Descartes and Material Falsity

A/P Cecilia Lim

"Descartes's account of material falsity is so obscure that scholars have called it a 'headache'. But understanding this account is crucial for understanding his views on truth and falsehood."

This project investigates the impact of the epistemic advances made within Descartes's Meditations on his account of material falsity - and hence on his account of truth, falsehood and ideational representation. It also examines the role played by Descartes's Third Meditation discussion of this notion in advancing the argument in the rest of the Meditations.

Descartes claims to have derived his notion of 'material' falsity from the late-Scholastic philosopher Francisco Suárez. Material falsity receives detailed treatment only twice in the whole Cartesian corpus – once in the Third Meditation, and once in Descartes's Replies to the Fourth Set of Objections to the Meditations, posed to him by theologian and philosopher Antoine Arnauld. Descartes's claims concerning the nature of material falsity in those two discussions are somewhat obscure and apparently contradictory - leading (longsuffering and occasionally frustrated) Cartesian scholars to label his account a 'headache' and a 'model of confusion confounded'. However, commentators recognize that an understanding of what Descartes held material falsity to be is crucial to understanding his views on the more 'mainstream' concepts of truth, falsehood and representation.

This project examines Descartes's account of material falsity with two considerations in mind:

  1. The recognition that the Meditations is an intellectual journey where the meditator's views change and develop as he makes new discoveries about God, self and matter;
  2. The influence on Descartes's metaphysics of earlier philosophers such as Suárez and Augustine.

With respect to the first, it is argued that attention to the epistemic advances made by the meditator in the Meditations will show that the account of material falsity therein evolves with these advances. This leads to changing criteria for what constitutes material truth and falsehood in an idea within the Meditations.

Again, attention to the meditator's Third Meditation account of material falsity reveals that it has, in its turn, important contributions to make to the further epistemic advances of the Meditations. It is shown that the notion of 'privation' as an absence of perfection, first bruited in this discussion, plays a role in the Third Meditation proofs of God's existence, and subsequently in the account of error (both epistemic and 'natural') and theodicy in the Fourth and Sixth Meditations. Indeed, the Third Meditation account of materially false ideas as due to 'privation' and 'defect' is shown to lead (admittedly by rather tortuous paths) to a revisionist account of Descartes's ethical views!

With respect to the second consideration (i.e. the influence of earlier philosophers on Descartes), one source of puzzlement for commentators is why Descartes explicitly claims that his notion of 'material' falsity is derived from Suárez, when there seems at first glance to be little in common between his account and the passage in Suárez that he refers his readers to. One aim of the project is to show that there are indeed significant similarities between the two accounts. Descartes's views on such notions as 'objective reality' (crucial to an understanding of material falsity) are also discussed and mapped onto Suárez's. Lastly, Augustine's account of privation in relation to the wider theodicy is shown to have influenced Descartes's own views on this issue in the Fourth Meditation.


The main publication resulting from this project is:

  1. Material Falsity and Error in Descartes's Meditations (London and New York: Routledge 2006)

This book includes material from some earlier papers:

  1. 'Materially False Ideas and the Arguments for God's Existence in Descartes's Meditations', in Joyce Jenkins, Jennifer Whiting and Christopher Williams, eds., Persons and Passions: Essays in Honor of Annette Baier (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 2005)
  2. 'Descartes's Two Proofs of the External World', Australasian Journal of Philosophy 80 (2002): 487-501
  3. 'Self, Other and Community in Cartesian Ethics', History of Philosophy Quarterly 19 (2002):255-73

Some secondary literature that is very useful on Descartes's notion of material falsity and related topics can be found here.

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