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Volume III

On Judgment and Freedom of the Will in the Meditations

by Eleanor A.F. Gower

The Fourth Meditation is often depicted as an unfounded anomaly, out of tune with Descartes’ otherwise analytic and rigorous style.  Such accusations tend to point to alleged discrepancies between his positions here and in other works, as well as claiming that his construal of both judgement and of freedom are ad hoc and incoherent.  I aim to go some way to vindicating the Fourth Meditation.  I highlight that Descartes’ conception of freedom differs from standard conceptions, specifically in admitting of qualitative degrees and its self-determining nature.  This latter attribute entails that in the realisation of the highest grade of freedom, the will is never externally bound: it is limitless.  However, also as a result of its autonomy, it is at liberty to impose internal constraints upon itself.  This understanding places us in a position to explain firstly why Descartes makes the will responsible for judgement and secondly, how he can assert that our judgement is always constrained by reason, in spite of the infinite scope of the will seeming to imply that we are free to judge as we please, without deference to reason.

I.  The Theory of Judgement in the Fourth Meditation: The Intellect and the Will


According to Descartes, judgement requires two separate faculties of the mind: the intellect and the will.  The intellect apprehends ideas, which are units of mental content, and presents them to the mind.  So defined, ideas are mere representations; they do not make any assertion about extra-mental reality, and so cannot be described as true or false.  Among the ideas presented to the mind, some are clear and distinct, some are not.  A clear idea is one by the possession of which I fully understand the nature of what is conceived.  An idea is distinct if as well as being clear it can be delineated from other ideas.  This variety occurs because our intellect is limited by nature; if it were not limited we would clearly and distinctly understand everything.  Further, both of these features are indicators of truth, in so far as that “‘truth,’ in the strict sense, denotes the conformity of thought with its object.”  If an idea is recognised clearly and distinctly, the idea is an exact representation of the object that it corresponds to in the extra-mental world, and so must be true.


A judgement is produced when a cognitive attitude; assent, dissent, or the withholding of judgement, is applied to an idea.  It is the will that is responsible for this; it contributes the necessary cognitive attitude and thus produces an affirmation or denial.  Thus Descartes draws a clear distinction between the roles of the intellect and of the will in judgement; the intellect perceives a matter, the will affirms or denies it.  On this construal, “understanding is properly the passive aspect of the mind, and willing its active aspect.”  As the will has the active role, it is responsible for the production of judgements by the mind.  

II.  Error


In contrast to ideas, judgements involve cognitive attitudes, and so make a claim about the relationship between cognitive content and extra-mental reality.  As a result they can be true or false, and because it is the will that asserts or denies the nature of this relationship, it is the will which is responsible for not only the judgement happening, but whether the judgement is true or false.  However, since Descartes claims that the faculty of the will is perfect, he needs to provide some other explanation for how its use can result in false judgements. 


The way in which he does this is by reference to the difference in scope of the will and the intellect.  The intellect is limited, and in contrast, the will is not: “the possibility of a further increase in its perfection or greatness is beyond my understanding.”  As a consequence of this the will is able to act upon ideas that the intellect has failed to fully grasp.  In other terms, we are able to assent to non-clear and distinct ideas, where the relationship between the idea and reality is unobvious, as well as to clear and distinct ideas, where it is.  


When we pass judgement upon ideas that are not clear or distinct, the result will either be that we make a false judgement, or that “it is by pure chance that I arrive at the truth.”  The former is a straightforward case of error and the latter still constitutes a misuse of the will for the truth is reached via epistemic luck.  Were the will to restrain itself, so as to withhold judgement upon ideas which were not clear and distinct, then the human mind would be infallible in its judgements, for it would only assent to those “perceptions [that] are so transparently clear and at the same time so simple that we cannot ever think of them without believing them to be true.”  These are the very ideas that allow Descartes to combat scepticism—those which are so intrinsically attractive, that we must see they represent reality exactly, and so our consequent judgements about them must be true.

III.  Why Make the Will Responsible for Judgement?


The form of the Meditations is conducive to the quick introduction of concepts without full explanation.  Here though it is particularly unobvious why the will should bear responsibility for judgement.  Below I set out why it seems unclear and then respond on Descartes’ behalf.  


