Friday, October 12, 2018

The voluntarist personality

A voluntarist conception of persons takes the will to be primary and the intellect to be secondary.  That is to say, for voluntarism, at the end of the day what we think reflects what we will.  An intellectualist conception of persons takes the intellect to be primary and the will to be secondary.  For intellectualism, at the end of the day, what we will reflects what we think.  The two views are, naturally, more complicated than that.  For example, no voluntarist would deny that what we think affects what we will, and no intellectualist would deny that what we will affects what we think.  But the basic idea is that for the voluntarist, the will is ultimately in the driver’s seat, whereas for the intellectualist, the intellect is ultimately in the driver’s seat.

The intellectualist is right.  That is the view of Aquinas, at any rate, and in an earlier post I argued that voluntarism in a strong version is incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason, and therefore false.  Catholic teaching also affirms intellectualism.  For example, Pope Leo XIII teaches in his encyclical Libertas that:

the will cannot proceed to act until it is enlightened by the knowledge possessed by the intellect.  In other words, the good wished by the will is necessarily good in so far as it is known by the intellect; and this the more, because in all voluntary acts choice is subsequent to a judgment upon the truth of the good presented, declaring to which good preference should be given.  No sensible man can doubt that judgment is an act of reason, not of the will.

Similarly, in Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII condemns “innovators” who depart from this doctrine, and who:

indiscriminately mingling cognition and act of will, [say] that the appetitive and affective faculties have a certain power of understanding, and that man, since he cannot by using his reason decide with certainty what is true and is to be accepted, turns to his will, by which he freely chooses among opposite opinions.

And in his famous Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI criticized a voluntarism which:

might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.  God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God...  As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy...  God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism.

As Benedict’s remarks indicate, that man is by nature a rational animal is what makes it true that we are made in God’s image.  Voluntarism is, accordingly, a dehumanizing doctrine.  In making of us fundamentally willful animals rather than rational ones, it simply gets human nature wrong.  And it makes us out to be essentially “capricious… not even bound to truth and goodness,” all our reasons at bottom just rationalizations of what the will has fixed itself upon.  It is an essentially Nietzschean conception of human nature, even if some of its adherents think of themselves as the reverse of Nietzschean.

Intellectualist psychology

“Intellectualism” in the sense in question is, of course, not claiming that all human beings are or ought to be intellectually inclined in the sense of having an interest in philosophy, science, art, or other intellectual pursuits.  It merely claims that even the least intelligent human being wills whatever he wills because his mind perceives it to be true or in some way good.  

Again, the intellectualist is also not denying that the will can affect the intellect.  If you really want to believe in some idea, you might reinforce your confidence in it by focusing your attention on evidence that seems to support it and not letting yourself dwell on evidence against it, and these are acts of the will.  You can also avoid dwelling on the fact that you are engaging in such intellectual dishonesty, to the point where you forget that you have done it.  The emotional appeal of an idea and/or the painfulness of the thought of its being false can facilitate the will’s resort to such self-deception, insofar as they can distract the intellect from seeing the truth.  

But it is still always the intellect that lies at the beginning and end of this process.  The will is only drawn to the idea in the first place because the intellect judges it (however wrongly or confusedly) to be plausible or good, and the end result of the self-deception is that the intellect’s confidence is increased.  That increased intellectual confidence is precisely why the will, too, becomes even more attached.  

The reason why an irrational person will cover his ears or shout over you or walk away when you have unwelcome evidence or arguments to present to him is precisely because once the intellect sees the truth, it’s “game over” for the will.  Though his will is attached to the idea, it will not remain so if his intellect is made to see the evidence against it, and so he tries to avoid seeing it.  If the will were really in charge, it could simply push ahead no matter how clearly the intellect saw the will’s object to be false or bad.  Rationalization is co-called precisely because the intellect needs to see reasons for something before the will can lock on to it – even if what that means is that we are sometimes coming up with reasons not to consider reasons.  One of those reasons might even be the intellect’s making the false judgement that “Voluntarism is true anyway!

As these remarks indicate, even the will of the voluntarist is following what his intellect (wrongly) tells him.  The voluntarist may believe that his intellect is subordinate to his will, but he is wrong.  Someone who is intellectually convinced of voluntarism may even otherwise think and act very much the way what you’d expect someone to think and act if intellectualism is true.  He may be a very rational person, careful always to try to present evidence and arguments for his views, and to consider counterarguments.  He may be in no way engaged in self-deception, but simply making an honest mistake.  By the same token, someone who is intellectually convinced of intellectualism may otherwise think and act very much the way you’d expect someone to think and act if voluntarism were true.  He may be intellectually dishonest or otherwise have poor reasoning skills.  A voluntarist can be a rational person, and an intellectualist can be an irrational person.  

Psychoanalyzing the voluntarist personality

But let’s consider persons who really do approximate what human beings would be like if voluntarism were true.  Some human beings are weak in intellect.  Some are very stubborn or willful.  Some are prone to excessive emotion.  And some (worst of all for them and for those who have to deal with them) are all three.  Any of these character defects can so diminish a person’s rationality that it is as if his intellect were subordinate to his will.  He might be so in love with a certain idea, or so determined to follow a certain course of action he has decided upon, or so incapable of clear and logical reasoning, that the intellect’s contribution to his behavior is reduced to a minimum.  To be sure, it isn’t that his intellect isn’t really still in the driver’s seat.  It’s that his intellect is driving blind.  

Could it get worse?  Yes, if he is so clueless about his condition that he projects it onto others – if he supposes that it isn’t merely that he is like this but that people are like this.  He treats others as essentially wills to be opposed or emotionally swayed, rather than as intellects to be rationally persuaded.  Call this “the voluntarist personality.” (Note that I’m not talking about voluntarist philosophers themselves now, but rather about people whose personalities approximate what you’d expect people to be like if voluntarism were true.)

