Conscious Human Action
man in his thinking and acting a spiritually free being, or
is he compelled by the iron necessity of purely natural law?
There are few questions upon which so much sagacity has
been brought to bear. The idea of the freedom of the human
will has found enthusiastic supporters and stubborn opponents
in plenty. There are those who, in their moral fervor,
label anyone a man of limited intelligence who can deny so
patent a fact as freedom. Opposed to them are others who
regard it as the acme of unscientific thinking for anyone to
believe that the uniformity of natural law is broken in the
sphere of human action and thinking. One and the same
thing is thus proclaimed, now as the most precious possession
of humanity, now as its most fatal illusion. Infinite subtlety
has been employed to explain how human freedom can be
consistent with the laws working in nature, of which man,
after all, is a part. No less is the trouble to which others have
gone to explain how such a delusion as this could have arisen.
That we are dealing here with one of the most important
questions for life, religion, conduct, science, must be felt by
anyone who includes any degree of thoroughness at all in his
make-up. It is one of the sad signs of the superficiality of
present-day thought that a book which attempts to develop a
new faith out of the results of recent scientific research,
(see fn 1)
has nothing more to say on this question than these words:
With the question of the freedom of the human will we are
not concerned. The alleged freedom of indifferent choice has
been recognized as an empty illusion by every philosophy
worthy of the name. The moral valuation of human action and
character remains untouched by this problem.
It is not because I consider that the book in which it
occurs has any special importance that I quote this passage,
but because it seems to me to express the view to which the
thinking of most of our contemporaries manages to rise in
this matter. Everyone who claims to have grown beyond the
kindergarten stage of science appears to know nowadays that
freedom cannot consist in choosing, at one's pleasure, one or
other of two possible courses of action. There is always, so
we are told, a perfectly definite reason why, out of several
possible actions, we carry out just one and no other.
This seems obvious. Nevertheless, down to the present
day, the main attacks of the opponents of freedom are directed
only against freedom of choice. Even
whose doctrines are gaining ground daily, says,
That everyone is at liberty to desire or not to desire, which is the
real proposition involved in the dogma of free will, is negated
as much by the analysis of consciousness, as by the contents of
the preceding chapter.
(see fn 2)
Others, too, start from the same point of view in combating
the concept of free will. The germs of all the relevant
arguments are to be found as early as
All that he
brought forward in clear and simple language against the
idea of freedom has since been repeated times without
number, but as a rule enveloped in the most hair-splitting
theoretical doctrines, so that it is difficult to recognize the
straightforward train of thought which is all that matters.
Spinoza writes in a letter of October or November, 1674,
I call a thing free which exists and acts from the pure necessity
of its nature, and I call that unfree, of which the being and
action are precisely and fixedly determined by something else.
Thus, for example, God, though necessary, is free because he
exists only through the necessity of his own nature. Similarly,
God cognizes himself and all else freely, because it follows
solely from the necessity of his nature that he cognizes all. You
see, therefore, that for me freedom consists not in free decision,
but in free necessity.
But let us come down to created things which are all
determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and
definite manner. To perceive this more clearly, let us imagine
a perfectly simple case. A stone, for example, receives from an
external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by
reason of which it necessarily continues to move, after the
impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion
of the stone is due to compulsion, not to the necessity of its
own nature, because it requires to be defined by the thrust of
an external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also
for every other particular thing, however complicated and
many-sided it may be, namely, that everything is necessarily
determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and
Now, please, suppose that this stone during its motion thinks and
knows that it is striving to the best of its ability to continue in
motion. This stone, which is conscious only of its striving and is
by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and
that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to
continue. But this is just the human freedom that everybody claims
to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are
conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they
are determined. Thus the child believes that he desires milk of
his own free will, the angry boy regards his desire for vengeance
as free, and the coward his desire for flight. Again, the drunken
man believes that he says of his own free will what, sober
again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is
innate in all men, it is difficult to free oneself from it. For,
although experience teaches us often enough that man least of
all can temper his desires, and that, moved by conflicting passions,
he sees the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers
himself free because there are some things which he desires
less strongly, and some desires which he can easily inhibit
through the recollection of something else which it is often
possible to recall.
Because this view is so clearly and definitely expressed
it is easy to detect the fundamental error that it contains.
The same necessity by which a stone makes a definite
movement as the result of an impact, is said to compel a man
to carry out an action when impelled thereto by any reason.
