Descartes on Sensible Qualities

Jill Buroker, “Descartes On Sensible Qualities,” Journal Of The History Of Philosophy, XXIX (4), 1991: 585–611.


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be understood in part as attempting to overthrow the Aristotelian “qualitative” physics by building a rational foundation for a new, quantitative, mechanistic physics. This project highlighted the relation between sense experience and physical reality, in order to determine the extent to which our senses provide accurate information about the world around us. Aristotle, of course, had taken for granted that the bodies we perceive actually have the colors, flavors, odors, and especially heat and cold, wet and dry we sense in them. He analyzed sensations as states of the soul, brought about by “forms” transmitted to the perceiver by the physical objects perceived, and so on his view what we sense is an exact image of a real physical property. Descartes was the first to develop a systematic account attacking this view. The qualities we sense cannot be real properties of physical objects; in fact, they are not properties of anything. For Descartes, sense qualities “exist” merely as the content of sensations, which are nothing but states of thinking substance. In Cartesian mechanics the only real physical properties, which Boyle later dubs “primary qualities,, are extension, shape, and motion. Despite the importance of this attack on sense qualities to the new physics, it is not easy to find strong support for Descartes’s position in his writings. One possible basis is the oft-cited unreliability of the senses, which Descartes takes as a starting point for his method of doubt.

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