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  • The Context of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Action
  • Michael Scott

more than any other topic examined by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations,1 his writings on action and the will are perhaps in greatest need of being put into a historical and theoretical context. Not only do his remarks seem unhelpfully concise, as if intermediary reasoning had been excised by ruthless editing, but also the rationale for several of his arguments is mysterious. Even in the light of the additional comments on action in Zettel, the position or positions with which Wittgenstein is disagreeing are difficult to identify. For example, Wittgenstein introduces his remarks by indicating his opposition to the reduction of willing to an experience:

‘Willing too is merely an experience,’ one would like to say (the ‘will’ too only ‘idea’). It comes when it comes, and I cannot bring it about.

(PI §611) [End Page 595]

But who claims that willing is merely an experience, and is this experience constituted exclusively by ideas or may it also involve feelings? Do the proponents of the theory include those who would respond positively to Wittgenstein’s question: “Are my kinaesthetic sensations my willing?” (PI §621), and who would make use of the finger crossing experiment described in PI §617?

Wittgenstein scholars have hoped to answer questions about the nature and provenance of the theories he addresses by examining the manuscript sources of Philosophical Investigations, his later work on the philosophy of psychology, and some of his earlier writings on voluntary action. Wittgenstein himself suggested that his later thought should be read against the background of his earlier work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (PI, viii), and the problem of the will offers a rare opportunity for a direct comparison, it being one of the few issues that seriously occupied him in both his later and earlier investigations. But a comparison with Wittgenstein’s early philosophy of the will—and also with Schopenhauer, a primary influence—offers only partial insights.2 While we may confidently take Wittgenstein’s comments on willing and wishing in PI §614–6 to be a critique of his own earlier views, most of his remarks on the will, which are closely enmeshed with his writings on other psychological issues such as kinaesthetic sensations and feelings of tendency, appear largely to be directed elsewhere. The consensus has been that William James’ The Principles of Psychology (PP) is the source in question, and that James’ ideo-motor theory of action is the main target of Wittgenstein’s remarks.3

In this paper I will take issue with this contention, and propose that Wittgenstein’s writings are more suitably read as a response not only to James but to the theories and arguments adduced by late nineteenth century and early twentieth century psychologists on the nature of the will. Specifically, I will argue that the available evidence indicates Wittgenstein’s familiarity with the on-going debate between ideo-motor theorists (of whom James was one significant representative) and innervation theorists concerning the psychic antecedents of voluntary action. I will begin with an outline of the history of this [End Page 596] debate before turning to an evaluation of the evidence for Wittgenstein’s philosophical interest in it.

the psychic antecedents of voluntary action

When James first proposed his ideo-motor theory,4 the dominant psychological account of the will was the theory of innervation. This latter theory, which was supported by the majority of psychologists including pioneers such as Wundt, Helmholtz and Bain, states that willing consists in a feeling of innervation, that is, a sensation accompanying discharge from the central nervous system into the motor apparatus.5 The intensity of the feeling was thought to vary in accordance with the intensity of the outgoing, or efferent, current.

William James, while largely in agreement with innervation theorists on the physiological processes that lead to action, disagreed with their psychological account of willing. James denied that we are conscious of motor discharge, and proposed instead that the psychic antecedent necessary for a voluntary action is a memory image of the experience that is distinctive of the consequent movement. This experience consists in kinaesthetic impressions (the bodily sensations which inform one of the attitude...


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pp. 595-617
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