Cartesian Freedom By Daniel Crow

I. Introduction Although the Liberty of Indifference and Liberty of Spontaneity accounts of human freedom are not, as usually formulated, strictly inconsistent, they do carry such fundamentally different emphases that they are often considered mutually exclusive theories. As in most twoparty systems, one is generally expected to choose one side or the other. Yet Descartes appears to draw freely from both Liberty of Indifference and Liberty of Spontaneity accounts of freedom when he develops his own account of human freedom in the Fourth Meditation. Perhaps to minimize the tension inherent in such a hybrid theory, attempts have been made to strip Descartes’ account of either its Liberty of Indifference or Liberty of Spontaneity features, so that it may be reduced to one of these simpler preexisting models.1 In this essay I will argue, first, why such reductive efforts are bound to fail: Descartes unquestionably relies on both accounts. This raises the concern, however, that Descartes’ account of human freedom might be disjointed at best or inconsistent at worst. I will take up this concern by showing how Descartes, in his 1645 Letter to Mesland, indicates how he intends his theory of human freedom to integrate these opposing accounts.2 Finally, I will defend my interpretation of Descartes’ theory of human freedom against an important objection that arises if we accept a closely related exegetical point which Anthony Kenny argues for in his influential essay, “Descartes on the Will.”3 Before turning to the Fourth Meditation it will be useful to clarify our central terms. The Liberty of Indifference and Liberty of Spontaneity accounts of human freedom may be initially
Petrik, James (Descartes’ Theory of the Will. Durango, CO: Hollowbrook Publishing, 1992), 55. Petrik offers a list of scholars who read Descartes as promoting a Liberty of Indifference account of human freedom. Petrik himself reads Descartes as promoting a strict Liberty of Spontaneity account (See Ch. 5 where Petrik rejects the popular claim that Descartes is a “partial voluntarist”), and from what I gather so does Cottingham (Descartes, 149-151). 2 CSMK III, Letter to Mesland, 9 February 1645, 244-246.
1

