The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to the Present Day

The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to the Present Day

The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to the Present Day

The Will and Human Action: From Antiquity to the Present Day


What is the will? And what is its relation to human action?Throughout history, philosophers have been fascinated by the idea of 'the will': the source of the drive that motivates human beings to act. However, there has never been a clear consensus as to what the will is and how it relates to human action. Some philosophers have taken the will to be based firmly in reason and rational choice, and some have seen it as purely self-determined. Others have replaced the idea of the human will with a more general drive uniting humans and the rest of nature, living and non-living.This collection of nine specially commissioned papers trace the formulation and treatment of the problem of the will from ancient philosophy through the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, to modern philosophy, and right up to contemporary theories. Philosophers discussed include Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Hobbes, Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.


Thomas Pink and M. W. F. Stone

Modern philosophy of action is largely agreed, along with common sense, on what might count as particularly clear examples of its subject matter. Consider crossing the road, raising one’s hand, or thinking hard about what to do this summer - these are things that one can do intentionally or deliberately, as actions. By contrast the idea of the will is much more obscure. There is hardly any clear consensus, either among philosophers or within everyday opinion, about what might count as a clear case of willing. the very absence of such a consensus might be said to reflect a fundamental lack of clarity about just what the notions of ‘will’ and ‘willing’ legitimately involve.

It may, then, be surprising that throughout history, at least from late antiquity onwards, philosophers have frequently turned to some theory of the will in order to characterize and clarify human action. Not only that, but the notion of the will has been central to many philosophical accounts of the human self and of the relationship of human beings to the wider world of nature. Despite historical interest in the will, it is important to stress that here again, one can hardly speak of any consensus. For some, the will is a reason-involving psychological capacity that distinguishes humans from the other animals. While for others, the will is a drive that extends beyond reason, even beyond animality itself, and which can be said to unite human beings with inanimate nature.

If it is possible to identify any recurring features in the historical discussion of the will then it is this: the term will has been taken by most philosophers to refer to the source of a drive that expresses itself in human action if nowhere else. For familiar and everyday actions such as crossing the road or thinking hard are always expressions of some kind of drive or motivation. This drive or motivation provides action with something essential to its nature - its ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’, to the attainment of which the action is . . .

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