Transcript: 257. Martin Pickavé on Henry of Ghent and Freedom

An interview with Martin Pickavé on voluntarism and the interaction of will and intellect, according to Henry of Ghent.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of voluntar listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Henry of Ghent is known to specialists of medieval philosophy, at least for several things. And I think probably the thing he's most known for is that he's an early example of voluntarism. And I thought maybe we could start there. Can you say a little bit about what you understand by the term voluntarism and why we might think that Henry is an example of a voluntarist?

Martin Pickavè: Yes, the term voluntarism is often used in two ways. In the first way, it means someone who thinks that in one way or another, the will is what makes us properly human, is kind of the highest human faculty. And if that's the idea of voluntarism, then I think it's fairly clear that Henry of Ghent, like many others, is a voluntarist because he repeatedly says that the will is the highest power of the human soul. It's higher than the intellect, for example. And yeah, I think that's a clear cut case. There's another use of the term voluntarism, and there it is supposed to indicate that voluntarists have a specific view about human freedom. And there it's a bit more difficult to see what voluntarism would actually mean. I take it that in this respect, voluntarism is often used as a term that is supposed to equal the term libertarianism, i.e. the idea that freedom requires indeterminacy, that if everything in the world is causally determined, there wouldn't be any freedom. And in this sense, I think the term voluntarism is sort of misleading because there are a lot of philosophers in the medieval period who are, in this sense, libertarians. They don't think that our actions are causally determined or they can't be causally determined. Otherwise, there wouldn't be anything like merit and praise and blame. But it's less clear that Henry is a voluntarist in that sense.

Peter Adamson: In fact, I guess some people who we would call intellectualists are libertarians in the sense you just described. Aquinas, for example, is sort of the example of an intellectualist that people always mention, but he doesn't think that free choice is compatible with being causally determined. Now, this view you've just described under the heading of libertarianism, the second sense of voluntarism, is one that I associate with Duns Scotus, who I'll be covering soon in the podcast and is going to be coming up a lot over the episodes to come. Now, Scotus does think that free will presupposes the presence of alternative possibilities. And this, I think, is very plausible to us. I mean, if I imagine that I'm choosing freely, then it seems that I'm almost forced to imagine that I'm choosing between several alternatives, right? I might be choosing something as trivial as which flavor of ice cream to order or something as important as what career to pursue. But the thought would be that if there isn't more than one thing I can do, then I'm not choosing freely, even if it's only 'shall I do this or not.' So I had at least two alternatives, either to do it or not. So how can Henry be such a staunch supporter of voluntarism in general, in this first sense, and the free will in general, if he isn't following this idea that there have to be alternative possibilities?

Martin Pickavè: So the idea that freedom involves a power to do otherwise - a robust power to do otherwise, is interestingly strikingly absent from many authors before Scotus. I mean, I think you covered Anselm of Canterbury in one of your previous episodes. And there, when Anselm discusses the nature of freedom, he talks about the power to sin, not to sin. And he thinks that freedom is not the power to sin or not to sin. It's how to preserve the rectitude of the will for the sake of rectitude. So even in this very early account of freedom, you find the power to do otherwise interestingly absent. And the same is true for the late 13th century, for the period of Henry of Ghent. Henry does not think that human freedom consists of having a power to do otherwise, or that freedom in general consists of having a power to do otherwise. And he has various reasons for that. And some of them are theological, some of them are more philosophical. So there are a couple of theological reasons why he thinks that freedom cannot consist of having a power to do otherwise. Maybe the most obscure has to do with the Trinity, namely that there's this idea that the production of the Holy Spirit from the Father is both necessary and a free act. It's necessary, of course, because the Trinity, there is necessarily three persons, but it's also supposed to be a free act. So here we get something that is both free and necessary. There is no - God couldn't have just chosen not to generate the Holy Spirit. That's, as I said, the most obscure case maybe, but there are others that are less obscure. So in the order of obscurity, the second one would be the following scenario. There's this idea among theologians in that period that at the end of days, the blessed see God face to face. And of course, this is supposed to be the ultimate act of human happiness. It's hard to imagine this is an unfree act. So it's supposed to be a free act. We see God face to face and we love God in this instance. But again, there's no way the agent could decide, 'oh, well, I'm not going to do this. I want to rather watch television.'

Peter Adamson: So you're beholding the divine essence and you think, 'ah, nah, that's not for me.'

