Revisiting the Third Objections and Replies via the Replies to the ‘Opponents’ of the THM and Particularly to Hobbes

Let us recommence at chapter 10 of the THM. La Forge lists two causes that explain why the discovery of the nature of knowledge is so difficult (158). The first is that most men think that their bodies have the same capacity as spirits. It is, in short, the error of the designated materialists, a little earlier in the text, as the main opponents of Cartesianism. The second lies in the ‘almost permanent’ confusion of ideas or concepts that the mind perceives immediately with bodily species that serve the imagination and the senses. We are rediscovering the duality from where we started: a more psychological signification on one hand and a more material on the other, the term ‘idea’ is this time reserved for the first, to avoid ‘confusion and ambiguity’. La Forge does not hesitate to label this subject ‘of great consequence’.

The following text invokes the fourth discourse of Optics, yet does so by introducing the definition of the Treatise on Man to distinguish between two ways of looking at these species or, according to the Cartesian term, these ‘impressions’:

But we shall not explain yet whether this impression, to which some of our thoughts are thus united, is only a modification made by an object in the flow of animal spirits, in opening up some of the pores of the brain’s ventricles where the nerve fibres on which the object acts terminate, as you could have read in Mr. Descartes’ Treatise on Man, or whether these species are little images which our soul uses to conceive of the objects which imagine on our senses and by means of which many people are convinced that all our knowledge is acquired.


La Forge immediately mentions one of the celebrated proponents of this theory of species: Fracastoro, who represents the large number of those who, among the philosophers (‘our philosophers’, states the Optics text), reduce ideas to small ‘flying images’ which some call real and others intentional species. The term species serves to include them all under a common designation, all the while excluding Descartes.

La Forge drives further than Descartes the genealogy of this childish prejudice, thanks to the arguments mobilized on this point in texts other than the Optics, then refines the criticism of the theory of resemblance by distinguishing two ways for one thing to resemble another: a true resemblance and a resemblance according to the representative being. We can talk about real resemblance when two things are of the same species (for example, when a man resembles another man) or when it has some relationship with it or figure, colour, or some other sensitive accident, when a painting resembles the thing it represents (this was the example chosen by Descartes for the genealogy of the prejudice in the fourth discourse of the Optics), or an echo of a singer’s voice. Furthermore, we can speak of resemblance according to a representative being when, without having any real positive or sensitive relationship to the other, one thing is nevertheless capable of making us think about the other and provoking in us the feeling that we have about it.

Despite the lack of figures in the history of philosophy (with the exception of Epicurus) who have supported the first theory, the fact remains that Descartes could fit perfectly in the second group. The ‘resemblance’ between objects and feelings would then consist of an ability by the former group to excite the latter, without implicating any sensitive or formal relationship between the two. Finally, if we can indeed link ideas with the bodily species of words and letters (the second example in the Optics), it remains that this is another problem that involves the will and not nature.

The approach of La Forge in this passage can thus be summarized as follows: on one hand, he closes off the Optics and the Treatise on Man to exclude Descartes from the group of exclusive supporters of the material idea. These supporters side with the ‘species’, that is to say, those who reduce material ideas themselves to not only images or compositions of images that originate from external things, but also to their Cartesian and physiological signification, which it is, as a result, preferable to no longer call ‘ideas’. La Forge also refines the notion of ‘resemblance’, which the Optics only addresses very briefly. Highly controversial examples of the ideas of God and the soul are listed in chapter 10. Finally, La Forge reserves special treatment for the will as part of his reflection on resemblance.

Here, La Forge outlines the framework of the principal network of controversy of which Descartes was a part and to which no fully satisfactory reply was made. This network is now identified as consisting of four key objections: the materiality of thought, self-sufficiency in material conception, including its Cartesian sense, to give reason to all our ideas, the need for such a theory if we want to explain the ‘resemblance’ between our ideas and things, and its applicability to the will itself.

La Forge felt the need to have recourse to an argument that could be called ‘the “even if ” argument’:

[I]t is impossible for corporeal species to be the forms by the immediate perception of which we have such or such thoughts. From this it also follows that either they do not resemble the objects or, if some of them do, that it is not this resemblance which makes them capable of making us perceive a thing of a certain kind.