There are two forms of judgement to be distinguished; speculative and practical.  Speculative judgement involves assenting, or withholding assent from propositions; it is this type of judgement that the Meditations focuses upon.  Contrastingly, practical judgement involves deciding upon a course of action.  Here the mental act that spurs the judgement is more obviously conative, so associating it with the will is more intuitive.  Contrastingly, speculative judgement seems just to be a case of deciding what it is that we truly believe.  Such a process seems only to require cognitive evaluation, and not conative exertion; thus it is unclear why it should be a product of the will.


Arguing along these lines, Curley urges that there is no further need for the will to act, once the intellect has made its contribution to judgement.  Perception, he argues, is sufficient to produce an affirmation or denial.  That perception is all there is to assent seems especially plausible in considering cases of spontaneous assent to clear and distinct ideas.   Indeed, these considerations accord with the standard view of judgement within the tradition preceding Descartes.  Aquinas, for instance, a key figure in Descartes’ education, held that we were led to knowledge by a “natural or supernatural light,” and the will was only necessary for other types of judgement.  Surprisingly though, there is no questioning of the thesis in the Objections published alongside the Meditations, it is only in Gassendi’s fuller Instances that Descartes is challenged on this. 


However, these dismissals are too quick.  Curley’s objection misconstrues Descartes by equivocating on the term “ideas.”  Descartes explicitly states that “all that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive without affirming or denying anything.”  Thus the ideas it produces are merely units of mental content, which inarguably cannot be true or false alone because they make no reference to extra-mental reality.  If this construal of the intellect is correct, then some other faculty must be involved for a judgement to be produced; it simply cannot stem from mental content in this bare sense alone.  The onus is on Curley to substantiate why this is an incorrect understanding of the intellect.  Returning to his other point, to say that our assent to clear and distinct ideas is spontaneous or temporally indistinguishable from perceiving the ideas, is not to say that assent is reducible to perception.  


Moreover, as Rosenthal argues, because of how Descartes conceives of faculties, he can reject the distinction made between the speculative and acts of practical judgement, such as desiring and fearing.  He holds that it is only “when we turn ourselves to the exercise of any faculty … that we become aware of it,” and so being unaware of any conative effort in speculative judgement is insufficient to mark it apart from other forms of judgement, like desiring and fearing, where we are aware of this element.  


A further plausible suggestion is that Descartes grants the will responsibility for judgement for theological reasons; he needed to explain our epistemic mistakes, whilst absolving God of responsibility for them.  He could only do this by placing judgement under a faculty of which we have control; that is, a faculty which is autonomous.  The intellect as Descartes sees it evidently does not have this feature.  It might be objected that nonetheless on this view due to providence we could not have judged otherwise, and so God remains responsible for our errors.  However Descartes holds that a judgement needn’t be avoidable to be voluntary, and thus can instil epistemic responsibility, even when we could not have judged otherwise.  Therefore the objection is unsound.  


Moreover, by giving an autonomous faculty control of judgement, he can vindicate his wider hopes about the importance of a priori truths and incorrigibility in science.   If the will, when acting autonomously, elects not to be complacent in habit but to adopt the method of doubt, and be driven by reason, then Descartes is able to use his theory of judgement to explain why man is not only free and autonomous, but also a highly rational being by nature.  This could be used to encourage the intellectual cleansing of scientific thought, for which he called.  So we see that Descartes’ scientific and theological projects are dependent on judgement being the result of autonomy; these were likely his central motivations in his making the will primary in producing judgements.

IV.  The Will


Substantiating the claim above—that it is essential to the will that it be self-determining—requires a more nuanced understanding of how Descartes understands the will, independently of judgement.  This discussion will, in fact, lead to a stronger reason than those previously given as to why Descartes needed to make judgement the responsibility of the will: that it is in order for his whole project of proving our own and God’s existence to succeed.


At points he claims that the will has “a positive faculty of determining oneself to one or other of two contraries,” so suggesting the ability to do otherwise than it does.  Hobbes challenges this thesis in the third set of Objections.  Indeed, this challenge is in part borne out by Descartes himself.  For example, he says, “I could not but judge that something which I understood so clearly was true,” in the Fourth Meditation, and later, “so long as I perceive something very clearly and distinctly I cannot but believe it to be true.”  Thus we are faced with textual evidence that Descartes both does and does not want to attribute to our will the power to act otherwise.  


