Will (philosophy and psychology)


Will (philosophy and psychology), the capacity to choose among alternative courses of action and to act on the choice made, particularly when the action is directed towards a specific goal or is governed by definite ideas and principles of conduct. Willed behaviour contrasts with behaviour stemming from instinct, impulse, reflex, or habit, none of which involves the conscious choice among alternatives.


Until the 20th century, most philosophers conceived the will as a separate faculty with which every person is born. They differed, however, over the role of this faculty in the personality makeup. For one school of philosophers, most notably represented by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a universal will is a primary reality, and the individual’s will forms part of it. In his view, the will dominates every other aspect of an individual’s personality, knowledge, feelings, and direction in life. A contemporary form of Schopenhauer’s theory is implicit in some forms of existentialism, such as the existentialist view expressed by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which regards personality as the product of actions, and actions as manifestations of the will to give meaning to the universe.

Most other philosophers have regarded the will as equal or secondary to other aspects of the personality. Plato believed that the psyche is divided into three parts: reason, will, and desire. For rationalist philosophers, such as Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, and René Descartes, the will is the agent of the rational soul in governing purely animal appetites and passions. Some empirical philosophers, such as David Hume, discount the importance of rational influences upon the will; they think of the will as ruled mainly by emotion. Evolutionary philosophers, such as Herbert Spencer, and pragmatist philosophers, such as John Dewey, conceive the will not as an innate faculty but as a product of experience evolving gradually as the mind and personality of the individual develop in social interaction.


Modern psychologists tend to accept the pragmatic theory of the will. They regard the will as an aspect or quality of behaviour, rather than as a separate faculty. It is the whole person who wills. This act of willing is manifested by: firstly, the fixing of attention on relatively distant goals and relatively abstract standards and principles of conduct; secondly, the weighing of alternative courses of action and the taking of deliberate action that seems best calculated to serve specific goals and principles; thirdly, the inhibition of impulses and habits that might distract attention from, or otherwise conflict with, a goal or principle; and, lastly, perseverance against obstacles and frustrations in pursuit of goals or adherence to principles.

Among the common deficiencies that may lead to the infirmity of will are the absence of goals worth striving for or of ideals and standards of conduct worth respecting; wavering attention; incapacity to resist impulses or to break habits; and inability to decide among alternatives or to stick to a decision, once made.

See also, Free Will.

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