The voluntarist personality can, given its willfulness, manifest itself in the amoralism of the libertine or the sociopath.  But that is not its typical manifestation.  On the contrary, I would suggest that the usual indicator of a voluntarist personality is the opposite extreme tendency, towards a kind of moralism.  Since the voluntarist personality sees people primarily as wills rather than intellects, his default position is to judge them as having either good or bad wills rather than as being either correct or incorrect in their judgments.  Accordingly, he tends to see those who agree with his opinions as virtuous rather than as merely correct.  And he tends to see those who disagree with him as guilty of a moral failing rather than merely making an honest mistake.  

It’s the sober middle ground between amoralism and moralism that the voluntarist personality has difficulty achieving.  He either disregards morality altogether and just does whatever he wants; or he moralizes everything, making of every cause a crusade and every dispute a witch hunt.

Now, this in turn entails two further tendencies which at first glance seem hard to reconcile but both of which are in fact exactly what one should expect of such a character type.  On the one hand, the voluntarist personality tends toward sentimentalism in matters of morality.  He is likely to speak excessively of love, mercy, and the like, and very little about moral principle and moral virtue.  Moral principle strikes him as too cerebral and too easy for a person to respect even if he has a bad will.  Moral virtue, the habitual tendency toward actions that are in line with moral principle, also strikes him as too bloodless, and something someone might exhibit in a rote way or merely because of upbringing, even if his will is bad.  

Love, by contrast, is by definition the willing of what is good for someone, and so it can seem to the voluntarist personality to be almost the only thing that really matters.  And since he is not too concerned with abstract principle, the way love is expressed is less important to him than the mere expression of it.  Hence the voluntarist personality will tend to be overly impressed by mawkish expressions of humanitarian concern, and to be insufficiently attentive to whether this actually results in policies that work.  The latter sort of concern seems too technical and intellectual – again, the kind of thing someone might be concerned with even if his will is bad – whereas the expression of noble sentiments seems directly to manifest a good will.  The voluntarist personality is also likely to talk excessively of mercy, since he will tend to think that whether a person has a good will is more important than whether his behavior is actually in line with the demands of moral principle.

(Note that I am, of course, not in any way denigrating love, mercy, etc. or denying that someone might outwardly follow the moral law while having bad motives.  I am talking about the voluntarist personality’s tendency to oversimplify and put excessive emphasis on these points.)

On the other hand, the voluntarist personality tends toward harshness to those who disagree with him, rather than the love and mercy you might expect from someone so prone to sentimentality.  This makes perfect sense psychologically, even if it is odd logically.  Again, the voluntarist personality looks at people primarily as wills rather than as minds.  So if you disagree with him, he will tend to see this as evidence that you have a bad will, as a moral failing on your part rather than as an honest disagreement.  The voluntarist personality thus tends to reply to opponents with ad hominem attacks, and to question the motives behind an argument rather than to address the merits of the argument itself.  And if what you disagree with, specifically, are what the voluntarist personality regards as his own very refined and noble moral sentiments, he will conclude that you must be very wicked indeed.

Hence, the more moralistic and sentimental the voluntarist personality is, the more likely he is to be hateful and merciless with his enemies.  And he will find it difficult to see the inconsistency given his stubborn and emotional nature and his lack of skill at, or patience with, logical reasoning.

Naturally, the voluntarist personality also tends toward fideism.  In the religious context, of course, this cashes out to a “will to believe” without evidence, and an impatience with or even hostility toward careful philosophical and theological reasoning or doctrinal consistency.  The voluntarist personality who is religious will regard that sort of thing as too bloodless and cerebral.  And since he’s not very good at it anyway but nevertheless means well and has strong faith, he judges that it can’t be that important.  He will tend to see religion as a matter of the heart more than, or even to the exclusion of, the head.  

But someone with a voluntarist personality might also be irreligious, and here his fideism will cash out to a hostility to religion that is so excessive that he finds it difficult to believe that it is even possible for a religious person to have serious arguments to present or to be making an honest mistake.  He has absolute faith that arguments for God’s existence and other religious claims can only ever be rationalizations of prejudice, and insists on attacking the motives of the apologist without bothering to try to understand his position.  The religious fanatic and the New Atheist are accordingly just two peas from the same voluntarist pod.

In politics, the voluntarist personality’s tendencies are predictable given what has already been said.  He will tend to evaluate policy in terms of the motives of those who propose it, and by reference to sentimental and moralistic considerations rather than by way of the dispassionate consideration of arguments and evidence.  He will tend to see political opponents as having bad motivations, and thus he is prone to demonizing them.  

Since he overemphasizes the will, he will also overestimate what the will can accomplish, and will thus tend in all practical matters to be either excessively optimistic or excessively pessimistic.  For example, when most people seem to agree with his political opinions, he will be prone to see this as evidence of a moral advance in society at large, since it will seem to him to indicate that most people have good wills.  Great moral progress will seem to be in the offing.  On the other hand, when most people disagree with his political opinions, he will be prone to see this as evidence of frightful moral decline, since it will seem to him to indicate that most people have bad wills.  Apocalypse will seem to be around the corner.  What is difficult for him to see is that sometimes people simply happen to disagree about whether certain policies are workable or wise, and (unlike the voluntarist personality) aren’t necessarily thinking in moralistic terms.  

I leave as homework the question of whether this analysis might illuminate what is going on these days in the Catholic Church and in American politics.  

Related posts:


  1. Since this post is talking about emotions and psychology, what does the natural law have to say about the origin of emotion?

    In contemporary psychology there are basically 3 general theories trying to explain emotion and how it works and is related to the rest of the body:

    1) Evolutionary theories which states that emotions evolved via natural selection for survival or some other goal

    2) Somatic theories which state that bodily responses are essential to emotions, and though cognitive states are important, physiological reactions are the grounding and source of emotion

    3) Cognitive theories which state that judgements, evaluations and thoughts are primary and essential to emotion, rather than physiological states or actions being essential.

