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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The idea of human freedom antedates philosophical
speculation on this idea. When philosophers began to
inquire into the nature and existence of freedom, they
did not initially think of freedom as an attribute of
a man's will. For example, no theoretical discussion
of the concept of will appears in the works of Plato,
and therefore, no talk about the freedom of the will.
Nonetheless, Plato had definite ideas regarding the
conditions under which a man is free. A man is free
when the rational part of his soul governs the other
parts, viz., the feelings and passions. A man may thus
be enslaved by his feelings or passions if they dominate
his being. Governance by reason produces harmony
and justice; in the individual, justice is conceived as
the state of the soul in which each part performs only
its proper function in harmony with all other functions.
A man is liable to sin if his soul is unjust; but the sin
is involuntary for no man would knowingly choose to
be in this state. Nor does a just man choose evil volun-
tarily for the explanation of this choice is always ig-
norance. Hence, according to Plato, a person in whom
reason reigns, and who possesses knowledge, can do
no evil.

Since a man incurs responsibility only for his volun-
tary actions, Aristotle undertakes an ethical and psy-


chological inquiry into the voluntary. An act is un-
willed if its moving principle is outside the person, i.e.,
the person is acting under compulsion, or if the act
can be explained by reference to the person's igno-
rance. Aristotle makes two qualifications regarding the
second way in which an act can be unwilled: (1) if
a man does not regret having performed the act once
his ignorance is removed, the act may be said to have
been involuntary rather than unwilled; (2) the igno-
rance must be about circumstances and consequences,
not moral principles. A man who acts contrary to a
moral principle whose truth he refuses to acknowledge
is acting willingly (assuming he is not acting under
compulsion or through ignorance of circumstances and
consequences) and wickedly (Wheelright, p. 203).

If a man chooses to do something out of some desire
or even a strong or sudden impulse, the moving princi-
ple is in the man and he is, therefore, acting willingly.
Aristotle does not require for voluntariness, therefore,
what libertarians will later require for freedom; to wit,
that the act be caused by the actor or agent rather
than some state of the agent, e.g., a desire.

Choice is not identical with desire (choice has to
do with matters in our power whereas desire is not
so restricted) or with any cognitive state like belief
or opinion (choices are good or bad whereas beliefs
are true or false). It is a voluntary act preceded by
deliberation in which a desire for some end is trans-
formed into a desire for the means deemed appropriate
to that end. Assuming that the chosen act is done
willingly, it may be a virtuous or a vicious act. Virtue
and vice, therefore, are voluntary. Moreover, a man
may be responsible for the ignorance that makes his
act unwilled and for the original choices that deter-
mined his present character, even if it is not now within
his power to act contrary to his character.

Neither Plato nor Aristotle philosophized about
man's freedom or responsibility in the light of problems
that are raised by a conception of the world as a
mechanism governed entirely by inviolable laws. The
Stoic philosophers confronted this issue, but failed to
provide a satisfactory account. They accepted a
thoroughgoing materialistic determinism—everything
necessarily obeys the order of nature, which was also
conceived as Providence and thought of as a material
entity. But this determinism turns out not to be really
thoroughgoing, for, although man's actions are deter-
mined, his attitudes and impressions, particularly his
judgments about good and evil, are not. Since a man's
attitude or intention is the sole determinant of moral
good or evil, what happens to a man or what a man
does is morally neutral. Hence, Providence, who de-
termines what happens in the world rather than man's
reaction to it, is absolved from the responsibility for
moral evil.

Since a man's attitude or intention determines moral
good or evil, i.e., virtue or vice, the only vice is the
wrong attitude, i.e., judging that things really are evil.
Hence, resignation or subordination to nature is the
correct attitude. It is the attitude demanded by man's
reason, which is an emanation of Providence. But, of
course, man has it within his power to accept or reject
the dictates of his own reason. (This conception of
freedom is similar to a conception that appears in
determinists at several points in the history of philoso-
phy, viz., the idea that freedom is the recognition of
necessity, i.e., the acceptance of the world as it has
to be. See the discussion below of Spinoza.) This atti-
tude of acceptance requires the suppression of passion
and emotion, for these involve mistaken judgments
about things, e.g., that some object is intrinsically
desirable. This consequence of Stoic doctrine seems to
imply a contradiction, however, for a part of nature,
man's passionate nature, is being morally condemned.
Some Stoics, grappling with the inconsistencies and
other problems of their doctrine, attempted solutions.
In the third century B.C. Cleanthes, for example, argued
that foreordination by Providence does not imply that
an action not performed is not possible.

