Descartes on Human Freedom: Indifference or Spontaneity?

While it is clear that Descartes accepted the existence of human freedom, it is not obvious what Descartes took this freedom to consist in. Subsequent to Descartes’s claim that we, and not God, are the ultimate source of human error in the Fourth Meditation, Descartes provides an account of the activity of the human will and how it might be characterized as free. Given that Descartes treats the will and “freedom of choice” as interchangeable in this discussion, commentators choose to focus on it to determine Descartes’s exact views on human freedom.

Descartes draws an analogy between the divine and human will, emphasizing that it is our will that is our most perfect faculty because it allows us to “bear in some way the image and likeness of God” (CSM 2:40). Descartes recognizes that God’s will is clearly vastly greater than our own in power. However, he further admits to us that despite this, God’s will “does not seem any greater than mine when considered as will in the essential and strict sense.” (CSM 2:40) Elaborating on what the “essential and strict sense” of what the will is, Descartes writes:

(A)…the will, or freedom of choice…simply consists in our ability to do or not do something (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or avoid); or rather it consists simply in the fact that when the intellect puts something forward for affirmation or denial or for pursuit or avoidance, our inclinations are such that we do not feel we are determined by any external force. (CSM 2:40; emphasis added)

Commentators take Descartes’s description of the will’s activity in this passage to be a description of human freedom itself.

While the importance of (A) is appreciated by commentators, they also find a complication within it. This complication consists in Descartes’s use of the phrase ‘or rather’ in connecting the two clauses found in the passage. Each clause seems to capture two different conceptions of freedom, or two different types of “liberty” that might be enjoyed by the will such that the will can be said to be free. The two clauses suggest the will to be free in the sense that it:

(1)           has the “ability to do or not do something”; or, in the sense that

(2)           “our inclinations are such that we do not feel we are determined by any external force.”


The freedom illustrated by (1) is often described in the literature as the “liberty of indifference,” while the freedom illustrated by (2) is often described in the literature as the “liberty of spontaneity.” Given this complication, seeing what is essential to human freedom for Descartes requires getting clear on what work the ‘or rather’ phrase is doing. Is the essence of freedom given by Descartes more accurately described exclusively by the first clause in terms of the liberty of indifference, or by the second clause in terms of the liberty of spontaneity? Scholars have offered differing readings that seem to roughly fit these two approaches.

One important factor to keep in mind, however, when considering these two lines of interpretation is how each interpretation explains the nature of Cartesian freedom in relation to a kind of “intellectual determinism” that Descartes appears to be committed to. Descartes tells us that when the will experiences a special kind of “indifference”, understood as a lack of reasons to assent to one idea as opposed to another, the will easily turns away “from what is true and good”. (CSM 2:41) Moreover, he tells us that it is when the will is “compelled” or, perhaps, “determined” to assent to an idea that is clearly and distinctly perceived that the will is most free.  Descartes writes:

(B) I could not but judge that something which I understood so clearly was true; not this was not because I was compelled so to judge by any external force, but because a great light in the intellect was followed by a great inclination in the will, and thus the spontaneity and freedom of my belief was all the greater in proportion to my lack of indifference. (CSM 2:41; emphasis added)


It would seem, then, that to provide a satisfactory account of Descartes on human freedom one must explain the compatibility of Descartes’s conception of human freedom with his suggestion in this passage that the will experiences a greater degree of freedom when it is “determined” or by the intellect’s perception. Hence, understanding Descartes on human freedom requires that we get clear on, at least, two things: (i) what type of freedom discussed in (A) is essential to the will, and (ii) how our answer to (i) coheres with Descartes’s apparent commitment to the intellectual determinism described in (B).

C.P. Ragland and Lilli Alanen each define the liberty of indifference in (A) as a two-way power (or the ability to do otherwise) and take this type of liberty to be essential to human freedom for Descartes. Accordingly, both Ragland and Alanen think that the freedom to be found in the second clause of (A), the liberty of spontaneity, can be explained in terms of the type of freedom described in the first clause.