1

it will be useful for our purposes to pull them apart.g. 132-159.6 A few preliminary remarks about Descartes’ theory of judgment.”4 The account should be understood as making two related assertions: first the psychological claim that persons do in fact possess this contra-causal power. While these two claims are commonly conflated. 1998). second the freedom claim that an action is free in virtue of being performed by a person who possesses this capacity. According to the Liberty of Spontaneity account of human freedom. the person’s intellect perceives the content of an Idea (with varying degrees Kenny. and character traits. will help to facilitate the following discussion. John Cottingham.”5 Unlike the Liberty of Indifference account. in Descartes’ day as well as our own. According to the Liberty of Indifference account. the Liberty of Spontaneity account claims that it is possible that one’s action could be free—i. (Descartes. “Descartes on the 4 3 2 . beliefs. e.e. In Descartes day judgment was customarily thought an activity of the intellectual faculty (see Kenny. In Descartes’ theory of judgment. could manifest the appropriate aspect of the person in question—even if the action is determined. a person acts freely when her action “manifests some aspect integral to the individual in question. Anthony. Freedom in the Fourth Meditation Descartes’ remarks about human freedom in the Fourth Meditation center on one kind of activity: judgment. a person acts freely when he possesses a “two-way. Cottingham. II. ed.. 5 Petrik. But we should be careful not to confuse what the Liberty of Spontaneity account does claim—that freedom and determinism are consistent—with either of the stronger claims a) that freedom and indeterminism are inconsistent or b) that determinism is true. desires.” Descartes. as he explains it in the Fourth Meditation. 5.distinguished as follows. rejects Descartes’ claim that judgment is an activity of the will. 6 This is an unusual context for discussing the freedom of the will because most everyone.. ed. 15. contra-causal power to X or not X. Avoiding this confusion will open up ways of interpreting Descartes’ account of human freedom that would otherwise escape notice. I will thus use the term “Psychological Indifference” to refer to the purely psychological claim and reserve the term “Liberty of Indifference” for the claim about what makes actions free. John.. “Descartes on the Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Will. 9 February 1645.11 The relationship of perception.8 “Motivational Indifference.. 40. In what follows I will capitalize the term “Ideas” to indicate Descartes’ technical use of the term. 9 Ibid. 245). they are closely related insofar as the quality of one’s perception of an Idea determines the kind of inclinations (which take place in the will) one will have either to affirm or deny that Idea. as he uses the term. 7 CSM II. 40. 41. Letter to Mesland. “indifferent” in respect to how to judge that Idea. refers to a “state of the will” (CSMK III. the person’s will then judges the Idea. In his 1945 Letter to Mesland.7 While perception and judgment are the operations of discrete faculties of the human mind. 3 . Descartes claims that indifference. “affirms” it or “denies” it. Descartes suggests. thus refers to a motivational state of the will. one is. and judgment is important for understanding Descartes’ conception of human freedom because.” as I will call Descartes’ use of the term. “Absolute Motivational Indifference”9) as well as any other case “where the intellect does not have sufficiently clear knowledge at the time it deliberates” and thus leaves the person less than completely motivated to affirm that Idea. i. Descartes uses the term “indifference” to cover Absolute Motivational Indifference: “”But the indifference I feel when there is no reason pushing me in one direction or another…” (italics supplied).. 11 Ibid. commenting on the Fourth Meditation. prompts a motivation to affirm the Idea that is so fully “persuasive” that it leaves the percipient with no Motivational Indifference vis-à-vis that Idea.of clarity). for Descartes.” as Descartes uses the term in the Fourth Meditation.e. “Indifference. In the Fourth Meditation Descartes claims that indifference is something that is felt. to use Descartes’ term. not the will. It covers cases when one’s perception of an Idea prompts no motivation to either affirm or deny the Idea (what I will call.” 133-138). 10 Ibid. 41.. 8 Ibid. 39-40. the quality of our perceptions and the strength of our motivations affect the freedom of our judgments. not a psychological capacity (as in Psychological Indifference) or a freedom claim (as in the Liberty of Indifference). is a concept that covers a number of related motivational states one might possess in respect to a judgment. When one’s perception of an Idea is obscure. motivation. in our own day it is perhaps more fashionable to reject the entire faculty model of the mind which Descartes’ theory of judgment presupposes.10 Only Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas.

these actions are the least free of all.a. At the bottom of the hierarchy are those judgments performed from an Absolutely Motivationally Indifferent will. To sustain his hierarchical ordering of free acts. At the top of the hierarchy are of course our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas. unlike Spontaneity. 150. John (Descartes.”14 From these passages. 1986). which are performed with no Motivational Indifference. we might say. our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are certainly not performed with more Psychological Indifference than our affirmations of Ideas about which we are Motivationally Indifferent—they are performed either with equal Psychological Indifference or with no Psychological Indifference at all. Cottingham. and then secondarily to determine what kind of account of human freedom is necessary to count such actions as free (on which Descartes is much less clear). Descartes is clear that judgments are free in direct proportion to the strength of one’s inclination to affirm the Idea being considered: “…. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. This point is most easily seen by observing why a Liberty of Indifference account of human freedom could not yield this hierarchy. 40. Spontaneity A helpful way of investigating Descartes’ conception of freedom is first to identify what kinds of judgments Descartes claims are free or most free (a point on which Descartes is fairly clear). For one thing. is an essentially egalitarian 12 13 Ibid. it appears that Descartes envisions a hierarchy of freedom: judgments are not simply free or not free but are rather more or less free. it will be necessary for Descartes to rely on a Liberty of Spontaneity account of freedom. is an all or nothing phenomenon.. 4 . In respect to the first point. Psychological Indifference.”12 Thus freedom is in inverse proportion to Motivational Indifference:13 “…the spontaneity and freedom of my belief was all the greater in proportion to my lack of indifference. Psychological Indifference. a person could either have done otherwise or he could not have—there is no middle ground.the more I incline in one direction…the freer is my choice.