Epicurus had previously believed, however, that the
validation of man's sense of freedom requires an in-
deterministic world. He introduced into the doctrine
of atomism, which he accepted, the idea that atoms
spontaneously swerve and saw this spontaneity as the
basis of a genuine control and direction by a person
over his own actions and destiny. As the Epicurean
Lucretius (first century B.C.) expressed it, we can act
freely because the atoms of which the mind is com-
posed can swerve minutely, transmitting their motion
to the body.

The first great Christian philosopher to grapple with
the problem of human freedom in the light of Christian
theology was Saint Augustine. Since Christianity im-
posed certain moral obligations on man, it appeared
to follow that man's will must be free. For if man's
will is under constraint, God cannot legitimately make
demands upon him and then punish him if the demands
are not satisfied. The fundamental obligation man is
under, according to Augustine, is the obligation to turn
to and love God. Hence, man's will is free to turn to
or turn away from God. The freedom of the will is
evident from the fact that man chooses one or the

A will that freely turns from God lacks a certain
right order. The man himself, not God, is responsible
for this absence and God cannot, therefore, be blamed


for moral evil, i.e., for the lack in the man's will. But
Augustine also maintained that a will cannot have right
order without God's grace. A will is motivated by love;
hence a good will must be motivated by the love of
God. But it is God, through grace, that implants in
man the seeds of man's love of God. A creature without
grace will delight in the wrong objects. How free is
man's will, then, if man depends so completely on
God's grace?

Although it is not entirely clear how Augustine dealt
with this apparent conflict, he seems to have resolved
it in the following way. Since free will is the ability
to choose and since men do choose throughout their
lives, all men have free will regardless of their state
of grace. It is absurd to suggest that an act of will
may not be free if freedom is the ability to will. But
free will is not useful without grace. Once man is given
grace, he has the ability to use his free will to attain
union with God. Moreover, the fact that God knows
beforehand how man will choose does not negate the
freedom of will. To know what a man will do is not
to constrain him to do it. God knows how man will
freely choose.

Saint Thomas Aquinas also accepted the reality of
free will. He believed, as did Augustine, that man's
ultimate happiness or fulfillment is found only in God.
If all men fully recognized this fact, they would choose
God because man's will necessarily chooses what it
conceives to be good or desirable. The will's being
under this necessity does not preclude its being free
for two reasons: (1) the necessity is not coercion since
no external agent imposes itself upon the will inde-
pendent of the will's inclinations. This distinction is
similar to a distinction that will become central to the
“reconciliationist” approach to free will (the view that
there is no incompatibility between determinism and
free will) as presented in Hume. As we shall see, Hume
distinguishes coercion or compulsion from ordinary
causation which, he maintains, involves no objective
necessity. (2) Although a man must choose what he
deems to be good, his judgment that something is good
or bad is not necessitated. Hence the freedom of choice
is the freedom of judgment that guides the will.

A choice is free, therefore, if it is the product of
deliberation involving free judgments. An animal's
judgment is not free because it flows from a natural
instinct rather than rational deliberation. The factor
in rational deliberation that confers freedom upon the
resultant judgment is the lack of a necessary connection
between deliberation and judgment. Each potential act
may be viewed by the person under its good aspects
or under its bad aspects. Although the person must
choose the act he believes to be good, he is free to
confer this goodness on virtually any object because
he is free to view the object in different ways.

In the seventeenth century, the views of Benedict
Spinoza on freedom are strikingly similar, in tone and
content, to the ideas of the Stoics. Both accepted
determinism; but Spinoza, unlike the Stoics, was
unwavering in his application of determinism to the
psychological domain. The behavior and mental life
of human beings are completely determined and can-
not, therefore, be different from what they are. We
often think we are free or choose freely in a sense
implying the absence of causal determination; but this
belief is a consequence of our ignorance of the causes
that determined our action or choice. Because the term
“free will” was often used to explain behavior that was
believed to be immune to explanation by underlying
causes, Spinoza rejected this view of the concept.
Moreover, it is absurd to praise and blame people since
they are and do what they must be and do. We should
rather seek to understand the causes of their actions
and states of mind.

