Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Byron Williston

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


This dissertation focuses on Descartes’ concept of will. Following the Scholastics Descartes takes the will, alongside intellect, to be the main faculty of the mind. The essence of the Cartesian mind is thinking. Most Cartesian scholars take this to mean that for Descartes the essence of the mind consists of thoughts as objects of awareness. I argue that willing is not just another type of thought on a par with conceiving, imaginging, and having sensory perceptions but that willing is as much an essential feature of the Cartesian mind as awareness. Without willing there would be no thinking; willing pertains to the essence of the mind.

For Descartes, the will is so free it can never be coonstrained; an unfree will is a contradiction in terms. If willing pertains to the essence of the mind and if the will is essentially free then freedom pertains to the essence of the mind. We are essentially free beings; we would not remain the types of individuals we are now without freedom. Descartes wants to evaluate our volitional performance in different circumstances while taking into account different factors: the types of ideas involved, before/after an act of will is elicited, and the overall goal of our eliciting an act of will. Given these numerous factors he works with a threefold concept of freedom of will: freedom of spontaneity, freedom of indifference due to a balance of reasons and freedom of perversity.

Although we cannot be deprived of freedom we can fail to exercise our wills and thus be deprived of the rights free will affords us. The rights in question are to receive credit and praise for our conduct, both cognitive and practical. Exercising our free will affords us the right to be praised for obtaining knowledge and for regulating our passions. Descartes’ emphasis on the role of the will in the theoretical realm (making assent an act of will) and in the practical sphere (making desire an act of will) is tantamount to viewing knowledge and our personalities (or pragmatic selves) not as blessings but as accomplishments, although a benevolent God has endowed us with faculties especially well-suited for arriving at the truth and for pursuing the good.

For Descartes, believing the truth is not an automatic process resulting from our mental make-up but the result of properly investigating the matter, paying attention and deliberately applying the appropriate common notion (though, extension or the union between mind and body). Similarly, leading an embodied human existence is more than acting on the guidance of our appetites and emotions; it means using reason and experience to keep emotions in check and integrate them into a coherent pragmatic self. Both in believing the truth and in creating a pragmatic self we manifest ourselves as agents: what we do is not only up to us but obtains because of us.

Convocation Year


Included in

Philosophy Commons