It is only because man is conscious of his action that he
thinks himself to be its originator. But in doing so he overlooks
the fact that he is driven by a cause which he cannot help
obeying. The error in this train of thought is soon discovered.
Spinoza, and all who think like him, overlook the fact that
man not only is conscious of his action, but also may become
conscious of the causes which guide him. Nobody will deny
that the child is unfree when he desires milk, or the drunken
man when he says things which he later regrets. Neither
knows anything of the causes, working in the depths of their
organisms, which exercise irresistible control over them. But
is it justifiable to lump together actions of this kind with
those in which a man is conscious not only of his actions but
also of the reasons which cause him to act? Are the actions of
men really all of one kind? Should the act of a soldier on the
field of battle, of the scientific researcher in his laboratory,
of the statesman in the most complicated diplomatic negotiations,
be placed scientifically on the same level with that of
the child when it desires milk: It is no doubt true that it is
best to seek the solution of a problem where the conditions
are simplest. But inability to discriminate has before now
caused endless confusion. There is, after all, a profound
difference between knowing why I am acting and not knowing
it. At first sight this seems a self-evident truth. And yet the
opponents of freedom never ask themselves whether a
motive of action which I recognize and see through, is to be
regarded as compulsory for me in the same sense as the
organic process which causes the child to cry for milk.
Eduard von Hartmann
asserts that the human will depends
on two chief factors, the motives and the character.
(see fn 3)
If one regards men as all alike, or at any rate the differences
between them as negligible, then their will appears as
determined from without, that is to say, by the circumstances
which come to meet them. But if one bears in mind that a
man adopts an idea, or mental picture, as the motive of his
action only if his character is such that this mental picture
arouses a desire in him, then he appears as determined from
within and not from without. Now because, in accordance
with his character, he must first adopt as a motive a mental
picture given to him from without, a man believes he is free,
that is, independent of external impulses. The truth, however,
according to Eduard von Hartmann, is that
even though we ourselves first adopt a mental picture as a
motive, we do so not arbitrarily, but according to the necessity
of our characterological disposition, that is, we are anything
Here again the difference between motives which I allow to
influence me only after I have permeated them with my
consciousness, and those which I follow without any clear
knowledge of them, is absolutely ignored.
This leads us straight to the standpoint from which the
subject will be considered here. Have we any right to consider
the question of the freedom of the will by itself at all? And
if not, with what other question must it necessarily be
If there is a difference between a conscious motive of
action and an unconscious urge, then the conscious motive
will result in an action which must be judged differently
from one that springs from blind impulse. Hence our first
question will concern this difference, and on the result of
this enquiry will depend what attitude we shall have to take
towards the question of freedom proper.
What does it mean to have knowledge of the reasons for
one's action? Too little attention has been paid to this
question because, unfortunately, we have torn into two
what is really an inseparable whole: Man. We have distinguished
between the knower and the doer and have left out
of account precisely the one who matters most of all — the
It is said that man is free when he is controlled only by his
reason and not by his animal passions. Or again, that to be
free means to be able to determine one's life and action by
purposes and deliberate decisions.
Nothing is gained by assertions of this sort. For the
question is just whether reason, purposes, and decisions
exercise the same kind of compulsion over a man as his
animal passions. If without my co-operation, a rational
decision emerges in me with the same necessity with which
hunger and thirst arise, then I must needs obey it, and my
freedom is an illusion.
Another form of expression runs: to be free does not mean
to be able to want as one wills, but to be able to do as one
wills. This thought has been expressed with great clearness
by the poet-philosopher
Man can certainly do as he wills, but he cannot want as he
wills, because his wanting is determined by motives. He cannot
want as he wills? Let us consider these phrases more closely.
Have they any intelligible meaning: Freedom of will would
then mean being able to want without ground, without motive.
But what does wanting mean if not to have grounds for doing,
or trying to do, this rather than that: To want something
without ground or motive would be to want something without
wanting it. The concept of wanting cannot be divorced from
the concept of motive. Without a determining motive the
will is an empty faculty; only through the motive does it
become active and real. It is, therefore, quite true that the
human will is not “free” inasmuch as its direction is always
determined by the strongest motive. But on the other hand
it must be admitted that it is absurd, in contrast with this
“unfreedom”, to speak of a conceivable freedom of the will
which would consist in being able to want what one does not want.
