NL XIII: “Choice”

Index to this series

Adolph Gottlieb, “Centrifugal,” gouache on paperboard, 1961 (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of the Woodward Foundation)

Adolph Gottlieb, “Centrifugal,” 1961 (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of the Woodward Foundation)

The key idea of Chapter XIII of New Leviathan is the correct statement of the “problem of free will”:

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.

Before studying Collingwood’s solution, I review some other key ideas of New Leviathan so far. These are among the ideas that have drawn me back to the book to study it.

The overarching idea is Collingwood’s solution of the “mind-body problem.” It is a solution that respects both natural science and the freedom (or potential freedom) of each of us. “In the natural sciences, mind is not that which is left over when explaining has broken down; it is what does the explaining” (2. 48). Here are some specific points.

  1. One can define a science, but not its subject-matter (1. 43); to presume to define the subject-matter is to engage in scientific persecution (1. 57). One way that scientific persecution can begin is through appeals to “common sense” (5. 33). The scientist’s definition of her own subject is only an interim progress-report (1. 47); to be a master of the science is to recognize that one will always be a beginner (1. 46).

  2. There are sciences of mind (1. 7), but they can tell us only things of which we are already conscious (1. 71). This means not that we already know them (1. 75), but that we have reflected on them (1. 77).

  3. The “mind-body problem” is a bogus problem (2. 41). My body and my mind are the same thing (2. 43), studied by the methods of natural science (2. 44) and by reflection (2. 45) respectively. Be it a science of body or mind, the science that raises a question is the only one that can answer it (2. 67); the attempt to show otherwise is the Fallacy of Swapping Horses (2. 71).

  4. As mind, we are consciousness; we have feeling (4. 2). Forms of consciousness, or thought, are the only constituents of mind (4. 18); feeling is an apanage of mind (4. 19).

  5. Feelings are understood by reflection (4. 71), not argument (4. 72); to argue about them is to commit the Fallacy of Misplaced Argument (4. 73). Feeling is (or feelings are) indefinite (4. 8): literally, without definition. One can only give examples (4. 89).

  6. Feelings as such cannot be remembered; it is propositions about feelings that one remembers (5. 54).

  7. One becomes conscious of feelings “by talking about them, whether in speech or in any other language” (6. 22). The artist goes the extra step of being conscious of this “linguistic activity,” and trying to perform it well (6. 29).

  8. Desire is distinguished from mere appetite by passion, which gives us the idea of wanting one thing rather than another (11. 15). Thus, coming to know what we want requires more than mere reflection (11. 14, 18); to insist otherwise is dangerous (11. 19).

In discussing passion as such, Collingwood considered the example of fear of a bull (10. 23). Fear is not a rational response to the bull; but by the Law of Primitive Survivals, fear of the bull persists, even in a person who is rational (10. 24). This fear may “take charge”—and here Collingwood makes a forward reference to ¶13. 67, in the “Choice” chapter now under consideration.

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Meanwhile, fear may become anger (10. 47). Collingwood does not exemplify this with the bull, and I have no experience of bulls. I do have some experience of bicycling in traffic (albeit only in the United States, mostly back in the 1990s): here I suppose I have seen how fear of being run over turns into anger at drivers who act as if they would run me over.

Strictly speaking, one does not choose between fear and anger (10. 45). One of them just happens; or first the one, then the other. Collingwood returns to the idea in Chapter XIII, and to the example of the bull, but with a difference. The possibility of being angry at the bull is not discussed, though I should think anger might induce one not to flee a bull. This anger would be anger, or shame, for one’s own cowardice.

Faced with a bull, the person dominated by fear has no choice but to run away. The alternative of calming walking by is a closed alternative (13. 15). Choice requires open alternatives (13. 16).

The fearful person prefers to flee, has a preference for fleeing (13. 14). It can happen that the person nonetheless does not flee. How is this possible? This is the problem of free will.

“There are many pseudo-problems of free will” (13. 17), though Collingwood seems to name only the one overarching pseudo-problem, which is to answer the question of whether we have free will at all. Samuel Johnson dismissed this question.

13. 18. Johnson was pointing out (correctly) that freedom is a first-order object of consciousness of 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).

Nonetheless, I have engaged in such arguments, as when I was the external (non-departmental) member of the doctoral examining committee of a philosophy student who contended that we had no free will.

I would say now that, for Collingwood, feeling free is being free. When it comes to a feeling, there is no difference between seeming and being. Nonetheless, some persons assert that free will is an illusion. Perhaps this idea comes from a belief in natural science: a belief in the principle of natural science that everything that happens is governed by laws. Humans may break the laws of the state; but nothing can break natural law.

