November 29, 2010

Leibniz and Frankfurt on Freedom

The history of the debate on free will is sometimes narrated as follows: first, we have the 'classic compatibilists', starting from Hobbes, through Locke, Hume, and the positivists. At first these fellows square off against libertarians like Bramhall and Reid, who are (so the story goes) deservedly obscure. The debate is terribly unsophisticated: the compatibilists hold that freedom just is the ability to do what you want to do, the absence of any sort of external constraints. The libertarians require some kind of magic 'contra-causal' agent causation they can't explain. They slowly die out as English language philosophy is purified of spooky metaphysics and theology. (Libertarianism is still often thought to be related to theology.)

Then, in the 1960s and '70s, we get the return of metaphysics to English language philosophy, and with it a new brand of sophisticated libertarians like Chisholm and van Inwagen. At the same time, the cornerstone of classic compatibilism, the conditional analysis of ability, is overturned. Also, Frankfurt calls the Principle of Alternative Possibilities into question. This gives rise to a new and more sophisticated compatibilism which is characterized by a recognition that freedom of will is a more complicated phenomenon than freedom of action.

I have sometimes heard the story told this way (of course I'm caricaturing a little). Anyway, here's a point that's of interest relative to the above narrative: in commenting on Locke's famous treatment of freedom (EHU 2.21), Leibniz criticizes Locke for only paying attention to freedom of action, ignoring significant questions about freedom of will (NEHU 2.21.8, 2.21.15), and goes on to develop an account of free will based on the concept of self-mastery - an account that sounds an awful lot like the one developed in Frankfurt's famous 1971 article, "Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person." Leibniz's view is coupled with an interesting account of the psychology of akrasia.

One of Leibniz's main aims is to preserve a Platonist/Augustinian account of the will (NEHU 2.21.35), which Locke had accepted in the first edition of his Essay, but rejected in the version Leibniz was working from due primarily to its inability to give an adequate account of akrasia. According to this view, the will is necessarily directed to the (perceived or actual) good. On Leibniz's view, this amounts to the claim that we pursue what seems best to us at the moment. However, sometimes what is judged best in calm moments is not what seems best at the time of action, and so we do not always act according to our calm judgment. It is when we succeed in conforming our will to these calm judgments that we are truly free. However, there is, according to Leibniz, no such thing as willing to will: we cannot just make something our will by an act of will, the way we can raise our arm by an act of will (NEHU 2.21.30 [Correction 12/6/10: 2.21.25). So we must take indirect action to control our will, and when this indirect action succeeds, we are truly free. As Frankfurt would say, we have the will we want.

That is the proto-Frankfurtian account of freedom. Now here is the fascinating account of akrasia and moral psychology that goes along with it: according to Leibniz, the reason our judgments of goodness often do not cause their objects to seem good in the sense relevant to willing is that these judgments are what he calls 'blind thoughts' - that is, they are mere words. These words are not in themselves sufficiently vivid to overpower the appearance of goodness in, e.g., immediate pleasure. Furthermore, it is not always even possible for us to have a vivid perception of the distant or abstract good; sometimes all we can manage are the words. Fortunately, by the right kind of education and training, we can give the words themselves motivational force, so that actions will look good (with sufficient vividness) to us simply because they conform to a rule to which we are strongly attached. This is what the process of self-mastery amounts to.

Here is the core of the account, in Leibniz's own (translated) words:

I would not want ... to encourage people to believe they should give up the old axioms that the will pursues the greatest good, and flees the greatest evil, of which it is sensible. The neglect of things that are truly good arises largely from the fact that, on topics and in circumstances where our senses are not much engaged, our thoughts are for the most part what we might call 'blind' ... I mean that they are empty of perception and sensibility, and consist in the wholly unaided use of symbols, as happens with those who calculate algebraically with only intermittent attention to the geometrical figures being dealt with. Words ordinarily do the same thing, in this respect, as do the symbols of arithmetic and algebra. We often reason in words, with the object itself virtually absent from our mind. But this sort of knowledge cannot influence us - something livelier is needed if we are to be moved. Yet this is how people usually think about God, virtue, happiness; they speak and reason without explicit ideas ... Sometimes they have the idea of an absent good or evil, but only very faintly, so it is no wonder that it has almost no influence on them. Thus if we prefer the worse it is because we have a sense of the good it contains but not of the evil it contains or of the good which exists on the opposite side. We assume and believe - or rather we tell ourselves, merely on the credit of someone else's word or at best of our recollection of having thought it all out in the past - that the greater good is on the better side and the greater evil on the other. But when we do not have them actively in mind, our thoughts and reasonings which oppose our sentiments are a kind of parroting which ads nothing to the mind's present contents; and if we do not take steps to improve them they will come to nothing ... the finest moral precepts and the best prudential rules in the world have weight only in a soul which is as sensitive to them as to what opposes them - if not directly sensitive (which is not always possible), then at least indirectly sensitive, as I shall explain shortly ... [I]f the mind made good use of its advantages it would triumph nobly. The first step would have to be in education, which should be conducted in such a way that true goods and evils are made as thoroughly sensible as they can be, by clothing one's notions of them in details which are more appropriate to this end. And a grown man who missed this excellent education should still - better late than never - being to seek out enlightened and rational pleasures to bring against the confused but potent pleasures of the senses. And indeed divine grace itself is a pleasure which brings enlightenment. Thus when a man is in a good frame of mind he ought to make himself laws and rules for the future, and then carry them out strictly, drawing himself away - abruptly or gradually, depending on the nature of the case - from situations which are capable of corrupting him ... In short, we should take advantage of our good impulses to make effective resolutions ... Since we cannot always analyse the notions of true good and true evil to the point where we can see the pleasures and pains which they involve, so as to be influenced by them, we must amek this rule for ourselves once and for all: wait till you have the findings of reason and from then on follow them, even if they are ordinarily retained only as 'blind thoughts' devoid of sensible charms. (NEHU 2.21.35, tr. Remnant and Bennett)

(As regular readers will predict, I am very interested in Leibniz's theory of blind thoughts and his comparison between language and analytic geometry. The parallels to Berkeley are obvious, and I am not sure of the historical relationship; NEHU was written before Berkeley wrote anything, but not published until after his death!)

Leibniz is probably drawing here on the religious tradition: in addition to the obvious Augustinianism (and claiming Augustine as one's predecessor was a popular pastime in the 17th century), Leibniz makes a positive and explicit reference to Luther's The Bondage of the Will in his 1695 "Dialogue on Human Freedom and the Origin of Evil" (Ariew and Garber, p. 117). I'm not familiar with Augustine's or Luther's writings on the subject, so I don't know what the points of comparison or contrast are. Leibniz's thought on this subject (and every other subject) is certainly worth thinking about.

Posted by Kenny at November 29, 2010 5:48 PM
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