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Descartes’ Deontological Turn: Reason, Will, and Virtue in the Later Writings (review)
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In this book, Noa Naaman-Zauderer explores the deontological and non-consequentialist dimensions of Descartes’ later writings. Focusing on the role of the will, she argues that Descartes considers the correct use of free will as not merely a means to some other end, but “an end in its own right” (1). She further argues that for Descartes, the role of reason is to govern the “right use” of free will rather than to distinguish truth from falsity (2). Naaman-Zauderer follows Descartes’ deontological approach through his epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.

The focus of chapter 1 is Descartes’ theory of ideas. Contrary to the standard interpretations, which take the clarity and distinctness (and the obscurity and confusion) of an idea to be determined by the representational content of the idea alone (13), or on how the idea affects the mind (15–16), Naaman-Zauderer argues, quite persuasively, that the clarity and distinctness of an idea “are features of the act of perceiving” and not the “idea’s content” (6). Taking on another standard view, Naaman-Zauderer denies that materially false ideas are ideas “representing non-things as things” (48). Instead, she argues that materially false ideas are those that are so obscure and confused that one cannot determine whether they represent a non-thing as a thing (51).

In chapter 2, Naaman-Zauderer discusses Descartes’ account of error in judgment. Relying on a careful analysis of the Fourth Meditation (67–68), she argues that “any act of judgment that is not based on clear and distinct perception, regardless of whether the content being judged is true or false, is deemed a misuse of free will, hence an instance of error” (3). Naaman-Zauderer thus denies the standard reading that an error in judgment occurs when one fails to adequately discern the true and the false.

The next two chapters focus on Descartes’ account of free will. Scholars disagree on whether Descartes thinks that free will requires only spontaneity of the will, or also requires the “two-way power” of the will to “do or not do something” (7, 103–4). In chapter 3, Naaman-Zauderer plausibly argues that for Descartes a two-way power of the will is not essential to freedom (although her interpretation gives the two-way power of the will an important “indirect” role [124–26]). On this account, when the will is most free (when having a clear and distinct perception), we lack a two-way power (119). I found her discussion of a 1645 letter to Mesland especially persuasive (120, 126–30). She addresses certain passages seemingly at odds with her interpretation as Descartes downplaying his differences with the Jesuit perspective held by Mesland (128).

In chapter 4, Naaman-Zauderer considers Descartes’ puzzling claim that it is on account of our will that we are “God-like” and that God’s will “does not seem any greater” than ours (131–32). In particular, she aims to “dispel the tension” between these claims and Descartes’ account of the eternal truths and identification of God’s understanding and will, which suggests that God’s will and our will are not at all alike. Her contention is that the experience of freedom is such that we experience our will as if unified to our intellect just as God’s will and understanding are unified (132). Central to her account is the claim that given God’s simplicity, God’s action is “entirely necessary and at the same time completely free” (142). I am not convinced by her argument that Descartes’ account of God’s freedom is compatible with the necessity of God’s action. She also argues that a finite mind’s simplicity and God’s simplicity are analogically related, where I would argue they are equivocally related (147). While I am not persuaded by her account, Naaman-Zauderer’s discussion is a most welcome treatment of an often-overlooked tension in Descartes’ thought.

Naaman-Zauderer concludes her book with two chapters defending the claim that Descartes’ accounts of practical reason and speculative reason are closely related (149). In chapter 5, she offers a thorough discussion of Descartes’ early ethical thinking, as presented in the Discourse on Method...

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