Martin Pickavè: That's impossible. So again, there's a scenario of an act that is both free, but it doesn't involve a power to do otherwise. But we can also make this idea, I think plausible to us if we think just in general about freedom. And I think everyone would agree that freedom is a kind of perfection. It is something that we all find a good thing. That's why I said it's a perfection. Now, is a power to do otherwise in the light of seeing or thinking about something as good to pursue? Would it be a perfection to have a power not to follow the command of reason? I think this is maybe the philosophical reason why Henry thinks the alternative possibility is not part of the essence of freedom. But I should modify this because Henry actually makes a distinction. He makes a distinction between freedom, "libertas," and "liberum arbitrium." So Henry thinks that the proponents in his time, the more imaginative proponents of the idea that freedom involves a power to otherwise have a point. But what they should rather say is that we have a power to do otherwise only with respect to means towards an end - i.e. when I think about what I ought to make for dinner tonight. And so in this sense, I have a robust power to do otherwise, but I don't have a power to do otherwise in some other aspects and in other respects. And freedom ultimately does not involve a power to do otherwise.

Peter Adamson: Okay, well, so if he rejects this notion that freedom is the power to do otherwise, does he replace it or challenge it with a different positive account of what freedom is?

Martin Pickavè: Yeah, so that's in a way the trouble these voluntarists are all in. They have to explain two things. They have to explain in what sense the will is free. And then they have to explain also how it follows from this that we have a power to otherwise with respect to some objects or some actions, i.e. for example, actions that are directed at means towards an end. Henry ultimately thinks that to act freely is just to be able to act with pleasure and in a quasi-choosing way. "Quasi-eligibilita" is his term there. So it's very hard to understand what that's supposed to mean. And authors writing after Henry and taking issue with Henry's view have a hard time to kind of spell this out. But I think the easiest way to think about this is that he tries to grapple with a notion of spontaneity. He thinks that free agents are agents that bring about the actions in a spontaneous way. And I think that's captured in this phrase quasi-eligibilita because of course in election or in choice, this is one way of exercising the spontaneity. But there's a more fundamental one to which he only gives the circumscription, i.e. quasi-choosing.

Peter Adamson: That sounds to me like the notion that the agent is just moving him or herself. Is that the idea? I mean, this is all about the will, presumably. So hence voluntarism. Will is "voluntas" in Latin. Is the idea then that the will is a power for self-motion and that that's what makes us free?

Martin Pickavè: Exactly. So Henry's account of freedom is underpinned by an attempt to explain how the will is a self-mover.

Peter Adamson: Okay, but then the reason I asked is that this to me is a potential worry because if we know our Aristotle, which Henry certainly did, probably better than either you or I do even, even though we both have read our fair share of Aristotle, there's a refutation of the notion of self-motion in Aristotle, which basically says - to greatly oversimplify - that if you have a case of something that looks like self-motion, actually, you can always analyze it into one aspect that's doing the moving and another aspect that's doing the being-moved. There's an active part and a passive part. Hence, if Henry really wants us to believe that the will is a power for self-motion, it looks like he has to somehow reject Aristotle's proof that self-motion is impossible.

Martin Pickavè: Yes. So Henry knows about this objection. It's actually an objection that has been raised to him by his contemporaries, among others by Godfrey of Fontaine, who's one of the main rivals of Henry in the late 1280s. Henry gives a very verbose reply, as he often does, to this problem. Basically, the solution gives us is to say, 'well, yes, the potency axiom that you just referred to applies and it entails that everything that is moving itself is divided into parts, but it does not apply in the same sense to immaterial things like the will.' But still, Henry, in one way you might say, Henry just restricts the Aristotelian thought to material objects. But in another way, he goes along with it and he says, 'well, yes, so even in the will, we can make a distinction between the moving aspect of the will and the will as a moved thing.' So this is just an intentional distinction. That's kind of one of his inventions that he also applies to other things. He thinks there's not a real distinction between the will as a mover and the will as moved, but they are these two aspects in the will, which is a simple psychological power.

Peter Adamson: Is he presenting that as an explanation of what Aristotle really meant, or is he presenting that as a correction to Aristotle's argument?

Martin Pickavè: As a correction to Aristotle.

Peter Adamson: Oh, okay. That's interesting. Actually, I have to say, I find that pretty convincing in particular because in the medieval period and already in late antiquity, you very often have the idea that immaterial things are capable of grasping themselves cognitively, or maybe knowing themselves or being aware of themselves, in a way that bodies wouldn't be capable of. This kind of "self reversion," as late antique Platonists put it, or self awareness is something actually had another interview about with Therese Cory, a few episodes back. So in so far as there's a kind of parallel between the act of self grasping or self awareness, and the act of self moving, I think actually Henry's on pretty solid ground there.

