Early Modern Philosophy

Locke on Power

(Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter xxi)

[general claim: the notion of free will is incoherent. There are voluntary actions, and free agents, but there’s no such thing as a free will.]

I. Active powers

1. Active power: the power to “make . . . a change.” Example: fire has a power to melt gold. (This is contrasted with: Passive power: the power “to receive any change.” example: gold has a power to be melted.)

[interesting suggestion, which Locke doesn’t pursue (II.xxi.2):
God: active power only, no passive power
matter: passive power only, no active power
created spirits: the only things with active and passive power both]

2. Where do we get the idea of active power? By sensation and reflection both, but mainly by reflection.

There are only two kinds of action: motion and thought. (Motion is the action of matter, thought the action of mind.) So active power must be the power to produce one or the other of these. We clearly get the idea of thought only from reflection. So how about power to produce motion? By sensation, we perceive matter transferring motion, but not producing it.

[incidentally, note here the use of the terms ‘action’ and ‘passion’: action is the result of active power, passion the result of passive power. Compare Spinoza’s division of emotion into action and passion.]

II. Will

A. Will: power to “order” the consideration or nonconsideration of ideas, and to “prefer” the motion or rest of parts of the body.

note that the will is not the power to actually do things, just the power to intend to do them or try to do them (to will them, in short).

B. volition: the exercise of the will (i.e. a particular instance of “ordering” an idea to be considered or “preferring” that part of the body move).

C. voluntary action: an action which results from a volition.
(Will is contrasted with another mental power: Understanding: power of perception. (a) to perceive ideas; (b) to perceive the signification of signs; (c) to perceive “agreement or disagreement” of ideas.)

III. Liberty (= freedom)

Liberty (= freedom): “power to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference or direction of his own mind.”

So unfreedom can result either from the lack of volition (that’s why rocks aren’t free) or from our inability to do what we will.

[it’s crucial that for L. we read these sentences correctly. Freedom of thought is “power to think or not think” (II.xxi.8); it’s important that this be read “power to (think or not think),” not as “(power to think) or (power to not think).” If the power to think something if we will that we think it were a kind of liberty, then there wouldn’t be examples of unfree agents who act voluntarily.]

Freedom isn’t the same thing as voluntariness: you can do something voluntarily even though you aren’t at liberty to do otherwise. (Placed in a locked room with someone you “long to see and speak with”: II.xxi.10.)

IV. Kinds of unfreedom (= necessity)

(so free actions are always voluntary, but voluntary actions are not always free. Thus we cannot simply identify freedom with voluntariness and necessity with its absence.)

V. Why freedom of the will doesn’t make sense

A. First, because freedom and will are both powers, and powers don’t have powers (16).

This first reason seems like a mere verbal trick, I think. It’s true (maybe) that it doesn’t make sense to think of the will itself as being free or unfree; but presumably that’s not what people have meant. They have meant, I take it, that we are free to will various possible things.

B. Second, because talking about freedom to will, rather than freedom of the will, leads quickly to an infinite regress (25). Under what conditions are we free to will one thing rather than another? Well, if we think of volitions as actions, and freedom to will as therefore a special case of the freedom of action, then if Locke’s analysis of freedom of action is right, we’ll have to say that one is free to will something only if one wills to will it. But the volition to have a certain volition will be free only if it is produced by a still further volition. And this volition to have a volition to have a volition will be free only if . . . . And so on.

[Note that Locke’s analysis of freedom seems to amount to the claim that there are two necessary conditions for freedom which are jointly sufficient. An action is free iff (a) it is voluntary, i.e. produced by a volition; and (b) had one willed to refrain from performing the action, one could have.]

VI. What determines the will to action?

Well, not, as we’ve seen, further volitions. L. says the will is determined to changes by uneasiness, which amounts to the same thing as desire (it “is, or is accompanied by, desire”).

But desires don’t always propel us immediately into action: we can suspend their operation, and deliberate about what the best thing to do is (from the point of view of our own happiness). This ability to make our volitions the result of deliberation is, according to Locke, the kernel of sense behind the incoherent notion of freedom of the will.

Last update: March 3, 2009. 
Curtis Brown | Classical Modern PhilosophyPhilosophy Department | Trinity University