the prioritarian doctrine is then barely distinguishable from straight act utilitarianism with utility identified with well-being. At the other extreme, hardly any weight is given to maximizing well-being as it competes with priority, and the prioritarian doctrine is then barely distinguishable from the maximin principle with well-being as the maximand. (Maximin holds that one should choose that policy, among the alternatives, that brings about the best position for the worst off individual affected by the policy choice.)

The priority doctrine has been explicated as a version of welfarism. One can see that the prioritarian idea iself is separable from any commitment to welfarism. In general terms, the prioritarian holds that the moral value of gaining a benefit for a person is greater, the lower the benefit level of the person prior to receipt of the increment, and greater, the greater the size of the benefit. So stated, the doctrine admits of various interpretations that put different constructions on the idea of “greater benefit.” For example, if benefit is identified with the Rawlsian idea of a primary social good, and one takes prioritarianism to the limit of maximin, one then has the Rawlsian conception, that justice in most general terms is bringing about the best possible outome for the very worst off. (See Rawls 1971, chapter 2, and for a defense of maximin, J. Cohen 1989.)
5.3 Desert

Egalitarian transfers will in some circumstances be recommended by yet another principle that cares nothing for equality per se (Kagan 1999). This is the principle of desert: It is desirable that each person should gain good fortune corresponding to her virtue (deservingness). As construed here, the desert principle presupposes that individuals’ virtue is cardinally interpersonally measureable. A number can then be assigned to each person indicating that person’s level of virtue; persons assigned higher numbers have greater virtue. Suppose that for each number there is a specific amount of good fortune or well-being that an individual with that number indicating her amount of virtue deserves to have. This is the level of good fortune that corresponds to one’s virtue. This level is higher for the more virtuous, lower for the less virtuous. (One might allow that very nonvirtuous persons deserve some level of bad fortune or negative well-being.)

Suppose one adds to the desert principle the further norm that when a person has less than she deserves, it is morally more valuable to gain an increment of good fortune for that person, the greater the gap between what she has and what she deserves. Call the further norm the greater gap principle. Accepting the desert principle and the greater gap principle, one will then sometimes favor egalitarian transfers purely from considerations of desert.

Suppose that two people are equally deserving (virtuous) but that one is worse off than the other. If one has a bit of resource to distribute, and it would provide a one-unit gain in well-being for either of the two individuals if either one got it, then it is morally more valuable to get the benefit to the person who is worse off, because she is farther from enjoying what she deserves than the other. In a similar way, if resources could be transferred from the better off person to the worse off, with the result that the better off person loses a unit of well-being and the worse off person gains one unit, this transfer would result in a morally more valuable state of affairs according to the combination of the desert principle and the greater gap principle. In such cases principles of desert favor transfers from better off to worse off without in any way favoring equality of any sort for its own sake.

Of course, in other cases desert principles as described will have inegalitarian implications. If a sinner already has little by way of good fortune, but more than she deserves, and a saint has a lot, but less than she deserves, bringing about the state of affairs in which the worse off sinner has even less than she presently has and the already better off saint gets even more is recommended by desert principles. The point is simply that egalitarianism in the broad sense, a policy that favors transfers of resources from the better off to the worse off in some circumstances, will be justified by a variety of moral principles. These contingently egalitarian principles may have no tendency whatsoever to generate support for the norm that equality is per se desirable–that it is in itself bad if some are worse off than others.

To defend the position that equality is per se morally desirable one would need carefully to investigate the scenarios in which egalitarian transfers are attractive and the variety of principles that would support egalitarian transfers in those scenarios. If the norm of equality does not match our considered judgments after wide reflection, we should be content to be instrumental egalitarians if we are determined to be egalitarians at all.

* Anderson, Elizabeth, 1999, “What Is the Point of Equality?”, Ethics 109, pp. 287-337.
* Arneson, Richard J., 1989, “Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare,” Philosophical Studies 56, pp. 77-93, reprinted in Louis Pojman and Robert Westmoreland (eds.), Equality: Selected Readings, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997, pp. 229-241.
* Arneson, Richard J., 2000, “Welfare Should Be the Currency of Justice,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 30, pp. 477-524.
* Barry, Brian, 2001, Culture and Equality, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
* Buchanan, Allen, Brock, Dan W., Daniels, Norman, and Wikler, Daniel, 2000, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, chapters 3 and 4.
* Christiano, Thomas, 1996, The Rule of the Many, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
* Cohen G. A., 1988, History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Cohen, G. A., 1989, “On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, Ethics 99, pp. 906-944.
* Cohen, G. A., 1995, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Cohen, Joshua, 1989, “Democratic Equality”, Ethics 99, pp. 727-751.
* Cohen, Joshua, 1989 a, “Deliberative Democracy,” in Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit (eds.), The Good Polity, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
* Daniels, Norman, 1990, “Equality of What? Welfare, Resources, or Capabilities?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (supp. vol.), pp. 273-296.
* Dworkin, Ronald, 2000, Sovereign Virtue: Equality in Theory and Practice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
* Estlund, David, 2000, “Political Quality,” Social Philosophy and Policy 17, pp. 127-160.
* Fishkin, James, 1983, Justice, Equal Opportunity, and the Family, New Haven: Yale University Press.
* Fleurbaey, Marc, 1995, “Equal Opportunity or Equal Social Outcome?”, Economics and Philosophy 11, pp. 25-55.
* Frankfurt, Harry, 1987, “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” Ethics 98, pp. 21-42, reprinted in Frankfurt, Harry, 1988, The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Griffin, James, 1986, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Hare, R.M., 1981, Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Hurka, Thomas, 1993, Perfectionism, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Kagan, Shelly, “Equality and Desert,” in Louis P. Pojman and Owen McLeod (eds.), What Do We Deserve? A Reader on Justice and Desert, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 298-314.
* Larmore, Charles, 1987, Patterns of Moral Complexity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Larmore, Charles, 1996, The Morals of Modernity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Locke, John, 1690, Second Treatise of Government, C. B. MacPherson (ed.), Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980 edition.
* Kymlicka, Will, 1990, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Kymlicka, Will, 1995, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Marx, Karl, 1978. “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Robert C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W. W. Norton, pp. 525-541. (Written in 1875.)
* McKerlie, Dennis, 1989, “Equality and Time,” Ethics 99, pp. 475-491.
* McKerlie, Dennis, 2001, “Justice Between the Young and the Old,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 30, pp. 152-177.
* Miller, Richard W., 1998, “Cosmopolitan Respect and Patriotic Concern,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27, pp. 202-224.
* Nagel, Thomas, 1991, Equality and Partiality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Nozick, Robert, 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.
* Nussbaum, Martha, 1990, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Liberalism and the Good, R. B. Douglas, Gerald M. Mara, and Henry Richardson (eds.), New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 203-252.
* Nussbaum, Martha, 1992, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism,” Political Theory 20, pp. 202-246.
* Nussbaum, Martha, 1999, “Woman and Cultural Universals,” in Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 29-54.
* Nussbaum, Martha, 2000, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Orwell, George, 1938, Homage to Catalonia, reprinted edition 1952, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.
* Parfit, Derek, 1984, Appendix I, “What Makes Someone’s Life Go Best,” in Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 493-502.
* Parfit, Derek, 1997, “Equality and Priority,” Ratio 10, pp. 202-221.
* Rakowski, Eric, 1992, Equal Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Rawls, John, 1971, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, rev. ed. 1999.
* Rawls, John, 1993, Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press.
* Rawls, John, 1999, Collected Papers, Samuel Freeman (ed.), Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
* Rawls, John, 2001, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. by Erin Kelly, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
* Raz, Joseph, 1986, “Equality,” in Raz, The Morality of Freedom, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* Roemer, John E., 1996, Theories of Distributive Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
* Roemer, John E., 1998, Equality of Opportunity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
* Scanlon, T. M., 1997, “The Diversity of Objections to Inequality,” The Lindley Lecture, Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas, reprinted in Mattthew Clayton and Andrew Williams (eds.), The Ideal of Equality, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 41-59.
* Schar, John, 1967, “Equality of Opportunity–and Beyond,” in Pennock, J. Roland, and Chapman, John, eds., 1967, Equality: Nomos IX, New York: Atherton Press, reprinted in Pojman, Louis P., and Westmoreland, Robert, 1997, Equality: Selected Readings, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 137-147.
* Scheffler, Samuel, 1982, The Rejection of Consequentialism, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
* Sen, Amartya, “Equality of What?”, in S. McMurrin (ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 1, 1980, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, reprinted in Sen, 1982, Choice, Welfare and Measurement, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 353-369.
* Sen, Amartya, 1992, Inequality Reexamined, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
* Sen, Amartya, 1997, On Economic Inequality, expanded edition with annexe by Foster, James E., and Sen, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Sher, George, 1997, Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* Steiner, Hillel, 1994, An Essay on Rights, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
* Temkin, Larry S., 1993, Inequality, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
* Vallentyne, Peter, and Steiner, Hillel, 2000, The Origins of Left-Libertarianism: An Anthology of Historical Writings, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York: Palgrave.
* Vallentyne, Peter, and Steiner, Hillel, Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York: Palgrave.
* Van Parijs, Philippe, 1995, Real Freedom for All: What (if Anything) Can Justify Capitalism?, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
* Walzer, Michael, 1983, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, New York: Basic Books.
* Weirich, Paul, 1983, “Utility Tempered with Equality,” Nous 17, pp. 423-39.
* Wolff, Jonathan, 1998, “Fairness, Respect, and the Egalitarian Ethos,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27, pp. 97-122.
* Wood, Allen, 1981 Karl Marx, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, chapters 9 and 10.
* Young, Iris Marion, 1990, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Other Internet Resources

* Equality and Responsibility, Boston Review, April/May 1995 issue, Vol. XX No. 2.

