The Voluntarist and Anti-Voluntarist Tradition in Politics


For a while now I’ve been gathering the threads of two oppositional aspects of our political tradition: the Voluntarist and Anti-Voluntarist. Defenders of voluntarism shift from various perspectives such as the theological, political, formal, and substantive dimensions with a careful eye toward the concept’s virtues and limitations as understood by its expositors and critics, among them Arnauld, Pascal, Malebranche, Leibniz, Locke, Spinoza, Montesquieu, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Constant, Tocqueville, Adam Smith, and John Rawls. Yet, there have been many detractors of this tradition of volitional will, or the concept of the General Will, or Will of the People in democratic politics. Those such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Stalin, the later Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Agamben, and many others have maligned this tradition as inadequate to the task, and have opted one way or the other for a more rationalist or intellect base approach. Recently I learned from others on FB that Peter Hallward is working on a trilogy of works dealing with the voluntarist tradition both synthetically and genealogically. On whichever side of the fence you see yourself, defender or detractor, it’s worth reading this essay below by Peter Hallward, “From Prescription to Volition” by Peter Hallward (2014):

“Ever since 2005, then, I’ve been working on how best to address this problem, on the hypothesis that the clearest, simplest and most economical solution is to draw on the old notion of political will, and to conceive it as the basis for a broadly dialectical conception of voluntarism. To frame processes of domination and liberation in terms of political will helps to foreground the basic difference between the involuntary and the voluntary dimensions of social life, and thus helps reduce or transform the one in favour of the other. In every situation where it applies, such a voluntarist approach serves to clarify a version of what I take to be the most important question of political practice: how can a dominated and coerced group or class of people free themselves from this coercion and acquire the power they need to determine their own course of action, consciously, deliberately or ‘willingly’, in the face of the specific obstacles and resistance this course will confront? If the modern ‘riddle of history’ remains the passage from the domain of necessity to the reign of freedom, what needs to be done to enable this passage itself to be freely undertaken?”

As he tells us his project is “currently trying to tackle this cluster of ideas and historical sequences from two angles, one broadly synthetic, the other more genealogical. The synthetic project is intended to be a somewhat systematic study of the notion and practice of the will of the people as such, with sections devoted to accounts of the people on the one hand and of the will on the other, along with the most fruitful attempts to think them together, for instance via the effort made by Marx and Blanqui, followed by Luxemburg, Lenin and their contemporaries, to think the notion of a resolute, determined and autonomous proletariat, as the ‘leading edge’ of a mobilisation in pursuit of the political and economic emancipation of the people as a whole.”

He has defined the various defenders and detractors of this voluntarist theory that has been “…systematically downplayed if not dismissed by many of the most innovative figures in continental philosophy, ever since the turn against Sartre and existentialism in the early 1960s — and in many ways, ever since the turn away from the voluntarist conceptions of moral and political philosophy defended, in various ways, by Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, but then rejected by figures as varied and divergent as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Stalin, the later Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Agamben, and many others.”

More here: “From Prescription to Volition”.


One might also need to review some of the history of notions of volition, will, autonomy etc.. Two works that stand out in this regard are:

Jerome B. Schneewind’s, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy

Karl Ameriks, Kant and the Fate of Autonomy: Problems in the Appropriation of the Critical Philosophy


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