The action of opening a door by pushing on it is composed of the agent's action of voluntarily exerting force with his or her arm and hand plus that action's causing the door to open. Is the voluntary exertion of arm and hand similarly composed of an action producing a result? There is a clear candidate here for the role of result—namely, the limb's exerting force. It could have exerted exactly the same force, by means of just the same muscle contractions, without the agent's voluntarily exerting the force with it. So the exerting of force by the limb is only a part of the whole action. But does the remainder consist of this part's being caused by action of the agent? Philosophers disagree on the answer to this question. Section I below offers one way of spelling out an affirmative answer (which is developed more fully in Ginet [1990, ch. 2]). Section II briefly sketches some alternative views.
When one voluntarily exerts force with a limb, the action that causes the limb to exert force is a mental action, which, following an old tradition in philosophy and psychology, is called volition. We view such exertions as voluntary because we experience them as directly under our control. This is most clear in those cases of voluntary exertion where we have to concentrate on what we are doing with the body—such as my experience of trying an unfamiliar dance movement with my left leg. Here my attention is focused on my exertion with the leg. I note just how I am trying to exert it and just how the exertion feels. This contrasts with my moving my left leg in the course of walking along enjoying a fine day, where I do not attend at all to my exertion with the leg. I do it, as we say, "automatically," perhaps without even noting that I am now exerting that leg. But the difference is between these cases should not be exaggerated. It is not at all like the difference between one of the foregoing experiences and an exertion of my body that I experience as purely involuntary, such as the movement of my lower leg in response to a sharp tap just below the kneecap. In this last case, though I experience the leg's exertion, I do not experience it as something that I voluntarily determine. But my experience of voluntary exertions, even when it is most nonattentive, is colored with the sense of my making them happen.
I experience my voluntary acts as the specific exertions they are—at least in those respects that I voluntarily determine. If in walking I had made an appreciably different movement with my leg at one point than the one I actually made—taking a much longer step, say, than the one I actually took—my experience of making the movement would have been correspondingly different, whether or not I was attending to the experience.
The normal subjective experience of voluntarily exerting the body in a certain way is a compound of two significantly different parts. There is, first, a perceptual aspect. One perceives the exertion in a certain direct way, not visually or by feeling it with some other part of one's body. But the experience of voluntary exertion is more than the direct perception of the exertion. I could feel my arm exerting force in just the same way it does when I thrust it upward without experiencing this exertion as something I make happen. I could experience it as something that just happens to me, unconnected with my will, while at the same time perceiving the exertion of the arm as just like one I might have produced voluntarily. The voluntariness of the experience of voluntary exerting is a further part of it, distinct from the perceptual part, an aspect that would be more conspicuous by its absence than it is by its presence.
It is this nonperceptual part of the experience that is volition. This part could occur all by itself, unaccompanied by perception of exertion. It could seem to me that I voluntarily exert a force upward with my arm without at the same time having the sense that I feel the exertion happening. The arm feels paralyzed and anaesthetized.
Neither sort of impoverished experience—seeming to feel an exertion without seeming voluntarily to make it or seeming voluntarily to make it without seeming to feel it—happens very often. But both do in fact occasionally occur. And we know enough about how our experience depends on what happens in our neural system to know how it is possible in principle to produce either sort. Seeming to make an exertion without seeming to feel it could be produced by depriving a subject of the input neural capacity to perceive the exertion while leaving unimpaired their output neural capacity to make the exertion. And we could produce the experience of seeming to feel a given sort of exertion while lacking the sense that it is voluntary by giving to the perceptual system of a subject who is not trying to make any exertion the same neural input that causes a subject to feel that sort of exertion when he or she makes it voluntarily.
The mental action of volition is not an antecedent of the experience of voluntarily exertion, not a prior mental occurrence that triggers the whole package of the exertion and the experience of it. Rather it is that part of the experience whose presence is what makes the exertion seem voluntary and whose absence would make it seem involuntary.
Volition is the means by which I cause my body's exertion when I voluntarily exert it. For my volition counts as my trying to exert it—that is, as my trying to cause it to exert. So when I succeed, it is by this trying, this volition, that I cause it.
Volition resembles certain other mental actions (such as deciding) in having intentional content. The volition involved in my voluntarily exerting a certain force with my arm is volition to exert that sort of force. Its being a volition to exert a certain force with my arm is not a matter of what it causes but an intrinsic property of the mental act itself, in the same way that it is an intrinsic property of a certain act of deciding that it is a deciding to raise my arm.
Volition is an intentional mental occurrence whose content (or object) does not go beyond exerting force with one's body in the immediate present. Occurrent intention and occurrent desire are other sorts of intentional mental occurrences whose contents are not so restricted. Volition to exert in a certain way is not a kind of occurrent desire to exert in that way. For one thing, volition is action and not desire; not even occurrent desire is action. For another thing, it is possible to have volition to exert a certain way without at the time in any way desiring or intending to exert in that way. This would happen, for example, if I were sure that my arm is paralyzed and tried to exert it just to see what it is like to experience inefficacious volition. If I were mistaken about my arm's being paralyzed, I would exert it voluntarily but not intentionally. This shows also that volition to exert in a certain way is not a kind of decision or intention to exert in that way.
Volition differs from deciding also in not being a single-shot mental act with a static content. Volition is a fluid mental activity whose content is continually changing. At each moment, it is concerned only with bodily exertion in the immediate present. I can all at one time decide to swim another length of the pool, but I cannot all at one time have the volition to make the whole sequence of bodily exertions involved in turning a doorknob and pulling the door open, any more than I can perform that sequence of exertions all at one time. Volition is part of the experience of voluntary exertion and its content, unlike the content of a decision or intention, is as much tied to the immediate present as is voluntary exertion itself.
