January 15, 2013

A Hypothesis about the History of the Concept of Voluntariness

In Aristotelian physics, natural objects are characterized by their teleology, i.e. their tending toward certain ends. According to St. Thomas, what makes an event a voluntary action is that the subject of the event has knowledge of the end toward which the action is directed.

Post-Galileo, physics is not about teleology in this way. Instead, physics is about laws, rules according to which events unfold. Accordingly, many early modern philosophers hold that a voluntary action is an event which unfolds according to a rule which has been adopted by the subject of the event. The clearest statement of this idea I know of is at the beginning of section 3 of Kant's Groundwork, but I think it can be found as well in Samuel Clarke and Thomas Reid, and maybe also Leibniz. I think it might also be implicit in Berkeley, which is why I've been thinking about it. So there's a shift from regarding a voluntary action as one pursuant to an end adopted by the agent, to regarding a voluntary action as one pursuant to a rule adopted by the agent. Of course, for anyone who believes in free will of any robust sort (even a compatibilism of Leibniz's sort), teleology can't drop out entirely, the way it does for Spinoza, but rules of action acquire a new importance, and in many cases they seem to become more important than ends. For Reid and Kant, at least, this is also connected to deontologism in ethics.*

Interestingly, for many early modern philosophers, the connection between rules and voluntary action goes the other direction as well. The view that the notion of a rule or law only makes sense if there is someone who prescribes the rule, either to himself or to some other agent capable of following it voluntarily, is behind a key argument for occasionalism with respect to the movements of bodies in Malebranche, Clarke, Berkeley, and Reid.

In the title of this post, I said I was going to give a hypothesis. I'm pretty confident about the basic facts here (though the statement of them is a little rough; this is, after all, only a blog post). The hypothesis is the explanatory connection between the facts: i.e. the claim that it was due to the shift in thinking in physics that the shift in thinking in action theory occurred. True or false?

* Reid emphasizes virtue a lot more than most deontologists, but for Reid a virtue is by definition a character trait formed by the conscious and intentional adoption of a rule of conduct (I defend this view in sect. 2 of "Thomas Reid on Character and Freedom"), so the rules are prior to either virtues or ends, which makes Reid, at least on some definitions, a deontologist.


(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad)

Posted by Kenny at January 15, 2013 12:11 PM
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