Annals of Ethics
Online ISSN : 2434-4699
Descartes on the Two Kinds of Indifference
An Interpretation of Descartes’s Letter to Mesland of February 9, 1645
Kenichiro IHARA
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JOURNALS OPEN ACCESS

2021 Volume 70 Pages 89-103

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Abstract

 Descartes’s letter of February 9, 1645, presumably addressed to Mesland (“Mesland Letter”),is considered vital because it seems to provide an explanation of freedom that differs from that found in the Meditations. On this basis, some scholars insist that Descartes changed his view of freedom after the Meditations.  Did Descartes change his view? Admittedly, it seems that another kind of indifference was introduced in this letter. In the Meditations, indifference was described as the state in which the will is placed when no evident reason inclines it to do anything. Conversely, in the Mesland letter, Descartes introduced another indifference that can be defined as the positive faculty of the will to determine itself. This new version of indifference seems to be the basis of a new concept of freedom. In the Meditations, it is said that when evident reasons entirely incline us to do something, we cannot but do it; for example, we cannot but give assent to something when we perceive it clearly and distinctly. The novel formulation of indifference in the Mesland letter, however, implies that in a given situation we can do nothing or do the opposite; for example, even when we perceive something clearly and distinctly, we can withhold assent to it or suppose it to be false.  Did Descartes thus change his view of freedom? It seems questionable. First, indifference appears in the Meditations too as a positive faculty of the will, although it may not be called “indifference.” Moreover, this work also admits that we have the ability to withhold assent to what we perceive clearly and distinctly or to suppose it to be false. Surely, according to the Meditations, it is possible to do so not at the exact moment when evident reasons incline us, but only after we distract ourselves from them. A strict consideration shows, however, that the same thing is said in the Mesland letter.  From the above, it cannot be demonstrated from the Mesland letter alone that Descartes changed his view of freedom.

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