On the Freedom of the Will  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

On the Freedom of the Will was an essay presented to the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences in 1839 by Arthur Schopenhauer as a response to the academic question that they had posed: "Is it possible to demonstrate human free will from self-consciousness?" It is one of the constituent essays of his work Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik.

Essentially, Schopenhauer claimed that as phenomenal objects appearing to a viewer, humans have absolutely no free will. They are completely determined by the way that their bodies react to stimuli and causes, and their characters react to motives. As things that exist apart from being appearances to observers, however, humans are free will.

Schopenhauer began by analyzing the basic concepts of freedom and self-consciousness. He asserted that there are three types of freedom, namely, physical, intellectual, and moral.

  • Physical freedom is the absence of physical obstacles to actions. This is commonly thought to constitute freedom of the will.
  • Intellectual freedom results when the mind has a clear knowledge of the abstract or concrete motives to action. This occurs when the mind is not affected by, for example, extreme passion or mind-altering substances.
  • Moral freedom is the absence of the influence of motives on a person's actions.
  • Self-consciousness is a person's awareness of his or her own willing, including emotions and passions.

According to Schopenhauer, when a person inspects his or her self-consciousness, he or she finds the feeling "I can do whatever I will as long as I am not hindered." But, Schopenhauer claimed that this is merely physical freedom. He asserted "You can do what you will, but in any given moment of your life you can will only one definite thing and absolutely nothing other than that one thing." Therefore, the Royal Society's question has been answered "No."

On the other hand, when a person observes the external world, he or she finds that any change in a thing was immediately preceded by a change in some other thing. This sequence is experienced as a necessary effect and its cause. Humans experience three types of causes.

  • Cause in the narrowest sense of the word relates to mechanical, physical, and chemical changes in an inorganic object. Newton's laws of motion describe these changes.
  • Stimulus is a change that produces a reaction in an organism that is devoid of knowledge, such as vegetation. It requires physical contact. The effect is related to the duration and intensity of the stimulus.
  • Motivation is causality that passes through a knowing mind. The motive needs only to be perceived, no matter how long, how close, or how distinct it appears. For animals, the motive must be immediately present. Humans, however, can also respond to motives that are abstract concepts and mere thoughts. Therefore, humans are capable of deliberation in which a stronger abstract motive outweighs other motives and necessarily determines the will to act. This is a relative freedom in which humans are not determined by objects that are immediately present.
I can do what I will: I can, if I will, give everything I have to the poor and thus become poor myself — if I will! But I cannot will this, because the opposing motives have much too much power over me for me to be able to. On the other hand, if I had a different character, even to the extent that I were a saint, then I would be able to will it. But then I could not keep from willing it, and hence I would have to do so.
[A]s little as a ball on a billiard table can move before receiving an impact, so little can a man get up from his chair before being drawn or driven by a motive. But then his getting up is as necessary and inevitable as the rolling of a ball after the impact. And to expect that anyone will do something to which absolutely no interest impels them is the same as to expect that a piece of wood shall move toward me without being pulled by a string.

Every human has a unique way of reacting to motives. This is called a character. It is the nature of the individual will. Human character has four attributes.

  • Individual — Like intellectual capacity, each person's character is different. Acts can't be predicted by knowledge of motives alone. Knowledge of individual character is also required in order to predict how a person will act.
  • Empirical — The character of other people or oneself can only be known through experience. Only by seeing actual behavior in a situation can character be known.
  • Constant — Character does not change. It remains the same throughout life. This is presupposed whenever a person is evaluated as a result of their past actions. Given the same circumstances, what was done once will be done again. Behavior, however, can change when a character learns how to attain its goal through a different way of acting. The means change, but not the ends. This is the result of improved cognition or education.
  • Inborn — Characters are determined by nature, not by the environment. Two people who have been raised in exactly the same environment will exhibit different characters.

Virtue cannot be taught. The tendency toward good or evil is the result of inborn character.

Are two actions possible to a given person under given circumstances? No. Only one action is possible.

Since a person's character remains unchanged, if the circumstances of his life were unchanged, could his life have been different? No.

Everything that happens, happens necessarily.

Through that which we do, we find out what we are.

To wish that some event had not taken place is a silly self-torture, for this means to wish something absolutely impossible.

It is an error to think that abstract motives do not have necessary effects because they are mere thoughts. This error results in the delusion that we can be conscious of having free will. In reality, the most powerful abstract motive necessarily determines concrete action.

[L]et us imagine a man who, while standing on the street, would say to himself: "It is six o'clock in the evening, the work day is over. Now I can go for a walk, or I can go to the club; I can also climb up the tower to see the sun set; I can go to the theater; I can visit this friend or that one; indeed, I also can run out of the gate, into the wide world, and never return. All of this is strictly up to me, in this I have complete freedom. But still I shall do none of these things now, but with just as free a will I shall go home to my wife."

After explaining how acts follow with strict necessity from a given character and its response to different motives, Schopenhauer addressed the question of moral freedom and responsibility. Everyone has a feeling of the responsibility for what they do. They feel accountable for their actions. They are certain that they themselves have done their deeds. In order to have acted differently, a person would have had to be entirely different. Schopenhauer claimed that the necessity of our actions can coexist with the feeling of freedom and responsibility in a way that was explained by Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason (A533-558) and Critique of Practical Reason (Ch. III), Kant explained this coexistence. When a person has a mental picture of himself as a phenomenon existing in the experienced world, his acts appear to be strictly determined by motives that affect his character. This is empirical necessity. But when that person feels his inner being as a thing-in-itself, not phenomenon, he feels free. According to Schopenhauer, this is because the inner being or thing-in-itself is called will. This word "will" designates the closest analogy to that which is felt as the inner being and essence of a person. When we feel our freedom, we are feeling our inner essence and being, which is a transcendentally free will. The will is free, but only in itself and other than as its appearance in an observer's mind. When it appears in an observer's mind, as the experienced world, the will does not appear free. But because of this transcendental freedom, as opposed to empirical necessity, every act and deed is a person's own responsibility. We have responsibility for our acts because what we are is a result of our inner essence and being, which is a transcendentally free will. We are what our own transcendental will has made us.

[M]an does at all times only what he wills, and yet he does this necessarily. But this is because he already is what he wills.|Ch. V


  • Schopenhauer, Arthur, On the Freedom of the Will, Oxford: Basil Blackwell ISBN

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