Barbara Hannan: Schopenhauer on Freedom of the Will

-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

Is it worthwhile for excellent philosophers to spend their time in making very clear what the great philosophers have thought about something important? To read Professor Hannan's fine account of  Schopenhauer on freedom and determinism is to be drawn towards answering yes. The indomitable thinking of he who came between Hegel and Nietzsche in the line of German philosophers is brought into focus by someone rightly persuaded of the value of that thinking and with things to say about it. Professor Hannan's piece also has the recommendation, as it seems to me, of  providing further evidence of something that lately has become clearer. It is that the solution to the problem of determinism and freedom is not likely to be found without a full engagement in the philosophy of mind, indeed in what can be called the metaphysics of mind. Schopenhauer saw that early.


1.  Introduction

In April 1837, the announcement of an essay competition appeared in a German literary journal.  The Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences was offering a prize for the best essay on the following topic:  Can the freedom of the will be proven from self-consciousness?  Arthur Schopenhauer, then around fifty years old, took it upon himself to answer the question.  To his gratification, he won the prize…a bit of recognition he regarded as long overdue, since the first edition of his masterpiece, The World As Will and Representation, had been published twenty years previously to no great acclaim.  A still earlier work, On The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which served as Schopenhauer’s doctoral dissertation, and which contained the seed of all his later work, had likewise been published to thunderous silence.  It was Schopenhauer’s prize essay on the freedom of the will that brought him some fame, and awakened interest among the intellectual public in his earlier work.

The main purpose of this paper is to make Schopenhauer’s views on freedom of the will as clear as possible.  I place those views in context by first explaining the central themes of The World As Will and Representation and The Fourfold Root.  When these are adequately understood, Schopenhauer’s position on free will and determinism, as presented in the Prize Essay on Freedom of the Will, falls out as a natural consequence.

I speculate at the end of this paper that Schopenhauer’s ideas have significant implications for contemporary philosophy of mind.  The outstanding unsolved problem for today’s philosophers of mind is the problem of mental causation.  This problem is but one aspect of the larger project of “naturalizing” mind and intentionality.   This means reducing the mental to the physical.  I am convinced that the problem of mental causation is misconceived, and that the project of naturalizing intentionality ought to be given up.  Schopenhauer explains why.  Schopenhauer knew what Plato and Aristotle knew long before him: the deepest kind of explanation (the metaphysical explanation that goes beyond science and hence beyond causation) is not a physicalistic explanation, but a mentalistic one.  I believe this aspect of the ancient worldview, which was lost during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s and 1700s, needs to be revived.  Physicalism has proven to be an unsatisfactory paradigm.  Schopenhauer was the prophet of the end of physicalism: a “voice crying in the wilderness” that we would do well to heed.

2.  Transcendental Idealism and the Metaphysics of Will

Schopenhauer found an epiphany in Kantian transcendental idealism.  He was fond of quoting Rousseau in this regard:  “Quit thy childhood, my friend, and wake up.”  For Schopenhauer, the naïve realism presupposed by Western science is a childish error.  One breaks the spell of that error, and enters intellectual adulthood, only when one realizes that the empirical world is as much a construction of the mind as it is an objective reality.  Object and subject presuppose one another.

The scientific mind protests against idealism by saying, “Surely there was a world, and a greater universe, before living creatures evolved to behold it.  Mind is a creation of matter, not vice-versa.”  But Schopenhauer points out that even if we agree with this, Berkeley’s argument remains vexingly irrefutable: when we imagine the world existing prior to the evolution of minds, we are covertly presupposing a subject apprehending and categorizing that world.  As Schopenhauer puts it:

…animals existed before men, fishes before land animals, plants before fishes, and the inorganic before the organic; consequently, the original mass had to go through a long series of changes before the first eye could be opened.  And yet the existence of this whole world remains forever dependent on that first eye that opened, were it even that of an insect.  For such an eye necessarily brings about knowledge, for which and in which alone the whole world is, and without which it is not even conceivable.

Schopenhauer calls this (the equal irrefutability of both scientific naturalism and Berkelean idealism) “an antinomy in our faculty of knowledge.”   The only way out of the contradiction, according to Schopenhauer, is to embrace Kant’s doctrine.  Time, space, and causality are forms of appearance; they belong only to phenomena, not to things-in-themselves.  In other words, Schopenhauer holds that something (a thing-in-itself) exists eternally.  This something, however, is non-spatial, non-temporal, and prior to the law of cause and effect (all causal explanations presuppose it).

Schopenhauer’s cognitive psychology drastically simplifies Kant’s scheme of categories.  He also departs from Kant in declaring that the thing-in-itself is that which we know directly in ourselves as will, and which manifests itself in non-living things as basic physical forces such as electromagnetism and gravity.

