On 6/26/15 Dylan Casey visited Annapolis, Maryland to talk with Eva Brann, bringing the rest of us in via Skype to talk with her about her 2014 book, Un-Willing: An Inquiry into the Rise of Will’s Power and an Attempt to Undo It. We all read chapters I “Before Will” (about the ancient Greeks), II.C. on Augustine, III.A. on Aquinas, VI. “A Linguistic Interlude” about the word “will” (as in future tense), and her conclusion, “Un-Willing,” where she sums up the whole book and elaborates on her view.
Citizens, listen to the full episode now, which will be released to the public in two parts on 7/27 and 8/3.
You should recall Eva from our Heraclitus discussion where we discussed her book The Logos of Heraclitus, in which she painstakingly constructed a narrative out of Heraclitus’s fragments. Well, in this case she’s working with the history of the treatment of the topic of “willing” in philosophy, and claims that the will is not something psychologically basic that we can all find via introspection, but that it’s a historically built concept, and one that causes a lot of needless philosophical problems (the historical problems of “free will”) and that moreover has had really awful implications for culture, bringing with it tendencies toward guilt, aggressiveness, control, and a fixation on action that she thinks undermines the good life.
Incidentally, we’ve again made a deal with Paul Dry Books, Eva’s publisher, that allows PEL listeners to get you 30% off any order from them, with free shipping in the U.S. or a flat $25 for international shipping even if you buy several things. So you could use this to get any of Eva’s books (including her brand new one, Feeling Our Feelings), or many other philosophy, fiction, poetry, or other titles. Go to pauldrybooks.com and enter PEL in the comments at checkout. The discount may not be reflected in the total but will be applied before your order is processed.
We’re also going to have a drawing to give away five copies of Eva’s book, or another of their titles of equal or lesser value (i.e. $35), if you prefer. These winners will be chosen at random on Monday, August 3rd from the list of dues-paying PEL Citizens, so go sign up to be eligible! This will also get you early access to the full episode, which will be released to the public in two parts on 7/27 and 8/3. (Note that there will be no aftershow for this episode.)
Eva’s method is historical, and she first points out that the ancient Greeks lacked this notion of will. This sounds strange, of course: Weren’t Greek two-year-olds willful? Weren’t people grasping, didn’t they make decisions, didn’t they will one action rather than another? Though human nature likely hasn’t changed, the concepts we use to talk about ourselves change, and Eva goes through all the ancient Greek words that might be translated as will to show that they really mean something different. On Socrates’s conception, people always do what they think to be best. There is no void between the thinking (or seeing) and the doing, where will has to step in and make the determination to actually do the thing that is seen to be needful.
She locates invention of the will in St. Augustine, who posits the will as a rebellious force: Whether or not we see the right thing to do, it is another matter entirely to actually will oneself to do it, and people, as basically sinful, tend to perversely will wickedness, as in the example in The Confessions where Augustine discusses how at age 16 he and his friends stole some pears not out of need, but just for the joy of the sin itself. The will is posited as a power to be perverse, i.e., out of joint with our true interest, which for Augustine is the same as the will of God. This perversity is what makes the will free in a manner absent from Socrates’s picture.
Thomas Aquinas also invented a conception of will, but one where will and its freedom are best described as a multi-stage process, and not one single point of decision. (The main text cited here is the “Treatise on Man,” which is part of the Summa Theologica. This is the picture that Eva favors, but it’s not the one that persisted in the tradition. Instead, all of our focus is on that one point: When I chose that, could I have done otherwise? How can that decision have been free if what I was going to do is a causal result of physical forces, and that it was predictable given sufficient knowledge of my character and of the circumstance I perceived myself to be in? These questions (explored in our episode 93) are all seen by Eva as misconceived, and likewise the psychological research showing that actually, we’ve already started to act before thinking we’ve actually made a decision, which is supposed to blow our minds re: the illusionary character of our alleged freedom, does not actually undermine freedom, because it’s again based on this faulty picture of what freedom is: Freedom is not a matter of being able to exert our will contrary to all reason and the framework of our lives, but it is more a matter (as Sartre argued) of how well your life as a whole, your character as built over time, reflects what you really want, your true interests (insofar as you have any), your teleology. There are lots of interesting things to discuss about freedom, e.g., does some political situation offer true freedom or not, but the traditional picture just discussed does not address them.
So, what’s the practical upshot? The picture of will from Augustine that focuses on will power evolved through the historical process of philosophers repeatedly misinterpreting each other to such monstrosities as Rousseau’s “general will,” which is the will of no one individual in particular, and further to will as a metaphysical principle as argued for by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. It’s ironic that Nietzsche’s project (as we discussed) is so anti-guilt, so anti-resentment, yet as a historical matter, his emphasis on the will of superior individuals has become part of the toxic mix that Eva describes as Augustine’s legacy: The attempt to exert control over ourselves and over others, and the consequent bad vibes when we fail to control ourselves or lose whatever contest we’ve invested ourselves in.
This critique may sound familiar to those familiar with Heidegger’s critique of technology. (Citizens can listen to this Not School discussion on it.) Technology represents a fundamentally aggressive stance toward nature, where we treat the natural world as resources and don’t simply appreciate it. (A less weird expression of Heidegger’s view was found in Thoreau.) We should instead adopt a more receptive, contemplative attitude wherein we, in Heidegger’s words, create a “clearing” that “let’s beings be.”
In Eva’s chapter on Heidegger, though, she eviscerates him, both for his Nazi period in which he advocates yielding to the stronger, national will, and even in his mature period described above where (according to her analysis of his view) becoming less willful toward Being ends up being itself something accomplished through an act of will. She also criticizes Heidegger of being too passive; the point of receptivity is not that you do nothing and wait for an epiphany, but that what you do is done in a relaxed, deliberate, graceful way, not “willful.”
So, even though we saw a lot of connections between the life of creative contemplation that Eva advocates and the positions we’ve explored in Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Heidegger, these all end up being on-balance negative figures in her genealogy of the notion of will, and it’s really Aquinas and the ancient Greeks that we should look for in “unmaking the will,” both as a conceptual/philosophical and social corrective.