Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Contingent Will

I read St Thomas' Commentary on the Metaphysics in my 1935 Marietti edition, but the following, lifted from The Logic Museum, saves typing:

lib. 6 l. 2 n. 13 Contingens autem ad utrumlibet, non potest esse causa alicuius inquantum huiusmodi. Secundum enim quod est ad utrumlibet, habet dispositionem materiae, quae est in potentia ad duo opposita: nihil enim agit secundum quod est in potentia. Unde oportet quod causa, quae est ad utrumlibet, ut voluntas, ad hoc quod agat, inclinetur magis ad unam partem, per hoc quod movetur ab appetibili, et sic sit causa ut in pluribus. Contingens autem ut in paucioribus est ens per accidens cuius causa quaeritur. Unde relinquitur, quod causa entis per accidens sit contingens ut in pluribus, quia eius defectus est ut in paucioribus. Et hoc est ens per accidens.

1183. But that which is contingent, or open to opposites, cannot as such be the cause of anything. For insofar as it is open to opposites it has the character of matter, which is in potency to two opposites; for nothing acts insofar as it is in potency. Hence a cause which is open to opposites in the way that the will is, in order that it may act, must be inclined more to one side than to the other by being moved by the appetible object, and thus be a cause in the majority of cases. But that which takes place in only a few instances is the accidental, and it is this whose cause we seek. Hence it follows that the cause of the accidental is what occurs in the majority of cases, because this fails to occur in only a few instances. And this is what is accidental.

Here is a good succinct statement of the Aristotelian-Thomist (A-T) doctrine of the will: the will is primarily and for the most part a passive, moved, faculty, an appetite inclined to an appetible object and determined and moved by the appetible object acting as final cause and by the intellect presenting objects to it.

The contrary doctrine is the Augustinian-Scotist one. Just the other day I was rereading portions of Augustine's De libero arbitrio and was impressed by how exactly his view matches up with Scotus': the will is not determined either by its appetites or by what the intellect presents. The will is active and self-determining. There is no cause for why the will wills {a} rather than {b} other than the determination of the will itself. The will has real contingency in itself. Its manner of causality is separate from that of nature, which acts always or for the most part in a determinate way and fails only per accidens. The will's power over opposites is not of itself inclined towards either of the two opposites and is free to choose between them even if the appetites are inclined one way or the other and even if the will often or typically follows them.

The lecture from Aquinas' commentary on Metaphysics book VI does not return to the will and does not provide anything helpful in the way of showing where the contingency of the will comes from or how it can occasionally and per accidens avoid being determined by the appetites. That's not a criticism, since Aristotle's text is about per accidens being in general and Aquinas only brings up the will as a brief example. Still, I think there's a hint of a problem here which is never really resolved. In my opinion the A-T theory ends up giving an unsatisfactory account of freedom compared to the A-S one, and this has implications for everything from human nature up to the contingency of creation and the internal divine operations.


Brandon said...

I think a danger in general here is focusing too much on the will on its own; in Aquinas's account, for instance, the intellect is a free power. This arises from the very, very close parallel between intellect and will that Aquinas's account of human action builds on. Just as the will freely chooses, the intellect freely decides, and, indeed, Aquinas thinks the latter is the root of the former; freedom in human action therefore cannot be adequately accounted for in terms of the will alone. (Aquinas, in fact, repeatedly says this.) Thus I don't think anything can be concluded about the respective merits of either Aquinas's or Scotus's view simply by looking at the will alone.

Edward Ockham said...

That is an interesting translation of 'ad utrumlibet'. Jack and I struggled with that.

Edward Ockham said...

Btw you can add anchored links to the LM hypertext as follows.

This takes you all the way there.

Michael Sullivan said...

Thanks for the tip, Ockham.

As for 'ad utrumlibet', if I had translated this myself rather than borrowing it, I probably would have said something like 'open to either of several possbilities', which is circumlocutious but seems to get at the idea.

Brandon, you deserve a response but I might make it in another post soon.

Edward Ockham said...

We settled on 'involve real alternatives'. I can't remember why we added the 'real', as though there were unreal alternatives. I might have a look at it again.

By the way, I really didn't understand Brandon's comment, nor the post itself, really. Very difficult.

Michael Sullivan said...


sorry if I was too obscure (or plain incoherent). Maybe I ought to take more care with the follow-up post.