Schopenhauer does not believe that the “vital force,” that which moves living organisms to respond to stimuli and to act voluntarily, is reducible to other, more basic natural forces.  The vital force is a particular grade of the objectification of the thing-in-itself, Will.  Each grade of Will’s objectification is ontologically irreducible.  As a consequence, the type of causal explanation making reference to motives terminates in appeal to the will (vital force), just as the type of causal explanation making reference to physical causes terminates in appeal to electromagnetism, gravity, etc….and the latter type of explanation can never replace or subsume the former.  In Schopenhauer’s words:

…in essence motivation is not different from causality, but is only a form of it, namely  causality that passes through the medium of cognition.  Therefore here too the cause calls forth only the manifestation of a force that cannot be reduced and consequently cannot be explained any further.  The force in question, which is called will, is known to us not merely from without as are the other forces of nature, but also from within and immediately by virtue of self-consciousness. 

As we shall see in more detail in a subsequent section of this paper, Schopenhauer believes that every human action is the product of two factors: motive (external object of desire or aversion) and character (the individual will of the actor).  An event of being confronted with the motive, properly speaking, is the cause; the character of the actor is the force that reacts to the motive.

We come to know our own character, according to Schopenhauer, empirically, just as we come to know everything else.  We observe our own behavior, and after a while we come to know our own tendencies.  But at the same time as we have this empirical knowledge of our own character, we are also aware of ourselves non-empirically, by pure self-consciousness, as willing entities.  This latter mode of awareness is non-cognitive (it does not pass through the forms of cognition, which are time, space, and causality.)  It is direct acquaintance with the thing-in-itself.

Admittedly, Schopenhauer equivocates on this point.  Sometimes he says clearly and directly what I have just stated as his view, namely, that the thing-in-itself, Will, is subjectively known when the subject experiences herself as a desirer and actor.  See, for example, The World As Will and Representation Vol. II, p. 195:

…on the path of objective knowledge, thus starting from the representation, we shall never get beyond the representation, i.e., the phenomenon.  We shall therefore remain at the outside of things; we shall never be able to penetrate into their inner nature, and investigate what they are in themselves…So far, I agree with Kant.  But now, as the counterpoise to this truth, I have stressed that other truth that we are not merely the knowing subject, but that we ourselves are the thing-in-itself.  Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without.  It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that could not be taken by attack from without.  Precisely as such, the thing-in-itself can come into consciousness only quite directly, namely by it itself being conscious of itself; to try to know it objectively is to desire something contradictory.  Everything objective is representation, consequently appearance; in fact mere phenomenon of the brain.

Later in The World As Will and Representation, however, at Vol. II pp. 196-197, Schopenhauer seems to qualify this view rather severely:

…even the inward observation we have of our own will still does not by any means furnish an exhaustive and adequate knowledge of the thing-in-itself…For even in self-consciousness, the I is not absolutely simple, but consists of a knower (intellect) and a known (will); the former is not known and the latter is not knowing, although the two flow together into the consciousness of an I.  But on this very account, this I is not intimate with itself through and through, does not shine through so to speak, but is opaque, and therefore remains a riddle to itself.  Hence, even in inner knowledge there still occurs a difference between the being-in-itself of its object and the observation or perception of this object in the knowing subject.  But the inner knowledge is free from two forms belonging to outer knowledge, the form of space and the form of causality which brings about all sense-perception.  On the other hand, there still remains the form of time, as well as that of being known and of knowing in general.  Accordingly, in this inner knowledge the thing-in-itself has indeed to a great extent cast off its veils, but still does not appear quite naked.  In consequence of the form of time which still adheres to it, everyone knows his will only in its successive individual acts, not as a whole, in and by itself.  Hence no one knows his character a priori, but he becomes acquainted with it only by way of experience and always imperfectly.  Yet the apprehension in which we know the stirrings and acts of our own will is far more immediate than is any other…Accordingly, the act of will is indeed only the nearest and clearest phenomenon of the thing-in-itself; yet it follows from this that, if all the other phenomena could be known by us just as immediately and intimately, we should be obliged to regard them precisely as that which the will is in us.  Therefore in this sense I teach that the inner nature of every thing is will, and I call the will the thing-in-itself.

As Christopher Janaway has noted, Schopenhauer reveals himself in these passages to be “caught between two stances, one bold, one circumspect.”   With Janaway, I must conclude that the circumspect stance most clearly reflects Schopenhauer’s mature view.  When I portray Schopenhauer as believing that subjectivity gives us direct access to the thing-in-itself, I beg the reader to keep in mind that this access is not quite direct, though it operates through the lightest of veils.

