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The term voluntarism (from the Latin voluntas, "will") applies to any philosophical theory according to which the will is prior to or superior to the intellect or reason. More generally, voluntaristic theories interpret various aspects of experience and nature in the light of the concept of the will, or as it is called in certain older philosophies, passion, appetite, desire, or conatus. Such theories may be psychological, ethical, theological, or metaphysical.

Psychological Voluntarism

Voluntaristic theories of psychology represent men primarily as beings who will certain ends and whose reason and intelligence are subordinate to will. The outstanding classical representatives are Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Arthur Schopenhauer. Hobbes, for example, thought that all voluntary human behavior is response to desire or aversion, which he brought together under the name "endeavor"; he based his ethical and political theories chiefly on this claim. Hume maintained that reason has no role whatever in the promptings of the will; that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Schopenhauer, the outstanding voluntarist of them all, believed that the will is the very nature or essence of man and indeed of everything, identifying it with the "thing-in-itself" that underlies all phenomena.

The point of all such theories can best be appreciated by contrasting them with the more familiar theories of rationalism found, for example, in Plato's dialogues or René Descartes's Meditations. Plato thought that men ideally perceive certain ends or goals by their reason and then direct their wills to the attainment of these ends or goals. This is why he thought no man could knowingly will evil. Thus in the Symposium he traced the ascent of the soul toward higher and higher ends, the supposition being that these ends are apprehended first by the senses and then ultimately by the pure or unfettered intelligence, which enlists the will or desire for their pursuit. The corruption of a man was for Plato precisely the dominance of the will, that is, of a man's appetites or desires, this being a deviation from what human nature ideally should be. Descartes, similarly, supposed that the understanding first grasps certain ideas or presents certain ends to the mind and that the will then either assents or withholds its assent, thus following rather than directing the understanding.

Voluntarist theories reject this general picture as the reversal of the truth. Ends and goals, according to these theories, become such only because they are willed; they are not first perceived as ends and then willed. Hume in particular maintained that no sense can be made of the idea, so central to Plato's philosophy, of reason directing the passions, or even of its ever conflicting with them. Reason, he argued, is concerned entirely with demonstrations (deduction) or with the relations of cause and effect (induction). In neither case can it give us ends or goals. Mathematics is used in mechanical arts and the like, but always as a means of attaining something that has nothing to do with reason. The computations of a merchant, for example, can be fallacious, but the ends for which they are undertaken can in no sense be fallacious or irrational. They can only be wise or foolish, that is, such as to promote or to frustrate other ends that are again products of the will. Similarly, Hume thought that no discovery of causal connections in nature can by itself have the least influence on the will. Such discoveries can only be useful or useless in enabling men to choose appropriate means to certain ends, which are in no way derived from reason. "It can never in the least concern us to know," Hume said, "that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both causes and effects be indifferent to us." Reason therefore can never produce actions or impulses, nor can it oppose them. An impulse to act can be opposed only by a contrary impulse, not by reason. There can, accordingly, be no such thing as a conflict between reason and passion, and the only way in which willed behavior can be "irrational" is for it to be based upon some misconceptionfor instance, on some erroneous conception of what is a fit means to the attainment of an end that is entirely the product of the will.

The theories of other voluntarists do not differ essentially from Hume's theory, although there are differences of emphasis. All agree that men are moved by their impulses, appetites, passions, or wills and that these are incapable of fallacy or error. There is thus no such thing as a rational or irrational will, although one may will imprudently in relation to other things that one wills. J. G. Fichte expressed this idea when he said that a free being "wills because it wills, and the willing of an object is itself the last ground of such willing."

