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Naaman-Zauderer, Noa. Descartes' Deontological Turn: Reason, Will and Virtue in the Later Writings.

NAAMAN-ZAUDERER, Noa. Descartes' Deontological Turn: Reason, Will and Virtue in the Later Writings. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii + 224 pp. Hardback $85.00--It would be a pity if a potential reader of this careful contribution to Descartes studies were put off by the title before looking at the subtitle and, so, before savoring the sophisticated and often original readings given of some crucial Cartesian texts.

Naaman-Zauderer concentrates her attention on the final decade of Descartes' life, in which he developed a subtle and consistent theory of the relations among the three key notions mentioned in this book's subtitle. But her first move is to justify the idea of the "inward turn" alluded to in her title, where the problem to be faced by Descartes is one of how a subject can make out which of his ideas have even the slimmest chance of being true. This leads to a reexamination of the scholastic-seeming terminology of "objective reality," "objective being," "material falsity" and, most canonically, "clarity and distinctness" that have caused so much perplexity in the exegesis of Meditations III. Rather than reconstruct Descartes' sources and his use or abuse of them, Naaman-Zauderer proceeds to show that clarity and distinctness, in the most fortunate cases, are not features of our ideas considered as representations, but rather of our acts of assenting.

The book's second chapter is devoted to a question and a set of texts that seem to the present reviewer a litmus test of Cartesian commentary. This concerns the place of Meditations IV within the dynamic of the work of which it is part, and the problem of error in judgment. Until Anthony Kenny's seminal 1972 paper on "Descartes on the Will," much Anglophone commentary had little to say about this issue, and some subsequent commentators have continued to ignore its importance. But Naaman-Zauderer rightly gives it pride of place for an understanding of the nature of Descartes' project. Given divine benevolence and hence the notion that the two factors in judging, the human intellect and human will, are each perfect of their kind, how can it be that humans err? The answer, on which the recent literature has converged and with which Naaman-Zauderer agrees, is that there is a mismatch between the intellect as finite and the will as infinite. The particular thesis that Naaman-Zauderer promotes, perhaps overemphasizing her originality, is that we need not assert the false or deny the true in order to count as erring: any misuse of the will in assenting is sufficient for a failure to use the will correctly.

Chapters 3 and 4 offer a close examination of the relations that Descartes sees between human will and divine will. In particular, she offers detailed readings of the key texts--Meditations IV, Principles I 37, and the perplexing letter to Mesland of February 1645--to elicit the exact sense in which "it is always possible for our will to act independently of our intellect, even in the face of clear and distinct ideas." This then leads to the question of how the infinite power of the human will to give or withold assent differs from the image of God as the creator of eternal truths. The key appears to be that, when the intellect is illuminated by clear and distinct ideas, "we experience our will as unified with our intellect," and it is by analogy with this experience that we have an (imperfect) grasp of divine freedom.

It is in the last two chapters that we come to the question of the "deontological turn" announced in the book's title. While some readings of Descartes' theory of enquiry have proposed that the disciplining of the will to attend only to ideas that have a guarantee of truth stamped on them is instrumental in carrying forward what Bernard Williams called the "project of pure enquiry," Naaman-Zauderer pays attention to the letters to Princess Elizabeth and to Queen Christina written in the last years of Descartes' life, where we find a Stoic and nonconsequentialist view of the exercise of virtue. Perhaps the least satisfactory part of this discussion--not least because of the chronological anomaly--is the review of the four maxims of Dscourse III, which may underestimate the extent to which they are derived from classical commonplaces; but the accounts of virtue as self-mastery and of generosity in the Passions give powerful support to Naaman-Zauderer's claim that, for Descartes, the right use of the will constitutes the ultimate end of our actions.

Noa Naaman-Zauderer's Descartes' Deontological Turn is a well-focused and up-to-date contribution to a set of debates in Cartesian scholarship that reinserts Descartes' epistemological and metaphysical thought in the broader context of his theological and ethical preoccupations.--Richard Davies, Universita degli Studi di Bergamo, Italy.
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Author:Davies, Richard
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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