A Philosophical Exercise with Descartes
In his book Meditations on First Philosophy, philosopher René Descartes attempts to discern whether the objects he perceives are real items or just ideas in his head, by examining the physical world around him. He notices that “the things which I perceive clearly and distinctly in [physical objects] are very few in number. The list comprises size, or extension in length, breadth and depth, […] position […] and motion, or change in position; to these may be added substance, duration and number” (page 30). He goes on to say, “But as for all the rest, including light and colors, sounds, smells, tastes, heat and cold and the other tactile qualities, I think of these only in a very confused and obscure way…” (page 30). The obscurity of certain qualities leads him to wonder whether those objects are real at all. As I read his observations, I wondered what he meant by “clear and distinct” and “confused and obscure.” Why was this distinction between qualities so important? I decided to conduct my own little philosophical study to see if I could better understand Descartes’ reasoning.
I am going to examine a physical object and see if I notice the same qualities to be “clear and distinct” or “confused and obscure” that Descartes did. When I look at a box in my room it is easy enough to determine its size and shape. If I move it, its motion is easy to see; I don’t think my eyes are deceiving me. I can tell you that it’s made of cardboard, and that there is only one box. These are the things that Descartes claims to be able to perceive clearly, and as far as I can tell, I can perceive them clearly as well.
What about the qualities Descartes said were obscure? It seems that I can easily tell that my box is a light brown color, makes a hollow sound when tapped on, has no notable smell or taste, and feels the same temperature as my room. So why doesn’t Descartes think that these properties are distinct ones? Well, when I turn off my dorm room lights I can see that the box color appears to be much darker than it did in my initial observation. If I fill it with other things it no longer makes a hollow sound. I could place it outside and it would soon feel much colder. Could the smell and taste be changed? If I burned it, it would at least smell differently, so that is also not a distinct feature. However, I realize that if I burned it, that would also change the size, shape, and substance of the box, properties that are supposed to be clear and distinct.
So when Descartes says “confused and obscure,” he must not be referring to the fact that properties of an object can be changed. Even the “clear and distinct” qualities can be changed. He must be referring to the fact that some properties are more misleading than others: the “confused and obscure” ones. For example, the color of the box doesn’t really change when the light is turned off, it just appears to. When I put something inside the box it remains the same, and just sounds different. These qualities can be influenced by the environment around the box without any actual changes being made to the box. One would actually have to change the nature of the box in order to affect its size, shape, or substance. This is why Descartes made the distinction between the “clear” properties and the “obscure” ones.
Now that we know what Descartes means, why does he find this an important distinction to make? He is, as I said earlier, trying to decide whether the objects around him truly exist outside of his mind or not. He notices that only very few qualities in the objects around him are distinct, while many others seem obscure. It is the obscure qualities that are important to his conclusion, for he realizes that there is so much confusion about the properties that objects seem to have that he simply cannot tell if the objects are real or not. “Such ideas obviously do not require me to posit a source distinct from myself,” he writes on page 30. What he means is that there is not enough clarity and distinctness in these obscure tactile qualities for him to believe that their source is from anything outside of his own mind.
What about the properties that were clear to him? “With regard to the clear and distinct elements in my ideas of corporeal things, it appears that I could have borrowed some of these from my idea of myself, namely substance, duration, number and anything else of this kind” (page 30). So when the indistinct qualities of the material world lead him to doubt its existence, he also realizes that the distinct qualities aren’t substantial enough for him to know that there is a real, material world.
It seems that the distinction he made between the two qualities is actually not terribly important, because in the end both qualities lead him to the same conclusion. However, he had to explore every aspect of the material world in order to reach that conclusion, and in doing so he realized that some qualities are clearer than others. In the end, he decides that he doesn’t have conclusive evidence to say that the physical world isn’t just a figment of his imagination, so he goes on to explore other possible explanations for the world he seems to perceive around him.