Phenomenology of Will

I’m starting to look at Paul Ricoeur’s large early work Freedom and Nature (French ed. 1950). This was to be the first of three volumes on a philosophy of will, of which he only completed two. It turns out to be full of rich detail on the vexing question of the way transcendental and empirical aspects of subjectivity are interrelated.

In this work, Ricoeur combines a Marcelian emphasis on embodiment with a broadly Husserlian phenomenological method. The investigation is to address “Cogito’s complete experience, including even its most diffuse affective margins” (p. 8; emphasis in original). I would shy away from the Cartesian sound of saying “Cogito” at all, but the really important part here is the qualifiers Ricoeur adds. Even in Descartes, cogito has a broad usage that sometimes seems to include perception and feeling, and not just thought in the narrower sense.

Ricoeur here seems to accept something like the Stoic hegemonikon (etymologically related to “hegemony”), which was ancestral to later notions of “will” as a unified faculty or power. I prefer Aristotle’s approach, which accounts for the phenomena — including choice — without the need for such an hypothesis. In the later tradition, it is often ambiguous whether will is really supposed to be a separate power like the Stoics seem to have thought, or simply a name for the cooperation of reason and desire in governing action, as Aristotle probably would have said. (See also Kantian Will.) Here Ricoeur’s use of phenomenological method is a big help in minimizing the impact of this sort of issue.

“To say ‘I will’ means first ‘I decide’, secondly ‘I move my body’, thirdly ‘I consent'” (p. 6). This sort of concrete delineation is very helpful. These are all kinds of things that actually happen and that we can describe or interpret as phenomena, independent of any assumed theory of the will.

Ricoeur had already said he would use something like Husserl’s method of phenomenological and eidetic reduction, “putting in brackets” questions of existence or of the objectivity of appearances in order to focus on what Ricoeur here calls “elaborating the idea or meaning” (pp. 3-4). Eidos was the word Plato and Aristotle used for form. Husserl adopted it for the second of three stages of “reduction”.

Briefly put, Husserl’s first, “phenomenological” reduction emphasizes a suspension of existence claims about the content under examination. The second, “eidetic” one emphasizes a positive examination of the ranges of variation of pure “essences” of mental objects, still not assumed to have any particular metaphysical or objective status. Ricoeur’s gloss “idea or meaning” (emphasis added) already anticipates a shift of emphasis in the direction of hermeneutics. He says he will not use Husserl’s third, “transcendental” reduction, which was supposed to arrive at a “pure” consciousness unaffected by empirical psychology. Ricoeur explicitly notes that “we cannot pretend that we are unaware of the fact that the involuntary is often better known empirically, in its form, albeit degraded, of a natural event” (p. 11).

A main top-level thesis of this work of Ricoeur’s is that the voluntary and the involuntary are reciprocally interdependent, and we cannot really understand either one without the other. Not only is the voluntary partly shaped by the involuntary, but also we only fully understand the involuntary through its impacts on the voluntary. (For more on the same book, see Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Willing, Unwilling; Rethinking Responsibility.)