Descartes on 'thought' - the puzzle
John Cottingham's analysis may help (John Cottingham, 'Descartes on `Thought'', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 28, No. 112 (Jul., 1978), pp. 208-214) :
In a famous passage in the Second Meditation Descartes asks
What am I then? A thing which thinks. What is that? A thing
which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, is unwilling, and
also imagines and feels.
On the face of it, the gloss Descartes offers on 'a thing which thinks' (res
cogitans) is quite extraordinary. Doubting and understanding are evidently
kinds of thinking. But it is far from obvious that affirming, denying and
willing are to be classified in this way. And as for 'feeling' (sentire), this is,
in any normal sense, something entirely different from thinking. (Cottingham : 208.)
A false solution
A highly influential account of what is going on in the passage cited and
other similar passages has been proposed, among others, by Alexandre
The term 'thought'- pensée, cogitatio - had, in Descartes' time, a
much wider meaning than it has now. It embraced not only 'thought'
as it is now understood, but all mental acts and data: will, feeling,
judgement, perceptions, and so on.
Taking a similar line, Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach warn that "to
use think and thought as the standard renderings for cogitare and penser and
their derivatives gives Descartes' conception an intellectualistic cast that is
not there in the original". Accordingly, they render res cogitans as 'conscious
being', and frequently (though not always) use more general terms like
'experience' for Descartes' cogitatio. And indeed textbooks on Descartes
routinely caution the student not to construe the term 'thought' in its normal,
narrowly cognitive sense.
However, while it is clear that during and after Descartes' lifetime cogitare was widely used in this extended sense, it is quite possible that the
principal force influencing such an extended usage was the Cartesian corpus
itself. What is far from clear is that when Descartes first used cogitare and
penser in this way he was simply following established usage. Despite
Anscombe and Geach's claim that "cogitare and its derivatives had long
been used in a very wide sense in philosophical Latin", the scholastic tradition makes a very clear distinction between the "cognitive" and "appetitive" parts of the mind-according to Aquinas: "duae sunt praecipue facultates . . . quarum altera est cognoscitiva, altera appetitiva". ['There are two main faculties, of which one is cognitive and the other appetitive' : GT.] So it is not
at all clear that Aquinas and his disciples would have accepted it as self-
evident that 'res cogitans' implied 'res volens'. Vith regard to Descartes'
own contemporaries, we have the strongest possible evidence that Descartes'
use of the term pensee/ cogitatio was initially puzzling and confusing. Mersenne wrote to Descartes in 1637 objecting that if the nature of man was
simply to think, it would follow that he had no will. Descartes had to explain carefully in reply that he regarded willing, understanding, imagining
and feeling as "various ways of thinking". (Cottingham : 208-9.)
A more illuminating approach
Descartes' use of cogitatio then, was, if not downright innovative, at the
very least somewhat curious. But there is something deeply unsatisfactory
about simply leaving it there. When philosophers use central terms in an
unusual way there is invariably an underlying philosophical rationale for it:
compare 'perceive' in Berkeley, or 'pleasure' in J. S. Mill.
What I want to suggest is that the "intellectualistic" overtones of the
terms cogitatio and pensée, so far from being misleading, or calling for
special translation, are in an important sense meant to be there, for reasons
which have their roots deep in Cartesian method and metaphysics.
Let us start by going back to the context of our original quotation.
Descartes asserts that he is a thinking thing. On what basis? Because the
extremity of doubt-the malicious demon-failed to separate this attribute
from his nature:
What am I now that I am supposing that there is some supremely
powerful deceiver? . . . Thinking - here I find it - this alone cannot
be torn from me.
Descartes' claim that 'thought' is inseparable from his nature is, like his
discovery of the certainty of his own existence, inextricably bound up with a strictly cognitive process - the method of doubt:
while it is easy to suppose there is no God, no heaven, no bodies . . .
we cannot in the same way suppose that we who doubt these things
from the very fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things
it very certainly and evidently followed that I was. On the other
hand, if I had ceased to think ... I should have no reason to suppose
that I had existed. From that I knew I was a substance whose whole
nature or essence consists in thinking.
The way in which 'cogito ergo sum' and 'sum res cogitans' are arrived at
thus suggest a strictly intellectualistic interpretation of cogitare. Indeed,
though it is sometimes claimed that "any conscious process will do as a
premise for the cogito", this seems inconsistent with Descartes' method. "I
want" is not indubitable in the sense in which "I think" or "I doubt" are.
The demon could presumably deceive me into thinking I wanted an ice
cream (though perhaps he could not deceive me about being aware of wanting
one: I shall return to this point later). For the indubitability of "I think"
consists precisely in the fact that doubting it entails its truth. So far, then,
the "thinking being" of whose existence Descartes is apprised as his first
step out of the morass of doubt is precisely that - a being that thinks, in
the ordinary, strictly cognitive sense. (Cottingham : 209-10.)
It is now time to look more closely at exactly what Descartes means by
the frequent inclusion of sense-perception and sensation as "modes of thinking" (modi cogitandi). Perhaps the clearest indication of what is going on
comes in Book I of the Principles, where Descartes discusses why 'video
ergo sum' might not do equally as well as 'cogito ergo sum'. Descartes in
effect says that 'I see' is ambiguous. If understood 'de visione' it is not a
good premise for inferring one's existence (since, for one thing, it could then
imply the existence of a body, which is subject to doubt). Alternatively,
however, it may, says Descartes, be understood "concerning the actual sense
or awareness of seeing" (de ipso sensu sive conscientia videndi); here it is quite
certain "since it is in this case referred to the mind which alone feels or
thinks it sees" (quia tune refertur ad mentem quae sola sentit sive cogitat se
videre). Once again, in connection with Descartes' employment of cogitare,
we are presented with the crucial term conscientia (self-awareness); and this
makes it clear just how misleading it is to say tout court that cogitatio "includes" sensations and feelings. The only sense in which seeing is a true
cogitatio is the sense in which it may involve reflective mental awareness -
the self-conscious perception of the mind that it is aware of seeing.
The more one looks at what Descartes says about perceptual operations
like seeing and hearing, as well as sensations like feeling pain, the more one
observes that he regards them as having a curious hybrid nature. Descartes
often calls perception (e.g., seeing) a "special mode of thinking"; and
sensations (e.g., of heat) are frequently called "confused modes of thinking".
The "special" nature or "confusedness" turns out to be tied up with this:
that such operations qualify as cogitationes at all only in a partial and restricted sense. In a famous passage in the Sixth Meditation Descartes points
out that when the body is damaged we do not merely notice the damage puro intellectu, as a pilot observes damage to his ship; in addition we actually
feel pain, because of the mysterious "intermingling" of the mind with corporeal substance. What is seldom if ever asked about this much discussed
passage is why Descartes should have put the matter in this way. Why
should one ponder on the curious possibility of being aware of bodily damage
in a purely cognitive way? Once one looks for a rationale behind Descartes'
train of thought, the answer springs into focus: because that is exactly how
one would expect it to be for a res cogitans. In a letter to Regius, Descartes
discusses how an angel (a pure res cogitans) might experience if he were in
a human body: he would not feel (sentire) as we do, but would merely "perceive the motions caused by external objects". This is because sensations
such as pain are not the pure thoughts (purae cogitationes) of a mind distinct
from a body, but are rather the "confused perceptions which result from the
real union with the body". (Cottingham : 212-3.)