Ethical Voluntarism

It is obvious that the voluntarist conception of human nature contains implications of the highest importance for ethics. If ends or goals are entirely products of the will and the will is neither rational nor irrational, then ends themselves cannot be termed either rational or irrational and it becomes meaningless to ask whether this or that end is really good or bad independently of its being willed. Hobbes drew precisely this conclusion. To say that something is good, he said, is to say nothing more than that it is an object of one's appetite, and to say that something is bad is only to say that one has an aversion to it. Good and bad are thus purely relative to desires and aversions, which are, of course, sometimes quite different in different men. Wise behavior, on this conception, can be nothing other than prudence, that is, the selection of appropriate means to the attainment of whatever goals one happens to have. Hobbes thought that there is one goal, however, that is fairly common to all men: the goal of self-preservation. His political philosophy thus consisted essentially of formulas by means of which men can preserve themselves in safety and security within a commonwealth.

Essentially the same ideas were defended by Socrates' contemporary, Protagoras, and are reflected in his maxim that "man is the measure of all things." They also find expression in the philosophy of William James and are, in fact, an important aspect of pragmatism in general. James thought that things are good solely by virtue of the fact that they are "demanded," that is, that someone wants them or lays claim to them, and he noted that such a demand might be for "anything under the sun." Considered apart from the demands of sentient beings, nothing in the universe has any worth whatsoever. Hence James concluded that the only proper ethical maxim is to satisfy as many demands as possible, no matter what these happen to be, but at the "least cost," that is, with the minimum of frustration to other demands. It is clear that within the framework of voluntaristic theories like this, no meaning can be attached to asking what is truly worthy of one's desires, unless this question is interpreted to mean "What is in fact satisfying of one's desires?"; nor does it make sense to seek, as did Immanuel Kant, any metaphysical principles of morals. Truth and falsity in ethics are exhausted in questions as to the truth or falsity of various opinions concerning the utility of proposed means to the achievement of ends, that is, to the satisfaction of appetite, desire, and demand. They have no relevance to any questions concerning ends themselves.

Theological Voluntarism

Just as the theories thus far described give prominence to the human will over human reason, so certain theological conceptions give prominence to the divine will. Perhaps the most extreme form of theological voluntarism is exemplified in the thinking of St. Peter Damian (10071072). He maintained that human reason or "dialectic" is worthless in theological matters, for the simple reason that the very laws of logic are valid only by the concurrence of God's will. God is omnipotent, he said, and can therefore render true even those things reason declares to be absurd or contradictory. It is thus idle for philosophers to speculate upon what must be true with respect to divine matters, since these depend only on God's will.

A very similar idea has found expression in many and various forms of fideism, according to which the justification of religious faith is found in the very act of faith itself, which is an act of the will, rather than in rational proof. Thus Søren Kierkegaard described purity of heart as the willing of a single thing and emphatically denied that such notions as reason and evidence have any place in the religious life. William James, following suggestions put forth by Blaise Pascal, similarly justified the will to believe, defending the absolute innocence, under certain circumstances, of religious belief entirely in the absence of evidence. Many contemporary religious leaders, pressing the same notion, give prominence to the idea of religious commitment, suggesting that religion is primarily a matter of the will rather than of reason. This is, in fact, traditional in Christian thought, for even the most philosophical and rationalistic theologians, such as St. Anselm of Canterbury, have almost without exception given priority to the act of faith, maintaining that religious belief should precede rather than follow rational understanding. This idea is expressed in the familiar dictum credo ut intelligam, which means "I believe, in order that I may understand."

Perhaps no religious thinker has stressed the primacy of God's will in questions of morality more than Kierkegaard, who seems to have held that the divine will is the only and the ultimate moral justification for any act. Strictly understood, this means that an action that might otherwise be deemed heinous is not so, provided it is commanded by God. In the fourteenth century this was quite explicitly maintained by William of Ockham. William said that the divine will, and not human or divine reason, is the ultimate standard of morality, that certain acts are sins solely because they have been forbidden by God, and other acts are meritorious only because they have been commanded by God. He denied that God forbids certain things because they are sins or commands certain things because they are virtues, for it seemed to him that this would be a limitation upon God's will. There can be, he thought, no higher justification for any act than that God wills it, nor any more final condemnation of an act than that God forbids it. The moral law, accordingly, was for William simply a matter of God's free choice, for God's choice cannot be constrained by any moral law, being itself the sole source of that law. This view is frequently echoed in religious literature but usually only rhetorically.