Most often, these species do not conform to either the objects that send them or the feelings that we have because of them, ‘and, even if they did resemble them, this resemblance would be useless to produce the effect which is attributed to it’ (emphasis added). We can interpret this ‘even if’ in at least two ways. On one hand, he recalls that Descartes never ruled out the possibility of such a resemblance, only that it is by no means necessary. On the other hand, this ‘even if’ seems to employ an argument of the opponents to invalidate its conclusion: if these species conformed to objects it would do nothing to invalidate it, neither the production of feelings as such nor the radically immaterial nature of the latter, considered as a reflection of the soul.

The final section of La Forge’s argument consists of revisiting one last time the distinction between what he, in the words of the Treatise on Man, now calls ‘images’, which he redefines in the terminology of the new physiology, and ‘species’, which cross over to the other side of the Cartesian barrier. The entire text is as follows:

But someone will say: what could these corporeal species be if they are not images? It seems to me that the Treatise on Man and the other writings of Mr Descartes have explained them sufficiently already. However, because of the relevance of the question, it may not be inappropriate if I say something more in general about it here. I would say, then, that corporeal species are just the changes which objects (and other causes which determine the human soul to have some thought which it would not otherwise have) cause in the motion and configuration of the flow of spirits which exit from the pineal gland, by acting on the fibres of the nerves and thereby opening, a little more than those next to them, some pores of the brain’s ventricles from which these fibres originate. This can determine the animal spirits to exit from the gland in a different way than they had previously, and to enter and pass through the pores thus opened in a different way to the way they pass through adjacent pores. Now what makes us identify these movements with the species that we are speaking about is that we have reason to believe that the thoughts of the mind are immediately linked with them, as we have already shown in our Comments, and which we hope to prove in speaking about the imagination.

(82, 83)

A preliminary observation: the ‘someone’ in question, which can obviously designate, too, the person to whom the ‘even if ’ argument is addressed, identifies ‘species’ with ‘images’, which seems to refer to what Descartes, in the Treatise on Man, calls ‘ideas’ in a material sense and ‘images’ in the Optics. It is therefore ‘someone’ who employs the lexicon of Descartes himself by emphasizing his indeterminacy in the Optics, facing the opponent ‘philosophers’ but without the ammunition of the Treatise on Man to specify it and therefore without necessarily having possessed it or seen it, even as a copy.

A second observation: we must take this objection seriously or we run the risk of never resolving the confusion. It is thus wholly accurate to say that Descartes, including in the Treatise on Man (the comment is this time for any contemporary reader of the 1664 edition) speaks ‘as if these species contained an exact picture of the object, and in other places he seems to say that the soul contemplates immediately the ideas which are traced on the gland—which is what he calls these corporeal species in those texts’ (84). A third observation: the best way to avoid this kind of confusion is to refine the description of the different physiological stages themselves, or to particularise the different causes involved in the explanation in such a way that it is eliminated. The materialist will only be beaten by delving into the details of how the body itself functions and not by refining the spiritual dimension of the discourse. Species, therefore, may be considered in four different places: their origin, the organ of exterior sense, the gland, and the part of the brain that serves as the organ of memory. As for Descartes, he called species that move along the gland by the name of ‘idea’. He thus employed the third meaning. From this point of view, the first two are at most synecdoches and the last, off topic.[1]

In order to completely remove the anonymity of this ‘someone’, who identifies species with images in an admissible sense from a Cartesian point of view, and to make a possible link with the framework outlined above, we must examine the fate La Forge accords each ‘adversary’ listed from chapter 3 onward (38).

The argument considered ‘the strongest’ and as ‘the last refuge’ of those who are designated as either supporters of any material or those who consider the possibility that thought and extended substance can encounter one another in the same substance, consists of rejecting the interpretation of these attributes as detrimental and presenting them as simply different. However, it happens that, on this point, Descartes has perfectly responded to Regius. Any additional consideration therefore proves useless.[2]

Chapter 4 (43) reveals two new opponents: those who do recognize the existence of two types of substances, but without excluding that thought can sometimes communicate with the body, and those we might call hard materialists or monists, for whom ‘there is nothing in the world except bodies’.

Roughly speaking, these first opponents include Aristotle’s followers. The argument, centred on criticism of the soul of brute animals, recalls the Treatise on Man[3] and part 5 of the Discourse on the Method (131). To respond, a summary of the elements already provided publicly by Descartes and his followers must be provided.

