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Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
Bain and Renouvier*
The Nation, vol.22 (June 8, 1876) pp.367-69
PHILOSOPHY and psychology are such difficult studies that most of us may be said to read in the works of philosophers rather than to read them. We like, as it were, physically to rub our minds against the abstract problems in their pages; we enjoy the glimpses we get of their solution; but we grasp nothing but the concrete illustrations by the way and the explanations of debits the author may give us. Accordingly, the more fertile a philosopher is in these, the more popular he will become. The two philosophers of indubitably the widest influence in England and. America since Mill's death are Messrs. Bain and Spencer, who have little in common except the tendency to explain things by physical reasons as much as possible, and this abundance of illustrative fact; whilst Mr. Hodgson, a writer in our opinion vastly more thorough and original than either, is unread and unknown because in his books the concatenation of the thoughts is everything, and the illustrative instances subordinate. The thoroughness of the descriptive part of Bain's treatises, and the truly admirable sagacity of many of the psychological analyses and reductions they contain, has made them deservedly classical. It seems hardly worth while to devote our space to giving an account of the third edition of one of them, for every one interested in psychology must read the originals themselves. We propose, therefore, merely to use Mr. Bain for the purpose of giving greater relief to the merits of a French philosopher, Renouvier, who seems as yet unknown to English readers, but who has given to the philosophy which Bain represents a form in our opinion far more clear, perfect, and consistent than has been attained by any English writer.

For Bain is not only a psychologist proper, does not merely describe mental facts as items in the inventory of nature, but also speculates about nature as a whoie. The fault we find in him in this capacity is his fragmentariness and consequent inconsistency. Fragmentariness — the willingness to settle only so much of a subject at a time as is practically needful — has become such a tradition in the history of the British mind, that philosophers who, like Spencer, are thoroughly systematic and constructive in their form, are viewed with suspicion and dislike on that very account by many minds of Anglo-Saxon type. This is surely a vicious extreme, for the very impulse to which philosophies owe their being is the craving for a consistent completeness; and every powerful attempt to rear a thorough system of thought has an intellectual style about it which is, aesthetically considered, to say the least, far nobler than the slouchy dumping of materials to which Mr. Bain treats us.

The most important of these fragmentary British contributions to philosophy are the criticisms and negations called nominalism and nihilism. Together they form the positivism, empiricism, or phenomenalism which within a certain sphere are so congenial to the Anglo-Saxon mind. They assert that nothing has reality except actual particular facts. Such noumenal substances as matter, nature, power, are admitted alike by metaphysics and by popular philosophy or common-sense; but criticism scrutinizes them only to proclaim that they are absolutely void of meaning except as names descriptive of particular phenomena. Describe these completely, and you have named all there is. If the particulars will happen just so each time, the assumption of a "substance" to produce them is mere image-worship — a fifth wheel to a coach. Accordingly, the school of Mill and Bain regard the world as a mere sum of separate phenomena or representations which habitually group themselves into certain orders, with which we grow more or less familiar, and which consequently seem more or less rational and necessary. To account, for the particular habits of grouping, or "laws" of nature and of mind, is on this theory the next problem. The English school has always tried more or less to evade this part of the subject, and, reducing the principles of grouping to as small a number as possible (e.g., space and causality to time), it has treated what remained in a hazy sort of manner, as not worthy of such attention anyhow. M. Renouvier's polemic against the metaphysical notions of Substance, of Infinite in existence, and of abstract ideal seems to us more powerful than anything which has been written in English; but he differs from his English allies in giving as great an emphasis to the laws of grouping as to the phenomena grouped. The laws are for him equally with the phenomena absolute and distinct. In fact, a "phenomenon" apart from its group, law, or function is an inconceivable nonentity.

But his great point of divergence from Bain and Mill lies in his treatment of the problem of Freedom, and here, it seems to us, is shown the advantage of a systematically-thought philosophy over one fragmentarily fed from heterogeneous sources. We have no space to discuss the sources of the English prejudice in favor of psychical determinism. Every reader of Mill's 'Autobiography' will remember the striking passage in which he narrates the hypochondria which this doctrine produced in his youthful mind. It is the strongest proof of the essentially pious character of that mind that this inherited belief was clung to in spite of its not being called for by the rest of Mill's philosophic creed. For if any man may believe in free-will it is surely one who repudiates the notion of an infinite pre-existing substance from which "the remediless flux of existence" proceeds, and who denies that there is any real coerciveness in the relation of cause to effect. Both these denials were Mill's. M. Renouvier most justly insists that the only logical enemy of free-will is the doctrine of Substance or Pantheism. Spencer, for example, with his 'Unknowable,' is bound in honor to oppose it; but the opposition of Bain, who seems to hold to the ultimate distinctness of each phenomenon, and the ultimate inexplicability of their order of succession, can only be regarded as a caprice.

