Essay on the Freedom of the Will
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Essay on the Freedom of the Will

Arthur Schopenhauer, Konstantin Kolenda

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eBook - ePub

Essay on the Freedom of the Will

Arthur Schopenhauer, Konstantin Kolenda

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The winning entry in a competition held by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences, Schopenhauer's 1839 essay brought its author international recognition. Its brilliant and elegant treatments of free will and determinism elevated it to a classic of Western philosophy, and its penetrating reflections still remain relevant.
Schopenhauer makes a distinction between freedom of acting (which he endorses) and the freedom of willing (which he refutes). The philosopher regards human activity as entirely determined, but he also posits that the variety of freedom that cannot be established in the sphere of human activity resides at the level of individuated will — a reality that transcends all dependency on outside factors. Because the essay's clear and rigorous argument reveals many basic features of his thought, it forms a useful introduction to Schopenhauer for students of philosophy or religion.

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A question which is so important, serious, and difficult, and which coincides in essentials with a basic problem of the entire philosophy of medieval and modern times, needs to be treated with great precision. An analysis, therefore, of the basic concepts which the question contains is certainly in order.

1) What is freedom?

When carefully examined, this concept turns out to be negative. It signifies merely the absence of any hindrance and restraint. But this restraint, as it manifests power, must be positive. Corresponding to the possible nature of this restraint, the concept has three very different subspecies: physical, intellectual, and moral freedom.
a) Physical freedom is the absence of material hindrances of any sort. Thus we say: a clear sky, an open view, clear air, an open field, a vacant place,34 free heat (which is not bound chemically), free electric charge, free flow of the stream where it is no longer checked by mountains or sluices, etc. Even such expressions as “free room and board,” “free press,” “post-free letter,” signify the absence of those encumbering conditions which often attach themselves to such things and hinder their enjoyment. Most frequently, however, we conceive of freedom as an attribute of animate beings, whose distinctive feature is the ability to originate movements from their own will, that is, voluntarily. Thus such movements are called free when no material obstacles prevent them. Since these obstacles may be of very different kinds, but that with which they interfere is always the will, for the sake of simplicity one prefers to think of the concept of freedom in positive terms; the concept is used to cover everything that moves or acts only from its own will. This reversal of the concept changes nothing in essentials. Accordingly, in this physical meaning of the concept of freedom, animals and men are called free when their actions are not hindered by any physical or material obstacles—such as fetters, or prison, or paralysis—but proceed in accordance with their will.
This physical meaning of the concept of freedom, especially when predicated on animate beings, is the original, immediate, and hence most frequent one. As such, the concept in this meaning is not subject to doubt or controversy, and its reality can always be authenticated empirically. For whenever an animate being acts only from its will, it is, in the physical sense, free. Here we do not take into account whatever may influence the will itself. For in its original, immediate, and therefore popular meaning, the concept of freedom refers only to the ability to act, that is, precisely to the absence of physical obstacles to its actions. Hence one says: free is the bird in the sky, the wild beast in the forest; man is by nature free; only the free are happy. We also call a nation free, meaning thereby that it is governed solely by laws, but that it has given itself these laws: for in that case it merely obeys its own will. Therefore, political freedom must be included under physical freedom.
However, as soon as we leave physical freedom and consider the two remaining kinds, we are no longer dealing with the popular but with a philosophical sense of the concept. This, as is well known, leads to many difficulties. It falls into two entirely different classes: intellectual and moral freedom.
b) Intellectual freedom, “the voluntary and involuntary with respect to thought” 35 in Aristotle, is mentioned here only for the sake of completeness of classification. I shall therefore take the liberty of postponing its discussion to the very end of this essay, when the concepts to be used in it will have been explained in the foregoing sections. This will enable us to deal with intellectual freedom quite concisely. But since it is most closely related to physical freedom, it must follow it in the classification.
c) So I turn directly to the third kind, namely to moral freedom. This is really the liberum arbitrium cited in the question of the Royal Society. This concept connects with that of physical freedom in a way which makes its necessarily much later origination understandable. Physical freedom, as noted above, has to do only with material obstacles; it is at once present when they are absent. But in some cases it has been observed that a man, without being hindered by material obstacles, was restrained by mere motives—such as threats, promises, dangers, and the like—from acting in a way which, if these motives were absent, would have certainly expressed his will. Consequently, the question was raised whether such a man was still free, or whether the actions which express his actual will could really be checked and prevented just as effectively by a strong countermotive as by a physical obstacle. A sound mind would find no difficulty in arriving at the answer: a motive can never act in the same ways as a physical obstacle. Undoubtedly the latter easily transcends human bodily powers unconditionally, while a motive can never be irresistible in itself and has no absolute power but can be always offset by a stronger countermotive, provided that such a countermotive is present and that the particular man can be determined by it. We often observe that even the strongest of all motives—to preserve one’s life—is outweighed by other motives, for example, in suicide or in sacrificing one’s life for others, for one’s convictions, and for various causes. Conversely, all degrees of the most refined tortures on the rack have now and again been overcome by the mere thought that otherwise life would be lost. But even though it were evident from this that the motives bring with them no purely objective and absolute compulsion, still one could ascribe to them a subjective and relative compulsions namely, relative to the person involved. In either case the result is the same. Hence the question remains: is the will itself free?
The concept of freedom, until now conceived only in respect to ability, was thus put in a relation to willing, and so the problem arose whether the willing itself is free. But on close inspection, the original, purely empirical, and hence popular concept of freedom shows itself incapable of becoming thus related to willing. For according to it “free” means “in accordance with one’s own will.” Consequently, to ask whether the will itself is free, is to ask whether the will is in accordance with itself. This, of course, is self-evident, but says also nothing at all. The empirical concept of freedom signifies: “I am free when I can do what I will.” Here in the phrase “what I will” the freedom is already affirmed. But when we now inquire about the freedom of willing itself, the question would then take this form: “Can you also will your volitions?”, as if a volition depended on another volition which lay behind it. Suppose that this question is answered in the affirmative, what then? Another question would arise: “Can you also will that which you will to will?” Thus we would be pushed back indefinitely, since we would think that a volition depended on a previous, deeper lying volition. In vain would we try to arrive in this way finally at a volition which we must think of and accept as dependent on nothing else. But if we were willing to accept such a volition, we could as well accept the first as the one we happened to make the last. Consequently, the question would be reduced to a simple: “Can you will?” But whether a mere affirmation of this question decides the problem of the freedom of the will, is what we wanted to know. So the problem remains unresolved.
We can see then that it is impossible to establish a direct connection between the concept of freedom—in its original, empirical meaning derived from action—and the concept of willing. In order nevertheless to be in a position to apply the concept of freedom to the will, one had to modify this concept by interpreting it more abstractly. This was accomplished by making the concept of freedom signify in general only the absence of any necessity. Thus interpreted, the concept retained its negative character, which I attributed to it from the very beginning. Accordingly, one must first investigate the concept of necessity, for this is the positive concept which gives meaning to the negative one.