According to Ragland, given the will’s natural inclination to the good and the true, when the will acts in accordance with this inclination it acts voluntarily. In order to be free, however, not only must the will act voluntarily, it must also be self-determined. The act of the will that is realized must itself be “free from external determination” (Ragland, “Descartes on Alternative Possibilities”, p. 381). Ragland tells us that, for Descartes, while there are not two senses of freedom per se in passage (A), there are two ways in which this general kind of freedom, or “two-way” power which constitutes such freedom, can be instantiated.

There are two instances at issue: the first instance is in God, where God has the ability to do otherwise and the second instance is in the human case, where humans have the ability to do otherwise. What differentiates the two-way power had by God and that had by humans is tied to the motivational structure of acting or willing in each case. God wills “indifferently” in that he does not act, and cannot in principle act, in accordance with reasons. Unlike humans, God’s willings are not determined by reasons or anything external to God’s will at all. God’s “two-way power,” or liberty of indifference, is unlimited. In the human case, however, the nature of the will is such that it is so constrained by reasons, or the good, and thus can act only in accordance with what it is inclined to do. God does not act through an inclination to truth or the good, but acts prior to (and constitutes) their reality.

The two-way power in the human case is limited; the alternatives available to us in virtue of our having this two-way power are restricted to choosing between various perceived goods. Hence, our two-way power is not identical to God’s. Our human alternatives are not options that we must in principle be entirely indifferent to but are those that could have been brought about through alternative acts of “self-determination.” According to Ragland, for Descartes, “external forces did not determine me to do what I did” because I could have been inclined to have willed otherwise in a similar situation (Ragland, “Descartes on Alternative Possibilities”, p. 386).

For Ragland, in the case of clear and distinct perceptions, the will remains free because it is still in control of its assent indirectly. While the will cannot but assent to such perceptions, the will still has the power to obscure the intellect’s focus on these perceptions. When we focus on clear and distinct perceptions, according to Ragland, these “perceptions are ‘internal forces,’ because they were brought about by an earlier act of will that was not determined by the intellect’s contents” (Ragland, “Is Descartes a Libertarian?”, p. 81).

Alanen offers an interpretation similar to Ragland’s (Alanen, “The Role of Will in Descartes’ Account of Judgment”). She distinguishes between two types of indifference: indifferenceAR, which designates the absence of determining reasons, and indifferenceSD, which designates the “positive faculty of determining oneself to one or the other of two contraries” (CSM 4:174-5, 2:245-6). On this reading, it is the will’s ability to exercise indifferenceSD that is essential to freedom. (Alanen, pp. 90-94) Unlike Ragland’s interpretation, Alanen draws an additional distinction which she applies to Descartes’s intellectual determinism. The distinction is between the practical and cognitive will, the former inclines to the good in general while the latter inclines towards the true.

Alanen tells us that, for Descartes, “the radical two-way power and indifference” enjoyed by the will “can be applied directly but only in the case of the pursuit of the practical good, whereas it can be employed only indirectly or derivatively in the case of the cognitive good” (Alanen, p. 189). That is, upon an agent’s having a clear and distinct perception, the cognitive will is necessarily determined to assent and, thus, lacks the power to do otherwise. However, the practical will can always override this determination because it has the power to turn away from the pursuit of truth. As Alanen explains, for Descartes, “whatever our actual volitions are, we could, at some point, have opted not to elicit them and so willed otherwise—for instance, we could have chosen, deliberately, to ignore the pursuit of the true and the good in order to gratify some desire of the moment” (Alanen, p. 193).

While some treat the liberty of indifference as essential to human freedom for Descartes, others treat the liberty of spontaneity as essential. Accordingly, those who follow this latter line of interpretation explain the type of freedom described in the first clause of (A) by either rejecting the liberty of indifference as essential to free will in favor of the liberty of spontaneity or by reducing the liberty of indifference to it.