Related Entries

equality | equality: of opportunity | justice: distributive | luck: justice and bad luck
Copyright © 2002 by
Richard Arneson

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 8:39 am  Leave a Comment  

teoría de las ideas de Descartes

FUENTE http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ideas/
Descartes’ Theory of Ideas
First published Wed Mar 14, 2007

“Idea,” in its various linguistic forms, has been used in many ways by many philosophers, ancient, medieval, and early modern. Unfortunately for our current purposes, it was also used in many ways by Descartes himself. Exegesis of his views is, as a result, both a challenging and inescapably contentious affair. Amongst the many problems a complete exegesis would make sense of are these:

1. Descartes’ uses of the term “idea” diverge from perhaps the original or primary scholastic use;
2. He provides multiple non-equivalent definitions of the term, uses it to refer to as many as six distinct kinds of entities, and divides ideas inconsistently into various genetic categories;
3. He makes a trio of apparently inconsistent distinctions concerning ideas, invoking other opaquely employed scholastic concepts;
4. It’s not clear that his “ideas” are consistent with his own ontology in general;
5. What he says about ideas suggests a “veil of perception” account of cognition,[1] on which the cognizing mind is not directly “aware” of the external object itself, but only of some representative proxy; yet at the same time his texts sometimes indicate some form of direct cognition of the object itself;
6. Ideas’ most important epistemic property — that of being clear and distinct — is ill-defined and poorly explicated, to the point that debates arise about whether and which ideas have this property;[2]
7. To this day there are divergent interpretations of Descartes’ account of sensory processes and ideas, concerning where and how he distinguishes between them and intellectual processes and ideas, whether sensory ideas have representational content, what Descartes means by the “material falsity” of some (or all?) sensory ideas, what the ontological status of “secondary” qualities is, etc.

These issues may be divided, roughly, into the metaphysical and the epistemological, reflecting the central role ideas play in both domains for Descartes. Since Descartes’ conception of “clarity and distinctness” is discussed elsewhere in SEP,[3] and since an adequate account of his views on sensation and its relationship to the intellectual would require a whole article in its own right, this entry will focus on (1)–(5) above, and thus primarily on the metaphysical issues and on intellectual ideas. Since many of the difficulties in Cartesian “ideas” arise from his simultaneously both reflecting and attempting to reject the relevant scholastic philosophy, we must begin there.

* 1. The Scholastic Background
* 2. The What and the Whence of Cartesian Ideas
* 3. Formal, Material, Objective
* 4. Cartesian Ontology, and Ideas
* 5. Ideas and Direct Cognition
* Conclusion
* Bibliography
o Primary Sources
o Secondary Sources
* Other Internet Resources
* Related Entries

1. The Scholastic Background[4]

I used the word ‘idea’ because it was the standard philosophical term used to refer to the forms of perception belonging to the divine mind … (3rd Replies, II.127, AT VII.181)[5]

For Christian philosophers from Augustine onwards, “ideas” were commonly conceived to be the “forms of divine perception”: roughly, Platonic forms transported into the divine mind, where they served as archetypes according to which God created the particulars of the created world.[6] But this general formulation invited much scholastic debate over their precise nature: Are they eternal and necessary — and so perhaps uncreated — beings ontologically independent of God? Or are they in some way dependent on God or God’s intellect? If the latter, would that mean that actual being somehow comes in degrees, since the “being” of “being-known” seems “less real” than that of mind-independent beings? Are they actual universal beings — since many created particulars can instantiate the same form — or are they too as particular as the created beings “modeled” on them? Or are they best construed as merely possible beings, i.e. as essences which are possibly (but not always actually) instantiated in the created world? But then what are those? Nor was it straightforward simply to identify them with God Himself, for ideas and essences are all limited in a way that God is not. Aquinas suggested that they be identified with the various finite ways in which God’s infinite being may be imitated, but that just buries the problem deeper: What are these “possible modes of imitation,” exactly, and how are they to be grounded in a purely actual being?

At the same there was equally much debate about the nature of human cognition. Through an enormous thicket of jargon — forms, essences, intentions, species, notions, concepts, phantasms, images, agent and patient intellect, etc — roughly the following general picture emerged. The cognitive process — the activity of coming to know the world — begins in the world, works through the senses, and culminates in the intellect. The form of some sensible quality — such as (say) the color red — “informs” some matter or object, and is then transmitted through the relevant medium (such as the air) to the relevant sensory organ (the eye), and ultimately to the intellect. The object instantiates or “realizes” the form “formally,” such that the object becomes actually red; but the air and the eye realize the form only “intentionally,” as a species, which means that they carry the red “information” without themselves actually becoming red. The form realized in the eye results in an act of sensation “directed towards” or “attentive of” that quality. The immaterial intellect may then in turn, by a complex process, extract or abstract the form in order to contemplate it, as it were, at which point the original object or quality is fully cognized or perceived or understood.

A few key points:

1. The account reflects the Aristotelian doctrine that in cognizing, the cognizer becomes identical to or “like” the thing cognized (De Anima 5, 7 (430a20, 431a1)): the thing and the sense organ and the intellect all realize the very same form, albeit in different manners or modes.
2. Intentional species were generally held to causally mediate cognition without themselves being objects of cognition, i.e. “what” is cognized.[7] The relevant form insofar as it informs the medium, sense organs and/or perhaps even the intellect, in other words, directs the latter not to the transmitting media nor to the states of the sense organ themselves, nor to its own states, but to the original quality or object initiating the sequence. Consequently the scholastic account is generally interpreted as one of “direct cognition.”[8]
3. Species are said to “represent” the external quality or object, which means, at the least, that they make the thing knowable or known. But they perform this function by virtue of the fact that they “resemble” or are “similar” to the thing they represent. Due to this resemblance they are sometimes referred to as “images” of things, which gives rise to the picture — later ridiculed by Descartes (Optics I, I.153-4, AT VI.85) — that objects continuously slough off little images of themselves in order to allow our cognition of them. But Descartes’ ridicule here was not perfectly fair. The scholastics were well aware that something which does not formally instantiate a sensible quality does not literally resemble the thing which does. All they meant by invoking terms such as “image” and “resemblance” was that species carry information (in-“form”-ation) about — i.e. the form of — the quality despite themselves not (formally) instantiating the quality: species are images of and resemble the object only insofar as the same form is (differently) realized in each.[9] In any case, as we’ll see shortly, Descartes himself sometimes uses the notions of “image” and “resemblance” in just the same way.

How, then, are ideas qua archetypes in the divine mind connected to this account of human cognition? The very short answer might start with this text from Aquinas:

…[T]he human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types …. But since besides the intellectual light which is in us, intelligible species, which are derived from things, are required in order for us to have knowledge of material things; therefore this same knowledge is not due merely to a participation of the eternal types, as the Platonists held … (ST 1.84.a5, 427)

Universal forms are present in the divine intellect. On the basis of these God creates the world, bringing these forms to be realized, formally, in the world, particularized through matter. Through the processes of human cognition these same forms come to be in the human intellect. Aquinas’s (and scholasticism’s) empiricist bent is reflected in the requirement that we proceed via deriving the forms, ultimately, “from things,” as sketched above — at the same time as it is recognized that our intellect’s ability to extract or abstract forms also involves an ultimately divine “light.”

Descartes, of course, rejects many of the particulars of the doctrines above, since his ontology leaves no room for the sorts of “forms” (such as those of colors) being discussed. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, he appears to adopt the account in its broader strokes, mutatis mutandis. Indeed, the very fact that he co-opts the term “idea” from its original use with respect to divine perception and applies it to human cognition is some evidence for this suggestion.

Once the link is made between the forms in the divine and human intellects, now, many of the problems mentioned above arise again in the new context. In particular, there’s much scholastic debate over the precise nature of and relationships between forms, objects, acts of cognition, and the cognizers themselves. Already in Aquinas we read the following, as part of his argument that species mediate cognition without being objects thereof:

Hence that by which the sight sees is the likeness of the visible thing; and the likeness of the thing understood, that is, the intelligible species, is the form by which the intellect understands. But since the intellect reflects upon itself, by such reflection it understands both its own act of intelligence, and the species by which it understands. Thus the intelligible species is that which is understood secondarily; but that which is primarily understood is the object, of which the species is the likeness …[I]t follows that the soul knows external things by means of its intelligible species. (ST 1.85.a2, 434)

As we noted, when the relevant form is “in” a state or act of thinking (say), the mind (or that state) is (somehow) “directed towards” the object (or the form qua present in the object). Consequently an act or state of thinking may be considered in at least two ways: as a state or property intrinsic to a thinker, and as a mechanism by which the thinker is related to the external object, O, thought about. Similarly, the act or state of thinking may perhaps be considered as a “way” in which O exists in the intellect, as “O-in-thought”: after all, both actually being a particular object O and being a thought of O involve the “same” form being realized (if in different media or ways).[10] Although a strong distinction was made between an actually existing external O and the act of thinking about O, much debate occurred over precisely what sorts of distinctions to make (if any) between the external O and O-in-thought, and between O-in-thought and the act of thinking, especially in cases where O does not actually exist in external reality. The core questions were these: Must O-in-thought be granted its own mode of (actual) being somehow distinct from the act of thought itself? If so, what is that kind of being — the being of “being-known” — exactly? Must O-in-thought stand as a “third thing,” a tertium quid, between the cognizing mind and the external O (if there is one), thus introducing the “veil of perception”? Or could O-in-thought possibly be identified either with the act of the thought or O itself, thus eliminating it as a distinct ontological category?

By the time of Suárez, these debates had crystallized around what he calls the “common distinction” (vulgaris distinctio) between a formal and an objective concept. He writes:

When we conceive of a man, the act which we perform in our minds … is called the ‘formal concept,’ while the man known and represented by that act is called the ‘objective concept.’ [The latter] is doubtless called a ‘concept’ by an extrinsic denomination from the formal concept through which, as it is said, the ‘object’ is conceived — and so it is properly [also] called ‘objective,’ because it is not conceived as a form intrinsically terminating the conception, but as an object and subject-matter with which the formal concept is concerned and towards which the mind’s gaze is immediately directed. (DM 2.1.1, transl. Ayers 1998 (1099))

The formal concept is called a “concept,” (conceptus) from the verb to conceive (concipere), because it is, Suárez notes, “as if an offspring of the mind” (veluti prolis mentis) (DM 2.1.1:25, 64-65); the thinking-of-O involves O being taken into or generated in the mind just as biologically conceiving of O involves O being taken into or generated in a womb. As Wells 1990 notes, “it is designated as ‘formal’ because it is the ‘final form of the mind’ (ultima forma mentis), or because it ‘formally represents’ (formaliter repraesentat) to the mind the thing known, or because it is ‘the intrinsic formal terminus of the act of mental conception’ (intrinsecus et formalis terminus conceptionis mentalis)” (40).[11] The formal concept, then, just is the act of a mind, and as such realizes (formally) some relevant mental form, to make it that very mental act; but at the same time it realizes (intentionally) the form of some object or quality O, which makes the act to be “of” O.

