My research is on human agency in the early modern period. I am interested in how thinkers conceive of the will, activity, and freedom, and the general move in the period away from traditional conceptions of the will as the locus of freedom and agency. I explore how theological doctrine, scientific developments, and socio-cultural factors are understood as impediments to human agency.
For additional information on recent and forthcoming research, please see my research statement.
This paper investigates 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 certain essential features of the divine nature (its simplicity and indifference) do not apply to human beings. 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 this interpretation is not implausible, contrary to first appearances.
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.
This paper sheds light on why Descartes’s conception of human freedom has been fiercely debated since the publication of the Meditations (1641) by providing overviews of the problems facing Descartes’s interpreters and 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 characterize two broader interpretive difficulties: identifying the philosophical backdrop of Descartes’ discussions 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 received substantial attention in recent English-language discussions of Descartes on the topic.
Descartes seems to be of mixed mind about the value of the passions of the soul. He claims that they are “good in their nature,” and that they somehow lead to our experiencing the most sweetness in this life. But he also holds that they systematically mislead us by exaggerating the magnitude of goods and evils. My fear of a mouse, for instance, makes me think that it poses more harm than it actually does and causes me to scream and run away, even though catching it and getting rid of it would be better for me. It is unclear how both characterizations of the passions can be true: one might think that if the passions nearly always mislead us, they are not good, and we should seek to get rid of them or at least reduce our susceptibility to their effects. I develop a new account of Descartes’s conception of the goodness of the passions that accommodates and explains these seemingly conflicting characterizations.
This paper focuses on Descartes’s conception of the threats to human freedom, and in particular, the potential threat that God poses. This issue has been addressed largely only in passing in the literature on Descartes’s conception of freedom but needs to be clarified in order to understand his position on freedom. Like other thinkers of his day, Descartes recognizes that if God exists, is omniscient and omnipotent, has created us, and is even now at work in the universe, God potentially limits, if not eliminates, human freedom. The challenge is to pinpoint exactly why. I present an account of how God poses a threat to human freedom that stands in contrast with recent discussions in the secondary literature that suggest that Descartes is primarily interested in the problem that divine preordination poses for human freedom, a common concern of his predecessors and contemporaries.
In this paper, I explore the possibility that Descartes’s organization of the mind into two mental faculties—intellect and will—is motivated by a distinction between mental action and passion. I then develop an account of what Descartes means by the distinction.
This paper argues, against the views of most scholars, that Descartes does not adopt traditional conceptions of the will. I develop an interpretation of the nature of the Cartesian will and show that my interpretation accounts for the will’s role in Descartes’s philosophy.
Some commentators on Mary Astell have argued that her conception of liberty should be understood in the context of freedom of the will. In particular, in her discussion of our ability to regulate the passions, Astell follows Scholastic and early modern conceptions of faculty psychology in definining the will as the power of preferring and directing thoughts and motions, and as characterizing this power as free. Understood as a conception of freedom of the will, however, Astell’s conception of liberty is underdescribed, and it is unclear what Astell’s position is.
In this paper I explore the possibility that Astell has an additional—a political—conception of liberty, one that combines dimensions of both positive and negative liberty, as the absence of external (social/cultural/political) obstacles, as well as the presence of a kind of self- determination. Attention to Astell’s discussions of custom and the particular social and cultural challenges women face in improving their minds suggests this political conception. I argue that understanding Astell’s conception of liberty in this context reveals a stronger conception of liberty that aligns with recent framings of her as a moral philosopher.