A Short History of Modernity: The Dark Shadows of Instrumental Reason – Voluntarism and Utilitarianism

Round about the 1300s, there arose a radically new way of thinking. It is probably the greatest earthquake in the history of thought, and creates a great chasm that separates moderns from the ancients. By ancients I mean Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle), and everything up through Thomas Aquinas, who is partly so important because he was the last one to battle for the old way before the new way broke through.  In brief, the ancient way of thinking thought that the world basically made sense, even if we can’t figure it all out. And it believed that our minds basically have the ability to see some of that sense in the world, and to live accordingly.

Short History of a Debate: Nominalism and Voluntarism

The new way is summed up by the terms Nominalism and Voluntarism. “Nominalism” is from the Latin word for names. Nominalism says that we give “names” to things, but we don’t really know what they are. You call that thing and that thing “flowers” (or that thing and that thing “human”) but beyond imposing a name, you have no idea what they are.

“Voluntarism” is from the Latin word for will. Once the world doesn’t make sense, all we can do is make acts of blind will – and God is nothing more than a naked will. So Christian and Secular thought would follow this track line of nominalist and voluntarist thought.

The ancients saw us as basically in contact with the real world around us; life was about finding our place in Reality. Moderns sometimes impose ideas on the world, but they don’t think there is any Reality, any “nature,” to conform to.

Voluntarists hold that God created morality and imposed it upon us by an arbitrary fiat of his will. He is essential to morality, therefore, because -he created it and can always, in principle, alter it – as he seems to do on those rare occasions, such as his commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, when he intervenes in it. On the other approach, often called “intellectualism,” God did not create morality. When he gives us moral commandments, his will is guided by his intellect’s knowledge of eternal standards. He is nonetheless essential to morality because his providential supervision ensures that we live in a morally ordered world.1

Voluntarists can accept the part of intellectualism that sees God as actively superintending the universe he created. But they need not do so. They do not have to hold that the universe is morally intelligible to us. Intellectualists cannot accept the most basic claim of the voluntarists. But they can agree that without God’s command the truths at the basis of morality would not have the status of laws imposing obligations on us. Other mediating positions are also possible; but many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religious believers vehemently rejected voluntarism in any form, and devoted much effort to making a thorough intellectualism acceptable. (11)

Where Thomas Aquinas, in his synthesis of Christian Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian hylomorphism, always maintained the priority of the intellect in creation, theological voluntarists asserted the priority of the divine will, and this had far reaching consequences for philosophy and theology.

One might begin with Abelard. In his Ethics, Abelard identifies consent, which we list among the acts of the will, as the essential character of sin, distinguishing it both from vicious dispositions to sin and from other acts that either precede consent or follow upon it (Abelard 1973, 188–202). The reduction of morality to consent to obey impoverishes ethics and opens the door to the rejection of nature as a source of moral norms. Morality as a rich understanding of living well is replaced by morality as a meeting of two wills, and all other factors begin to fall into the periphery.

One can also trace this voluntarist view of will back to the Stoics. Stoicism reduces virtue from a complex account of the functioning of the powers of the soul to a singular perfection of the will, and Stoicism abandons the teleological notion of moral excellence as the perfection of the rational and appetitive powers of the free agent, affirming instead only the unconditional goodness of the will that obeys moral law.

Intellectually, then, voluntarism seems to be the outcome of the Christian and Stoic traditions, but there is another factor that brings Stoicism to prominence from time to time, namely political change. When radical political change overturns shared conceptions of the common good, one is left with a culture in which morality appears to demand real personal sacrifice for no other end than obedience to the law.

We are familiar with the medieval rediscovery of Aristotle, and its rejection; we know about the Black Death and the other complex circumstances that brought medieval culture into decline; we know about the Renaissance and the Reformation; and we know about the secularization that came with the Enlightenment. While these events are commonly read as the history of progress toward individual freedom, they are also moments in the history of the turn to voluntarism that gave birth to the modern culture of emotivism that tyrannizes those traditional moral communities that it does not dissolve.

