Descartes on Innate Ideas by Boyle Deborah A.;

Descartes on Innate Ideas by Boyle Deborah A.;

Author:Boyle, Deborah A.;
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9781441100948
Publisher: Bloomsbury UK
Published: 2019-11-22T16:00:00+00:00

4.4 The Natural Light and the Role of the Will

After distinguishing between the active and passive functions of intellect, Morris argues that we should identify the natural light with the passive function of recognition. To do this, he must show that the natural light is itself a passive faculty. He states:

According to this analysis, the natural light is a ‘passive’ function, a power of cognition, which contrasts with the ‘active’ power of conceiving. Unlike this power, it does not form ideas, or bring them to consciousness. Instead, it simply gives a click of recognition when a true idea is brought before it; Descartes invariably uses it in expressions like ‘I recognize (connais) by the natural light.’ He could never say, ‘I conceive by the natural light’; conceiving simply isn’t the sort of function that the natural light performs.28

Morris provides no further argument. Thus his evidence for the claim that the natural light is passive apparently consists entirely in the putative fact that Descartes typically says ‘I recognize [connais] by the natural light,’ where we must understand connais in the passive sense which Morris attributes to it.

I have already argued that connoistre does not have the technical meaning, contrasting with the sense of concevoir, that Morris attributes to it. Furthermore, neither the French nor the Latin versions of the Meditations support Morris’ claim about how Descartes uses the phrase ‘natural light.’29 The French translation does use personal pronouns more than the Latin version, especially the first person plural pronoun, which does not appear at all in the original Latin.30 However, only one of the seven cases of truths said to be revealed by the natural light in the Meditations actually takes the form ‘I recognize by the natural light,’ and this is true only of the French translation. The passage occurs in the Sixth Meditation, when the meditator refers to ‘une infinité d’autres semblables, que je connais par la lumière naturelle sans l’aide du corps’ (AT IX 65). The original Latin reads ‘reliqua omnia quae lumine naturali sunt nota’ (AT VII 82), and all the other accounts of truths revealed by the natural light in the Latin text are of the form ‘X is manifest/perspicuous/known/shown by the natural light.’ These constructions are indeed passive, but that need not imply that the natural light is itself passive. ‘The natural light’ in all these examples is in the ablative case, which in Latin is often used to express the means by which an action is accomplished. But Descartes’ definition of action as ‘whatever takes place or occurs … with regard to that which makes it happen’ (CSM I 328/AT XI 328) can be applied even to things which lack their own motive force, such as tools. So this is inconclusive evidence for settling the question of whether the natural light is active or passive.

In the Fourth Meditation, the meditator equates the natural light with the ‘power of understanding [vim intelligendi]’ (CSM II 42/AT VII 60). We then learn in the Sixth Meditation that


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