Like the Stoics, Spinoza felt that the wise man would
react to universal determinism in two ways: (1) he
would, of course, acquiesce; and (2) he would seek
knowledge of the causes of his own behavior in order
to understand his position in nature. The latter takes
on added significance in the light of Spinoza's meta-
physical system. He believed that “mind” and “body”
are not the names of distinct substances that jointly
comprise man, but are rather the names of two differ-
ent ways of conceiving the unitary man. Hence, every
bodily state can be conceived as a mental one, and
conversely. The ideas of an ignorant man will not be
connected logically because ignorance is the lack of
knowledge of causes, and causal knowledge, according
to Spinoza, is expressed in a deductive system where
ideas depend on one another logically. The bodily
aspect of ignorance is the predominance of passive
emotions, emotions like love and hate that reflect the
passive reaction to things that conduce to or detract
from pleasure or vitality. As a man's intelligence in-
creases and his ideas begin to succeed one another
logically, his emotions will become active, i.e., they
will be generated by mental activity itself. He will
pursue his own interests and seek the friendship of
others, guided by reason alone. He will be objective,
resolute, happy, and free of pettiness. This develop-
ment also represents an increase in perfection and
freedom. Spinoza speaks of freedom because, under
man's mental and physical aspects, man will be (rela-
tively) free of external influence, his states and activi-
ties resulting rather from his own causal activity. His
ideas will be the results of other ideas, and his emotions


and actions will be determined by his own mental
activity. In general terms, therefore, Spinoza conceived
of freedom as self-determinism, not indeterminism.

The views of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz on freedom
are also intimately bound up with his metaphysical
outlook. Like Spinoza, he rejected any conception of
freedom based on the assumption that a choice is
undetermined (philosophers often call this conception
of freedom the “liberty of indifference”). Any choice
is determined by a combination of nonrational factors,
i.e., feelings, together with a rational appraisal whose
purpose is the selection of the act that appears to be
for the best. An act is free if the predominant compo-
nent in its determination is the man's reason or intelli-
gence. But, according to Leibniz' metaphysical system,
each individual person's life is the necessary unravel-
ling of his given nature. Thus, all acts are necessary,
including, therefore, free acts. Leibniz may be classified
as a “reconciliationist” because he tried to reconcile
this metaphysical theory of necessity with his belief
in freedom. His task was more difficult than the analo-
gous task for reconciliationists like David Hume and
Moritz Schlick because the latter two denied the exist-
ence of objective necessity. In this regard, Leibniz
distinguished necessity from compulsion, the latter, of
course, being incompatible with freedom, and made
distinctions among different types of necessity (meta-
physical, moral, and physical).

John Locke defined freedom as the power a person
has to act in accordance with his will. Sense experience
does not provide man with a clear idea of any power.
So reflection, or the mind's experience of its own
activities, is the source of all knowledge of power,
including, of course, the knowledge of freedom. Free-
dom is the opposite of necessity; but Locke defines a
voluntary act as one that is preferred by the agent even
if the act is not free, i.e., even if the act is performed
necessarily. Will, like freedom, is defined as a power
of a person, to wit, the power to will or to perform
that act of preference or thought that sometimes gives
rise to the preferred act. Since freedom and will are
powers of persons, freedom cannot meaningfully be
predicated of the will; hence, there is no genuine
concept of free will.

Locke is forced to concede, however, that the con-
cern about free will is genuine because it is the concern
about the freedom to will rather than the freedom of
will. Locke initially denies this freedom on the ground
that a man must choose some alternative in a decision-
making situation. Realizing that the question does not
concern the freedom to make some choice, but rather
the freedom to make a specific choice, Locke examines
the status of the question, “Is he free to will A?” He
concludes that the question is absurd because the an-
swer is a tautology. A man cannot but have it in his
power to will what he in fact wills. Locke fails to see
that the concern here is not with whether or not a
man can will what he does will (since he does will
A, he can will A), but whether or not he can will what
he does not will. For if willing A is the only act of
will in his power, it looks as if the act is not free in
some important sense of “free.”

