Marie Jayasekera

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I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Colgate University. I specialize in the history of early modern philosophy, and Descartes in particular. I received an MA and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan, an MA in Philosophy from Tufts University, and a BS in Biology from Yale University.

Research Summary

My research is on Descartes’s views on human agency and freedom. In particular, I explore how Descartes carves out space for human agency and freedom in the face of a number of factors—God, the laws of nature that govern human bodies, even our own mental faculties—that might seem to reduce us to mere conduits through which external causes operate. Because his views on the topic intersect with questions about freedom, deliberation and decision-making, perception, the emotions, moral responsibility, and the nature of God, I work in a wide range of areas in Descartes’s philosophy (epistemology and metaphysics, moral psychology, natural science, and philosophy of religion). See abstracts of my published or forthcoming papers on these issues below. Please email me for drafts of papers under review.

Papers

“Imitation and ‘Infinite’ Will: Descartes on the Imago Dei,” forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, Volume VIII. [PDF]

In this paper I investigate Descartes’s understanding of the imago Dei, that it is above all in virtue of the will that we bear the image and likeness of God. Commentators have argued that Descartes’s comparison between the human will and the divine will is problematic because human beings do not possess certain essential features of the divine nature (simplicity and indifference). I challenge the key assumption of such arguments—that in his conception of the imago Dei Descartes is alluding to Scholastic conceptions of analogy available to him at the time, which would place particular constraints on the legitimacy of the comparison. I argue instead that Descartes is evoking a different tradition regarding the nature of image and imitation, stemming from Augustine and Aquinas, and thus, that those constraints do not apply. I then argue that Descartes thinks the likeness between the human will and God’s will is that both are infinite in “extent.” This means that human will can “extend itself” not only to things that can be the object of some other will, but to things that can be the object of God’s will. This is notable because Descartes famously thinks that absolutely anything can be the object of God’s will. I explain why my interpretation of the likeness is not implausible, contrary to first appearances. I conclude the paper by addressing possible objections to my interpretation, one internal to Descartes’s own thought, and a second stemming from the differences between the relevant powers in human beings and God.

“Responsibility in Descartes’s Theory of Judgment,” Ergo 3, no. 12 (2016): 321-347.

In this paper I develop a new account of the philosophical motivations for Descartes’s theory of judgment. The theory needs explanation because the idea that judgment, or belief, is an operation of the will seems problematic at best, and Descartes does not make clear why he adopted what, at the time, was a novel view. I argue that attention to Descartes’s conception of the will as the active, free faculty of mind reveals that a general concern with responsibility motivates his theory of judgment. My account avoids some unappealing features of the standard interpretation, renders the theory more plausible than many have suggested, and explains why his theory does not fall neatly into any current-day position on the issue of the control we have over belief.

“Descartes on Human Freedom,” Philosophy Compass 9, Issue 8 (2014): 527–539.

I shed light on why Descartes’s conception of human freedom has been fiercely debated since the publication of the Meditations (1641) by providing overviews, first, of the problems facing Descartes’s interpreters and, second, of the main current debate in English-language discussions on the topic. I begin by discussing the presentational and textual interpretive problems that Descartes’s remarks pose. I then discuss two broader interpretive difficulties: identifying the philosophical backdrop of Descartes’ remarks and the appropriate notions of freedom to characterize his position. The rest of the paper maps out the philosophical issues involved in and possible interpretive positions on the relationship between freedom and determinism, an issue that has recently received substantial attention.

Teaching

I have taught upper-level undergraduate seminars in the history of modern philosophy and contemporary moral psychology, an intermediate-level undergraduate survey of the history of modern philosophy, and courses that introduce students to the discipline.

See online samples of my seminar course materials: