Part 2 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to voluntary action. For Ricoeur, our embodiment is the key to understanding how this works. Careful attention to the phenomena of our embodied existence refutes all dualism of mind and body. The intentionality of action is practical rather than representational. “Action is the criterion of [willing’s] authenticity…. it is not simply a question of subsequently carrying out our plans and programs, but of testing them continuously amid the vicissitudes of reality…. The genesis of our projects is only one moment in the union of soul and body” (pp. 201-202; emphasis in original).
A tacit action accompanies even the most indecisive willing. In the application of any kind of knowledge, it “has to be moved like my body” (p. 204). Will can only be fully understood in the context of effort, but effort in turn can only be understood against a background of spontaneity. Action always involves both a doing and a happening, a combination of active and passive aspects. The body is not the object of action, but its organ. An organ is not an external instrument, but a part of us.
The body as the organ of our action has both preformed skills that form the basis of reflexes and acquired habits, and involuntary movements associated with emotion. The bodily movements associated with emotion are inseparable from the emotion itself. Habit involves a kind of degeneration of voluntary action into automatism, but this very degeneration makes it more easily deployable. Ricoeur here speaks of an involuntary that sustains and serves voluntary action. Habit can help overcome the resistance of emotion, and emotion can help overcome the inertia of habit.
In effort, the body is moved through the mediation of the nonrepresentational “motor intentions” of desire and habit. Accordingly, voluntary movement should not be understood as essentially preceded by representation. Instead, the realization of intentions depends on the living being’s structural subordination of motor montages to intentions. There can be no willing without ability, and no ability without possible willing.
Both ability and a certain spontaneous “docility” of the body exhibited in simple gestures like raising my arm are prior to any experience of effort. There is also “a seeing and a knowing which the will does not produce” (p. 336). On the other hand, if all our acts are attributable to a same self, it is because they participate in a unity of effort. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Consent?)