This latter leads to the “objective concept,” i.e. to the thing which is “known and represented” by the mental act.[12] Note that the objective concept does not do the representing; it is, rather, the thing represented by the formal concept, which does. It is called a “concept” only “by extrinsic denomination,” insofar as (in being thought) it is related to the act of mind which in the strictest sense is a concept. It is called an “object” insofar as the mental act is not directed (merely) towards either itself, nor towards the form intentionally realized in the act, but towards the object itself (formally) realizing that form. While the formal concept, as an actual act or state of a mind, is always a “true positive thing inhering as a quality in the mind” (DM 2.1.1, 25, 65) and is thus always a singular or particular, the same is not always the case for the objective concept: we can conceive of mere “beings of reason” (such as privations), and of universals (such as “man”), and of mere possibilities, or “possible essences.” One can say of such things that, though not actually existing in the world, they have, qua objective concepts, “objective being.”

As a result, however, Suárez’s “common distinction” does not itself solve any of the problems mentioned above, but merely provides a terminology for expressing them. For it is tempting to identify the objective concept with some externally existing object until we recognize that, in many cases, there is no such object available. This point is particularly pressing with respect to possible essences, commonly invoked to provide a ground for the eternal truths involved in essential predication. When we think of a perfect triangle, or a chiliagon, or even of some possible animal not actually existent, the object of our thought, the objective concept, is a possible essence. But what sort of being, precisely, does that thing enjoy, particularly insofar as it doesn’t actually exist in the world? Well, the being of “being-thought.” But what is that, and how is related to the act of thinking, etc.?

There is much scholarly debate over how precisely to interpret Suárez’s views on these questions. Readers familiar with the secondary literature on Descartes will recognize that precisely analogous debate occurs over interpreting Descartes’ views on the very same questions. Roughly, the logical geography of the competing interpretations of both philosophers mirrors that of all the possible theories relating the relevant entities. Even restricting ourselves to the paradigm case of an act of thought T about some actually existing external object O, we have at least the following options:

1. Admit only T and O into our ontology. Here talk of “objective concepts” (or the “objective being” of O) has no ontological commitment distinct from that of the being of T or O.
2. Admit T and O, plus some tertium quid Q, which enjoys an “objective being” distinct from the being of T and O.

But now both (a) and (b) come in two versions. On (a1), T is related in some intrinsic way to O, while on (a2) T is related only extrinsically to O. Thus on (a1) we might say something like “T is O-itself-existing-in-thought,” while on (a2) we might merely say that T terminates at O, or represents O. Similarly, on (b1) the tertium quid Q is related to O in some intrinsic way, while on (b2) it is not. Thus on (b1) we might think of Q as O-existing-in-thought, while on (b2) we wouldn’t, and instead think of Q as (say) some mental thing representing O.

But now, unfortunately, (a1), (a2), (b1), and (b2) themselves each come in two versions. Suffice to say that the dividing factor is whether T or Q are taken to be objects of cognition, i.e. “what” we cognize, or merely causal intermediaries in the cognitive process. The former is prone to generate a “veil of perception,” while the latter is not.

These are a lot of options from which to choose. It’s no surprise that the scholastics spent centuries debating which is the best theory, nor that contemporary scholars spend years debating interpretations both of the various scholastics and of Descartes. Roughly, contemporary debate about Descartes’ theory of ideas — and so his theory of cognition — amounts to an attempt to locate him in the logical space above, and the various points we’ll explore below constitute some of the arguments supporting different locations. For now, our main conclusion is merely this modest one: despite Descartes’ 1st-Meditation-fueled reputation as developing his philosophy from scratch, his conception of and doctrines concerning ideas not only do not come out of an intellectual vacuum, but in fact are extracted from something more resembling a plenum.

Sources/Further Reading: Cronin 1966, Wells 1967, O’Neill 1974, Doyle 1984, Yolton 1984, Normore 1986, M. Adams 1987, Hoffman 1990, Wells 1990, Grene 1991, Wells 1993, Ariew & Grene 1995, Pasnau 1997, Ayers 1998, Hatfield 1998, Hoffman 2002, King 2005, Lagerlund 2005, and mental representation in medieval philosophy.
2. The What and the Whence of Cartesian Ideas

So what are “ideas,” according to Descartes? Here are just some of his definitions or relevant texts:

1. I use the word ‘idea’ to mean everything which can be in our thought… (To Mersenne 16 June 1641, III.183-4)
2. …[A]n idea is the thing which is thought of in so far as it has objective being in the intellect. (1st Replies, II.74, AT VII.102)
3. Idea. I understand this term to mean the form of any given thought, immediate perception of which makes me aware of the thought. (2nd Replies, II.113, AT VII.160-1; cf. 3rd Replies, II.132, AT VII.188)
4. …I am taking the word ‘idea’ to refer to whatever is immediately perceived by the mind. For example, when I want something … I simultaneously perceive that I want … and this is why I count volition … among my ideas. (3rd Replies, II.127, AT VII.181)
5. Some of my thoughts are as it were the images of things, and it is only in these cases that the term ‘idea’ is strictly appropriate — for example, when I think of a man, or a chimera, or the sky, or an angel, or God. (3rd Med., II.25, AT VII.37)

The difficulties are immediately apparent. In (5) ideas are equated with our thoughts, or acts of thinking, some of which are “as it were images.” But it’s clear that Descartes doesn’t mean “image” literally here, as a kind of visual picture, since his examples include the idea of “God,” of whom we can form no such image. In (1) “idea” is applied not to our thoughts but to that which can be “in” our thoughts, which would seem to include all sorts of non-mental things, “in” our thoughts at least in the sense that these are what we can think of. But (2), invoking a scholastic term, suggests there’s a special way of “being” in our thought, viz. objective being, which raises the question of how or whether these objective (perhaps mental) beings are identifiable with (or otherwise related to) the non-mental things external to mind. In (3) “idea” is applied specifically to the “form” of the thought — another scholastic term — “immediate perception of which” makes us aware of the thought itself. (4) may imply that what is “immediately perceived” is not a form but the act of thinking itself (but then again may not). We see within these definitions all the elements generating our logical geography above: the act of thinking, the object-in-thought (which may or may not be a mind-dependent being), the external object, and the “immediate” object of cognition. As unhelpfully as perhaps possible, Descartes uses the term “idea” rather indiscriminately for all of them.

Even worse, in his earlier works Descartes was inclined also to refer to various images in the brain as ideas.[13] And though he abandons this use in his later work, that’s not so much a change of view as a clarification. Continuing definition (3) above, he writes:

… [I]t is not only the images depicted in the imagination which I call ‘ideas.’ Indeed, in so far as these images are in the corporeal imagination, that is, are depicted in some part of the brain, I do not call them ‘ideas’ at all; I call them ‘ideas’ only in so far as they give form to [informant] the mind itself, when it is directed towards that part of the brain. (2nd Replies, II.113, AT VII.160-1)

Corporeal images merited the term “idea,” in other words, insofar as they were related in some way to thought; just as, perhaps, external objects may merit the term “idea” insofar as they, as objects thought of or as objects-in-thought, are related to thought. This allows us, at least, to grasp the unifying theme of all these applications of “idea”: it is Descartes’ generalized term for perhaps all the elements relevant to a theory of human cognition.

There is possibly one more important use. When discussing innate ideas Descartes is prone to speak of dispositions: roughly, to have an innate idea is to have a disposition towards forming certain thoughts on certain occasions. What is less than perfectly clear is whether the disposition is meant to be identified with the idea itself or merely with the manner in which the idea is stored in the mind. If the former, then we have a new use of “idea,” to refer to certain mental dispositions; but if the latter, then “idea” may be restricted to its previously discussed uses.[14]

What, then, are Cartesian ideas? Depending on context (and interpretation) the term may refer to: some (or all) of our acts of thinking, the external objects we think of (qua thought-of), objective (perhaps mental) beings, the forms of our acts of thinking, images in the brain, or certain kinds of mental dispositions we have with respect to all the preceding. What all these share, as noted, is their relevance to the theory of human cognition. To work out Descartes’ “theory of ideas,” then, is to determine the nature of each of these elements and exactly how they’re all related to each other. If the word “idea” itself is not used with perfect consistency — by him, or subsequently by us — then so be it.

As to the whence of Cartesian ideas:

Among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious, and others to have been invented by me. My understanding of what a thing is, what truth is, and what thought is, seems to derive simply from my own nature. But my hearing a noise, as I do now, or seeing the sun, or feeling the fire, comes from things which are located outside me, or so I have hitherto judged. Lastly, sirens, hippogriffs and the like are my own invention. (3rd Med., II.26, AT VII.37-38)

This passage appears to explain where his ideas at least seem to come from: his own nature (innate), from outside (adventitious), or from his invention. But immediately there’s a small problem: the third category might reduce to the prior two, for his “invention” of ideas may involve only a recombination of ideas he already has, presumably from the first two sources. And then there’s a slightly larger problem: in a later work Descartes offers an account of the origin of ideas inconsistent with the preceding.

…[I]n no case are the ideas of things presented to us by the senses just as we form them in our thinking. So much so that there is nothing in our ideas which is not innate to the mind or the faculty of thinking …. Nothing reaches our mind from external objects through the sense organs except certain corporeal motions … But neither the motions themselves nor the figures arising from them are conceived by us exactly as they occur in the sense organs … Hence it follows that the very ideas of the motions themselves and of the figures are innate in us. The ideas of pain, colours, sounds, and the like must be all the more innate … for there is no similarity between these ideas and the corporeal motions [which cause their production]. (Comments, I.304, AT VIIIB.358-9)

According to this text, it would seem, all ideas are innate, including the very sensory ideas which were paradigms of adventitious ideas in the earlier text.

But fortunately this problem is easily resolved: Descartes merely appears to be using “innate” in different senses between the two texts. In the later text an idea is innate insofar as it may be grounded in our very faculty or power of thinking; and since the Cartesian mind is created with the ability, roughly speaking, to think of or experience everything it will in fact think of or experience, then every such thought or experience (i.e. idea) will count as innate:

Consequently these ideas, along with that faculty [of thinking], are innate in us, i.e. they always exist within us potentially, for to exist in some faculty is not to exist actually, but merely potentially … (Comments I.305, AT VIIIA.360)

In the earlier text, to the contrary, the genetic distinction appears to concern the immediate causal origin of the ideas: adventitious ideas are those (perhaps typically) triggered externally, invented ideas are those whose construction entirely depends on our own relatively unconstrained will, and innate ideas are those we form (or actualize) not merely on the basis of our will but by reasoning or self-reflection.[15] So construed, ideas which are not innate in the earlier sense may count as innate in the later sense.[16]

Sources/Further Reading: McRae 1965, Kenny 1968, McRae 1972, R. Adams 1975, Costa 1983, Chappell 1986, Jolley 1990, Schmaltz 1997, Gorham 2002, and Nadler 2006.
3. Formal, Material, Objective

In so far as the ideas are simply modes of thought, there is no recognizable inequality among them … But in so far as different ideas represent different things, it is clear that they differ widely. (3rd Med., II.27-28, AT VII.40; cf. Principles I.17, I.198-9, AT VIIIA.11)

In this text Descartes famously introduces the distinction between

(a) “formal reality” and “objective reality.”

