Schmaltz’s Descartes: Degrees of Freedom and Efficient Causation

Tad Schmaltz suggests that we understand Descartes’s conception of the relation between the will and the intellect, at least in the Fourth Meditation, in Suarezian terms. This reading requires that we understand the intellect as determining the will, not as an efficient cause, but as a final cause which merely “instructs” the will to determine itself in a particular way. Schmaltz explains that on this view, “cognition is merely a necessary condition for an appetitive act directed toward the cognized object, and that this faculty rather than the cognition itself is the efficient cause of the act.” (Schmaltz 197) Schmaltz further tells us that it is the liberty of spontaneity (i.e. the will’s not being determined by an external force) as opposed to the liberty of indifference (i.e. the will’s having the ability to do otherwise, or possessing a two-way power), that is fundamental to human freedom for Descartes. Moreover, the liberty of spontaneity is spelled out in terms of the will’s always being the “source” or “efficient” cause of its acts.

I am sympathetic to these features of Schmaltz’s interpretation of Descartes on human freedom. However, it seems that it faces an immediate difficulty. The difficulty involves the ability of Schmaltz’s reading to explain Descartes’ recognition of varying degrees of freedom. It is clear that Descartes recognizes varying degrees of freedom in the Fourth Meditation when he writes:

In order to be free, there is no need for me to be inclined both ways; on the contrary, the more I incline in one direction – either because I clearly understand that reasons of truth and goodness point that way, or because of a divinely produced disposition of my inmost thoughts – the freer is my choice. Neither divine grace nor natural knowledge ever diminishes freedom; on the contrary, they increase and strengthen it. (CSM 2: 40)

Schmaltz tells us that, for Descartes, the spontaneity of the will’s acts consists in its self-determination (that is, its being free from any determination external to it, including the intellect), and that this type of determination is to be spelled out in terms of the will’s being an efficient cause of its acts. But if all (non-coerced) acts of the will are self-determined, then it seems that all acts of the will are each equally subject to the will’s causal efficacy. If the causal efficacy of the will with respect to its acts is the only feature that makes an act of will spontaneous (or free), how does Schmaltz propose to give a principled explanation of Descartes’s recognition of varying degrees of human freedom?


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