3.  The Fourfold Root

   Let us, for the moment, leave the thing-in-itself aside, and confine ourselves to the realm of phenomena.  Within this empirical world, which is the realm of cognition, everything has an explanation, according to Schopenhauer.  There are four types of explanation, each a different version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  Schopenhauer formulates the Principle of Sufficient Reason in these terms:  “Nothing is without a ground or reason why it is.”   Each of the four types of explanation corresponds to a type of object-for-the-human-understanding.

   Before we survey the four types of explanation and their corresponding objects, it is important to grasp Schopenhauer’s account of the structure of the human cognitive faculty.  In humans, the cognitive faculty consists of two sub-faculties, understanding and reason.  Understanding is a faculty we share with non-human animals.  Only humans possess reason.  Understanding is the faculty that organizes experience according to time, space, and causality.  Reason is the “higher” faculty of abstract concepts and language.  Reason divides objects into classes and names these classes.  Because humans possess reason in addition to understanding, we are capable of ascending to the meta-level and seeing that space, time, and causality are forms imposed on reality by the mind.  We can then contemplate these forms themselves as objects of thought.  We are also capable of contemplating classes of objects (types, properties) as complex objects of thought.  Accordingly, there are more kinds of objects-for-the-understanding in humans than in non-human animals.

   I cannot resist a slight digression at this point.  One of the most charming features of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is his appreciation of the intelligence of non-human animals:

All animals, even the lowest, must have understanding, that is to say, knowledge of the law of causality, although they may have it in very different degrees of keenness and clearness.  At any rate they must always have as much as is necessary for intuitive perception with their senses; for sensation without understanding would be not merely a useless, but even a cruel, gift of nature.  No one who himself has any intelligence will doubt its existence in the higher animals.

I must say, I cannot agree more.  I have long been baffled by the number of respected philosophers who hold, in absurd contradiction to plain evidence, that non-human animals don’t think,   or don’t live in the world,   or don’t divide reality into particulars,   because of their lack of language.  Schopenhauer sees the truth, that division of the world into spatio-temporal particulars, and appreciation of cause-effect relationships, are basic cognitive abilities that are prior to linguistic thought.  Why so many reputedly-great philosophers have missed this point is a mystery to me.

To return to our main topic, Schopenhauer says the four types of explanation are:

Causal explanations of the familiar scientific sort.

Logical (propositional) inferences.

Geometrical or mathematical inferences.

Explanations of action making reference to motives.

Schopenhauer is careful to point out that category 4 represents a special class of causal explanation:  “Motivation is causality seen from within.”

The four types of object-for-the-human-understanding, corresponding to the four types of explanation and listed in order, are:

Physical objects.

Concepts [types, properties, classes].

Space and time, contemplated as the forms of inner and outer sense.

The subject of willing known uniquely to each individual via self-consciousness.

In The Fourfold Root, Schopenhauer makes crystal-clear that causes and effects are changes or events, not entities or things.  Causes and effects are changes in a subject that necessarily exists eternally and prior to these changes.  The notion of a “first cause” is absurd --- every cause necessarily presupposes a preceding cause, and so on infinitely.  A further point is stressed in various places in Schopenhauer’s writings:  causal explanations always leave something unexplained.  These explanations terminate in appeal to natural forces, which are irreducible features of the necessarily-existing subject of causal relations:

Every causality and every explanation presupposes some original force; therefore an explanation never explains everything, but always leaves something inexplicable.  We see this in the whole of physics and chemistry…

As an example of a natural force, Schopenhauer often mentions electricity.  According to Schopenhauer, natural forces do not cause anything.  For example, to say “The lamp was caused to come on by electricity” is misleading.  In truth, the lamp was caused to come on by some change or event, and all changes and events take place against a background of inexplicable natural forces.

4.  Free Will

   Schopenhauer, ever the enemy of words used without clear meaning, begins his prize essay by inquiring into “What is meant by freedom?”  He notes that freedom is a negative concept, signifying lack of obstruction.  Depending on the nature of the relevant obstruction, there are three kinds of freedom:  physical, intellectual, and moral.  Schopenhauer sets intellectual freedom aside, to be dealt with in an afterword.  He concentrates on physical freedom and moral freedom.

   Physical freedom is the absence of material obstacles.  We usually think of freedom in connection with animals.  The essential characteristic of an animal is that it is capable of voluntary movement, that is, movement proceeding from the will.  We call an animal free when no material obstacle prevents it from acting in accordance with its own will.  Schopenhauer says:

…in this physical meaning of the concept of freedom, animals and human beings are called free when neither chains, dungeon, nor paralysis, and thus generally no physical, material obstacle impedes their actions, but these [actions] occur in accordance with their will…this physical meaning of the concept of freedom, and especially as the predicate of animals, is the original, immediate, and therefore most frequent one…as soon as an animal acts only from its will, it is in this sense free, and no account is taken here of what may have influenced the will itself.