That is. it seems that the resulting picture of freedom would be egalitarian and not hierarchical as Descartes asserts. it will follow from this conception of freedom that our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas. 41 (italics supplied). Most notably. will be the least free. 245). If actions are free in virtue of being performed with Psychological Indifference as is claimed by the Liberty of Indifference account of human freedom. One might object that there is a sense in which a liberty of indifference account of human freedom might be able to yield a hierarchical ordering of free acts. 41.”16 Now it is possible that Descartes here intends the term “spontaneity” to describe one quality of a belief that increases in inverse proportion to Motivational Indifference. To serve as the basis of Descartes’ hierarchical conception of human freedom. while our denials of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas would be the most free acts. Descartes’ hierarchical conception of freedom cannot be derived from a liberty of indifference account. Descartes’ first and only use of the term “spontaneity” in the Meditations is in conjunction with “freedom” to characterize our belief (more likely the act of believing rather than the content of the belief) of a Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Idea: “I could not but judge that something which I understood so clearly was true. Letter to Mesland 9 February 1645. But it is Ibid. Something like this seems to be suggested in Kant’s view of freedom and is recognized in a different way in Descartes’ 1945 Letter to Mesland. The proponent of the liberty of indifference model of human freedom might contend that one’s freedom somehow enjoys a greater display when one uses one’s counter-causal agency to overcome impulses that drive one towards a certain course of action. where the impulse to believe is the strongest. according to such a reading the term “spontaneity” need not suggest a Liberty of Spontaneity theory of human freedom. when he says that freedom might consist “in a greater use of the positive power we have of following the worse although we see the better. Descartes thus needs to rely on a Liberty of Spontaneity account. There is. But this is just the opposite of the hierarchy Descartes sets out to establish. and thus the freedom and spontaneity of my belief was all the greater in proportion to my lack of indifference. however. 15 14 5 .15 Reinforcing this broader consideration are also specific textual details which reveal Descartes drawing from a Liberty of Spontaneity account of human freedom. 16 CSM II. and “freedom” to describe quite another quality that stands in the same inverse relationship. if we attribute to Descartes a theory of human freedom according to which a judgment is free to the extent one overcomes one’s impulses in performing that judgment. but this was not because I was compelled so to judge by any external force. but because a great light in the intellect was followed by a great inclination in the will. a great problem in applying this schema to Descartes’ remarks in the Fourth Meditation. Clearly..” (CSMK III.property.

6 . rather “spontaneity” is describing the kind of “freedom” the judgment possesses. Descartes states even more clearly that once a person begins to act.more likely that Descartes does use the term “spontaneity” to indicate a Liberty of Spontaneity theory of human freedom. While the existence of God will eventually play a crucial role in Descartes’ 17 18 CSMK III. it might seem that Descartes’ hierarchical conception of freedom can be reduced simply to a Liberty of Spontaneity account. which is to solve an epistemological variant of the traditional “Problem of Evil. While by now it is hopefully clear that Descartes relies on a Liberty of Spontaneity account to uphold his claim that our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are more free than our affirmations of Obscurely Perceived Ideas. “Spontaneity” is not describing one quality of the belief and “freedom” quite another. that is.” The fact that Descartes enters the term “spontaneity” alongside “freedom” to characterize a belief that lacks Motivational Indifference is not happenstance. In fact this is just half the story. especially in light of what we have already shown: namely.”18 Descartes claims this about our judgments of Obscurely Perceived Ideas in order to uphold the central project of the Fourth Meditation. 246.”17 b. the Liberty of Spontaneity. Letter to Mesland. it is equally clear that Descartes relies on a Liberty of Indifference account to explain why our affirmations of Obscurely Perceived Ideas are a possibility implied by the “perfection” of our “freedom of choice. that without a Liberty of Spontaneity theory Descartes will be unable to sustain his claim he makes here regarding the inverse relationship of (Motivational) “indifference” and “freedom. 9 February 1645. and voluntariness are the same thing.” Descartes has run into what I will call the “Problem of Epistemological Evil” as a result of the epistemological advance he makes in the Third Meditation when he demonstrates the existence of God. Indifference From what has been argued so far. Alluding to this passage in his 1645 letter to Mesland. 39. CSM II. spontaneity. “freedom.