    Does the natural law have a specific view of emotion out of the 3 above, or could a natural law theorist accept either of the 3 theories above without problem?

    One more question:

    Modern psychology is keen on stressing that emotion and reason aren't as seperate as we once thought. It is now known that emotion plays an essential part and motivating factor in virtually every decision and thought undertaken by humans, including strict reasoning.

    So what would the Thomistic response be to these modern discoveries which basically show that even strict reasoning has emotion as an essential part of itself?

    1. Think of emotions as something that can be divorced from biological cognition. Have you ever listened to a piece of music that was emotional, like happy or sad or agitated (in the case of death metal)? But wait! CD recordings and MP3 files don't have biological cognition! Clearly that's a very good hint that there's something more to what constitutes an emotion than purely biological theories aim for.

    2. I think the Thomistic response would be “all of the above”. Given that humans are body-soul composites, we would expect our intellect to influence our bodies and vice versa. I think you get into trouble when you take an exlusive attitude, saying our emotions cannot affect our intellect or vice versa.

    3. Natural selection can’t explain the arrival of emotion. It can only explain the survival of emotion, once it’s already there.

    4. JoeD

      The Thomistic system would be:

      suppositum = emotion
      significatio= reason

      This would be the distinction between suppositum and significatio (or consignificato) so critical in Aquinas.

  2. I'd imagine you would reject intellectual determinism (even some comments above indicate this). I'd also assume that, therefore, that people don't have faith in Christianity not solely due to intellectual deficiencies, in your view?

  3. Thanks for this illuminating post. Voluntarism has recently been the subject of my thoughts, and this helps clarify things immensely.

    Quick questions:

    When we're talking about human beings, is "intellectualist" synonymous with "essentialist," insofar as the essence of a human being is -- at the very least -- a "rational animal"?

    Lastly, does it ultimately make sense to say that X is an essential property or function of Y while denying that Y has an essence in the Aristotelian sense? For example, Protestant Christians (excluding most if not all of the Reformed, Calvinistic, voluntaristic types) want to claim that God is essentially loving, essentially good, essentially just, and so. But clearly most of them deny the Aristotelian metaphysical framework of reality.

    What I've been wondering for a while is whether that denial is ultimately coherent.

    1. Modern philosophers use the term 'essential' just to mean necessary, ergo when they say God is essentially loving what they mean is that God has the property of being loving in every possible world in which He exists (which happens to be all of them).

      This article by E.J. Lowe gives a good breakdown of the debate in the language used by modern philosophers.

    2. OA Police,

      Thanks for the great article. I skimmed it last night and plan to devote some serious time to it in the near future.

      I'm aware of the extensive use of "possible world" theory in analytic philosophy, but it's worth pointing out that classical metaphysicians (like Dr. Feser) reject that framework of analysis. Our host made a point on that front several years ago:

      "A common procedure is to characterize the essence of a thing as the set of properties it has in every possible world, a necessary truth as one that is true in every possible world, and so forth. For A-T, this gets things backwards. It is the essence of a thing that determines what will be true of it in every possible world, not what is true of it in every world that determines its essence. In general, it is incoherent to define modal notions like necessity and possibility in terms of possible worlds, since the notion of a 'possible' world itself presupposes modality."

      I haven't read that blog post fully yet, but an idea in it, from what I gather, is that the essence of a thing is not a mere collection of its necessary properties, but the thing which generates the essential properties of a thing.

      And so it seems that classical metaphysical frameworks would reject the notion that something can have a necessary property without it also having an essence. The two would appear to go hand in hand.

      What I'm interesting in knowing are the arguments in favor of that rejection, as well as those opposed to it.

  4. What does this mean for doxastic voluntarism? I struggle with faith and I have the "will" to believe... but sometimes this fails. Maybe my intellect is disordered and confused.

    While we're on the subject of morality, how would Ed Feser answer the Robin Hood Morality Quiz using the principles of Thomism?

    1. The story in the link is as follows: The Sheriff of Nottingham has finally caught Robin Hood and Little John! Instead of killing them immediately, he makes the mistake of all storybook villains in simply stashing them in the dungeon. Despite their track record of heroics, there the two benevolent outlaws rot - until Maid Marian shows up pleading her love for Robin and begging for his release. Sure, says the Sheriff, if Marian will sleep with him.
      She does. Robin and Little John are released. But when Maid Marian tells Robin the truth of how she earned their freedom, Robin dumps her faster than a leprous leech. Little John defends her behavior and offers his lifelong devotion if she will ride away from Sherwood with him forever. She does. The end.

      The author then asks readers to rank the four characters according to the moral goodness of their actions.

      The choice of words (beyond the essentials of the narrative) is designed to push the reader towards the author's preferences. "Robin dumps her faster than a leprous leech" is simply bullying. It tells the reader "you're an unthinking male-chauvinist bigot if you say Robin acts most morally". In general, the quiz implicitly presents morality as a matter of "intuitions" rather than anything subject to reason. It is therefore "voluntaristic" in the terms of Prof. Feser's OP (which was perhaps your purpose in posting the link?).

      You ask for the Thomist (natural-law) rank order. The Sheriff commits the mortal sin of fornication himself, while compounding the sin by persuading another to participate in his sin (who would not normally have been amenable - "Maid" Marian). He has also, it appears, committed a grave injustice by imprisoning two men whom he proposes to execute without cause.

      Marian also commits the mortal sin of fornication; she seems to be a consequentialist who believes that an evil means is permissable if the end is good; this does not mitigate the gravity of her sin, but it does not exacerbate it either.

      The story is unclear about Little John's intentions: is he proposing marriage? Life-long fornication? Life-long service and protection without sexual relations? It seems that at the very least, he is attempting to confirm her in the view that her sinful act was actually good, in which case he is formally co-operating with evil, and therefore committing a sin himself.