The outcome of the rejection of Aristotelian natural teleology in ethics was the establishment of a morality in which obedience to moral norms can be conceived only as an end in itself. The voluntarism of Luther, Calvin, and Jansen made their accounts of moral norms, like their accounts of reward and punishment, essentially arbitrary. Kant’s rejection of the moral worth of heteronomy gives voluntarist morality a new philosophical expression, but does not change its character. Mills affirmation that the “readiness” to serve “the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of his own […] is the highest virtue that can be found in man” sounds noble, but turns out to be only another recurrence of the stoic denial of the private self in a social arena that lacks shared conceptions of the common good.2

Taken together, the emphasis on law, the rejection of teleology, and the denial of the private self establish an approach to morality and moral action in which both morality and moral action become unintelligible, for moral action, thus conceived, cannot be accounted for as human action.

Human action is so inherently teleological that the normal human response to actions that do not seem to make sense is to ask “what are you doing?” and “why are you doing that?” To disconnect freedom and obedience from salvation, as Luther, Calvin, and Jansen do, to propose that morality is pursued without an end in view, as Kant does, or to affirm that readiness to act in ways that serve the pleasure of others through utter self-destruction is a sign of moral excellence, as Mill does, is to make it impossible to answer these normal human questions in any satisfying way.

A forerunner to late medieval voluntarism is found in the conception of God in St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (CE 354–430), who, while greatly influenced by the pagan Neoplatonists, had rejected the characteristic Greek optimism in the powers of human reason. In Janet Coleman’s words, such a conception of human rational powers was regarded “as part of a perverse human fantasy of self-perfection, self-sufficient omnipotence and self dependent autonomy. Ancient ethics exemplified man’s original sin, that of pride which rejoices in private goods and a perverse self-love”. It was this critical attitude to the limits of human reason that was to emerge once again in the thirteenth century, as manifested in the Condemnation of 1277, in which Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, condemned the entertaining of a variety of philosophical ideas that had been reintroduced from pagan sources into contemporary theology. Included in the condemnation was Thomas Aquinas, who had died just three years earlier. The beneficiaries of the voluntaristic condemnation of Aquinas’ Aristotelianism were nominalists such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and the consequences for the development of Western culture have been the focus of considerable attention.3

For Ockham, for example, the only law to which God was himself subject was the law of non-contradiction, and some medieval voluntarists did not even admit of that constraint.19 But this voluntaristic model of God was explicitly challenged by Leibniz: “people have pleaded the irresistible power of God … and have assumed a despotic power when they should rather have conceived of a power ordered by the most perfect wisdom” . For Leibniz, God acts according to two basic principles, the law of non-contradiction and the law of sufficient reason: the former represents a type of metaphysical, and the latter, a type of moral necessity. The idea of God’s being subject to moral necessity seemed to place constraints on the possible universes that he might have created, but such “constraints” are only a measure of his goodness. God could have created other possible universes, if it were not for the fact of his divine justice, which implied that he create the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, this was the one he had created: this world was, as he famously argued in the Theodicy of 1710, the best of all possible worlds. (Redding, 15)

Both Luther and Calvin are voluntarists. For both, God, the creator and director of the cosmos, is far beyond human understanding. That it was predestined from eternity that Adam would sin, that in his sin all mankind would be ruined, that out of the mass of totally undeserving beings some would mercifully be chosen for salvation, that those not chosen would be left to suffer the anguish of permanent separation from God (Institutes II.V.12) all this is God’s justice and is incomprehensible to us. (Schneewind, 32)

Behind this is the notions of incomprehensibility, divine will, the inscrutability of God, and an anti-intellectualism that would guide much of the common themes in both religious and secular thought.

Leibniz and the Anti-Voluntarist Tradition

Empiricism from Bacon through Locke had a strong affinity with voluntarism in ethics. Voluntarism in ethics tended to be associated with extreme conceptions of morality as obedience to God. Objections to the latter, based as much on moral as on purely theological grounds, were therefore taken as objections both to voluntarism and to empiricism, particularly to empiricist views of meaning and the limitations they imposed on our concepts. Rationalists argued against empiricism as much because of what they believed to be the grave moral defects it entailed as because of the errors they saw in it about concepts and a priori knowledge. (Schneewind, 12)

Leibniz and the rationalists were anti-voluntarists, depending on reason not will as the guiding theme of philosophy. While for the nominalists, 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. (Redding, 16) Redding argues that the Idealists were anti-voluntarists that in the wake of Leibniz, were characterised by an anti-nominalist opposition to empiricism, and that in the wake of Kant, to a critique of the metaphysical conception of spirit or mind as a type of nonmaterial substance. (Redding, 18)

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”. (Redding, 27) Leibniz according to Redding belonged to that tradition that, in its appeal to synthetic forms of Platonism and Aristotelianism, stood in contrast to the nominalistic and voluntaristic forms of thought also reflected in complex ways in the emerging natural sciences. (Redding, 23)

Leibniz would oppose Hobbes nominalism and voluntarism, his notions of power and conceptions of governance in contract. In fact, Leibniz was explicit in his opposition to Hobbes’ combination of nominalism and voluntarism, and such opposition would have important consequences for later idealist thought, not least in influencing the idealist conception of the will.  As has often been pointed out, it is difficult to see how Hobbes’s contractarian idea can appeal to the grounding of authority on the free-willing of subjects, given his naturalistic account of the will. Hobbes effectively identifies the will with an empirical bodily appetite or aversion: “In deliberation, the last appetite, or aversion, immediately adhering to the action, or to the omission thereof, is that we call the WILL; the act, not the faculty, of willing”. (Redding, 27)

In distancing himself from the faculty of willing, Hobbes was setting himself against the scholastic view going back to Aristotle of the faculty of the will—voluntas—as a type of rational power causing the action. Instead, Hobbes introduces appetite and aversion as quasi-mechanically acting affective states, causally brought about by perceptual interaction with the world, and manifesting themselves in particular actions. This means that freedom for 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”. Rather than consisting of the will determining itself, freedom consists in doing “what the will is determined unto”. 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. (Redding, 28)

In his opposition to voluntarism in its theological and secular forms, Leibniz appealed to Aristotelian and Platonist considerations, but here as elsewhere this was done in a way that attempted to reconcile this mode of thought with the type of thought that was characteristically modern. These attempts were not without their problems, and in many ways Kant’s later approach to the will with its similar opposition to psychological voluntarism of the Hobbesian variety appears to have been an attempt to get beyond those problems. But what characterises Kant in this regard is a commitment to the same broadly Aristotelian considerations that marked Leibniz’s stance against the secularised version of the nominalist–voluntarist orientation of his antagonist, Hobbes. (Redding, 28)

While for Newton the world was made up of “dead” matter, passively moved around by the will of an omnipresent God acting at every single point in the universe, the bodies making up Leibniz’s world acted, but not on anything other than themselves.26 Nevertheless, Leibniz opposed the Spinozist view which made God entirely “immanent” to the extended world. From Leibniz’s point of view, Spinoza, like Hobbes, had sacrificed any and every conception of individuals as freely self-determining, by subjecting them to natural laws conceived as absolutely determining in the same way as the voluntarists’ all-powerful God. (Redding, 33)

Kant would modify Leibniz’s monadology and reintroduce voluntarism in opposition to it. Kant believed that we have direct experience of our own capacity as minds to affect physical bodies when we act voluntarily. I resolve to move this pen on the table in front of me, and, via the intermediary of my body, the pen moves. Similarly, as minds Kant believed we experience changes in our own inessential states, such as our own sensory states, in ways that we can think of as being brought about by the influence of other physical monads. (Redding, 39) The tension between Augustine’s voluntaristic idea of God as creator of the world ex nihilo and the Neoplatonic conception of the “emanation” of the world would therefore return in the form of the dispute between the voluntarism of medieval nominalists such as Ockham and the Neoplatonic opponents of voluntarism who thereby courted the accusation of a pantheist heresy. We can see the successor of this same dispute emerge in the context of Kant’s idealist reshaping of philosophy at the end of the eighteenth century. (Redding, 67-68)

