Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What is the will and where does it come from?




I’ve had a lot of trouble concentrating the last few weeks. I’ve been neglecting this blog, exercise, and a whole bunch of other things; each day has been a morass of desperation and triage. I recognize that some of the pressure would go away if I could just sit down and get stuff done, but it feels impossible. Independent of being exhausted, overworked, and focused on my family, I have been suffering from a good old fashioned lack of willpower. But what the will is, and where it comes from, is a mystery to me. I am not alone my ignorance.

Philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche have tried to describe the will, considering it everything from an element of character to an innate drive to assert ourselves on others. Some, like Aristotle and Hume, distinguish the morality of knowing what to do with the habit or will to do the right thing, illustrating the important fact that knowledge isn’t itself a motivation. I’m a fairly disciplined guy, I know what I’m supposed to do and how to do it, but there are times when I just can’t, when I feel like I’m slogging through a swamp. If will is just habit, then why would I get stuck like this? Why can’t I just do things automatically without effort?

I think it’s very important for philosophers to distinguish the will from other aspects of our personality; it helps us understand our network of motivations. But over the last decade, there seems to have been a decrease in reliance upon the will. There was a time when people would look at addiction or obesity, and assert that those who suffer through them need to control themselves better. But now we consider the former a disease and the latter an inevitable consequence of social forces. 

I’m not going to argue that this new perspective is right or wrong, but it is noteworthy that as more people succumb to addiction and obesity, there is less emphasis on individual responsibility. Is this because we’ve learned more about the science behind them or is it just that we need more excuses for our weaknesses? Whatever the case, the role of the will in stopping smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and in dieting and exercise, seems infinitely less important than it did when I was a kid. This makes me wonder whether we are changing our very description of what it means to be a human being.

In Republic, Plato had Socrates argue that the human soul had three elements: the intellect, the passions, and the will. The goal was to harmonize them in different proportions, so people with a dominant intellect would become a philosopher (someone guided by the love of wisdom), a person with a dominant will would become a guardian (basically, a very powerful police officer), and everyone else, the masses who were dominated by their desires, would focus on making money and pursuing personal interests. But Plato didn’t believe that people were sometimes guardians and other times moneymakers, he didn’t account for the fact that we have bad months and good months, which brings us back to the question at hand. What allows us to have more or less willpower, more or less concentration, more or less self-command? If it’s just exhaustion or over stimulation then we get to blame the outside world for our attitude and this seems like a cop-out to me. I’m more than willing to blame myself for my lack of will, but doing so doesn’t tell me how to get past my stagnation. It only identifies that I, not anyone else, am the problem.

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1 comment:

  1. The book "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength" was an easy and interesting read on the science behind willpower. They found that the will is like a muscle that can be strengthened over time but can also become less effective because of overuse in one day. For example, if you are using all your willpower to avoid eating M&Ms by your desk, then you will have none left to make yourself write philosophy. I use my willpower to get my work done, but I also eat a lot of M&Ms...

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