The Invention of the Will: A Critical and Comparative-Historical Study in the Philosophy of Action and Ethics

Dissertation, New School for Social Research (1999)

Yang Xiao
Kenyon College
This dissertation deals with the following three questions which will likely be classified as questions in different areas of specialization, the philosophy of action, comparative-historical studies, and ethics respectively: What is the essence of voluntary action? Do classical Chinese philosophers have the concept of voluntary action? What role does the concept of the will play in ethics? ;In this dissertation I argue for two related theses. As an answer to question 1, my first thesis is that the essence of voluntary action is not the will. This thesis is the basis for my argument against a relativist answer to the question 2. Some scholars have argued that classical Chinese philosophers do not have the concept of voluntary action, because they do not have the concept of the will. Their argument is based on a false answer to question 1), i.e., the false idea that the essence of voluntary action is the will, which is exactly the opposite of my first thesis. So if my first thesis is true, their arguments would collapse. ;My second thesis is my answer to question 3 "If the will is not invented for a theory of voluntary action, what is it invented for?" My answer is the following: for a large class of cases---usually historical figures such as the early Wittgenstein, Augustine, Confucius and Mencius---in which we find the concept of the will, the will is invented for ethical purposes. ;The dissertation consists in two parts. Part I is my argument for the first thesis. My argument is based on the later Wittgenstein's work. I also show the limits of his arguments and how to fix them. In Part II, I show in details how the actual histories of the inventions of the concept of the will vary greatly from Augustine to the early Wittgenstein, and to Confucius and Mencius. The significance of the dissertation is that this diverse picture will help us imagine new possible forms of ethical life, which is, I believe, the purpose of historical-comparative studies. Or, indeed, the purpose of philosophy
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