So let us ask: What does one mean by “necessary”? The usual explanation: “necessary is that whose opposite is impossible, or which cannot be otherwise,” is a mere word-definition, or paraphrase of the concept, which does not increase our understanding. As a real definition I propose the following: Something is necessary which follows from a given sufficient ground. This sentence, like any correct definition, can also be reversed. Depending on whether the ground in question is logical, or mathematical, or physical (i.e., called a cause), the necessity will be logical (e.g., of a conclusion, given the premises), or mathematical (e.g., equality of the sides of a triangle, given the equality of the angles), or physical, real (e.g., the occurrence of the effect, as soon as the cause is present). In all these cases, with equal strictness, the necessity is attached to the consequent when the ground is given. Only in so far as we comprehend something as the consequent of a given ground do we recognize it to be necessary. Conversely, as soon as we recognize something to be a consequent of a sufficient ground, we see that it is necessary. This is so because all grounds are compelling. This real definition is so adequate and exhaustive that the concept of necessity and the concept of consequent of a given sufficient ground are exchangeable concepts. In all cases, the one can be put in the place of the other.36
According to this, the absence of necessity would be identical with the absence of a determining sufficient ground. Still, we think of the accidental as the opposite of the necessary. But there is no conflict between these two views; each accidental occurrence is only relatively so. For in the world of reality, where alone accidents can be encountered, every event is necessary in relation to its cause, while in relation to all other events which are contemporaneous and spatially contiguous with it, the event is accidental. But since the mark of freedom is absence of necessity, that which is free would have to be absolutely independent of any cause and would therefore have to be defined as absolutely accidental. This is a most problematic notion, and I don’t guarantee that it is even conceivable. Nevertheless, it coincides in a singular fashion with the concept of freedom.
At any rate, that which is free remains that which is in no respect necessary, that is, not dependent on any ground. If this concept were applied to the will of man, this would mean that an individual will in its manifestations (volitions) would not be determined by causes or by sufficient grounds at all. Besides, since the consequent of a given ground (of whatever kind this may be) is always necessary, a man’s acts would not be free but necessary. On this rests Kant’s definition, according to which freedom is the capacity to initiate of oneself a series of changes. For in its true signification the expression “of oneself” means “without antecedent cause.” This, however, is the same as “without necessity.” So that, even though that definition gives to the concept of freedom the appearance of being positive, upon close scrutiny its negative nature emerges again.
A free will then would be the will which is not determined by grounds—and since everything that determines another must be a ground, in real things a real ground, that is, a cause—a free will would not be determined by anything at all. The particular manifestations of this will (volitions) would then proceed absolutely and quite originally from the will itself, without being brought about necessarily by antecedent conditions, and hence also without being determined by anything according to a rule. When we try to deal with this concept, clear thinking abandons us because, while the positing of a ground, in all of its meanings, is the essential form of our entire cognitive faculty, we are here asked to refrain from positing a ground. Still, there is no lack of a technical term also for this concept: this is liberum arbitrium indifferentiae. This is, by the way, the only clearly defined, firm, and positive concept of that which is called freedom of the will. One cannot therefore get away from it without involving oneself in vacillating, hazy explanations, behind which hides hesitant indecision, as when one talks about grounds which do not necessarily bring about their consequents. Every consequent of a ground is necessary, and every necessity is the consequent of a ground. The positing of such a free will of indifference has an immediate consequence which characterizes this concept and must therefore be regarded as its peculiar feature. This is that for a human individual equipped with such a feature, under given external conditions which are thoroughly determined in every particular, two diametrically opposed actions are equally possible.