In his correspondence with Gassendi. 21 To uphold this theodicy. but instead of restricting it within the same limits. But Descartes claims that human error is a possibility implied by the perfection of the “freedom of choice.. Descartes’ solution to this problem is in many ways a typical free will defense. Actions completely or almost completely lacking in spontaneity are.epistemological project. Ibid. for it raises the question of why persons are prone to error if they are indeed the handiwork of an all-powerful. Persons are thus free to affirm even those Ideas their limited intellects perceive only obscurely: “…the scope of the will is wider than the intellect.”19 Implied in Descartes’ theodicy is that the freedom to affirm Obscurely Perceived Ideas is possibility implied by the perfection of freedom. completely or almost completely lacking in freedom. non-deceiving God. 39. respectively. our affirmations of very Obscurely Perceived Ideas must be free in some more robust sense than a Liberty of Spontaneity account can allow. 7 . Descartes unambiguously commits to a Liberty of Indifference account while explaining the freedom of our affirmations of Obscurely Perceived 19 20 Ibid. They rank at the bottom of the hierarchical ordering of free acts. And our affirmations of other very Obscurely Perceived Ideas. according to his account.” not by choices that are entirely or almost entirely lacking in freedom. the cause of error is that persons have been endowed with a finite intellect but a perfectly free will. 40. According to Descartes. 20 Descartes’ Liberty of Spontaneity account of human freedom could not explain the freedom of our affirmations of Obscurely Perceived Ideas for the obvious reason that. according to a Liberty of Spontaneity account of human freedom.. I extend it to matters I do not understand. even if we have some slight inclination to affirm them. it poses an immediate threat to its continued success. would be performed with very little spontaneity. our affirmations of some very Obscurely Perceived Ideas are not spontaneous at all—namely our affirmations of Ideas about which we are Absolutely Motivationally Indifferent.

then.” In responding to Gassendi. The only options for understanding this phrase. Ibid. it is clear from context that he means at least that the will is not determined by the intellectual faculty.” Here it is clear that Descartes uses the term “indifference” in the conventional scholastic fashion to mean at least Psychological Indifference. 220. 39. 8 .. Descartes claims that Gassendi’s objection assumes the point in question: that the will can be “determined by itself. That Descartes considers Psychological Indifference relevant to human freedom is clear from the next two sentences of the same paragraph where Descartes refers back to this Psychological Indifference to affirm Obscurely Perceived Ideas as the 21 22 Ibid.”22 Gassendi’s strategy for avoiding error. are (a) that the will is determined by something else besides the person’s intellectual faculty or (b) that the will is not determined at all by antecedent causes. Descartes describes Gassendi’s denial of this claim as a denial of “indifference. When Descartes suggests that he and Gassendi agree that the will determines itself. is to “apply our intellect to develop clearer awareness.Ideas. we must pay careful attention to the shape of the debate in order to notice the implied commitment.”23 Now what Gassendi has denied is certainly not that persons are ever Motivationally Indifferent but rather that the will is not determined by the intellect. The way Descartes introduces this point of the discussion suggests that we should take the phrase to imply Psychological Indifference. He writes: “You next deny certain propositions about the indifference of the will. then. the apprehension of the intellect always determines the will. he cannot be too deeply opposed to the claim that the will has the power to determine itself when a person makes judgments (which is what Descartes’ theory of error claims). According to Gassendi. and when we fall into error it is because our “intellectual apprehension of the thing does not correspond with the way the thing really is. that the will enjoys Psychological Indifference. Gassendi has countered Descartes’ theory of error by advancing a theory of his own.. However. i.” Since Gassendi already allows the will the power of self-determination to develop clear awareness.e.

