Wittgenstein & 'Friends' on Action and the Will

Professor Constantine Sandis

28 October 2015

The Bloomsbury Institute, 50 Bedford Square

London WC1B 3DP


About the Speaker
Speaker Bibliography
About the Reporter

About the Speaker


Constantine Sandis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. His research focuses primarily on the philosophy of action and related issues concerning human understanding. It is largely influenced by the writings of Wittgenstein, Anscombe, and Hegel.

Constantine is the author of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and editor or co-editor of a number of volumes including Philosophy of Action: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, with J. Dancy, 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of Action (Wiley Blackwell, with T. O' Connor, 2010), Hegel on Action (Palgrave Macmillan, with A. Laitinen, 2010), New Essays on the Explanation of Action (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Cultural Heritage Ethics (Open Book Publishers, 2014), and Human Nature (Cambridge University Press, with M.J. Cain, 2012). He is currently writing a book on Understanding Oneself and Others (Yale University Press) and another on Wittgenstein's remark about the talking lion (for Bloomsbury). He is the editor of Bloomsbury's Why Philosophy Matters and Palgrave Macmillan's Philosophers in Depth series.

SELECTED Bibliography


In this talk I re-visit the later Wittgenstein’s remarks on action and the will in the retrospective light of the philosophies of action which were subsequently developed, in particular those of Ryle, Anscombe, von Wright, R. Taylor, Melden, and Davidson. I shall be arguing that while we should endorse Wittgenstein’s specific brand of anti-volitionism, we should do so by resisting the unhealthy direction that both volitionist and anti-volitionist philosophies of action have since taken. More specifically, I try to show that although we should reject the notion of ‘willing’ as an ‘inner mental’ act whose intended effect is a bodily movement, it doesn’t follow that we should dispense with the concept of willing altogether, replacing it with talk of action re-descriptions. Rather, we need to recognize the absurdity of asking how my raising my arm is related to my arm’s rising in the first place.



When ‘I raise my arm’, my arm rises [hebt sich mein Arm]. And now a problem emerges: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm? ((Are the kinaesthetic sensations my willing?)) (PI § 621).

What did Wittgenstein mean by this remark? Are we to take it at face value? That is: does Wittgenstein take it to be a well-conceived philosophical question that we should try to answer?

Many contemporary philosophers of action have thought that he does, and have gone on to try to answer it. Most Wittgensteinians, including Professor Sandis, think that he doesn’t; yet many of them, again including Sandis, have gone on to answer it anyway. And this second point seemed to be what most interested him. There is a kind of standing temptation, he suggested, to respond to Wittgenstein’s question as though it were in good order, even when one knows it isn’t.

Focussing on that question may therefore have influenced subsequent philosophers of action, shaping the terms of the debate. To the extent that the question has been misunderstood – or is somehow irresistible – that influence has not been especially productive, since the resulting debate has at least partly been about how to answer a very bad question that we ought not to be asking.

Professor Sandis wove his talk around a long list of quotations, reproduced on the handout. In talking us through them, he described the way philosophical thought about the relation between action and the will has developed over the last century or so. He began with some of the philosophers to whose thinking the later Wittgenstein was responding, for example Arthur Schopenhauer and the earlier Wittgenstein, since, as Sandis argued, you cannot understand Wittgenstein unless you understand who he is responding to. Schopenhauer holds a dual-aspect view, whereby bodily movements are not caused by acts of will, but the same event ‘given in two entirely different ways’ (WWR, I, 100 & 108). And the early Wittgenstein has it that ‘The act of will is not the cause of the action but the action itself’ (N 1916; 87-8).

Those contemporary philosophers who have in turn responded to Wittgenstein have often asked what we need to add to my arm moving to make it a case of me moving my arm. But Sandis noted that William James, writing before Wittgenstein, had answered this question with kinaesthetics – the feeling of moving my arm – the implication being that positions like James’s had moved Wittgenstein to ask the question in the first place: perhaps Wittgenstein’s question deliberately evokes such positions in order to cast doubt on them.

Contemporary action theorists divide roughly into two camps: volitionists and anti-volitionists. Most of those in both camps seem to take it that Wittgenstein’s question is in good order and worth trying to answer. Volitionists think that the answer is something like ‘willing’. It turns out that there is a surprising variety of volitionist positions, united only by the belief that a mental act causes a bodily movement. Anti-volitionists think the answer is ‘nothing’: some cases of my arm going up are cases of my raising it. But they themselves divide into two groups: those who think that what we have is a bodily movement with a cause (in Davidson’s case an intention); and those, like Hacker and Schroeder, who think that all we have is bodily movements in a particular context.

Professor Sandis noted, on the basis of textual evidence that he provided, that the non-causal anti-volitionists, among whom he counts himself, are frequently found trying to answer Wittgenstein’s question in this way. The worry is that these are the very same people who think that it is a bad question, that nobody should try to answer it, and that Wittgenstein is simply drawing our attention to a way of thinking that he does not endorse.

According to Sandis, Wittgenstein’s main concern when discussing these issues is captured in remarks like these: ‘There is not one common difference between so-called voluntary acts and involuntary ones, viz. the presence or absence of one element, the ‘act of volition’ ’ (BB, 151f).  ‘[V]oluntary movement [die willkürliche Bewegung] is marked by the absence of surprise’ (PI §628). ‘[M]ovements with their normal surroundings of intention, learning, trying, acting’ (RPP I §776). The danger is that in emphasising the variegation of cases we can be led to the general claim that voluntary action is just a bodily movement in a certain context – and that already looks like an answer to Wittgenstein’s question.

The mistake is to think that willing is something I do with my mind which causes my body to move. For if willing is to be anything at all it cannot be a mental act which causes a bodily movement. Professor Sandis urged us instead to ask ourselves why we are asking this question on any given occasion. What is the context? What are we trying to achieve? For these and other factors will affect what it is correct to say about any given case.

About the Reporter

Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce received his PhD from the University of Reading, completed under the supervision of Jonathan Dancy, in 2008. He currently teaches and writes for the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

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