      Robin is the only character who is not clearly shown to sin, since the "bully phrase" doesn't specify his actions or words. He was certainly not morally bound to accept Marian in marriage after her act.

      None of this is a matter of moral "intuitions". The conclusions follow from natural-law principles, which themselves flow from observation of our natures (in an Aristotelian sense, not a modern sense). Prof. Feser has written extensively on such matters, so you would have no excuse for replying "LOL get owned bigot!!!" (which was a recent reply I received after laying out a natural-law argument on another site).

      Lastly, and outside the scope of any natural-law argument, what should Robin have said? Probably that he recognised her good intentions (and would speak compassionately), but that she had nonetheless committed a mortal sin, and would need to repent and make a confession as soon as possible. Perhaps the creator of the quiz would still characterise this as "dropping her like a leprous leach" (not even a good simile, since the problem with leaches is that they can't simply be "dropped").

  5. I recall, when I was a member of a Reformed church, discussing the question whether an act was good because commanded by God, or whether God commanded the act because it was good. It seemed - and still seems - to me that it was a mistake to try and make the contrast between something being good independently of God - but that if you had to discuss it, it seemed to me impossible to suppose that it was simply the will of God that was the reason why something was good. I was disturbed by my pastor saying that if - per impossibile - God commanded murder, then it would be ipso facto good.

    Anyway, that was thirty-two years ago - and I have been a Catholic for twenty-five years :-)


  6. Since we're talking about morality, I would also ike to ask:

    Imagine you had a talent or skill that was at least somewhat impressive, and knowing this, you desire to have yourself praised / honored for it. So you decide to call your friends over to have some fun, but also to show-off your skill to them. After a while you tell them "Hey guys! Let me show you something cool that I can do!" and show them your skill which impresses them and they give you compliments.

    Would this be okay and in line with the natural law? After all, Aquinas does say that a desire for honor is not sinful, and that as long as one doesn't praise that which is sinful or desire the praise from unqualified sources, and as long as one's charity and love of neighbor doesn't suffer from the desire for praise, things would be fine.

    Or is this at least somewhat sinful (i.e. vainglory)?

  7. Prof Feser

    You state:
    A voluntarist can be a rational person, and an intellectualist can be an irrational person.

    So, then what is the difference between them?

    Their Will or Intention? But, if I state that; am I not using my Intellect?

    1. A method to examine whether Will or Reason is primary is to examine the following proposition:

      When driving a car and coming to a red-light; what makes your decision for further action?

      Interestingly, when one does analyse the above comes to the startling conclusion that the Will creates the Reasons that quantify the action.

    2. Correct. But that is the voluntarist's problem: intellect logically precedes will. If a man judges doing crime is best in his life, he will commit crime; if he judges not, then he will not.

    3. The will doesn't create the reason, the will assents to the reason.

      Solving a math problem is a better example. If 5x+5=30, then your intellect knows to minus 5 from both sides then divide by 5 on both sides to determine x. Your will doesn't create this approach, it simply accepts what the intellect has concluded and follows it.

    4. Timocrates

      So, what you are tabling is:

      Will undervalues Reasoning.

    5. Billy

      Your analogy:


      But what is the difference, if I simply…





      Doesn’t prejudice undervalue the intellect?

      Isn’t this the difference?

      St. Thomas in his discussion of the relation between faith and reason gives a model of why it is plausible that truths demonstrable by reason are nonetheless maintained by faith (Summa theologica, Part I, Q.1, Art 8.).

      St. Thomas’ model concludes that prejudice undervalues reason

      Equivalent to: Will undervalues intellect

    6. 1/ Will undervalues intellect
      2/ Prejudice undervalues reason

      Which is the "reason" Prof Feser placed two caveats in his exposition:

      1/ (Note that I’m not talking about voluntarist philosophers themselves now, but rather about people whose personalities approximate what you’d expect people to be like if voluntarism were true.)

      2/ (Note that I am, of course, not in any way denigrating love, mercy, etc. or denying that someone might outwardly follow the moral law while having bad motives. I am talking about the voluntarist personality’s tendency to oversimplify and put excessive emphasis on these points.)

      These two caveats undervalue his reasoning in the article as they admit a prejudice.

      Philosophically, denigration is an extremely interesting topic...

    7. Timocrates

      Will can't value anything.

      That is clearly not correct.

      Will has no duration.

      For example, your attitude towards me is demeaning; this perception of yours will not vary; however, it does undervalue your reasoning.

      For example, earlier you did agree with my position... however, you did only because you did not understand it and you wished to attempt to make me position incoherent.

      It didn't succeed...

      Will undervalues reasoning. The Apostle Paul writes about the Will in these terms.

  8. Respectfully, I think you're attacking an ill-defined strawman in the first part of your post. You acknowledge that "no voluntarist would deny that what we think affects what we will" but then fail to give an adequate definition of philosophical voluntarism (which comes in different varieties, by the way) that would properly distinguish it from intellectualism. You merely state that "for the voluntarist, the will is ultimately in the driver’s seat." Well that sure is clear, precise, and helpful....

    You then go on to give several appeals to authority and discuss intellectualism before talking about the subject of your post, the voluntarist personality, which is not the same as philosophical voluntarism. Though I appreciate that you qualify that the two are not the same, what do you consider those quotes to be condemning? The philosophical view in all its forms or merely the psychological form of it that is the main subject of your post? My reading of those excerpts is that they are condemning the latter. Otherwise, why beat around the bush: simply declare Thomism infallible and Scotism heretical.

    As a last point, in the previous post on voluntarism and the PSR, you deferred addressing Schopenhauer to a later date, and now four years later, you have still failed to address him. I hope this can be rectified. As a Schopenhauerian intrigued by Scholastic thought and Christianity, I have been singularly disappointed in the great dearth of Catholic and Neo-Scholastic philosophers who have bothered to even read, let alone address, Schopenhauer, even though I feel he has potential in being a bridge between modern philosophy and Christianity/Scholasticism.

