Descartes on Will and Suspension of Judgment: Affectivity of the Reasons for Doubt

In Gábor Boros, Judit Szalai & Oliver Istvan Toth (eds.), The Concept of Affectivity in Early Modern Philosophy. Budapest, Hungary: pp. 38-58 (2017)
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In this paper, I join the so-called voluntarism debate on Descartes’s theory of will and judgment, arguing for an indirect doxastic voluntarism reading of Descartes, as opposed to a classic, or direct doxastic voluntarism. More specifically, I examine the question whether Descartes thinks the will can have a direct and full control over one’s suspension of judgment. Descartes was a doxastic voluntarist, maintaining that the will has some kind of control over one’s doxastic states, such as belief and doubt. According to a long-held reading, the control that the will has over doxastic states in Descartes’s theory is direct; the doxastic states are affected by the mere act of will. This reading is called direct doxastic voluntarism (DDV), or direct voluntarism (DV) for short, and it states that we are capable of assenting, rejecting and suspending a judgment based only on our will to do so. Thus, these actions would be utterly and merely volitional. DV can be divided into two further positions, direct positive voluntarism (+DV) and direct negative voluntarism (-DV). Direct positive voluntarism deals with the act of forming judgments, maintaining that one can accept or deny a proposition wilfully and either merely believe or not believe something voluntarily. Direct negative voluntarism deals with the suspension of judgment, maintaining that it can likewise be accomplished by a simple act of will. However, I support an alternate account of Descartes’s voluntarism, which is called indirect doxastic voluntarism (IDV), or indirect voluntarism (IV) for short. By this account, the will is capable of affecting a doxastic state indirectly by making one concentrate on essential tasks for forming that state, such as gathering up and paying attention to strong reasons and evidence. IV is also possible to divide into indirect positive voluntarism (+IV) and indirect negative voluntarism (-IV). Per indirect positive voluntarism the will needs to pay attention to reasons for accepting or denying some proposition. Likewise, by indirect negative voluntarism, in order to suspend judgment the will needs to direct this attention to the reasons for doubt. By attending to these reasons, the will also comes face-to-face with its own freedom. This feeling of freedom can be described as affectivity of the reasons for belief (assent) and doubt (suspension).

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Jan Forsman
University of Iowa


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