Therefore, it is argued, we are not free. But this is a non sequitur. Our feeling of freedom is freedom; there is no arguing it away. One may perhaps engage in exercises to change how one feels. Such exercises are found, for example, in the Manual or Enchiridion of Epictetus (compiled by Arrian):

Never say about anything, I have lost it, but say I have restored it. Is your child dead? It has been restored. Is your wife dead? She has been restored. Has your estate been taken from you? Has not then this also been restored? But he who has taken it from me is a bad man. But what is it to you, by whose hands the giver demanded it back? So long as he may allow you, take care of it as a thing which belongs to another, as travelers do with their inn.

I would say only that to make such recommendations is to presume that one’s listener is free to follow them. Collingwood will address this matter, after a fashion, later in Chapter XIII, after the paragraphs that I quoted in “Freedom of Will” (which went only as far as ¶13. 44).

Meanwhile, we take the real problem of free will as in ¶13. 2, quoted at the beginning: how do we become free? Freedom is freedom to choose; thus we cannot choose to be free. To say more, we have to be clearer about what freedom is.

13. 25. The freedom of the will is, positively, freedom to choose; and, negatively, freedom from desire; not the condition of having no desires, but the condition of not being at their mercy.

What does it mean, not to be at the mercy of desire, but to “control one’s appetites” (13. 27)?

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.

I suppose Collingwood’s point here is the distinction between appetite and desire. Appetite has no object, and so it cannot be renounced; desire has an object, which can be renounced. This is done by naming the object, “in the language [that one] really talks” (13. 42). One should remember that language for Collingwood is not necessarily something like English or Greek. It could be “baby talk” or “body language.” Early on, in the “Appetite” chapter, Collingwood showed the generality of language.

7. 24. A man is conscious (because he has found language of some kind by which to ‘mean’ it: necessarily a very primitive, illogical, ejaculatory sort of language) of a confused mass of feeling. That is the first stage of mental life. Then he ‘attends to’ some element or group of elements in this mass of feeling. This is the second stage of mental life.

In the fourth grade I was taught, by the art teacher who, thirteen years later, would lend me his copy of The Principles of Art, by somebody named Collingwood—I read this book, then ordered my own copy so I could read it again; then a few years later I found An Autobiography, and then The Idea of History, and then I sought out all the rest—but in the fourth grade I was taught that gray was a combination of red, yellow, and blue, but brown was also a combination of red, yellow, and blue. Mixing the three primary colors can give one result or another. We use language throughout our mental life. We may name what we want, either to turn this want into a desire, or by way of declining to pursue it.

As I recall from his autobiography, Malcolm X found liberation through declaring in a prison cafeteria, “I don’t eat pork.”

Speaking is how we become free. There is no reason why we become free (13. 4). To become free is a kind of suicide (13. 3); it is to accept unhappiness (13. 29). Freedom does give you something better than happiness, namely self-respect (13. 31), but you cannot know this in advance. Thus becoming free is not “a utilitarian act”: it is not useful (13. 32).

There is no point inventing an “occult entity” (13. 36), such as Freud’s “death instinct” (13. 34), in order to explain why we become free. As a rule, we pursue happiness; but the rule inevitably has exceptions, and there is no way to reformulate the rule to accommodate those exceptions (13. 38).

Does one want to argue here? People may repeatedly do things that, experience shows, will make them unhappy. Having in mind Tam O’Shanter from the previous article, we may take drinking to excess as an example. One can give a name to why people do this. The name could be addiction or something else. But addiction is not a law of nature. People do, sometimes, become free of their addictions. There are techniques for doing this, but their efficacy is not a law of nature either: sometimes the techniques do not work.

Collingwood refers to the “technique of self-liberation” (13. 48). I suppose this just means the “how” of self-liberation: it is achieved through the use of language, possibly in undergoing psycho-analysis (13. 47). Collingwood proceeds to look at the “what”—Collingwood says the “consequences”—of self-liberation.

Inglis, History Man cover: dirt road through a mountain pass

Self-liberation is the conquering of one’s passions. This doctrine “is fundamental to at least three, if not four, major religions: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity, with its offshoot of Mohammedanism” (13. 48). I wonder whether Collingwood would call Christianity an offshoot of Judaism. Collingwood’s mother Dorrie was “daughter of a nonobservant, partly Jewish family, born Edith Isaac” (Fred Inglis, History Man, Princeton University Press, 2011, page 8); I don’t know what partly Jewish means here, unless only the father was Jewish.

