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Analysing ordinary talk of the will


To: Siobhan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Analysing ordinary talk of the will
Date: 11th February 2010 12:36

Dear Siobhan,

Thank you for your email of 1 February, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, 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?'

This is a really good piece of work, which starts off with an excellent first sentence. There undoubtedly is an issue about the subtle effects of language on 'the way we think', and it is important to mention this.

Let's first look at the question of 'want', 'shall' and 'will'. Here are three statements that I could make, each of which might be true:

1. I want to review two essays this morning.

2. I will review two essays this morning.

3. I shall review two essays this morning.

(1) is simply a statement about my present needs and desires. If I get two essays done this morning, then I can spend the afternoon doing some more web design, and also have time for lunch. 'Would like' is an acceptable paraphrase. Other things being equal, this is the outcome I would like.

(2) is an expression of intention, or as you put it, 'dedicated intention'. That's what I have decided, so that's what will happen. Intention is, in this sense, a form of knowledge of the future. However, as such, it is not infallible. 'I intended to review two essays this morning, but a long telephone call interrupted me.' My statement of intention was appropriate and true, but in this case the outcome was not what I had reason to expect.

(3) is a little bit forced in this example. I am making a prediction rather than stating my intention. Perhaps better would be, 'I shall receive two essays this morning.' We can make predictions about our future behaviour which are different from intentions (and different again from statements about what we want or would like). This leads into a tricky philosophical issue about 'predicting and intending'. The capacity to form intentions depends on our knowledge of ourselves to a large extent. And sometimes, it is not clear whether we are expressing an intention which is different from merely making a prediction about what we will do.

What you say about promising is, in view of the above, not quite correct. To continue with the example, on Tuesday I wrote to say that I intended to respond to your essay 'tomorrow'. I did not promise to do so because I am not in control of possible interruptions. As it turned out, I had to take the day off work, in order to escort my middle (17 year old) daughter to school. (It's a long story!) So I would plead that strictly speaking I didn't 'break my promise'. (But sorry, anyway!)

Again, there's a grey area where it is not clear whether one merely expressed an intention or made a promise. If I express an intention in circumstances where others would naturally assume that I had promised, then I can be held to account for giving them to understand that I had promised, even though it was not my intention to do so. What I should have said is, 'It is my intention to do X, but I can't promise to do X because...'.

I've gone into this in some detail, because it is important to see how finely tuned ordinary language is (English, anyway) in enabling us to make important semantic distinctions. Sometimes, in philosophy, one finds the need to invent special terminology in order to express a precise meaning, but not here.

However, this still leaves the question of 'the will' undecided.

In a ground-breaking book 'The Will: a dual aspect theory' (2 volumes) published in 1980, Brian O'Shaughnessy argued against the currently accepted view in philosophy that the concepts of desire and intention are sufficient in order to account for human behaviour. O'Shaughnessy thinks that in fully accounting for an action, something else needs to take place, the actual moment or aspect of 'willing' the action. I get out of bed. At that moment, something occurs which is not wanting or intending. I wanted to get out of bed and I intended to get out of bed. But some extra psychic push was needed to actually get me moving at that precise moment. This harks back to earlier times when 'the will' was taken as a psychological faculty, before analytic philosophers chopped it up with their knives.

My own view, as you will gather from the unit, is more in agreement with the analytical philosophers.

What, then, about will power? My gut feeling is to agree with you (and the traditional view) that will power is an important phenomenon, and that persons can suffer from weak will power and also learn to develop their will power. But as a philosopher I'm bound to try to look more closely at just what this means. Assertiveness is one aspect, where one expresses one's will power in one's dealings with other people, and this is something that one can 'train'. Another aspect is the ability to endure pain or discomfort, which is the reason why marines are sent out in winter to the wilds of Dartmoor and made to fend for themselves in the freezing cold. Indifference to pain or discomfort is something you can acquire through training.

In both cases -- assertiveness and endurance -- what one acquires could be described as 'mental techniques', although these are not necessarily techniques that could be written down in a book.

Then again there are other things like self belief, which is not so much a matter of technique but rather hard-won knowledge. Then there's strength of character, which some will say you either have or you don't, although it's said that difficult circumstances can strengthen your character ('What does not kill me makes me stronger' as Nietzsche says). Not forgetting 'the power of positive thinking' (Norman Vincent Peale), which I suppose you can learn from a book, at least millions did.

My conclusion would be that it would be very difficult to make a case that ordinary language (or English) embodies a dualist view of the mind. Ordinary language distinctions are valid, and do not imply a dualist view, though neither do they give any support to materialism.

All the best,