Transparency of Mind: The Contributions of Descartes, Leibniz, and Berkeley to the Genesis of the Modern Subject

In Hubertus Busche (ed.), Departure for Modern Europe: A Handbook of Early Modern Philosophy (1400-1700). Felix Meiner Verlag. pp. 361–375 (2011)


The chapter focuses on attributions of the transparency of thought to early modern figures, most notably Descartes. Many recent philosophers assume that Descartes believed the mind to be “transparent”: since all mental states are conscious, we are therefore aware of them all, and indeed incorrigibly know them all. Descartes, and Berkeley too, do make statements that seem to endorse both aspects of the transparency theses (awareness of all mental states; incorrigibility). However, they also make systematic theoretical statements that directly countenance “unnoticed” thoughts or mental states, that is, thoughts or mental states of which the subject is unaware and has no knowledge. Descartes, having identified the essence of mind with thought or representation, distinguishes bare states of mind from states of which we have reflective awareness, thereby providing a theoretical tool for understanding both his seeming endorsement of transparency and his actual denial of it: Descartes distinguished between a basic perceptual state, or a basic awareness, and reflectively conscious states that involve explicit noticing and cognizing on the part of the subject. Leibniz (as is better known) directly endorsed a similar distinction between bare perception and reflective consciousness, using the term “perception” for the first and “apperception” for the second. In these cases, bare perceptions are not transparently available to the subject, and so in fact the subject does not have knowledge, hence does not have incorrigible knowledge, of all its occurrent mental states. This chapter gives evidence to support these claims; elaborates the complex psychology of the subject found in Descartes and other early moderns; and notes some ways in which these early moderns contributed to the genesis of the modern subject. Finally, it compares McDowell’s conception of the Cartesian mind with the conceptions of mind found in the writings of Descartes, Berkeley, and Leibniz, finding that his characterization caricatures the positions of early modern philosophers. McDowell's characterization has four elements: consciousness as essence of mind; intentionality as exclusively mental; the veil of perception; and the transparency of mind. Only the second point, about intentionality, fully fits Descartes. As a consequence of his own misdirection, McDowell misses the actual basis of his difficulty in connecting mind with world, which arises from a point of agreement between him and Descartes: the removal of intentionality from material sensory systems. But whereas Descartes could relocate (nonconceptual) sensory intentionality in mental states, McDowell is left to account for it with his overly cognitivized scheme of perceptual content as exclusively conceptual. (Paper first given at the European Society for Early Modern Philosophy, 2007.)

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References found in this work

Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.Wilfrid S. Sellars - 1956 - Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 1:253-329.
The Transparency of Experience.Michael G. F. Martin - 2002 - Mind and Language 17 (4):376-425.

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Citations of this work

The Mechanism—the Secret—of the Given.Galen Strawson - 2021 - Synthese 199 (3-4):10909-10928.
Descartes’s Anti-Transparency and the Need for Radical Doubt.Elliot Samuel Paul - 2018 - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 5:1083-1129.
The Transparency of Intention.Sarah K. Paul - 2015 - Philosophical Studies 172 (6):1529-1548.
Reconstructivism Not Dead. Introduction.Judit Szalai & Oliver Toth - 2022 - Hungarian Review of Philosophy:5-8.

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