(see fn 4)
Here again, only motives in general are mentioned, without
taking into account the difference between unconscious and
conscious motives. If a motive affects me, and I am compelled
to act on it because it proves to be the “strongest” of its kind,
then the thought of freedom ceases to have any meaning.
How should it matter to me whether I can do a thing or not,
if I am forced by the motive to do it? The primary question
is not whether I can do a thing or not when a motive has worked
upon me, but whether there are any motives except such as
impel me with absolute necessity. If I am compelled to want
something, then I may well be absolutely indifferent as to
whether I can also do it. And if, through my character, or
through circumstances prevailing in my environment, a
motive is forced on me which to my thinking is unreasonable,
then I should even have to be glad if I could not do what I
The question is not whether I can carry out a decision once
made, but how the decision comes about within me.
What distinguishes man from all other organic beings
arises from his rational thinking. Activity he has in common
with other organisms. Nothing is gained by seeking analogies
in the animal world to clarify the concept of freedom as
applied to the actions of human beings. Modern science loves
such analogies. When scientists have succeeded in finding
among animals something similar to human behavior, they
believe they have touched on the most important question of
the science of man. To what misunderstandings this view
leads is seen, for example, in the book
The Illusion of Freewill,
by P. Rée, where the following remark on freedom appears:
It is easy to explain why the movement of a stone seems to
us necessary, while the volition of a donkey does not. The causes
which set the stone in motion are external and visible, while
the causes which determine the donkey's volition are internal
and invisible. Between us and the place of their activity there
is the skull of the ass. ... The determining causes are not visible
and therefore thought to be non-existent. The volition, it is
explained, is, indeed, the cause of the donkey's turning round,
but is itself unconditioned; it is an absolute beginning.
(see fn 5)
Here again human actions in which there is a consciousness
of the motives are simply ignored, for Rée declares that
“between us and the place of their activity there is the skull
of the ass.” To judge from these words, it has not dawned on
Rée that there are actions, not indeed of the ass, but of
human beings, in which between us and the action lies the
motive that has become conscious. Rée demonstrates his
blindness once again, a few pages further on, when he says,
We do not perceive the causes by which our will is determined,
hence we think it is not causally determined at all.
But enough of examples which prove that many argue
against freedom without knowing in the least what freedom
That an action, of which the agent does not know why he
performs it, cannot be free, goes without saying. But what
about an action for which the reasons are known? This leads
us to the question of the origin and meaning of thinking.
For without the recognition of the thinking activity of the
soul, it is impossible to form a concept of knowledge about
anything, and therefore of knowledge about an action. When
we know what thinking in general means, it will be easy to
get clear about the role that thinking plays in human action.
It is thinking that turns the soul, which the animals also
possess, into spirit.
Hence it will also be thinking that gives to human action its
On no account should it be said that all our action springs
only from the sober deliberations of our reason. I am very far
from calling human in the highest sense only those actions
that proceed from abstract judgment. But as soon as our
conduct rises above the sphere of the satisfaction of purely
animal desires, our motives are always permeated by thoughts.
Love, pity, and patriotism are driving forces for actions which
cannot be analysed away into cold concepts of the intellect.
It is said that here the heart, the mood of the soul, hold sway.
No doubt. But the heart and the mood of the soul do not
create the motives. They presuppose them and let them
enter. Pity enters my heart when the mental picture of a
person who arouses pity appears in my consciousness.
The way to the heart is through the head. Love is no exception.
Whenever it is not merely the expression of bare sexual
instinct, it depends on the mental picture we form of the
loved one. And the more idealistic these mental pictures are,
just so much the more blessed is our love. Here too, thought
is the father of feeling. It is said that love makes us blind to
the failings of the loved one. But this can be expressed the
other way round, namely, that it is just for the good qualities
that love opens the eyes. Many pass by these good qualities
without noticing them. One, however, perceives them, and
just because he does, love awakens in his soul. What else has
he done but made a mental picture of what hundreds have
failed to see? Love is not theirs, because they lack the mental
However we approach the matter, it becomes more and
more clear that the question of the nature of human action
presupposes that of the origin of thinking. I shall, therefore,
turn next to this question.
Freidrich Strauss, Der alte und neue Glaube.
- The Principles of Psychology,
1855, German edition 1882; Part IV, Chap. ix, par. 219.
- Phaenomenologie des sittlichen Bewusstseins,
- Atomistik des Willens, Vol. 2, p. 213 ff.
- Die Illusion der Willensfreiheit, 1885, page 5.