Descartes seems to define an idea as a representational mode of thought, a mode of thought which represents a certain object. For instance, the idea of the sun is a mode of thought which represents the sun, a certain 'object' in the world.

He goes on to give us a distinction between the objective reality and the formal reality of an idea. The objective reality is the reality of the representational content of the idea; every idea is the idea of something, it represents something. But the formal reality is the reality of the idea as it is itself something; every idea is something in itself.

The problem is clear. If an idea is by definition a representational mode of thought, then what does it mean to say that 'every idea is something in itself'? It is true--but isn't this 'something' a representation of an object? When we speak of an idea's formal reality, are we not therefore speaking of its objective reality, because there is no substantial distinction between the two. Of course an idea is a mental act, but in what way can this act be distinguished from its representational content?

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    These are terms from medieval Philosophy including the late scholastic Jesuit schooling Descartes had... there’s also a prior question on this very topic on the site – virmaior Mar 18 '18 at 20:46

Interesting and nagging problem. But recall Gassendi :

You do in fact.. .distinguish between objective and formal reality, where 'formal reality,' as I understand it, applies to the idea itself not as it represents something but as an entity in its own. (J. Cottingham et al., 'The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, II, Cambridge : CUP, 199.

I should say that 'formal' and 'objective' refer to modes of being. The formal reality of an idea is its occurrence or existence in the mind. The objective reality of an idea is relational; an idea has objective reality if its representational content has the right relation to reality. The formal reality need have no reality of representational content, indeed I can't see how it would make sense to say that it did have - simply as an occurrence or existence.

An idea can be defined as a representational mode of thought; as representational it is objective. But it can also be referred to, not in respect of the reality of its representational content but merely as existing or occurring in my mind qua idea. As merely existing or occurring it cannot have any representational content of reality or of anything else.

Let me try a comparison to make my point. A photograph is an object with representational reality. But qua (merely) object on my desk it has mere existence or occurrence. It has and can have, qua object on my desk, no representational reality whatever. You can draw the correspondences with the argument above.

Descartes' works are voluminous as are the Replies. There's much I may have missed. I can't see, without being dogmatic however, that Descartes does face the problem with which you confront him. Clever, attentive question though !

  • This makes sense. So we can differentiate between the idea as a representation of a thing, and the idea as a certain thing which exists in the mind, even though an idea will is in fact both at the same time. We define an idea in both senses, and cannot narrow it down to either; in a way, an idea is kind of like a Rubin vase, being perceivable as a representation or a thing, though it is really both at once. – WolandBarthes Mar 18 '18 at 23:09
  • Yes, I think so. Descartes was scornful of Scholastic philosophy yet its language often found its way into his writing and (not his problem of course) is often confusing to modern readers. But you've worked out this problem. It was a good question. You are reading Descartes carefully and critically and taking nothing on spec. Just the right philosophical attitude ! – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 19 '18 at 8:16

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