The Will

Fall 2011
TR 9:55-11:10, Lathrop 212

Prof. Marie Jayasekera
109 Hascall Hall
Office Hours: M 9:30-10:30, W 3-5
(315) 228-6171


Course Description

This course is an advanced, focused inquiry into the will and related philosophical issues. We will be exploring the following topics: (i) belief, the will, and epistemic responsibility; (ii) freedom of the will; (iii) emotions and the will; and (iv) weakness of will. Our starting point is the will as it figures in several of René Descartes’ (1596-1650) most significant works. Although scholars have studied many aspects of Descartes’ philosophy in great detail (most notably his epistemology), the will and the many issues in which it figures is one area in which there is still much to be clarified and illuminated. We will be interspersing our investigation of Descartes’ views with works of contemporary philosophers on the very same issues. We will we get a sense of how the philosophical conversation is proceeding today and see that the issues with which Descartes was grappling are still live today.


Weekly Reading

The expectation for this seminar is that you will come to class having read all of the assigned texts. Suggested readings are just that, suggested, especially for those who are uncertain about the ideas and issues for that week or lack relevant background.

Weekly Writing

Each week (except for the week you are responsible for leading discussion, see below) you will write a short (250- to 500-word) response to the readings for that week. Your responses will structure and guide our discussions. In your responses, you should engage critically with the texts for that week. You can do this in a number of different ways. For example: 
  1. You might engage with any of the kinds of texts we will encounter in this course by pointing out something that you find something puzzling or unclear, and explaining why;
  2. You might engage with the primary text (a work of Descartes) by providing a sketch of an interpretation of Descartes’ position on an issue (with references to the text); 
  3. You might engage with a secondary source (an interpretation of Descartes) by raising an objection to some aspect of that interpretation;
  4. You might engage with both the primary text and a secondary source by constructing a sketch of an alternative to an interpretation presented in the secondary source and providing some reasons for why it is a better interpretation;
  5. You might engage with a contemporary source by raising an objection for the argument presented;
  6. You might engage with both the primary text and a contemporary source by drawing out the commonalities or highlighting the differences between Descartes’ view and the contemporary view; 

And so on. You should view these responses as a way of formulating and testing out your ideas about the readings: you will have opportunity in class discussion to receive feedback on your ideas from me and your colleagues in the class. Although your responses do not need to be polished, they should be well thought-through. These responses will also serve as the springboard for the written assignments for the course (see section ‘Papers,’ below).

The class will be divided in half. Starting at the second week of the semester, for one group, responses will be due by Sunday at 9pm; for the second group, responses will be due by Tuesday at 9pm. All responses will be shared with the class (online, likely through Moodle) and all of you will be expected to read them before our class meetings. These responses will not be graded, but missed responses will count against you in your final grade.

Group 1 (Responses due Sun, 9pm)

  • Mike Chamberlain
  • Hilary Edmunds
  • Adele Hedden
  • Katie McGuigan
  • Sehee Yang

Group 2 (Responses due Tue, 9pm)

  • Demetrius Cooper
  • Matt Coote
  • Jake Guglin
  • Kristen Robinson
  • Chris Valk

Leading Discussion

Starting the third week of the semester, each of you will be responsible for serving as the point person for the discussion for our class meetings for one week. You will synthesize your own thoughts on the material with your colleagues’ responses to generate a set of significant questions, problems, or issues that you would like the discussions for the week to cover. The week you are responsible for leading discussion, you need not share a written response online before our class meetings.


You will write two papers for this course: a short paper and a seminar paper. You will generate your own topic for both papers. The weekly reading responses should help you to discover which questions and issues grab you, and they should provide a starting point from which you can use to develop your ideas into more sustained arguments.

Short Paper (4-6 pages)

The first paper must be turned in on or before Tuesday, November 1, at 12pm.  It will be accepted any time before that date. Late papers will be penalized a third of a full letter grade for each 24-hr period after the due date. After you have turned in your short paper, I will schedule an individual meeting with you to discuss your short paper, and sources, arguments, and ideas for the seminar paper.

