Freedom of will

In my writing about Collingwood’s New Leviathan, I am for the moment jumping ahead to Chapter XIII, “Choice.” I want to offer up the long excerpt below for comparison with a recent article, “Happiness and Its Discontents,” by Mari Ruti, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 20, 2014. That article begins:

As a critical theorist working at the intersection of Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory, I make observations about human life that are speculative rather than empirical.

I have no sense for what critical theory is. It seems one ought to ask, “critical theory of what?” More importantly, is not the word “empirical” commonly used as an adjectival form of the word “observation”? Should not the writer just say that she speculates, rather than observes? Her opening paragraph continues:

That may explain why my definition of character pertains to what is least tangible, least intelligible about our being, including the inchoate frequencies of desire that sometimes cause us to behave in ways that work against our rational understanding of how our lives are supposed to turn out.

I think I know what desire is, but I do not know what its inchoate frequencies would be. Is Ms Ruti suggesting the metaphor of sound waves of a frequency that is not normally heard, or radio waves that most receivers do not pick up? Is she looking for another way to say what Pascal did with Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point? She continues with another paragraph:

If identity captures something about the relatively polished social persona we present to the world, then character—in my view—captures something about the wholly idiosyncratic and potentially rebellious energies that, every so often, break the facade of that persona. From this perspective, our character leaps forth whenever we do something “crazy,” such as suddenly dissolving a committed relationship or leaving a promising career path. At such moments, what is fierce and unapologetic about us undermines our attempts to lead a “reasonable” life, causing us to follow an inner directive that may be as enigmatic as it is compelling. We may not know why we feel called to a new destiny, but we sense that not heeding that call will stifle what is most alive within us.

It appears the writer distinguishes character from identity. Doing crazy things shows you have character. I quote one more paragraph:

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that finds such insurrections threatening, not least because they make us less predictable and therefore harder to control. This is one reason we’re constantly reminded of the importance of leading a happy, balanced life—the kind of life that “makes sense” from the viewpoint of the dominant social order. Many of us have, in fact, internalized the ideal of a happy, balanced life to such an extent that we find it hard to imagine alternatives. As Freud has already claimed, there is little doubt about what most people want out of life: “They want to become happy and to remain so.”

How is it unfortunate to live in a culture that is threatened by crazy behavior? Craziness is threatening to culture, almost by definition. One might perhaps speak of cultures that are more or less tolerant of nonconformity. An individual might move, physically, from one culture to another, as I have moved from the United States to Turkey. But then the shopping malls here are filled with shops bearing the same names found in the U.S. and western Europe. A slogan of one of these shops that I recall from the U.S. (albeit over two decades ago) is “Sometimes you gotta break the rules”. Is this a sign of a tolerant culture? I suppose it might rather be taken as a sign of a culture that wants to rein in nonconformity, or direct it into less threatening channels. But any culture will want to do this, be it with commercialism or tear gas.

Ultimately culture is created by us. I do not want to try to say more now, except to note a theme of Ruti that is shared with Collingwood: the rejection of happiness, and the subsequent discovery of something better. Here then Collingwood:

13. 1. A man about to choose finds himself aware of a situation in which alternative courses of action are open to him. It is between these that he chooses.

13. 11. I distinguish choice from decision only as two words which mean nearly enough the same thing to be left here undistinguished.

13. 12. The kind of choice with which I am concerned in this chapter is only one kind: the simplest; mere choice or mere decision, uncomplicated by any reason why it should be made in this way and not that; in fact, caprice.

13. 13. If the reader thinks that caprice is a subject unworthy of his attention, let him skip this chapter.

13. 14. Choice is not preference, though the words are sometimes used as synonyms. Preference is desire as involving alternatives. A man who ‘prefers’ a to b does not choose at all; he suffers desire for a and aversion towards b, and goes where desire leads him.

13. 15. Preference involves a situation where there are alternatives, but closed alternatives. There are alternatives, for a man who cannot control his fear of bulls, between walking calmly past this one’s nose and running away; but preference closes the alternative and forces him to run away.

13. 16. Choice presupposes that the alternatives are open. A man in a position to choose whether he shall walk calmly in front of the bull’s nose has open alternatives to choose from (13. 1).

