Mysteries of the Will and Assent
in Descartes and the Stoics

Draft © by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last modified February 18, 2004

Critical feedback by careful readers who are familiar with Descartes and/or the Stoics will be gratefully received.

At least one and not more than four related errors have been deliberately included so as to trap plagiarists and careless readers. The alert student may find some satisfaction in detecting the error(s). They are relatively obvious to anyone familiar with Descartes.

In his fourth Meditation1 Rene Descartes discusses the phenomenon of human error. He says that what makes it possible is the joint operation of the will and the intellect. But neither the will nor the human intellect by themselves suffices for error. The will, according to Descartes, is the ability to affirm or deny ideas (presumably also the ability to withhold affirmation and denial and to suspend judgment). The understanding is the capacity to "perceive ideas," which seems to mean the capacity to become conscious of our ideas and to perceive which of them are clear and distinct, clarity and distinctness being the marker that, according to Descartes, tells us that some ideas are true and we are right to affirm them.

In this section, Descartes is partly motivated by a desire not to attribute human error to God. (If we could attribute human error to God, this would undermine his important previous argument that God is not a deceiver.) But the intellect and the will are presumably gifts from our Creator, so Descartes is concerned not to attribute error to the human will in itself or to the human intellect in itself.

This is not hard to do with the intellect. In its ideal use the intellect recognizes which ideas it has that are clear and distinct and thus worthy of our denial. In that case, the will has only to deny what is presented as clear and distinct. Even if it turns out that the will is in some sense "compelled" to deny what is presented as clear and distinct, this is not a big problem because this "compulsion" is in the service of knowledge and superior moral judgment. In that case, God is not the author of ignorance or inferior moral judgment.

But what about the cases in which the intellect possesses obscure or indistinct ideas? Descartes asserts that in these cases, when the intellect comes up against its own limits (it has no clear and distinct ideas about certain things with which our obscure ideas about them can be replaced), the will can easily be extended beyond the limits of the understanding, i.e., beyond what the intellect perceives as clear and distinct.

But what does Descartes think is extending the will? This is apparently not the will itself, because in the case of unclear and indistinct ideas the mind has only low-grade freedom, and the will experiences indifference. But what is it that tilts the will one way or the other in this case? Descartes says that "I" misuse my will and extend my assent beyond what I know.

But what aspect of "me" is doing this misusing? We can describe its function easily enough. This aspect is the aspect that is capable of following a deliberate reflective method, of avoiding haste and prejudgment (cf. his second rule of method in his Discourse on Method, 182) or carefully examining my ideas in order to distinguish which ones are clear and distinct and which ones are not before assenting to any of my ideas.

To this point, I am (I think) merely paraphrasing Descartes. In what follows I am for the most part no longer paraphrasing.

Now if I choose to examine my ideas before affirming or denying them, this seems to be the operation of a sort of will before the will (given that for Descartes the will is the power to affirm or deny ideas), a meta-will. It cannot be the will itself because this is the power in me that uses the will, and one faculty cannot literally use itself.

Now, suppose indeed that I choose to examine my ideas before affirming or denying them. Indeed, this seems to be what Descartes is recommending. Must I not then be affirming the idea that I should examine them before affirming or denying them? This would entail using the meta-will to select suspension from among the options of the will (affirm, deny, suspend). And is that affirmation (now by the meta-will) itself not the result of another choice (by the meta-meta-will), assenting to the proposition (that I should assent to the proposition (that I should examine them))? Obviously, something has gone wrong here. At every step of the way I seem to be plunged back to an earlier choice, ad infinitum. Behind the will is the meta-will, behind the latter the meta-meta-will, etc.

The only way to stop this infinite regress is to start someplace with a nondeliberate assent to the (propositional) idea that I should examine my ideas before assenting to them. At some point a person either does or does not assent to the proposition that he should examine his ideas before assenting to them. And he does this without examination, because he somehow has a mental disposition to assent to the proposition!

In practice, this mental disposition is something that is cultivated in a person by mentors or teachers, or it is something that he learns as a result of (negative) experience-not examining one's ideas before one assents can be quite costly in the ordinary course of life.

Now, this disposition might indeed operate at precisely the point at which I have indicated the existence of Descartes' semi-secret meta-will.

The problem for Descartes, however, is that this psychological disposition seems to be the sort of thing we might attribute to our environment, or our environment plus our biological makeup, and these are things largely the product of things beyond our control. Such things are collectively what is loosely called Fortune but, for a theist like Descartes, they are understood as a manifestation of Divine Providence. It no longer seems possible to let God off the hook for my assent to unclear and indistinct ideas! (It does not follow that the assent is not mine, however.)

Stoics face many of the same considerations as did Descartes, but with this one major exception. Descartes seems to be an indeterminist-he seems to think that to explain our assent, at any level, in terms of something outside us or biologically prior to our conscious life would be to attribute a decisive causal role to God; which would make God responsible for our error. And this he is loathe to admit, not least because he has both theological and epistemological commitments to the proposition that God is not a deceiver.

Classical Stoicism, on the other hand, is determinist.3 Our early psychological dispositions are indeed up to us, insofar as they are within us and not external to us at the time of our first use of them, but they are not the result of prior assent after careful examination of impressions. (Our later dispositions may be partly the result of assent after careful examination of impressions.)

The Stoics seem quite unvexed by any worry that this would make Zeus responsible for our errors. Indeed, on the Stoic account, the plan of Zeus is behind our earliest unreflected-upon dispositions. Whether or not the Stoic authors admit it, it follows that in our use of the will (prohairesis), Zeus is operative in the background. The attitude seems to be that insofar as Zeus is helmsman for the cosmos as a whole, Zeus cannot be expected to make special dispensations to prevent the occasional bad judgment, or even murder, rape, enslavement, or invasion of a weaker country by a stronger one. If these are entailed by the workings out of the basic laws of the cosmos, it would be quite petty of us to complain about them (at least to Zeus?).

On the other hand, of course, Zeus plants within all human beings the "seeds" of impulse toward the primary things in accord with nature (the preferred or advantageous things) and insofar as we select them in accord with our appropriate actions we can gradually develop insight into the total system of the appropriate actions, which in its association with virtue becomes, or can become, the lodestar of our choices. Insofar as Zeus stands behind this possibility of moral growth, it is possible to say that in spite of the foolishness of most particular human choices, themselves an expression of the divine plan, the will of Zeus is that we should act in accordance with virtue.


1. It is possible to annotate the first part of this paper in great detail with reference to a standard translation of Rene Descartes' Meditations. I have used the Donald A. Cress translation included in Ariew and Watkins, eds., Modern Philosophy: An Anthology (Hackett Publishing Co., 1998).

2. Here I refer to Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, tr. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998). The numeral refers to the page number in the standard Adam-Tannery edition that Cress edition inserts in the margin.

3. A good selection of primary sources regarding the early Stoic view on determinism and other topics may be found in A. A. Long and David Sedley, eds., The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge University Press, 1987), vol 1. For a discussion of the Stoic view of determinism, see the paper by Keith Seddon under "Historical Materials" at The Stoic Place web site.