           This concept, physical freedom, is well-understood and philosophically unproblematical.

            Schopenhauer turns next to moral freedom, the problematical concept intended by the Royal Society’s question.  He theorizes that this concept developed out of that of physical freedom, as follows:  it was observed that human beings sometimes performed actions which would, in normal circumstances, certainly not be in accordance with their will, yet, no overtly physical force or obstacle caused this.  Rather, the causal factor was mental in nature --- awareness of  “…mere motives, such as threats, promises, dangers, and the like.”

   For example (this is my example, not Schopenhauer’s) imagine a person A who works in a bank and normally is a law-abiding citizen.  This person becomes the victim of an extortionist B who threatens to break A’s legs unless A embezzles money from the bank and gives the money to B.  A, fearing the fate of having her legs broken, embezzles.  The question may be raised:  did A act of her own free will in thus embezzling?  Could she have resisted the extortionist’s threats, or did these threats act just like a physical force, necessitating, and thus excusing, A’s action?

   Schopenhauer tells us:

The answer to this could not be difficult for sound common sense, namely that a motive could never act like a physical [force or] obstacle, since the latter might easily exceed absolutely the physical force of a human being, whereas a motive can never be irresistible in itself or have absolute power but may still always be overcome by a stronger countermotive, if only it were present and the human being in the given individual case could be determined by it.

Following such “sound common sense,” a jury in a court of law, asked to judge A’s case, would not accept her plea of excuse.  The jury would find A guilty of embezzlement, perhaps mitigating the penalty because of duress, but holding A responsible.  In effect, the jury would say to A, “You could have resisted the extortionist, and gone to the police, etc., instead of violating the law, and furthermore, you should have.”

This is precisely the point at which the concept of free will becomes philosophically problematical.  Note carefully the last bit of Schopenhauer’s above-quoted remark:  “…a motive can never be irresistible in itself or have absolute power but may still always be overcome by a stronger countermotive, IF ONLY IT WERE PRESENT AND THE HUMAN BEING IN THE GIVEN INDIVIDUAL CASE COULD BE DETERMINED BY IT.”  [My emphasis.]  Despite moral common sense, a question can still be raised regarding A’s freedom.  Could A really have acted differently in precisely these circumstances, given A’s hereditary makeup and past experiences?  Perhaps, given who A was, and given the situation in which she found herself, it was not possible for A to be more strongly moved to go to the police, or to take some other action, rather than submit to the extortionist’s demands. The philosopher raises the awkward point that perhaps in order for A to have done something different, either some feature of the situation would have had to be different, or A herself would have had to be a different person.

Notice, there is no question here about physical freedom.  A was not being dragged around by any physical force outside herself.  A was free to do as she willed.  If she willed to embezzle, she could embezzle.  If she willed to go to the police, she could go to the police.  The question being raised here is not about A’s freedom of action given her will, but about A’s ability to (somehow, mysteriously) determine the content of her act of will itself.  This mysterious ability would be moral freedom.  Common sense seems to assume that such freedom is required for moral responsibility.

Schopenhauer notes that we may clarify the concept of moral freedom by taking it to be essentially opposed to necessity.  We must now ask what necessary means, and here we find ourselves back in Schopenhauer’s doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.  According to Schopenhauer, necessary simply means following from a given sufficient ground.  As I briefly sketched in the previous section, Schopenhauer believes that there are three basic kinds of sufficient grounds:  physical/causal, conceptual/logical, and geometrical/mathematical.  (Recall that the fourth type of explanation, explanation of action based on motive, is a variant of the first; it is physical causality “seen from within.”)  Something is explained when it follows from one of the three types of sufficient grounds.  Being thus explainable is the mark of the phenomenon, the object-for-the-understanding.  Accordingly, when we say that the will is free in the sense of moral freedom, we mean that acts of will follow from no sufficient ground whatever, and thus are unexplainable.  Here is Schopenhauer:

Now this concept, applied to the will of a human being, would state that in its manifestations (acts of will) an individual will would not be determined by causes or sufficient reasons in general…a free will would be one that was determined by nothing at all.  The particular manifestations of such a will (acts of will) would therefore proceed absolutely and quite originally from itself, without being brought about necessarily by antecedent conditions, and thus without being determined by anything according to a rule.  In the case of such a concept, clear thinking is at an end because the principle of sufficient reason in all its meanings is the essential form of our whole faculty of cognition, yet here it is supposed to be given up.