Locke added a section on the determination of the
will to the second edition of his Essay Concerning
Human Understanding
(1694). His psychology is
hedonistic—man's will is always determined by a state
of uneasiness and, given that he believes this state can
be removed, he will act accordingly, priorities being
determined by the relative urgencies of the uneasy
states. Into this mechanistic picture, Locke introduced
“free-will” as the power to prevent desire or uneasiness
from determining the will. But this turns out not to
be a concession to indeterminism, but rather to those
who identify freedom with rational action, e.g.,
Leibniz. For the interruption of the mechanical work-
ings of the will is due to a judgment formed as the
result of deliberation and consideration of alternative
courses of action. Thus, a man may foresee that an
act he would perform has an undesirable consequence
and this judgment, rather than the uneasiness that
would lead to the act, determines the will to refrain
from that act. In reply to the charge that a “free-will”
is incompatible with a determined will, even if reason
determines the will, Locke presents his case against
the advocates of the liberty of indifference, arguing
that freedom cannot be conceived as the irrelevance
of our judgments to our will. A conception of freedom
similar to Locke's “free-will” was also advanced by
René Descartes.

Although the view that determinism is true and
compatible with the existence of free will has been
held by a number of philosophers, contemporary
thinkers associate Hume's name, more than any other,
with this doctrine.

The belief that all physical events have causes such
that a given physical event must occur if the event
that always caused it in the past recurs is a belief that
has equal validity in the psychological sphere. We can
predict how any human being will behave if we have
a complete knowledge of his motives, circumstances,
background, etc. Since determinism is true even in
psychology, there is no liberty of indifference. But
Hume agreed with Locke that the existence of such
liberty would not be worthwhile anyway. A man who
had this sort of liberty would not be a genuinely re-
sponsible agent. It would be pointless, for example, to


praise or blame this man, for, since his actions are not
regularly connected with his motives, reinforcing or
inhibiting certain motives will have no effect. More-
over, a man is held responsible for those acts that
reflect his character rather than his casual or unpre-
meditated acts. The latter two, unlike the former, do
not give us insight into the enduring personality and
character traits that form the basis of judgments of
responsibility. Hence, responsibility requires a regular
connection between character and action that leaves
no room for the liberty of indifference.

The freedom we do have is the power to act or not
to act, depending upon our decision. As Hobbes and
Spinoza had pointed out, all human beings possess this
power whenever no external impediments stand in
their way or whenever they are not being constrained
to act in a certain way by an external force. Later
reconciliationists will add certain internal constraints,
e.g., psychological compulsions like kleptomania, to
the list of impediments to liberty.

Finally, freedom is compatible with determinism
because a free act is determined by a decision that
is itself determined by the operative motives. A free
agent, in other words, is one whose acts are caused
by his own volitions rather than external sources. Rec-
onciliationism has been and continues to be a subject
of heated philosophical debates.

The approach of Immanuel Kant to the free will-
determinism problem has reconciliationist aspects in
that he wishes to deny neither. Determinism or the
view that all events are caused certainly holds in the
empirical world, including the psychological domain
of inner experience. Like many of his predecessors,
Kant was not disturbed by the fact that determinism
precludes the liberty of indifference, for the latter
notion is not genuine freedom. Freedom does involve
the absence of external constraints. Hence, if man's will
is free, it is neither subject to external constraints nor
are its decisions determined by chance, i.e., by nothing
real. Freedom, therefore, must be self-determination,
i.e., determination of the will by its own laws. These
laws are not natural laws, i.e., laws governing experi-
enced events, for such external determination is in-
compatible with freedom. Experience tells us that
man's decisions are often governed solely by his desires
and inclinations, and, on that level, he is not free.
Hence, Kant does not agree with those recon-
ciliationists who say that freedom is ordinary determi-
nation by desires. Freedom, therefore, must be a special
type of causality or determination.

