Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
This article treats of will in its psychological aspect.
The term will as used in Catholic philosophy, may be briefly defined as the faculty of choice; it is classified among the appetites, and is contrasted with those which belong either to the merely sensitive or to the vegetative order: it is thus commonly designated "the rational appetite"; it stands in an authoritative relation to the complex of lower appetites, over which it exercises a preferential control; its specific act, therefore, when it if in full exercise, consists in selecting, by the light of reason, its object from among the various particular, conflicting aims of all the tendencies and faculties of our nature: its object is the good in general (bonum in communi); its prerogative is freedom in choosing among different forms of good. As employed in modern philosophy, the term has often a much wider signification. It is frequently used in a loose, generic sense as coextensive with appetite, and in such a way as to include any vital principle of movement ab intra, even those which are irrational and instinctive. Thus Bain makes appetency a species of volition, instead of vice-versa. We cannot but think this an abuse of terms. In any case--whatever opinion one holds on the free will controversy--some specific designation is certainly required for that controlling and sovereign faculty in man, which every sane philosophy recognizes as unmistakably distinct from the purely physical impulses and strivings, and from the sensuous desires and conations which are the expressions of our lower nature's needs. And custom has consecrated the term will to this more honourable use.
The description of will, as understood in Catholic philosophy, given above, refers to the will in its fullest and most explicit exercise, the voluntas deliberata or voluntus ut voluntas, as Saint Thomas speaks. There are, however, many manifestations of will that are less complete than this. Formal choice, preceded by methodical deliberation, is not the only or the most frequent type of volition. Most of our ordinary volition takes the form of spontaneous and immediate reaction upon very simple data. We have to deal with some narrow, concrete situation; we aim at some end apprehended almost without reflection and achieved almost at a stroke; in such a case, will expresses itself along the lines of least resistance through the subordinate agencies of instinctive action, habit, or rule of thumb. Will, like the cognitive powers, originates in and is developed by experience. This is expressed in the well-known Scholastic axiom, "Nil volitum nisi præcognitum" (Nothing can be willed which is not foreknown), taken in conjunction with the other great generalization that all knowledge takes its rise in experience: "Nil in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu". All appetition, according to this theory, emerges out of some conscious state, which may be anything from a clear and distinct perception or representation of an object, to a mere vague feeling of want or discomfort, without any direct representation either of the object or the means of satisfaction. The Aristotelean philosophers did not neglect or ignore the significance of this latter kind of consciousness (sometimes called affective). It is true that here, as in dealing with the psychology of other faculties, the Schoolmen did not attempt a genetic account of the will, nor would they admit continuity between the rational will and the lower appetitive states; but in their theory of the passions, they had worked out a very fair classification of the main phenomena--a classification which has not been substantially improved upon by any modern writer; and they showed their appreciation of the close connection between will and emotions by treating both under the general head of appetition. It is still a debatable question whether modern psychology, since Kant, has not unnecessarily complicated the question by introducing the triple division of functions into knowledge, appetites and feeling, in place of the ancient bi-partite division into knowledge and appetite.
The doctrine that will arises out of knowledge must not be pressed to mean that will is simply conditioned by knowledge, without in turn conditioning knowledge. The relation is not one-sided. "The mental functions interact, i.e. act reciprocally one upon another" (Sully) or, as Saint Thomas expresses it: "Voluntas et intellectus mutuo se includunt" (Summa theologiæ I.16.4 ad 1). Thus, an act of will is the usual condition of attention and of all sustained application of the cognitive faculties. This is recognized in common language. Again the Schoolmen were fond of describing the will as essentially a blind faculty. This means simply that its function is practice, not speculation, doing, not thinking (versatur circa operabilia). But on the other hand they admitted that it was an integral part of reason--according to the Scotists indeed, the superior and nobler part, as being the supreme controller and mover ("Voluntas est motor in toto regno animæ", Scotus). It is also represented as ruling and exercising command (imperium) over the lower faculties. St. Thomas, however, with his usual preference for the cognitive function, puts the imperium in the reason rather than the will (imperium rationis). Hence arose disputes between the Thomists and other schools, as to whether in the last resort the will was necessarily determined by the practical judgment of the reason. The point, so hotly debated in the medieval schools, concerning the relative dignity of the two faculties, will and intellect, is perhaps insoluble; at all events it is not vital. The two interact so closely as to be almost inseparable. Hence Spinoza could say with some plausibility: "Voluntas et intellectus unum et idem sunt".
