The Epistemic Problem of Cartesian Passions

International Philosophical Quarterly 43 (3):309-332 (2003)
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For Descartes, the passions are the key to the good life. But he is also wary of the extent to which they may lead us astray. As I argue, there is reason to be skeptical that Descartes himself provides a satisfying resolution of this tension in the Passions of the Soul. The problem concerns our ability to interpret and work through intra-subjective passional conflicts. Descartes seems almost obsessed with the problem of such conflicts in this text. What he needs to provide, however, is a kind of moral therapy by which we can adjudicatethem. This is tantamount to providing a theory of representation for the passions, and it would be similar to the belief therapy that he provides for determining the representational content of other perception types, notably sensations and appetites. But I argue that he does not discharge this philosophical obligation, and indeed he cannot do so given his own understanding of the uniquely ambiguous representational character of the passions



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