Schopenhauer on free will and determinism (2007)

Explain and critically assess Schopenhauer’s position on the question of free will and determinism

Free will and determinism are always being subject to much discussion. The matter opens up our perceptions on our degrees of influence, freedom to act, and responsibility over these actions. If we can understand and overcome the difficulties of free will and determinism, our conclusions could effectively help us be aware of the forces surrounding us, in comparison to our own individual will.

To begin with clarity, Arthur Schopenhauer denied such existence of an “arbitrium indifferentiae” – an absolute free will. Schopenhauer says that actions are determined by motives: so we are always willing something to happen:

“a relative free will made possible by deliberation, which brings about a relative freedom from an immediate determination to action by those objects perceived as present and as motives for the will.”

                                                “Hamlyn, [1], p.124”

That is to say, our will creates our action, we are willing something to happen. Objects and events may seem to freely happen, but that is not the case. A question arises here, is it the will that causes the event, or the event that cases the will? According to Schopenhauer “If I will this, I can do it”. Meaning that, in every case, a will has to be prior to any event.

Schopenhauer gives an example of water on the relation to will. If water spoke saying it can make waves or rush down a hill or plundge down a waterfall, while in the exact moment of it doing none of these. Then these instances are possibilities, but they aren’t actualised until they are willed. For something to be willed, there needs to be a cause of the will.

This can be put into human terms in the case of motives. According to Schopenhauer, humans need motives for willing something. Not doing anything, is a will in itself. You are willing to do nothing. And so, the human character is defined by the motives he acts upon. Since we are judged in society by our actions, what we’ve accomplished and experienced. These are all acted out of the motives we have, and of our will that creates the motive.

According to Schopenhauer, worldly knowledge and acquisition of such experience will not alter that which we truly are. Our essence is that what we will, and this is an uncontested role.

 “He will thus be able to be more consistent in his life, but he cannot alter what he fundamentally is.”

                                                “Hamlyn, [1], p.128”

This confirms in Schopenhauer’s mind our lack of free will. Our actions and motives are corresponding to our will. And we can do what we will.

But what can we really know about this intangible abstract world called “will”.

How do I know something is my will, and something isn’t. This seems to be a flaw in Schopenhauer’s thinking, and it is based primarily on what we think we have “willed” in our life, and what just simply is. If there is, in actuality, no “will”, then we can’t have a freedom of it.

However the will does seem to be a good categorisation of “that which we desire”, it embodies our motives and drives our actions. So is this will itself free or not? Is that subject to any kind of influence?

Looking at it in another perspective, we could have will, as a separate thing, being uncontaminated, and ready to instruct our motives. But we also have the human, the carrier of this will. Now if the human is not in the right environment for the will to even be acknowledged, then what does it say of the will. Is will itself free. An example may be if the will is motivated to go to Egypt, whatever the cost. But the person is totally stuck, financially, emotionally, and physically, in London. The will is there, but the will may not ever be actualised. It suggests a free, unlimitation of our will, but a limit to what our will can accomplish.

Regardless of the inability to locate the will, Schopenhauer says this is this basis for it being free and limitless:

“The groundlessness of the will has actually been recognised where it manifests itself most distinctly, that is, as the will of man; and this has been called free and independent.”

                                         “[2], Schopenhauer p.113”

So Schopenhauer seems to imply that the will is free and independent, but we as humans are just what we will. And we are tied to this will. The groundlessness of the will seems to have ground. The will is, according to Schopenhauer, inborn and constant. We are merely responding to what we will, our “unchangeable” role:

“He will thus be able to be more consistent in his life, but he cannot alter what he fundamentally is.”

                                    “[1], Hamlyn, p.128”

And so, if someone has observed another change his character in life, than that is merely an adaptation to situation, rather than a fundamental change in will or character. The will is set and inborn, but it is free. Our lives are humans are not. The only real freedom, according to Schopenhauer, is the transcendental one: the will on its own:

“it is not determined as a consequent through a reason, and so, knows no necessity”

                                    “[1], Hamlyn, p.132”

So our will is uncontaminated, not determined by a set of reasoning or moral principles. There is no “oughts” or “wrongdoings”. Even saying this, that the will is free, still has nothing to do with us as humans. It is as if to point out the speciality of the will. There is no bridge between the transcendental freedom of the will, and any transcendental freedom of us. We can only bridge it through when we act: we are acting out of our motives, and our motives are our will.


[1] D.W Hamlyn                                 Schopenhauer: The Arguments of the Philosophers, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980

[2] Schopenhauer, A                           The World as Will and Representation Volume 1, Dover Publications, 1969