In the early nineteenth century, there was a great romantic fashion for the “will” in the moral, or ideological sphere. The will seemed like a way out of the dry materialism and sensualism of the 18th century philosophes.Conveniently, it also had a hero – Napoleon.
However, a curious thing happened as the century went by. In the sphere of psychology, the will gradually lost any status it had as a psychological object. In the old rational psychology, it was one of the faculties of the intellect. But as psychologists began to measure things, experiment, and consider psychology as an adjunct of the entire biological system, it became clear that the will was a superfluous entity. I raise my arm, and by no train of introspection, and by no degree on any measuring device, is there an intermediate moment where I will to raise my arm.
At the end of the century, two philosophers – Nietzsche and William James – both took these findings at face value. Nietzsche took the absence of any psychological entity called the will to mock the notion of both those who argued for the free will and those who argued for determinism, in as much as the latter still used this archaic psychological devise. James, with his own sly Yankee wit, also went through the introspective stages that make us see that the will is a conjuring trick.
Yet these two philosophers are associated with the will – the will to power and the will to belief. How did they reconcile these moral insights with their psychological ones? Well, in Nietzsche’s case, the will moved outside the psyche. The psyche, in fact, becomes a manifestation of a will that is unanchored to a self at all. James, on the other hand, creeps close to the admission that the will, being a good thing to believe in, is acceptable at least in moral terms. In other words, both take the will as a supreme fiction.
In the twentieth century, in the psychological sphere, the will was replaced by a cybernetic model of the psyche, one that emphasized control and coordination. The old questions surrounding the will were simply no longer relevant. This image not only provides psychology with its paradigm – it penetrated, to an extent, into the public consciousness. Into, that is, our moral speech. It is impossible to imagine Jane Austin characters speaking about being out of control or in control. They wouldn’t say it, and they wouldn’t understand it if it was said to them. But this has become a reliable part of ordinary speech for those in the twentieth and twenty first century.
However, it is a part of speech that is not entirely coherent with the will ideology, which still exists, and which still influences the way we speak of ourselves and of the polis. It is easy to see why. We all have the experience of doing things we don’t want to do. I have work to do and it is late, but instead of going to bed, I do the work. And the moment of doing something that is not immediately desirable – over something that is immediately desireable – gives me the impression that I will myself to do this over my circumstances. It is easy to think of a computer – say Hal in 2001 – doing what it “wants” to do. But it is much more difficult thinking of it in a will situation – doing what it doesn’t want to do.
This concept in the moral sphere is, I think, slowly changing. It isn’t rare for a driver, or a computer user, to speak of a machine ‘not wanting’ to do something. Being ‘coaxed” into doing something. Of course, at the bottom of this are the lines of routine that one imagines define the machine – are the machine in the machine, so to speak. There’s no ghost in there. All I’m saying is that the dialectic between the moral image and the cognitive image might well produce an inflection decisively away from the will.
But I can’t think in that future language. I do think in terms of control and coordination, and am marveling at its unfolding in Adam – I watched him, last night, as he tried to get his fingers together and do something with them on his cheek, under his eye. Perhaps to rub an itchy spot. The tiny fingers did not, as with me, coordinate, so that the index finger could be used to lightly rub across the spot on the face while the rest of the tribe of fingers kept their places. And the arm has not learned the steadiness and aim required for itching a scratch. If, that is, this is what Adam was doing. In other areas, however, he is already learning to ‘practice’ – for instance, in making sucking motions with his lips. Instinct is already merging, here, with poetry – as it will when the fingers don’t all bunch together, and the arm learns lessons about distance and steadiness. All in due time, ma petit.