13. 17. This leads us to the problem of free will. There are many pseudo-problems of free will. There is the question: ‘Are we free?’ Clever men have invented arguments to prove that ‘we’ are not. Thus arose the controversy in which Dr. Johnson (creditably, for a man so addicted to argument) refused to take part, with the memorable pronouncement, ‘Sir, we know that we are free, and there’s an end on’t’.

13. 18. Johnson was pointing out (correctly) that freedom is a first-order object of consciousness to every man whose mental development has reached the ability to choose. In choosing, every man is immediately conscious of being free; free, that is, to choose between alternatives. Arguments as to whether this immediate consciousness is to be trusted are futile, as involving the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument (4. 73).

[There is no ¶13. 19.]

13. 2. The problem of free will is not whether men are free (for every one is free who has reached the level of development that enables him to choose) but, how does a man become free? For he must be free before he can make a choice; consequently no man can become free by choosing.

13. 21. The act of becoming free cannot be done to a man by anything other than himself. Let us call it, then, an act of self-liberation. This act cannot be voluntary.

13. 22. ‘Liberation from what?’ From dominance of desire. ‘Liberation to do what?’ To make decisions.

13. 27. Negatively, [freedom of will] is the act of refusing to let oneself be dictated to by desire. We hear of a man ‘controlling his appetites’; but under what circumstances can this really be done?

13. 28. The process that is nipped in the bud is strictly speaking not the process from unsatisfied appetite to satisfaction, but the process from the unhappiness of ungratified desire to the happiness of gratified desire. A little thought will show the reader why this must be so.

13. 29. Positively, this act is the acceptance of unhappiness; the acceptance of badness in oneself and weakness in relation to other things; the renunciation of virtue and power as things one no longer cares to pursue.

13. 3. Since the desiring self simply consists of the practical ‘urge’ from unhappiness to happiness, this act is a cutting off of all that is going on in the life of the man who does it; as a kind of suicide, it goes by a name intolerably debased in the passage from mouth to mouth: self-denial.

13. 31. The acceptance of unhappiness by a man who wishes for nothing but happiness, and is nothing but the act of wishing, is certainly a strange and improbable thing to happen, though not an impossible one; it is the only way by which a man attains a more valuable thing than happiness, freedom; and the consciousness of being free, self-respect.

13. 32. The man who denies himself and gains self-respect is richly rewarded; but that is not why he does it. His act of self-denial, not being a voluntary act (13. 21), cannot be a utilitarian act, the exchange of one thing for something more valuable.

13. 33. And if he knew what he stands to gain, he would not value it. What charm has self-respect for a man whose desires are concentrated on happiness?

13. 34. Can such an act be explained by appeal to something like what Freud calls the ‘death-instinct’?

13. 35. Not unless the sleep-producing property of opium can be explained by reference to a vertus dormativa.

13. 38. …It is a good rule that most men, most of the time, pursue happiness; so good, indeed, that it is worth betting on. But the rule cannot be stated in such a way as to explain the exceptions to itself, and make you win the bets you have lost.

13. 39. In defiance of psychological probability, men do sometimes neglect or defy what is called their ‘duty to themselves’, and in consequence make the strange discovery of freedom. Whether any non-human animal has ever done this I do not know; among human animals more, perhaps, have been credited with doing it than have actually done it.

13. 4. There is no sense in asking, when a man is found behaving in this way, ‘why’ he does it. The word ‘why’ has many well-established senses; none is appropriate here.

13. 41. But there is much sense in asking ‘how’ he does it; and the answer is: ‘By the use of speech’.

13. 42. A man liberates himself from a particular desire by naming it; not giving it any name that comes at haphazard into his head, but giving it its right name, the name it really has in the language he really talks.

13. 43. Once he has done this he can do it again; most easily for another desire of the same kind; but in principle, with more or less difficulty, for any desire whatever.

13. 44. Such at least is the doctrine common to Spinoza, the authors and divulgators of fairy-tales, and psycho-analysts.


  1. Posted September 29, 2018 at 6:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    Touche. Outstanding arguments. Keep up the goodd effort.

  2. Posted September 29, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink | Reply

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2 Trackbacks

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