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American Imago 61.3 (2004) 291-304

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Explanation of a Paradoxical Psychological Proposition:

That We Sometimes Act Not Only Without Motive or a Visible Cause, But Even Against Compelling Motives and Despite Fully Convincing Reasons (1759)

In the notorious debates about freedom, both sides agree that no moral act can occur without the help of the will. The opponents of freedom concede this to their adversaries because they save their view with the argument that willing is no free act at all, and that an act can be free without being voluntary. Further, neither side seems to doubt that acts are voluntary when either real or imagined freedom is ascribed to them.

Now, there are plenty of acts that occur not only without the participation of the will but against both its sanction and all its efforts to hinder them. There are also acts that depend on the soul's whim alone and not on the will, no matter how hard it may try to make them happen. Such irregularities can be observed in the case of judgments as well. People claim that it is impossible to deny anything when obvious grounds exist for affirming it. Yet the opposite occurs. These paradoxical propositions seem very important to me and worthy of a thorough investigation, to which I will now proceed in the essay. My intention is not to revive debates over freedom. I feel that they are inconsequential and of little use because there is nothing to be gained whether victory falls on one side or the other. The decision over this question will not change the lot of humans. Free or not, they will always be that which the confluence of circumstances makes them. My only aim is to shed somewhat more light on the physics of the soul. I expect that my investigation will do as much. Unless I am mistaken, the solution to the above-mentioned paradoxes will point up [End Page 291] the physical origin for the tyranny of the passions as well as for the irresistible power of prejudices. Perhaps we will even find some ground rules for the art of controlling them both.

I would like to characterize the problem first and show that there are cases in which the soul is forced to act and decide against its own convictions. Though the remarks about the matter stem largely from my own experience, I cannot say that I will be able to state them with perfectly satisfactory clarity. Some things I should not detail too much because they are well known and common, while some others cannot be analyzed because they are too fine or need to be treated with caution. I hope that lack of precision in some parts of the essay will be forgiven. And now to the matter at hand.

Everyone knows that some internal and external acts depend on us in the sense that we perform them as soon as we want, or that they occur only because and when we want them to occur. Such is the case most of the time with our limbs; they merely await the soul's command. We open and close our eyes when we want; all the movements of the arms and feet occur as we wish. Unless we pay close attention, we may believe that they will never refuse to serve us. Most of the inner forces that obey us behave similarly. We direct our attention to the things we prefer; we choose, from the great variety of ideas we have at any moment, the ones we want to deal with.

Now, sometimes this power of the will quits without any disturbance in the executing organs themselves. The muscles we want to move evade our command, and no effort of the will suffices to set them in motion; or they do move but against our will and in such a way that no...


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pp. 291-304
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