    1. To give Ed his due at the beginning of the article he did stress that he was talking about a 'strong voluntarism' - in the past he has mentioned disagreeing with Scotus over the role of the will but not thinking that individual's position leads to the kind of absurdities that Ockham's does. I take Ockham to be the target here and not Scotus.

      (Although Ockham as a scholastic has a neat comeback to charges of theological voluntarism, namely that the Divine Will and the Divine Intellect are in fact identical due to Divine Simplicity)

    2. Actually, in that post what he said that he wasn't doing Schopenhauer but also wasn't ruling out eventually doing a post on Schopenhauer, not that he was deferring addressing it to a later date. There was no plan to do it.

      You merely state that "for the voluntarist, the will is ultimately in the driver’s seat." Well that sure is clear, precise, and helpful....

      That's the standard meaning of the term, though. It's not a rigorous technical term with some more precise definition; the voluntarist-intellectualist distinction is a rule-of-thumb distinction for sorting out positions relative to each other, based on what is treated as primary (in this case, primary for personal action). Anything more precise and you have to be looking at particular philosophical positions.

    3. "There was no plan to do it."

      Whatever. I'd still like to see it.

      "Anything more precise and you have to be looking at particular philosophical positions."

      Hence my accusation. When a term is so broad, it's easy to equivocate and attack straw men.

    4. Hence my accusation. When a term is so broad, it's easy to equivocate and attack straw men.

      This is not how a straw man works. For it to be a straw man, it would have to be applied to particular cases contrary to evidence; otherwise you can't get the kind of irrelevance that's required to get the fallacy. An argument about idealized types, as the post explicitly is, doesn't do that. And even if that weren't true, there's a gap between "easy to do it" and "actually doing it". Since the characterizations in the post are standard, and taken in idealized from, there's no equivocation unless the classifications themselves are equivocal, which is possible but would be a fairly significant argument given how common they are in historical scholarship. Nor does the overall approach in the post seem to be out of the ordinary; it's not really any different from (e.g.) claiming that empiricism, unlike rationalism (empiricism-rationalism being another rule-of-thumb classification of the same thing), throws out all but the most limited mathematics. Yes, you would need to define specific forms of empiricism to discuss actual empiricists, but the general diagnosis stands or falls on its own, without any of that.

    5. Unless so defined, the discussion just isn't interesting or helpful, to me at least. Maybe you like these vague sorts of discussions. If so, suit yourself.

    6. The charge of vagueness has simply not been established, and is indeed misplaced; you cannot define specific forms correctly unless you can already classify them according to the type -- this is an elementary feature of the classification of positions. You can't define specific forms of empiricism, as empiricism, unless you know the type 'empiricism' to which they converge. But since the type works as a type because it rules out certain things, rules in certain things, and makes other things typical or atypical, it follows directly that one can look at the implications of the type on its own, and indeed this must be the case if the specific definitions are to be at all useful.

      So, for instance, in order to recognize that Berkeley's bundle theory of sensible objects is typical of empiricism, and his divine-language theory of laws of nature atypical of empiricism, one must already be able to frame what the type 'empiricism', empiricism in pure or ideal form, would involve on its own. Likewise, knowing that a purely ideal empiricism has no way on its own of introducing infinites -- we have only finite sensations, only finite means of processing them, and only finite time to do it -- one can anticipate (correctly) that Berkeley will have difficulty with geometrical infinites, and thereby understand why Berkeley at one point in his career argues that the Pythagorean Theorem is not true, just useful.

      The course of inquiry you are suggesting would, as far as I can see, make serious classification of philosophical positions impossible. We don't start with direct insight into the specific definitions of the many, many philosophical positions we meet; we find the positions, in great proliferation, arising as a result of human intellectual activity, and in this proliferation we start recognizing patterns and contrasts of interest to us. On that basis, we identify contrasting types, abstract pure forms lacking the adulterations we find in the wild jungle of the intellectual world, and on the basis of this we are able to give a more precise characterization of how different positions group around these types despite their considerable variation, just as a natural historian groups particular flowers according to their relations to an abstract typical rose, the ideal rose.

  9. I reaffirm my old challenge - whilst a strong voluntarism leads to Nietzchean absurdity a strong intellectualism leads to the denial of contra-causal free and thus determinism. On a strong intellectualist line either there are no commensurable goods, in which case a perfectly rational individual will always incline towards the single highest good presented, or there are commensurable goods, in which case the rational individual will be unable to deliberate between the two a la Buridan's Ass.

    Now it's not agreed upon that Thomism does represent such a strong intellectualist line though people are rather evasive about stating that it doesn't.

    1. Commensurable goods are not necessarily commensurate.

    2. OA, can you specify what you mean by "commensurable" here? As I have seen it used (for example, by New Natural Lawyers), I don't think their meaning is what you had in mind, but maybe I am mistaken.

    3. Equal in goodness. Suppose for instance that a person is required to make a choice between having an apple or an orange with breakfast and that each of these options presents the same degree of goodness both intrinsically and extrinsically. There is no way the intellect alone can break the tie here (yet by the same token we do not want to say that person's choice is irrational). This example is discussed in Kevin Staley’s essay ‘Aquinas: Compatibilist or Libertarian?’

      For context I situate this question in the debate over whether Thomism is compatible with the principle of alternative possibilities criterion of libertarian free will. Staley argues that he does, whilst Thomas Williams (the writer of an article on Scotus Staley was responding to) argues that it isn’t.

      (Qualifier: all Thomists would agree that in the case of the ultimate good, which is God, a perfectly rational being must incline towards it, something I as a theist have no quibble with. The question is whether not ultimate goods necessarily incline the will)

    4. Well, I have seen people argue that there is no such thing as "equal goods" in the subjective sense, i.e. in the sense that the intellect perceives the two goods as complete equality across all aspects. Even if it is two apples that appear virtually identical, one might be slightly redder, or slightly rounder, or merely slightly closer than the other.

