Alanen’s Descartes: Is the Liberty of Indifference Essential to Acts of the Will?

Lilli Alanen, in “The Role of Will in Descartes’ Account of Judgment”, argues for a distinction between two different notions of indifference in Descartes’s theorizing about freedom of the will. The first notion, indifference (AR), can be understood as the absence of determining reasons, reasons which make the will prefer one perceived good over another. The second notion, indifference (SD), can be understood as a two-way power, or the will’s ability to determine itself otherwise. According to Alanen, the second notion of indifference is essential to human freedom for Descartes.

I wonder, however, how Alanen’s reading and readings similar to it, mesh with the following passage in the controversial letter (supposedly) written to Mesland:

But freedom considered in the acts of the will at the moment when they are elicited does not entail any indifference taken in either the first [indifference (AR)] or the second [indifference (SD)] sense; for what is done cannot remain undone as long as it is being done. It [i.e. freedom in the acts of the will] consists simply in ease of operation; and at that point freedom, spontaneity and voluntariness are the same thing. It was in this sense that I wrote that I moved towards something all the more freely when there were more reasons driving me towards it; for it is certain that in that case our will moves itself with greater facility and force. (CSMK 246; emphasis added)

The first and second “senses” of indifference are the two sorts of indifference Alanen distinguishes between. While Alanen takes indifference (SD) to be essential to human freedom for Descartes, Descartes explicitly states in this passage that “freedom considered in the acts of the will” does not entail either of the two types of indifference. Given that Descartes writes this, I wonder how those who read Descartes as identifying freedom of the will with the liberty of indifference might overcome the difficulty this passage appears to pose for them. I find readings like Alanen’s puzzling, but I’m still having difficulty articulating what the precise nature of the puzzle is. If Alanen is right to think that, for Descartes, the ability to do otherwise is what is essential to freedom of the will, how are we to understand Descartes’s claim in the above cited passage that despite the will’s inability to do otherwise, it remains free in its acts?

What also seems pressing is how readings like Alanen’s could provide a principled account of Descartes’s thoughts on the nature of an act of the will which involves its determination to (or beliefs in) clear and distinct perceptions. How would a property identified as a two-way power explain the greater degree of freedom Descartes claims to enjoy in these kinds of beliefs? Are these beliefs more free because the will experiences a greater two-way power with respect to them?

One thought on “Alanen’s Descartes: Is the Liberty of Indifference Essential to Acts of the Will?

  1. I fully agree with your concerns regarding Alanen’s interpretation of Descartes’ conception of freedom.
    You might like to see, on precisely these issues, my:
    ‘Freedom, Truth, and Goodness’ (Nous, 2009 43:4 pp633–55)
    And chapters 6 and 7 in my book:
    Self, Reason, and Freedom: A New Light on Descartes’ Metaphysics’ (Routledge, 2013)

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