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  • Descartes’ Natural Light Reconsidered
  • Deborah Boyle


The “natural light” occupies an important position in Descartes’ Third Meditation, where the meditator invokes it to provide the premises needed for his proof for the existence of a non-deceiving God. Descartes also refers to the natural light throughout his Replies to the Objections to the Meditations and in the Principles of Philosophy. Yet he says almost nothing about what the natural light is supposed to be, apparently assuming that his readers already know what he means. English-speaking commentators on Descartes have said little about the natural light,1 and although French commentators have paid slightly more attention to this topic, they have nonetheless provided no detailed analysis of the concept of the natural light and the role it plays in Descartes’ Meditations.2

In 1973, however, John Morris published an article entitled “Descartes’ Natural Light” in the Journal of the History of Philosophy, later reprinted in Eternal Truths and the Cartesian Circle.3 Morris argues that “the understanding can be regarded in an active and a passive sense, ”4 and that the natural light should [End Page 601] be equated with the passive function of the intellect. The natural light, he asserts, is

a power of cognition, which contrasts with the “active” power of conceiving. Unlike this power, it does not form ideas, or bring them to consciousness. Instead, it simply gives a click of recognition when a true idea is brought before it.5

However, the textual evidence for Morris’ interpretation of the natural light is slender, and in fact the texts support a quite different reading. I shall point out some problems with Morris’ reading, and offer the beginnings of an alternative account.


In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes draws a distinction between two faculties of mind: intellect and will. Intellect, he says, allows him “to perceive the ideas which are subjects for possible judgements” (CSM II 39/AT VII 5),6 while the will “simply consists in our ability to do or not do something (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or avoid)” (CSM II 40/AT VII 57). Although he does not say so in the Fourth Meditation, Descartes suggests in two 1641 letters to Regius that the intellect is passive and the will is active; strictly speaking, he says, “understanding [intellectio] is the passivity of the mind and willing [volitio] is its activity” (CSMK III 182/AT III 372). A few months later, he writes that “we should use the term ‘action’ for what plays the role of a moving force, like volition in the mind, while we apply the term ‘passion’ to what plays the role of something moved, like intellection [intellectio] and vision in the same mind” (CSMK III 199/AT III 454–5). And in the Passions of the Soul Descartes states that while volitions are actions, “the various perceptions or modes of knowledge present in us may be called its passions, in a general sense” (CSM I 335/AT XI 342).

In his early work, the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes does refer to “actions of the intellect.”7 If we do not allow for changes in Descartes’ thinking, we might assume that at the time of the Meditations, too, he would be willing to speak of “actions of the intellect.” But Descartes provides no account of the [End Page 602] will in the Rules; thus any activity he might have attributed to the mind would have to be included in the role of the intellect. In the Meditations, Descartes’ philosophy of mind has expanded to provide a place for the will, which can take over the active functions previously assigned to the intellect.

John Morris’ reading of the role of the natural light in the Meditations takes as its starting point a passage in the Rules where Descartes claims that the intellect itself, the cognitive power or vis cognoscens, has both active and passive functions; it is, he says, sometimes like a seal, sometimes like wax.8 After describing the various functions of the cognitive power, Descartes concludes that “according to its different functions, then, the same power is...


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