Is Descartes’ Theological Voluntarism Compatible with His Philosophy?
In 1922, Alexandre Koyré writes that Descartes’ doctrine of theological voluntarism – according to which God creates and controls logic and normativity – is incompatible with every bit of his philosophy. We agree and explain how voluntarism undermines the major arguments (including the cogito) in the Meditations by making them logically or normatively circular. Thus clear and distinct ideas are not useful as premises in an argument for God’s existence except on the assumption that God exists and has already made them “true.” However, Koyré also claims that Descartes protected his system from disaster by abandoning voluntarism toward the end of his life. We argue that this is not correct, as an exhaustive look at the texts shows Descartes affirming voluntarism unambiguously from 1630 right to the end of his life. We point out the flaws in other attempts to save Descartes from himself and some theological and philosophical reasons which may have led Descartes to hold the doctrine. We claim that, while voluntarism will have to be ignored in an overall understanding of Descartes’ thought, it has genuine philosophical significance because a “voluntarist demon” represents the most formidable skeptical threat possible.
KeywordsCogito God Koyré Hyperaspistes Irrationalism Logical circle Meditations Normative circle Regis Reason Skepticism Voluntarism
We warmly thank readers of earlier drafts of this paper, including Rick Groshong, Mogens Laerke, Cody Baith, Maddie Collins, and audiences at two American Philosophical Association meetings and at Syracuse University.
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