Seminar Paper (10-15 pages)

The seminar paper is due Monday, December 19 at 5pm. The seminar paper may cover any of the questions, problems, and issues raised in this course. It may also cover the same general topic as your short paper (although it must make substantial advances beyond the short paper).


Your final grade will be determined as follows (with adjustments for missed and late work): 
  • 30% — 4- to 6-page paper 
  • 50% — 10- to 15-page paper
  • 20% — seminar participation (including leading discussion) 

Required Texts

We will be reading selections from the following texts:
  1. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, editors and translators, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984. [CSM II]
  2. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny, editors and translators, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume III, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991. [CSMK]
  3. Stephen Voss, translator, The Passions of the Soul, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1989. [SV]
All other readings will be handed out in class or distributed through the Google course site:

Schedule of Topics and Assigned Readings (Tentative)

Note: Brackets indicate texts we’ve already read, but you should read them again for the class meetings they are re-assigned. The syllabus is a flexible organism: readings may change over the course of the semester as we narrow or widen our interests. Any changes to the schedule or readings will be posted on the Google course site, and you will have plenty of notice.

Introduction to Descartes and the Will

Week 1 (Aug 30, Sept 1): What are we doing? (History of philosophy and its relation to philosophy)



Week 2 (Sept 6, Sept 8): What is the will?

    • Fourth Meditation (AT VII 52-62; CSM II 37-43)
    • Excerpt from Principles (handout: I.32)
    • Excerpts from Ekstrom, Laura W. “Volition and the Will.” In A Companion to the Philosophy of Action, edited by Timothy O’Connor, and Constantine Sandis, 99-107. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. (handout—“Will as Faculty, Capacity, or Power” and “Will as Attitude or Collection of Attitudes”)
    • Excerpts from Watson, Gary. “The Work of the Will.” In Weakness of Will and Practical Irrationality, edited by Sarah Stroud, and Christine Tappolet, 172-200. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003. (handout: Introduction, Section I, Appendix 7.2: “Descartes and Internalism”)
      • Note: in Appendix 7.2, Watson refers to several texts from Descartes in addition to the ones I have assigned explicitly. Take a look at these as well: Second Replies (AT VII 166; CSM II 117); The Passions of the Soul  III.177 (AT IX 464; SV 116-117);  Sixth Replies (AT VII 431-433; CSM II 291-292); letter to Mesland, 9 February 1645 (AT IV 173-174; CSMK 244-245).

Belief, the will, and epistemic responsibility

Week 3 (Sept 13, Sept 15): Judgment and Responsibility for Error                                           Discussion Leader: Mike Chamberlain

    • [Fourth Meditation (AT VII 52-62; CSM II 37-43)]
    • Excerpt from Third Meditation (¶¶ 5-6: AT VII 36-37; CSM II 25-26)
    • Excerpt from Fifth Objections and Replies (AT VII 312-317; CSM II 217-221, and AT VII 376-377; CSM II 259 (first ¶ of #3))
    • Excerpts from Principles (handout: I.29-38, 42-44)
    • Excerpts from Williams, Bernard. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. New York: Routledge, 2005. (handout)
        More on the "infinite will"
More on the issue of whether the eternal truths (e.g. logical and mathematical truths) depend on God's will
    • The primary texts:
Letter to Mersenne, 15 April 1630 (AT I 145-146; CSMK 23)
Letter to Mersenne, 6 May 1630 (AT I 149-150; CSMK 24-25)
Letter to Mersenne, 27 May 1630 (AT I 151-153; CSMK 25-26)
Letter to Mesland, 2 May 1644 (AT IV 118-119; CSMK 235)
Conversation with Burman (AT V 159-160; CSMK 343)
Letter to More, 5 February 1649 (AT V 272-274; CSMK 363-364)
Replies to the Fifth Objections (AT VII 380; CSM II 261)
Sixth Objections (AT VII 417-418; CSM II 281)
Replies to the Sixth Objections (AT VII 431-433; CSM II 291-292)