Martin Pickavè: Yeah. And he also quotes ancient sources. Remember, one of the key Latin texts at least for the platonic idea of self motion is Macrobius' commentary on the Somnium Scipionis, where you get kind of a criticism of the Aristotelian "prohibition" of self motion.

Peter Adamson: Okay. I think though that there's another possible objection that one could bring against him if he really means by freedom: spontaneity. And this is a kind of objection that you often hear in contemporary debates about free will that's directed against modern day libertarians, which is that since the libertarian is denying that pre existing desires, beliefs, attitudes and so on, will necessarily give rise to an action or a choice, it must be that the action or choice is to some extent random, because there's all your attitudes and beliefs and desires. And then on the basis of that, you still have to make a further decision and you can still choose either way. So your choices are not somehow fully grounded in the beliefs and desires that you find yourself with. Rather, there's this extra thing. And the extra thing, really by definition, has to be something that you're not making just because of some belief or desire, because the belief or desire doesn't cause it to happen. So why wouldn't the choice ultimately just be a kind of random or arbitrary act rather than something that's grounded in the reasons we have for doing things?

Martin Pickavè: Yeah. So Henry's account of how the world moves itself to action, of course, does not entail that we don't act on account of reasons. He is fairly on board with this idea. It would be crazy to reject that because human beings - it's part of our human nature that we think about what we ought to do and we act on the reasons with which we come up. So he definitely doesn't want to destroy that connection. But of course, as you rightly point out, he has a problem if you don't make action and volition kind of the effect of reasons and beliefs and desires, then you seem to have a kind of disconnect, a problematic disconnect. So Henry has a complicated theory about in what way reasons contribute to action and to the forming of volitions. And the key idea here is that reasons and everything that comes from the intellect basically provides a "causa sine qua non," so a necessary cause for action. The idea is that reasons or cognition or anything on the cognitive side of the soul doesn't impress itself on the will and make the will move in a certain way. But it provides a condition under which the will can pick this or pick that or move itself to action. The notion of "causa sine qua non" or necessary cause is very vague. Let me give you an example how to think about this. He's not the only one who uses this notion in this period. The idea is, for example, this: Imagine you have a pot of water on a hot stove. Now, you might think about the action of the activity of the hot stove in two ways. So first, there's an activity: the stove is hot. But there's also a second kind of activity that's related to the heat of the stove: that it is heating. So the stove couldn't heat if there isn't anything around that is heatable, like the water on the stove. In the same way, he thinks about volitions and the connection between volitions and reasons. So of course, I can only pick the pizza in the shop over the mac and cheese if I have a thought about the one or the other. But it's not that the thought itself makes the will cause the will to choose the one or the other in any robust sense of causing. It's just there provides an occasion for the will to choose one or the other.

Peter Adamson: Does that just boil down to what modern day philosophers mean when they talk about the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions? The belief that macaroni and cheese tastes good is a necessary condition for choosing to eat it. But it's not a sufficient condition? That sounds like a pretty good answer, I guess. And I suppose that that connects to what we were talking about at the very beginning, which is that he's called a voluntarist. You mentioned that he thinks that the will is the highest power of the soul. And it's not immediately clear what "highest" means there. But I suppose that at least part of what it means is that the lower powers, in this case, the intellect, can only kind of create the conditions for the will to engage itself in a certain way and move itself as we were just talking about. But the lower powers can't necessitate it. And they also aren't sufficient reasons, and what that means is that just judging that macaroni and cheese is delicious would never be enough to make you choose it.

Martin Pickavè: Yes, absolutely. So in this sense, we could say, 'yeah, Henry's a voluntarist because he thinks that the will has a certain form of command or mastery that cannot be pushed around by reasons or desires or beliefs.'

Peter Adamson: Okay. Does that really boil down to the thought that the will can trump reason or override it? I mean, let's imagine a case where you have very, very good reasons for doing something, and you just decide, 'well, I'm not going to do this anyway.' I sort of willfully reject the very good reasons that I have for doing it and kind of perversely decide not to do it. Is that the kind of thing that convinces him that the will is superior to the intellect?