Schopenhauer names this inexplicable ability to generate an action out of nothing liberum arbitrium indifferentiae, and says it is

…the only clearly determined, firm, and settled concept of that which is called freedom of the will…From the assumption of such a liberum arbitrium indifferentiae, the immediate consequence that characterizes this concept itself and is therefore to be stated as its mark is that for a human individual endowed with it, under given external circumstances that are determined quite individually and thoroughly, two diametrically opposed actions are equally possible.

5.  Self-Consciousness

   Recall, the Royal Society’s question was, “Can freedom of the will be proven from self-consciousness?”  Now that he has carefully defined (moral) freedom of the will, Schopenhauer defines self-consciousness.

   Self-consciousness is whatever remains in consciousness after we have subtracted consciousness of outer things.  The faculty concerned with consciousness of outer things, cognition, includes (in humans) both (1) the understanding, and (2) reason.  This dual faculty of cognition occupies by far the majority of human consciousness.  The only thing left in consciousness when we subtract cognition is the awareness of our own desires, affects, emotions --- all aspects of what Schopenhauer calls the will.  These are, as Schopenhauer points out, always intimately tied up with the outer things that we desire either to possess or to avoid.  It is a delicate operation to separate the will itself from its motives (as Schopenhauer calls the outer things that excite our feelings.)

   Self-consciousness, as opposed to the consciousness of other (outer) things, is quite limited, according to Schopenhauer.  Remember, all motives and all conceptual thought belong to the faculty of cognition, concerned with outer things.  If we try to put into words the content of self-consciousness (an attempt in itself misleading, since words belong to cognition) we get the phrase, “I can do what I will.”  As soon as I will in accordance with a particular motive, my body obeys.  But this tells us nothing about moral freedom in the sense so carefully defined by Schopenhauer.  This is just physical freedom, philosophically unproblematical.  As to moral freedom --- whether, in a given set of circumstances, the same person with the same character can will opposing acts --- self-consciousness tells us nothing.  As Schopenhauer puts it, “…self-consciousness cannot even understand the question, much less answer it.”

   Schopenhauer thus answers the Royal Society’s question, “Can freedom of the will be proven from self-consciousness?” with a firm “No.”

6.  The Illusion of Moral Freedom

   Schopenhauer is firm that nothing in the phenomenal world occurs without a sufficient ground.  All physical occurrences, including human actions, are necessary given their causes and antecedent conditions.  In the case of a human action, the cause is confrontation with a motive, and the antecedent condition is the person’s character.   Applying this deterministic view to A, our coerced embezzler, we see that A could not have done otherwise than embezzle in the given circumstances.  Moral freedom is an illusion.

   We might well ask why the illusion is so powerful.  Why do we have such a strong feeling that we had a “real choice,” that we always could have done something other than what we did?

   Schopenhauer’s first answer is that we confuse wishing and willing.  A given person, with a given character, in a given motivational situation, can will only one thing.  She can, however, wish any number of different things:

…as long as the act of will is in the process of coming about, it is called wish…Opposite wishes with their motives pass up and down before [consciousness] alternately and repeatedly; about each of them it states that it will become the deed if it becomes the act of will…

The person involved in moral deliberation easily misses the hypothetical nature of her presumed freedom (“I could go to the police, rather than embezzle the money, if that were my strongest motive”) and imagines that what she only wishes she could do, she really could do.

Schopenhauer’s second explanation for the power of the illusion of moral freedom is more complex.  It involves a comparison of humans with less-complex living things (non-human animals, and plants).   We don’t suppose that these “lower” creatures possess “free will” in the problematical philosophical sense.  Why do we suppose that we do?

A plant obeys its natural stimulus, and grows toward the light.  We don’t suppose that it is free to do otherwise.  Quite rationally, we conclude that it couldn’t have done otherwise unless something about it, or about its environment, had been different.

Our pet cat tragically attacks and kills our pet bird.  We don’t morally blame the cat, supposing that it had a free choice.  It is a cat, and a cat’s nature is to hunt birds.  We may regret the outcome, but we realize that the cat simply did what it is “programmed” to do, given the presence of the stimulus (the uncaged bird).  We blame ourselves for not caging the bird, rather than blaming the cat.

Why do we believe that we are different from the plant and the cat in possessing some mysterious freedom from causality, allegedly necessary for moral responsibility?

Schopenhauer’s explanation is this: the necessitating causes of the behavior of plants and of non-human animals are easier to see, because of the simpler nature of these organisms.  In the case of a stimulus-response system such as a plant, we clearly observe that the stimuli for its movements are changes in objects and forces in the external world --- sunlight, water, and so on.  In the case of a large-brained organism with representational powers such as a cat, we realize that the direct causes of its behavior are its representations or states of mind, but since its representations are always closely allied with its present environment, we clearly see that it reacts in predictable ways to predictable stimuli.