Metaphysical Voluntarism

A number of thinkers have believed that the concept of the will is crucial to the understanding of law, ethics, and human behavior generally; a few have suggested that it is crucial to the understanding of reality itself. Such suggestions are found in the philosophies of Fichte, Henri Bergson, and others, but in no philosophy does it have such central importance as in that of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer thought that will is the underlying and ultimate reality and that the whole phenomenal world is only the expression of will. He described living things as the objectifications of their wills and sought to explain not only the behavior but also the very anatomical structures of plants, animals, and men in terms of this hypothesis. The will was described by Schopenhauer as a blind and all-powerful force that is literally the inexhaustible creator of every visible thing. The sexual appetite, which he considered to be fundamentally the same in all living things, was described by him as a blind urge to live and to perpetuate existence without any goal beyond that, and he denied that it had anything whatever to do with reason or intelligence, being in fact more often than not opposed to them. The religious impulse found in all cultures at all times was similarly explained as the response to a blind and irrational will to possess endless existence. In the growth and development of all living things Schopenhauer discerned the unfolding of the will in nature, wherein certain things appear and transform themselves in accordance with a fairly unvarying pattern and in the face of obstacles and impediments, solely in accordance with what is willed in a metaphysical sense but entirely without any rational purpose or goal. On the basis of this voluntarism, he explained ethics in terms of the feelings of self-love, malice, and compassion, all of which are expressions of the will, and he deniedin sharp contrast to Kantthat morality has anything to do with reason or intelligence. He argued that men have free will only in the sense that every man is the free or unfettered expression of a will and that men are therefore not the authors of their own destinies, characters, or behavior. Like other voluntarists, Schopenhauer thus emphasized the irrational factors in human behavior and, in doing so, anticipated much that is now taken for granted in those sophisticated circles that have come under the influence of modern psychological theories.

See also Anselm, St.; Bergson, Henri; Descartes, René; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Dialectic; Ethics, History of; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Fideism; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; James, William; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Pascal, Blaise; Peter Damian; Plato; Protagoras of Abdera; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Socrates; Volition; William of Ockham.


A good general work on voluntarism that is both historical and critical is Vernon J. Bourke's Will in Western Thought (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964).

Thomas Hobbes's ethical and political theories are developed in his Leviathan, of which there are many editions. See also Body, Man, and Citizen, a selection from Hobbes's writings edited by Richard S. Peters (New York: Collier, 1962).

David Hume's defense of psychological voluntarism is best expressed in his Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part 3, especially Section 3; the quotations in this article are taken from L. A. Selby-Bigge's edition of that work (Oxford, 1888 and 1955).

For a fairly concise expression of Schopenhauer's voluntarism, see The Will to Live, a collection of his essays edited by R. Taylor (New York, 1962).

J. G. Fichte develops the idea of an active power in nature in the first book of his The Vocation of Man, edited by R. M. Chisholm (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1956). The quotation from Fichte comes from his The Science of Rights, translated by A. E. Kroeger (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1869), p. 193.

One of the clearest ancient defenses of a pragmatic basis of laws and institutions is given in Plato's Protagoras, where it is ascribed to Protagoras and criticized by Socrates. William James's ethical voluntarism is developed in his essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," and the application of his principles to religious belief is given in his "The Will to Believe," both of which are found in nearly all editions of his popular essays.

The theological voluntarism of St. Peter Damian, as well as William of Ockham's ethical theories, are very well summarized in Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy, Vols. II and III (London, 1950 and 1953). See also Étienne Gilson's Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York: Scribners, 1938) for a clear account of the opposition between rationalism and fideism. Kierkegaard has eloquently expressed the opposition between reason and religion in many writings, but see particularly his Purity of Heart, translated by Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper, 1938).