Martin Pickavè: Yes, he definitely thinks that the will can control thought and can override thought. But in my view, when he talks about how the will can go against reasons, these texts are interestingly underdeveloped, I think, because if you take on one side, seriously, when he says that the will needs a reason to act namely as a necessary cause, not as a sufficient cause, that that seems to entail that it is impossible for the will to act against any reason. So there has to be even for the, even if the... let's imagine reason tells you, you should really do action X, Y, Z. And so in order for the will then to go against this, the will seems to have to have another reason.

Peter Adamson: I see. That's why you gave us the example of choosing between two different things for dinner. So the idea is I have reasons to choose both, but then it somehow remains up to the will to decide which reasons it will find more compelling on this occasion. It seems to me like something an intellectualist could say here though, is that when you're choosing between two things, actually what you're doing is choosing between two reasons. And in fact, what must happen is that you find one reason more compelling than another. And the key word here would be compelling. The intellect judges that actually my reasons for doing one thing - so eating macaroni and cheese on this occasion - are more compelling than my reasons for eating something else on this occasion. Hence the voluntarists are wrong because in the end, even though it's true that you have different reasons for doing different things and that you choose one rather than the other, what makes the difference in choosing isn't some kind of self motion of the will. It's rather, which reasons turn out to be found most compelling.

Martin Pickavè: Yes. So I think obviously Henry thinks the will can go against what appears the stronger reason, so can direct itself towards something that appears at first as the lesser option. But I think to understand how the will can go against reason in this case, in order to understand that, it's important to keep in mind that we should not think about reasons for acting in an atomistic sense that they're situations where they're just these two reasons. We should think about them as connected with a whole bunch of other things around them. That, for example, when I wonder whether I should go to church on the weekend or whatnot, there are a whole lot of things that I think I might find pleasant and good for other reasons. That in the vicinity, on which I'm not focused when I think of this one thing, it's reasonable to choose this. And because there are all these other things in the vicinity and there are descriptions under which they're good - there are even descriptions under which they're better than the thing that appears to me first as the obvious best choice, maybe because they may be more pleasurable or so, or they're more pleasurable in providing more sense for pleasure and so on. The will can move towards these things. And of course, by moving, by endorsing something else, the will will emphasize the aspect under which the other thing is the most choice worthy.

Peter Adamson: I see. So the reason the will is the top dog, so to speak, is that it actually decides which messages from the intellect to pay most attention to and thus define more compelling on this occasion.

Martin Pickavè: Exactly. And the model here is less worked out in Henry of Ghent. It's more worked out in Scotus, who actually has a very sophisticated theory of how the will can direct itself. He thinks about the area of reasons in the same ways we think with the visual field. I mean, if I look at your books right now, I look at one book, I can move my gaze because there are all these other things in my visual field. And he thinks in the same way that when the intellect thinks about what we ought to do, there's not just one thing - the intellect focuses, I mean, there's one thing the intellect focuses on, but there are all these other things in the thinking sphere, so to say, to which the will can then direct itself.

Peter Adamson: Okay. Actually, it's interesting that you mentioned Scotus there, because I wanted to end anyway by asking you about their relative influence later on. They're both well known for being voluntarists. Scotus is a more famous name in general. And I know that Henry is in general actually a very influential figure in the 14th century. He's a scholastic philosopher to whom later scholastics constantly refer, I think even more than they refer to Aquinas, for example. And so back then he was a name to conjure with in a way that he isn't now. But to what extent is he perceived as the key thinker in voluntarism by later voluntarists? Do they think that once Scotus comes along, it's clear that Scotus has made a big jump forward in terms of how to present a voluntarist theory of the will, or do they go back to Henry?

Martin Pickavè: Yeah, that's quite interesting. So the modern historiography of philosophy, of medieval philosophy, always thinks that Scotus overcame all these problems of the previous generations and is the voluntarist par excellence that then kind of develops a more modern understanding of freedom and contingency. But in the medieval period, that was definitely not the case. So people after Scotus had terrible problems to understand the idea that freedom involves the part of the otherwise for the various reasons I mentioned earlier in the interview - for these theological reasons. So there are a lot of people after Scotus in the early 14th century who kind of try to defend a more Henritsian version, i.e. try to understand how we could understand freedom as an ability to act with pleasure and in a quasi-choosing way. So he's by no way in the view of the people in the early 14th century kind of superseded by Scotus.

Peter Adamson: I'm glad you answered that question, because among other things, we've just learned the new word "Henritsian" - which is officially my new favorite word, things that Henry of Ghent might say!


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