Humans, unlike all other known animals, possess reason in addition to understanding.  This addition to our faculty of cognition enables the causal chains leading to our actions to become much more convoluted.  Our representations are NOT always closely keyed to our present environment, because of our ability to employ abstract concepts.  Thus, our actions may look mysterious to an outside observer.  The outside observer cannot see the remembered past experiences, the anticipated future experiences, the wishes concerning what might be, the regrets regarding what has been, the desires to conform to abstract principles, etc., all of which enter into a human being’s decisions.  Accordingly, it may look as if the human being’s actions are inexplicable and uncaused…but this is only an illusion stemming from the complexity of mental causes in human beings.

7.  Character and Transcendental Freedom

   Schopenhauer is quite clear on the point that the attribution of moral responsibility for action, far from presupposing causelessness, actually presupposes the causation of action by character and motive.   If a person’s actions proceeded from absolutely nothing, rather than from his character, what would we condemn as vicious or praise as virtuous?  Schopenhauer approvingly cites other philosophers who have come to this “soft determinist” or “compatibilist” conclusion.

   Yet, if Schopenhauer were a typical compatibilist, we would expect him to say that when we impose punishments and bestow rewards, we are attempting to influence character for the better, by providing causes of character-change.  This Schopenhauer does NOT say.  On the contrary, he says:

…the sphere and domain of all correction and improvement lie in cognition alone.  The character is unalterable; the motives operate with necessity, but they have to pass through cognition, the medium of the motives.

This requires some explanation.  According to Schopenhauer, a person’s character (his personality --- how that person will tend to react to his environment) is inborn.  Schopenhauer quotes Goethe:  “From yourself you cannot flee.”  If we hope to change someone’s behavior, we can do so NOT by altering his character (the latter would amount to the impossible action of making him into someone else), but only by teaching him the likely results of particular types of action, and appealing to elements of his own “hard-wired” motivational structure.

For example, consider A again (the threatened embezzler).  A has a weak character --- more motivated by fear of pain than by resolve to adhere to principle, or by fear of dishonor, etc.  The way to alter the future behavior of such a person is to make clear to her that punishment for breaking the rules is painful, and that she is likely to get caught when she breaks the rules.  This is the sort of awareness that might motivate A to do something different in similar situations in the future, given her (unalterable) psychological makeup.

Of course, a person with a different sort of character would not have embezzled at all under these circumstances…not because of “free choice,” but because, for certain characters (motivated primarily by principle, or by fear of dishonor, etc.) theft would be impossible.  Training such a person would involve different tactics than appeal to the pain of punishment.

There is another sophisticated wrinkle in Schopenhauer’s position on freedom of the will --- one that accounts for his choice of the motto “Freedom is a mystery” at the beginning of his prize essay.  This wrinkle arises from Schopenhauer’s transcendental idealism, and from the enormous influence on him of many aspects of Kant’s philosophy.

Schopenhauer, despite rejecting “moral freedom” defined as the impossible liberum arbitrium indifferentiae, accepts that there really IS such a thing as “TRUE moral freedom,” which he says is “of a higher kind.”    He explains that our knowledge of the existence of such a “true” or “higher” moral freedom comes from:

…the perfectly clear and certain feeling of responsibility for our actions --- a feeling that rests on the unshakeable certainty that we ourselves are the doers of our deeds.  On the strength of that consciousness, it never occurs to anyone, not even to someone who is fully convinced of the necessity with which our actions occur, to make use of this necessity as an excuse for a transgression, and to throw blame upon the motives because their appearance rendered the deed inevitable…For he sees…[that] in existing circumstances and hence under the influence of the motives that have determined him, an entirely different action was quite possible and could have happened, if only he had been another person.  Because he is this person and not another, because he has such-and-such a character, naturally no other action was possible for him…Therefore the responsibility of which he is conscious…at bottom…concerns his character; it is for [his character] that he feels himself responsible.

Where the guilt lies, there too lies the responsibility, and as the latter is the sole datum that justifies the inference to moral freedom, so too must freedom lie in that very place, hence in the character of the human being…

   But how can freedom lie in character?  Hasn’t Schopenhauer already told us that character is inborn and unalterable?

   The answer to this puzzle lies in Schopenhauer’s appeal to a Kantian distinction between empirical character and intelligible character.  Our empirical character is how our will manifests itself in the phenomenal world.  But we mustn’t forget that, according to Schopenhauer, we are aware of our own will in a direct (or, rather, nearly direct) way, via self-consciousness, that involves the forms of cognition only minimally.  When we experience ourselves as subjects of will, we experience the thing-in-itself as immediately as possible.  This thing-in-itself is the force that manifests itself as our character.  It is our essence, upon which all our actions depend.   Even though our own empirical character is something we come to know only after-the-fact, by years of self-observation, our intelligible character, our essence, is that with which we are most intimately acquainted, from the very beginning of our lives.  It cannot possibly be subject to causation because it is noumenal, not phenomenal.

