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“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”. Philosophy 1 Spring, 2002 G. J. Mattey. Clear and Distinct Conceptions. Logicians distinguish between conceptions in two ways Clear vs. obscure Distinct vs. confused A clear idea is one that is recognized whenever it is met with

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How to make our ideas clear

“How to Make Our Ideas Clear”

Philosophy 1

Spring, 2002

G. J. Mattey

Clear and distinct conceptions
Clear and Distinct Conceptions

  • Logicians distinguish between conceptions in two ways

    • Clear vs. obscure

    • Distinct vs. confused

  • A clear idea is one that is recognized whenever it is met with

    • Never mistaken for another (rare)

    • So familiar that there is no hesitation in using it (common)

  • A distinct idea is one that has nothing unclear in it

A priorism
A Priorism

  • Familiarity and abstract distinctness are outmoded as means of perfecting thought

  • Descartes tried to pass from the method of authority to that of a priority using clarity and distinctness as a sign of the a priori

  • He did not distinguish between being clear and seeming to be so

  • Leibniz got no further by trying to understand all conceptions in terms of definition


  • The easiest way to have clear ideas is to have meager and restricted ones

  • Those who have rich conceptions, primarily youth, are led astray

  • Intellectual maturity will help, but often it comes too late

  • Many people’s intellectual lives are ruined by their pursuit of unclear ideas

Thought and belief
Thought and Belief

  • Doubt is hesitancy, and it stimulates the mind to action

  • It is overcome by a decision to act in a certain way, i.e., by belief

  • Active thought is primarily directed toward the production of belief, which is thought at rest

  • But application of belief raises new doubts

  • The ultimate end of thought is action


  • Beliefs which produce the same action are the same

  • Different meanings are a function of different practices

  • We mean by our conception of wine the effects it has on our senses

  • Consideration of practical effects allows the highest degree of clarity

An example freedom
An Example: Freedom

  • Could I have resisted temptation and not done something of which I am ashamed?

  • The answer depends only on the possible arrangement of facts

  • Relative to the question of blame, yes

    • If I had willed to do otherwise, I would have done so

  • Relative to the question of the power of temptation, no

    • Some temptations have an irresistible effect

An example force
An Example: Force

  • Philosophers try to distinguish between force as acceleration and as cause of acceleration

  • Some say that force is an unknown cause

  • These distinctions make no practical difference

  • To know the accelerations and the laws governing them is to know what force is


  • There are three grades of clarity in our conception of reality

    • Familiarity: a child’s conception is clear in this way

    • Distinctness: the real is that whose characteristics are independent of what they are thought to be by any individual

    • Practice: the real is that which is destined to be agreed upon by all who investigate

Ideal agreement
Ideal Agreement

  • There is no conflict between the criteria of distinctness and practice

  • The real is independent only of what individuals think

  • The practical criterion is an ideal one, not depending on what any one individual may think

  • Even though the criterion of reality involves remote considerations, it gives us a clear conception of what reality is