An act of will is generally conditioned not only by knowledge, but also by some mode of affective consciousness or feeling. The will is attracted by pleasure. The capital error of the Hedonist school was the doctrine that the will is attracted only by pleasure, that, in the words of Mill, "to find a thing pleasant and to will it are one and the same". This is not true. The object of the will is the good apprehended as such. This is wider than the pleasant. Moreover, the primary tendency of appetency or desire is often towards some object or activity quite distinct from pleasure. Thus in the exercise of the chase, or intellectual research, or the performance of acts of benevolence, the primary object of the will is the accomplishment of a certain positive result, the capture of the game, the solution of the problem, the relief of another's pain, or the like. This may probably awaken pleasant feeling as a consequence. But this pleasure is not the object aimed at, nay the "Hedonistic paradox", as it is styled, consists in this, that if this consequential pleasure be made the direct object of pursuit, it will thereby be destroyed. Thus, an altruistic act done for the sake of the pleasure it brings to the agent is no longer altruism or productive of the pleasure of altruism.
Indeed, the objects of many of the passions which most powerfully impel the will, are ordinarily not pleasures, though they may include relief from pain. Emotions or feelings associated with certain ideas tend to express themselves in action. They may dominate the field of consciousness to the exclusion of every other idea. Thus, the sight or the thought of extreme suffering may carry with it emotions of pity so intense that considerations of justice and prudence will be brushed aside in the effort to bring relief. Such action is impulsive. An impulse is essentially the forcible prompting of a single, strongly affective idea. The will is, in this case, as it were, borne down by feeling, and action is simply the "release" of an emotional strain, being scarcely more truly volitional than laughter or weeping. Bain's description of voluntary action as "feeling-prompted movement", therefore, destroys the essential distinction between voluntary and impulsive action. The same criticism applies to Wundt's analysis of the volitional process. According to him, "impulsive action" is "the starting-point for the development of all volitional acts", from which starting-point volitional acts, properly so called, emerge as the result of the increasing complication of impulses; when this complication takes the form of a conflict, there ensues a process called selection or choice, which determines the victory in one direction or another. From this it is clear that choice is simply a sort of circuitous impulse. "The difference between a voluntary activity (i.e. a complex impulse) and a choice activity is a vanishing quantity." Compare with this the dictum of Hobbes: "I conceive that in all deliberations, that is to say, in all alternate succession of contrary appetites, the last is that which we call the Will".
The essential weakness of both these accounts and of many others lies in the attempt to reduce choice or deliberation (the specific activity of will, and a patently rational process) to a merely mechanical or biological equation. Catholic philosophy, on the contrary, maintains, on the certain evidence of introspection, that choice is not merely a resultant of impulses, but a superadded formative energy, embodying a rational judgment; it is more than an epitome, or summing-up, of preceding phenomena; it is a criticism of them (see FREE WILL). This aspect the phenomenist psychology of the modern school fails to explain. Though we reject all attempts to identify will with feeling, yet we readily admit the close alliance that exists between these functions. St. Thomas teaches that will acts on the organism only through the medium of feeling, just as in cognition, the rational faculty acts upon the material of experience. ("Sicut in nobis ratio universalis movet, mediante ratione particulari, ita appetites intellectivus qui dicitur voluntas, movet in nobis mediante appetitu sensitivo, unde proximum motivum corporis in nobis est appetitus sensitivus", Summa theologiæ I.20.1.) Just as the most abstract intellectual idea has always its "outer clothing" of sense-imagery so volition, itself a spiritual act, is always embodied in a mass of feeling: on such embodiment depends its motive-value. Thus if we analyze an act of self-control we shall find that it consists in the "checking" or "policing" of one tendency by another, and in the act of selective attention by which an idea or ideal is made dynamic, becomes an idée-force, and triumphs over its neglected rivals. Hence control of attention is the vital point in the education of the will, for will is simply reason in act, or as Kant put it, the causality of reason, and by acquiring this power of control, reason itself is strengthened.
Motives are the product of selective attention. But selective attention is itself a voluntary act, requiring a motive, an effective stimulus of some kind. Where is this stimulus to come from in the first instance? If we say it is given by selective attention, the question recurs. If we say it is the spontaneous necessary force of an idea, we are landed in determinism, and choice becomes, what we have above denied it to be, merely a slow and circuitous form of impulsive action. The answer to this difficulty would be briefly as follows:
(1) Every practical idea is itself a tendency to the act represented; in fact, it is a beginning or rehearsal of the said act, and, if not inhibited by other tendencies or ideas, would in fact pass into execution at once. Attention to such an idea affords reinforcement to its tendency.
(2) Such reinforcement is given spontaneously to any tendency which is naturally interesting.
(3) The law of interest, the uniform principles governing the influence of the feelings upon the will in its earlier stages, these are an enigma which only an exhaustive knowledge of the physiology of the nervous system, of heredity, and possibly of many other as yet unsuspected factors, could enable us to solve. Leibniz applied his doctrine of petites perceptions to its solution, and certainly unconscious elements, whether inherited or stored up from personal experience, have much to do with our actual volitions, and lie at the very bottom of character and temperament; but as yet there is no science, nor even prospect of a science, of these things.
(4) As regards the determinist horn of the dilemma proposed above, the positive truth of human liberty drawn from introspection is too strong to be shaken by any obscurity in the process through which liberty is realized. The facts of consciousness and the postulates of morality are inexplicable on any other than the libertarian hypothesis (see CHARACTER and FREE WILL). Freedom is a necessary consequence of the universal capacity of reason. The power of conceiving and critically contemplating different values or ideals of desirableness, implies that detachment of will in selection (indifferentia activa), in which, essentially, freedom consists.
As we have said, control of attention is the vital point in the education of will. In the beginning, the child is entirely the creature of impulse. It is completely engrossed for the time by each successive impression. It exhibits plenty of spontaneity and random action but the direction of these is determined by the liveliest attraction of the moment. As experience extends, rival tendencies and conflicting motives come more and more into play, and the reflective power of the rational faculty begins to waken into existence. The recollection of the results of past experience rises up to check present impulses. As reason develops, the faculty of reflective comparison grows in clearness and strength, and instead of there being a mere struggle between two or more motives or impulses, there gradually emerges a judicial power of valuing or weighing those motives, with the ability of detaining one or other for a longer or shorter period, in the focus of intellectual consciousness. Here we have the beginning of selective attention. Each exertion of reflection strengthens voluntary, as distinguished from merely spontaneous, attention. The child becomes more and more able to attend to the abstract or intellectual representation, in preference to urgent present feeling which seeks to express itself in immediate action. This is furthered by human intercourse, injunctions from parents and others in regard to conduct, and the like. The power of resistance to impulse grows. Each passing inclination, inhibited for the sake of a more durable good or more abstract motive, involves an increase in the power of self-control. The child becomes able to withstand temptation in obedience to precepts or in accordance with general principles. The power of steady adhesion to fixed purposes grows and, by repeated voluntary acts, habits are formed which in the aggregate constitute formed character.
The structure of the nervous system of man, it has been well said, prepares us for action. Long before the will, properly so called, comes upon the scene, a whole marvellous vital mechanism has been at work; thus it happens that we find ourselves at the very outset of our rational life possessed of a thousand tendencies, preferences, dexterities—the product partly of inheritance and partly of our infantile experience working by the laws of association and habit. The question, therefore, as to how this early organization and co-ordination of movement take place, though an essential preliminary to the study of will, is nevertheless only a preliminary, and not a constituent, branch of that study. Hence we can deal with it here only briefly. Bain's theory is perhaps the best known—the theory of random or spontaneous movement. According to this account, the nervous system is in its nature an accumulator of energy, which energy under certain obscure organic conditions breaks out in tumultuous, purposeless fashion, without any sensible stimulation either from without or from within. The result of such outpourings of energy is sometimes pleasurable, sometimes the reverse. Nature, by the law of conservation, preserves those movements which produce pleasure while she inhibits other movements. Thus "nature" really works purposively, for these pleasant movements are also for the most part beneficial to the animal. The process is very much the same as "natural selection" in the biological field. As regards this theory we may briefly note as follows:
(1) It is true, as modern child-psychology shows, that movements are learnt in some way. The child has to learn even the outlines of its own body.
(2) There is a good deal of apparently purposeless movement in children and all young animals, which, no doubt, constitutes their "motor-education".
(3) At the same time, it is not so clear that these movements are simply a physical discharge of energy, unattended by conscious antecedents. Some vague feeling of discomfort, of pent-up powers, some appetition or conscious tendency to movement in short, may very well be supposed. There would thus be the germ of a purpose in the creature's first essays at realizing the tendency and satisfying a felt need.
One of the least promising departments of mental life for the experimental psychologist is will. In common with all the higher activities of the soul, the subjection of the phenomena of rational volition to the methods of experimental psychology presents serious difficulties. In addition, the characteristic prerogative of the human will--freedom--would seem to be necessarily recalcitrant against scientific law and measurement, and thus to render hopelessly inapplicable the machinery of the new branch of mental research. However, the problem has been courageously attacked by the Würzburg and Louvain Schools. Different properties of choice, the formation and operation of various kinds of motives, the process of judging values, the transition from volition to habit or spontaneous action, the reaction-time of acts of decision and their realization and other incidental will-phenomena have been made the subject of the most careful investigation and, where possible, calculation.
By the multiplication of experimental choices, and the taking of averages, results of an objective character have been, it is contended, secured. The psychological value of these researches, and the quantity of new light they are likely to shed on all the more important questions connected with the human will, is still a subject of controversy; but the patience skill, and ingenuity, with which these experiments and observations have been carried out, are indisputable.
APA citation. (1912). Will. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15624a.htm
MLA citation. "Will." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15624a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.