As we approach an instant, the content of volitional activity approaches an unchanging, frozen proposition about the immediate present. What I will at a particular moment is to exert at that moment a determinate degree of force in a determinate direction with one or more parts of my body. I do not will to move my body. The content of volition at a moment is not concerned with movement, which takes time, but only with exertion of directed force at that moment. Temporally extended movements are the objects of intentions rather than volitions. Volitions do not plan ahead, not even a little bit. Volitions do not plan at all. They execute (or try to execute). I have an intention as to what course of movement my body is to take over the next few moments, and in light of that intention I go through a certain course of volitional activity over the period of the movement, willing at each point, in light of my perceptions, the directed force needed at that point to keep the movement on the path prescribed by my intention. Volition is analogous to steering with a steering wheel rather than to steering with buttons that trigger preset patterns of movement. If there are mental triggers of sequences of voluntary exertion (as there may be in familiar, practiced movements), the volitional activity is not the trigger but rather part of what is triggered.
When I exert voluntarily, my volition is not just that my body exert but that I exert with my body. I will not just exerting but exerting caused by me. I will that my willing—this very volition of whose content we speak—cause the exertion. The content must refer to the volition of which it is the content and say that this volition is to cause the body to exert in a certain way.
The content of my volition at an instant could be expressed by me in a proposition of the following form: "I will that this willing cause my bodily part B to exert force of degree F in direction D." Here F is a certain range of degrees of force. and D is a certain range of directions. What I will is never absolutely precise with respect to the degree or direction of the force. When I begin to move a lever, the degree and direction of the force exerted by my arm, as measurable by a precision instrument, could vary within certain limits and still fit the content of my volition. Gaining more finely tuned control of one's body is at least partly a matter of becoming able to will contents that are more determinate.
Several philosophers have put forward accounts of voluntary bodily action that incorporate something like volition but differ from the foregoing account of it in one way or another. Hugh McCann (1972, 1974, 1976 [all reprinted in McCann 1998]) presents an account that is nearly the same as the foregoing one. One minor difference is that on McCann's view, volition (willing) to exert entails intending to exert. John Searle (1983) gives to something he calls intention in action a role similar to the one given volition in the foregoing account in that it is the initial part, rather than a cause or accompaniment, of an action. But it differs in that an intention is not an action, whereas a volition is. Alvin Goldman (1976) gives the name "volition" to a certain kind of occurrent desire, but an occurrent desire is also not an action. Wilfrid Sellars (1976) gives the name to an occurrent intention or decision to act in a certain way; a decision is, like volition, a mental action, but a decision is intrinsically an intention to exert the body in a certain way, whereas a volition is not.
Larry Davis (1979) uses "volition" to name not a conscious mental activity of which we are directly aware but a functionally defined subconscious mental process that is not part of our experience but is posited by theory as that which causes the bodily exertion and the agent's belief that he or she is acting. Frederick Adams and Alfred Mele hold that "the major functional roles ascribed to volition are nicely filled by a triad composed of intention, trying, and information feedback" (1992, p. 323). Trying to A, on their account, "is an event or process that has A-ing as a goal and is initiated and (normally) sustained by a pertinent intention. Successful tryings to A, rather than causing A-ings, are A-ings." So, on their view, in one's voluntary exertion with one's limb, the trying to exert that is involved is to be identified not with a mental action that causes the exertion but with the whole voluntary exertion. There is no mental part of the action that causes the rest. Mele does hold (2002) that any action must have a proximal mental cause—namely, an intention to act straightaway.
According to Timothy O'Connor (2000), an action of a person involves agent causation. The mark of an action is that the agent, the enduring entity that is the person, and not any mental or other event causes the event parts of action. The initial event the agent causes in voluntarily exerting in a certain way could, on this view, be volition as characterized in section I above, but O'Connor himself takes it to be an "executive state of intention" to act in that way (p. 72).
The tryings of Jennifer Hornsby (1980) are mental actions and, in her account of action, play a role in causing bodily events analogous to that played by volition in the foregoing account. But on her account the momentary content of a trying can specify a temporally extended sequence of bodily exertion and even external consequences of these (for example, the content can be to open a door). This and the fact that for her a trying implies intending or desiring the content of the trying make her tryings significantly different from the volitions described section I.
Adams, Frederick, and Alfred R. Mele. "The Intention/Volition Debate." Canadian Journal of Philosophy 22 (1992): 323–338.
Davis, Lawrence. Theory of Action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Goldman, Alvin. "The Volitional Theory Revisited." In Action Theory, edited by Myles Brand and Douglas Walton. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1976.
Hornsby, Jennifer. Actions. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
James, William. "The Will." Chap. 27 in Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1950.
Libet, Benjamin, Anthony Freeman, and Keith Sutherland, eds. The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will. Imprint Academic, 1999.
McCann, Hugh. "Is Raising One's Arm a Basic Action?" Journal of Philosophy 68 (1972): 235–250.
McCann, Hugh. "Trying, Paralysis, and Volition." Review of Metaphysics 28 (1976): 423–442.
McCann, Hugh. "Volition and Basic Action." Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 451–473.
McCann, Hugh. The Works of Agency. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
O'Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Searle, John. Intentionality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Sellars, Wilfrid. "Volitions Re-Affirmed." In Action Theory, edited by Myles Brand and Douglas Walton. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1976.
Carl Ginet (2005)
vo·li·tion / vəˈlishən; vō-/ • n. the faculty or power of using one's will: without conscious volition she backed into her office. PHRASES: of (or by or on) one's own volition voluntarily: they choose to leave early of their own volition.DERIVATIVES: vo·li·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.vo·li·tion·al·ly / -shənl-ē/ adv.vol·i·tive / ˈvälətiv/ adj. ( formal or technical ).