The arguments of those ‘who admit only bodily substances’ by confusing the meaning of the words body and substance are discussed in chapter 5. They are identified as the group including ‘Epicurus, Tertullian, Vorstius, Hobbes and a few others’ (48). La Forge later adds the names of Campanella, Regius, and Gassendi. But this is to immediately reserve a special place for Hobbes, having understood that the fifth Replies defeated Gassendi’s arguments:

But I think I see Mr Hobbes who imagines that we would accept whatever he says and who tells us that, although thought can be conceived without body by a mental abstraction, that does not mean that it is distinct from it. Here are his words, from page twenty-two of his book On the Body:

From hence proceed the gross errors of writers of metaphysics; for, because they can consider thought without the consideration of body, they infer there is no need of a thinking body; and because quantity may be considered without considering body, they think also that quantity may be without body, and body without quantity; and that a body has quantity by the addition of quantity to it. From the same fountain spring those insignificant words ‘abstract substance’, ‘separated essence’ and the like.

... these metaphysicians whom he accuses are not as greatly mistaken as he is himself.


This first text gives rise to three remarks. First, it assigns Hobbes a special place, in the coterie of hard materialists, and therefore in the largest group of opponents, by quoting him extensively and precisely. Furthermore, the argument that follows recalls the first chapter of De Corpore and chapter 34 of Leviathan, which equates body and substance. But on this point, the ‘gentlemen of the Oxford Academy’ will be identified as having already responded.

Second, this text calls for refuting Hobbes (what is insinuated in that this has not yet been done, at least not satisfactorily) and doing so ‘according to his own principles’. The most effective means of fighting this most determined opponent is to turn his reasoning against him by demonstrating its inconsistencies and insisting on points neglected by the ‘gentlemen of Oxford’. But if this has not been done, it is undoubtedly because what still proves problematic is a philosophy different from that of these gentlemen and, in this case, problems that may well involve Cartesian- ism itself.

Third, such a project involves making a case for not only what Hobbes wrote and what was published after Descartes’ death, but also what was written about Hobbes. Besides the refutations of these ‘gentlemen of Oxford’, it is the case for ‘Vvardus’, whom La Forge designates as having claimed to demonstrate, according to the specific principles of Hobbes, that the soul must be incorporeal. This is Seth Ward

(or Sethus Wardus), an astronomer, theologian, Anglican priest, and contemporary of Hobbes. The text consulted by La Forge, which refers to De Corpore of 1655, is the controversial In Thomae Hobbii philosophiam exercitatio epistolica of 1656.[5] Ultimately, it is a direct approach that must prevail:

It seems to me that one could also convince Mr Hobbes of the same truth without departing from his principles by reasoning with him as follows. Thought, according to you, cannot be a body nor an accident of the body. For if thought were a body it could not be conceived without it, and yet in the passage cited above you have agreed that it could be. Nor is it an accident of a body, for you define accident as a way of conceiving of a body and you have said the opposite in the same passage. Thought therefore must be a property of an incorporeal being.


If La Forge goes to the trouble of labelling Hobbes as the main defender of the theory of the soul’s materiality and refuting it directly, it is because he believes, on one hand, that the third Objections were stronger than Descartes led us to believe, considering the Meditations project itself and, on the other, that after Descartes’ death, texts both written by and about Hobbes have come to support these Objections and increase suspicion regarding the validity of real distinction’s proof.

But is this enough to make of Hobbes a relevant objector from a Cartesian point of view? One answer is to displace the issue by referring it to another interlocutor who does not belong to the materialist sect but has argued for, in taking inspiration from Descartes, a conception of knowledge from the reception of species. Enter the author Pierre Chanet in 1649, the year of the publication of the Passions of the Soul, who penned the Traite des fonctions de I’esprit, and to whom the title of La Forge’s work would not be totally foreign.

Described as having ‘undoubtedly read Mr Descartes although he does not even mention him and despite the fact that he frequently uses his arguments word for word as if they were his own invention’ (86), Chanet indeed highlights the danger for La Forge of indirectly attributing the conception of knowledge from species to Descartes himself. We must draw on the Optics and the Treatise on Man to correct

Chanet and distinguish Descartes from such a conception.[6] But then no one can consider the latter as Cartesian.

