philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Analysing talk of 'the will'


To: Paul C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Analysing talk of 'the will'
Date: 3 November 2001 11:45

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your e-mail of 19 October, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, "Describe a variety of situations in which one would naturally talk of 'the will'. How is such talk to be analysed from a philosophical standpoint? Does your analysis show that we are right (or wrong) to think and talk of 'the will' in the way that we do?"

From your examples, I would agree with the conclusion that there are several ways in which we talk about the will:

1. Tony Blair is speaking of will in the sense of resolve. An individual person can carry out an action with resolve. But, interestingly, several individuals can form a collective resolve where the determination of each to carry the plan through to its conclusion reinforces the determination of each of the others.

There is more to this question. Arguably, the fundamental problem of political philosophy is the 'prisoners' dilemma', the problem of getting people, or nations to agree on a course of action which benefits themselves individually and collectively, but which can be sabotaged if any individual or nation breaks the agreement out of their own perceived self-interest. This is a pervasive issue not only in politics but in everyday life.

I don't think that there need be any implication that the capacity to carry through an action with resolve is incompatible with determinism. We can say that the manner in which an individual carries out an action reflects their character, and also the strength of their desires or aversions. It says something about us whether we strive to overcome obstacles or give in easily.

Schopenhauer would surely not deny the perceived facts, that to carry an action through with resolve, or to lack resolve are different possibilities of the human condition, determined as it may be, when viewed from the standpoint of causal explanation.

2. It seems to me that what we have said about resolve carries over into the case of the 'will to live'. Mental attitude and mental actions can be a matter of resolve just as physical actions. Once again, whether or not a patient is prepared to 'fight for life' or fight to overcome an illness is a reflection of their character - e.g. courage or the lack of it - and also the strength of their desires and aversions.

Yet there seems to be something else, also. The will to live is unlike other things that we 'will'. In a sense it is axiomatic that every human wills to live: life is something we value and will fight for. Even the terrorist who sacrifices his life only does so because there is something else which he desires more strongly than he desires to live (or remain alive on this earth - it is much easier to understand such actions knowing that the perpetrators sincerely believe that they are about to enter paradise).

However, it is possible to imagine a race of lemming-like intelligent alien beings who did not have the will to live. Death means nothing to them. They pursue goals, they enjoy the things that life brings, but when faced with death they are completely untroubled. This leads me to speculate that the 'will to live' is not something a priori, but rather an inheritance from our evolutionary past.

When we 'lose' the will to live, of course no 'thing' is lost. It is a manner of speaking. In the same sense, one would speak of someone losing their self-control, or their courage.

3. 'Thy Will be done.' You are talking about two distinct uses of the word 'will' here.

The first is simply a way of expressing intention: "I will meet Alice in the park" has a different meaning from "I shall meet Alice in the park". In the first sense, I have formed a decision to meet Alice. In the second sense, I am predicting that I will meet up with Alice.

Will power is something different. Will power is a trait of character, related to a capacity to persevere, to be resolute. A person can be resolute or irresolute, it is a matter of degree. Whereas strictly speaking there are no degrees of willing in the sense of intending. You decide or you do not decide, those are the only two possibilities. However, having decided it is an open question whether one will continue with the plan or fall victim to self doubt, or lack of confidence. The smoker who 'decides' to give up for the umpteenth time may be sufficiently aware of their past failures that the very moment when they say to themselves, "I will give up" they are also able to predict with a high degree of probability, "I shall not be able to resist the craving when it comes". There does indeed come a point where the certain knowledge that one will not carry out the action one has intended renders the mental act of 'intending' without content. In that case, we are dealing with a case of self-deception. I deceive myself into thinking that when I say, "I will do X" am forming the intention to do X, when in fact these are just empty words.

All the best,