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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 491-533

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Worthy Constraints in Albertus Magnus's Theory of Action

Colleen McCluskey

Many medieval accounts of action focus upon the interaction between intellect and will in order to explain how human action comes about. What moves agents to act are their desires for certain goals, their deliberations about their goals, and what it will take to accomplish those goals and satisfy their desires. Thus, many medieval philosophers explain human action by referring to the operations of intellect or reason, which accounts for the deliberative aspect, and the will, which accounts for the desiderative aspect. This is not to say that medieval accounts ignored other influences on action such as passions or sensory desires, but that they tended to focus on the intellect and the will. The account of action developed by Albert the Great early in his career is a notable variation on this basic model. 1 Albert examined the nature of action in a number of texts written over the course of his long career, including De homine, De anima, and his commentaries on the Sentences and Nicomachean Ethics. In De homine, which is an early work, he agrees that intellect and will play important roles in the execution of action, but he argues that both the performance of an action and its freedom involve a third capacity that he calls "liberum arbitrium." Albert modified his views of action significantly in his later works, but I shall argue that this early view retains something of philosophical interest and importance.

In the medieval philosophical tradition of the Latin West, beginning with Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries and continuing well into the thirteenth century, philosophers used the term "liberum arbitrium," often translated [End Page 491] as "free choice" or "free decision," as a technical term for that power or capacity in virtue of which human beings act freely. 2 In the first half of the thirteenth century, many philosophers identified liberum arbitrium either with the will, or with both intellect and will. In De homine, Albert insists that it is a separate capacity. According to his account, liberum arbitrium is the human capacity for choice and also helps to explain the freedom of those choices. Although Albert ultimately characterizes an act of choosing as an inclination in favor of a particular course of action, a certain cognitive ability plays an important role in his account. Part of what makes human freedom possible is the ability to judge secundum rationem honesti. Literally this phrase means "in accordance with the concept of what has worth." I shall argue that this capacity consists of the ability to evaluate choices in light of one's immediate, intermediate, or ultimate objectives and to forgo lesser goods for the sake of a greater good. It would appear that an ability of this sort is a function of the intellect, since judgments about how to accomplish one's goals and which goods are the better ones require the exercise of certain abstract cognitive skills. But Albert holds that the intellect is determined and concludes that while the intellect is a necessary condition for free action, the constraints placed upon it prevent it from contributing substantially to the freedom of an action. Since the ability to judge secundum rationem honesti plays an integral role in bringing about a free action, Albert cannot argue that this ability is a function of the intellect. Although the will has the requisite freedom, it is an appetitive capacity, not a cognitive one. Therefore, it too is unable to fulfill this role. Given these commitments, it would seem natural for Albert to locate this ability in an independent power.

As natural as it may appear, this position is bound to strike many philosophers as implausible and unnecessary. One could argue that the constraints placed upon the intellect need not restrict it in any significant way. I do not plan to defend Albert's account against this objection. Rather, first, I shall [End Page 492] examine Albert's view of...


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