If La Forge’s interlocutor of choice here is neither an Aristotelian nor Regius, Gassendi, or Chanet, and if he mentions Hobbes (at least in the overall project of setting out the equivalence of body and substance), then it remains to be asked whether he can also refer to the Englishman (in this case, in the third Objections) on the other points that Descartes had failed to take seriously, while (or because) they worked on the inside on his own text. Hobbes’ refutation in this case is worthy not only as a palliative to what Descartes did not complete, but also as a bulwark against the misinterpretation of developments in the Optics and the Treatise on Man, this latter dimension being able to, moreover, justify the former.

From this point of view, what are the relevant arguments in the third Objections?

Hobbes firstly employs the terminology of the image, present in both the Optics and the Treatise on Man. He clearly distinguishes these images of ‘accidents attached to external objects’ (1 Obj., AT ixA), he raises the possibility of identifying them with ‘movements in some parts of the organic body’ (4 Obj., AT ixA) and calls them ‘ideas’, especially in the fifth objection. Hobbes then fits perfectly into the category of those who, in the THM, are both likely to belong to the hardcore materialist group and to the Cartesian sect. He emblematizes those that La Forge identifies, to avoid rehashing the common lexicon of these two categories, as supporters of ‘species’.

Furthermore, Hobbes stands out, and this is the most well-known point, by reducing the signification of the idea to this material dimension. This is found, for example, at the beginning of the fifth objection (AT ixA, 126, emphasis added): ‘Some of these [viz. human thoughts] are, as it were, the images of things, and it is only in these cases that the terms ‘idea’ is strictly appropriate—for example, when I think of a man, or a chimera, or the sky, or an angel, or God’. Descartes takes up this point in his reply (AT ixA, 127): ‘Here my critic [Hobbes] wants the terms “idea” to be taken to refer simply to the images of material things which are depicted in the corporeal imagination’ (emphasis added). As perfectly understood by La Forge, this ‘simply’ refers to a comparable signification of the idea in Descartes, in texts other than Meditations and in addition to the spiritual signification.

This subject, however, is still developed by Hobbes in two directions. On one hand, Hobbes favourably treats the central problem of resemblance that is at the heart of the fourth discourse. He incorporates the thoroughly Cartesian theory of the absence of the need for such a resemblance.[7] But in his argument this absence does not jeopardize the materiality of the idea and serves to invalidate the possibility that we may have ideas resembling some immaterial kind. Thus, and this is the second point, he argues that these ‘spiritual’ ideas, to which we assign words like ‘God’ or ‘soul’, are composed from material images:[8]

When I think of a man, I am aware of an idea or image made up of a certain shape and colour; and I can doubt whether this image is the likeness of a man or not. And the same applies when I think of the sky. When I think of a chimera, I am aware of an idea or an image; and I can be in doubt as to whether it is the likeness of a non-existent animal which is capable of existing, or one which may or may not have existed at some previous time. But when I think of an angel, what comes to mind is an image, now of a flame, now of a beautiful child with wings; I feel sure that this image has no likeness to an angel, and hence that it is not the idea of an angel. But I believe that there are invisible and immaterial creatures who serve God; and we give the name ‘angel’ to this thing which we believe in, or suppose to exist. But the idea by means of which I imagine an angel is composed of the ideas of visible things. In the same way we have no idea or image corresponding to the sacred name of God.

By redoubling the theory of resemblance with that of causation, Hobbes therefore does nothing less than systematize the theory of the Treatise on Man by extending it to all ideas.[9] This approach culminates in focusing the will itself on a physiological movement by demonstrating the parallel between it and the explanation of the passion of fear and the will:

When someone wills, or is afraid, he has an image of the thing that he fears or the action that he wills; but what more does his thought include beyond this? This is not explained. Even if we grant that fear is a thought, it can only, as far as I can see, be the thought of the thing we are afraid of. For what is fear of a charging lion if not the idea of a charging lion plus the effect which this idea produces in the heart, which in turn induces in the frightened man that animal motion which we call ‘flight’? Now this motion of flight is not a thought; so the upshot is that fear does not involve any thought, apart from the thought that consists in the likeness of the thing feared. And the same applies to willing.

