Thought According to Descartes
When he has a feeling inside, how is he to know whether he is the only person on earth to have felt it, or even something like it? (Daniel Stern, 1990, Diary of a Baby, p. 1061)
To designate human explicit inner impressions, Descartes speaks not of consciousness but of thoughts. Thoughts are interior phenomena about which we have immediate knowledge.â11 A thought is a reflexive mental activity, that is to say, a mental activity that perceives what is happening. This is the first explicit definition of the psychic system, or of the psyche of the Greeks: By the term to think, I understand all that happens within us in such a way that we perceive it immediately by ourselves; that is why not only to hear, to want, to imagine, but also to feel is the same thing here as to thinkâ (Descartes, 1644, The Principles of Philosophy, I, p. 574; translated by Marcel Duclos). There is a fine point here. Descartes does not tell us what thoughts are, only that we can have immediate knowledge of them He does say that we are necessarily aware of them
Certain thoughts are perceptions of events situated in the organism, like bodily sensations and sensory data. Other thoughts perceive what is going on outside of the organism Other forms of thought have the task of organizing what has been detected by the senses. These meta-perceptionsâ enable reasoning and reflection. This vocabulary was quite customary at that time. For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes gives an analogous definition: The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, profane, clean, obscene, grave, and light, without shame, or blame; which verbal discourse cannot do, farther than the Judgement shall approve of the Time, Place, and Personsâ (Hobbes, 1651, I.8.34, p. 55). Hobbes also insists on the fact that only the individual has access to his thoughts. A thought cannot be censured by another unless it is communicated by behaviors such as speech, gestures, or messages (my yoga blogs, performances, etc.).
At the end of his life, in The Passions of the Soul}2 Descartes makes the distinction between some thoughts as our willâ that come from the soul and go toward the body and the passionsâ that are intrusions of the body into the dynamics of the soul. Body sensations are part of thoughts because they are part of what is perceived.