Richard Taylor (1967)


views updated Jun 11 2018


From the Latin voluntas, meaning will, "voluntarism" is used in two senses in philosophy and theology. For scholastics, the term is applied to any theory that gives prominence to will as opposed to intellect; whereas among modern thinkers, the term designates any theory that explains the universe as emanating ultimately from Will itself. In the former sense, the philosophies of St. augustine, St. anselm of canterbury, william of ockham, and John duns scotus may be styled voluntarist. Among the moderns, the principal voluntarists include Blaise pascal, Immanuel kant, and Arthur schopenhauer.

Patristic and Medieval Voluntarism. Christian thinkers of the patristic and medieval period are usually classified as voluntarists, not because they grant an exclusive primacy to will, since God is also Truth, but because they approach existential truth by a subjective involvement, by choices based upon love.

Augustinian Theory. The philosophy of St. Augustine, for example, is characterized by a burning search for the beatifying Good. For him, the spirit can rest in a saturating joy only if it is free from all doubt and uncertainty. While admitting that the mind attains unchanging and necessary truths, St. Augustine inquires how it would perceive these truths if it were not illumined by God. He holds that, in the order of means, knowledge seems to be first, but its function is only mediative; in the order of the end or perfection, love is primordial. Man does not have to acknowledge the truth passively; such a truth does not beatify; it must be desired, willed, and loved. God is more than an idea, He is a presence; He is more than an imposing need, He is an attracting and exalting love. "God is charity."

Yet nowhere does Augustine subordinate intellect to will. The Neoplatonism that underlies the whole of his philosophical speculation makes such an attitude impossible. Although his doctrine of grace and of providence supposes a definite and characteristic psychology of will, in the metaphysical order Augustine always conceives God as essentially intelligence. God is the "Father of Truth." On this is based a proof of God's existence that occurs several times in his works and is peculiarly Augustinian in tone (Div. daem. 53.2 [Patrologia Latina, ed.J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 187890) 40:35]; Lib. arb. 2.733 [Patrologia Latina 32:124363]). God is "the sun of the soul," Himself performing the functions that scholastics ascribed to the intellectus agens (Gen. ad litt. 12.31.59 [Patrologia Latina 34:479]). Faith, too, with St. Augustine as with St. Anselm, involves intelligence. For both, the principle intelligo ut credam is no less true than the principle credo ut intelligam (In psalm. 118.18.3 [Patrologia Latina 37:1552]; Serm. 43.7.9 [Patrologia Latina 38:258]).

Scotus's Voluntarism. The philosophy of John Duns Scotus is more distinctly voluntaristic. On the freedom of the will he is particularly clear and emphatic. He insists that the will itself, and nothing but the will, is the total cause of its volitions. It is not determined by another, but determines itself contingenter, not inevitabiliter, to one of the alternatives that are before it (In 2 sent. 25). This is freedom, an attribute that is essential to all higher forms of will, and consequently is not suspended or annulled in the beatific vision (In 4 sent. 49.4). Because the will holds sway over all other faculties, and again because to it pertains that charity which is the greatest of the virtues, will is a more noble attribute of man than is intelligence. Will supposes intelligence, but the former is posterior generatione, and it is therefore the more perfect (In 4 sent. 49.4).

Modern Theories of Will. Among modern philosophers for whom voluntarism is basic, the general attempt is to approach being, not through thought and necessity, but through will and freedom.

Pascal's Voluntarism. In the 17th century, the voluntaristic Christianity of Blaise Pascal was set in opposition to the rationalistic humanism of René descartes. According to Pascal, the mathematical method is not the only method permitting one to attain the truth; he therefore draws a sharp distinction between the spirit of geometry and the spirit of refinement. The heart has reasons that reason does not know; the heart, rather than reason, experiences God.

For Pascal, if man is to attain belief in God, he must arouse his desire, eliminate the obstacles, and jolt himself from his torpor. The desire for happiness haunts and disturbs man's heart. God is vastly desirable and infinitely lovable; it is tragic not to seek Him.

Kant's Theory. The voluntarism of Immanuel Kant arises from the fact that he perceives only the structural element of intellectual knowledge, without its existential aspect. He explains knowledge by the determinism of the datum and the forms of sensitivity, the categories of the spirit and pure apperception, the term of which is a purely ideal Absolute. From his analysis of knowledge, he concludes that, since understanding has no intuition proper to it, metaphysics lacks ontological import.

