Brian Leiter was here last week. His talk was on Nietzsche’s theory of the will, which is, according to Leiter, in line with certain results in current neuroscience. In brief Nietzsche’s view is that the mental acts traditionally called acts of will or volitions, which were held to be the necessary determining causes of voluntary acts, are only correlates of those acts; the volition and its accompanying act are joint effects of a underlying force or drive, which alone causes the act; but we mistakenly take the volition to be its cause.
I’ve read Nietzsche, but I claim no expertise. Leiter’s reading rings true, although any reading that makes Nietzsche too sensible is in my view suspect. Leiter notes that in the 1870s Nietzsche read up on materialist psychology. The view that our acts and thoughts have unconscious determinants was common property, especially on the Continent, in the late 19th century. Our conscious mental life is spume riding the waves of a great sea of impulses, drives, habits, and so forth, inaccessible to introspection, among which are to be found the true causes not only of our acts but also of conscious thoughts themselves—including volitions.
One of the targets of Nietzsche’s critique is the view, held by Descartes and many others, that for some, if not all, volitions the will, or the mind itself, is the proximate undetermined cause. Desmond Clarke, in his recent book Descartes’s theory of mind, rightly emphasizes the limits of Cartesian will.
Added 5 May: A précis of Descartes’ theory was just published in the Times Literary Supplement.But he goes too far, I think, in holding that according to Descartes the will is supervenient upon the body-machine(↓). Descartes is quite conventional in that respect: our freedom may be less than we think, but we are free; and no machine is. Nevertheless the scope of a Cartesian agent’s freedom is, as Clarke says, hemmed in by sensations and the passions that result from them. It is more like an embattled Freudian ego than like God—whose freedom in acting is absolute—even though the freedom of the will is that aspect of the mind with respect to which we most resemble God.
The Passions of the soul promises entire mastery (empire, imperium: sovereign rule) over the passions. But that aim is achieved, in the end, by inculcating in oneself the passion of générosité, a self-esteem resting upon true knowledge of the mind—in particular, that the will is free, that only our thoughts are within our control, and that we have ordered our acts according to our understanding of the good. Générosité, well nurtured, will dominate all other passions, as in Spinoza the love of God subdues every passion contrary to it, and incline the will to good and only to good acts. The Passions aim not to show that the will can be released from determination but rather that we are capable of acting according to the good as represented in the understanding: autonomy, not spontaneity, is what Descartes promises us.
To act freely is, on one understanding of freedom, to have the power of acting according to one’s nature as a rational being, that is, according to one’s understanding of the good or of the moral law. Kantian autonomy is just one chapter in a long story. The will is also sometimes understood to be an uncaused cause, an initiator of causal chains; this can be reconciled with autonomy understood as determination by reason so long as one distinguishes determination from the exercise of active power.
It is on that point that Spinoza, for example, can be distinguished from Descartes (and perhaps also from Kant). For Spinoza, every mode of thought belongs to an infinite causal chain of such modes; there are no originations in Spinoza's world. For Descartes, acts of will are never, or at least need not always be, necessitated by antecedent modes of thought (the texts leave room for uncertainty on this point); in that respect the will remains an uncaused, or spontaneous, cause.
Nietzche, then, aided by his readings in materialist psychology, and guided by a contemporary fascination with the unconscious, continues one strand in modern thinking about the will, according to which being spontaneous, or an uncaused cause, is relatively unimportant. What wisdom advises instead of an impossible originality is to aim for a limited autonomy, which consists partly in acquiring habits of feeling. Having the capacity to acquire them is itself a matter of having a temperament, and living in circumstances, conducive to doing so—which is to say a matter of luck. Some people have, Descartes says, strong wills; some have mediocre wills; and some, perhaps, have wills so weak that they are best off putting themselves under the guidance of others; the allocation of wills depends on chance, on the inscrutable decisions of God.
The novelty in Nietzsche’s view, seen in that light, is the denial of efficacy to volitions; but even that one can find, for example, in Malebranche, argued for not on psychological but on logical grounds. God’s will is known with certainty to be efficacious because the inference from “an omnipotent being wills p” to p is valid, given what omnipotence is. The inference from “Dennis wills that p” to p cannot be demonstrated; experience proves only too often that it fails. The common cause of volitions and acts is God, the only active cause, even though common sense attributes efficacy to the will as to other second causes. The unconscious drives inferred by Nietzsche as the common cause of volitions and actions are functionally equivalent to Malebranche’s God, and like God they are incomprehensible to the agents determined by them.
(↑) An essay-review by me on Clarke’s book is forthcoming in the Oxford studies in early modern philosophy.
Sunday cat pix — Josie’s birthday edition
Josie is 2. Last year she was 1.
Sunday cat pix
Musa enjoying a salad of grass.
Wednesday garden pix
Tulips have arrived. Bugs too.
Sunday cat pix
Not a care in the world.
Dream a little dream with me
in Argentina comes Dreamlines, a program that, given a keyword, combines random images associated with that keyword.
On the left is a rendition of ‘rationalism’. On the right, a ghost in the machine. Click on the thumbnails for full-size versions.
The things of nature
Reading the piece by Sherry Turkle mentioned below got me thinking, as I have off and on for some time, about nature. In the work on nature and natures I did for Physiologia, it became clear to me that natura and its cognates, and before it physis and its cognates, were fighting words. Nature, generally speaking, is good, and non-nature or un-nature bad; but occasionally the polarities are reversed, and nature must be dominated or conquered, replaced by what Pascal was already calling the “second nature” of upbringing and education, or by the higher nature of the intellect, the super-nature of faith.
It was bound to happen, I suppose. Cornell has remaindered my books. You can get them cheap at Labyrinth. Elsewhere too, no doubt. All under $15.
- Physiologia. In paper. ISBN: 0801486874
- Life’s form. In hardcover. ISBN: 0801437636
- Spirits and clocks. ISBN: 0801437644
I’d rather the books were read than sitting in a warehouse. In case you’re wondering, remainder sales don’t pay royalties. In that respect I’m entirely disinterested.
Sunday cat pix
Fighting the Red Menace.