25 CSMK III.e. too. 245. it will be useful to rehearse how Descartes develops the argument of this letter. to pursue or avoid. to affirm or deny.24 With this final claim. As the letter begins. Descartes implicitly commits to the core of a Liberty of Indifference account: that Psychological Indifference is freedom. Descartes’ explicitly acknowledges that his own conception of human freedom possesses both Liberty of Indifference and Liberty of Spontaneity dimensions.“freedom” he knows through experience. for clues that indicate how Descartes intends this combination to work. then. Descartes suggests how his theory of freedom holds together these two rival views (although. unlike the Fourth Meditation. In the second portion of this essay. Letter to Mesland. To sustain this claim Descartes relies on a Liberty of Indifference account. Descartes distinguishes his own use of the term “indifference” (i.. We cannot reduce Descartes’ conception of human freedom. The hierarchical conception of freedom Descartes clearly asserts is only explicable given a Liberty of Spontaneity account of human freedom. 259.. In this letter. he does not resolve all of the details). 9 February 1645. I will turn to Descartes’ second most extensive discussion of human freedom. 244-246. 259. 9 . Freedom in Descartes’ 1645 Letter to Mesland In the 1645 Letter to Mesland.25 III. which occurs in his 1645 Letter to Mesland. Ibid.”26 23 24 Ibid. But the central project of the Fourth Meditation requires that the judgments that measure at the very bottom of this hierarchy are free in some robust sense. So that this may be clearly seen.. “Motivational Indifference”) from the way “others” use the term: “But perhaps others mean by ‘indifference’ a positive faculty of determining oneself to one or the other of two contraries. too. 26 Ibid. that is to say. to be sure. to either a Liberty of Indifference or a Liberty of Spontaneity account.

”28 Before the will has been elicited. that persons possess this capacity in respect to all actions: “Indeed. then. Descartes alludes to the hierarchical ordering of free acts he established in the Fourth Meditation: “It was in this sense that I wrote that I moved towards something all the more freely when there were more reasons driving me towards it. 245. 29 Ibid. but also with respect to all other actions. Descartes agrees that the human will has this capacity. Ibid.”30 In respect to this kind of freedom. 246. 30 Ibid. 245. 31 Ibid.” that is. and at that point freedom. so that when a very evident reason moves us in one direction.. and even affirms. 245.”27 Having drawn the distinction between Motivational Indifference and Psychological Indifference and clarified his views in respect to the latter. for “freedom” at this stage “entails indifference in the second sense but not in the first. 10 .. for at that point “freedom consists simply in ease of operation.. spontaneity and voluntariness are the same thing. the action is to be judged according to the Liberty of Indifference model..”31 In the 1645 Letter to Mesland. after the will has been elicited. Descartes begins a new line of thought in which he proposes two ways to consider freedom: “in the acts of the will before they are elicited.Descartes’ description of this positive faculty suggests that he is alluding to the capacity of acting with Psychological Indifference. provided we consider it a good thing to demonstrate the freedom of our will by so doing. absolutely speaking we can. Descartes thus applies the Liberty of Indifference and Liberty of Spontaneity accounts of freedom to two different temporal stages of an action. although morally speaking we can hardly move in the contrary direction.. For it is always open to us to hold back from pursuing a clearly known good. or from admitting a clearly perceived truth.29 But in the second stage of the action. Psychological Indifference but not Motivational Indifference. 27 28 Ibid. the action is to be judged according to the Liberty of Spontaneity account. I think it has it not only with respect to those actions to which it is not pushed by any evident reasons on one side rather than on the other. with some qualification. for it is certain that in that case our will moves with greater facility and force. 245. or after they are elicited.