The formal reality of ideas corresponds to what they are, “intrinsically,” or “actually,” viz. states or acts or modes of thinking. All ideas are, formally, on a par, sharing the same “degree” or kind of formal reality. But at the same time it is the nature of such states to “contain” or represent external objects,[17] and insofar as ideas vary here they are not all on a par:

Undoubtedly, the ideas which represent substances to me … contain within themselves more objective reality than the ideas which merely represent modes or accidents. (3rd Med., II.28, AT VII.40)

Our concern won’t be with the ontological “hierarchy” here, but with the notion that ideas have or contain an “objective reality” corresponding to the object they represent, or at least “may be considered” as such.

Note, to start, that distinction (a) is similar to another distinction concerning not ideas directly but the “modes of existence” of objects: the sun (say) exists “formally” in the sky but may also exist “objectively,” “in” a mind or intellect, insofar as someone is thinking of it. Since Descartes is explicit that the former is “really” distinct from the latter,[18] we’ll speak, for convenience, of the “formal sun” and the “objective sun.” The obvious temptation now would be to equate or identify the objective sun with the objective reality of the idea of the sun, but that would be too quick. Since Descartes also suggests that the objective and formal realities of an idea in fact are two aspects of some single thing, two ways an idea “may be considered,” these are not “really” but merely “conceptually” distinct[19] — but then the objective sun would be really identical not merely to the objective reality of the idea of the sun but also to the formal reality of that idea, since these are really identical. In short, the objective sun would be identified with the idea simpliciter:

… [T]he idea of the sun is the sun itself existing in the intellect — not of course formally existing, as it does in the heavens, but objectively existing, i.e. in the way in which objects normally are in the intellect. (1st Replies, II.75, AT VII.102-03)

This result naturally opens a large can of (fortunately, objective) worms. The core problem is that the objective sun here seems to enjoy some kind of identity both with the act of thought (as just described) and with the formal sun, since the objective sun is in some sense the “sun itself” — and yet the act of thought is really distinct from the formal sun. But of course this problem is familiar by now: we have here the usual suspects — the act of thought, the object-in-thought, and the external object —described in the roughly Suárezian vocabulary from Section 1 above, so we ought to expect the usual problems in working out their precise natures and relations. Teasing it all apart will take some work. But first Descartes complicates the picture by introducing two other, apparently inconsistent distinctions.

In another famous passage, Descartes writes:

When M. Arnauld says ‘if cold is merely an absence, there cannot be an idea of cold which represents it as a positive thing,’ it is clear that he is dealing solely with an idea taken in the formal sense. Since ideas are forms of a kind, and are not composed of any matter, when we think of them as representing something we are taking them not materially but formally. If, however, we were considering them not as representing this or that, but simply as operations of the intellect, then it could be said that we were taking them materially, but in that case they would have no reference to the truth or falsity of their objects. (4th Replies, II.162-3, AT VII.232)

Here we have what appears to be the same distinction as in (a): an idea may be considered or “taken” (sumpta) in terms of what it is actually, intrinsically, in itself, i.e. an operation or act of thought, or it may be taken in terms of the external thing it contains or represents. But the terminology changes, as the distinction is now said to be between

(b) an idea taken “materially” v. taken “formally,”

where in distinction (a) the “formal” reality of the idea seems equivalent to the idea taken in the “material” sense here! As if that weren’t confusing enough, Descartes elsewhere also writes:

…[T]here is an ambiguity here in the word ‘idea.’ ‘Idea’ can be taken materially, as an operation of the intellect, in which case it cannot be said to be more perfect than me. Alternatively, it can be taken objectively, as the thing represented by that operation; and this thing, even if it is not regarded as existing outside the intellect, can still, in virtue of its essence, be more perfect than myself. (Preface to Med., II.7, AT VII.8)

Again, apparently we have the same distinction, here said to be between

(c) an idea taken “materially” v. taken “objectively,”

where the “material” sense corresponds to the “material” sense of (b); only now, he uses “objective” where he used “formal” in (b), but just as he’d used it in (a). Overall, then, the word “material” seems to be used with the same meaning in (b) and (c), but is absent from (a); the word “objective” seems to be used with the same meaning in (a) and (c), but is absent from (b); and the word “formal” seems to switch dramatically in meaning between (a) and (b), but is absent from (c).

The problems here are more than merely terminological, unfortunately; for while it does appear to be the same underlying distinction in play in (a)-(c) — and indeed all three are invoked in and around the Meditations — even that underlying distinction seems susceptible to differing interpretations with different metaphysical implications. On the one hand, the distinction may be roughly a semantic one: the word “idea” can be used to refer to two distinct entities, viz. an act of thought and the object of that thought — where, pending resolution of Descartes’ ontology, the object may be either a mental object in some way distinct from the thinking mind, or some actual external or abstract object itself. On the other hand, the distinction might be meant as a metaphysical one: ideas just are entities with a two-fold nature, or with two distinguishable aspects, viz. they are modes-of-thought-‘containing’-objects, i.e. modes-of-thought-with-representational-content. When Descartes invokes (a) and (b) he sounds as if he may, possibly, have the latter in mind; when he speaks of the “ambiguity” of the word “idea,” in invoking (c), he sounds as if he may, possibly, have the former in mind. Either way, once again we have the usual suspects in play, and thus all the familiar problems.

The central question, of course, is the nature of the objective reality of ideas, or, alternatively, of the objective mode of existing of objects. We noted above that Descartes seems to want to identify the objective sun (for example) both with the act of thought and the formal sun, while noting these latter two are really distinct. But in addition to some of the texts we’ve seen, various aspects of Cartesian metaphysics in general themselves seem to pull in opposing directions here, thus sharply deepening this difficulty.

1. On the one hand, Descartes notes that the formal reality of his idea does not have the same causal requirements as its objective reality, which may imply that the objective sun is really distinct from the act of thought:

The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea. (3rd Med., II.28-29, AT VII.41)

Indeed, his very application of his causal principle — “…that there must be at least as much in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause” (3rd Med., II.28, AT VII.40) — to the objective reality of ideas itself strongly suggests that the objective sun might somehow be identified with the formal sun, the sun itself, since each requires a cause of equivalent reality or stature.

On the other hand, his general dualist substance-mode ontology would seem to rule out any mental objects distinct from a mind, and so reinforce the identity between the objective sun and the act of thought. Nor would it do here to identify the objective sun with a physical object, the formal sun, as (1) does, since the objective sun has something to do with the objective reality of an idea, and an idea, Descartes insists, “is never outside the intellect” (2nd Replies, II.74, AT VII.102) — which the formal sun most certainly is.

On a third hand, Descartes stresses the mind-independence of the objectively existing essences providing the objective reality of at least some of his ideas (5th Med., II.44-45, AT VII.64). Though there’s debate over just what the mind-independence amounts to,[20] it too at least suggests strengthening the distinction between the objective sun and the act of thought, as in (1). But at the same time, contra (1), Descartes also admits objective beings which may not even have any actually existing formal counterparts at all (5th Med., II.44-45, AT VII.64) — in which case there’s no external formal thing with which they may be identified.

Ayers 1998 offers a particularly succinct way of stating the problem, to which the preceding three points have been supplying arguments for the opposed responses:

The question could be put as follows. Which is the mere [conceptual distinction], and which the real distinction: (1) the distinction between the idea as mode of thought and the idea as intentional object of thought [i.e. the objective being] or (2) the distinction between the latter … and the real object (the thing as it exists in reality)? It seems clear that, at least on ordinary realist assumptions, there cannot be one thing, the idea, which is really identical both to the mode of thought and to the real object. (Ayers 1998, 1067)

Ayers notes that much rides on the answer: If (2) is the conceptual distinction, for example — so there is no real distinction between the objective and formal suns — then we have support for a “direct cognition” interpretation of Descartes: that ideas are the “immediate” objects of thought wouldn’t preclude a sense in which external objects are as well. The problems here of course include those just noted: the objective and formal object couldn’t be really identical since the former is “in” the intellect in a way the latter isn’t, and the account must explain the cases where no relevant formal object exists extra-mentally. If, on the other hand, (1) is the conceptual distinction, it’s not apparent how thought ever makes contact with the external world, since the object of thought turns out to be really identical just to the act of thinking itself. Further, there are the problems just noted, including that the real distinction between the objective and formal sun leaves unexplained Descartes’ insistence that the objective sun just is the sun itself.

Ayers himself asserts that Descartes takes (1) to be the conceptual distinction. But Ayers makes no effort to accommodate the conflicting tensions both in the Cartesian texts and in his metaphysics, as expressed in points (1) and (3) above. Nor does he accommodate the apparent hint of direct cognition in Descartes’ suggestion that the mind grasps the sun itself.

We can do better.

Sources/Further Reading: Kenny 1970, Chappell 1986, Jolley 1990; Bennett 1994, Chappell 1997, Nolan 1997, Ayers 1998, Hoffman 2002, Clemenson 2005, Nadler 2006, and Rozemond (forthcoming).
4. Cartesian Ontology, and Ideas

Let us remind ourselves of four of the basic elements of Descartes’ ontology.