As stated above, experience tells us that human
beings are subject to determination by natural law. But
this conclusion is formed from the vantage point of
judging human beings as empirical occurrences in time
or, in Kant's language, as phenomena. Human beings
as noumena, i.e., as things-in-themselves, are outside
time and, hence, free from ordinary determination by
events. Although we do not know human beings as
noumena, they must be noumena to be free. Man as
phenomenon is determined; man as noumenon is free.

Although we cannot be conscious of freedom, we
can be conscious of the moral law and the moral law
implies freedom. Since experience tells us only what
is the case, not what must always be or ought always
to be the case, moral laws must originate in man's
“pure practical reason,” i.e., his reason as transcending
empirical inclinations. Hence a rational being who
acknowledges the moral law must acknowledge that
his will is being determined by his practical reason and
this is freedom. A moral agent must, therefore, con-
ceive of himself as free. Man, however, is both rational
and natural, and he, therefore, has natural inclinations
that may conflict with the dictates of reason. His expe-
rience of morality, therefore, is an experience of obli-
gation to the moral law within his deeper “noumenal”

Freedom, in fact, is the essence of morality. For if
freedom is determination of the will by the laws of
its own reason, then freedom is autonomy, legislation
by the self for the self. And one of Kant's formulations
of the moral law is: act according to the principle that
rational beings are lawgivers to themselves, i.e., as
autonomous. If human beings do not create the laws
they obey, they might be bound to them by an interest
(e.g., God's laws might be obeyed in order to go to
heaven), in which case morality would not be truly
unconditional and necessary.

Many philosophers have rejected as unintelligible
Kant's attempt to preserve both freedom and deter-
minism. Since the rational determination of the will
of man qua noumenon is always in accordance with
morality, it is not clear why men act immorally. Pre-
sumably, they act immorally because they are deter-
mined to do so by their desires and inclinations. But
then only moral acts are free and people ought never
to be blamed, therefore, for their immoral acts. Also,
since every human act is part of the empirical world,
it is determined. Hence, all free acts are determined.
Now, how can man qua noumenon freely determine
the will to perform a specific act that it is necessitated
by antecedent conditions to perform?

Nineteenth-century idealists tended to be libertarians
on the free-will question, and F. H. Bradley is a good
example. (A libertarian identifies man's freedom with
his ability to interpose himself into the causal order
by directly causing a decision or act. The decision or
act is not caused by some state of or occurrence within
the self, e.g., a desire or belief, but by the self directly.


Hence, not all occurrences are caused by antecedent
conditions, states, or occurrences. Kant is not exactly
a libertarian because he did not view self-determination
as incompatible with ordinary determination.) Bradley,
like many reconciliationists, rejected the liberty of
indifference. If a man's choice proceeds not at all from
his motives, he is an idiot rather than a responsible
agent. If, on the other hand, determinism requires laws
that enable prediction of a man's character from data
available at birth, determinism too is incompatible with
responsibility. The dilemma is resolved by the concept
of the self. The accountability of an individual for a
past act requires an abiding self, since the man who
did the act must be identical with the man held
accountable. Hence, responsibility requires a concept
of the self as something more than a stream of changing
states and experiences. The determinist, who seeks laws
connecting these various states and experiences, there-
fore ignores the self. The self's creation of its character,
thus, is not completely determined even if a man's acts
can be predicted from a knowledge of his formed
character. Even in the case of a formed character, the
self can always change it and thereby thwart the

In the twentieth century, the position of the logical
positivists on the free-will problem, viz., recon-
ciliationism, held sway for a number of years. Moritz
Schlick, for example, argued that the concern about
freedom and responsibility arises from the confused
assumption that laws of nature compel or necessitate
human beings to behave in certain ways, when in fact
these laws just describe what people actually do.
Schlick enumerates the typical reconciliationist posi-
tion: (1) freedom is the absence of compulsion; (2)
freedom actually requires, rather than precludes deter-
minism—freedom as the liberty of indifference is nei-
ther real nor desirable; (3) determinism is compatible
with responsibility because the imputation of respon-
sibility requires only that the man's motives for doing
the action be amenable to change by the introduction
of rewards and punishments.

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill is per-
haps the outstanding representative of reconcil-
iationism. Mill and Schlick agree on fundamental
doctrine. Mill does, however, emphasize the fact that
we can often modify our character if we wish to do
so, a fact whose recognition constitutes the feeling of
moral freedom.