Neither do I know of any other mentions by Collingwood of Confucianism. He mentions Buddhism in Religion and Philosophy as having a theory of God, even though the Buddhist has no personal God; but “he believes in certain eternal principles; that is his ‘theory of God.’ ” Now, in New Leviathan, concerning the doctrine of self-liberation as the conquering of passions, Collingwood says, “The pre-Christian thinkers of Europe, unlike those of Asia, did not realize this” (13. 49).

The modern pagan denies the doctrine of self-liberation through conquest of passion.

13. 52. But a modern European ‘pagan’ is not maintaining any view that was maintained before the coming of Christianity. What he is maintaining is an escapist fantasy, or a group of escapist fantasies.

13. 53. Its essence is a proposal to abandon freedom, both practical, in the shape of an organized life, and theoretical, in the shape of a scientific life; and to do so deliberately, by a voluntary exchange of this contemptible Christian world for a better pagan world.

One may ask whether Collingwood is fair to paganism. He calls the exchange of the Christian for a pagan world,

13. 54. An inconsistent proposal, because the act of abandoning freedom is to be a free act, and the act of choosing the world which you think better is to be an act of choice. In brief: the proposal is to decide on a life from which decision shall be excluded.

Who says pagans want to abandon freedom? I suppose pagans would say they are seeking freedom. It could be freedom from paternalistic oppressive religious dogma, like the dogma whereby women cannot be priests, but must always serve men (perhaps with the excuse that men themselves are to serve God). The pagan may seek freedom from the dogma that nature exists only to serve man: a dogma that has filled with skyscrapers a piece of land in our crowded part of Istanbul that was open (because it had been a stadium) when we moved here.

Torun Center, Şişli, Istanbul, February 12, 2017

Torun Center, Şişli, Istanbul, February 12, 2017

Collingwood’s notion of paganism may be illuminated by the final chapter of New Leviathan, “The Fourth Barbarism: The Germans.” Here (writing in 1942), Collingwood describes how the Germans have liberated themselves:

45. 35. Suppose there were a generation, say, of Germans, who happened to have been educated by the most pedantic of professors, against whose teaching, like good little boys, they had never risen in revolt.

45. 36. Suppose the professors had never heard of Locke, but fancied in a stick-in-the-mud sort of way that a good little boy must mind not only his book but two kinds of book in particular: his logic and his grammar; wishing to turn him into a gerund-grinding little boy.

45. 37. Suppose one day the little boys turned naughty, and barred out their schoolmaster-professor; should we not commend them for showing a proper spirit and bringing about what I dare say they would be ignorant enough to call a ‘revolution’ (26. 7) in their school?

45. 38. If we did, I only suggest that we should be careful to praise them for the right things and not for the wrong. In the course of their so-called revolution their apple-stealing will perhaps have greatly improved, but their lessons will have gone to glory; instead of getting better, their school-work, by which it is likely that these good little gerund-grinders would set exaggerated store, would get very much worse.

45. 39. And they could not know that it had got worse; because in the ‘revolution’ they had got rid of the only men who were both able and trusted to mark their papers and tell them how they were doing.

The reference to Locke is to the idea that “it is a great mark of folly to over-estimate the value of logic, or to think that anything can be done with it that cannot be done just as well without it” (45. 31).

In some sense, pagans may be barring out the schoolmaster, as did the British voters who rejected the European Union, along with the American voters who rejected Hillary Clinton. There may be voters with carefully-thought-out reasons for voting against the supposed “experts”; but I suspect the numbers of such thoughtful voters are small.

Collingwood takes the modern pagan to be somebody who has indeed reached the maturity of having free will and recognizing it. Collingwood goes on to consider the possibility of a person in whom freedom is only preconscious (13. 6).

13. 62. As opposed to the man who never grows up, we have here a man who cannot or will not admit that he has grown up.

Such a person is “incapable of decision” (13. 64) and needs to have her self-respect “aroused” (13. 63). This is a need for all of us: “There are no circumstances in which it can be to any man’s advantage that another man should become incapable of decision. It is very tempting to fancy that there are; but there are not” (13. 66).

Collingwood is here talking about the person who is free without knowing it. This person should not have her self-respect undermined (13. 65). I wonder if Donald Trump has matured even to the level of preconscious freedom. It is however possible that his apparent lack of self-control is only an act.

Finally, one aspect of indecisiveness is making overly detailed plans (13. 75). Making a decision is a first-order object of consciousness; but what one decides to do is only second order (13. 72). It is an abstraction, and as such, “not quite determinate” (13. 73). “The most successful men of action prefer … to leave the details for extemporary decision; a man incapable of even thus much improvisation is no man of action, and cannot make himself one by meticulous planning” (13. 75).

17 Trackbacks

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