   Because I know myself as the willer of my own deeds, I feel ownership or responsibility for those deeds.  Those deeds proceed from me, from who I am in my inmost being.  By observing my own deeds over a lifetime, I find out who I am.  But I also know that I, as a will, a unique manifestation of the thing-in-itself, am free.  I am one of the essential natural forces that are presupposed by all causal relations and causal explanations.  Ultimately, it can no more be explained why I act than it can be explained why a magnetic field changing in the presence of a conductor generates an electric current.  The basic forces of nature are where causal explanation stops.   These forces themselves, because presupposed by causal explanation, are not themselves subject to causation: they are free.  “Freedom is transcendental,” concludes Schopenhauer.   This is the “mystery.”

   He puts the point differently, certainly more colorfully, in The World As Will and Representation.  This is a lovely quote from Schopenhauer, one of my favorites:

Spinoza says that if a stone projected through the air had consciousness, it would imagine it was flying of its own will.  I merely add that the stone would be right.

What Schopenhauer means is that the thing-in-itself (whatever it is that exists outside the forms imposed by our own cognition) manifests itself in non-living systems as physical forces, and in living systems as will.  This thing-in-itself is transcendentally free in the sense of being prior to causality and presupposed by all causal explanations.

8.  Could This Be Right?

   In my opinion, no one has ever written anything on the problem of free will and determinism clearer or more persuasive than Schopenhauer’s prize essay.  The only development since Schopenhauer’s time that might possibly cast doubt on his conclusions is the advent of non-deterministic quantum mechanics.  Schopenhauer believed that clear thinking demanded the principle of sufficient reason, and that all four forms of that principle involved necessary grounds for the events thereby explained.  What would he say if he learned that physicists now accept that the behavior of quanta is not determined by prior necessary grounds of any kind? 

   One may only speculate here.  Perhaps Schopenhauer would say that quantum physics features useful statistical predictions, but no clear thinking about what’s really going on.  Or perhaps he would say that when we approach the quanta, which after all are associated with basic physical forces, we are approaching the thing-in-itself, which is free.

   I have never been convinced, anyway, that quantum mechanics has anything interesting to teach us about the problem of free will and determinism as applied to human beings and their actions.  Human beings are not quanta, and as far as I can tell, everything Schopenhauer says about the causation of human action by character and motive is true.  The “transcendental chaser,”  to the effect that I am a manifestation of the thing-in-itself, and therefore free, makes Schopenhauer’s view unusually satisfying, as philosophical positions go.

   Schopenhauer may have been right about more than just freedom of the will.  Let us recall what he has to say about the so-called problem of mental causation, so troubling to today’s philosophers of mind.

   Schopenhauer says two things about mental causation (two things which may appear initially to be in tension, but which really are quite compatible with each other).

   First, according to Schopenhauer, mental causation is just physical causation “seen from inside.”  Causation is causation --- one of the forms of the principle of sufficient reason, by means of which we make sense of reality.  There is nothing special about the mental variety, except that it is subjectively apprehended and “passes through the medium of cognition.”

   Second, however, Schopenhauer teaches that mental causation is special, because mentalistic causal explanations presuppose a natural force (will) which is a particular grade of the Will’s objectification.  The “vital force” does not reduce to physical forces.  The kind of causal explanation making reference to motives terminates in appeal to the will, just as physical causal explanations terminate in appeal to basic physical forces like electromagnetism and gravity.  It is utterly wrong-headed to try to reduce mentalistic explanations to some other kind.

   Schopenhauer’s vitalism is bound to horrify most contemporary philosophers, but is it so certainly wrong?  All of our attempts to reduce mental causation to physical causation have, after all, failed.

   Another aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy startling to most contemporary thinkers, but not so obviously wrong, is his panpsychism.  Because he believes that the ultimate nature of everything is Will, Schopenhauer believes that a kind of desire or striving (a mental activity, though largely unconscious) is the ultimate moving force in the cosmos.  Everything does what it does because it wills to do so.  Accordingly, the deepest kind of explanation (and not a causal explanation, by the way, but a metaphysical explanation  that goes beyond science and causation) is a mentalistic one. 

