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Das Problem der Willenschwäche in der mittelalterlichen Philosophie (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 45, Number 3, July 2007
pp. 494-495 | 10.1353/hph.2007.0055

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This volume contains revised versions of thirteen papers delivered at a 2004 conference at Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena, on moral weakness (akrasia) in medieval thought. The contributors, a group of scholars both new and established, demonstrate the variety and richness in medieval authors' approach to the topic. As the editors explain in their introduction, moral weakness may be formulated as the phenomenon that someone does not do what one considers best, although one could do so (5). Since the time of Socrates, the task of the philosopher, as T. Irwin explains in the first essay, is to account for the conflict between rational desires guided by the good and non-rational urges compelling us to act against rationality (39). Irwin shows that Aristotle accepted the Socratic-Platonic view that if the incontinent person can be persuaded, he cannot be merely the victim of irresistible desire; there must a rational failure that can be rectified by persuasion (45–46). His disagreement with his predecessors concerns error in deliberation.

C. Schäfer analyzes weakness of will in three Christian neo-Platonists: Augustine, John Damascene, and the pseudo-Dionysius. He regards these thinkers as representing an important period in the development of the concept of the will, especially Damascene as a transmitter of Aristotelian thought to the Latin world. These authors defined moral weakness as a defect and absence of a characteristic or proper good (67), emphasizing the notion of an evil will rather than a weak one, since autonomous wills dominate in moral choice (69).

The articles by B. Goebel and J. Müller show how Anselm and Abelard provided sophisticated responses to the question of moral weakness. Anselm, who had no theory of akrasia as moral weakness, transforms the question into one concerning weakness of understanding or judgment, addressing both the psychological and metaphysical aspects of acting against one's better insight. Anselm understands the vice as the inability to withstand temptation (92), since one is free to choose immediately and correctly as the morally strong person would, or to err as the weak person would.

Müller clarifies a "fundamental ambiguity" in the concept of weakness of will by distinguishing between a determined class of actions and a disposition, i.e., their causal conditions, on the part of moral agents. Abelard employs both meanings, and his approach to weakness of will as a class of actions deepens his understanding of the concept of desire or wanting (Wollen) in akratic actions (123). Human nature may be vicious or weak, but it is not in itself sinful. Abelard views moral weakness as an inner conflict that ultimately produces psychic weakness.

C. Trottmann argues that Bernard of Clairvaux aims to preserve human liberty in involuntary actions (162). Citing Peter's denial of Jesus, Bernard simplifies the problem by reducing weakness of will to the conflict between love of God and love of self.

A. Fidora examines the transmission of the Greek ethical compendium, the Summa Alexandrinorum, through its Arabic and Latin versions. The problem of incontinence is resolved by appealing to the role of experience in the application of general principles of the moral syllogism. Fidora concludes that the author of the compendium is probably Nicholas of Damascus.

The translation of the entire text of the Nicomachean Ethics by Grosseteste (c. 1248) began a new era in medieval moral theory. M. Tracey and T. Hoffmann analyze the two most noted expositors of Aristotle in the thirteenth century, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, who had in common the desire not only to explicate the text of Aristotle, but also to resolve philosophical questions raised by it. But their solutions did not remain unchallenged for long. T. Kobusch argues that Henry of Ghent and Franciscan authors such as Peter John Olivi contributed a notion of the will's self-determination that overcame the psychological determinism of Greek intellectualism. Alexander Brugge then analyzes three of the eight propositions concerning the will from William de la Mare's critique of Thomas Aquinas, the Correctorium fratris Thomae, which were in turn defended by Richard Knapwell, John Quidort, and Robert of Orford, who asserted that the human being or soul as a unity makes moral decisions and not...

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