Tracing Voluntarist / Anti-Voluntarist Tradition

Notes from Paul Redding, Continental Idealism Liebniz to Nietzsche:

An appeal to elements from the Platonist and Neoplatonist tradition to be opposed to the strongly nominalist and voluntarist characteristics of emerging modern philosophy. This is particularly found in Leibniz and Hegel, and draws on various features not only of the thought of Plato himself, but especially later Neoplatonists, both pagan (such as Plotinus and Proclus) and Christian (such as Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa and Jacob Böhme). Among the features characterising the thought of this tradition are (a) a prioritising of the role of concepts and inferences in the generation of knowledge over the role of sense experience; (b) a rejection of the nominalist ontology underlying empiricism, and an attraction to a holistic and organicist view of knowledge and the cosmos; (c) a prioritising of aesthetic dimensions of experience, seen as relevant to the intellectual grasp of holistic unities; and (d) a rejection of the strongly transcendent and personalised conception of God of orthodox Christianity, and a tendency to a more “Platonic theology”, equating the deity with the processes of reason itself.

“…theological “voluntarism”, a stance that had become explicit in the thirteenth century, as a reaction to the influence of Aristotelianism as found in the views of Thomas Aquinas. As will be seen, the significance of voluntarism as a position the Continental idealists opposed is crucial for understanding this movement, and here they tapped into a long-standing anti-voluntarist tradition. In Germanspeaking regions of Europe especially, anti-voluntarist ideas were transmitted through late medieval figures like Albert the Great and Meister Eckhart, and it was the tradition from which the “oppositional” thoughts of Jakob Böhme had sprung. It was to be especially influential among the post-Kantian idealists, and so a short detour into the theological disputes of late medieval Christianity is therefore warranted.”

For the nominalists [voluntarists], the omnipotent will of God was beyond human comprehension, and so reason must give way to revelation. However, a radically secular version of such a voluntaristic anti-Platonic, anti-Aristotelian view was to appear in the seventeenth century in the thought of Hobbes, a thinker against whom Leibniz would oppose his own philosophy. In short, in Leibniz’s opposition to Newton’s conception of space we find the implicit opposition of a Platonist to Newton’s voluntaristic theology. (16)

Moreover, Leibniz was intensely critical of the other side of the nominalism of thinkers like Ockham and Hobbes, their voluntarism—the voluntarism we see too in Newton and Clarke. But Berkeley equally shared in this voluntarism, as it is central to his spiritual realism. Thus he posited two different ontological kinds: “Thing or being is the most general name of all, it comprehends under it two kinds entirely distinct and heterogeneous, and which have nothing in common but the name, to wit, spirits and ideas.” And the fundamental distinction between these two types of thing is that “the former are active, indivisible substances: the latter are inert, fleeting, dependent beings, which subsist not by themselves, but are supported by, or exist in minds or spiritual substances” (PHK: §89). (19).

In the seventeenth century, the voluntaristic position could be seen
clearly in Descartes’ claim that there are no truths antecedent to God’s will. Moreover, similar remnants of such a voluntaristic theology were even contained in the otherwise predominantly naturalistic approach to political thought found in Hobbes. Hobbes is most well known for introducing the idea that political legitimacy is founded on the agreement of the will of those ruled, an agreement struck in a kind of “compact” or “social contract”. (27).

In psychology, just as in theology, voluntarism makes rationality consequent upon a concept of willing outside the scope of any reasoning. The content of the will is simply something given.(28). Hobbes cannot be identified with any notion of a rationally self-determining will, presupposed by the Christian Platonist tradition. A man can no more “determine his will than any other appetite, that is, more than he can determine when he shall be hungry or not” (HEW: vol. 5, 34).(28).

Ultimately, then, Schopenhauer’s vision is not unlike Leibniz’s original
attempt to ground modern mechanically naturalistic accounts of the world on a metaphysical picture of it. But while for Leibniz the underlying reality was that of a totality of monads harmoniously linked by the intentions of a rational and beneficent God, in Schopenhauer, the metaphysical core is the ultimate expression of that theological voluntarist picture that Leibniz had opposed. Leibniz’s rational God has now been replaced by the processes of a will shorn of any recognisably rational characteristics. (158).

Hegel has sometimes been read as a voluntarist, as someone who bases right on the will rather than reason. In this vein, Hegel has been seen as the last great spokesman in the modern voluntarist tradition, which begins with Hobbes and Grotius and blossoms in Rousseau and Kant. However, Hegel has also been read as just the opposite: as a rationalist, as someone who derives right from reason and gives it a value independent of the will. (206).

Beiser continues… “There is much evidence in favor of the voluntarist interpretation. Hegel justifies right on the basis of freedom, which he understands as the expression of the will (PR §4A). Furthermore, he defines the good in terms of the will, as the unity of the particular will with the concept of the will (PR §129). Finally, he places himself firmly in the voluntarist tradition when he states that Rousseau was right to make the will the basis of the state (PR §258R). (206).


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