Yet one more easily renounces the truth than the good. Despite his agnosticism, Kant seeks, at any price, to maintain the absolute value of the moral act. For this purpose, he separates this act from God, since the mind cannot know His existence with certitude, as well as from interest and sentiment, which would make this value relative. The moral precept is categorical and universal (see categorical imperative). One must perform one's duty, not because it is pleasing or interesting, or because one seeks to attain God, but only because it is a duty. Since the law obliges absolutely, and no one is held to the impossible, Kant concludes that human freedom is apodictically certain.

The ethical formalism of Kantian morality results from a dualism that separates the will from the instincts, goodness from truth, and man from God. This is a nonexistent formalism, since, if the will must take account of universal precepts, it should also be concrete, under the penalty of being whimsical and unreal. It is an idolatrous formalism, since this law must be adored although it arises from human subjectivity and does not beatify. Kant's moralism tolls the knell of morality.

Schopenhauer's Quietism. Arthur Schopenhauer, a disciple of Kant, adopted Kantian agnosticism and accentuated it. Nevertheless, although Kant held that noumena were unknowable, he did not want to eliminate them. How can one explain the presence of noumena in consciousness other than by a faculty concerned with the absolute? According to Schopenhauer, this faculty of the absolute constituting the substance of being is the will. The will is the only substance, the ultimate reality, the sole, indestructible producer of existence. Yet, in man, the will, which is one, infinite, and unchangeable in itself, is individualized and limited by its relation with the body, and misled by knowledge, which deceives it by empty delusions. Because of this fact, man's will-to-live, which is temporal, is illusory, impotent, and forever doomed to misfortune. How can man be freed from misfortune? The philosopher or sage has intuition about the worthlessness of the will-to-live; he is healed from illusion; freed from desire and fear, need and regret. Renouncing the principle of individuation, he identifies himself with that impersonal and cosmic will which constitutes Being. quietism, a radical will ostracizing the world and annihilating the self, is the supreme wisdom. This is a curious metaphysics, since, having exalted the will and isolated knowledge, it states that the will is basically impotent and constrains it not to will any more and to undergo an impersonal Destiny.

Nietzsche and the Will. Schopenhauer said that the will is the substance of being; in order to be, he renounced existence. According to Nietzsche, the mischievous phantasmagoria of the noumena must be renounced; the only existents are the phenomena, the free acts of the will. The act of the will is absolute in itself, not ordered to something beyond it, whether it is a matter of the values claimed by the moralists, the paradise of the Christians, the nirvana of the Buddhists, or the happiness dreamed by Schopenhauer. One must forget to act "for," "for the sake of," or "because." These expressions are sacrilegious, since they divest the will of what belongs to it and make it dependent, whereas it is absolutely good in itself. Centuries of logic, morality, and religion have debased the will, which, of itself, is free and sovereign. There are those who have spoken of necessary truths, necessary laws, absolute certainties, and religious duties. Man subjected himself to these false teachers and became corrupt. He must become free from this subjection. Morality is a crutch for the crippled, religion a hospice for the sick. Superman emancipates himself by an act of revolt, he seeks the death of God. Being completely free, he feels joyful in this act of complete emancipation. This, however, is a purely formal, fictitious, and nonexistent freedom, since, for Nietzsche as for Schopenhauer, the will, lacking all power of accomplishment, remains impotent and is imprisoned in the immutable cycle of the eternal return.

Pragmatism and Value Philosophies. Although voluntaristic, other modern philosophies such as pragmatism and the many philosophies of value are not so negative. William james, basically an empiricist, reacts against positive scientism. One thinks, not for the pleasure of thinking, but to live. Whether scientific or philosophical, every thought arises from a need and corresponds to an interest. Every judgment, then, is an act of faith. A true judgment is specified and determined, not by the nature of the object, but by the finality of the subject. Its criterion, then, is subjective. Thereby James justifies belief in freedom, assuring more than one value for man's action, and belief in God, provided that God gives him help and thereby strengthens him.

