Monday, July 9, 2007

Descartes and the Formal Distinction

Now that class is over for a while, I may post a bit more. The collatio is still coming along, it is probably too long to expect anyone, even the loyal Sullivan, to read online. But I'll post it anyway. In the meantime, here are some quotes from Descartes and his critics pertaining to the Formal distinction. The issue here is the soul, and Descartes' claim that it is really distinct from the body. We should keep in mind Scotus's separability criterion, that is, that two things are really distinct iff one can exist without the other (for an analytic-style analysis of these matters see Adams "Ockham on Identity and Distinction"). Caterus, Descartes objector, argues that soul and body are only formally distinct, though with the separability criterion in mind I think this is a misapplication of the formal distinction. According to Descartes and Scotus the soul can exist without the body when separated (though the latter would qualify a great deal on the ability of natural reason to demonstrate such a state of affairs), hence it fulfills the requirements of a real distinction. I don't know that I''ve seen Scotus ever talk about this particular question (there is some discussion translated at the end of Wolter's "Duns Scotus Philosophical Writings" volume); certainly not in book I of the Ordinatio. Scotus holds to a plurality of substantial forms, basically the intellective soul and a forma corporeitatis (which according to Bettoni serves to prepare the body for the reception of the soul), but due to their ordering to each other in the potency-act relations I don't know if Scotus would go for a real distinction between them. They're not two separate substances. In any case, the precise details of his theory are disputed in the literature.

Surprisingly, Caterus gives an accurate description or defintion of the formal distinction, though I am not sure what "objective" is doing there. Perhaps reinforcing the "real" aspect of the distinction holding between formalities that are one in re. As for Descartes, while I think he may be right to reject a formal distinction here, he has no idea what it actually is. I don't know what he means by "modal", for the modal distinction is not the same as a formal distinction or at least they are not synonymous; the modal distinction may be a weak grade of the formal distinction, but as usual this is highly disputed in the scholarship. I doesn't come up much in Soctus's actual writings. The place I've seen it is between the concept of being and its intrinsic modes, but there the intrinsic modes (if they're somehow related to a modal distinction) serve to differentiate finite from infinite being, that is, from two things that would be really distinct. But the formal distinction always holds between formalities that are one in re. Anyway, here are the texts, enjoy. I've copied them out of the Great Books edition.

End of the first objection, by Caterus.
I shall add but a few words about the essence of the soul and the distinction between soul and body; for I confess that the speculations of this wonderful genius have so exhausted me that I can add but little more. It appear that the distinction between soul and body, if real, is proved by the fact that they can be conceived as distinct and as isolated from each other. Here I leave my opponent to contend with Scotus, who says that-Insofar as one thing can be conceived as distinct and separate from another, the adequate distinction to draw between them is what he calls a formal and objective one, which is intermediate between a real distinction and a distinction of reason. It is thus that he distinguishes between the Divine justice and the Divine pity. They have, he says, concepts formally diverse prior to any operation of the understanding, so that, even then, the one is not the other: yet it does not follow that, because God's justice can be conceived apart from his pity, they can also exist apart.

Descartes' Reply:

In the matter of the formal distinction which the learned Theologian claims to draw from Scotus, my reply is briefly to the effect that this distinction in no way differs from a modal one, and applies only to incomplete entities, which I have accurately demarcated from complete beings. This is sufficient to cause one thing to be conceived separately and as distinct from another by the abstracting action of a mind when it conceives the thing inadequately, without sufficing to cause two things to be thought of so distinctly and separately that we understand each to be an entity in itself and diverse from every other; in order that we may do this a real distinction is absolutely necessary. Thus, for example, there is a formal distinction between the motion and the figure of the same body, and I can quite well think of the motion without the figure and of the figure apart from the motion and of either apart from the body; but nevertheless I cannot think of the motion in a complete manner apart from the thing in which the motion exists nor of the figure in isolation from the object which has the figure; nor finally can I feign that anything incapable of having figure can possess motion, or that what is incapable of movement has figure. So it is also that neither can I understand justice apart from a just being, or compassion apart from the compassionate; nor may I imagine that the same being as it is just cannot be compassionate. But yet I understand in a complete manner what body is [that is to say I conceive of body as a complete thing], merely by thinking that it is extended, has figure, can move, etc., and by denying of it everything which belongs to the nature of mind. Conversely, also, I understand that mind is something complete which doubts, knows, wishes, et.c, although I deny that anything belongs to it which is contained in the idea of body. But this could not be unless there were a real distinction between mind and body.


Brandon said...

Hi, Lee,

My suspicion is that Descartes's 'modal distinction' is his own coinage, and has little relation to previous uses of the phrase. Cartesian metaphysics doesn't have accidents; it has modes, which do approximately the same work. A mode differs from a substance in that it is a way in which a substance exists (hence the name). So Descartes recognizes two types of modal distinction: between the substance and the way it exists, and between one way the substance exists and another way in which it exists. Thus there is a modal distinction between the clay object and its spherical shape, and a different modal distinction between its spherical shape and its motion down the hill. From such a perspective, Scotus's formal distinction could be seen as a version of Descartes's modal distinction (which is also in between the real distinction and the rational distinction).

Michael said...


I agree with you that Descartes most likely doesn't really understand the Scotistic distinction. I think this is most likely because he has no notion of formalities in Scotus' sense.


I disagree that "From such a perspective, Scotus's formal distinction could be seen as a version of Descartes's modal distinction" without doing serious damage to Scotus' thought, because for Scotus accidents like shape and motion are really, not formally, distinct from one another. The point of the formal distinction is not to distinguish between accidents but between formalities.

Brandon said...


Of course it damages Scotus's own account of distinction; it's not a Scotist distinction. But it's the only thing a formal distinction, or anything like it, could be in a Cartesian metaphysics, which includes under modes anything that's not a substance.