Free Will(y) by Schopenhauer

I thought I might try something different today. Usually I explain scientific, physical concepts, but lately I’ve been getting into some very fun and happy philosophical reading (Schopenhauer), and I thought to myself: why not try myself at explaining metaphysical concepts for a change?

I’ll start with an easy one: I’ve been reading a chapter on the freedom of the will, and it’s not all doom and gloom as Schopenhauer normally puts things. Quite the contrary (and not just because I think his philosophy is actually very empowering and in life-affirming in general, but that’s a different issue).

Schopenhauer is all about pinning down everything we do to on the will(-to-live, in German referred to as “Lebenswille”). How is this inner drive connected to freedom? He starts out by laying down a basic foundation by explaining of what freedom is in the physical world. Easily enough understood, it’s the absence of barriers in your world that keeps you physically free. Prisons, roadblocks, walls, locked doors, large big boulders in front of the cave you just spent the night in… These are all obstructing your free will by keeping you from going where you (who are only the embodiment of your inner will) from going to where you want to go. Schopenhauer can therefore say, that in the physical world, we are free when barriers blocking our will from what it wants to do are absent.

But with that purposefully twisted sentence (do what it wants to do), we enter the realm of the metaphysical. When are we morally and intellectually free? If we simply state “We are free, when we can do what we want”, we are turning in circles. Why? Because this translates to “We are free when our will is free”. Great. That doesn’t tell us anything. It just states that we would be free, if the will (we) are as well.

But thankfully, we have the great “Freedom is absence of obstruction” -paradigm. We applied it to the physical world, and we can do the same in the metaphysical. Freedom is the absence of what Schopenhauer refers to as ‘countermotives’. Let’s say I want coffee. Maybe I’m addicted, because this would be my 5th coffee of the day (hey, it’s free here). That is a very good motive to go get some more from the kitchen. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that my colleagues are already talking about me behind my back about my caffeine induced shaking of extremities and twitching of eyelids. I don’t want my colleagues to speak unkindly of me. That is the countermotive, my will choosing not to get coffee to get social recognition instead. If we were to remove the countermotive, then my will could do as it pleases (follow the motive), and give my body my greatly needed (legal) stimulant. Schopenhauer defines the absence of countermotive as the absence of necessity, which is interchangeable with the phrasing: absence of consequence. No consequences, free (and happy, coffee-slurping) will.

Unfortunately, as a species, we are very good at thinking of consequences. Due to our great cognitive abilities, we can therefore never be free. (In my opinion the use of the great in combination with cognitive abilities is questionable in some humans, including myself, but the spotlight is on Schopenhauer, so I’ll stay quiet.) Thankfully he’s got a solution to that, in order to explain why the will is free after all. It’s an elegant concept, completely lacking the usual flamboyant, pompous language that goes with grand philosophical ideas. The will is free by simply… not caring about the countermotives.

So, thanks to freedom through indifference, I’m going to get myself some coffee now. I don’t care about what you think of my addiction. My will wants it.

Will Wants Coffee


The Essential Schopenhauer by Schopenhauer (edited by Wolfgang Schirmacher)

Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will


One thought on “Free Will(y) by Schopenhauer

  1. All of your motives are a part of who you are. When two motives conflict, you have a choice to make. A choice determines what you WILL do next. And that is your will at that moment. One’s “will” is one’s specific intent for the future (thus future tense), either to have that coffee or to appear strong before your coworkers.

    The word “free”, to be meaningful and relevant, must reference some meaningful constraint. Your addiction may be viewed as a constraint upon your freedom to have an uncaffeinated drink. You could decide to get “free” of your addiction if that became important enough to you.

    Free will refers to decisions you make for yourself, free of coercion or other undue influence. If your wife said she’d divorce you if you didn’t give up caffeinated beverages, then that would be coercive. When the marathon bombers hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to aid them in their escape, that was coercion. The driver was not acting of his own free will, so he was not charged with aiding and abetting.

    Causal necessity is pretty much in everything, including every decision you make of your own free will. But since your inevitable choice is exactly identical to the choice you make, it cannot be considered a meaningful constraint. Causal necessity is nothing more than you being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose.

    In order for causal necessity to constrain you, it would have to be separate from you (dualism). But it pretty much runs through you, such that it is actually your choice that determines what happens next.

    Liked by 1 person

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