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The Intellect, the Will, and the Passions: Spinoza's Critique of Descartes JOHN G. COTTINGHAM THIS PAPERexamines (in Section 1) Descartes' theory of judgment and (in Section 9) Spinoza's well-known criticisms of it. I argue (in section 3) that despite some important differences, there are many ways in which Spinoza's views, so far from being anti-Cartesian, can be seen as a natural development of those of Descartes. I then go on to argue (in Section 4) that Spinoza's general critique of the Cartesian theory of the will does not take sufficient account of what Descartes actually claimed, and that if the Cartesian concept of freedom is properly understood, Spinoza is closer to it than he himself recognized. Finally (in Section 5) I say a brief word about the relation between the will and the passions, and suggest that here again Spinoza tended to misinterpret Descartes' true position, and as a result exaggerated the difference between his own views and those of Descartes. I hope that it will emerge by the end of the paper that for all Spinoza's anti-Cartesian flourishes, his views on the will are much closer to those of Descartes than is often supposed. 1. DESCARTES' THEORY OF JUDGMENT Within the general category of conscious thought (cogitatio), one may, according to Descartes, distinguish two principal modes of operation: perception, or the operation of the intellect (comprising sensing, imagining and pure intellection ), and volition, or the operation of the will (comprising desire, aversion, assertion, denial and doubt (Principles, 1:3~). This distinction is important for many reasons. In the Passions de l'ame, for example, it is suggested that perception is a passive faculty of the mind, while volition is active, and this notion [~39] 24~ JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY a6:a APRIL i988 seems to have influenced many later thinkers. 1 But in Descartes, the most important application of the distinction concerns the diagnosis of error in our judgments. Descartes sees the problem of error as a theological problem, rather like the traditional problem of evil. Instead of having to explain away moral or metaphysical evil, Descartes feels himself called upon to explain away intellectual error; but the reasons why an explanation seems called for are closely parallel. Just as, if God is good and the omnipotent creator of all, it seems odd that there should be evil in the world, similarly, if God is good and the source of all truth, it seems odd that there should be error. More specifically, if God created me and gave me a mind which is, in principle, a reliable instrument for the perception of truth,, how does it happen that I often go astray in my judgments? A standard theological move in coping with the problem of evil was to put the blame on man's exercise of his free will; and Descartes makes the selfsame move in explaining away error. His first premise is that judgment is an act which involves the will as well as the intellect: "In order to make a judgement, the intellect is of course required [since otherwise nothing would be perceived --there would be no content to the judgment] ... but the will is also required so that, when something is perceived, our assent may then be given" (Principles 1:34). Descartes' second premise is the celebrated Cartesian thesis that the will extends further than the intellect: latius patet voluntas quam intellectus. "The perception of the intellect extends only to the few objects presented to it and is always extremely limited. The will on the other hand can in a certain sense be called infinite, since we observe that its scope extends to anything" (Principles 1:35 ). Given these two premises, the explanation for error is quite straightforward: "It is easy for us to extend our will beyond what we clearly perceive; and when we do this it is no wonder that we may happen to go wrong" (Ibid). To complete the theodicy, Descartes adds some further considerations (the most detailed presentation is in the Fourth Meditation). God cannot be blamed for giving us an infinitely extended will; in this he has allowed men to share...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 239-257
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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