      But I think this is a cop-out position, frankly. It might work in individual cases, but it doesn't seem to serve when the person himself cannot account for a difference in the goodness of the two apples. If he is unaware in his own mind of a difference, it seems that the choosing is not on the basis of an intellectually apprehended difference.

      Is it possible to argue that when the intellect apprehends the goodness of the two as equal across all aspects, the intellectual appetite can pursue a choice by way of a "random choice generator" because choosing one at random is clearly more rational than standing before them without making a choice, as an ass might? An internal coin-flipping?

    5. Well, I have seen people argue that there is no such thing as "equal goods" in the subjective sense, i.e. in the sense that the intellect perceives the two goods as complete equality across all aspects. Even if it is two apples that appear virtually identical, one might be slightly redder, or slightly rounder, or merely slightly closer than the other.

      My problem with this is that it tacitly concedes the charge of determinism.

      Remember questions like this are also central to ‘best of all possible worlds’ challenges to theism – the critic tries to force the theist to coincide that God must choose the best option, in which case either there is no single best option ergo God cannot create, or there is in which case God is determined to create this world (in which case modal collapse follows).

      Is it possible to argue that when the intellect apprehends the goodness of the two as equal across all aspects, the intellectual appetite can pursue a choice by way of a "random choice generator" because choosing one at random is clearly more rational than standing before them without making a choice, as an ass might? An internal coin-flipping?

      My concern is that if we tacitly accept the ‘random’ verses ‘determined’ dichotomy then the question has already been begged against free will. I’d accept that a free, rational person desirous of a good breakfast is determined to choose either the apple or the orange as opposed to, say, a plate of iron fillings. It’s a stretch from there to agents choices being determined hierarchies of goods save in rare cases where some kind of internal coin-flipping mechanism is required.

  10. Some of what you have said could be applied to the moral defects found in some so-called personality disorders.

    Would you consider doing a blog post based on your experience of Pharisees, false Christians of this kind? I think it would be relevant both to this discussion and what is going on in the Church with celebrities who want to exalt themselves but then later are the cause of serious scandal.

  11. I have often been puzzled by the standard Thomist thesis that the will acts upon the good presented to it by the intellect, and therefore the intellect is "in the driver's seat" as it were.

    There are at least a couple of ways in which this seems an inadequate explanation. First, the will can (and does, in the case of deliberate mortal sin) direct the intellect to consider A and B goods and to not consider C good, even though it "knows" (in some sense, at least by habitual knowledge) that C is better than A or B, upon which the intellect then considers and presents A and B in their respective goods. In doing so, it seems impossible to EXPLAIN the will acting under the impetus of the intellect's operation. There is nothing about the intellect's operation that seems to explain the will directing attention away from C.

    In the operation of the act of faith, the will directs the intellect to assent to a truth, (and to do so without reservation), wherein the intellect does not have the impetus of the natural causes of such unreserved assent (i.e. the "natural light of reason", being generically "sufficient reason" for such assent, such as apprehension of self-evident propositions, or apprehension of demonstrative proof). There does not seem to be an explanation for the intellect being "in the driver's seat" as to that unreserved assent, it seems to be the will. (More generically, even when it is not a matter of faith but of merely human-motivated belief, such as "I believe in my spouse", it still seems like the will directs the assent, and there is in that case no external cause like "the will is moved by grace to direct the will to assent" as in the act of faith.)

    And of course, when the intellect presents multiple goods each of which seem equal in goodness, and the will chooses one and not the others, this selection seems to not be explained by any influence of the intellect as such. (I think OA Police referred to this.)

    It seems to me that the standard and simple "the intellect is in the driver's seat" is TOO simple, so much so as to be not just incomplete but even misleading. There are respects in which the will is not dependent on the intellect for the direction (form?) of its operation, even if the will generally depends on the intellect for the MATTER of its operation.

    1. I like Daniel De Haan's presentation which you can find on YouTube. Around minute 25, he makes the point that Aquinas cuts through dichotomies including intellectualism and Voluntarism. Aquinas is holistic. A voluntary choice needs both the intellect and the will with the both making a necessary aspect of the overall equation as it were.

      Neither rational cognition or the will but itself explain a choice. Rather, rational cognition teleological orders the will but the will must he the one specify which option. Again it's holistic, though I suppose the intellect is ofcourse prior. I think calling it fundamental may be misleading, as the will is necessary and fundamental also.

      I also think Feser wouldn't disagree with much said. It may just come down to emphasis here.

    2. Callum, do you have a link that works?


      You will need the volume on the highest setting the audio isn't great

  12. Dr. Feser, are there any scholastic writers you would recommend for epistemology?

  13. IF the will stands to the intellect almost as an effect does to its cause, then perhaps one reason why someone might be a voluntarist is exactly because he's a covert intellecualist; I mean, the will is as it were the proof of the intellect and loving the intellect he attaches disproportionate importance to the act of the will, as in a sense that which realizes the intellect (especially in concrete affairs; i.e. in the desire to realize a perceived a good and endure what is necessary to accomplish it). Thus one might say that a voluntarist perhaps loves the loving of the loveable; indeed, this seems to be part of the strength or appeal in the LGBT slogan, "Love is love," that is, the reference is not to the object but the act of loving.

  14. This is one of the most beautiful arguments I've ever seen, and perfect for our troubled times.

  15. And now a momentary break in the avoidance of criteria:

    Me: Why to you think some kind of mindless willing is primary?

    Schopenhauer: I willed it, fool. Try to keep up. Somebody's not reading their Schopenhauer.

    1. Atheism is incompatible with moral obligations.

      1. If atheism is true, then man is the chief of the Earth
      2. If man is the chief of the Earth, then anything is permitted.
      3. Therefore if atheism is true, then everything is permitted.

      So either there is no such thing as morality, or atheism is immoral. Now what will be your choice? Smoking or non-smoking?