   While such a thought may seem to hearken back to primitive, pre-scientific animism, some of the deepest thinkers in history have come to hauntingly similar conclusions.  Plato, in the Phaedo, depicts Socrates as arguing that no story about his “bones and sinews” will explain why he sits in a jail cell in Athens, awaiting execution, instead of being off to Megara or some other safe haven.  The only explanation of Socrates’ behavior that really explains is the one that makes reference to his mind and his reasons, but also to his character  and will.  Aristotle followed in the same vein with his doctrine of the “final cause” --- the highest and deepest sort of explanation is one making reference to intent or motive.   Leibniz surely had the same intuition.  In his Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz tells us that there is a harmony between efficient causes and final causes, and that both types of causes apply to all events.  He recalls approvingly that Fermat and Snell, in formulating certain laws of refraction, asked themselves, “If I were a beam of light, where would I choose to go?”  and relates that Descartes arrived at the same laws of refraction, without recourse to mentalistic thought-experiment, with much more difficulty.

   Schopenhauer  takes a significant step beyond all these philosophers by maintaining that the ultimate,  metaphysical  explanation , while mentalistic, is not a final cause, not a “that for the sake of which.” The great Will, the ultimate reality, does not act for the sake of anything.  It does not act for any reason.  It is pre-rational. It is a great Freudian Id, the original psychic force out of which all other psychic forces develop.  It simply strives.  The physical body is the objectification of this striving. It emerges in the empirical world that comes about when the Will reaches consciousness.

   Materialistic reductionism with regard to the mind is, I believe, a failing paradigm.  Schopenhauer was right.  We cannot be materialists.  We must be transcendental  idealists.  We cannot labor in the dark as if the Critique of Pure Reason had never been written.  Nor can we pretend that there is any other starting point for metaphysical  knowledge besides subjectivity.  I am real,  a manifestation of the thing-in-itself, and what I am is Will.

   Schopenhauer was always saying that his time had not yet come.  Maybe it finally has.


1.    Arthur Schopenhauer,  The World as Will and Representation,  Vol. I, translated by E.F.J. Payne (New York:  Dover Publications, 1969), p. 30.
2.    Ibid.
3.    Arthur Schopenhauer,  Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, translated by E.F.J. Payne and edited by Gunter Zoller (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 41-42.
4.    Christopher Janaway, “Will and Nature,” in Janaway, editor,  The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 161.
5.    Thanks here to Kelly Jolley.
6.    Arthur Schopenhauer,  On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, translated by E.F.J. Payne (La Salle, Illinois:  Open Court Publishing, 1974), p. 6.
7.    Ibid, p. 110.
8.    See Donald Davidson, “Thought and Talk,” in Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 155-170.
9.    See John McDowell, Mind and World (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1994), ch. VI, pp. 108-126.
10.    See Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 63.
11.    Schopenhauer,  The Fourfold Root, p. 214.
12.    Schopenhauer,  Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, p. 41.
13.    Ibid, p. 4.
14.    Ibid, p. 5.
15.    Ibid.
16.    Ibid, pp. 7-8.
17.    Ibid, p. 8.
18.    Ibid, p. 14.
19.    Interestingly, according to Schopenhauer, each person’s individual character is a unique grade of objectification of Will, and therefore ontologically distinct (a Platonic Form unto itself, as it were).  Non-human animals possess this uniqueness of character to a much lesser degree.  In non-human animals, the character of the species is usually the force that interacts with motive to produce action.
20.    Schopenhauer,  Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, p. 15.
21.    Ibid, pp. 26-37.
22.    Schopenhauer  notes that a person’s own determining motives may be hidden even from himself --- one of many points on which Schopenhauer either influenced Freud, or simply anticipated Freud.  (It seems clear to me that Freud read Schopenhauer,  absorbed many of Schopenhauer’s ideas, and afterwards genuinely believed those ideas to be his own.  An ego like Freud’s does not easily grant credit to others.)
23.    Schopenhauer,  Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, pp. 48-49.
24.    Ibid, p. 45.
25.    Ibid, p. 83.
26.    Ibid, p. 84.
27.    Ibid, pp. 84-85.
28.    Is this dependence causal?  Here is what I believe to be the correct answer:  insofar as our actions are phenomena,  our phenomenal character is their cause.  But insofar as our actions are strivings of the thing-in-itself, they express the essence of reality itself, and the notion of causality does not apply.  I believe I am once again agreeing with Christopher Janaway, who writes, “The Schopenhauerian thing-in-itself, inasmuch as it is knowable in philosophical reflection, is the essence of the world of appearance,  not in any way its cause.  And it is the essential aspect of that same world of appearance,  not any thing of a distinct ontological kind.”  See Janaway, “Will and Nature,” in Janaway, editor,  The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 166.
29.    Schopenhauer,  Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will, p. 88.
30.    Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, p. 126.
31.    Thanks again to Kelly Jolley for this felicitous phrase.
32.    G.W. Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics,  sec. 22.

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