Thursday, October 28, 2010

Aristotle and the Akratic

"Weakness of the will is something we all think we know; many feel that we experience it ourselves."  --Weakness of Will by William Charlton

The good that I would feel to do; the good that I would not feel and do... is the subject of a talk by Saint Paul in one of his biblical letters to the Romans (Romans 7:15), is often attributed by modern commentators to a 'weak will.' Modern philosophers such as William Charlton take up this notion in his book, The Weak Will. So called 'weakness' he explains, is often an attempt to explain either behavior or the effects of behaviors. The behavior he describes and explores is that of 'going against one's better judgment,' and the result of that action.

In an effort to be concise, Charlton takes up the discussion of the greatly influential Aristotle's ideas on the the Will, and uses the Greek term, the Akratic. Translators of Aristotle have sometimes used the English term "incontinent" to indicate slips or mistakes in the will of persons. Delving into his topic, Charlton writes that there are several views on Akrasia. Some, like John Calvin, argue that there is no Akrasia, no free will; others argue that it wholly exists, such as the philosopher Emmanuel Kant.

The questions which Charlton seeks to expound are those of strength. Are there various strengths of will? Does that person in Akrasia consciously choose, and how so? What about the modern ideas of psychologists, like Sigmund Freud? Charlton notes, in counter-face to the established Roman hierarchy of the ancient times, that the first person thought to bring "the idea of the Will into philosophy (of the West) does indeed appear to have been the Christian Bishop, Saint Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine writes of the Will sometimes as 'a faculty of the mind,' sometimes as the mind itself in its role as a thing which issues commands... Augustine asks, how can the mind give orders which are not obeyed?"
Later thinkers of the Medieval age were confronted with the texts of both Aristotle and Plato; comparison of these with these texts by writers such as Saint Paul of the Bible caused them to ponder, "when I act against my own will, it means that I have self knowledge..."

Today the inquiry into the Will, volition and motivation is taken over largely by science and the theories of psychology. The spiritual component has been thus voided.  Moving far away from the ancient Greek conception of the will as having two parts,  modern philosophers like Descartes often see it as strength or force. Such strengths, weak or strong, are therefore practical problems to be solved.
Leaping forward, and the 'human potential' movement emerges. Desires, as weakness, now are at the forefront for thinkers such as Russell; men are then just at the whim and mercy of their desires.

Finally, Charlton weighs in after examining the thoughts of others. He says, "weakness of the Will is puzzling, insofar as we think our behavior is determined by our view of what is best; it's not so puzzling if we think our behavior is determined mechanistically by our physical environment."

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