Marie Jayasekera

Photo of Marie Jayasekera

My research is on free will and 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. My work also investigates how God, the natural order, our own emotional and deliberative processes, and sociocultural factors are understood to be threats to human freedom or constraints on the exercise of human agency. I seek to understand thinkers’ views within their intellectual contexts and in relation to current-day views.

My main current research project explores the use of experience in arguments about the nature of free will. Mention of experience in discussions of free will is widespread during the early modern period. Some thinkers with widely differing philosophical commitments draw significantly on experience to support their claims about the nature of human freedom, while others question whether experience can tell us anything beyond what introspection reveals —that is, what we feel or believe. I address three main questions. First, what do early modern philosophers mean when they talk about experiences related to freedom? Are they all using the term ‘experience’ in the same way? Second, which experiences do they identify as relevant for understanding the metaphysical nature of free will? And, lastly, what role does experience play in their discussions —for instance, are they using experience to justify their claims about free will or for some other purpose? Exploring the role of experience in arguments about free will in the early modern period, I suggest, has important implications for recent research on the phenomenology of agency.


‘All in Their Nature Good’: Descartes on the Passions of the Soul,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 58 (2020): 71–92.

I develop a new account of Descartes’s conception of the goodness of the passions of the soul that accommodates and explains his seemingly conflicting claims that they are “good in their nature,” and yet systematically mislead us by exaggerating the magnitude of goods and evils. 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. 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. On my account, the passions are good in their motivational function, which they carry out by representing objects and situations as having various properties and thereby appearing to be "reasons of goodness." I argue that the main way in which the passions are problematic is merely an occasional physiological byproduct of a well-functioning system. I show, therefore, that the passions’ motivational function, representationality, and accompanying physiology are all significant and interrelated aspects of their goodness.

Imitation and ‘Infinite’ Will: Descartes on the Imago Dei.” In Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, Volume VIII, edited by Daniel Garber and Donald Rutherford, 1–38. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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. I challenge the key assumption of arguments that hold that Descartes’s comparison between the human will and the divine will is problematic— 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.

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

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.

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.

In Progress and Under Review

Paper on Mary Astell on liberty and custom (email me for the paper)

This paper explores Mary Astell’s remarks on liberty and argues that they are most coherent and illuminating when understood as providing an account of self-government. Though her remarks on liberty have been understood as providing an account of free will, there are difficulties in attributing to her a determinate and consistent position. I show that her remarks on liberty suggest, instead, a theory of self-government that understands self-government as a matter of being responsive to one’s own reasoning. This interpretation reveals Astell’s insights into the ways "bad custom" can undermine an individual’s ability to govern oneself.

Paper on experience in the debate on liberty between Hobbes and Bramhall (email me for the paper)

Hobbes and Bramhall disagree fundamentally on the nature of liberty and its relation to necessity—whether determinism is true; whether determinism is compatible with liberty; what it is to be a free agent; whether conceiving of the will as a faculty is coherent; whether the understanding determines the will or action, and so on. This paper investigates what looks to be a terrible argument Hobbes gives for his view, a "proof" from experience. Attention to their exchanges on this argument reveals one further, heretofore unnoticed, fundamental area of disagreement—their conceptions of definitions—and reveals Hobbes’s argument to be less objectionable than it initially seemed.