2) What is the self-consciousness?

Answer: The consciousness of one’s own self, in contrast to the consciousness of other things; this latter being the cognitive faculty. To be sure, even before those other things appear in it, this faculty contains certain forms of the manner of this occurrence. These forms are accordingly conditions of the possibility of objective being of things, that is, of their existing for us as objects. They are, as is well known, time, space, and causality. Now, although we find these forms of understanding in ourselves, their only purpose is that we can become conscious of other things as such, and be put in a definite relation to them. Therefore, even though these forms are contained in us, we must look upon them not as belonging to the self-consciousness, but rather as making possible the consciousness of other things, that is, our objective knowledge.
Further, the ambiguity of the word conscientia, used in the question, will not mislead me into loading the self-consciousness with the moral impulses known under the name of conscience or of practical reason together with its categorical imperatives affirmed by Kant. This should not be done, first, because these impulses appear only as a result of experience and reflection, hence as a result of the consciousness of other things, and second, because the borderline between that in them which belongs originally and properly to human nature and that which is added by moral and religious education, is not yet sharply and indisputably drawn. Moreover, it cannot possibly be the intention of the Royal Society to have the question transplanted onto the ground of morality by including conscience in the self-consciousness, and to see a restatement of Kant’s moral proof—or rather postulate—of freedom from the a priori known moral laws, in virtue of the dictum, “you can because you ought.”
From what has been said, it is evident that by far the greatest part of our entire consciousness in general is not our self-consciousness, but the consciousness of other things, or the cognitive faculty. The latter is directed outward with all its powers and is the scene (indeed, from a deeper point of investigation, the condition) of the real external world. At first our cognitive faculty grasps this world perceptively, but that which is thus obtained is forthwith worked over, as it were in a ruminating fashion, into concepts. Endless combinations of concepts, brought about with the help of words, constitute thinking. Only after we subtract this, by far the greatest part of our entire consciousness, do we get the self-consciousness. We already see that the content of the latter cannot be great. Hence, if the data required for the proof of the freedom of the will should really lie in the self-consciousness, we may hope that they will not escape us. An inner sense has also been set up as an organ of the self-consciousness.37 But this must be taken in a metaphorical rather than in a real sense, because the self-consciousness is immediate. Be that as it may, our next question is: What does the self-consciousness contain? or How does man become directly conscious of his own self?
Answer: altogether as one who wills. In observing his own self-consciousness everyone will soon be aware that its object is always his own volitions. By this one must understand, to be sure, not only the deliberate acts of will which are immediately put into effect and the formal decisions together with the actions which follow from them. Whoever is capable of somehow discerning the essential element, even when it is disguised under various modifications of degree and kind, will not hesitate to include among the manifestations of will also all desiring, striving, wishing, demanding, longing, hoping, loving, rejoicing, jubilation, and the like, no less than not willing or resisting, all abhorring, fleeing, fearing, being angry, hating, mourning, suffering pains—in short, all emotions and passions. For these emotions and passions are weaker or stronger, violent and stormy or else quiet impulsions of one’s own will, which is either restrained or unleashed, satisfied or unsatisfied. In their many variations they relate to the successful or frustrated attainment of that which is willed, to the endurance or the overcoming of that which is abhorred. Consequently, they are explicit affections of the same will which is active in decisions and actions.38 To this context belongs even that which goes under the name of feelings of pleasure and of displeasure. Of course, these are present in a great variety of degrees and kinds, but still they can always be traced to the affections of desiring or abhorring, that is, to the will itself becoming aware of itself as satisfied or unsatisfied, restrained or unleashed. Indeed, here should be included the bodily emotions, pleasant or painful, and all the innumerable others which lie between these two, since the nature of these emotions consists in this: they enter directly into the self-consciousness as either something which is in accordance with the will or something which opposes it. Even of his own body one is directly conscious, strictly speaking, only as the externally active organ of the will and as the seat of receptivity for pleasant or unpleasant sensations. But these sensations themselves, as just said, refer back to the quite immediate affections of the will which either conform or are opposed to it. For that matter, we may or may not include here these mere feelings of pleasure or displeasure, but in any case we find that all those movements of the will—that alternate wanting and not wanting, which in its constant ebb and flow constitutes the only object of the self-consciousness, or, if one prefers, of the inner sense—stand in a universal and generally acknowledged relation to that which is perceived and known in...


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Estilos de citas para Essay on the Freedom of the Will

APA 6 Citation

Schopenhauer, A. (2012). Essay on the Freedom of the Will ([edition unavailable]; K. Kolenda, Trans.). Dover Publications. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)

Chicago Citation

Schopenhauer, Arthur. (2012) 2012. Essay on the Freedom of the Will. Translated by Konstantin Kolenda. [Edition unavailable]. Dover Publications.

Harvard Citation

Schopenhauer, A. (2012) Essay on the Freedom of the Will. [edition unavailable]. Translated by K. Kolenda. Dover Publications. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essay on the Freedom of the Will. Trans. Konstantin Kolenda. [edition unavailable]. Dover Publications, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.