Week 4 (Sept 20, Sept 22): Will in Judgment


Week 5 (Sept 27, Sept 29): Control over Belief
Discussion Leader: Adele Hedden


Week 6 (Oct 4, Oct 6): Control over Belief continued
Discussion Leader: Kristen Robinson


Freedom of the Will

Week 7 (Oct 13): Descartes’ remarks
Discussion Leader: Sehee Yang

    • [Fourth Meditation (AT VII 52-62; CSM II 37-43)]
    • Excerpt from Sixth Objections and Replies (AT VII 416-417; CSM II 280-281, and AT VII 431-433; CSM II 291-292)
    • Excerpts from Principles (handout: I.6, 37, 39-41)
    • Excerpts from Descartes's correspondence: letter to [Mesland], 2 May 1644 (AT IV 115-118; CSMK 233-234); letter to Mesland, 9 February 1645 (AT IV 173-175; CSMK 244-246)

Week 8 (Oct 18, Oct 20): Is Descartes a compatibilist or an incompatibilist?
Discussion Leader: Chris Valk

    • Newman 2008, Section 4, “Will, judgment, and the compatibilism debate.” [PDF] 
    • Excerpts from Sleigh, Robert, Vere Chappell, and Michael Della Rocca. “Determinism and Human Freedom.” In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, Vol. 2, edited by Daniel Garber, and Michael Ayers, 1195-278. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. (handout)
    • Ragland, “Is Descartes a Libertarian?” (handout)

* R, Oct 20, 4:30pm, location TBA: Sean Greenberg (UC Irvine) will be giving a talk on Descartes on freedom in the Philosophy Department: 
(note that the date of Professor Greenberg's talk is different from on the paper syllabus)

Week 9 (Oct 25, Oct 27): Contemporary directions
Discussion Leader: Hilary Edmunds


            Week 10 (Nov 1): No class--paper due at 12pm.

The passions of the soul, the will, and emotions

Week 10-11 (Nov 3, Nov 8): What are the passions of the soul?

Required, for Thursday (Nov 3)
    • Letter to Princess Elisabeth, 6 October 1645 (AT IV 310-313; CSMK 270-272)
    • The Passions of the Soul: Articles 1-16, on the nature of the body, (AT XI 327-342; Voss, pp. 18-27); and Articles 17-29, on the functions on the soul (AT XI 342-350; Voss, pp. 28-35)
    • Shapiro, Lisa. “Descartes’ Passions of the Soul.” Philosophical Compass 1, no. 3 (2006): 268-78. (handout) 
         Required, for Tuesday (Nov 8)           Other helpful background

Week 11-12 (Nov 10, Nov 15): What is the function of the passions? Do the passions affect the will?
Discussion Leader: Katie McGuigan

Required, for Thursday (Nov 10)
    • Sixth Meditation (AT VII 71-62; CSM II 50-62).
    • The Passions of the Soul: Article 211 (AT XI 485-488; Voss, pp. 132-134).
    • Schmitter, Amy M. “How to Engineer a Human Being: Passions and Functional Explanation in Descartes.” In A Companion to Descartes, edited by Janet Broughton, and John Carriero, 426-44. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. (handout)
Required, for Tuesday (Nov 15)
    • The Passions of the Soul: Articles 40, 52, 70, 74-75, 79-80, 86-87, 91-92, 137-138.
    • Greenberg, Sean. “Descartes on the Passions: Function, Representation, and Motivation.” Nous 41, no. 4 (2007): 714-34. (handout)

Week 12 continued (Thursday, Nov 17) Do the passions threaten our freedom?
Discussion Leader: Jake Guglin


Week 13 (Tuesday, Nov 22) From passions to emotions: how does Descartes' theory of the passions relate to contemporary accounts of the emotions?
Discussion Leader: Jake Guglin


Week 14 (Nov 29, Dec 1): Current debates in the philosophy of emotion: cognitivism
Discussion Leader: Matt Coote


Week 15 (Dec 6, Dec 8): Current debates in the philosophy of emotion: how are we to make sense of whether an emotion is appropriate or not?
Discussion Leader: Demetrius Cooper