Descartes on colors and shapes

As is well known, Descartes argues that the sensation of white in our minds when we look at snow does not resemble whatever it is in the snow that produces this sensation in us. (He puts this point in different ways in different places; e.g., sometimes he says that our sensory awareness of whiteness leaves us "wholly ignorant" of what the snow is like (Principles of Philosophy, I.68).) The same holds for many other sensory qualities: the pain we feel when we put our finger in the fire does not resemble anything in the fire, the sweet scent we have of honey does not resemble anything in honey, and so on.

But what about my sensory awareness of the shape of a snowball, a fireplace, or a honey jar? In these cases, Descartes takes a different line: "We know size, shape, and so forth in quite a different way from the way in which we know colors, pains and the like" (PP, I.69). What is this difference? Descartes writes: "there are many features, such as size, shape, and number which we clearly perceive to be actually or at least possibly present in the in objects in a way exactly corresponding to our sensory perception or understanding" (PP, I.70).

So the obvious question here is: what makes our sensory perception of shape different from our sensory perception of color, so that the former but not the latter can 'correspond to' or resemble the thing represented? Descartes' argument in the final quotation above strikes me as weak. Descartes says that we clearly perceive that our sensory perceptions of shapes either (i) actually resemble or (ii) possibly resemble something in the objects themselves. Regarding (i), I strongly doubt that we can clearly and distinctly perceive anything about the relationship between the ideas in our minds and the objects outside of us -- we would need to be able to 'step outside of our minds,' as it were, to survey and compare both the contents of our minds and objects as they really are. And if we take (ii), then it at least seems possible to me that my sensory awareness of white resembles some property in the object itself. Of course, that would be a fortunate coincidence, but coincidences are not impossible. (Perhaps Descartes' notion of possibility rules out more than our modern one(s)?)

So, is there a way to save Descartes' position that our sensory perceptions of shapes can/do resemble something in the objects themselves, whereas our sensor perceptions of colors can/ do not? Perhaps the piece of wax section in Meditation 2 could be of some help here?

Update: I had forgotten that this very problem also arises, perhaps more expiciltly, in Locke's Essay: Locke says that our ideas of primary qualities (shape, mobility, solidity, extension, and number) really do "resemble" their causes in the objects that we perceive (II.viii.15). And perhaps because this claim is more front-and-center in Locke than Descartes, commentators on the Essay from Berkeley through today have had difficulty making good sense of this claim. Berkeley brings out the problem clearly: is the idea square in my mind actually square-shaped? Is my idea of motion itself moving?


Fantastic new Darwin resource

Today my faith in the web as an instrument of enlightenment was restored: the complete works of Darwin will soon (December 15th) be freely available online. The site, which currently has a detailed project description posted, is:


Thanks to the Philosophy of Biology blog for the pointer. (Does anyone else wonder whether we would have this ID controversy in the US if Darwin were an American? The UK (from what I've seen) holds him up as a national hero of sorts, and this project is just the latest instance of their Darwin valorization.)