1. All created entities are either substances or properties of substances (Principles I.48, I.208, AT VIIIA.22).
2. Created substances are either mental or physical in nature, i.e., either minds or bodies (Principles I.48, I.208, AT VIIIA.23). Each kind has a principal attribute — thought and extension respectively — and each has corresponding properties, which are construed as modifications or “modes” of that principal attribute (Principles I.53, I.210, AT VIIIA.25).
3. Descartes generally rejects scholastic hylomorphism, aspects of which were sketched in Section 1 above.[21] In brief, this was the theory that created things are composed of matter and form. The matter here is not physical matter, but rather a kind of indeterminate potentiality which becomes actualized when in-formed by a form. Forms were generally understood as kinds of universals or essences but, unlike those of the Platonic variety, were not conceived to have any independent ontological status but rather only to exist when particularized “in things,” either formally or intentionally.[22] Forms divide into “substantial forms,” which make something into the kind of thing it is and thus bestow its essential properties and characteristic behaviors on it, and “accidental forms” which bestow its non-essential or contingent properties on it. That Descartes rejects hylomorphism is supported by (i) his generally negative remarks about it, (ii) the fact that he dispenses with it in his physical science, and (iii) items (1) and (2) in his ontology above: his substances are capable of existing independently in a way that substantial forms (requiring “matter”) ordinarily are not, and properties qua “modifications” seem attached to a substance more intimately than accidental forms would be.[23]
4. Descartes has at least an inclination towards nominalism, i.e. the view that everything that exists is a particular:[24]

…[N]umber, when it is considered simply in the abstract or in general, and not in any created things, is merely a mode of thinking; and the same applies to all the other universals, as we call them … These universals arise solely from the fact that we make use of one and the same idea for thinking of all individual items which resemble each other: we apply one and the same term [nomen] to all the things which are represented by the idea in question, and this is the universal term. (Principles I.58-59, I.212, AT VIIIA.27)

This sounds like a traditional nominalist position: there are no genuinely universal beings, we merely apply the same term [nomen] or idea to particular things which resemble each other. Indeed Descartes goes so far as to claim that universals are merely “modes of thinking,” suggesting they have no mind-independent reality at all.

Overall, then, Descartes subscribes to a substance-mode, dualist, anti-hylomorphist, and nominalist-inclining ontology. Yet much in our discussion of Cartesian ideas, so far, was possibly in tension with this ontology. There were suggestions that objective beings might be mental objects which are not minds, or that mental states somehow “contain” (otherwise) mind-independent, non-mental objects such as bodies, or even abstract or universal beings. We’ve also seen Descartes invoke the hylomorphic “matter-form” terminology in his various distinctions. Any coherent exegesis of Cartesian ideas must make sense of these conflicting tendencies.

It must also make sense of his conflicting terminologies. We saw, in Section 3, that Descartes had three distinctions in play with respect to ideas, invoking these terms:

1. formal v. objective,
2. material v. formal,
3. material v. objective.

Since these seemed to be three ways of stating the same (if ambiguous) distinction, two questions arise: Why introduce all these terms? And why does “formal” seem to shift so dramatically in meaning between (a) and (b)? With these questions in mind, let’s now see what we can learn by revisiting Descartes’ also conflicting definitions of “idea” from Section 2.

The word “form” in definition (3) naturally calls hylomorphism to mind. Again, as Aquinas writes:

Now Plato held … that the forms of things subsist of themselves apart from matter … by participation of which he said that our intellect knows all things: so that just as corporeal matter by participating the [form] of a stone becomes a stone, so our intellect, by participating the same [form], has knowledge of a stone. But since it seems contrary to faith that forms of things should subsist of themselves, outside the things themselves and apart from matter … Augustine … substituted the types of all creatures existing in the Divine mind, according to which types all things are made in themselves, and are known to the human soul. (ST 1.84.a5, 427)

The form of a stone in matter makes the matter (formally) a stone; the same form “in intellect” does not make the intellect formally into a stone, but only intentionally, by “forming it” into the thought of a stone. Augustine, placing these forms into the divine mind, called them “ideas.” And we can now appreciate, I think, just how deliberately Descartes chooses the term “idea” for the elements of human cognition: for his account of human cognition, ultimately, invokes entities playing precisely the same role that forms played for the scholastics.

We see this in definition (3), to be sure: an idea is the form of a thought. That suggests that mind is playing a role much like that of hylomorphic matter: in itself it is, in a sense, indeterminate, a potential or capacity for thought or thinking, but when in-formed it becomes a determinate thought, i.e. one with a determinate object or content.[25] In light of this, Descartes’ distinction (b) makes perfect sense: a thought (or mind) considered “in itself” or intrinsically is like matter, and only insofar as it is in-formed, or considered with respect to a form, and thus to an object, is it taken “formally.” In our current example the form in question would be the form of the stone.

But forms, of course, also make something what it actually (formally) is. If the form of the stone makes matter into a formal stone, then the Cartesian dualist might also entertain forms for the mind, mental forms which make a mind (and particular mental states) formally into minds and mental states respectively. And indeed Descartes observes that some of his thoughts, in addition to representing objects (thus counting as “ideas”), “have various additional forms: thus when I will, or am afraid, or affirm … my thought includes something more than the likeness of [its object]” (3rd Med., II.25-26, AT VII.37; cf. 3rd Replies, II.128, AT VII.182-82). But of course there’s an important difference here between the case of the physical stone and that of mental entities. The stone can ultimately be described, for Descartes, as a modification of extension, in precise, quantifiable terms, as some sort of mathematical essence. The mental forms here determining the category of representational state — viz. willing, fearing, etc. — enjoy nothing more precise than that vocabulary itself. More importantly, no account is given here of what mental form turns the state into one with that particular representational content. As Malebranche would later critique Descartes, we might say here that we lack a perfectly “clear idea” of the mind:[26] we do not conceive of mind in a way allowing us to understand its modes or states, or at least none comparable to the way our conception of mathematics affords us a grasp of the nature of extended matter and its modifications.

Still, we have enough now to also make sense of Descartes’ distinction (a). The notion of “form” in play there is not that (say) of the stone, but that indescribable one which makes the mind what it actually or intrinsically is; in the common scholastic idiom we saw in Suárez in Section 1, this “formal” will contrast with “objective,” which invokes the object represented or its form. And this partly answers one of our questions: the apparently dramatic shift in meaning of “formal” between (a) and (b) is not so dramatic, as “formal” refers to forms in both. In our thinking of a stone, we can now see, there appear to be two forms in play: the form of the stone, and the relevant (if indescribable) form of the mind or mental state. When invoking (a), Descartes’ focus is on the latter; when invoking (b), on the former.

What, then, about distinction (c)? We saw earlier that Descartes appears to take all three distinctions to be equivalent, and we can now see how this may be so: (c) merely combines the hylomorphic “material” with the common scholastic idiom of “objective.” This in turn partially answers our other question: Descartes uses this shifting vocabulary because all of it means what he wants it to mean, and would be familiar to his readers as so meaning. Its messiness, in other words, derives from his predecessors’ own terminological profligacy.

But now reading Descartes as adopting, in broad strokes, this scholastic account of cognition, has the additional virtue of making sense of his varying definitions of “idea” from Section 2. Definition (1) reflects the fact that objects can be “in” our thought, i.e. insofar as their forms in-form our minds. Definition (5) asserts that ideas are thoughts which are “as it were images,” where “image” invokes the notion of some sort of (non-literal, non-pictorial) likeness or resemblance between the thought and its object. As we saw in Section 1, forms were frequently referred to as “images” precisely when they were intentionally realized either in species or in the mind, and we can now see Descartes to be following suit: Our thought of a stone is an “image” of the stone insofar as the form of the stone (intentionally) in-forms our mind. Definition (2) reflects a similar point: a thing has objective being in the intellect insofar as its form intentionally in-forms the mind. And of course definition (3): If the mind is like “matter,” it only becomes determined into a particular mode or thought, with an object, once in-formed. The “idea”-ness of a thought, its having an object, is thus traced to its form. Similarly for definition (4): it’s precisely by their “forms” (as we saw) that mental states become the type they are, thus volition etc. count as ideas by virtue of their forms.

But (3) and (4) also introduce something new: the notion of “immediate perception.” In (3) the idea is the form of a thought “immediate perception of which makes me aware of the thought”; in (4) the mind “immediately perceives” that it’s willing, etc., which (again) is traced to the forms of its states. To simplify we’ll ignore the mental forms responsible for generating the categories of representational states, and thus focus on (3) and the problem of representational content. The idea in (3) is the “immediately perceived form,” but as we’ve seen, there are apparently two in play: the form of the object of the thought (the stone), and the mental form of the thought itself qua representational state. So which one is relevant here?

To read Descartes in broadly scholastic terms is to recognize that they both are — and they both are because they are one and the same. As with the scholastics, when the form is realized in matter you get a formal, actual, particular stone; when that very same form is realized in a Cartesian mind, now, you get a particular thought of a stone.

A scholastic reading of Descartes appears to have a number of advantages:

(1) It’s economical. With respect to substance dualism, the one form does both sorts of work: (formally) modifies matter, and (intentionally) modifies mind. Or with respect to the mind alone, the one form does both sorts of work: modifies the mind, and provides it with its representational content.

(2) Descartes appears to hold that all thought is representational, i.e. that it’s the very nature of mind to represent (3rd Med., II.25, AT VII.36-37; II.29, AT VII.42).[27] But it also seems that our only epistemic access to the nature of our mind is via the contents of our thoughts. What we know in knowing our thoughts, in other words, are their objects. Thus definition (3): our immediate perception of the form of a given thought makes us aware of the thought. Which form is that? The form of the stone. It is both that which gives the thought its object AND that which makes the thought what it actually is, viz. a thought of a stone. Descartes has no need to specify “which” form is in play here, because there is only one.

Or to put this point more metaphysically: given the mind’s nature to represent, thoughts are partly individuated by their contents.[28] If so, then that form which bestows content on the state is also that which determines what state it is. If some other form were required for the latter, then we’d need an entire theory relating the modes of the mind, individuated by nameless forms, to their representational contents, a theory conspicuously lacking in Descartes. Or even more succinctly: Cartesian minds are, primitively, “thought-makers,” which on receiving the forms of objects become thoughts of those objects. No distinct mental forms are necessary for representational content, just as the scholastic reading suggests.

(3) We saw a moment ago that Descartes’ shift in meaning of the term “formal” between distinctions (a) and (b) was not actually that dramatic. In light of definition (3) we can now see that it may in fact be no shift at all — if the same form provides the “formal” in both (a) and (b)!

(4) A fourth advantage of the scholastic reading is that it affords a general, coherent account of the various conflicting metaphysical tendencies raised in Section 3.

We saw there, for example, that the objective sun seemed to enjoy some kind of identity both with the act of thought (since the formal and objective reality of an idea seemed to be two aspects of some single thing) and with the formal sun (since the objective sun is in some sense the “sun itself”) — and yet the act of thought is really distinct from the formal sun. But this tension is now easily satisfied: the act of thought is really identical to the objective sun, since both are constituted by the mind-informed-by-the-sun-form; the objective sun is the sun itself, since the very same form constitutes both the objective and formal suns (if in different media); and the act of thought remains really distinct from the formal sun.[29]

Similarly, we saw both that the objective being and the formal being of an object require causes of equal stature while the objective and formal realities of an idea differ in causal requirements; further, that Descartes sometimes stresses the mind-independence of objectively existing essences. These points supported distinguishing the objective sun from the act of thought and perhaps even identifying it with the formal sun. Yet at the same time Descartes also restricted objective beings to the mind: they’re never “outside the intellect,” and sometimes no formal being exists to correspond to them.

But these tensions are now also satisfiable. Objective and formal beings require equal causes due to their sharing the same form. Yet that the objective and formal realities of an idea differ in causal requirements need not require that they be really distinct, for a conceptual distinction may support diverse causal explanations: The informed mind is a mind-thinking-of-O; when we “consider” it “intrinsically,” we need only invoke causes sufficient to create the finite mind, while when we “consider” it as “of-O” we need to invoke a cause sufficient to make it that particular state, of-O, which involves the form of O.[30] Meanwhile objective beings are naturally restricted to the mind, since objective beings are forms-realized-in-mind. If a given form is realized in mind and not in matter, we’ll have an objective being that does not correspond to a formal one, but there’s nothing particularly metaphysically problematic about that. But even if there does exist a corresponding formal being, nothing here requires a real identity between the objective and formal beings; they will share a form, but be really distinct instantiations or particularizations of that form. Finally objective essences may be mind-independent in the sense that the contents (or possible states) of our thoughts are not “up to us”: an objectively existing triangle may reasonably be said to contain all the essential properties of a triangle whether I notice it or like it or will it or not.[31] But whatever the final account of that fact, it doesn’t entail that the objectively existing triangle itself exists “outside” the mind.

Lastly, Ayers’ Descartes placed the real distinction between the objective and formal suns, as the scholastic Descartes does, thus identifying the objective sun with the act of thought. But Ayers made no effort to accommodate the conflicting tensions in the Cartesian texts above, and indeed, left as a major problem the hint of direct cognition in Descartes’ suggestion that the mind grasps the sun itself: if the objective sun is identified with the act of thought, and so in thinking of the sun the mind is only aware of its own state, how does the mind make cognitive contact with the external world? The scholastic reading, to the contrary, supplies what Ayers’ thesis lacked: the conflicting tensions are resolved as above, and the direct cognition is accommodated, as we’ll see further in Section 5, by the fact that the very same form constituting external objects also in-forms the mind.

(5) The scholastic reading’s fifth and final advantage is that it provides a coherent account of Descartes’ overall ontology, as sketched at the start of this section. Three points in particular need attention: (i) Descartes rejects scholastic hylomorphism, yet often invokes the hylomorphic vocabulary; (ii) his objective beings sometimes seem to be mental objects which are not minds, or kinds of mental states which somehow “contain” non-mental objects, both of which seem inconsistent with his dualist, substance-mode ontology; and (iii) the mind-independent essences sometimes constituting his objective beings often seem to be abstract or universal beings, despite his inclination towards nominalism.

(i) Descartes’ bark about hylomorphism is in general far worse than his bite: he does not so much reject it as refurbish it in accord with the mechanical philosophy.[32] Gone are the vast array of particular scholastic forms conjoined with hylomorphic matter in the physical world (such as those constituting “secondary” qualities and perhaps the genera-species of scholastic essences), but in their place are roughly analogous mechanical, and ultimately mathematical, essences (Principles IV.198, I.285, AT VIIIA.321-23; To Regius, January 1642, III.206-209, AT III.499-509). Gone are the sensible and intelligible species which convey the scholastic forms ultimately to the cognizing intellect, but in their place is matter in motion conveying “in-form-ation” about the surface textures of objects to the sensory organs, then onwards to the pineal gland, which in turn leads the cognizing mind to sense or understand, such that the object of cognition “itself” is now “present to the mind” (Optics 4-6, I.165ff., AT VI.112ff.; 6th Replies, II.295, AT VII.437; Principles IV.197-8, I.284-5, AT VIIIA.320-23; cf. O’Neil 1974). Nothing in this refurbishing precludes Descartes’ accepting the basic scholastic notion that the same “form” — i.e. mathematical essence — may enjoy two kinds of realization, corresponding to his two kinds of substances. That Descartes expresses his account of cognition in thoroughly scholastic terms, and (again) that he chose the word “idea” in the first place, is perhaps the strongest evidence that he embraces the account in its broad outline, while differing in the important particulars above.

(ii) Texts suggestive of “mental objects” are understandable: the mind’s awareness of its state of thinking, which is individuated by its form, is at the same time awareness of the object of the state which formally is (or would be) constituted by that form. Equally understandable is talk of these objects as “in the mind”: there’s a real identity, after all, between the objective being and the act of thought. And so too we can understand the sense in which non-mental objects are “contained” in thought: the same form which, by in-forming matter, constitutes the object, by in-forming the mind constitutes a thought of that object. But nothing here violates Descartes’ dualist, substance-mode ontology — at least on the obviously crucial assumption that his forms — which we’ll now speak of interchangeably with his (ultimately mathematical) “essences” — do not.

(iii) Unfortunately, the ontological status of Cartesian essences is a matter of much dispute, as is, consequently, the question whether they truly fit within his overall ontology. A proper account of this issue would require its own article, so here I must be overly brief.

The major positions on Cartesian essences are roughly these:

1. Essences are mind-independent, universal, abstract entities, like Platonic forms (Kenny 1968, 1970);
2. Essences are grounded in the human cognitive structure, i.e. our capacities for thinking. That there “is” a triangle essence containing the essential properties of triangles, then, means merely that our minds are so structured that we cannot conceive of triangles without, ultimately, ascribing them their essential properties (Bennett 1994, Chappell 1997, Nolan 1997);[33]
3. Essences just are the objects which have those essences (Cunning 2003);
4. Essences are to be identified either with divine decrees or with the contents thereof (Schmaltz 1991, Rozemond (forthcoming)).

Each position finds some textual support. 5th Med., for example, displays a strong hint of (A) in its insistence on the eternal, immutable, (human) mind-independent status of essences. We saw in Principles, to the contrary, the nominalist inclination which may support (B). That Descartes denies a real distinction between (say) a substance and its attributes is some evidence for (C) (To ***, 1645 or 1646, III.280-1, AT IV.349-51). And in Descartes’ mysterious doctrine of the divine creation of eternal truths — and thus of essences, with which the eternal truths are identified (To [Mersenne], 5/27/30, III.25, AT I.152) — we may find indications of (D). Yet another Cartesian conundrum — but one which perhaps, too, may be made intelligible by a scholastic reading.

When an essence in-forms a mind, the result is an act of thought whose content is determined by the essence. But we saw just above that that content may be mind-independent in the sense that it is not up to us, in particular to our wills, what must be included in the content. If that’s not up to us, then what it is up to — the Cartesian God’s eternal, immutable will — is free to confer that eternality and immutability on the content (To Mersenne, 4/15/30, III.23, AT I.145-46; To [Mesland], III.235, AT IV.118-19). But that fact does not require that essences ever exist except when realized or particularized in matter or minds. Thus we may make sense of the Platonic-sounding texts without reaching the Platonist conclusion. So much for (A).

(B) is more of a contender. For the scholastic Descartes, mental states are individuated by the essences realized in them, which may support identifying essences and our cognitive structure and so make sense of the texts supporting (B). Yet (B) may not do full justice to Descartes’ references to “eternal” essences, since our minds are not eternal. Further, these “same” essences may be realized in matter as well. These points suggest that the essences are in some sense “prior” to our cognitive structures.

(C), similarly, has something right about it, insofar as essences do in-form matter; but it, too, may not do full justice to their eternality, and in particular, may struggle with the cases where essences exist “in thought” without any formally existing external object with which to identify them.

What about (D)? For our purposes we need not distinguish between its two versions: given the Cartesian God’s simplicity, there can be no real distinction between God’s “decrees” and their contents, just as we saw there to be none between the objective and formal realities of human ideas. And though we cannot engage here with the complex mysteries of Descartes’ creation doctrine, we can observe at least an element of truth in (D): ultimately all Cartesian things must find their source in the Cartesian God, including essences. As such (D) gets closest to accommodating the eternality and mind-independence of essences supporting (A) while avoiding the demerits of (B) and (C).

Still we must note that (D) need not exactly rule out (B) and (C):

First, briefly, divine simplicity entails that the distinctions we make in God — between His perfections, faculties, decrees, etc. — are merely conceptual ones. Following a long scholastic tradition, Descartes will hold that anything we say about God involves our applying our very limited concepts to something with respect to which they are not fully adequate. But then our very characterization of the divine essence — as omnipotent, omniscient, infinite, etc. — will be determined by our own cognitive structure. And since it’s that characterization which ultimately grounds Descartes’ affirmation of (D) — and since it is our cognitive structure which determines how/what essences we can grasp in the first place — we have a sense, distinct from the earlier one, in which our cognitive structure might in fact be “prior” to the essences.

Second, more generally, Descartes’ God’s perfection precludes His systematically deceiving us (4th Med., II.37, AT VII.53). He has thus created us with a cognitive structure which accurately maps the general structure of reality, i.e. the complete set of what’s possible; but this structure in turn maps neatly onto the structure of God’s will, to the degree to which it’s intelligible, since He is the causal source of all possibilities. While the order of explanation certainly starts with God, it may be a matter of taste to decide whether to identify the essences with the divine decrees or their content or with the minds and matter which are their causal consequences, or even all of the above. After all, it’s the “same” essence present in all domains.

Similarly, lastly, perhaps the biggest problem for (D) arises from the fact that Descartes holds not only that God is the efficient cause of essences but that God is not the efficient cause of Himself (4th Replies, II.164-6, AT VII.235-7). Since, by divine simplicity, there can be no real distinction between God and His decrees (or their contents), it would seem that essences cannot be identified with divine decrees without entailing, contra Descartes, that God is the efficient cause of Himself. But the availability of (B) and (C) mitigate this problem: the very same essences present in the divine decrees are also present in creatures, as realized either in minds or in matter. Since creatures are uncontroversially the products of God’s efficient causation, we can make sense of Descartes’ claim that God is the efficient cause of essences without giving up (D).[34]

It may not matter, then, whether we ultimately go with (B) or (C) or (D), or all three (more or less). None raises an immediate problem for Descartes’ ontology, which indisputably accepts minds with their cognitive structure, bodies with mechanical essences, and God with His decrees and their contents. Nevertheless a deeper problem is brewing. The Cartesian essences, even if “originating” with God, are realized not merely “in” God’s decrees but also (consequently) in finite minds and matter. But does that mean we must say that essences are universal beings, and thus inconsistent with Descartes’ nominalist leanings?

Let us briefly return to the Principles text above:

…[N]umber, when it is considered simply in the abstract or in general, and not in any created things, is merely a mode of thinking; and the same applies to all the other universals, as we call them … These universals arise solely from the fact that we make use of one and the same idea for thinking of all individual items which resemble each other: we apply one and the same term to all the things which are represented by the idea in question, and this is the universal term. (Principles I.58-59, I.212, AT VIIIA.27)

There are several important points here:

First, nothing in this text in fact is inconsistent with the scholastic Descartes. Descartes insists that universals — essences — “considered simply in the abstract or in general,” are merely “modes of thinking,” but that is consistent with allowing that universals, considered “in created things,” in fact also are realized in those things. He speaks of items resembling each other, but nothing precludes that resemblance’s being a matter of their sharing the “same” essence. His account whereby material particulars are subsumed under an idea is both one of explaining the origin of an idea as well as its ability to represent a multiplicity; but when he says that universals are “modes of thinking,” he is merely saying that, when they are not realized in matter, they are realized only in mind. What he is keen to deny is just that essences exist in that mind-independent, Platonic way, which we may falsely think when we think about them “in the abstract or in general.”

Indeed Descartes quite explicitly refers to the idea as a “universal.” In the quoted text he calls it a “universal term” [quod nomen est universale], and in other parts of the text he makes several references to the “universal idea” [quae ideò est universalis]. There can be no doubt that he considers our individual acts of thought to be particulars, but insofar as these have the same “content,” they become, as he says in the text, “one and the same idea” (my italics): what we have is a “universal essence” realized in diverse acts of thought. In light of the considerations in the preceding paragraph, there is no reason to resist allowing a universal essence to be realized in diverse material particulars as well.

Finally, Descartes is quite clear that there is no real distinction between a thing’s existence and its essence (To ***, 1645 or 1646, III.280-1, AT IV.349-351). What he does allow is a real distinction between the objective object and the formal object, but in the former we have an essence realized in mind, and in the latter, an essence realized in matter. The realizations of this essence, in mind and in matter, are really distinct, or “token-distinct”; but he simply lacks the resources (and on the scholastic account the motive) to treat the “essence” in this case itself as token-distinct across the instances. But if one and the same essence is realized in two media, we do indeed have a universal essence.

The conclusion, then? For Descartes, every existing thing is indeed a particular, and that will satisfy his nominalist inclinations. But that is consistent with allowing universal aspects or natures, i.e. essences, as long as these only “exist” insofar as they are realized in particulars.[35] Now realism about universals comes in many varieties, as does nominalism, and the position we’ve ascribed to Descartes may lean more towards the realist end of the spectrum than towards the nominalist. What’s important to note, however, is that Descartes is concerned to reject a Platonic realism. Whether the resulting position still merits the label “realism” — perhaps “Aristotelian-scholastic realism” — is a merely terminological issue.

The broadly scholastic account of Cartesian ideas, then, nicely ties together the disparate elements of his ontology.

Sources/Further Reading: Kenny 1968, Kenny 1970, Brown 1980, Schmaltz 1991, Bennett 1994, Garber 1994, Chappell 1997, Nolan 1997, Bolton 1998, Rozemond 1998, Cunning 2003, Pessin 2003, Rozemond (forthcoming), Aristotle’s psychology, medieval theories of universals, and properties.
5. Ideas and Direct Cognition[36]

The Cartesian texts often suggest, as we’ve seen, that (i) ideas are the “immediate” objects of our thoughts, (ii) they are never “outside the intellect,” (iii) they’re distinct from the act of thought, but (iv) they can’t be identified with any formal, external object, etc. Put these together and you’ve got strong hints at a doctrine in which ideas “veil” us off cognitively from the world: “what” we are aware of “directly,” in cognition, are only ideas, and not external objects themselves. Similarly we saw, in Section 3, Ayers’ observation that the conceptual distinction between the act of thought and the objective being seemed to preclude our having cognitive contact with anything other than our own acts of thought, and thus also to support a “veil.” Yet at the same time, there are also hints of direct cognition in Descartes, in, for example, his insistence that the objective sun is the “sun itself,” and more generally in his account of “simple natures” which are both manifest in the physical world and directly graspable by the mind (Rules 12, I.39ff., AT X.411ff.; cf. O’Neil 1974). Fortunately the scholastic reading of Descartes can make sense of this final Cartesian conundrum as well.

What Ayers has failed to consider, on the scholastic Descartes, is the significance of the sameness of form across realizations in matter and in mind. There is a real distinction between the act of thought (objective being) and the formal being, but their sameness in form supports what we might call an identity in reason between them. Thus the act of thought is made determinate by a form, so constituting the objective being, while one and the same form is particularized in matter. This allows Descartes to say both, as we’ve seen, that our “immediate perception” of the form of a thought makes us aware of the act of thought itself, and that the objective sun — the object of our thought — is the sun itself. This is how the mind makes “cognitive contact” with the world, pace Ayers’ concerns: the same form realized out there is also realized in here, and awareness of one is therefore awareness of the other. There is no tertium quid serving as an object of cognition.

So yes, ideas are “only in the intellect,” and may be the “immediate objects of awareness”; we can thus make sense of many of the texts supporting the “veil.” Nevertheless the identity in reason — the sameness of form — between the in-formed mind and in-formed matter ensures that the in-formed mind constitutes a thought “directed towards” the object, and the Cartesian intellect may be said to be (directly) aware of (say) “the sun itself.” Consequently, but unsurprisingly, the scholastic Descartes may be seen as subscribing to “direct cognition,” exactly (as we saw in Section 1) as his scholastic predecessors are generally taken to do.[37]

This doesn’t solve every problem for the exegesis of Cartesian ideas, naturally. Most importantly, we’ve been focusing on “intellectual” ideas, the paradigm examples of which are the mathematical essences which can be realized in the physical world; we’ve not addressed the problem of “sensory” ideas, of which we certainly seem directly aware yet which do not and cannot in fact be manifest in the physical world of Descartes’ mechanical philosophy. But that is a problem for another day.[38]

Sources/Further Reading: Lennon 1974, O’Neil 1974, Yolton 1975, Yolton 1984, Cook 1987, Nadler 1989, Wilson 1990, Tipton 1992, Wilson 1994, Simmons 1999, Hoffman 2002, Clemenson 2005, and Pessin 2007.

Let us close by situating this account in the logical geography sketched at the end of Section 1, focusing on the paradigm case of an act of thought T about some actually existing external object O. While Descartes appears to speak of a kind of tertium quid, Q, viz. an objective being, the mere conceptual distinction between Q and the act of thought T indicates that he grants Q no distinct being from that of T, thus putting us into option (a). Given the “sameness of form” doctrine, T is “intrinsically related” to O, putting us into (a1). Finally, in light of the real identity between T and the objective being, and the identity in reason between the latter and O, then T may indeed count as an object of cognition — but not in a way which in fact, after all, generates a “veil of perception.”[39]
Primary Sources
[ST] Summa theologica, transl. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1948/1981).
[De Anima] “On the Soul,” transl. by J. A. Smith, in ed. Richard McKeon, Introduction to Aristotle (2nd Edition) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 153-247. References are to the page, column, and line numbers of the Berlin Academy edition (1831-1870).
[AT] Oeuvres de Descartes, eds. C. Adam & P. Tannery (Paris: 1897-1910 and 1964-1978; Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1996). References are to volume and page number.
[CSM] The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, v. I, II, transl. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch, and v. III, transl. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, & A. Kenny (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 1985, 1991). References are to volume and page number.
[Comments] Comments on a Certain Broadsheet, in CSM I.
[Med] Meditations on First Philosophy, in CSM II.
[Optics] Optics, in CSM I.
[Principles] Principles of Philosophy, in CSM I.
[Replies] Objections and Replies, in CSM II.
[Rules] Rules for the Direction of the Mind, in CSM I.
[Treatise] Treatise on Man, in CSM I.
[Elucidations] Elucidations of The Search After Truth, transl., ed., Thomas Lennon, in Search.
[Search] The Search after Truth, transl./ed. by Thomas Lennon and Paul Olscamp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
[DM] Disputationes Metaphysicae, in Opera Omnia, ed. Carolo Berton (Paris: Vives, 1856-66), vols. 25-26.
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* Cronin, T. J. 1966. Objective Being in Descartes and in Suarez. Rome: Gregorian University Press.
* Cummins, Phillip, & Guenter Zoeller, eds. 1992. Minds, Ideas, and Objects: Essays on the Theory of Representation in Modern Philosophy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Company.
* Cunning, David. 2003. “True and Immutable natures and Epistemic Progress in Descartes’ Meditations.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 11, 2, 235-48.
* Doyle, John. 1984. “Prolegomena to a Study of Extrinsic Denomination in the Work of Francis Suarez.” Vivarium XXII, 2, 121-160.
* Garber, Daniel. 1994. “Forms and Qualities in the Sixth Replies.” Reprinted in Garber 2001, 257-73.
* –––. 2001. Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
* Garber, Daniel & Michael Ayers, eds. 1998. The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
* Gorham, Geoffrey. 2002. “Descartes on the Innateness of All Ideas.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 32, 3, 355-88.
* Grene, Marjorie. 1991. Descartes Among the Scholastics. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
* Gaukroger, Stephen, ed. 2006. The Blackwell Guide to Descartes’ Meditations. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
* Hatfield, Gary. 1998. “The Cognitive Faculties.” In Garber & Ayers 1998, 953-1002.
* Hoffman, Paul. 1990. “ST. Thomas Aquinas on the Halfway State of Sensible Being.” The Philosophical Review, XCIX, 1, 73-92.
* –––. 2002. “Direct Realism, Intentionality, and the Objective Being of Ideas.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 83, 163-79.
* Jolley, Nicholas. 1990. The Light of the Soul. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
* Kenny, Anthony. 1968. Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
* –––. 1970. “The Cartesian Circle and the Eternal Truths.” Journal of Philosophy, 67, 692-700.
* King, Peter. 2005. “Rethinking Representation in the Middle Ages.” In Lagerlund 2005, 83-102..
* Lagerlund, Henrik, ed. Representation and Objects of Thought in Medieval Philosophy. Aldershot: Ashgate.
* Lennon, Thomas. 1974. “The Inherence Pattern and Descartes’ Ideas.” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 12, 43-52.
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* –––. 1972. “Descartes’ Definition of Thought.” In Butler, ed., 1972, 55-70.
* Nadler, Steven. 1989. Arnauld and the Cartesian Philosophy of Ideas. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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* Nolan, Larry. 1997. “The Ontological Status of Cartesian Natures.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 78, 169-94.
* Normore, Calvin. 1986. “Meaning and Objective Being: Descartes and His Sources.” In Rorty 1986, 223-41.
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* Pasnau, Robert. 1997. Theories of Cognition in the later Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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* –––. 2007. “Mental Transparency, Direct Sensation, and the Unity of the Cartesian Mind.” In ed. J. Miller, Topics in Early Modern Philosophy of Mind (Dordrecht: Kluwer).
* Rorty, Amelie, ed. 1986. Essays on Descartes’ Meditations. Berkeley: University of California Press.
* Rozemond, Marleen. 1998. Descartes’ Dualism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
* –––. (Forthcoming.) “Descartes’ Ontology of the Eternal Truths.”
* Schmaltz, Tad. 1991. “Platonism and Descartes’ View of Immutable Essences.” Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie, 73, 2, 129-170.
* –––. 1996. Malebranche’s Theory of the Soul. New York: Oxford University Press.
* –––. 1997. “Descartes on Innate Ideas, Sensation, and Scholasticism: The Reponse to Regius.” In Stewart 1997, 33-74.
* Simmons, Alison. 1999. “Are Cartesian Sensations Representational?” Nous, 33, 3, 347-69.
* Stewart, M. A. 1997. Studies in Seventeenth-Century European Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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notas sobre Locke (inglés)

