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Will (philosophy)

From Academic Kids

For alternative uses, see will.

Will in philosophy refers to the quality or instance that produces conscious and intended actions. It was seen as the underlying reality of all perceptions by Arthur Schopenhauer - in his main work, The World as Will and Representation - and this was later modified into the "will to power" by Nietzsche.


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The "problem of freedom" provides in reality a common title under which are grouped difficulties and questions of varying and divergent interest and character.

These difficulties arise quite naturally from the obligation, which metaphysicians, theologians, moral philosophers, psychologists and other scientists recognize, to give an account, consistent with their theories, of the relation of man's power of deliberate and purposive activity to the rest of the universe.

In the main, no doubt, the problem is a metaphysical problem, and has its origin in the effort to reconcile that belief in man's freedom which is regarded by the unsophisticated moral consciousness as indisputable, with a belief in a universe governed by rational and necessary laws. But the historical origin of the questions at issue is to be sought rather in theology than in metaphysics, while the discovery made from time to time by men of science of the inapplicability of physical laws or modes of operation (which they have been accustomed to regard as of universal range and necessity) to the facts or assumed facts of human activity, is a constant source of fresh discussions of the problem.

Similarly the modern attempt upon the part of psychology to analyse (under whatever limitations and with whatever object of inquiry) all the forms and processes of human consciousness has inevitably led to an examination of the consciousness of human freedom: while the postulate of most modern psychologists that conscious processes are not to be considered as removed from the sphere of those necessary causal sequences with which science deals, produces, if the consciousness of freedom be admitted as a fact of mental history, the old metaphysical difficulty in a new and highly specialized form.

Nevertheless, there is some ground for maintaining, contrary to much modern opinion, that the controversy is fundamentally and in the main a moral controversy. It is true that the precise relation between the activities of human wills and other forms of activity in the natural world is a highly speculative problem and one with which the ordinary man is not immediately concerned. It is true also that the ordinary moral consciousness accepts without hesitation the postulate of freedom, and is unaware of, or imperfectly acquainted with, the speculative difficulties that surround its possibility. Moreover, much work of the highest importance in ethics in modern as well as ancient times has been completed with but scanty, if any, reference to the subject of the freedom of the will, or upon a metaphysical basis compatible with most of the doctrines of both the rival theories.

The determinist equally with the libertarian moral philosopher can give an account of morality possessing internal coherence and a certain degree of verisimilitude. Yet it may be doubted (1) whether the problem would ever have arisen at all except for the necessity of reconciling the theological and metaphysical hypotheses of the omniscience and omnipotence of God with the needs of a moral universe; and (2) whether it would retain its perennial interest if the incursions of modern scientific and psychological inquiry into the domain of human consciousness did not appear to come into conflict from time to time with the presuppositions of morality.

The arguments proceeding from either of the disputants by means of which the controversy is debated may be largely or almost wholly speculative and philosophical. But that which produces the rival arguments is primarily a moral need. And there are not wanting signs of a revival in recent years of the earlier tendency of philosophical speculation to subordinate the necessities of metaphysical, scientific and even psychological inquiries to the prima facie demands of the moral consciousness.

There is no trace of the emergence of the problem of freedom in any intelligible or distinct form in the minds of early Greek physicists or philosophers. Their doctrines were mainly based upon a belief in the government of the universe by some form of physical necessity, and though different opinions might prevail as to the mode of operation of the various forms of physical necessity, the occasional recognition of non-material contributory causes never amounted to a recognition of the independence of human volition or intelligence. Nor can it be seriously maintained that the problem of freedom in the form in which it is presented to the modern mind ever became the subject of debate in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato or Aristotle.

It is true that Socrates brought into prominence the moral importance of rational and intelligent conduct as opposed to action which is the result of unintelligent caprice. Moral conduct was, according to Socrates, the result of knowledge while it is strictly impossible to do wrong knowingly. Vice, therefore, is the result of ignorance and to this extent Socrates is a determinist. But the subsequent speculations of Aristotle upon the extent to which ignorance invalidates responsibility, though they seem to assume man?s immediate consciousness of freedom, do not in reality amount to very much more than an analysis of the conditions ordinarily held sufficient to constitute voluntary or involuntary action.

The further question whether the voluntary acts for which a man is ordinarily held responsible are really the outcome of his freedom of choice, is barely touched upon, and most of the problems which surround the attempt to distinguish human agency from natural and necessary causation and caprice or chance are left unsolved. Aristotle remained content with a successful demonstration of the dependence of "voluntariness" as an attribute of conduct upon knowledge and human personality. And though ultimately the attribution of responsibility for conduct is further limited to actions which are the result of purposive choice (irpoaipeotr), Aristotle appears to waver between a view which regards irpoaipecns as involving an ultimate choice between divergent ends of moral action and one which would make it consist in the choice of means to an end already determined.

A similar absence of discussion of the main problem at issue is noticeable in Plato. It is true that in a famous passage in the tenth book of the Republic (x. 617 if.) he seems to make human souls responsible through their power of choice for the destinies which they meet with during their respective lives. But, as with Socrates, their power of making a right choice is limited by their degree of knowledge or of ignorance, and the vexed question of the relation of this determining intelligence to the human will is left unsolved. With the Stoic and Epicurean philosophies the problem as it shapes itself for the consideration of the modern world begins to appear in clearer outlines. Stoic loyalty to a belief in responsibility based on freedom of choice appeared difficult to reconcile with a belief in an all-pervading Anima Mundi, a world power directing and controlling actions of every kind. And though the Stoic doctrine of determinism did not, when applied to moral problems, advance much beyond the reiteration of arguments derived from the universal validity of the principles of causality, nor the Epicurean counter-assertion of freedom avoid the error of regarding chance as a real cause and universal contingency as an explanation of the universe, it was nevertheless a real step forward to perceive the existence of the problem. Moreover, the argument by means of which Chrysippus endeavoured to prove the compatibility of determinism with ethical responsibility is in some respects an anticipation of modern views. For the distinction between main and contributory causes of conduct (causae adjuvantes and causae principales-the airwv and Ei-wairwv of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy) preserved the possibility of regarding character, the main cause, as the responsible and accountable element in morality. And there is much that is anticipatory of modern libertarian views in the psychological argument by which Carneades attempted at once to avoid the Epicurean identification of will with chance, and to prove the rationality of choice, undetermined by any external or antecedent necessity, as an explanation of human actions. (Cf. Janet and Sailles, History of Problems of Philosophy-Psychology, p. 324.)


(H. H. W.)

See also

de:Wille fr:Volont ja:意志 pl:Wola

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