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Descartes’ Dioptrics 7th Discourse and Spinoza’s Letters 39 and 40

[For a fuller treatment of the topic read “Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters”]

Telescopes and Turning a Flea into a Elephant

To offer context to the question that Jelles poses in a letter we have lost, regarding the size of objects on the retina, I post here the likely text that Jelles has in mind, and to which Spinoza is responding. Spinoza writes in answer:

I have looked at and read over what you noted regarding the Dioptica of Descartes. On the question as to why the images at the back of the eye become larger or smaller, he takes account of no other cause than the crossing of the rays proceeding from the different points of the object, according as they begin to cross one another nearer to or further from to eye, and so he does not consider the size of the angle which the rays make when they cross one another at the surface of the eye. Although this last cause would be principle (sit praecipua ) to be noted in telescopes, nonetheless, he seems deliberately to have passed over it in silence, because, I imagine, he knew of no other means of gathering rays proceeding in parallel from different points onto as many other points, and therefore he could not determine this angle mathematically.

Perhaps he was silent so as not to give any preference to the circle above other figures which he introduced; for there is not doubt that in this matter the circle surpasses all other figures that can be discovered (letter 39)

It is the 7th discourse that Spinoza and Jelles are discussing. Here is a portion of the relevant passage:

As to the size of images, it is to be noted that this depends solely on three things, namely, on the distance between the object and the place where the rays that it sends from its different points towards the back of the eye intersect; next on the distance between this same place and the base of the eye; and finally, on the refraction of these rays (trans. Olscamp).

At this point in the explanation Descartes seems to have touched on the factor of the “the size of the angle which the rays make when they cross one another at the surface of the eye” for this would seem implicit in a discussion of the refraction of rays. But Spinoza seems to have focused on what follows, which leaves off any concern for this factor:

Using this diagram, Descartes continues:

“Thus it is evident that the image RST would be greater than it is, if the object VXY were nearer to the place K, where the rays VKR and YKT intersect, or rather to the surface BCD, which is properly speaking the place where they begin to intersect, you will see below; or, if we were able to arrange it so that the body of the eye were longer, in such a way that there were more distance than there is from its surface BCD, which causes the rays to intersect, to the back of the eye RST; or finally, if the refraction did not curve them so much inward toward the middle point S, but rather, if it were possible, outward. And whatever we conceive besides these three things, there is nothing which can make this image larger.”

Here, Descartes has claimed to total all possible means of enlarging an image. He indeed has talk about the surface of the lens (BCD), but perhaps in keeping to Spinoza point, has not talked about the “size of the angle” that the rays make at the surface of a lens. (An issue Spinoza would like to make regarding the powers and functions of a telescope, it would seem.)

Descartes continues, detailing the kinds of improvements of magnfication that are possible:

“Even the last of these [the refraction curving outward from point S] is scarcely to be considered at all, because by means of it we can augment the image no more than a little bit, Read more of this post

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