in Descartes’ conception of human freedom. all actions which possess this property will possess it to the same extent and. Descartes is clear that Psychological Indifference is a necessary condition for freedom. to discriminate various grades of freedom among antecedently free acts. this raises the question of what work is left for the Liberty of Spontaneity account to perform within Descartes’ account of human freedom. since they are entirely lacking in spontaneity. The answer suggested in the 1645 Letter to Mesland seems to be that the Liberty of Spontaneity account comes into effect. it is clear that Descartes must maintain this. the Liberty of Indifference model of human freedom determines whether any given action is. Even these irrational judgments are performed with the same Psychological Indifference as our more informed judgments. that our affirmations of very Obscurely Perceived Ideas are an extension of the perfection of the freedom of choice. for Descartes. For unless Psychological Indifference is sufficient to make actions free. It is in respect to this shared egalitarian core of all free acts that Descartes implies.If freedom “entails” Psychological Indifference before the will is elicited. be counted as free. free. then Psychological Indifference is a necessary condition for an act to be free. and once this is already established the Liberty of Spontaneity model determines the hierarchical rank of an action’s freedom. a necessary and a sufficient condition for freedom. 11 . and all actions are performed with Psychological Indifference. but would he also allow that it is a sufficient condition for freedom? For reasons already suggested above. we may add. Since Psychological Indifference is an egalitarian property. once the will has already been elicited. The hierarchical ordering of free acts thus only applies to acts which already possess robust freedom in virtue of their Psychological Indifference. in the Fourth Meditation. But if Psychological Indifference is both a necessary and sufficient condition for an action’s being free. in the first place. as Descartes claims. our affirmations of some Obscurely Perceived Ideas cannot. In other words. Psychological Indifference must be. will be incapable of possessing it to any greater extent than they already do.

In the Fifth Meditation the phrase is put in present tense (“cannot but”). by showing. where he states that it is “in his view. 132-159. pace Kenny. impossible” to withhold assent from a Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Idea. John Cottingham. due to a common way of reading Descartes’ claims about our judgments of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas. Kenny offers a classic interpretive strategy for reading the 1645 Letter to Mesland in a way consistent with what Kenny thinks is clearly implied in both the Meditations and the 1644 Letter: that our assents to Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are determined. as I have understood Descartes to imply in his 1645 Letter to Mesland. Kenny notes what Descartes asserts in both the Fourth and Fifth Meditation: that he “could not but” affirm a Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Idea. then it would seem to be true that he could have withheld his assent. Contra Kenny There is an objection that is bound to arise to my interpretation of Descartes’ conception of human freedom.” Descartes. “Descartes on the Will.” it is common to understand Descartes to claim that persons do not possess Psychological Indifference in respect to their judgments of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas: in such cases the perception of the intellect determines the assent of the will. 48. Obviously there is tension between these claims and what Descartes seems to imply in his 1645 Letter to Mesland. Following Anthony Kenny’s influential essay. “Descartes on the Will. surprisingly. allows us to reconcile the apparent textual discrepancy from the opposite direction— that is. CSM II.IV. 41.33 Descartes puts this even more strongly in his 1644 letter to Mesland. As evidence for his interpretation. Whether or not we understand Descartes to suggest that our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are determined will depend on how we attempt to resolve this apparent discrepancy.32 If we do not possess Psychological Indifference in respect to these free judgments. ed. 12 . Anthony. In what follows I will offer an alternative reading of the same letter which. how we may understand Descartes to claim that our affirmations 32 33 Kenny.. then Psychological Indifference cannot be a necessary condition for freedom.34 If our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas were performed with Psychological Indifference.