Renouvier is the source for James's idea of ambiguous futures
Renouvier at a stroke clears the question of a cloud of quibbles by stating it in simple phenomenal terms. For him it is merely a question as to the ambiguity of certain futures, those human acts, namely, which are preceded by deliberation.
The future is open and ambiguous, depending on a "to and fro" of possibilities for volitions and actions
What are the phenomena here? A representation arises in a mind, but ere it can discharge itself into a train of action, it is inhibited by another which confronts it. This, on the point of discharging itself, is again checked by the first, which returns with a reinforced intensity, and so for a time the pendulum swings to and fro, till finally one or the other representation recurs with such a degree of reinforcement that the tumult ceases, and an act, a decision for the future, or the arrest of a passionate impulse takes place. This stable survival of one representation is called a volition. The whole question of its predetermination relates to the intensity of the degree of reinforcement with which the triumphant representation recurs. As a matter of fast, in critical cases (which are the only cases bearing on the question) this intensity is utterly unknown beforehand.
We originate acts that exclude other potential acts
Is it potentially and essentially a knowable quantity? If not, our acts are in certain cases original commencements of series of phenomena, whose realization excludes other series which were previously possible. If so, tbey form part of an adamantine and eternal uniformity. But who shall decide? The argumentation of Bain that as a matter of fact men always do expect each other to act with predictable uniformity is — sit venia verbo - rubbish. It could never be urged by one who was not already on other grounds prejudiced in favor of determinism. In one of his earliest works, Helmholtz, who as well as any living man may claim to give voice to the seientific spirit, says that when the proximate causes of phenomena are alterable themselves, we must seek further for a cause of their alteration, and so on till we reach an unalterable principle.
"Now, whether causes, [he continues], in reality, all events are to be carried back to such causes, whether nature be fully explieuble, or whether changes occur in it which do not fall under the law of necessary causality, and do consequently belong to the realm of freedom or spontaneity, cannot now be decided. It is, at all events, clear that a science whose object it is to understand nature must start with the assumption of her intelligibility, and conclude and enquire according to this assumption until it at last is forced by irrefutable facts to the admission of its own limitations."
The "assumption" of a fixed law in natural science is thus, according to this authority, an intellectual postulate, just as the assumption of an ultimate law of indetermination might be a moral postulate in treating of certain human deliberations. Is each assumption true in its sphere, or is determinism universal? Since no man can decide empirically, must one remain for ever uncertain, or shall one anticipate evidence and boldly choose one's side? Apart from the fact that doubt is practically impossible in certain cases which touch the conduct of life, doubt itself is an active state, one of voluntary inhibition or suspense. So that whichever plan one adopts, one's state is the result of other factors than pure receptivity of intelligence. The entire nature of the man, intellectual, affective, and volitional, is (whether avowedly or not) exhibited in the theoretic attitude he takes in such a question as this. And this leads M. Renouvier to a most vigorous and original discussion of the ultimate grounds of certitude, of belief in general, from which he returns to make his decision about this particular point. All yard-stick criteria of certitude have failed. Mr. Spencer's "inconceivability of the opposite" breaks down from the practical impossibility of unanimity in any given case. When the Philosopher of Evolution says we ought to find the opposite of his First Principles inconceivable and dubs us "pseudo" thinkers if we do not, be simply begs the question and appeals to the authority of his personal insight as against ours. Now, says Renouvier, such an appeal is at bottom inevitable so soon as we leave the narrow standing-point of the present moment in consciousnese (pyrrhonism). This latter alone is the aliquid inconcussum philosophers have sought; but it is barren. Beyond it everywhere is doubt.
"The radical sign of will, the essential mark of that achieved development which makes man capable of speculating on all things and raises him to his dignity of an independent and autonomous being, is the possibility of doubt. . . . The ignorant man doubts little, the fool still less, the madman not at all. . . . Certitude is not and cannot be an absolute condition. It is, what is too often forgotten, a state and an act of man . . . a state in which he posits his conscionsness, such as it is, and stands by it. Properly speaking, there is no certitude; all there is is men who are certain. . . Certitude is thus nothing but belief . . .a moral attitude."
Thus in every wide theoretical conclusion we must seem more or less arbitrarily to choose our side. Of course the choice may at bottom be predetermined in each ease, but also it may not. This brings us back to our theoretical dilemma about freedom, concerning which we must now bow to the necessity of making a choice; for suspense itself would be a choice, and a most practical one, since by it we should forfeit the possible benefits of boldly espousing a possible truth. If this be a moral world, there are cases in which any indecision about its being so must be death to the soul. Now, if our choice is predetermined, there is an end of the matter; whether predetermined to the truth of fatality or the delusion of liberty, is all one for us. But if our choice is truly free, then the only possible way of getting at that truth is by the exercise of the freedom which it implies. Here the act of belief and the object of belief coalesce, and the very essential logic of the situation demands that we wait not for any outward sign, but, with the possibility of doubting open to us, voluntarily take the alternative of faith. Renouvier boldly avows the full conditions under which alone we can be right if freedom is true, and says : "Let our liberty pronounce on its own real existence." It and necessity being alike indemonstrable by any quasi-material process, must be postulated if taken at all.
"I prefer to affirm my liberty and to it by means of my liberty. . . .My moral and practical certitude begins logically by the certitude of my freedom, just as practically my freedom has always had to intervene in the constitution of my speculative certitude."
Others need not decide in the same way, but let them confess, if their way is determinism, that unless they deduce it a priori from the existence of a metaphysical substance, they choose it just as our author chooses his way, because on the whole they prefer it. This fast is usually unconsciously smuggled out of sight; but, concealed or expressed, it debars either side from protesting on grounds of logical method, or form of procedure, against the other. The protest must come from extra-logical considerations; and the ultimate decision of which side is right and which wrong shall only be reached ambolando or at the final integration of things, if at all. Of course, freedom thus carried into the very heart of our theoretic activity becomes the corner-stone of our author's philosophy, and by its use he thinks "the minimum of faith produces the maximum of result."
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