FUENTE http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/notes.html
Notes to John Locke

1. The scope of the activities engaged in by members of the Royal Society was much broader than what we recognize as modern science. The very idea of science was emerging during this period. Thus, only a minority of the early members were what we would call scientists. Similar societies were being founded in other European countries during this period. The Society still exists today and is one of the pillars of the orthodox scientific establishment in England. To be a member of it today implies that one has made a substantial contribution to experimental or theoretical science and membership thus confers the highest prestige. For more information about the Royal Society, one might consult Chapter 5 in Woolhouse (1988).

2. This controversy is of some interest for a variety of reasons. The constitution, for example, has quite liberal views concerning the formation of churches. Consider provision CIX for example. It reads: “No person whatsoever shall disturb, molest, or persecute another for his speculative opinions in religion, or his way of worship.” Was Locke responsible for this provision? On the other hand, Sir Leslie Stephan charged Locke with personal racism for inserting section CX: “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.” There is some evidence to suggest that Locke did play a part in formulating the sections on religion — though it is possible this may have been at the bidding of Lord Ashley. Either Lord Ashley or Sir John Colleton are much more likely candidates for the authorship of the sentence about Negro slaves. Colleton, the real originator of the Carolinas project and one of the proprietors, was a Barbados planter who owned slaves. Part of the plan for the Carolinas was that people were going to emigrate from the over-crowed Barbados taking their slaves with them. They might well worry about whether this move might endanger the power they held over their slaves. It would be natural for Colleton or Shaftesbury to propose such a clause to allay their fears. Recent work has shown that Locke emended the clause on Negro slavery. (Bernasconi 1992 316 n4.) This strongly suggests that Locke was not its original author. The change that Locke made gives slave owners the same powers over their slaves that the proprietors of the Carolinas had over the colonists. Thus the inclusion of this clause and its amendment by Locke may well say little or nothing about Locke’s personal views. On the other hand, David Armitage has shown that Locke was involved over the years in amending the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas right up to the time at which he was writing the Two Treatises of Government, and while many articles of the Constitutions were removed at various times, this was not the case with the clause about negro slavery. Armitage implies that this shows not only that Locke agreed with the clause about negro slavery in the Fundamental Constitutions but that we should interpret the Second Treatise account of slavery as intended to justify the institutions and practices of Afro-American slavery.

3. Some commentators distinguish between the corpuscular and the atomic hypotheses on the grounds that corpuscles may be only relatively simple while atoms are supposed to be genuinely indivisible. (See Jolley, 1999) Thus it is possible to be committed to the existence of corpuscles but not atoms. While this distinction has its uses (especially in taking about the simplicity of simple ideas) I am convinced that in respect to physical corpuscles or atoms that Locke treats the two hypotheses as equivalent. One would expect that if the distinction were important for Locke, if he did believe in the existence of corpuscles but not atoms, he would not regularly use the terms ‘atom’ or ‘atoms’, but he does.

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 8:33 am  Leave a Comment  

influencias de John Locke (inglés)

FUENTE http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/influence.html
Supplement to John Locke
The Influence of John Locke’s Works

The sustained argument in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding for rejecting the old scholastic model of knowledge and science in favor of empirically disciplined modes of inquiry was enormously successful. Hans Aarsleff remarks that Locke ‘is the most influential philosopher of modern times.’ He notes that besides initiating the vigorous tradition known as British empiricism, Locke’s influence reached far beyond the limits of the traditional discipline of philosophy. ‘His influence in the history of thought, on the way we think about ourselves and our relation to the world we live in, to God, nature and society, has been immense’ (Aarsleff, 1994, 252) Locke may well have influenced such diverse eighteenth century figures as Swift, Johnson, Sterne, Voltaire, Priestly and Jefferson.

Beginning with the publication of the 92 page summary of the Essay in the Bibliotheque universelle et historique for January through March of 1688 along with the publication of the first edition in December 1689, the Essay was both popular and controversial on both the continent and in England for the next fifty years. Locke’s arguments against innate principles and ideas largely prevailed. This was an early and striking success of the Essay. Recall that Locke’s attack on innate ideas was part and parcel of his anti-authoritarianism and his emphasis on the importance of free and autonomous inquiry. As Aarsleff also notes, the radical nature of Locke’s attacks on epistemic, political and religious authority are difficult for us to grasp today. Bishop Stillingfleet, the most prominent of Locke’s early critics, claimed that Locke’s new way of ideas would lead to skepticism and that his account of substance undermined the doctrine of the trinity. Locke denied this, but given that we have good reason to hold that Locke was an anti-trinitarian, we have some reason to doubt that this denial is sincere. Locke’s epistemological views and his advocacy of rational religion were taken up by early eighteenth century deists such as John Toland and Anthony Collins who drew conclusions about religion that outraged the orthodox. The age of rational religion was coming to a close by the middle of the eighteenth century.

Within a few years of the publication of the 5th edition of Locke’s essay, Berkeley attacked the alliance between empiricism and the science of Newton and the Royal Society which is an important feature of Locke’s Essay. Berkeley argued that the causal or representative account of perception leads to skepticism about the existence of the external world as there is no good solution to the problem of the veil of perception and the associated distinction between primary and secondary qualities is untenable. These attacks gave rise to several misapprehensions about the doctrines of the Essay and their connection with the history of philosophy. If one accepts Berkeley’s arguments the result is the view that empiricism leads to idealism and that the atomism which Locke regarded as the most plausible hypothesis about the world must be abandoned. Locke certainly thought he had the resources to solve the problems posed by the veil of perception doctrine and his account of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is not the same as the one that Berkeley gives. Nonetheless, Berkeley’s attacks on the Essay have produced long lasting and influential misinterpretations of the Essay. These misinterpretations led Reid, for example, to the rejection of the way of ideas (as it leads to the denial of the existence of the external world) and probably fueled Kant’s notion that the British empiricism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with its characteristic inadequacies and virtues is one of the two great streams leading inevitably towards his own transcendental idealism. If one does not accept the force of Berkeley’s arguments, then neither Reid’s conclusion or Kant’s story have much force to them.

Locke’s account of personal identity was genuinely revolutionary and a real contribution to philosophy. This, along with his agnosticism about whether the soul was material or immaterial were debated hotly through much of the eighteenth century and at least the debates about personal identity were largely recapitulated in the twentieth century. Much of this begins with the Collins/Clarke controversy of 1706-08. Locke’s account of free agency is just as interesting and important as his account of personal identity with which it is connected. Yet it seems not to have been as controversial as Locke’s account of personal identity. Gideon Yaffe’s recent book Liberty Worth the Name may well revive interest in Locke’s views on this subject as Yaffe argues that they are still of relevance to contemporary debates about free will and compatibilism.

The extant of the influence that Locke’s account of language has had over the centuries is a matter of scholarly debate. Norman Kretzmann holds that Locke’s views, while not original had a powerful influence on the Enlightenment view of the connection of words and ideas. Noam Chomsky in Cartesian Linguistics traces the important ideas in linguistics back to Descartes and the school at Port Royal rather than Locke. This is largely a matter of the importance of the innate in Chomsky’s thought. Hans Aarsleff, on the other hand, believes that Locke stands at the beginning of the developments that produced contemporary linguistics and that Chomsky’s account is more polemical than historical.

The Two Treatises of Government were published anonymously and it was only in Locke’s will that he acknowledged the authorship of this work and others such as the Letters Concerning Toleration. As a consequence the Two Treatises had very little influence on the debates over how to justify the legitimacy of replacing King James II with William and Mary. John Dunn claims that in the eighteenth century in England the work had little influence. It was supposed that since it was written by England’s greatest philosopher it must be the way things were done but few bothered to read it. Certainly conservatives such as Josiah Tucker read it and rejected its doctrines. There has been considerable scholarly debate about how much Locke’s political doctrines affected the American revolutionaries and the writing of the American declaration of independence. The original claim that Locke’s thought had considerable influence on the colonists was challenged and has more recently been reaffirmed. In France, Locke was influential through the first half of the eighteenth century and then rapidly lost influence as the French came to regard the English as conservative.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Locke’s views were largely rejected and his influence was at its lowest ebb. He was regarded as one of the prophets of the American and French revolutions. The doctrines of natural rights and human rights were rejected in favor of utilitarianism. Locke’s philosophy was largely misinterpreted and rejected. Even the publication of Fox Bourne’s two volume biography of Locke hardly raised any new interest.

In the twentieth century with the sale of the Lovelace papers and their donation to Oxford University, interest in Locke among philosophers has considerably revived. These papers included letters, several drafts of the Essay and other works. We now know considerably more about Locke and the development of his thought than was known previously and Locke scholars have been putting Locke’s philosophy in its historical, religious, political and intellectual context. It is likely that this revival of interest will continue into the twenty first century.

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William Uzgalis

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 8:31 am  Leave a Comment