234. To Mesland. 37 Kenny. then. we may then reconsider the same Idea under different perceptual conditions and find the power to suspend judgment from the same Idea that we have Clearly and Distinctly Perceived (and assented to) at any earlier point of time. it is also unnatural in certain ways. According to Kenny. CSMK III. 36 Ibid. To Mesland. 13 . In the 1645 letter. Descartes places a qualification on the extent to which our affirmations of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are determined.” In this way I intend to fend off this inevitable objection to my interpretation of Descartes’ conception of human freedom. Kenny reads Descartes’ 1645 Letter to Mesland in light of a qualification Descartes makes in his 1644 Letter to Mesland. The determination applies for as long one is having the Clear and Distinct Perception. 2 May 1644.. 2 May 1644.”37 Rather. 235.of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are not determined—that they are rather performed with what I will call “Indirect Psychological Indifference. In the earlier letter. According to Kenny’s reading of the letter. 34 35 CSMK III. While Kenny’s reading of this letter is full of insight. Descartes is referring to a later point in time when one is no longer Clearly and Distinctly Perceiving the same Idea. “he need not mean that we can do this at the very moment of perceiving the good and the true. During the Clear and Distinct Perception one’s assent is always determined by the contents of one’s intellect. 234. 157. Descartes claims that one is able to “hold back…from admitting” a Clearly Perceived Truth. The unnaturalness of Kenny’s reading may be seen from the following considerations. and thus should not form the basis of the reconciliation between Descartes’ apparently conflicting statements about the kind of freedom we enjoy in respect to our judgments of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas. but “the nature of the soul is such that it hardly attends for more than a moment to a single thing. when Descartes claims in his 1645 letter that we can hold back from admitting a Clearly Perceived Truth.” 35 Once our attention is distracted and our perception is no longer Clear and Distinct.36 We may even intentionally dwell on another idea to obscure our original perception.

But instead of allowing that a person may alter these perceptions only after committing his initial assent to the Idea. Given Descartes’ theory of judgment. Clearly and Distinctly Perceiving that 2 plus 2 equals 4 and then allowing a moment to pass before we assent to the Idea “2 plus 2 equals 4. 14 . Thinking of the process of making judgments in terms of discrete. it appears. The problem with imagining this delay is that assenting to 2 plus 2 equals 4 already seems to be included in the Idea of Clearly and Distinctly Perceiving that 2 plus 2 equals 4. even before he ever assents to that Idea. My reading might be defended against this objection in another way.” But the difficulty of imagining this might be a more fundamental problem with Descartes’ theory of judgment rather than a problem in interpreting the writings of Descartes in light of his theory of judgment. one has already assented to the Idea. however. at a later point of time. under the modified interpretation a strong case could be made that judgments of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are not determined. let us add to this that he might also alter the perceptual conditions before giving his initial assent. withholds one’s assent when one reconsiders the same Idea under different perceptual conditions. for instance. for it is hard to imagine what characteristics of a perception involving the Idea “2 plus 2 equals 4” could rationally impel one to assent to that Idea other than the perception that the Idea is true—in which case. We can easily modify Kenny’s reading. however. Perhaps somehow there could be a logical though not chronological ordering according to which the perception is logically primary. the obscuring is logically secondary. 38 One potential theoretical problem I see with my interpretation is that it seems hard to imagine any duration of time passing between one’s Clear and Distinct Perception and one’s assent to the Idea of that Perception. We would have to imagine.” one obscures the idea and withholds one’s assent. According to this reading. according to which there is a genuine difference between Clearly and Distinctly Perceiving and affirming an Idea. even though all of these events happen simultaneously. there is no reason why these two acts of the mind must happen simultaneously. then my reading would be even more defensible against this objection. temporally ordered events may not be the best way to understand (and may not be how Descartes understands) what goes on in our intellectual lives. The most natural way to understand Descartes’ claim that we have the power to “hold back…from admitting” the Idea. 38 This slight alteration of Kenny’s interpretation enables a more natural reading of the letter and has one important consequence: namely. by obscuring the perception. however. In a single complex moment one clearly and distinctly perceives an idea but. is to imply that one is not compelled to affirm the Idea initially.one assents to the Idea (irresistibly) at an earlier point in time and then. If a non-temporally ordered account of perception and perversion is plausible. this point is well supported by Descartes’ 1644 Letter to Mesland. “considering it a good thing to demonstrate one’s freedom. to avoid this unnaturalness. and the judgment is logically tertiary. Let us preserve Kenny’s claim that we can refuse admitting a Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Idea only by altering the perceptual conditions of our judgment. a person who has a Clear and Distinct Perception can “hold back” from admitting the Idea.

