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. My work also investigates how God, the natural order, aspects of 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. Though my papers have largely focused on Descartes, they also seek a broader understanding of medieval and early modern philosophical thought: they address early modern conceptions of custom, medieval views of the nature of image and imitation, Scholastic conceptions of analogy, and late medieval and Scholastic solutions to the problem of reconciling divine providence and human freedom.
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.
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.
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.
This paper argues, against the common line of interpretation, that although Descartes’s remarks on the issue bear on the problem divine providence poses for human freedom, what he says does not support attributing to him any of his predecessors’ positions—conservationism, Molinism, or Dominicanism. The doctrine of divine providence has two aspects: God’s determining in advance, or “preordaining,” a plan for the history of the created universe down to the smallest details, and his creation of the universe so that it follows that plan. Divine providence is a prima facie problem for human freedom because it is hard to see how what we do is in our control in any sense if God has already determined the plan for how all things will go and created the universe so that it unfolds accordingly. In this paper I argue that the central texts onthe issue—Descartes’s correspondence with Elisabeth of 1645–1646—along with texts throughout his corpus reveal a consistent lack of commitment to any positive view. I show that this, in itself, constitutes a principled position because it stems from a plausible central commitment in Descartes’s philosophy, the incomprehensibility of God’s infinite power.
This paper explores Mary Astell’s views on “custom.” I distinguish between two senses of ‘custom’ in the period, one internal to the person and one external, to show that Astell brings to light a significant yet far less discussed threat to human freedom: the way in which sociocultural factors constrain freedom. Her remarks detail how custom limits (women’s) freedom of action as well as how custom constrains the scope of the internal—-an individual’s beliefs, concerns, and even self-conception. Though centered on the plight of women of her day, her understanding of custom’s constraint more broadly illuminates how an individual’s social and cultural beliefs, practices, expectations, and values can restrict their freedom.
This manuscript develops a new interpretation of the nature of the Cartesian will. This interpretation helps to make sense of some of Descartes’s most perplexing positions in his epistemology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy.