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Analysing talk of 'the will' from a philosophical standpoint


To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Analysing talk of 'the will' from a philosophical standpoint
Date: 11 May 2007 11:36

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 3 May, with your essay for units 7-9 of 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?'

I'll start with the will.

Hitler believed in the power of his will and the will of the Reich as many before him, who have succumbed to the temptation of thinking oneself as 'destined' to succeed no matter what. Strength of will and belief in destiny won't help you if you are unlucky enough to be in the way of a stray flying bullet from a police shoot-out, or a car careering out of control while its driver has a heart attack.

Nietzsche believes in 'the will' and was a materialist, at least ostensibly. That should make one question whether talk of the will implies a non-material power. However, Nietzsche was a materialist only in the sense that he rejected mind-body dualism. In The Will To Power he describes a metaphysical theory where entities are identified and described, not in terms of what 'stuff' they are, as in materialism, but rather in terms of that entity's perspective on the universe, insofar as it strives to exert itself in opposition to things that oppose it. The clearest 'demonstration' of this is biological phenomena, but as this is a metaphysical theory, the same is true in principle of a pebble.

In some respects this is like Leibniz's theory of monads, but with action and striving substituted for the monad's essential property of perceiving the universe from a unique point of view. In other respects, the theory is very reminiscent of Aristotle's theory of matter and form. To be a man, is to strive to realize one's human potential, as each individual 'substance' does in its own way.

It is an empirically attested fact that some people have more 'will power' than others. Aristotle would explain this in terms of cultivated habits. However, in notable contrast with Kant, the best sort of man for Aristotle is one who is naturally inclined to do the right thing, rather than the one who has to struggle to contain his immoral impulses. You need will power when your instincts and inclinations rebel and you call upon your practised ability to suppress them. The 'continent' man is thus second best to the 'moral' man.

Some students just love books and don't need any incentive to study. Others need to psych themselves up, and talk of 'will power' (or 'bottom power' as I've sometimes heard this described). As it happens, I fell into the latter category.

The explanation offered here is empirical and naturalistic, rather than metaphysical.

Your wife's explanation makes perfect sense to me. Things might have been otherwise, in which case she would have found herself mentally going through the kind of process that Aristotle's 'continent man' goes through.

Your dialogue

We can discount the worry that by catching the bus in the nick of time, I am indirectly responsible for the accident which would not have occurred had the bus started off 20 seconds before it did actually start. It is, of course, a source of wonder that each of us exerts an incalculable influence on the train of the world's events. Who is to say that some minor decision by postman in Tokyo might not have been responsible for 9/11 through a chain of causes and effects like Lorenz's butterfly?

The description of why the young man enlisted is typical of the situation which we find ourselves in when we make an important decision which we are responsible for. Everything that I am and have come to be can only be accounted for in two ways: the things that have happened to me since my birth and the decisions I have made. Much of this one cannot see. Characters are formed, people make good decisions or wicked decisions, are heroes or cowards, and one cannot always predict who or why or when.

We are expected to be able to give reasons for our actions. I would argue that every action is done for a 'reason' in this sense and that there is no meaningful distinction between reason and emotion or inclination. Yet reasons do come to an end. At some point one has explained all that it is within one's power to explain. All one can say is, 'I just felt that it was the right thing to do.'

All the best,