be capable of withholding his assent from that Idea. under the new conditions he has freely created. a moment later. would it have been possible for a person to choose differently?”39 If we believe that the person was determined to the course of action he performed. But if he attends his will to the task of altering the shape of the experience—by obscuring the perception— he will then. let us consider a classic question that is supposed to help us discern whether or not an action is determined: “…if the internal and external conditions accompanying a person’s choice were recreated exactly. withhold his assent. he “cannot but” believe. in respect to action X. The person is determined to affirm the Idea as long as the same perceptual conditions remain. These considerations suggest a distinction between two kinds of Psychological Indifference. in the same conditions. if not.” Suppose we pose this question to a person who fits the blue-print made by my modification of Kenny’s interpretation of Descartes. we should answer “no” to this question. 15 . we should answer “yes. he would inevitably fail. which I will call “Direct Psychological Indifference” (DPI) and “Indirect Psychological Indifference (IPI). Let us say that this person has just had a Clear and Distinct Perception and. 4-5. The answer to the question thus seems to be: if the “internal and external conditions of the choice were recreated exactly. 39 Petrik.To see how such a case could be made.” Were he to attend his will directly to the task of withholding his assent from the Idea. by these means. but he could always act to change the perceptual conditions and.” the person could always act to alter the internal conditions of the choice. affirmed the Idea of that perception. and thus—and only thus—could he have “chosen differently. Could the person have chosen differently under the same internal and external conditions? Was his assent determined? It is not obvious to me how we should answer this question. if he/she could have performed an action other than X. in a set of internal and external conditions. without first modifying the internal or external conditions of her choice.” I offer the following definitions stipulatively: DPI: An agent possesses DPI.

147. we should take him to mean that he could not resist assenting to these ideas so long as he tried to withhold assent directly. and that is all that is essential to it. in respect to action X. but that sometimes it consists only in Liberty of Indifference. When Descartes claims in the Meditations and elsewhere that he could not help assenting to Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas. without first changing the shape of the experience. When in his 1645 letter to Mesland he suggests that our Psychological Indifference extends to all actions including our judgments of Clearly Perceived Truths. in the same conditions. In light of the notion of IPI. “Descartes thinks that free will often does consist in liberty of indifference. if he/she could have performed an action other than X. 16 . we see a different way to reconcile Descartes’ 1645 Letter to Mesland with his repeated suggestion that our assents to Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are determined. 40 Kenny. the person in the grip of a Clear and Distinct Perception possesses IPI but not DPI. and that is all that is essential to it. According to Kenny. our judgments of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas are determined. but that sometimes it consists only in liberty of spontaneity. In light of this distinction. according to Descartes.”40 In essence. In other words. Kenny interprets Descartes’ theory of human freedom in light of his view that. without producing an especially awkward reading of either of these texts.IPI: An agent possesses IPI. in a set of internal and external conditions. only by first modifying the internal or external conditions of her choice. what I have argued in this essay is that we get a better reading of Descartes if we turn Kenny’s interpretation on its head: Descartes thinks that free will does consist in Liberty of Spontaneity. we may read what Descartes’ claims in the Meditations in a manner consistent with what he claims in his 1645 letter to Mesland. we should understand him to mean that we possess IPI in respect to our judgments of Clearly and Distinctly Perceived Ideas.

John. John. [CSM II] Cottingham. Dugald. Stoothoff.Vol. and Murdoch. 1998.). Dugald (trs. CO: Hollowbrook Publishing. [CSMK III] Cottingham. John. Robert. 17 . Durango. [CSM I] Cottingham. Descartes. Vol.) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes.). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. James. Robert. Stoothoff.V. III. 1984. Oxford: Oxford University Press. John. Anthony (trs. Murdoch. John. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Stoothoff. Robert. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 1986. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.. and Murdoch. Dugald (trs. I. Descartes’ Theory of the Will. Kenny. 1985. Petrik. Cottingham. 1992. Vol. Descartes. II. Bibliography of Referenced Works Cottingham.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful