Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud: The Primacy of Will – The Voluntarist Tradition

“As a psychologist of the will, Schopenhauer is the father of all the modern science of the soul. From it, through the psychological radicalism of Nietzsche, a straight line that reaches Freud and even those who have completed the deep psychology of it and have applied it to the sciences of the spirit. Nietzsche’s hostility against the intellect, as well as his anti-character, are nothing other than the philosophical affirmation and glorification of the Schopenhauerian discovery of the primacy of the will, of his pessimistic conception about the secondary and servile relationship of the intellect with the will. That conception, that is, the finding – which is not exactly humanistic in the classical sense – that the intellect is there to please the will, to justify it, to provide reasons that are often apparent and self-deceased, to rationalize the instincts, That conception, I say, encloses a skeptical-political psychology, a science of the soul of an inexorability and insight such, that it has not only prepared the terrain to what we call psychoanalysis, but it is already.”

—Thomas Mann – On Schopenhauer

Primacy of Will

It’s the Primacy of the Will over Intellect that pits me against most of the New Rationalism and Promethean visions of Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, and Peter Wolfendale with their Primacy of Intellect over Will Idealism after Hegel with its Mathematical turn… even Badiou and Meillassoux are more in this line as well among so many others. Very few follow Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud anymore… Deleuze came closest in the last century with his Anti-Platonic and Anti-Hegelian stance and return to Spinoza-Bergson. Their notion of the productive unconscious is none other than the primacy of the noumenal, the Will as creativity itself, the irrational system below the threshold in which Intelligence is subservient.

Who are the philosophers alive today that follow Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud? Are there any at all? And by that I don’t mean those like Eugene Thacker (a lesser light) who carry on the tradition through repetition of the thought in the garb of our era’s needs. No. I mean who actually takes hold of this tradition and transforms it, challenges it, and extends it with new conceptuality and frames-of-reference? Who has created a Philosophy of Will that not only follows these three, but creates in her own right a new philosophy of Will for our age?

Elements of voluntarism can be found as early as the philosophy of Augustine, who saw in will the basis of all other spiritual processes, and in the philosophy of Duns Scotus, with his emphasis on the primacy of will over intellect (voluntas est superior intellectu, “will is higher than thought”). A premise of the new voluntarism was I. Kant’s doctrine of the primacy of practical reason. According to Kant, although the existence of free will can be neither proved nor refuted theoretically, practical reason demands that we postulate freedom of will, for otherwise moral law would lose all meaning. Proceeding from this, J. G. Fichte saw in will the basis of personality and in the exercising of will by the ego the absolute creative principle of being, the source of the spiritual self-generation of the world. Moreover, in Fichte (as in Kant and the later exponents of German classical philosophy F. W. Schelling and G. Hegel) will is rational by its nature and the source of realization of the moral principle. In contrast A. Schopenhauer, in whose philosophy voluntarism first takes shape as an independent current, gives an irrationalist interpretation of will as the blind, nonrational, purposeless first principle of the world. Schopenhauer construes the Kantian thing-in-itself as will, appearing on various levels of objectification. Schopenhauer regarded consciousness and intellect as being one of the secondary manifestations of will. For Schopenhauer, as for E. Hartmann, voluntarism is closely connected with pessimism and the conception of the senselessness of the world process, whose source is unconscious and blind will. The voluntaristic ideas of Schopenhauer were one of the sources of the philosophy of F. Nietzsche.

The term “voluntarism” is also used to characterize social and political practices after Rousseau (i.e., ‘General Will’). But this whole tradition would become enmeshed in the Hegelian and Marxian dialectic and soon become a mishmash of historical processes and historical materialism. Only in our time is this being questioned. In the Nineteenth century Zola, Maupassant, Turgenev, and Tolstoy join Thomas Hardy were the heirs of this tradition, debating it with and against the Positivists and Neo-Kantians of the Era.

A few more notes on Voluntarism…

Let’s face it the voluntarist tradition which stems from its theological forbears in such thinkers as Augustine on to the various debates over Free-Will in our own time. The various forms it takes Metaphysical Voluntarism (Rational and Irrational), Psychological Voluntarism, Ethical Voluntarism, Political Voluntarism (I take this up elsewhere!), and Theological Voluntarism have differing nuances of this tradition.

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 misconception—for 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 (1007–1072). 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

Voluntarism in the metaphysical sense is the theory that God or the actual nature of reality itself was or is conceived by a form of will. A Medieval Scottish philosopher, John Duns Scotus once thought voluntarism was the philosophical emphasis on a divine will as well as human freedom. He believed that the will determines which items in life are good and the will itself cannot be defined by anything else.

19th Century voluntarism arose from Immanuel Kant and his thoughts on “primacy of the practical over the pure reason” where he states that intellectually humans cannot know ultimate reality as they are incapable of doing so, but this need not, or must not interfere with the obligation to act as though the spiritual character of reality was certain.

As voluntarism evolved two distinct lines formed including Rational Voluntarism, originated by Gottlieb Fichte, who said the world and its activity is to be understood for the activity of the practical reason, through which, the will achieves complete freedom and moral realization. Also, Irrational Voluntarism, originated by Arthur Schopenhauer, who said the will is irrational, and an unconscious urge as compared to the intellect which acts as a secondary means. He believed that all action is inherently blind as far as the will was concerned, and that power and existence of the will are always asserted.

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 denied—in sharp contrast to Kant—that 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.