(6 Obj., AT ixA, 128)

We come therefore to the end of our research. By refining the spiritual and material conceptions of the idea, purging the lexicon of images and species, rereading the articles of the Passions of the Soul that involve the will and reflecting on the issue of resemblance, La Forge indeed intended to complete the work that Descartes was far from having finished: namely, refuting what, in Hobbes’ objections, could not in any way be considered Cartesian. But this presupposes, in turn, that an important common core, which confirms the great relevance of the arguments of the ‘Englishman’, can be done away with, in order that Hobbes’ reading be both possible and admissible of certain texts of Descartes, notably the Treatise on Man and the Optics.

  • [1] La Forge employs the term ‘material species’ to refer to this ‘form which the course of animal spiritstakes on leaving the gland’ in chapter 14 on union, 221.
  • [2] ‘This difficulty has already been resolved so clearly by Mr Descartes, in the Comments he made onthe broadsheet of Mr Le Roy that contains his assertions about the reasonable soul, that it bring light intothe day rather than undertaking to elucidate it further . . . whenever two similar attributes, each of whichcan thus be conceived separately without the other, meet in a subject, it is a sure sign that this topic here iscomposed: for thereby we clearly know that one is not a mode of the other, but it is the attribute ofsomething that can survive without it’ (115).
  • [3] Through the prism of Florent Schuyl’s preface.
  • [4] Pierre Clair locates the passage in the first part, chapter 3 (Thomae Hobbes... Opera philosophica...omnia (Amsterdam, 1668), 19), see also 359, note 16.
  • [5] It is interesting to remember that Ward is actually a friend of Hobbes, one of the actors in theHobbesian party in Oxford during Hobbes’ exile in France and one of the initiators of the publication of avolume of the Elements of Law and the letter Of Liberty and Necessity in England, 1650. He wrote alaudatory preface in this volume, notably for the theories of human nature (that which therefore refers to amaterialist explanation of perception, thoughts as well as the will). Ward’s attitude changes completelywith the publication of Leviathan in 1651, which explains the 1652 text mentioned here. Ward is anotherexample of authors (along with Digby and Descartes) that incorporate non-materialistic, and evensummon with ease materialistic explanations in their theories. See also, by the same Ward, A PhilosophicalEssay towards an Eviction of the Being and Attributes of God, published in 1652 and reissued in 1655. Thetext already contains an attack on Hobbes’ materialism.
  • [6] I quote here the most representative pages (74 and 75): ‘These reasons might make one prefer tolocate knowledge in the union of the species with, or its reception in, the cognitive faculty and, in fact,I would prefer this view to the others if I were not persuaded otherwise by the following considerations. Thefirst is that the air and mirrors would have to be included among knowing substances if, in general, to knowis merely to receive a species. Nor should knowledge be located in the reception of a species in the externalsensory organs or in the organ which is usually taken to be the instrument of the imagination because, inthe case of the first one, the eye of a dead ox receives the species of an external object just as well as a livingeye [here appears the reference to the Optics] all the species of sensation, imagination and memory are onlythe results of the local motion which the external object impresses on our senses, as we saw in the Treatiseon Man; or at least, according to the opinion of the Schools, they are corporeal accidents and it isinconceivable that there is the slightest connection between them and our thoughts or our knowledge.’
  • [7] This does not mean that he endorses it. In the Optics, Descartes indeed refers to the engravings toshow that we can represent even better what we least resemble. Hobbes, in the First Draught and the DeHomine, also takes a pictorial example: perspective. But it serves to show instead that the representation, sodissimilar that it is, involves a regulated principle of deformation and therefore a match ‘point by point’correspondence (a theory that was already found in Kepler) between the representative and the represented. This means that, for Hobbes, there is no representation without similarity in the mathematicalsense of regulated deformation. It otherwise remains impossible, for Hobbes, to reflect on a causalrelationship between the idea and the object.
  • [8] Fifth Objection, AT ixA, 139-40. This text represents the two dimensions that we outline in Hobbes’work.
  • [9] From a Hobbesian perspective, thus leaving the Cartesian context of argumentation, it must beemphasized that the materialist explanation of images and wills is found as such in the Short Tract.Especially, the idea of a physiological explanation of perception and the will is found in Bacon’s DeAugmentis in 1623 and it is Hobbes that principally translates the text into Latin (these elements aremissing from the English version of 1605).
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