The point of departure for Kantian morality is the categorical and universal imperative, which is the source of the identical character in the moral duties imposed upon all men. The point of departure for contemporary moralities is not an a priori reality, namely, law, but the subject who desires, wills, projects, who is situated in such a milieu at such a time, who uses such a resource or suffers such a weakness. Each person's duty must be defined, and the ideal line of his progress must be traced, from the aspect of this concrete situation. Duty is defined, not only by the moral law, but even more so by vocation, that is, the singular call resounding in each conscience and simultaneously taking account of its effective reality and the universal values inciting this call.

For Kant, the aim of the will is the law; for the pragmatist, the will is finalized by values. A value is what is desirable, what makes a thing good, a principle of existentiality. Values are surely multiple: economic and spiritual values, esthetic and moral values, profane and religious values. Is a subordination among these possible? Some place them in a hierarchical order, since some values are relative, others absolute; some are hypothetical, others unconditional. There is an a priori order of the heart as well as an a priori order of reason. At the top of all these values there appears the Value par excellence, a living God, who actualizes and infinitely prolongs human activity. Very often this God is no longer the God of philosophers, but the God of Christians.

Critique. In opposition to the determinism of the intellectualism philosophers, modern voluntarists overemphasize the fact of freedom and analyze it as something intrinsically constituting being. On the basis that man's conduct is not predetermined like that of the animal, they go to the extreme position of holding that man should make himself exist, that, to exist and make the world exist, man must recognize self-imposing subjective attitidues. The pitfalls of intellectualism and voluntarism seem to be present throughout the history of human thought. As two extreme philosophical attitudes, they are oversimplified attempts to arrive at the truth, as well as oversimplified means of combating patent error.

See Also: existentialism; intellectualism; irrationalism; will.

Bibliography: h. j. marrou and a. m. la bonnardiÈre, S. Augustin et l'Augustinisme (Paris 1955). j. laporte, Le Coeur et la raison d'après Pascal (Paris 1950). e. boutroux, La Philosophie de Kant (Paris 1926). j. wahl, Études Kierkegaardiennes (Paris 1938). f. copleston, Arthur Schopenhauer (London 1946). w. a. kaufmann, Nietzsche (Princeton 1950). j. royce, William James and Other Essays (New York 1911). p. ortegat, Religion et Intuition, 2 v. (Gembloux 1948). r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 3:429435. a. colombo, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:169194. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 15.2:330122.

[p. ortegat/

l. j. walker]


views updated May 29 2018

vol·un·ta·rism / ˈväləntəˌrizəm/ • n. 1. the principle of relying on voluntary action (used esp. with reference to the involvement of voluntary organizations in social welfare). ∎  hist. (esp. in the 19th century) the principle that churches or schools should be independent of the state and supported by voluntary contributions. 2. Philos. the doctrine that the will is a fundamental or dominant factor in the individual or the universe.DERIVATIVES: vol·un·ta·rist n. & adj.vol·un·ta·ris·tic / ˌväləntəˈristik/ adj.


views updated Jun 11 2018

voluntarism A term usually contrasted with determinism, voluntarism denotes the assumption that individuals are the agents of their actions, and have some control over what they do. Voluntarism's alliance with action contrasts with the deterministic emphasis associated with structure. By accepting human unpredictability, voluntarism renders sociological analysis more difficult, though arguably more interesting. Voluntaristic theories place issues of decision, purpose, and choice at the forefront of sociological analysis. In The Structure of Social Action (1937), Talcott Parsons develops a voluntaristic theory of action, so called because it includes normative elements, subjective categories, choices about means and ends, and effort.

Voluntarism in social science raises the philosophical issue of free will: namely, the belief that choice means freedom, in the sense of individuals being free to will what they will. Most sociologists—even those of a voluntaristic persuasion— recognize that individuals can only do otherwise than they do within limits (perhaps of a cultural or psychological kind). That is, a residual determinism is implied, even though social action is typically not reduced to physical and biological variables.