What Is the Will? Eight Views

Vernon Bourke’s 1964 book Will in Western Thought has become a standard in its field. My roving dissertation eye brought me to it recently, and Inter-Library Loan did the rest. I just read the first chapter, and it was genuinely helpful for a section I’m writing on the nature of the affections.

Bourke says he set out to organize his discussion of the will chronologically, but that this plan created too much repetition—the same views tend to pop up throughout history. He instead focused on the basic set of important views on the will in Western philosophy regardless of time period.

Bourke sees eight different ways that Western thinkers have viewed the notion of the will. His eight views are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but they hit the major options. 8

(Random numbers in the text are page numbers; double slashes // indicate a page break—sorry, it’s how I take notes.)

  1. Will means intellectual preference. 9 This is the intellectualist tradition: an act of volition is an act of “intelligent preference.” This view is generally that of Greek philosophy up through Aristotle; Bourke calls it “one important aspect of the Greek cult of reason.” Various modern thinkers—Bourke names in particular Spinoza, Hobbes, and Kant—adopt various shades of intellectualism.
  2. Will means rational appetite. 9 Appetite in this view means “a power or tendency to incline toward objects that are apprehended as good and away from objects that are known as bad.” 9 This appetition is typically divided into sensory and intellectual varieties, and because of the latter this view can tend toward intellectualism. Thomas Aquinas, whom Bourke places in this category, others call an intellectualist because, as Bourke notes, Thomism sees choice as an interaction of intellect and will. 10
  3. Freedom as the genus of volition. 11 There are some philosophers who “practically never speak of will without saying free will.” 11 Will is liberty, spontaneity, freedom from any coercion or even causation. It is even the freedom to be indifferent. These thinkers consider the first two views to be determinist. Bourke places Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Descartes, Schopenhauer, and “many recent Catholic writers” in this category. 12
  4. Will means dynamic power. 12 This view has taken various historical forms. In David Hume will happens “whenever a person produces a bodily or mental movement.” 12 The faculty psychology school of the 1800s saw will as the “acting or efficient power” that executes the judgments of the understanding and the desires of the heart (understanding and heart being the two other faculties every man has). 13
  5. Heart, affection, and will 13 Bourke’s first mention of Jewish and Christian theology comes in his fifth category. In this view, “the heart is taken as the seat of the highest and spiritual affections, of the most intimate knowledge and decisions.” 13 Bourke knows that Christians are equating heart, affection, and will because he sees that “many Christian writers…speak of man’s heart as exercising certain functions, or feeling certain affections, which are in other places attributed to will by the same // authors.” 13-14 Augustine is Bourke’s major example (and he certainly could have included Jonathan Edwards).
  6. The will of the people. 15 Some view will ” as a group phenomenon”—the “will of the people.” 15 Bourke notes perceptively, “The very concept of a political ‘election’ suggests that a group of men is capable of making a collective choice which expresses, or is, the will of the collectivity.” 15 This is a very different view of the will from those above, because it is not individual. Rousseau is Bourke’s prime example of this view of volition, and he cites John Locke as another sometime supporter—and Edmund Burke as a major detractor. 15-16 Bourke notes with some irony, “It is still commonly accepted that a public figure bows to the will of the people when he accepts nomination or election to office, and that a political executive or legislator carries out the will of the people in his official functions. Precisely what this public will // means, and by what means it is determined, are points of some obscurity.” 16-17
  7. Will as the source of law. 17 God’s will is what must be done on earth and in heaven; it is “the source of order and regulation in human life.” 17 Kant lands in this category (despite being also a kind of intellectualist), and Bourke sees him as its prototypical representative. Bourke’s powers of intellect are on full display when he notes that the American system of government cannot rely on this view and the previous one: the “voluntaristic positivism” of the will of the people would seem to hand ultimate authority to the legislative and not the judicial and executive branches of government. “It is not possible to have three distinct but sovereign wills.” 18
  8. Will and reality. 18 This meaning of will is something no layperson would ever use, but some philosophers use it. They say that “to be is to will.” In other words, “a being is what it does.” 19 Some Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, notably Avicebron, took this view. Will was substantized to become “an intermediary between the divine essence and things of this universe.” 20 Avicebron took this view because the Bible says God’s will changes but God Himself does not. A few Christian philosophers from both sides of the Tiber have taken this view (Malebranche, Geulincx), but Bourke’s star example of this view is another thinker who also appears in a previous category, Arnold Schopenhauer, showing that the eight views are somewhat porous and that various views may characterize different portions or time periods of someone’s thought. Schopenhauer developed a full metaphysics of willing, concluding that “all reality is will.” 21

Bourke is quick to point out that the thinkers about to star in his philosophical drama may not all fit perfectly well in the parts he assigns them. Each has his own worldview, and his understanding of volition should ideally be placed within that worldview. But an attempt to couch every philosopher’s view this way would lengthen the book impossibly, so instead each view gets a chapter and the stars appear as they must, without their constellations.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “What Is the Will? Eight Views”

  1. Mark, I wonder if you would care to write up some editorial comments on this analysis. In other words, do you think Bourke is right in analyzing eight different approaches? In seeing the brief descriptions, they don’t seem to be entirely clear cut categories. I can’t quite grasp the fine lines of distinction between them.

    So… since you’ve read the book, what do you think?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Don, I didn’t see too much reason to quibble with Bourke’s schema—but mainly because I’m not qualified to do so. I will say that other schema are just as or more useful depending on what you need.

    For example, a number of other scholars divide the major views into two groups: intellectualists and voluntarists. By my read, Bourke’s views 1 and 2 would be intellectualist, and 3, 4, and 5 would be voluntarist. The other three are in their own categories because they’re not talking about individual make-up.

    Alan Guelzo divides voluntarists into classical and Augustinian varieties. I found that helpful, too, and that leads to one of my small disagreements with Bourke (I’m only capable of small ones at this point, I think): he put Augustine and Edwards in the wrong category. They both belong in his category 5, but he makes Augustine a proponent of libertarian free will (in Bourke’s defense, he was this early on but later changed). And he makes Edwards an intellectualist, which I find hard to understand (especially his comment that Edwards “was not a philosopher who stresses love and affection”! p 141.).

    I have another post in my queue on Charles Hodge’s schema on views of the will: necessity, contingency, and certainty. I found that helpful, too.

    A lot of people still cite Bourke. That’s why I picked him up. He was a pretty easy read for the topic, and he went along at a perfect clip, I thought. He had to read quite widely to write such a book, and I did tend to trust his assessments—except on the people I knew best, and that did bother me a bit… But I gather from other reading that his assessments of other major philosophers like Aquinas and the major Greek thinkers is widely shared.

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