Equally, Descartes does not straightforwardly accept that the will being free consists in it being free from constraints, so as to make free will compatible with determinism.  Though he likely would agree the will should be free from constraints, in its acceptance of hard determinism that account seems to make reason “inert, indolent, with no efficacy to motivate the will”—and this he would have most certainly contested.  It is crucial to the success of the Meditations that reason can motivate the will, for otherwise our making judgements would be unconcerned by evidence, and the will would just assent to ideas at its pleasure.  


Descartes draws on both accounts just given to salvage a more tenable position.  The result differs from typical accounts in two respects: firstly, it differentiates qualitatively between different types of freedom, and, secondly, it construes freedom as inherently self-determining.  The result of these two elements is a qualitative scale of freedom, where given the will’s autonomy, it will always be the ultimate decider of what the highest expression of freedom consists in.  Therefore in a sense there are two orders of freedom; an inviolable second order freedom, which can elect to internalise certain motivations so as to restrict first order freedom.


Descartes posits that in actuality, the will is constrained by reason, and thus the highest grade of freedom is concerned with what is true.  Accordingly the lowest grades of freedom find expression when the will is confronted with ideas that are not clear and distinct, and so where it is not obvious which idea best portrays the truth.  In such a case the will might assent or deny, though it lacks a sufficient reason for deciding in either direction, thus allowing itself to be determined by an external reason.  In contrast, Descartes claims, the highest grades of freedom are realised, when an idea is so clearly and distinctly perceived as to prompt spontaneous assent to it, thus guaranteeing a true judgement.  However, as I go on to explain, it is only the case that reason is an internal motivating factor in judgement, so long as we autonomously judge that the highest expression of freedom is connected to truth.  

V.  Believing at Will and ‘Compulsion’ to Believe


Understanding Descartes in this way explains a seeming tension in his account.  This apparent tension emerges from two claims he makes; that judgements ought to aim to be true, and that judgement is a free act of our will.  


If judgement is an act of free will, and the will is infinite in scope, the will surely has direct control over belief.  The will’s having direct control over belief would entail that we could will to assent to a given idea, and accordingly assent to it, without regard to the evidence.  As a result the relationship between truth and judgement would be severed.  All that is needed for Descartes to arrive at this position are the two claims above—judgement is an act of free will, and is infinite in scope, thus giving us, “the freedom to assent or not to assent.”  Yet, the whole project of the Meditations will be undermined if reason is not a motivating factor in making judgement, for Descartes’ argument ran as follows.  Clear and distinct ideas are so vividly intrinsically attractive that we cannot but spontaneously assent to them.  It is only such ideas that compel the judgement to assent, and as such it only these judgements that are immutably true, and thus it is only these ideas that can give us indubitable and genuine knowledge.  To abandon the theory that clear and distinct perception necessitates the will to assent is to in effect abandon the whole validation of reason in which the Meditations culminates.  Yet, this is exactly what the radically voluntarist idea that belief is under our direct control implies.  


However, returning to the idea that the will is autonomous, we see that Descartes’ presupposition that truth is the greatest good at which judgement can aim is not necessary.  The self-determining will, on this presupposition, elects to impose a certain constraint upon itself, that being that it pay heed to reason and so set out to pass true judgements; but, crucially, it could have elected otherwise.  The Meditations starkly presents the threat of scepticism, certain knowledge removes that threat, and certain knowledge is grounded in truth.  Thus in the context of the Meditations we have a firm basis on which to judge that truth in judgement is the greatest good at which we can aim.   In the Second Meditation the will is not yet constrained by reason, “[my mind does not] yet submit to being restrained within the bounds of truth,” which evidences that the will is not conceptually necessitated to follow reason.  This shows then the inviolable nature of the will’s autonomy.  It must actively select that good by means of which it should best like to manifest its freedom, and accordingly this decision will constrain its activity at a first order level.  Such a constraint then will be internal to the will, and so explains Descartes’ claim that in exercising our highest freedom we are not “determined by any external force.”  