      "And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name." (Revelation 14:11)

    2. Problem is, there's no moral obligation to believe that, because that would be a meta-moral obligation about what we're obligated to believe about morality itself.

      Plus we each decide what is true about morality, as if we are judge and jury about all the construances of the notions of morality.

      if-then conditionals about moral theory, or even bother paying attention to "permissions" moral notions or theories of any kind.

      There's total moral impunity in deciding the obligation or even relevance to care a whit about morality, ethics, or theories about them. Unless Nielsen's cognitive engine, always idling in the background, is necessarily already functioning to obligate thought for what is apparently far more than mere survival.

      Mommy: "You know you really morally ought to pay attention to moral theory, little Johnny! It's the morally right thing to do, if you want to play with the other kids' assumption-oblivious first-order moral theories as well as your own! But I tell you what, you're logically and morally baseless claims about morals will be our secret, if you don't play along."

  16. Interesting post, more needs to be said about the way voluntarist and intellectualist epistemology relate to our scientific ontology and metaphysics.

    Anjan Chakravartty's recent book seems to be interesting take on the issue.

  17. Hi Dr. Feser,
    I am having quite a problem understanding the distinction between first and second potency, as well as the counter part distinction between first and second act. If you, or anybody on this blog really, would please comment or recommend some material for understanding these distinctions I would be most grateful.

    1. Anonymous

      Actually read Prima Pars of the Summa Theologica; Potentially you may then understand Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction by Prof Feser.

    2. Anon,

      If you were a baby, you don't speak English. This can be taken in two different ways, and one way is dependent on the other way. In one way, you don't speak English because you have not learned how to, but you have the potential to which can be actualised by learning. That is one way.

      Now, say that you get older and learn English and thus have actualised your potential to speak it, but at the very moment you aren't actually speaking English, you are silent. You also don't speak English, but this is in the other way. You have the potential to speak English which can be actualised when opening your mouth and speaking.

      Your potential to speak English, as in if you were to open your mouth and talk right now, is a second order potential because it is dependent on a more foundational potential, which is the potential to speak English, as in if you learn the ability to do so, which is a first order potential.

      If your mouth was taped shut, you wouldn't be able to speak English in the second order sense, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't be able to speak English in the first order sense. Without the first, there couldn't be the second. Any appearance of the second without the first would be just that: mere appearance. It wouldn't be that much different to a parrot, which just mimics
      sounds rather than actually speaking because a parrot does not have the first order potential to speak in the first place.

      I hope that helps.

    3. (I am the original poster of the comment)

      Rand, I apologize if this is misreading you, but you seem to have nothing polite to say.

      Billy, I thank you for your comment, it was very helpful, though I am still confused about the exact nature of operative act, which I think is my difficulty here.

  18. What does this mean for doxastic voluntarism?

  19. "I leave as homework the question of whether this analysis might illuminate what is going on these days in the Catholic Church and in American politics."

    Ha! ... So if any of you are looking to get a real snoot-full of unabashed, 100 percent unadulterated by reason, high octane hands-over-the-ears 'all you need is love, Love' style fideism, you might skim over the latest , or any for that matter, outpourings of a certain "Catholic in Brooklyn" blogger and writer.

    I guess I should get the link ...

    Yeah, so don't blame me. It's this blog's fault 'cause it functions as a slippery slope. Way back, some anti-Feserite sarcastically linked to a "Real Catholic" blogger, who turned out to be the conservative Catholic contorversialist Michael Voris, who is the main target of this Brooklyn blogger ... and so on and so forth.

    Reason? You wan reason! I don need no steenkin' reason!

  20. Benedict, intellectualist. Francis, voluntarist, or so it seems to me.

    1. St Paul, intellectualist, St Peter, voluntarist?

  21. " ... let’s consider persons who really do approximate what human beings would be like if voluntarism were true. "

    Let's consider what would remain anthropologically, if the voluntarist tried (as I think many do) to live his voluntarist project and program. This is to say, what we would confront as he realized his voluntarist ambition.

    The amazingly good cut-to-the-chase answer which you have perceptively given before (and not admirable just because I had analyzed the situation in a way that concluded in precisely the same terminology):

    The resultant, the conclusion, is the new voluntarist being is revealed as "a congeries of appetites"; with all the unintegrated incoherence and lack of center that that description implies.

    How an analytic philosopher, who had as far as I know no background in phenomenology or even existentialism could have come to such a conclusion I cannot imagine ... unless you were just working the logic trail very carefully.

    This "willing-thing" then, has in short and minus any primary adjudicating intellect, no deep rooted explanation for its own willing: and is thus not even in real possession of an essential 'itself'.

    Of course this result would please many postmodernists, and they embrace the nihilistic conclusion as a kind of liberation, rather than flee from it. But why, like so many of the mental eliminationists, they continue to talk publicly as if they are inherently entitled members of an common species where an objective moral imperative still operates, I don't know.

    Well, I do know; but I don't think that they would care to admit it. It would be like boasting to your angry and fed up audience that it's OK to kill you.

    So, "Better to huckster than to pester" [for or to tell the "truth"], as the postmodernist slogan goes.

    1. This "willing-thing" then, has in short and minus any primary adjudicating intellect, no deep rooted explanation for its own willing: and is thus not even in real possession of an essential 'itself'.

      The will, in such a voluntarist, would be creating its own truth, beauty, and righteoussness in its own universe. Now the will may use the intellect to deduct truth or apprehend aesthetics from the external world, but that wouldn't be "in the driver's seat" as it would be said. The will would be in possession of an essential 'itself' in the sense that it couldn't create inconsistent notions of truth, beauty, and righteousness.

    2. "The will, in such a voluntarist, would be creating its own truth, beauty, and righteoussness in its own universe. Now the will may use the intellect to deduct truth or apprehend aesthetics from the external world, but that wouldn't be "in the driver's seat" as it would be said. The will would be in possession of an essential 'itself' in the sense that it couldn't create inconsistent notions of truth, beauty, and righteousness."

      Yes, well, Freud aside, that assumes a unity of the will that my view claims is not in biological or psychological evidence: as urges and desires ebb and flow and well-up and seek expression without any unifying principle implicit in the act of willing or intending per se.

      There of course must be an object of the will, but in the view I am convinced describes the radical voluntarist, the "self", minus an adjudicating and self-referential intellect, is just a kind of .... nozzle ... for the expression of unsconsciously generated urges which may in fact - often do - imply contradictory ends.

      I'm not saying that Deleuze and Guattari's notion of a desiring machine is a perfect description of what a radical voluntarist reduces to ... but it seems a good launching point.

      Hardly even rises to the level of the rider on the elephant, which many psychologists have pictured as an apt analogy of the "real" relation between the mind and body. There the intellect is deceived, but the "will" insofar as experienced and imagined by the intending self as existing in a possessor's sense, is even more an illusion.

  22. I've recently (in the past year) garnered an interest in presuppositionalism per Van Til (whom I have not yet read) and Bahnsen (whom I have) that seems to contradict your thesis. Namely, that certain bare facts must be presupposed before reasoning can begin. By nature, these things are not subject to intellectual proof or refutation. They are simply assumed without proof and constitute our most basic beliefs. God is said to be one such presumption, a realization innate in all humans that must be suppressed to escape. I find the line of argument very convincing. Where does this fit, do you think? It seems inescapable to be that these most basic beliefs must be accepted or rejected by an act of will.

    1. Well, I would say one cannot reason without having something to reason about, so believing that reasoning begins with beliefs that one must assume makes sense to me. I do not think, however, that God is one such belief. Certainly though as we grow and mature we can increasingly appreciate and realize that our desire for happiness is infinite or unlimited and that nothing in this world could possibly satisfy it. From that one might reasonably reason that such a desire points to God, because in nature all desires have a corresponding object to satisfy them (e.g. if we thirst there is water; if we are hungry, there is indeed food).

    2. What Dr. Feser said when quoting Benedict is definitely relevant.

      "[There is a voluntarism that] might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God."

  23. Say, and before I forget again for the 3rd time, and since the original posting touches more or less directly on the subject of philosophical anthropology, and will ...

    What, is this business I see everywhere recently, about "agency"? Primarily it is seen in connection with some person or persons complaining that others are not "respecting", or "acknowledging" or "validating" their "agency".

    Thus it apparently functions ["sentience", anyone?] as a kind of magic word, imagined to evoke instant respect on the assumption that it refers to a quality or an attribute that per se imparts respectability ... or something on some basis or another.

    I must have missed something in class back when.

    I know my philosophical studies are out of date as are my many hours in the psychology classroom, but though it should not be all that difficult to figure out why pulling this "agency" card out should somehow function as a "due bill" for X quanta of interpersonal respect or even solidarity ... I just can't get to the insinuated conclusion from the ostensible premiss.

    Does anyone here, understand how this is supposed to work?

    1. Hey DNW

      You're still here dude. Where is everybody these days. Maybe they've morphed into other avatars. Bunch of idiots here now.

      I ask a number of questions similar to the ones I've asked about various self-sabotaging claims and positions.

      What's the exact definition of agency
      How did you decide it's legit
      Why's the concept or term is even necessary
      True for you, or are you Jim-Jones-ing it for others.
      What is it about agency that obligates respect
      Whose agency gets priority
      General skepticism
      Is that a scientific notion
      Is it different from what the Great Pumpkin said
      Does it indicate when you should kill yourself
      How can we be saved from the evil questioners of agency
      Will we be cast into a lack of burning sulfur if we reject agency

      But detailed questioning of definitions of key terms is usually sufficiently revealing and causes mental system failure almost to a person. Works great for terms like hate, bigotry, bias, so why not for agency as well?

      Wait until their heartrate seems well above normal (It's all about feelings among the Cognitive Oprahs) before invoking the self-referential and criterial stuff. (And for the love of God, people, please have your own dreamed-up reductionism and "blik-ency" idea developed before you interact from now on. sheesh)

      Notice that agency mongers act very different (mimicking Randian objectivists, of course) about their own plights and determining circumstances, especially when on the phone with Mommy about Money and their Personal (and "medical/psychiatric", remember) Problems. Logic is not dead yet, even though they're trying their best, God bless'em.

      I think one of society's main problems right now is to figure out how to transition the poor to live in the college and university buildings---at least all of the humanities (= bigotries), anyway---since over half will be out of business within 10 years, according to a recent report out of Boston University.

      But we're Americans, and I think if we all pull together and blockchain all our problems (like Jesus said), we can rid the world of the need for Collectivist Grandstanding Certification Centers, and just close all the colleges and universities within 5 years.

      Let's all touch the top edges of our screens and commit ourselves right now to doing the right thing: Euthanize the corporate golf drunks, and close all their institutions before the prediction markets do it drastically for us and freak a lot of people out.

      All is one.

      CryptoSaint Jim Bell Prediction Market Day
      Current BTC (CoinDesk BPI, USD): $6,420.00

  24. To question or analyze whether the will or the intellect is the determiner of our belief in voluntarism or intellectualism, assumes intellectualism.

    Besides, if it really were a sheer function of will, then there's no such thing as having reasons for the belief. But hey, you couldn't be bothered with asking yourself which belief you're going to will today. Just will it, and let the intellectualists ask questions later.

    And if it's all sheer willing, you couldn't even be aware of that fact itself---you could only will it, and then will your belief that you willed it.

    The problem with voluntarism is that voluntarists argue for it, instead of simply urging people to just WILL it.

    As Charles Manson and Nike would both say: "Just will it."

    * * *

    "It's ALL real, sonny boy! So watch out!"
    --Town Drunk, Macon Georgia

  25. Brilliant and revelatory post which has hugely clarified my understanding of the difficulty of arguing with lefties.