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Analyzing talk of 'the will'


To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Analyzing talk of 'the will'
Date: 11 April 2002 14:40

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 1 April, with your third essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question:

'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?'

You approach this question by considering two 'extreme' cases:

Case 1 In fifteen seconds time, either I will, or will not flex my foot, but I form no intention of doing so or not doing so, leaving it to the very moment to make my decision.

Case 2 Abraham Lincoln's exertion of his will in saving the Union, in the face of secession by the Confederacy.

I agree to a large degree in your descriptions of these two cases, although some points do need to be cleared up.

Case 1 is different from Case 1* an experiment where you take a particular drug which sometimes causes foot twitches. In both cases, another person can clearly make a prediction. However, in Case 1, there is a problem about your making a prediction, because it is difficult to see on what such a prediction could be based other than your knowledge of your own intentions.

There is in fact quite a complex interplay between predicting one's own future actions and deciding which has been explored by the Oxford philosopher David Pears.

Leaving that aside, the important point is that in Case 1, by contrast with Case 1* your foot twitch is not something that just happens. It is something you do intentionally, an action, even though you do not have any particular reason for doing it rather than not doing it. Our lives are full of such trivial actions, although many are parts of sequences of acts which constitute an action which we do have a reason to do.

Case 2 involves two quite distinct senses of 'exertion of will' which makes it potentially misleading as an example. Consider an inventor persisting with perfecting an invention against all the odds. For example, Eddison, designing a light bulb (hundreds of different designs with different materials were tried and failed until he hit on the right combination). All the mental qualities that you mention are involved, steadfastness, sustained effort, moral courage. In the case of a political action like Lincoln's, however, additional considerations are implied: showing leadership, imposing one's will on others, making a public demonstration of one's determination to succeed against all the odds.

Putting that aside, one question that arises from your two examples, however, is how we understand the difference between *desiring* that I do X and *intentionally doing* X.

In the case of the foot twitch, when the moment comes, my foot will twitch if and only if I desire to twitch it at that moment.

In many cases an action at a specific time is called for, e.g. turning the wheel to avoid a pedestrian who has walked into the road without looking. If I desire to avoid hitting the pedestrian then the only way to realize my desire is to act now.

In other cases, however, when we desire to do X and we carry out our action, there seems to be nothing to explain why we did X at precisely this moment, rather than another moment. So there is a temptation here to say that something else is involved beside desire, or motivation, or wanting to do a particular thing. This extra 'something occurs' at a precise time, triggering us into action.

Although you do a good job in showing how, in Case 2, the thing we call 'exerting one's will' can be analysed in ways which do not imply the existence of a mysterious faculty of willing, there remains this tricky problem of accounting for the phenomenon of triggering, or the precise way we move from desire to action.

My view, however, is that the timing of an action, when the time is not critical for success, it is just another case of 'something you do intentionally...even though you do not have any particular reason for doing it rather than not doing it'. Just as it is not a problem why I put my hands precisely here to move the desk across the room, so it is not a problem why I choose precisely now to start pushing.

All the best,