C. A. Campbell has argued for libertarianism against
Schlick's reconciliationism. He concedes that there is
a real difference between causation and compulsion,
but insists nonetheless that freedom is incompatible
with causation. Freedom requires self-causation and,
like Kant, Campbell cites moral experience as the
possible source of the knowledge of self-activity. He
also agrees with Kant that the experience may be
delusive. Unlike Kant, however, Campbell is a genuine
libertarian because he maintains that self-activity is
incompatible with determinism.

The major difference between Bradley and Campbell
has to do with the relation between self and character.
For Bradley, man is free because the creation of char-
acter by the self cannot be understood determinis-
tically. A man is accountable, therefore, for acts that
flow from his formed character. For Campbell self and
character are less intimately connected. Self does not
create character; it “watches” its creation with delight
or dismay. If a man's character disposes him to act
in a way his self views as immoral, the self may produce
a decision in favor of duty. Only when the self over-
rides character or lets character override it is the man
free. Campbell is forced to maintain, therefore, that
a man's moral outlook is not determined in the ordinary
way in which his character traits are determined.

Most contemporary philosophers conceive of free-
dom as the power or ability to choose (or act) differ-
ently from the way a person actually chooses (or acts).
There has been a great deal of debate, therefore, on
the meaning of: “He could have acted otherwise.”
Reconciliationists, like P. H. Nowell-Smith, argue that
the expression can be analyzed hypothetically, e.g.,
“He would have acted differently if he had wanted
(or chosen) to.” This hypothetical statement is consist-
ent with determinism because it does not preclude the
possibility that his actual act was determined by his
actual desires or choices. Campbell and others reject
hypothetical analyses in favor of analyses (categorical)
that make freedom incompatible with determinism.

Many contemporary philosophers reject both recon-
ciliationism and libertarianism and yet claim to find
room for freedom. They reject the reconciliationist
conception of freedom as action caused by desire and
the libertarian conception of self-activity. They view
human behavior as explicable in two radically different
ways. As movement, it is subject to ordinary determi-
nation. But some behavior can be understood as action,
as something done. Although the movement of a man's
arm can be deterministically accounted for in terms
of physiological conditions, the explanation of the fact
that a man raised his arm in terms of his desires, beliefs,
purposes, and intentions, is not a deterministic ex-
planation. In fact, it makes no sense to request a deter-
ministic account of action. The libertarian concedes
to the determinist the possibility that all actions are
determined and then argues that some, the ones caused
by the self, are not. According to A. I. Melden, a
representative of this approach, this concession is a


mistake. The determinist who applies his doctrine to
human action is guilty of conceptual confusion.

Melden's position is strikingly similar to Kant's. For
Kant a man's decision may be conceived of as part
of the phenomenal world, in which case it is deter-
mined; and it may be conceived of as part of the
noumenal world, in which case it is free. For Melden
an arm movement is determined if conceived of as
movement, and free if conceived of as action. And both
agree with the libertarian against the reconciliationist
that man cannot be conceived as just a natural object
(albeit quite special) if we are to view him as free.


Saint Thomas Aquinas, Basic Writings of Saint Thomas
ed. A. C. Pegis (New York, 1945). Aristotle, The
Nicomachean Ethics,
trans. J. A. K. Thomson (Harmonds-
worth, 1955), Book III. Saint Augustine, On Free Will, in
Augustine, Earlier Writings, trans. J. H. S. Burleigh
(Philadelphia, 1955). F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (London,
1927), No. 1. C. A. Campbell, In Defence of Free Will
(Glasgow, 1938). Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will,
ed. P. Ramsey (New Haven, 1957). Thomas Hobbes, Of
Liberty and Necessity,
in The English Works of Thomas
ed. Sir William Molesworth, 5 vols. (London,
1839-45), Vols. IV, V. Sidney Hook, ed., Determinism and
Freedom in the Age of Modern Science
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[See also Evil; Freedom; Indeterminacy; Justice; Nature;
Necessity; Newton on Method; Positivism in the Twentieth
Century; Right and Good; Stoicism.]