For Anthony Kenny, Descartes uses the phrase ‘or rather’ to deny the essentiality of the liberty of indifference to human freedom and, thus, identifies human freedom solely with the liberty of spontaneity. According to Kenny, an action is spontaneous and, hence, free, “if and only if we do it because we want to do it” (Kenny, “Descartes on the Will,” p. 18). The will’s “doing what it wants to do” can be identified with our having the desire, or the will’s being inclined, to do something. Given that the will is inclined towards what the intellect presents in an instance of a clear and distinct perception the will remains free insofar as the will is inclined to assent to this perception. Hence, Kenny does not see the kind of “intellectual determinism” described in (B) as compromising the will’s freedom for Descartes. While the will may enjoy the ability to do otherwise with respect to ideas that are not clearly and distinctly perceived, in cases of clear and distinct perception where the will lacks this ability, the will is still free.

Ragland points to a shortcoming of Kenny’s definition. Kenny’s definition does not seem to fully capture the type of freedom captured by second clause of (A). This is because it says nothing of the will’s failing to be determined by an “external force”. Tad Schmaltz offers an account of Cartesian freedom in terms of the liberty of spontaneity that seems a bit more promising (Schmaltz, Descartes on Causation). Schmaltz emphasizes the importance of the will’s self-determination in our understanding of the nature of Cartesian spontaneity. The most important feature of the will’s possessing liberty of spontaneity, according to Schmaltz, is the will’s always being the efficient cause of all its acts.

Schmaltz tells us that it is the will’s enjoyment of the liberty of spontaneity that explains the possibility of the will’s two-way power. Schmaltz argues that, for Descartes, in all cases in which the intellect presents an object to the will, whether it be a clear and distinct perception (where indifference is lacking) or not, “our will remains the source of the fact that we are carried inevitably toward what the intellect represents to us” (Schmaltz, p. 197; emphasis added).

Schmaltz suggests that we understand Descartes’s theory of human freedom in light of Francisco Suárez’s account of the interaction between the will and the intellect. Schmaltz tells us that both Descartes and Suárez see the intellect as functioning no more than a final cause of acts of the will insofar as “it only instructs the will to determine itself in a particular manner” (Schmaltz 197). While the intellect “impels” the will to the true and the good in cases of clear and distinct perception, the will is always the efficient cause of its determinations.

Suárez, Schmaltz tells us, would have seen Descartes’s commitment to the necessary determination of the will by the intellect to be deeply problematic insofar as acts that can be subject to moral evaluation require indifference, or the ability to do otherwise. Schmaltz claims to detect a development in Descartes’s thoughts on the nature of human freedom, one that shows Descartes’s sensitivity to this potential criticism. Schmaltz ultimately locates Descartes’s mature views in the Passions of the Soul where, according to Schmaltz, Descartes shifts his emphasis of freedom from lack of indifference to “the claim that the proper use of our freedom requires a resolution to resist the ever-present temptation to follow our current passions in making judgments about good and evil” (Schmaltz, p. 208).

We see there is a great deal of dispute concerning what Descartes took to be essential to human freedom. Some read Descartes as accounting for human freedom in terms of the will’s possessing the liberty of indifference, or, in terms of its possessing a two-way power. Others take Descartes to consider the liberty of spontaneity, or, the will’s determining its acts according to its inclinations and apart from any external determination, to be essential to human freedom.

Our focus has been on Descartes’s account of human freedom and the controversy surrounding it. One might reasonably think, however, that taking Descartes’s discussion of the similarities and differences between God’s will and the human will into closer consideration could be illuminating. Perhaps the key to getting clear on the nature of human freedom requires first getting clear on the nature of divine freedom. Descartes, after all, tells us that what we possess in common with God is “the will in the essential and strict sense” (CSM 2:40). It is to Descartes’s account of the nature of divine freedom that we now turn.

– jpt

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