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Will, the

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N086-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

As traditionally conceived, the will is the faculty of choice or decision, by which we determine which actions we shall perform. As a faculty of decision, the will is naturally seen as the point at which we exercise our freedom of action – our control of how we act. It is within our control or up to us which actions we perform only because we have a capacity to decide which actions we shall perform, and it is up to us which such decisions we take. We exercise our freedom of action through freely taken decisions about how we shall act.

From late antiquity onwards, many philosophers took this traditional conception of the will very seriously, and developed it as part of a general theory of specifically human action. Human action, on this theory, is importantly different from animal action. Not only do humans have a freedom of or control over their action which animals lack; but this freedom supposedly arises because humans can act on the basis of reason, while animal action is driven by appetite and instinct. Both this freedom and rationality involve humans possessing what animals are supposed to lack: a will or rational appetite – a genuine decision making capacity.

From the sixteenth century on, this conception of the will and its role in human action met with increasing scepticism. There was no longer a consensus that human action involved mental capacities radically unlike those found in animals. And the idea that free actions are explained by free decisions of the will came to be seen as viciously regressive: if our freedom of action has to come from a prior freedom of will, why shouldn’t that freedom of will have to come from some yet further, will-generating form of freedom – and so on ad infinitum?

Yet it is very natural to believe that we do have a decision making capacity, and that it is up to us how we exercise that capacity – that it is indeed up to us which actions we decide to perform. The will-scepticism of early modern Europe, which persists in much modern Anglophone philosophy of action, may then have involved abandoning a model of human action and human rationality that is deeply part of common sense. We need to understand this model far better before we can conclude that its abandonment by so many philosophers really was warranted.

Citing this article:
Pink, Thomas. Will, the, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N086-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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