Political Governance and Voluntary Consent

In its political application the idea of natural law was meant to provide some sort of foundation to enable us to either justify or criticise the coercive, positive laws of the state. In contrast, the understanding of political legitimacy which invoked the notion of a social contract, and which stemmed from the revolutionary approach of Thomas Hobbes, saw the grounds of an individual’s obligation to positive law as resting in that individual’s own voluntary consent to the law—a consent which, for Hobbes, derived from the individual’s rational self-interest. (Redding, 81)

Thus, whereas Grotius saw humans as naturally sociable, Hobbes saw them as naturally isolated and egoistic, with their fragile sociability as artificial, and as consequent upon their willingness to leave their natural state. In Hobbes’s account, the explanation of social behaviour was much like the type of explanation found in Galilean physics. No teleology was needed, as the movements of any of the isolated parts— the egoistic individuals—could be described in terms of the basic properties of the parts, on the one hand (basic, naturally given inclinations and aversions, together with a capacity for calculation) and the fact of their interaction, on the other. Paradoxically, as we have seen (section 2.3), Hobbes’s seemingly materialist and “atheist” approach can also be viewed as a development of the nominalist outlook emerging from the late Middle Ages, as a consequence of theological “voluntarism”. (Redding, 82)

In Kant we find traces of both voluntarist and anti-voluntarist ideas. With Kant stressing the limits of human reason and finitude, his voluntarist ideas characteristically asserted that we are thereby reliant on revelation for understanding the content of God’s will, but consistent with anti-voluntarism, Kant treated revealed religion as a symbolic presentation of a moral law equally capable of being known through reason; and the very idea of God, Kant showed in his discussion of the transcendental ideal, came about through our tendency to hypostatise and personify principles of human reason itself. (Redding, 102) Kant’s hypostatization of the “thing-in-itself” would ultimately be seen by his critics (Nietzsche, et. al.) as the philosophical equivalent of the voluntarists’ radically transcendent God. (Redding, 140)

Yet, it would be in Schopenhauer that voluntarism would resurface. For 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 recognizably rational characteristics. (Redding, 158) If Fichte’s absolute will was a modern depersonalised analogue of the simultaneously rational and beneficent God of Christian Platonism, Schopenhauer’s was that of the arbitrary, almost psychotically arational but all-powerful God glimpsed in the theology of some medieval voluntarists. (Redding, 161)

In lieu of a conclusion… a Coda.

As is always the case with Augustine, his account is characterized by its vulgarity, gracelessness, and complete destitution of intelligence.

-Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation (70).

From Augustine to Kant the voluntarist tradition would denigrate reason and intelligence at the expense of Will and Divine Inscrutability and Mystery. For others such as Nick Land intelligence, not Will is key; or, an Willing of the Intelligence of the Unconscious: as he’ll say of Schopenhauer, “the intellect is constituted by willing, rather than being constitutive for it. We do not know what we want” (KL 2110). It is no longer a matter of ‘thinking about’, but rather of observing an effective, “alien intelligence in the process of making itself real, then it is also a matter of participating in such a way as to continually intensify and accelerate this process”.4 What Land and his immediate precursor, Georges Bataille seek is a new type of intelligence: aggressively exploratory, incommensurable with human subjectivity and untethered from social reproduction. (Land, KL 535)  In fact, as Land suggests the high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’  where human culture will be dissolved. Just as the capitalist urbanization of labour abstracted it in a parallel escalation with technical machines, so will intelligence be transplanted into the purring data zones of new software worlds in order to be abstracted from an increasingly obsolescent anthropoid particularity, and thus to venture beyond modernity. (Land, KL 3982-3987)

With such a vision of the future who needs a voluntarist finitude?


  1. Jerome B. Schneewind. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge University Press (December 13, 1997)
  2. Christopher Stephen Lutz, From Voluntarist Nominalism to Rationalism to Chaos: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Critique of Modern Ethics. Analyse & Kritik 30/2008 ( c
    Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart) p. 91–99
  3. Paul Redding. Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche.
  4. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 489-492). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.

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