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Material Falsity in Descartes, Arnauld, and Suarez NORMAN J. WELLS DESCARTES' POSITION on the material falsity of adventitious ideas, from its origins to the present day, has not been well received. Its initial critic, Arnauld , would seem to have set a tone for the negative commentaries to come? In our day repeated echoes of Arnauld's negative criticisms reverberate among contemporary commentators. M. D. Wilson characterizes Descartes ' rejoinder to Arnauld's criticisms as "a model of confusion confounded . ''2 In a review of Wilson's book, R. McRae refers to "the difficult and not too coherent subject of material falsity. ''3 J. Cottingham describes the Descartes-Arnauld debate on the material falsity of adventitious ideas as "an involved and rather inconclusive exchange "4 and claims that the example of the material falsity of such ideas espoused by Descartes in Meditation III is "needlessly complicated. "5 A. Kenny, in turn, notes that several things are "confusing in Descartes' account of false ideas. "6 Later reference is made to the fact that "Descartes appears confused...,,7 and that "Descartes , it seems, cannot give a consistent answer. ''s As will become clear, I take issue with each of these assessments. When Descartes' position on material falsity is understood in the light of late Scho- ' Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. C. Adam and P. Tannery, 11 vols., (Paris: J. Vrin, a897-19o9), Objs 4~; 7: 2o6-o7. Hereafter cited according to vol., page, and line. M. Wilson, Descartes (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 11o. 3 R. McRae, Studia Cartesiana 1 (1979), 218. 4 Descartes" Conversation with Burman, trans. J. Cottingham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 67. 5. Ibid. 6 Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy (N.Y.: Random House, 1968), 119. 7 Ibid. 12o. 8 Ibid. 121. L. W. Keeler, S.J., claims in The Problem of Error from Plato to Kant (Romae: Apud Aedes Pontificiae Universitatis Gregorianae, 1934) that "A careful reading of this rebuttal [Descartes'] will show that it leaves the essential difficulty unsolved" (158). 26 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 22:1 JAN 1984 lastic sources, especially Suarez, whence it draws its strength and inspiration, the alleged confusion and incoherency vanishes. Granted that an understanding of Descartes in the light of late Scholastic sources is not exactly in fashion, ~ such a reading seems to be absolutely demanded by Descartes' distinction between the truth and falsity of objects, on the one hand, and the material falsity of ideas, on the other, and especially so because of his explicit reference to Suarez on the latter issue? ~ The matter of the truth and falsity of objects is alluded to in the course of Descartes' rejoinder to Arnauld. ~ Yet such a consideration and its relation to the material falsity of ideas has gone so completely unheeded by Arnauld that Descartes felt it worthwhile to send him back to read Suarez on the latter point. Arnauld, again, would seem to have established a tradition for succeeding commentators who also fail to assess Descartes' position on the truth and falsity of objects in relation to the material falsity of ideas. ~ This is altogether unfortunate because, at the same time that such considerations are critical for understanding the material falsity of ideas, they are fundamental for a sound appreciation 9 If Hiram Caton is an indication. See his outrageous remark in "Analytic History of Philosophy: The Case of Descartes," The Philosophical Forum 17 (1981 ) that "it is hard to read the current Descartes scholasticism without a smile at its touching historical simplicity, and at the innocence with which it imposes on the texts a philosophical outlook 18o degrees out of phase with Descartes' own" (290. '~ Because of Arnauld's failure to grasp the notion offaL~itas mateT4alis, Descartes fears that he may not have done justice to the traditional philosophical modus loquendi (See Resp. 4~; 7: 235. 6-14). Suarez's Disputationes Metaphysicae quickly put to rest his anxieties about current philosophical etiquette. Disputatio 9 is more than a source for the terminology and doctrine of falsitas materialis. If one persists in reading this section of Suarez, one will be rewarded by remarks on a non-deceiving God in contrast to a malus Angelus. See Francisco Suarez, Disputationes...


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