Understanding the will in this way also explains our “compulsion” to assent to clear and distinct perceptions.  Descartes claims that when confronted with a clear and distinct perception, and the concurrence of authoritative reason and the autonomous will compel us to spontaneous assent, we are actualising the highest grade of our freedom.  To this we must now add the proviso that this is so only when we have autonomously resolved to internalise reason.  This explains how in such a case, though the will cannot act otherwise, it is wholly in control, for it is acting in accordance with that good which it has elected for itself to seek.  Consequently, this is a perfect actualisation of its highest freedom, under the constraints it has set out for itself.  


Nonetheless, it is theoretically possible, at the second order level, that the will identify some other good as greater than that of establishing what is true.  In such a case the will is at liberty to act contra to that which is demanded by reason.  Again, this would only be so if the second order evaluative judgement about what was the greater good in the given scenario, were a result of the will’s autonomy.  This is to say that, in spite of the examples just given (where compelled assent to certain ideas we agreed was the actualisation of true freedom) Descartes’ theory also allows that we can (even if only theoretically), withhold assent from these very same ideas.  This is confirmed by passages such as: “[it is open to us] to hold back from pursuing a clearly known good, or from admitting a clearly perceived truth, provided we consider it a good thing to demonstrate the freedom of our will by so doing.”  This shows that because the will is self-determining, it is at perfect liberty to withhold assent to clear and distinct perceptions, in line with the proviso, that this be the best thing to do in the situation.  Doing so would amount to a change in the internal restrictions that the second order freedom places on the first.  The examples given before presupposed that it were a greater thing to uphold our epistemic responsibility than to demonstrate our free will.  However, Descartes’ theory of the will accommodates that this is not always the case.  


It is worth noting that Andrea Christofidou, in “Descartes on Freedom, Truth and Goodness,” emphasises that there are varying interpretations of the quote above in the literature.  According to her, some commentators dispute that Descartes intends to claim that we could even theoretically withhold assent to clear and distinct ideas.  However, I take her arguments that these are incorrect readings to be convincing, and thus shall proceed on that assumption.  Further, even if there is insufficient literary evidence to conclusively demonstrate Descartes held this view, being able to explain such cases strengthens his theory, and so it is charitable to presume that he does.  


Descartes’ understanding of the will then also helps support his theological aims as set out earlier.  He writes that “the [will’s] scope extends to anything … even the immeasurable will of God.”  This makes clear that the autonomy of the will is inviolable; we have the power to judge to use our will as we want, even if this differs from that path laid out for us by God.  In being able to demonstrate this, we show that we are able to hold back even from a good set out for us by our maker.  Consequently, when we do act in God’s name it is as truly free agents, and thus we truly deserve the credit (or blame) for doing so.   

VI.  Concluding Remarks


To reiterate, the will, as Descartes sees it, has the theoretical, even if never realised, ability to withhold assent from clearly and distinctly perceived ideas.  Given the will’s self-determining character and the proviso Descartes sets out, this demonstrates that the will is not absolutely bound by epistemic norms governing the inquiry for truth (such as that clear and distinct perceptions compel assent).  If a situation arose where a greater good could be demonstrated by the will refusing to judge as it would, were it seeking to reflect extra-mental reality as closely as possible, then theoretically it could refuse to so judge.  Were the will to not assent in such a case, this would be a result of its self-determining nature.  Thus it would remain an actualisation of freedom of the highest degree for in so acting we would manifest our autonomy.  This establishes Descartes’ claim that the will is never externally compelled.  


Nonetheless, the will can be constrained by internal motivating factors that it has elected for itself; such motivating factors need not include reason or truth.  In reality though, they nearly always will, and so Descartes’ wider project—to prove our own existence, and God’s from indubitable perceptions—is able to succeed.  This dispels the air of paradox between the will being unlimited, and judgement being concerned with reason.  

Thus, we see that a tight understanding of how Descartes sees the will is pivotal to demonstrating both the consistency and coherence of judgement and freedom as presented in the Fourth Meditation.  In demonstrating this, I hope I have gone some way to highlighting the amount of pressure his theory can cope with and thus its strength and importance to a full reading of the Meditations as a whole.


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